Chapter 6: Islamic Culture in Arab and African Countries by Ishak M. Husaini

Islam -- The Straight Path: Islam Interpreted by Muslims
by Kenneth W. Morgan

Chapter 6: Islamic Culture in Arab and African Countries by Ishak M. Husaini

(Ishak M. Husaini is Professor of Arabic Literature at the Institute of Higher Arabic Studies of the Arab League and at the American University at Cairo, Egypt)

The culture of Islamic countries has grown through the interaction of groups of Islamic peoples of widely varied ethnic and geographic backgrounds and through strong cultural influences from the non-Islamic civilizations of Greece, Persia, and India in the early days, and of western Europe in modern times.

Ancient Islamic culture of the golden age of the Abbasids attained a high level of development before it fell into a period of decline similar to the decline of the Greek, Chinese, and Persian cultures. Contemporary Islamic culture is bound to the ancient Islamic culture with very close ties, but the decline between the ancient and the modern period was so am parent that contemporary Islamic culture is looked upon as a renaissance rather than a continuing growth, a renaissance which has been shaped in many ways by modernism and westernization. Unfortunately, this renaissance of the past century and a half has been seriously restricted because most of the Islamic countries have been held down by alien political and economic controls which did not permit the creative participation in cultural activities which had been characteristic of Muslims in their glorious days in the past.

Our concern in this and the subsequent chapters is not, however, with the total Islamic culture but with the specifically religious culture which originates almost exclusively from the Qur’an, the Traditions of the Prophet of Islam, and the various interpretations of these two fundamental sources. Although we are dealing here with the Islamic culture of the Arab and African countries, it is our contention that the diversities found in Islam are not due to variations in geographic environments or to different civilizations, but are due only to recognized sectarian differences. The Druzes of the Levant differ from the Sunnis of Egypt because of differing interpretations of the Qur’an and the Traditions of the Prophet, not because they live in different cultural or geographical environments. There are sectarian differences in Islam, but the Arab Muslim and the non-Arab Muslim are not separated by geographic or cultural differences.

The African Arab world includes Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, with an area of about three million square miles, and containing some forty-nine million Muslims. The rest of Africa has twenty-eight million Muslims who are sometimes a majority of the population and sometimes a minority; all of them, except in Ghana, are ruled by a colonial power.

The Asiatic Arab world is made up of the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, and the Levant. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia includes almost four-fifths of the area, with about six million Muslims; south and west of it is the Yemenite Kingdom with four million Muslims, and to the south and east are a number of small Amirates and Sultanates with two million Muslims. The Levant includes Jordan, Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon with five million Muslims, and there are five million more in neighboring Iraq.

Thus in the Arab and African areas there are more than one hundred million Muslims occupying a zone of highest strategic importance and possessing oil and water resources of great consequence to the future welfare of this region and of the entire world.

The Arabian Peninsula

Islam first appeared in the western area of the Arabian Peninsula, known as the Hijaz, at Mecca and then at Medina. The Hijaz is called the Holy Land, for there stands the Ka‘ba, which is the goal of thousands of pilgrims every year, and nearby is Arafat where pilgrims slaughter their sacrifices at the great Feast of the Sacrifice (Id al-Qurban) which terminates the pilgrimage. Many pilgrims go on to Medina to pay homage before the tomb of the Prophet. Although the pilgrimage is compulsory only for those who have the means to accomplish it, Muslims exert every effort to attain the heights of happiness by making the pilgrimage and often thereafter proudly add the title Hajj to their name. For the whole Muslim world this small area of the Arabian Peninsula has a religious significance not equaled by any other place.

When the Umayyads moved the capital from Medina to Damascus the political and intellectual center of gravity left the Arabian Peninsula. The isolation of the Hijaz was even more pronounced when the more distant Baghdad became the home of the Abbasid Caliphs and the center of political, intellectual, and literary activity. If it were not for the pilgrimage, the Hijaz would have lost its religious power as well.

