Essay on Middle East and Modernity

Contributed by our second historian. Enjoy 🙂

Middle East and Modernity

This paper aims firstly to establish a working definition of modernity and then to discuss whether the beginning of modernity in the Middle East can be attributed to a particular point in time or episode. Within the Middle East, particular attention is paid to the areas comprising the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century, Egypt and Iran. Three spheres of military, political system and intellectual thought have been examined to gain insight regarding the modernization of the region. The experiences of the three aforementioned areas of the Middle East within the indicated spheres are compared and contrasted to illustrate the difficulty of pinpointing one method of or one juncture in time at which modernization of the region began.




Earlier thinkers, including Weber, considered modernity to be unique to Europe or the West. Weber saw the roots of modernity in the potentially rationalizing tendencies of the Protestant ethic. The specific aspects of modernity which he identified were the emergence of capitalism, bureaucratization of different forms of social life, secularization of world view and development of modern science and the “scientific” world view. In a comparison of world religions, Weber also stressed that other religions had different dynamics and tendencies to rationalization within them and thus implicitly recognized the differing dynamics of religious rationalization. Later thinkers, including Kerr, however tended to overlook these differential tendencies among religions and their view shifted from modernity as specific to the West to modernity as the apogee of mankind’s evolutionary potential. However, the experiences of various societies over time have shown little propensity towards homogenization and turning into the ‘original’ Western model. Increasingly theorists are recognizing the symbolic and ideological diversity present in various societies and the dynamics attendant upon these vis-à-vis the spread of modernity. The symbolic and institutional premises of non-Western societies have been challenged by modernity and pressured into responding to this challenge. As a consequence, a great diversity of modern or modernizing societies has developed, involving a recrystallization of the important symbolic and institutional premises of both their own and Western civilizations.[1] This has led to the conception of, ‘multiple modernities’, at the core of which is an “unprecedented openness and uncertainty” deriving from the interchange between Western modernity (itself a changing phenomenon over time and across different parts of the West, such as western Europe and North America) and the rest of the world. For the purposes of this paper, where we are to study the history of modernity in the Middle East we may find useful Eisenstadt’s definition of the ‘history of modernity’, given below:

“The continual changeability of the institutional and ideological patterns of modernity indicates that the history of modernity is best seen as a story of continual development and formation, constitution and reconstitution of a multiplicity of cultural programs of modernity and distinctively modern institutional patterns, and of different self-conceptions of societies as modern – of multiple modernities.”[2]

One last perspective with which to view modernity is a rejection of the clean cut division made between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’. From the historian’s point of view this view is fraught with difficulties as aspects of modernity such as capitalism or secularism did not develop overnight; there was a process that underlay the emergence of these structures. Tracing the beginnings of the process may lead us to delve deeper in the past than conventionally accepted dates for the start of modernity. Bayly, for instance, in his discussion on the transition to modernity identifies domestication and industrious revolutions as necessary starting points for modernization.[3] Associated with this view is the idea that this process is not always a linear path of progress for all spheres of society; the modernization of one sphere may lead to ‘regression’ in another.[4]

Drawing from this discussion of both the many-faceted nature and the continuous redefining feature of modernity, we may expect to find that there is no one point of departure for the beginning of modernity in the Middle East. The following section of this paper seeks to undertake a close analysis of particular aspects of the Middle East in order to asses the impact of Western modernity as well as the nature of indigenous responses. The aspects selected for discussion are the military; political system and; intellectual thought both within the religious and secular traditions. While other aspects of the Middle East would have made equally valid subjects (such as economy, education and so forth), the scope of this paper is limited to the aforementioned three areas.




