Dr. Susmit Kumar

As mentioned earlier while Islam was enjoying its golden age from the 7th to the 14th century, Europe was undergoing its dark ages. At the end of this period, in the 14th century, the bubonic plague, or “Black Death,” ravaged the entire continent, killing anywhere from one-quarter to one-half of the population. During the 15th and 16th centuries, Islam comprised three empires: the Ottoman (eastern Europe, western Asia, and most of the Maghrib, the region of North Africa bordering the Mediterranean Sea), the Safavid (Persia, or modern Iran), and the Mughal (the Indian subcontinent). During this period, the Ottomans formed alliances with European nations against common enemies. For example, they entered into a military alliance with France, England, and the Netherlands against Hapsburg Spain and Hapsburg Austria, and they granted France the right of trade within their empire. In addition, the major European powers established embassies and consulates in the empire, and the Ottomans eventually sent missions to those countries.

Until the middle of the 18th century, the Ottoman army was in a position to defeat any one European country in war. But after the rise of European naval power and the introduction of new technology beginning in the 18th century, the empire declined vis-à-vis the Europeans. European economies were thriving, and a few Europeans countries, especially Britain, France, and the Netherlands, had colonized parts of Asia and Africa. The new technology and new wealth from their colonies allowed Europe to surpass the Ottomans, who lagged behind in technology. As a result, their military power became weaker in relative terms as well. In 1798, Napoleon occupied Egypt for three years. Although he was ousted after this time, the Ottomans could accomplish this only through an alliance with the British. This was the first incident when they had to take the help of a European power to oust someone from a Muslim state.

The population of Europe increased by about 50 percent between 1800 and 1850.  London became the world’s largest city, with a population of two and a half million by 1850; other capital cities also grew, and there emerged a new kind of industrial city dominated by offices and factories. By the middle of the century, more than half the population of England was urban. This concentration in cities provided manpower for industry and the military, as well as a growing domestic market for the products of factories. Between the 1830s and the 1860s, regular steamship lines connected ports of the southern and eastern Mediterranean like Marseille and Trieste with London and Liverpool. Textiles and metal goods found a wide and growing market, and British exports to the eastern Mediterranean increased 800 percent in value between 1815 and 1850; by that time even Bedouin nomads in the Syrian desert were wearing shirts made of Lancashire cotton. At the same time, Europe’s need for raw materials for the factories and food for the population that worked in them encouraged the production of crops for sale and export. The export of grain continued, although this became less important as Russian grain exports grew; Tunisian olive oil was in demand for the making of soap, Lebanese silk for the factories of Lyon, and above all Egyptian cotton for the mills of Lancashire.[1]

On the other hand, the economies as well as the populations of Arab countries were stagnant. They had not yet entered the railway age, except for small beginnings in Egypt and Algeria, internal communications were bad, and famine could still occur. Populations changed little in size during the first half of the 19th century, and though Egypt’s population increased from 4 million in 1800 to 5.5 million in 1860, in most other countries it remained stationary, and in Algeria, for special reasons, it went down considerably, from 3 million in 1830 to 2.5 million in 1860. Some of the coastal ports grew in size, particularly Alexandria, the main port for the export of Egyptian cotton, which increased from some 10,000 persons in 1800 to 100,000 by 1850. Otherwise, most cities’ populations remained roughly the same size. Apart from areas that produced crops for export, agricultural production remained at subsistence level, and so insufficient to lead to an accumulation of capital for productive investment.[2]

From the 1850s onwards, because of the need for money for the army, the administration, and public works, the Ottoman government started borrowing from European banks, which had come into being as institutions with the purpose of investing accumulated European capital globally. Between 1854 and 1879, the Ottoman government borrowed on a large scale and on unfavorable terms; of a nominal amount of 256 million Turkish pounds it received only 139 million, the remainder being discounted. By 1875, it was unable to carry the burden of interest and repayment, and in 1881 a Public Debt Administration representing foreign creditors was set up; it was given control of a large part of the revenues, and in that way had virtual control over acts of government that had financial implications. Between 1862 and 1873, Egypt borrowed 68 million British pounds but received only two-thirds of that, the rest being discounted. In spite of efforts to increase its resources, including the sale of its shares in the Suez Canal, which was built in 1869 mainly with French and Egyptian capital and Egyptian labor, to the British government, by 1876 it was unable to meet its obligations, and a few years later Anglo-French financial control was imposed. Then the British invaded and occupied Egypt in 1882.[3]

European occupation of Muslim areas was started by France, which occupied Algiers in 1830 and made Algeria a French colony. In 1839, the British occupied the port of Aden in the Arab peninsula.

During the First World War, the Ottoman Empire fought alongside Germany and Austria and lost to Britain, France, and the U.S. After the war, the empire was dissolved on August 10, 1920, under the Treaty of Sèvres. This treaty was rejected, however, by the Turkish National Movement, led by Mustafa Kemal, a military commander. Kemal led the movement to victory over occupying Greek, Italian, and French forces, and signed the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 for the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, which brought the Ottoman Empire to an end. The sultan was exiled, and the caliphate later abolished.

Kemal changed Turkey from an Islamic caliphate into a secular democratic country overnight. Women were given equal civil rights and the entire educational system up to university level was made co-educational. Women were also given voting rights. It is worth noting that at that time women were denied the right to vote in several European countries, including France. In addition, the hold of Islam was sharply reduced. The Shariat courts were banned, and the new legal system was based on Swiss, Italian, and German models. People were asked to use the Latin script instead of the Arabic script, which was banned. The fez, a felt cap in the shape of a flat-topped cone, usually red with a black tassel hanging from the crown, worn by men, was banned. The headscarf worn by Muslim women was banned from public institutions. Kemal abolished polygamy and gave equal rights to women in divorce, custody, and inheritance. He made these drastic changes within two to three years of signing the Treaty of Lausanne, and was given the surname “Ataturk” (Father of the Turks).

1 Hourani, Albert, A History of the Arab Peoples, MJF Books, New York, 1991, p. 267.

2 Ibid., pp. 267-268.

3 Ibid., pp. 281-283.

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