The Turkish secret service moved into its new headquarters three years ago. The president of Diyanet, an institution that controls mosques and pays imams’ salaries, recited a five-minute prayer to bless the opening. The high-profile inclusion of the Diyanet chief and his prayer in the state record contradicted Türkiye’s centuries-old image as the most assertive secular state in the Muslim world. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a dozen other top politicians and chief judges, and commanders of the army, navy and air force took to the podium to stand shoulder to shoulder with the audience. This ceremony shone a spotlight on a longstanding alliance of the Muslim world: the relationship between the so-called “ulema” and the state. In Islam, the ulema are the guardians, transmitters and interpreters of religious knowledge, including Islamic doctrine and law. According to a long tradition, ulema are brought up in religious institutions (madrasas). The Koran and the Sunnah (authentic hadiths) are the written sources of traditional Islamic law.
Developments in the Muslim world
Türkiye is one of the 50 Muslim-majority countries that make up a quarter of all countries in the world. According to the key criteria used to assess a country’s degree of democratization and socio-economic development, Muslim countries perform worse than the global average. Although 60 percent of all countries in the world are democracies, only 14 percent of Muslim countries are. The average gross domestic product per capita is US$9,100 in Islamic countries, despite substantial oil revenues, the global average is US$13,200. The average life expectancy in Muslim countries is 66 years compared to the world average of 69 years, Muslim countries also have a higher average infant mortality rate (49) than the global average (34). And while the average global literacy rate is 84 percent, with an average schooling of 7.5 years, Muslim countries have an average literacy rate of 73 percent and an average schooling of 5.8 years.
Religion as a brake on development?
A statement singles out Islam and brands religion as an obstacle to progress. This argument has three main problems. First, the scientific and economic progress of Muslim countries was superior to that of Western Europe from the 8th to the 12th centuries, proving that Islam and progress coexisted for many centuries. Second, even after the 12th century, Muslim societies continued to produce top scholars and represented thriving cities like Istanbul, although overall they experienced relative stagnation compared to previous centuries. Finally, there are current differences within the Muslim world in terms of democracy and development: it cannot be defined as a fully authoritarian and underdeveloped region.
Colonialism as a source?
The second explanation points to western colonialism. But even this argument is misleading: the scientific and economic stagnation of the Muslim world had begun long before widespread Western colonization starting in the 18th century. In comparison, several post-colonial non-Muslim countries in Asia and Latin America have undergone development and/or democratization in ways that Muslim countries have not, suggesting that failure from a colonial past was not inevitable. Finally, the focus on Western colonialism as the main cause of underdevelopment prevents Muslim countries from addressing their own ideological and institutional problems.
From the 19th century to the present day, these two aspects have served to fuel both anti-Islamic secularism and anti-Western sentiment in Muslim countries. They also had negative repercussions in Western countries, either encouraging anti-Muslim tendencies or allowing any critical analysis of Muslim societies to be labeled “Orientalist” – with a colonialist bias towards non-Western people.
The Golden age
Between the 8th and 11th centuries, Muslim societies experienced dynamic intellectual and economic development. It was Muslims who taught western Europeans how to make paper. In Baghdad and many other cities, Muslim polymaths made pioneering scientific contributions to mathematics, optics and medicine.
A key feature of the Muslim Golden Age was a degree of separation between the ulema, who represented Islamic knowledge, education and law, and the political rulers. This division began with the founding of the first Muslim dynasty, the Umayyads (661–750). From that time until the mid-11th century, the overwhelming majority of the ulema and their families worked in non-government jobs, particularly in commerce. Those holding positions such as qadi (judges) were a minority among the ulema. This fact refutes the modern stereotype that Islam fundamentally rejected the separation of religion and state.
Given the distance of the ulema from the ruling class and the complex views of the philosophers, early Muslim societies were religiously and philosophically diverse. Muslims – belonging to various theological and legal schools – as well as Christians, Jews, agnostics and others contributed to the economic and scientific development during this period. Relative tolerance and cosmopolitanism characterized the age.