The Ottoman Empire, Egypt and Iran were first struck by the idea of modernization of the military during the Napoleonic period when in 1798 Bonaparte defeated the Mamluks in Egypt. This exhibition of French military strength, followed by the Russo-Ottoman War (1806-12) led the Middle Eastern empires to recognize the urgent need to modernize their armies.[5] However, concurrently, there were other factors motivating some of these empires; for instance, the Ottoman empire was intent on containing the power of notables (including ulemas or Islamic scholars, Janessaries or members of local garrisons, and ayans or families whose power might be rooted in some political or military tradition) and thus embarked on a process of centralizing power, associated with which was the making of a modern centralized army.[6]

While the Ottoman Empire had possessed a standing army long before any European state, the size of this army was smaller than modern European armies (though it is important to note that after the Napoleonic wars, army size was reduced in Europe to increase again only after 1860). The equipment used by Ottomans was similar to European armies during the Napoleonic period, though tactics differed. While in Europe disciplined infantry had become the norm in the eighteenth century, the Ottoman infantry fought more like light infantry. Traditionally the Ottoman army had multiple functions, including border defense, guarding certain fortresses, police functions (including suppression of uprisings), dividing wealth through the ‘timar’ system (whereby military officials were in charge of land holdings), acting as representatives of the areas from which they were recruited, protecting pilgrim caravans and controlling encroachments of nomads. Sometimes local pashas maintained forces for defense as well as to increase their local influence. Another function of the army was preventing the dominance of any one group; thus the army structure may be regarded as one where the Janissaries balanced the sipahis while the bostanis balanced the Janissaries and so forth.[7]

While attempts to modernize the army, associated with Halil Hamid Pasha and Selim III, started in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, concrete reforms ensued only after the destruction of the Janessaries (a military force which had begun to develop roots and political interests) in 1826 during the reign of Mahmut II. Furthermore in 1842-3, a partial conscription method was introduced in which particular areas were exempt from service. The aim was to raise a force of 400, 000 but fiscal restraints confined the Ottomans to a force of about 246, 000. In 1869, Huseyin Avni Pasha once again attempted to increase the army size (largely to match up with the size of the Prussian army which had displayed its strength in the Franco-Prussian war of 1866-70) but once more fiscal constraints restricted him. In order to train officers, the educational system, too, was reformed along modern ‘scientific’ lines. The impact of this reform is debatable; up till 1913, the proportion of officers who had risen from the ranks as opposed to those trained from the schools was disproportionately high. Furthermore, the state-school officer was likely to be more interested in politics.[8]

While in the areas of size, equipment and tactics, the Ottomans managed to maintain a comparable position vis-à-vis Europe, in terms of function the Ottoman empire was unable to specialize, that essential component of European modernity. Due to the size of the internal security problem in European provinces (where there were regular revolts, mostly by Christians), the Ottoman army often had to perform policing duties, despite the creation of a gendarmerie. Thus due to the multiplicity of functions (international warfare and internal security maintenance), the problem of manpower was felt more acutely.[9]

One of the reasons for the shortage of manpower was that the Ottoman empire had to draw solely on the Muslim population. In comparison, the European armies recruited from a relatively homogenous population which importantly was also registering rapid population increase. This condition of drawing solely on the Muslim population, to the exclusion of the Christian and Jewish population, challenges the modern premises of the Ottoman army’s reorganization. While ‘jihad’ was no longer the central function of the Ottoman army, religion continued to serve as the main source of enthusiasm for soldiers. (This, however, was also the case in Russia, leading us to question the idea of a homogenous ‘European’ modernity). In 1846, the Hatt-i-Humayun fixed an annual contingent of 16,000 soldiers to be raised from Christians. However, this provision was never implemented, due to the reluctance of Christians to enlist as well as the failure of the state to live up to its promise. This reflects, to some extent, a lack of integration of society as well the absence of secularism in the Ottoman polity.[10]

In the Egyptian case, ‘modernization’ of the army was undertaken for use against other Middle Eastern empires, not Europe. Furthermore, the military was to maintain internal security and be engaged in some public works; in this respect it varied from European specialization for international warfare.

In 1840 the Egyptian army of Muhammad Ali was about 6 percent of the population; the French army was 4.8 percent of the population after 1860. In 1841, after the expanding Egyptian conquest was checked by European and Ottoman armies, the Egyptian army was cut down in size. After the British occupation in 1882, the military was drastically limited and maintained only for internal security purposes and later for defense against an attack from Sudan.

