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Islam and the West: - Part I


Professor Nazeer Ahmed


Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc.

7102 W. Shefford Lane

Louisville, KY 40242, USA




(Dr. Nazeer Ahmed is the Director of the American Institute of Islamic History and Culture, located at 1160 Ridgemont Place, Concord, CA 94521. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed is a thinker, author, writer, legislator and an academician. Professionally he is an Engineer and holds several Patents in Engineering. He is the author of several books; prominent among them is "Islam in Global History."  He can be reached by   )


If a student of history were to search for an analogy to illustrate the interactions between the West and the Islamic world in the twentieth century, that of the Ocean and the Volcano would be an appropriate one. While the convulsions within the Islamic world have largely been a function of its own internal dialectic, the interference from the West in this dialectic has played a major role in them. It is as if the Islamic world, which has been submerged in the ocean of Western dominance, is seeking to find its place in the sun, and from time to time, an island emerges here and there. But as soon as the first rock sticks its head out, the ocean strikes it with unrelenting fury until it is broken into pieces and is submerged again.

The Western ocean has subsumed the creative energies of the Islamic world for more than a century. As a result, the sheer power of pent up frustrations in the Islamic world sputters like intermittent volcanoes, cleaving the sea apart. But each time it happens, the sea closes in on the volcano, submerging the effulgent lava once again. And the process repeats. In this essay, we will take a brief historical view of this process.

Islam and the West have met for fourteen hundred years, on occasion in the battlefield, but for long periods in trade, commerce, social and technological interchange. As we scan these centuries, two periods emerge in which the interactions between the West and the world of Islam were similar to those in the last hundred years. The first was the period between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries in Spain and the Maghreb. Its outcome was not obvious until the Battle of Al Qasr al Kabir (1578) and the sinking of the Spanish Armada off the coast of England (1588). The second period was eighteenth century India, whose outcome was decided at the Battle of Plassey (1757) and the Battle of Srirangapatam (1799). Both of these periods offer useful lessons which would be of benefit for an understanding of the contemporary Muslim world.

With the crushing defeat of the Al Muhadith at the Battle of Las Novas de Tolosa (1212), power rapidly slipped from the Muslims in the Spanish Peninsula. The combined armies of Castile, Aragon and Portugal overran much of Spain. Cordoba, that old capital of the Spanish Umayyad Caliphate, fell in 1236. Seville was overrun in 1248. Granada managed to hang on to the hills of El Pujarra as a vassal state of Castile. The Al Muhadith Empire in the Maghreb disintegrated into three competing principalities, the Merinides (modern Morocco), the Zayyanids (modern Algeria) and the Ifriqiya (modern Tunisia). Mutual rivalry between these three kingdoms and the political fragmentation that followed the defeat weakened the Maghreb. There emerged seven centers of power in the region: Castile, Aragon, Portugal, Granada, Merinide, Zayyanid and Ifriqiya. The Muslim emirs and the Christian barons often sided with one another in a free for all that lasted two hundred years. Technological development in the seven kingdoms was about the same and no single kingdom could totally dominate the others.

The military-political balance changed with the emergence of the Ottomans in the Eastern Mediterranean. When Constantinople (modern Istanbul) fell to Sultan Mehmet in 1453, the Pope in Rome called for a new Crusade. Unable to stop the advance of the Turks in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Christian powers turned their attention to the Maghreb. The continued weakness of the Maghrebi Muslim kingdoms and the simultaneous naval ascendancy of Spain and Portugal was an open invitation for Europe to intervene in the Maghreb. The Christian powers carved out Muslim territories to attack, conquer and subjugate. Granada fell, despite a valiant resistance, in 1492. For a while it seemed that North Africa would follow suit. The Portuguese captured al Qasr in 1458 and followed it up with the capture of Arzila and Tangiers (1471). Mers el Kabir fell to Spain in 1505. The Spaniards followed up this conquest with the capture and destruction of Oran (1509) and Tripoli (1511). By the time Sulaiman the Magnificent ascended the Ottoman throne in Istanbul (1526), all of the North African coast up to Egypt was in the hands of Spain, while the Atlantic Coast of Morocco was controlled by Portugal.

The Christian tide was not contained until the Ottomans made their thrust into North Africa. In 1571, the Spaniards were driven out of Tripoli. Enraged at this defeat, the Iberians resolved at the outright conquest of the Maghreb. King Sebastian of Portugal landed on the coast of Morocco in 1578 with the intent of conquering the Merinide kingdom. Morocco was at that time in the midst of a Sufi revival under Jazuliya Shaikhs. At the battle of Al Qasr al Kabir (1578), Ahmed al Mansur of Morocco, aided by the Jazuliya Sufis, defeated and destroyed the Portuguese army. Sebastian was killed and all of his noblemen were taken prisoner. Portugal was so weakened by this defeat that it became a colony of Spain and remained so until 1541.