Nothing much of consequence seems to have happened in the Peninsula after the capital was moved until the rise of the Wahhabi movement which, after only a few years, became in 1157 (AD. 1744) the official sect of the Muslims of the central plateau of the Peninsula, as it has continued to be ever since. As was explained in Chapter Two, the Wahhabi movement was inspired by the teachings of Ibn Taymiyya, the great reformer who sought to save the Muslim world from doctrinal divisive forces so it could be more powerful in withstanding foreign aggression. He opposed doctrinal fanaticism and Sufi innovations, and advocated a restoration of the original purity of doctrine and daily life which were manifested in the Qur’an and Traditions of the Prophet.

The prevailing conditions in the Arabian Peninsula and surrounding regions drove Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab to lay greater emphasis on some of Ibn Taymiyya’s teachings than on others. He sought first of all to purge the faith in Allah of what he called polytheism, typified by the practice of venerating the tombs of prophets and saints in ways indistinguishable from worship. The Wahhabis considered such veneration equal to idolatry and worship of the stars, which are condemned by Islam as acts of infidelity, the most serious of all sins. Therefore, they destroyed sacred tombs and prohibited excessive prostrations in front of the Prophet’s tomb in Medina.

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab also held that the recital of the creed -- I testify that there is no God but God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God -- is not sufficient testimony of one’s faith in Islam but must be accompanied by other devotions such as prayer and almsgiving. Willfully to neglect prayer and alms-giving is an act of infidelity. On the basis of this belief there came to be a group of Wahhabis known as Compellers who considered it their religious duty to see that people performed the prayers at the prescribed times, basing their action on the injunction "to command the good and prohibit the bad." They were also rigid in enforcing the Islamic prohibition of wine and gambling, and went so far as to condemn smoking.

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab held that the Qur’an as the word of God is primordial and uncreated; it is from God and returns to God; it was transmitted to the Prophet by Gabriel as he heard it from God. It was also held that Muslims must believe in the Messenger’s Traditions concerning the Resurrection, punishment, reward, and walking on the path to Heaven. No genuine Tradition may be disregarded in preference for a logical deduction, and no opinion put forward by a Mujtahid is acceptable unless it is supported by evidence from the Qur’an and the Sunnah. No new idea or saying may be advocated unless it was given by the four Imams, the first four Caliphs. And finally, the Wahhabis believe that God’s names as given in the Qur’an must be accepted without interpreting them as symbols or in an anthropomorphic sense. The Qur’an states that God will be seen in Paradise in person.

Such are the Wahhabi teachings concerning the fundamentals of the faith, but concerning the consequences, the particular requirements of religion, they follow the orthodox teachings of the school of Hanbali, which follows the Qur’an and the Hadith (Tradition), and refuses deduction -- although they do not forbid the code of practices of any of the other Imams. The Wahhabis renounced Shi‘a jurisprudence and regarded any preference for tribal laws as an act of infidelity. They vigorously opposed all innovations introduced by Sufis and extremist Shi‘ites, even refusing their testimony in courts and refusing intermarriage with them.

A group of the Wahhabis who went to great lengths in enforcing these doctrines and in standing adamant against any innovation, even including useful contributions of modern civilization, were suppressed by King Abul Aziz Ibn Sa‘ud who believed in a wise, moderate policy of modernization. Although the Wahhabis demanded at the outset of their mission that every Muslim should accept their teachings, they later adopted a more moderate attitude and permitted their Muslim dissenters, especially in the Hijaz, to hold their own views, and even to smoke if they wished -- thereby avoiding a new schism in Islam. They are therefore looked upon, not as a separate sect, but rather as a group of conservative, orthodox Muslims whose belief is centered around the Qur’an and the Hadith, who seek to express their faith in word and deed, and whose object is the reestablishment of the Muslim state on the basis of Muslim jurisprudence.

The majority of Muslims of the Arabian Peninsula are Sunnis, whether they be Wahhabis or not, with two main exceptions -- the Zaidis in Yemen and the Kharijites in Oman.