In the Iranian context, military reform of a sort was initiated on the pattern of the Ottomans, in order to recover lost territories, withstand European (Russian) armies and maintain greater internal security. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, under ‘Abbas Mirza, instructors from Europe were imported, disciplined infantry was formed and armed and foundries were made for manufacture of European style arms. After Muhammad Shah’s unsuccessful attack on Heart in 1837-8, however, ‘Abbas Mirza’s army was disbanded and over time the size of the army size decreased again.  Only the Cossack brigade in Tehran maintained general security in the area while in other regions local governors raised forces for security. The Iranian army remained concerned largely with distribution of rewards. Consequently, the Iranian army, after 1839 made few demands on the country’s resources and preserved the ‘old’ order of things, including the weakness of the central government. In 1906, the reformers tried to establish a modern centralized force in order to maintain internal security and improve tax collection. However, Russian intervention defeated this effort too.

Thus, an analysis of the Middle East shows an obvious variation in the ways in and points in time at which modernity impacted different parts of the region. Secondly, in all three regions the function of the military was never restricted to international warfare specifically, a feature of European modernization, even while other features of European military organization were adopted. Lastly, we have briefly looked at how other aspects of society (economy, political system) showed fissures as the pressure to modernize the military increased, reflecting how modernization in one area may be matched by ‘anti-modernity’ in other areas.


Political System

In the case of the Ottoman Empire, the era of reforms or Tanzimat stretching from 1820 to 1870 can be viewed from at least two perspectives. On the one hand it was part of an ongoing effort, put in place in the fourteenth century, to acquire, preserve and adapt tools for the maintenance of control over subjects and defense of frontiers. From the seventeenth century onwards, the Ottoman Empire was experiencing fragmentation, characterized by a loss of control over provinces and the local notables; however this was in many ways part of the mundane problems of running an extensive empire which went through cycles of disintegrating and reasserted state power. This brings us to the second perspective from which to view the ‘Tanzimat’; attempts to modernize the Ottoman army, to withstand the European threat (made evident through the 1798 Napoleonic invasion), required conscription, greater taxation and all in all closer control of manpower. Reform of the government can be seen in terms of acquiring this necessary control. In fact these two aims of the empire were reinforcing; that is curbing the power of local governments was necessary for the central government’s survival and the aim to modernize military, too, required the curbing of small principalities and the centralization of power.

The ‘Tanzimat’ process was characterized by expansion of the government along with centralization of power. The number of civil officers increased from 2000 at the beginning of the twentieth century to 35,000 in 1908. This bureaucratization of the empire resulted in an increase of power among civil servants (coupled as it was with destruction of the Janessaries or the military). Initially the sultan managed the process of bureaucratization and modernization in a way as to maintain power for himself (from 1808-39); but soon the modernization project grew too large for the sultan to retain power and bureaucrats managed to gain power. While this evolution maintains the theme of increasing state power as well as a shift from monarchy to a relatively wider base of power, it is not matched by an increase in the rights of individuals or enfranchisement. It was only much later in 1908 a constitution was put into place which placed power in the hands of a parliamentary government.

The functions of the state expanded to include education and poor-relief which had previously been the domain of religious groups. Education was based on the European model and included European languages. Thus, the public role of religious authorities was undercut; this was achieved in Istanbul but not to any great extent in the Arab provinces. This was because Istanbul had no ‘old’ religious families or elites, not having been a Muslim city till Ottoman annexation; thus religious elites were mostly partly of the state. Further being the capital, Istanbul, naturally reflected state policy. In the Arab provinces, however there existed families with a tradition of religious legitimacy and social influence which was not easily undercut; this reflected the limitation of state modernization.  

Centralization was undertaken by eliminating certain groups which had amassed power such as the Janessaries (1826). Furthermore new methods of tax assessment and collection (aiming at the elimination of tax farms so that the state directly collected tax, without the aid of local notables) and conscription were introduced. However, in many cases the power of local secular notables (ayans who controlled land or some resource) increased despite the state’s attempts to undercut it. When the state sent governors to provinces to implement reforms, these men were more dependent than ever before on the notables for implementation of these. The notables wielded influence over the community so they were able to raise the necessary recruits or tax revenues.  However, this also meant that the notables retained their power vis-à-vis the state and tax farms continued to operate. In many ways these notables’ power increased, challenging the idea of successful centralization. In other cases the government sent military campaigns to remove problematic notables but even then the notables did not disappear and made alliances with the new local leaders.