The downfall begins
From the mid-11th century, the Ulema state alliance began to develop in what is now Central Asia, Iran and Iraq. Economically, there was a shift from a cash economy to a semi-feudal system in which rulers distributed revenue from land to officials rather than paying their salaries in cash. A structural change also took place in religious circles. In the early 11th century, the Abbasid caliph Qadir promulgated a creed to unite the newly formed Sunnis against the Ismaili Shias, a group of rationalist theologians known as the Mutazilis, and non-practicing Muslims. In politics, the Seljuks (1040–1194), in alliance with the Abbasid caliph and the Sunni ulema, established an empire focused on military conquest.
Between the 12th and 14th centuries, the ulema state alliance – strengthened by its madrasas and the iqta system – under the Ayyubids and then the Mamluks – spread to Syria, Palestine and Egypt. During this period, Crusaders and Mongol invasions inadvertently strengthened the ulema-state alliance because, faced with the invaders and their massacres, the Muslim population sought help from military heroes like Saladin, who defeated the Christians in Jerusalem and founded the Ayyubid dynasty. Later, the Mamluks replaced the Ayyubids, held off the Mongols in front of Jerusalem, and won the esteem of the Muslim residents.
Over the next three centuries, Muslim rulers established three powerful empires: the Sunni-majority Ottoman Empire, the Shia-majority Safavids, and the Hindu-majority Moguls. These empires serve as evidence that Muslim military and geopolitical power endured through centuries of Crusades and Mongol invasions—but the same cannot be said of Muslim scientific productivity or economic dynamism. The decline in these two areas was largely due to the dominance of the ulema state alliance and its marginalization of the intellectual and business classes.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, Western Europe experienced several developmental revolutions using three main tools – the printing press, the nautical compass and gunpowder. However, due to their military focus, Muslim empires only used gunpowder. It was three centuries before they turned to printing technology, for the Muslim empires had neither an intellectual class that appreciated the scientific importance of the printing press, nor a merchant class that understood the financial possibilities of “printing capitalism”. The military commanders in Muslim empires did not see the value of the printing press and the ulema saw it as a threat to their monopoly on education.
The result was the emergence of a literacy gap between Western Europe and the Muslim world. Between the 8th and 12th centuries, the largest libraries in Muslim societies had hundreds of thousands of books, while the largest libraries in Western Europe had fewer than a thousand. However, with the printing revolution, the positions of the two regions reversed as European societies quickly adopted this technology while Muslim societies did not. For example, in the 18th century, Ottoman printing machines printed around 50,000 copies of books, while European printing machines printed 1 billion.
Ulema Crisis in the Ottoman Empire
In the 19th century, the Mughal Empire was dissolved by British colonial rule, while Iran began to be ruled by the weak and decentralized Qajar dynasty, open to British and Russian colonial influences. The Ottoman Empire remained the only major Muslim power while most Muslim countries were colonized by European powers.
Ottoman Sultan Selim III, who reigned from 1789 to 1807, was aware of the need to reform institutions to keep up with European levels of military and economic development. But the Janissaries, his elite military force, were so opposed to military reform that they rebelled and sent Selim III. was deposed and murdered. The new Sultan Mahmud II waited until more favorable conditions existed before introducing reforms. In 1826 he ordered other army units to attack the janissary barracks with artillery. Thousands of them were killed, and Mahmud completely abolished the institution of the Janissaries. As a result, the ulema, who had formerly resisted so effectively against reforming sultans through their coalition with the janissaries, had now lost their strong arm.
By abolishing the janissaries and supplanting the ulema, Mahmud and his court bureaucrats gained the control they needed to modernize the Ottoman state. In 1839, the Ottoman sultan and bureaucrats issued an edict guaranteeing the protection of the “life, honor and property” of all Ottoman subjects. It set in motion a series of restorative policies known as the Tanzimat reforms. In 1844, a change in the law abolished the death penalty for those who had renounced their Islamic faith. In 1856, the Edict of Islahat promised non-Muslim citizens full equality and freedom of religion.
