Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi

Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi

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‘Abd al-Raḥman al-Kawākibī was a Syrian author and Pan-Islamic Arab
Arab people, also known as Arabs , are a panethnicity primarily living in the Arab world, which is located in Western Asia and North Africa. They are identified as such on one or more of genealogical, linguistic, or cultural grounds, with tribal affiliations, and intra-tribal relationships playing...

 solidarity supporter from Aleppo
Aleppo is the largest city in Syria and the capital of Aleppo Governorate, the most populous Syrian governorate. With an official population of 2,301,570 , expanding to over 2.5 million in the metropolitan area, it is also one of the largest cities in the Levant...

. 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
Ottoman Empire
The Ottoman EmpireIt was usually referred to as the "Ottoman Empire", the "Turkish Empire", the "Ottoman Caliphate" or more commonly "Turkey" by its contemporaries...

 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
Ottoman Empire
The Ottoman EmpireIt was usually referred to as the "Ottoman Empire", the "Turkish Empire", the "Ottoman Caliphate" or more commonly "Turkey" by its contemporaries...


Early life

Al-Kawakibi was born around 1849 in Aleppo
Aleppo is the largest city in Syria and the capital of Aleppo Governorate, the most populous Syrian governorate. With an official population of 2,301,570 , expanding to over 2.5 million in the metropolitan area, it is also one of the largest cities in the Levant...

. 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
Istanbul , historically known as Byzantium and Constantinople , is the largest city of Turkey. Istanbul metropolitan province had 13.26 million people living in it as of December, 2010, which is 18% of Turkey's population and the 3rd largest metropolitan area in Europe after London and...

. 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 in Egypt, rather than in Syria, and finally left his home country in 1899, moving to Egypt
Egypt , officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, Arabic: , is a country mainly in North Africa, with the Sinai Peninsula forming a land bridge in Southwest Asia. Egypt is thus a transcontinental country, and a major power in Africa, the Mediterranean Basin, the Middle East and the Muslim world...

 where he was welcomed by other Islamic intellectuals residing there.


Al-Kawakibi was influenced by the teachings of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani
Jamal al-Din al-Afghani
Sayyid Muḥammad ibn Ṣafdar Husaynī , better known as Sayyid Jamāl-ad-Dīn al-Afghānī and Sayyid Jamal-ad-Din Asadabadi , , was a political activist and Islamic ideologist in the Muslim world during the late 19th century, particularly in the Middle East, South Asia and Europe...

 as well his disciple Muhammad Abduh
Muhammad Abduh
Muhammad Abduh was an Egyptian jurist, religious scholar and liberal reformer, regarded as the founder of Islamic Modernism...

. 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
Taqlid or taklid is an Arabic term in Islamic legal terminology connoting "imitation", that is; following the decisions of a religious authority without necessarily examining the scriptural basis or reasoning of that decision, such as accepting and following the verdict of scholars of...

) was the reason for downfall of Islam and Muslims. They both believed in the resurgence of independent thinking (itjihad). 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
Mecca is a city in the Hijaz and the capital of Makkah province in Saudi Arabia. The city is located inland from Jeddah in a narrow valley at a height of above sea level...

 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
The Caliph is the head of state in a Caliphate, and the title for the ruler of the Islamic Ummah, an Islamic community ruled by the Shari'ah. It is a transcribed version of the Arabic word   which means "successor" or "representative"...

 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
Islamic socialism
Islamic socialism is a term coined by various Muslim leaders to describe a more spiritual form of socialism. Muslim socialists believe that the teachings of the Qur'an and Muhammad are compatible with principles of equality and the redistribution of wealth....

” was advocated by Al-Kawakibi and Rashid Rida
Rashid Rida
Muhammad Rashid Rida is said to have been "one of the most influential scholars and jurists of his generation" and the "most prominent disciple of Muhammad Abduh"...

. 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 life time, his message and legacy passed onto Pan-Arab nationalists such as Gamal Abdel Nasser
Gamal Abdel Nasser
Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein was the second President of Egypt from 1956 until his death. A colonel in the Egyptian army, Nasser led the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 along with Muhammad Naguib, the first president, which overthrew the monarchy of Egypt and Sudan, and heralded a new period of...

, 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.