'At the heart of the present Muslim angst lies what once Henry Kissinger described, in a conversation, as the Medina question: How did small bands of 7th century Bedouin from a minor oasis in the Arabian deserts conquer, within a lifetime, the known world between the walls of China and the south of France?'
'It only remains to note the level of tension that one unresolved problem of a princely State has caused in South Asia, and wonder, perhaps with a shudder, what might have happened if more such States had taken shape.'
Incisive Editor, brilliant scholar on Islam, and now BJP leader, M J Akbar is at his intellectual best when he dissects the Muslim world and its problems, and offers up a solution from his unique perspective, as he did in his recent speech at the 10th R N Kao Memorial Lecture in New Delhi.
Rediff.com presents the full text of Akbar's engrossing talk. The first of a 3-part series.
History is synonymous with turbulence; but even by its troubled standards, the churn in a single century between 1857 and 1960s was unprecedented.
Every single empire, ancient, middling or modern, collapsed: Mughal, Chinese, Japanese, Ottoman, Safawid, Tsarist, Spanish, Hapsburg, German, Dutch, Belgian, Portuguese, Italian, French and British.
Strategic stability, always a tenuous reality, went into a spin as post-empire and post-colonial States had to find new equations, not only with old masters but also between themselves and within themselves.
Great empires linger on their deathbed, and it is difficult to pinpoint the precise moment of decline. There are few disputes however about a death rattle.
The Mughals spent over 125 years in hospital, unwilling to die and unable to live after Nadir Shah smashed what was left of their pretensions in 1739.
Ottoman fragility was evident when Russia advanced to the Black Sea, France took Algeria in 1830, and Greece became independent in 1832.
In 1853 Tsar Nicholas made his famous remark about Ottomans to British ambassador Sir George Hamilton Seymour: 'We have on our hands a sick man -- a very sick man. It will be, I tell you frankly, a great misfortune if, one of these days, he should slip away from us, especially before necessary arrangements were made.'
Sir George's answer should have been equally famous: 'For myself, I will venture to remark that experience shows me that countries do not die in such a hurry.'
This crawl, however, turned into hurry when World War 1 ended the Tsars, Ottomans and Hapsburgs. The British Empire enjoyed a false resurrection, when it gained some 800,000 square miles of territory in 1919; but by 1947 it had lost India, instigating the downward spiral that finished Europeans as world powers.
The age of empire gave way to an era of uncertainty.
The most startling impact, however, was in the Muslim world. With collapse of the last two great Muslim empires, Mughal and Ottoman, within a space of six decades, every single Muslim from Morocco to Indonesia became a subject of Europe.
The Soviet Union, in theory, was a coalition of independent States. Lenin quickly disabused such illusions when he sent troops to reconquer Muslim Central Asia. (The great library of Bukhara was destroyed by Communists after reoccupation.)
Ridicule is the fate of the weak. Queen Victoria, the story goes, asked the Sultan of Turkey why he called himself Caliph when Victoria ruled over more Muslims than him. In 1918 that joke turned into a nightmare. Nothing shocked and psychologically destabilised Muslims more than one fact: For the first time since the advent of Islam, even Mecca and Medina were under Christian control.
A cry that had been building for some time in the subconscious acquired momentum: Islam was in danger.
This triggered a significant political reaction. Muslims began to seek an ideological mooring in Islam both as an inspiration that would revive their ability to defend their faith and to restore the power and glory that was once theirs.
This was not instant revelation, but a gradual awakening that often had to lurk within the shadows of debate before it acquired relevance with the birth of new Muslim States.
Even when Muslims did fashion a democracy, as in Pakistan, they attached a new notion to their constitution: An Islamic republic, in which one faith was supreme.
A parallel idea began to flourish: The search for 'Islamic space' that would function as a supranational alliance to ensure common security and project Islamic interests. A cursory examination of these concepts would reveal innumerable contradictions, but emotional idealism was not easily deflected by intellectual or practical obstacles.
The most powerful support for Islamism, logically, came where pride in the past was most prevalent; in the successor communities, and then successor States, of the Mughal and Ottoman empires.
The Medina Question: A Bargain with Allah
At the heart of the present Muslim angst lies what once Henry Kissinger described, in a conversation, as the Medina question: How did small bands of 7th century Bedouin from a minor oasis in the Arabian deserts conquer, within a lifetime, the known world between the walls of China and the south of France?
The historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldun [1332-1406] argued that the answer lay in Sharia, which protected religion and broadened intellect in this life and preserved the soul in the next one. It also created group solidarity, from which emerged battlefield success and empire.
Glory, therefore, was the boon of a compact, a bargain between Allah and the people who believed in Him.
If the history of others, wrote Ibn Khaldun, followed the familiar trajectory of rise, decline and fall, then that of Muslims added a fourth dimension: Rise, decline, fall and renewal. Renewal was possible through a return to first principles that had turned an oasis into a world power.
Belief in renewal becomes acute, understandably, in any age of loss. It also raises questions: Where had Muslims gone wrong? Had Allah abandoned Muslims? The debate was sharpest where humiliation was most keenly felt, within Mughal and Ottoman space.
On the Indian subcontinent, Muslims joined Mahatma Gandhi after he accepted leadership of the first movement for the restoration of the caliphate. Uniquely, Gandhi thus became the first non-Muslim to lead a jihad, albeit a non-violent one, which was a condition he imposed.
But there should be no confusion about what Muslims wanted from this struggle: A post-British India in which Muslims would offer allegiance to an Imam-e-Hind, a sort of caliphate-light, and the community live by the Sharia irrespective of what system non-Muslim Indians chose for themselves.
This position was repeatedly articulated by the Jamat-e-Ulema. The first nominated Imam-e-Hind was, in fact, Maulana Azad.
At exactly the same time, Arabs rose against the British in an intifada, with its epicentre in Iraq. The British used air force and gas, and lost 453 dead [mostly Indian troops] and 600-odd missing before calm was restored.
London realised that direct rule was impossible, and soon instituted forms of neo-colonisation through feudatories on the lines of the princely states of India.
Neo-colonisation is the grant of independence on condition that you do not exercise it. Implicit in its strategies is partition; the weaker the neo-colony the more amenable it will be.
A serious attempt was made to Balkanise India as well just before 1947; 'Ulsterisation' was a familiar trope of our independence discourse. The plan for Turkey after 1918 was a brutal carve-up. But the Arabs did not have either a Kemal Ataturk or a Sardar Patel.
It only remains to note the level of tension that one unresolved problem of a princely State has caused in South Asia, and wonder, perhaps with a shudder, what might have happened if more such States had taken shape.
In the succeeding decades, Arab frustration over various forms of 'foreign influence' and lack of Arab unity has grown slowly but surely. Nasser, famously, tried to unite Egypt and Syria; it was a non-starter.
Today, the self-styled 'caliph' of the 'Islamic State' has made destruction of the Sykes-Picot pact of 1916 between Britain, France [and later Russia] which planted the seeds of Western domination, a rallying point.
Details need not detain us, but a personal letter written by Sir Mark Sykes, quoted by David Fromkin in his monumental work on the Versailles treaty, tells its own story. Sykes wrote to a friend, Aubrey Herbert, with that faux seriousness typical of the brighter members of his class, 'Turkey must cease to be. Smyra shall be Greek. Adalia Italian. Southern Taurus and North Syria French, Filistin British, Mesopotamia British and everything else Russian -- including Constantinople... and I shall sing a Te Deum in St Sophia and a Nunc Dimitti in the Mosque of Omar. We will sing it in Welsh, Polish, Keltic, and Armenian in honour of all the gallant little nations.'
While every dream of this project did not become a reality, many did. The British considered every option: Fully supplicant sultans; annexation; 'spheres of influence'; semi-autonomous regions; reconstitution of Ottoman vilayats into Anatolia, Armenia, Jazirah-Iraq, Syria and Palestine; a railway route to India; and handing the caliphate to Arabs of the Hejaz.
When the Americans finally learnt of this plan, revealed prematurely in December 1917 by Leon Trotsky to a British journalist, an aide of President Wilson, Colonel House, remarked, presciently, 'They are making it a breeding ground for future war.'
In March 1921 Winston Churchill created straight-line maps for Arab 'countries' at a conference in Cairo, where naturally not a single Arab was invited. Sherif Hussein was allotted Mecca, but the Sauds never accepted his claims, and drove them out of the Hejaz in 1924.
The Saudis could not declare themselves the new caliphs, but they did command one of the essential prerequisites of the title: they became the new custodians of the Two Holy Mosques, in Mecca and Medina.
- Part 2 of M J Akbar's fascinating lecture: 'Islamism, a Phoenix waiting to arise from the ashes'