From 1829 to 1856, in a series of three state enactments, the government further intervened in the social and economic spheres. In 1829 a clothing law was passed requiring the wearing of identical head gear so that visual differences between different races and religious groups would be eliminated, thereby furthering the creation of an Ottoman identity. In 1839 a further royal statement promised measures to eradicate corruption and inequality (between non-Muslims and Muslims in terms of tax liability, economic opportunities, etc), abolish tax farming and regularize the conscription of all males. In 1856 a further decree of the state reiterated the state’s intention to provide equal opportunities. However many of these modernist reforms have been interpreted as an attempt by the Ottoman empire to retain the loyalty of Ottoman Christians, who were increasingly integrated with and benefiting from trade with the Europeans. These reforms were not successful in achieving these goals as non-Muslims were unwilling to join the army and actually emigrated to the New World as a result of conscription. In other cases, they preferred to maintain their separate legal status, protected by European consuls. The state, also, did not live up to its promises to actively recruit non-Muslims in state service. Furthermore, after the 1878 Berlin treaty (when Christian-populated provinces gained independence and a Muslim majority was established in the empire for the first time in many centuries), the Ottoman state’s emphasis on equality continued but there was a subtle change in favor of Muslims’ rights. Thus, reforms between 1829 and 1856 cannot be considered a definitive move towards equal rights; political events continued to effect the reform.  

Associated with this last point is the increasing intervention of European powers in the empire’s internal matters. As Europeans’ trade interests increased, they gave protection to entire Christian and Jewish communities with whom they preferred to trade. Europeans thus effectively undercut the Ottoman state’s internal sovereignty; the Ottoman state could only submit as it was dependent on European states for protecting its external sovereignty.

During the initial era of ‘tanzimat’ instruments for political action were actively repressed with attempts at cutting the power of local notables. However, in the 1860s and 1870s, by use of new technologies such as the printing press, the intelligentsia (officers of low rank, students and graduates of higher schools) began to mobilize. The culmination of this was the 1908 Young Ottoman Revolution and the promulgation of a constitution.

In Egypt, on the other hand, the beginnings of a modern political system are associated with Muhammad Ali in the 1820s. Ali successfully centralized power by abolishing tax farms and collecting taxes directly thus undermining the source of power of the military landed class. He also undercut the power of religious notables by neglecting the religious education system and the waqf system. To replace these elites, he created around himself a household consisting of men who were strangers to Egypt and thus loyal to him alone (Turks, Kurds, Circassians and Albanians) and were educated in the European style. Thus Ali destroyed all the instruments of political action, making us question the nature of modernization. Furthermore Ali’s attempt to assert Egyptian sovereignty in terms of being able to regulate trade with Europe did not succeed as the British overwhelmed him in the 1830s.

In the 1870s however the situation in Egypt changed as foreign pressure weakened the ruler, Ismail, while at the same time technology gave rise to an unofficial press thereby allowing political activity. Army officers such as Urabi were prominent in political activity but it was often a new class of notables who were working behind the scenes using Urabi as instruments. This class of notables had emerged during the weak reign of Ismail.  In 1881-2, a revolution was staged by Urabi with elements of both secular intelligentsia and modernist ulema. The revolution was characterized by a demand for the alleviation of army officers’ working conditions, anti-European discourse, and assertion of an Egyptian identity as opposed to that of the Turco-Circasian elites. However these elements of popular resistance (though the machinations of elites behind the scenes must not be overlooked) were suppressed by the British occupation in 1882.

In Iran, following the initial attempts at military modernization, in 1871, a cabinet government was formed, representing a differentiation of functions performed within the government. However, the centralizing impulse evident in the Ottoman Empire and Egypt, was not present in Qajjar Iran. This perhaps has to do with the peculiar nature of the Qajjar state which historically neither had at its disposal an army or bureaucracy. Indeed only when Raza Pahlavi assumed power in 1921 were attempts made at centralization of power and establishment of law and order. The 1905 revolution in Russia served as an impetus for the Constitutional Revolution in Iran led by intellectuals, merchants or bazaris and ulema. The 1906 Constitution enforced, after the Constitutional Revolution in Iran, had an Islamic component as religious officials comprised an important part of the revolution; unlike the Ottoman Empire, secularism never emerged. Even Pahlavi was unable to enforce secularism; the power of the clergy in terms of being able to mobilize the population has served as a check on any secularization project. European influence was felt in the region, too; both Russia and Britain had spheres of influence in Iran for reasons of strategy (the Great Game) and later resource extraction (with the discovery of oil).

