Challenging Authoritarianism, Colonialismo, and Disunity: The Islamic Political Reform Movements of al-Afghani and Rida

Ahmed Ali Salem

The decline of the Muslim world preceded European colonization of most

Muslim lands in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first
quarter of the twentieth century. In particolare, the Ottoman Empire’s
power and world status had been deteriorating since the seventeenth century.
But, more important for Muslim scholars, it had ceased to meet

some basic requirements of its position as the caliphate, the supreme and
sovereign political entity to which all Muslims should be loyal.
Therefore, some of the empire’s Muslim scholars and intellectuals called
for political reform even before the European encroachment upon
Muslim lands. The reforms that they envisaged were not only Islamic, but
also Ottomanic – from within the Ottoman framework.

These reformers perceived the decline of the Muslim world in general,

and of the Ottoman Empire in particular, to be the result of an increasing

disregard for implementing the Shari`ah (Islamic law). Tuttavia, since the

late eighteenth century, an increasing number of reformers, sometimes supported

by the Ottoman sultans, began to call for reforming the empire along

modern European lines. The empire’s failure to defend its lands and to

respond successfully to the West’s challenges only further fueled this call

for “modernizing” reform, which reached its peak in the Tanzimat movement

in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Other Muslim reformers called for a middle course. On the one hand,

they admitted that the caliphate should be modeled according to the Islamic

sources of guidance, especially the Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad’s

teachings (Sunnah), and that the ummah’s (the world Muslim community)

unity is one of Islam’s political pillars. On the other hand, they realized the

need to rejuvenate the empire or replace it with a more viable one. Infatti,

their creative ideas on future models included, but were not limited to, the

following: replacing the Turkish-led Ottoman Empire with an Arab-led

caliphate, building a federal or confederate Muslim caliphate, establishing

a commonwealth of Muslim or oriental nations, and strengthening solidarity

and cooperation among independent Muslim countries without creating

a fixed structure. These and similar ideas were later referred to as the

Muslim league model, which was an umbrella thesis for the various proposals

related to the future caliphate.

Two advocates of such reform were Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and

Muhammad `Abduh, both of whom played key roles in the modern

Islamic political reform movement.1 Their response to the dual challenge

facing the Muslim world in the late nineteenth century – European colonization

and Muslim decline – was balanced. Their ultimate goal was to

revive the ummah by observing the Islamic revelation and benefiting

from Europe’s achievements. Tuttavia, they disagreed on certain aspects

and methods, as well as the immediate goals and strategies, of reform.

While al-Afghani called and struggled mainly for political reform,

`Abduh, once one of his close disciples, developed his own ideas, which

emphasized education and undermined politics.




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