Meanwhile, unrelated to developments in Muslim West Africa, frictions between Spain and England arising from English piracy off the coast of Africa and Church disputes led to the ill-fated attempt by Spain to invade and occupy England. In 1588 the Spanish armada was caught off the coast of England and was sunk. Although she made a feeble second attempt at an invasion of England ten years later, Spain never recovered from this catastrophe. Naval primacy passed from the Iberian Peninsula to Northern Europe. The battle of Al Qasr al Kabir (1578), and the battle for England (1588) are major pivots around which global history has revolved.

The attempted intervention by the Iberians into Muslim Maghreb was motivated primarily by religious zeal. It was part of the Crusades which raged all around the Mediterranean well into the seventeenth century. The Maghreb survived this first thrust because there was more or less technological parity between the adversaries and the religious zeal of the Jazuliya Shaikhs in the Maghreb was no less ardent than that of the Christian Iberians. So, after the fall of Granada (1492), a political-military balance was reestablished, which lasted well into the nineteenth century.

But the wheels of fortune turned in favor of Europe in the succeeding centuries. By the eighteenth century, Europe was far ahead of the rest of the world in naval technology and opportunities for political intervention were plentiful in a world in turmoil. This time, the motivation was loot and profit and it was the British who spearheaded this thrust. Their first victim was the large and prosperous subcontinent of India.

After the death of the Great Mogul Aurangzeb (1707), India imploded politically. Internal corruption, incompetent rulers and excessive religious zeal all played their part. India was like a ripe old banyan tree rotten from the inside. The provincial governors of the sprawling empire asserted their autonomy. Bengal, Hyderabad, Gujrat, Afghanistan and Sindh flexed their own muscles. The Marathas carved up a large state of their own in Western and Central India. In the midst of this chaos, Nadir Shah of Persia raided Delhi (1739) and looted the city. Much as the political disintegration of the Maghreb had invited intervention from Christian Andalusian powers in earlier centuries, eighteenth century India invited intervention from the British and the French. After an initial tussle, the French bowed out leaving the field clear to the British.

The fateful Battle of Plassey (1758) was one of the major events in global history. The internal rot in the Muslim body politic showed itself on the battlefield and the commander in chief, Mir Jafar of the Nawab of Bengal went over to the British in the thick of battle. No more than a handful of British soldiers were now masters of a vast and rich slice of the subcontinent. What followed was systematic looting of Northern India. Billions of dollars were shipped out to London leaving what was once the most prosperous region in Asia poor and destitute. Famine set in and thousands perished. The Mayan gold that was once looted from the New World and had found its way to Europe on Spanish ships, and from there found its way to India via the spice trade, now headed back to Europe as war booty into the coffers of a ruthless East India Company. So huge was the haul that it financed the Industrial Revolution in England, and by the turn of the eighteenth century, European technology had far surpassed that in other parts of the world. So, when a test of arms came and India finally offered resistance in the person of Tippu Sultan, it was too late. Tippu fell in the Battle of Srirangapatam (1799) and India was firmly in the hands of the British.

The driving force behind British - and European - policies in the nineteenth century was imperialism. With the resources of the vast Indian subcontinent at their command, the British succeeded in colonizing much of Asia and Africa. The Muslim littoral states of the Indian Ocean, stretching in an arc from Mombasa in Africa to Malacca in Malaysia, were the primary losers. After the Napoleonic wars, which ended in 1812, the major European powers (England, France, Russia) reached a tacit understanding that it was more advantageous to work together in their common goal of colonization than in fighting one another. Accordingly, the Russian empire expanded, while the French and the Dutch empires emerged on the coattails of the British Empire, and Afro-Asia was on its knees.

The nineteenth century was one of unbridled exploitation of the resources of the world by the European powers. Nations that offered resistance were subjugated by the gun or by duplicity. Indonesia, Malaysia, Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa fell one after the other. Even mighty China suffered the humiliation of defeat in the Opium Wars and was forced to sign a series of capitulatory agreements. The Ottoman Empire stood out as a solitary island in a sea of Western imperialism, but it too was chiseled up, bit by bit, by Russia, France and Great Britain. The (western) ocean had triumphed; the islands had disappeared. (To be continued )

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