 Lastly, an important aspect of modernity is the development of the nation state. In the European provinces of the Ottoman Empire, the expansion and penetration of the Ottoman government led to the articulation of nationalism. Once the government made knowledge of Ottoman Turkish a prerequisite for government jobs, speakers of Slav languages, Greek or Rumanian felt threatened. Religious difference, too, played an extremely important role in the development of nationalism. European consul protection of Christian communities promoted the idea of a separate nation. In the Arab provinces, nationalism took root during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Here, too, the increasing penetration of the government bred discontent, particularly among the local notables. However, organized nationalist movements emerged after European occupation during World War I. In Turkey, itself, nationalism became popular during the WWI as the idea of overstretch of empire was put forward as a cause for ‘Turkish’ decay; also upholding Islamic supremacy was identified as a burden on the Turkish centre. In Egypt, the Urabi revolution (1881-2) represents the first movement taking on an Egyptian identity as opposed to Arab or Ottoman. Of-course the British occupation from 1882 suppressed local politics for some times but nationalist ideology had taken root and emerged as decolonization movements surfaced in the twentieth century. In Iran, on the other hand nationalism easily fit in with a geographical and political unity stretching for centuries in the past and did not need to discard religion (shii Islam) or any other aspect of cultural identity as these fit well with national identity. The Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5 served as an important impetus, depicting as it did the possibility of an Asian nation emerging victorious over a European power.

The above analysis serves to show the different faces of political modernization in the Middle East; while in the Ottoman Empire an expanded state with increased penetration into society emerged, in Egypt an initial attempt at centralization was soon undermined by local dissidents and then European occupation and in Iran the state never really undertook centralization though a constitution was enforced in 1906, until the mid –twentieth century when Raza Pahlavi assumed power. Similarly while separation of religion and state were achieved to an extent in the Ottoman Empire and Egypt, in Iran and many Arab states the clergy remained closely intertwined with the state and popular politics. Lastly, nationalism in the three regions has worn different aspects as well; while the nations emerging from the Ottoman Empire and Egypt had to discard aspects of their identity such as Ottoman, Arab or Islam, in Iran there was relative continuity of identity.


Intellectual Thought


The previous sections have focused largely on state-centric reform, perhaps giving a picture of a single, largely European vision of modernization being implemented. While the section on political system has attempted to touch on the politicization of agents acting outside the state as a new wave of modernization, this discussion has not been elaborated, being outside the context of conventional early modern history. The following section, however, focuses on tracing trends within an indigenous tradition broadly labeled Islamic thought. The ‘Naqshbandi’ brotherhood and the ‘Salafi’ are examined herein as two different instances of how Islamic thought evolved. The Baha’i faith is discussed as an example of a millenarian movement which has Islamic roots but which challenges both orthodox Islam as well as dominant trends in European modernity. The discussion then moves towards intellectuals outside traditional religious schools of thought (though religion may have continued to inform their views), discussing the Young Ottomans and secular thinkers in Iran.

The Naqshbandiyya order is a Sufi brotherhood, tracing its origins to the Prophet. It was an order which spread from Central Asia (Bukhara) all across the Middle East. The Naqshbandi order adhered strictly to the Sunni version of sharia though its popular forms sometimes were less rigorous in their implementation of sharia and were given to ‘eccentric’ practices, including dancing. The order advocated turning one’s life wholly to God, to keep distance from rulers and politics and self-annihilation in God through successive self-annihilation in the murshid or guide, the aw’liya or friends of God and the Prophet. Thus the order laid emphasis on making contact with the mighty dead’ including the aw’liya and the Prophet.

Certain aspects of the Naqshbandi order are of importance in terms of negotiating with European modernization while retaining its structure and relevance for Muslims. The first of these is the Naqshbandi method of defending Sunnism from attacks not by discarding the doctrine of those who attacked it but by accepting it and assimilating it into a more complex system. The Naqshbandi order therefore continued to assert the importance of the virtuous life as enshrined in Sunnism, giving direction to Muslims ‘assaulted’ by European modernization while giving them a framework historically wide enough to incorporate the truth of rival ideologies. Secondly the Naqshbandi order with its emphasis on making contact with the dead and other supernatural phenomenon was relevant to people in the modern age of doubt who craved assurance of the existence of an invisible world.