During this reform process, bureaucrats took over certain public offices previously held by the ulema. Developments in education clearly reflected the downgrading of religious education. The madrasas were considered so pedagogically antiquated and so constrained by their mandate of religious studies that Ottoman reformers had to create entirely new Western-style colleges to teach students military practice, governance, diplomacy, medicine, and engineering. The ulema were still responsible for madrasas and some schools, but they lost their monopoly on education. With the advent of Western-style commercial courts and laws, the judicial and legislative functions of the ulema were also reduced.
Egypt pursued its own Westernization reforms. Mehmed Ali Pasha, an Ottoman officer of Albanian descent, was sent to Egypt shortly after Napoleon’s invasion in 1798. A few years later, in 1805, he became governor of Egypt. In 1811, Mehmed Ali invited Mamluk commanders to a celebration at his citadel in Cairo and had them killed before sending his troops across Egypt to eliminate the rest of the Mamluk forces, ending centuries of their rule. Mehmed Ali also undermined the ulema by confiscating certain assets of the religious foundations that funded madrasahs, including Al-Azhar, the famous center of Sunni scholarship. After Mehmed Ali had eliminated the old rulers, he promoted the Westernization of the military, bureaucracy, taxation, medicine and education and sent students to Western European countries for training. In 1818, on the Sultan’s orders, his army destroyed the first Wahhabi-Saudi state on the Arabian Peninsula. However, he later turned against the Sultan, defeated the Ottoman army and established a semi-independent dynasty in Egypt that would last until 1953.
The reforms of the Ottoman Empire and Mehmed Ali led to the emergence of a class of Western-educated intellectuals in both the Empire and Egypt. In the Ottoman Empire, these intellectuals, the so-called “Young Ottomans”, attempted to establish a constitutional monarchy. Abdulhamid II ascended the throne with her support in exchange for political promises. As promised, he constituted the first parliament, which also became the first truly multi-religious parliament in a large country. For example, certain Muslim countries experienced state-led westernization reforms in the 19th century and produced some intellectuals. The traditional alliance between the ulema and the state has been significantly weakened. Reforms made some progress in the Ottoman Empire and Egypt in terms of modernizing the military, the tax system, medical conditions, and the school system. However, these reform efforts in the 19th century did not ultimately help Muslims “catch up with the West” in terms of political and socio-economic development.
Reforms not sustainable
The main reasons for the failure of the reforms were threefold. First, although the ulema were largely marginalized and an independent intellectual class emerged, the class-based problems of the Muslim world largely remained. Rulers and their bureaucrats filled the vacuum left by the ulema. Ottoman Sultan Mahmud, Egyptian Mehmed Ali and most of their successors were absolutist rulers who refused to share power with other institutions or classes while enacting top-down reforms.
Second, these reformist Muslim rulers controlled the economy without adequately encouraging the accumulation of private capital or the rise of a native bourgeoisie. In the Ottoman Empire, certain legal reforms promised the protection of private property, but in practice state violations of property rights continued. A bourgeoisie class flourished, but it was almost entirely a product of European powers’ support for non-Muslim merchants. This created deep distrust between the Ottoman ruling class and the non-Muslim merchants, many of whom were dual citizens of the Empire and European countries.
Eventually, Westernization efforts met with political and religious opposition. In the Ottoman Empire, political resistance to westernization was strongest under the rule of Abdulhamid, who pursued a policy of “Islamic modernization”. On the one hand, Abdulhamid dissolved parliament, attacked many intellectuals and employed ulema and Sufi sheikhs in national and international political positions. On the other hand, he opened many Western-style schools and founded railways. The main religious opposition to reform came from the ulema themselves. In the late Ottoman era, the ulema were still part of the government and had veto power over certain issues, such as the publication of a Turkish translation of the Quran.
To be continued
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