The Awakening of Islam

by William Heaford

The Review of Religions (English), January 1908 Issue (Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 39–44)

Le Reveil des Peuples Islamiques par Yahya Siddyk (Le Caire; Boehme and Anderer 1907)

In this fascinating pamphlet, glowing with all the eloquence of French oratory, enriched with oriental magnificence of style steadied by the stately learning of a Gibbon, Yahya Siddyk presents a telling picture of the remarkable transformation of ideas which has been unfolding itself amongst the Islamic peoples ever since the opening of the fourteenth century of the Hejira [Hijrah]. In his capacity as Licencie en Droit at the University of Toulouse and judge at the tribunal of Beni Souef, Yahya Siddyk has, as it were, a footing on the bedrock of two civilizations essentially different in their conception of life and wholly different in their external, social, economic and political manifestations. Hence the exceptional interest for the European, attaching to our author’s appreciations of “our” Christian civilization, whilst for Muslims the force and validity of Yahya Siddyk’s statements will naturally be strengthened not only by the fact of his ardent faith in the message of the Quran but by his strong qualifications as a thinker and scholar learned in the science of the West.

Siddyk points out that

“most Islamic peoples are governed by Europeans, that is to say, by the descendants of those Europeans who hardly seven hundred years ago were ignorant, coarse and barbaric” (p. 8).

History shows that the Europeans of the Middle Ages were savage hordes who, impelled by a blind and inveterate religious fanaticism, invaded the Islamic East in order to rescue the “lamb” of Christ from the hands of the “Infidel.” Instead of discovering in the Muslims a set of monsters they found to their surprise that they had pitted themselves against civilized peoples, noble and intelligent races, having regular disciplined armies. The Crusaders saw with astonishment that the lands held by their despised foe were fertile, intersected with roads and canals; they saw splendid cities with sumptuous palaces, schools, libraries, admirable mosques, magnificent gardens and immense manufactory. They came in contact with learned souls, poets, physicians, geographers, philosophers and astronomers, and with quite a galaxy of illustrious men who preserved to the world many Greek and Latin classics which the neglect of the barbarians had almost caused to disappear into oblivion or ruin.

After pointing out the chasm that then divided the fanaticism and ignorance of the Christian West from the leaning and progress which adorned the Islamic East, our author states — and all history confirms what he says — that

“these barbaric Crusaders, beaten by our intrepid forefathers, were wise enough to take advantage of their sojourn in the civilized East by utilising all the materials capable of helping them on the way of progress.”

From a military point of view the Crusades involved the Europeans in defeat and disaster; but from a social, political and economic point of view Europe gained immensely from the light and learning she received from Islam during her baptism of blood on the plains of Asia Minor. Contact with the East gave birth to the brilliant — essentially non-Christian — civilization of the Renaissance. The result had better be described in our author’s own terms:

“The foundations of a splendid civilization were laid, and it is glorious to behold the truly beautiful spectacle of the people of Europe attaining by their own efforts to the proud position which they hold today throughout the world. Certain it is that the progress realized by the Europeans in less than six centuries is so marvellous that it is impossible to institute a comparison between their civilization of today and that which shone with such brilliancy in India, China, Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, and amongst the Arabs.”

It must not be supposed from the warmth of this panegyric that Yahya Siddyk is blind to the dark side of the picture. Indeed, the summary he makes (on p. 12) of the horrors of vice and cruelty gnawing at the heart of our European civilization is no less harrowing than true — too harrowing for the ordinary untutored Oriental to appreciate, and too true for the candid European living amidst this welter of social and political abomination to gainsay.

After dealing with the Mediaeval Crusades our author proceeds to dwell in tones of bitter reproach upon the present-day Crusades waged by the descendants of Godfrey de Bouillon in the sordid interests of trade expansion and political domination. He is irritated by seeing the wastrels of Europe quartered upon the long-suffering East.

“Can it be denied,”

he says,

“that the greater part of the strangers who reach us from Europe are detestable from every point of view and unworthy of the unbounded protection so generously accorded to them by the European powers represented in the East by their consulates and legations?”

Our author has nothing but contempt for the attitude of what he calls (p. 21)

“free-thinking, sceptical, irreligious Europe, officially declaring itself Christian in Muslim countries and according its protection to the priests, monks and missionaries with which the East literally swarms.”

He rightly deplores the shocking hypocrisy of European nations who at home are flinging their faith overboard and flaunting the most absolute contempt and denial of the old-fashioned doctrines and beliefs cherished by their forefathers whilst ever ready to export their Bibles, missionaries, and spiritual paraphernalia generally to the “benighted” East in order to bribe or convert a bad Muslim into a worse Christian.