The removal of local notables in Kurdish districts by the centralizing Ottoman state meant that Sufi shaykhs became the only focus of political activity. Revolt against the Ottomans in the 1830s and the British mandates later were led by Naqshbandi families; thus, despite the traditionally advocated distance from worldly affairs, under the circumstances it became a centre for political dissent. In the Caucasus, Chechens resisted the Russian within the Naqshbandi framework, demanding a state where Muslims could live in accordance with the sharia. The Naqshbandiyya order thus demonstrates dynamism, willingness to evolve as political circumstances changed and an ability to remain relevant to Muslims in a modern age.

The ‘Salafi’ school of thought, championed by Rashid Rida (of Lebanese origin), reaffirmed the basic body of Islamic doctrine while reformulating laws and social morality through the extension of the Islamic concept of ‘istislah’ and rejecting later Islamic beliefs and practices (including many Sufi traditions). Rida criticized supernatural aspects of Sufi brotherhoods, not because of an adherence to modern science necessarily (in fact Rida thought it possible that God could Grant some men miracles or ‘karamat’) but because this allowed some people to lie and collect wealth, power and glory due to the tradition of respecting sainthood and supernatural powers. Rida also criticized the close relationship between murshid (spiritual guide) and murid (the novice) saying that this caused blind quiescence and giving up of independent judgment (which was what Islam demanded and created, according to Rida), created the idea of the need for an intercessor with God as opposed to a direct relation and lastly, created mutually exclusive orders leading to factionalism. Rida was also critical of any speculative interpretation of the Quran or hadith which beyond the ‘clear’ or ‘literal’ meanings that he held to be apparent. While much of Rida’s criticism stemmed from a new understanding of Islam, evidently influenced by Western rationality, some of it was also a critique of the quietude of Sufi teaching which supposedly had debilitated communities, thereby making them susceptible to imperial rule. Thus nationalism in Syria (and North Africa) had a Salafi hue and was characterized by a rejection of Sufi orders, replacing them with modern and indeed secular associations such as labor unions and political parties. Salafi thought therefore lent itself to proto-nationalist movements as these were compatible with the restoration of the reign of Islamic justice. However this purported ‘Islamic justice’ had also undergone reinterpretation in light of new needs and a rejection of later Islamic beliefs and practice.

The Baha’i faith, millenarian movement, originated in Iran and spread to the rest of the Middle East in the mid-nineteenth century. Baha’u’llah, the son of a Qajjar state official, declared himself to be a messianic fulfillment of the major world religions. The Baha’i movement developed an extremely compelling critique of European modernity; these reflected critiques within Europe as well, but as the Baha’i movement was contemporaneous, it is not easy to suggest it was an off-shoot of European critiques of modernity. The Baha’i movement supported separation of religion and state in order to preserve freedom of religion and conscience. However it was against the Jacobin model of separation of religion and state, where the state was committed to atheism and resorted to coercion on behalf of rationality. Baha’is  were aware of the Janus faced nature of modernity where secularism often translated into state persecution of religion. Secondly, the Baha’is were critical of tyranny (in the Ottoman and Qajar contexts) and supported parliamentary ideals. They favored ‘constitutional monarchy’ over simple republicanism as the former retained the principle of divine authority. Linked to this was the Baha’i insistence on ‘formative republicanism’ which aims to create citizens as a responsible group as opposed to ‘procedural liberalism’ which allows citizens to do whatever they please. These distinctions suggest a highly nuanced discourse. The Baha’i movement emphasized on international collective security rather than industrial warfare and absolute state sovereignty which were viewed as being responsible for European militarism and expansion. The Baha’is highlighted the need to alleviate the condition of the poor in slums and attacked patriarchy, two aspects of European modernity’s first wave. Thus the Baha’i faith represents a powerful critique of dominant European modernity, offering instead its own Utopian version of the modern world. However, the Baha’i faith, though aspired to lofty ideals, in practice retained its religious communitarian flavor; Baha’u’llah had a semi-divine status with followers prostrating in presence.

