Islam, Anti-Colonialism and Nationalism

Islam, Anti-Colonialism and Nationalism
Posted on May 7, 2016 | Yasser Harrak | Written on May 6, 2016
Letter type:
Blog Post

Author's Note:

Author's Note:

Photo Credit: Rekacewicz, Philippe. Le Monde Diplomatique.

Colonialism have had a great impact on Muslims, leaders and communities, and on Islam as well. Although the impact of colonialism posed a challenge to Muslims, it offered a precious opportunity for Islam to overcome centuries of painful and costly development simply by borrowing the western model. A model where religion became understood in its historical and spiritual context paving the way for science, rationality and the role of individuals in the process of nation building.

 Jonathan Berkey stated that the development of pro-national identities in the Muslim world and the undermining of the Islamically established relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims were due to the European economic interests’ strong presence (Berkey 2015, pp 266). He noted that the Mufti  (religious jurist) and the Qadis (Judges with roles beyond judiciary such as overseeing the institution of Madrassa) played key educational and political roles (Berkey 2015, pp 263). Such traditional roles and institutions would later be replaced by westernized standards of bureaucracy and systems of education  that came with colonialism.

The confrontation with western powers was the raison d'être of nationalistic sentiments in the near east. Muslims found themselves facing other Muslims as a result of the question of nationalism posed by colonialism. The Egyptian Islamist icon Sayyid Qutb had a vision which is totally incompatible with territorial nation-states where he saw that the Umma of Muslims should be one nation, and needs to eradicate Zionism and imperialism (Zubaida 2010, pp 175). Years later, the Palestinian-Jordanian Abdallah Azzam - an icon terrorist who became famous during the western backed Afghan war against former USSR - proclaimed that Arab nationalism was conceived in sin and born in corruption (Zubaida 2010, pp 180). He echoed in his own ways Sayyid Qutb in a sense that makes us understand today the roots that organizations like Alqaeda share with organizations like Al Ikhwan Al Muslimin (the Muslim Brotherhood).

 In Egypt,  Sa'ad Zaghloul representing secular nationalism adopted the idea of nation-state building based on common cultural heritage rather than religion. He has a well known statement where he said: "Religion is for god and the fatherland is for all its members (Zubaida 2010, pp 176). In Turkey, this is the type of movement that will shape the future of the country. Secular nationalism started with Kamal Ataturk up until very recently where there is a debate on the return of Turkey to pan-Islamism, mainly after the Justice and Development Party started dominating the political life.

Between the global Umma and the secular nationalism we find a conciliatory school of thought that defended the notion of a Muslim Umma but not necessarily under one global state. As an alternative, it suggested modernization, pan-Islamic unity and cooperation.  Reformists like Afghani and Abduh called for the adoption of western model and criticized the  ignorance and obscurantism of past Ulama (Zubaida 2010, pp 177).

As we have seen, pre-colonial and post-colonial Muslims are no longer the same. Colonialism did not only lead to the birth of several different nationalist, secular and even religion movements in the Muslim world it met, but also helped shape a new Muslim world  which  mirrors in most parts the western civilization.



  • Berkey, Jonathan. 2015. The formation of Islam: Religion and society in the Near East: 600-1800. Cambridge University Press, 2015. 
  • Zubaida, Sami. 2010. Library of Modern Middle East Studies: Beyond Islam: A New Understanding of the Middle East. I.B. Tauris, 2010.

About The Author

Yasser Harrak's picture

Alma mater: American Public University (MA, Grad Cert), Concordia University (BA). 


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