He claims an equal measure of justice for Muslim and Christian (p. 20) alike, and his reply against those who charge the Muslims with fanaticism comes with crushing force and appositeness.

“The true fanatics,”

he says (p. 21),

“are the Europeans who in a cowardly manner assassinate their political chiefs, or the Russians who publicly cut the throats of hundreds of thousands of Jews whilst the whole of civilized Europe looks on with indifference at the horrid spectacle.”

The backwardness of the Muslim nations is admitted, but our author is hopeful of their future. Acting on the principle that knowledge is power, the East is awakening from its long slumber of ignorance.

“Throughout the East there is an activity, an animation that did not exist twenty-five years ago. In nearly every Islamic country there are primary schools, and in the large centres preparatory and higher schools attended by a large number of young people hungry for knowledge and eager for arts and sciences. A goodly number of Muslims are able to speak and to write fluently in several languages” (p. 33–4).

Keen interest is evinced in Oriental languages, and above all the Arabian, Turkish and Persian tongues are being purified of extraneous elements and restored to their pristine excellence. A copious revival in poetry and in prose is taking place and the present-day literature of Islam will now bear comparison with the output of the palmiest days of Muslim civilization (p. 35):

“Side by side with the masterpieces of Muslim genius, resuscitated by the enlightened minds of our modern East and spread by the printing press into every Muslim country, a large number of books dealing with every description of topic have made their appearance: physical, chemical and natural science; philosophy, geography and history; whilst works of art and literary productions generally are finding their way everywhere in the East into the hands of a large number of enthusiastic and indefatigable readers who are found even amongst the lower reaches of Muslim society.” 

To the average European, living away in England, France or America, cut off from living contact with the actualities of Eastern civilization and accustomed to know the Muslims (themselves the most virile of all the races in the East, with the fortunate and phenomenal exception of the Japanese) as hopelessly fossilized and stagnant in all that relates to modern thought and modern science, the foregoing picture of mental and moral progress in the East with its inevitable correlative of race consciousness and aspiration towards a wider outlook and a fuller scope for the vigorous activities of Islam, comes as an unexpected revelation. This feeling is heightened in us when we learn that

“the sentiment of solidarity amongst the Muslim people which twenty-five years ago was practically nil has lately manifested its strength on many occasions. The growing number of philanthropic institutions in the chief centres of Islam, the societies of every kind, the public and private gatherings, the funds raised for the succour of the unhappy victims of work and misfortune; the diverse charitable institutions recently founded, and above all the palpable tendency amongst the different Muslim people towards a better mutual understanding and the formation of cordial relations — all this clearly shows that revival has taken place of the generous sentiments characteristic of the golden age of Islam” (p. 37).

Our author does not believe that Islam is played out. He claims that the ideas of modern science, which have everywhere proved so fatal to Christianity and which in every European country are producing their natural fruit in European unbelief and triumphant rationalism, will serve to rehabilitate and vindicate Islam.

“Islam,”

he says,

“is of all religions the one most favourable to the sciences, the arts and letters; it is the religion of liberty, equality and fraternity; it is moreover the most democratic religion in the world, the most simple, the most natural, the least incomprehensible, and the most moral; it is, in a word, the religion which best satisfies the needs of humanity in this world of suffering and pain” (p. 38).

A word as to the democratic character of Islam. There is, as our author points out, a sort of scare in Europe concerning an imaginary

“pan-Islamic movement organised and directed against Europeans by certain Muslim princes of different countries, assisted in their enterprise by certain agitators selected from the elite of enlightened Muslim society.”

Yahya Siddyk pooh-poohs this idea as a vain chimera. He seems to have a very poor opinion of the intellectual character and moral stamina of the generality of modern Muslim princes, who, he declares, are too much occupied with frivolous and sensual amusements to think of leading a movement favourable to the honour of their religion and the liberty of their subjects. Amongst the Muslim sovereigns who form a minority worthy of general esteem, we may name Abd-El-Hamid of Turkey, the late Mouzaffer-ud-Din of Persia, the Khedive of Egypt, and the Amir of Afghanistan.

“But I can affirm,”

he says,

“that these princes have done nothing to promote what Europeans are pleased to call the pan-Islamic movement” (p. 39).

The movement, such as it, is, springs from the heart of the Muslim peoples themselves.

“The interference of Europe is alone responsible for the work of transformation. Our continuous contact with Europeans has favoured our evolution as Muslims and will hasten the dawn of the day that shall see us risen from our present abasement” (p. 41).

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