Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi
Portrait of Kawakibi
Aleppo, Ottoman Empire
Cairo, Ottoman Empire
‘Abd al-Raḥman al-Kawākibī (Arabic: عبد الرحمن الكواكبي, 1855–1902) was a Syrian author and Pan-Islamic Arab solidarity supporter. He was one of the most prominent intellectuals of his time; however, his thoughts and writings continue to be relevant to the issues of Islamic identity and Pan-Arabism. His criticisms of the Ottoman Empire eventually lead to Arabs calling for the sovereignty of the Arab Nations, setting the basis for Pan-Arab nationalism. Al-Kawakibi articulated his ideas in two influential books, Tabai al-Istibdad wa-Masari al-Isti’bad (The Nature of Despotism) and Umm Al-Qura (Mother of the village). He died in 1902 of “mysterious” causes. His family alleged that he was poisoned by Turkish agents.
Al-Kawakibi was born into a distinguished family around 1849 in Aleppo. His parents died while he was still very young. He was raised by his aunt in Antioch, where he was tutored by his mother’s maternal uncle. He also attended al-madrasa al-kawakibiyya in Aleppo. As a child he learned the Turkish and Persian languages, but was regularly exposed to European ideologies and culture. As a young man, Al-Kawakibi was very interested in literature and politics, having edited Furat, the official paper of Aleppo from 1875-1880. He also edited the highly influential reformist journal, al-Manar, which was started by Rashid Rida, another influential Islamic scholar.
After working at Furat and al-Manar, Al-Kawakibi started his own literary journal called the al-Sahba. The journal vehemently criticized the despots and dictators of his time, and alluded to the tyranny of the Ottoman Empire. He especially focused his criticism on the new Vali of Aleppo, Jamil Pasha. Due to Al-Kawakibi’s political outspokenness, the journal was shut down by the local Ottoman Government after only 15 issues. After his work as editor, Al-Kawakibi entered politics more directly, and worked for various positions in the Ottoman civil service in Aleppo. Despite his opposition to the Ottoman Empire, Al-Kawakibi wanted to serve Arabs. During this point in his career, he became an honorary member of the board of lawyer examinations. Al-Kawakibi, along with other Aleppans, complained about the Vali to the central government in Istanbul. These criticisms fell on deaf ears until Istanbul sent a representative to Aleppo to investigate, and immediately threw Kawakibi and his followers into prison for false complaints. Once released from prison, Al-Kawakibi’s popularity rose and he became the mayor of Aleppo in 1892. Later on Al-Kawakibi went to Istanbul to study the Ottoman Empire’s despotism and problematic leadership more extensively. With his newfound knowledge, he returned to Aleppo and began working for the Ottoman government again. Because of his opinions, he was subject to harassment and intimidated on a regular basis. He decided to publish his book Umm al-Qura (The Mother of Cities:Mecca) in Egypt, rather than in Syria, and finally left his home country in 1899, moving to Egypt where he was welcomed by other Islamic intellectuals residing there.
Al-Kawakibi was influenced by the teachings of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani as well his disciple Muhammad Abduh. Al-Afghani preached Pan-Islamic identity – with this as his basis, Al-Kawakibi went one step further, incorporating Al-Afghani’s theories into Pan-Islamic Arabic solidarity. Another one of Al-Kawakibi’s contemporaries was the Salafiya thinker, Rashid Rida who lived in Egypt at the same time. Rida and Al-Kawakibi discussed ideas of Islamism and Pan-Arabism as well as Quranic interpretations. Al-Kawakibi believed that Arabs should be representatives of Islam, not the Ottomans. Rida believed that imitations (taqlid) was the reason for downfall of Islam and Muslims. They both believed in the resurgence of independent thinking (ijtihad). Al-Kawakibi also struck a friendship with Sheikh Ali Yussuf, the editor of Al-Muayyad, a well-known paper in Egypt. Thanks to his earlier education, Al-Kawakibi was heavily influenced by Western thoughts and ideals as well. Al-Kawakibi believed that Europeans were helped to advance in civilization by embracing modernity, while the Arabs and Muslims languished in the darkness.
Al-Kawakibi, in his earlier writings, was careful not to specifically criticize the Ottoman rulers, but rather critiqued despots and imperialists in general, though his implied target was clear. In one of his books Tabai al-Istibdad wa-Masari al-Isti’bad (The Nature of Despotism), he discusses the idea of tyranny and rejects it. Al-Kawakibi believed that the demise of the Muslims in the Arab world was due to the rule of the Ottoman Empire. He was particularly a vocal opponent of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and believed that the Sultan had no right to control the Arab people. Al-Kawakibi said that, “If I had an army at my command I would overthrow Abdulhamid’s (Sultan of the Ottoman Empire) government in 24 hours”. He also invoked Prophet Muhammad’s sayings in order to rally people behind his cause. He also believed that the Arabs were united unlike other Muslims and that there was no racial or sectarian segregation among Arabs. He stated that Arabs were, “of all nations the most suitable to be an authority in religion and an example to the Muslims; the other nations have followed their guidance at the start and will not refuse to follow them now.” Al-Kawakibi believed that there were few reasons beyond the Ottoman’s influence for the decline of Muslims at the time period. Imposition of Ottoman rules on everyone under their control only elevated the position of the Turks and kept the other Muslims, especially Arabs in the dark. He believed that religion was used as an excuse by the Ottomans to unfairly rule over Arabs and other Muslims without understanding the cultural and local customs. Al-Kawakibi also believed that imitation (taqlid) caused the Muslims to be stagnant when it came to their religion, and other forms of knowledge. Instead, of continuously trying to interpret the Quran and hadiths, Muslims relied on interpretations from centuries ago. Other reasons for the decline of Muslims were he believed, that Muslims abandoned Islamic values and relied on superstitions, and also that they disregarded science and, by extension, were not being able to keep up with modern society. Al-Kawakibi additionally believed that Mecca should be the capital of the Islamic world, not Istanbul. He was a proponent of historical Arab exceptionalism as the founding location of Islam. He believed that the rightful Caliph should come from the Quraysh tribe as Prophet Muhammad did. His book Umm Al Qura (The Mother of Villages) reflects these ideas. His book contained a fictional story of an Islamic conference taking place in Mecca, thus illustrating the importance of Mecca to the Islamic world.
Al-Kawakibi’s ideas were controversial to some. His critics alleged that he was a proponent of socialism. According to author Charles Tripp, the idea of “Islamic socialism” was advocated by Al-Kawakibi and Rashid Rida. Islamic socialism is the belief that the Quran permits redistribution of wealth, although that point is disputed by many Muslim scholars. Another common criticism was that Al-Kawakibi disregarded Islam as the focal point of one’s life and marginalized the religion because he believed that Caliphs should have no real political power, but be a spiritual guide. However, that criticism seems to have been unfounded, as Al-Kawakibi was, in writing and action, a very religious man.
Although Al-Kawakibi did not have a tremendous amount of support during his lifetime, his message and legacy passed onto Pan-Arab nationalists such as Gamal Abdel Nasser, even though Al-Kawakibi was not a Pan-Arab nationalist but instead believed in Arab unity and solidarity. The founding of Islam in Arab land was a key reason for Al-Kawakibi to suggest the entire Muslim world to unite under the Arabs. Many Islamic and Arab reformists have also used Al-Kawakibi as an influence.
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