Lastly we discuss the intellectuals among the Young Ottomans and the secular intellectuals of Iran. The Young Ottoman intellectuals had been affected adversely by the rise of high ranking civil bureaucrats as the Ottoman state expanded in the nineteenth century. The intellectuals represented a group described as ‘literateurs of humble origins and modest means but unlimited ambitions’. They recognized the increasing importance of communication with the West and, as they formed the pool of communication skills, they expected a rise in status. However corruption in the higher echelons of the bureaucracy resulted in the promotions of sons of influential men though they were often less qualified. Shrinking opportunities propelled these intellectuals to seek political redress. These intellectuals have often been described as liberal Muslim reformers. They were opposed to the bureaucracy and not the sultan; they sought the promulgation of a constitution which checked the power of the bureaucracy. Also, they were opposed to the high ranking bureaucracy’s imbibing of the ‘immoral’ aspects of Western culture such as establishment of theatres and ballrooms. They argued that the ‘tanzimat’ modernization had taken place in an ideological vacuum and there was no ethical-political point of reference. Namik Kemal, a prominent intellectual in the movement argued against the government’s lack of reference to religion as a source of inspiration for political reform. He is reported to have said:

“If the purpose is to imply that up to this day the people in the Ottoman Empire were the slaves of the sultan, who, out of the goodness of his heart, confirmed their liberty, this is something to which we can never agree, because, according to our beliefs, the rights of the people, just like divine justice, are immutable.” 


The Young Ottoman intellectuals, while championing constitutionalism and representative government, looked back to ‘Ottoman greatness’, were proto-nationalist Ottomans and promoted a role for reformed Islam in the public arena.

The secular Iranian intellectuals, including Malkum Khan, Akhundzada, Talibzada, Kirmani and Afghani, represented a group which after interaction with Europe was shocked at its own nation’s scientific and political backwardness. As a consequence they adopted, en bloc, modern European liberal political ideology; their principal aim was establishment of a secular Iranian nation-state. They challenged despotism as well as orthodox clerical power; however, they often resorted to religious rhetoric to gain a wider audience and also, paradoxically to gain the support of the ulema who were key to the mobilization of the populace. The secular intellectuals allied with the few mujtahids and ulema, who wanted to learn about Europe, to form secret societies which maintained an Islamic veneer in order to not arouse the suspicion of authorities; however their aims remained to gain recruits for their moevement. These societies stressed Iran’s national character as opposed to the religious and welcomed religious minorities is their ranks. Thus, in Iran, as opposed to the Ottoman Empire, the movement for a constitution was engineered by secular intellectuals.






Modernity conventionally has been associated with particular developments in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including secularism, capitalism, bureaucratization and scientific thinking; consequently modernity was exported to non-European societies including the Middle East. However the above examination of specific spheres of Middle Eastern society reveals greater complexity. Modernity took many shapes and forms across the Middle East; some sectors imbibed European modernity in its entirety, while others fashioned their own modernity by critiquing or integrating European modernity with their own tradition and modernity. Competing modernities operated in society; on one level the state undertook modernization campaigns and on the other individuals and groups (such as intellectuals, army, officials, merchants and so forth) coalesced to form modern organizations for political action. Even within organizations which attempted an en-bloc adoption of European modernity, indigenous thoughts and considerations continued to underlie their attitudes and actions.


Thus, as suggested by Eisenstadt’s definition of multiple modernities, there are many strains of modernity identifiable in the Middle Eastern context. Consequently, the beginning of ‘modernity’, as a unity, cannot be attributed to any one point in time or event.



[1] Eisenstadt, S.N. ‘Introduction: historical traditions, modernization and development’ in Patterns of Development. Volume II: Beyond the West, pp.1-11.1987.

[2] Eisenstadt, S.N. ‘Some Observations on Modernity’ in Reflections on Multiple Modernities: European, Chinese and Other Interpretations, 2002.

[3] Bayly, C.A., The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914, Chapters 1 and 2.

[4] Pappe, I., The Modern Middle East pp.1-13. 

[5] Yapp, M.E., ‘Middle Eastern Army Modernization’ in War, Technology and Society in the Middle East, 1975.

[6] Quataert, D., The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922, 2000.

[7] Yapp, M.E., ‘Middle Eastern Army Modernization’ in War, Technology and Society in the Middle East, 1975.


[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

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