A Short Essay on Arab History

Below is an excerpt of an essay I wrote which highlights some of the historical background of the Arab world which helps to define the modern relationships between the Muslim and non-Muslim world. As always, please ask for full documentation if you need it.

Islam was the dominant religious, cultural, and military force during its first several hundred years of existence, but the progressive features which brought Islam prominence began to stagnate and decline significantly as Europe began experiencing the profound changes of the Renaissance and Enlightenment.  The Ottoman Empire, the last of the great Muslim empires, increasingly looked westward for answers to the problems that ailed them.  By the 18th century, the Ottomans had broken away from the traditional Islamic methods of war-making and started using both western weapons and western military training methods (Lewis 20). This was a major shift away from previous centuries when anything derived from the infidel was considered inferior.  Eventually, some religious authorities began to soften their stance by endorsing the imitation of certain infidel methods in order to better fight against them (Lewis 43).  However, this radical shift in policy did nothing to stop the encroachment of the Christian West.  By 1783, Russia had annexed Crimea making it the first time in history that a Muslim land was lost to Christian rule (Lewis 21).  The West’s influence became an overwhelming and dominant force which the Muslim world could do very little to stop.

For centuries, the Arab Muslim world believed that they had nothing to learn from the West. This resulted in European nations setting up permanent embassies and consulates in Arab lands, but the Arabs never reciprocated (Lewis 26).  European powers experienced an injection of new wealth and opportunities by the exploration of the New World while the Arab world, who had their own impressive history of exploration, sat quietly content in isolation.  The rest of the world began passing the Arabs in scientific discoveries, exploration, and military development.  Napoleon’s foray into Egypt painfully drove home the point that “European power [could] come and act at will” and the Arab Muslims could do nothing to stop them (Lewis 31). This must have been a humbling conclusion that was to be realized over and over again during the 19th and 20th centuries as Muslims began succumbing to the adaptation of many features of modern western society.

Modernization pushed Arab Muslims in ways that traditionally would have been unthinkable.  Traditional Muslim society knew nothing of western ways, western languages, and western knowledge.  It was extremely rare to have a Muslim travel into a foreign land.  In fact, the classical religious interpretation was that it was not possible for a Muslim to live a good Muslim life in an infidel land (Lewis 36).  However, modernization required more contact with westerners which meant Arab Muslims began learning European languages, spending extended time in European cities, and even sending Muslim students to study abroad (Lewis 40, 43).

As Islam’s influence declined, many Arab Muslims began looking for new fixes in the form of old remedies and traditional ways.  Throughout the Muslim world, voices arose that wanted to remove the vestiges of secularism that had crept into the laws and customs of the Arab lands; many believed these laws had been imposed by western imperialists and misguided native reformers who had been pulled away from God’s true law (Lewis 105). One of these emerging voices in the 20th century was a brand of Islam steeped in an ultra-orthodox interpretation of the Koran called Wahhabism which focuses on remaining pure in one’s faith and staying away from corrupting influences.  Wahhabism most likely would not have amounted to anything significant except for its fortuitous connection that it had with the House of Saud (Denoeux 60).  After Arabia was unified in 1932, Wahhabism became Saudi Arabia’s “state-sanctioned ideology and code of behavior” which has greatly influenced religious schools and religious teaching throughout the world (Denoeux 60-61).  Wahhabism gave birth to Islamism and other brands of fundamentalism which all criticized the modern influences affecting Islam.  Islamists were typically western educated professionals, who criticized the political and cultural influences of the west and looked to change things through political power (Denoeux 61,63).  Fundamentalists primarily concerned themselves with morality and personal behavior while arguing for the strict implementation of sharia law (Denoeux 64).  More recently, the jihadist label has been used to describe those who want to fight a holy war against the enemies from within and without who have corrupted the message of Islam (Denoeux 69).

All of these modern labels merely point to a similar conclusion – the western world has corrupted Islam by cultural and military imperialism.  Though the goals and remedies of these competing factions vary, they all are calling for some form of purification in which the true law of Islam can be followed and the glory of Islam’s past restored.

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