In pre-Islamic times Yemen was known as Arabia Felix because of its prosperity in comparison with the rest of the and peninsula. The irrigation dam of Ma’rib, which is one of the most ancient in the world, is evidence of the high standard of prosperity and civilization attained in Yemen. Its rainfall is bountiful, it abounds with mountainous regions with rivers, valleys, springs of water, and numerous wells -- all exploited for agriculture. It is famous for its many-storied buildings. Except for a Jewish community by the walls of San‘a, all of the inhabitants of Yemen are of pure Arab origin and followers of Islam with the large majority belonging to the Shi‘a Zaidi group. The rest are Sunnis who belong to the school of Imam al-Shafi‘i. The Zaidis live in the mountainous regions where they have been able to maintain their purity of origin, while the Sunnis live along the coast where they have intermarried with Africans.

Yemen embraced Islam in the days of the Prophet. In the third century of the Hijrah the Zaidi sect penetrated Yemen through an Imam who came from Iraq. Dynasties succeeded each other at a great pace because of the Zaidi doctrine that the Imam had to be a warrior who seized power by his own strength as did Imam Zaid their founder. Through the centuries, Yemen has been ruled by governors appointed by the Hijaz government, by successive Zaidi Imams, by the radical Shi‘a Qarmatians, by the Turks, and finally by the present dynasty, founded by the grandfather of the present Imam, who is a descendant of the first Zaidi Imam who came from Iraq. For a long time the Imams had held only spiritual authority, but when the Turks withdrew in 1336 (AD 1917) they seized temporal power. Modern Yemen is, therefore, barely forty years old, a state which, like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, depends upon Muslim jurisprudence for its constitution and legislation.

The Zaidi sect is named after Imam Zaid, the son of the fourth Imam of Shi‘a. The Zaidis claimed that the fourth Imam forfeited the Imamate when he failed to fight against the Umayyads, and the succession continues through his son Zaid who was killed in battle against the Umayyad forces. Zaid studied Muslim theology under the leading Mu‘tazilite of his time and taught his views concerning the major principles of Islam. Concerning the consequences -- worship and jurisprudence -- the Zaidis follow the Shafi‘i school, which makes them the Shi‘ites nearest to the Sunnis. They also differ from most Shi‘a sects in believing that the succession of the Imamate continues to this day.

The Yemenites are well known for their fondness for knowledge within the carefully defined limits of their faith, for their religious zeal, for their pride in their language, and their distrust of foreigners. Their policy has been one of gradual progress for fear of falling into the hands of imperialist powers. Although the ancient Yemenite civilization which found its stimulus in its favorable climate and trade is no more, the latent human and natural resources of the country are still there and will come to the fore when they have security from foreign invasion and can introduce modernization and democratic rule.

The inhabitants of the coastal regions from the Persian Gulf to Yemen are Muslim Arabs, with a Sunni majority and a small percentage of Shi‘ites. They are ruled by amirs and sultans, all of whom are under British influence. There is little civilization or advanced culture in this region because of the poverty, ignorance, and fanaticism which flourish under an imperialist power. There is, however, the beginning of a renaissance in Kuwait and Bahrein because of the wealth brought by oil royalties. Excellent schools have been developed there and if education continues at its present pace a general reform is inevitable.

In addition to the Sunnis and Shi‘ites in this area, the Kharijite sect is found in Oman. The Kharijites go back to the time of Ali when a number of his followers turned against him because he consented to the arbitration of men rather than the Qur’an in his dispute with Mu‘awiya. Although Ali defeated and dispersed them, it was a Kharijite who assassinated him and they continued to rebel against all authority for some time. It is believed that two of the Kharijites escaped to Oman where they established the sect which is thriving today.

The Kharijites believe that the Imamate need not be given to descendants of the Prophet or of the early leaders at Mecca or Medina. The Imamate is determined by elections, not by heredity. Government must be based on Muslim jurisprudence. If the Imam does not comply with the Sunnah it is the moral and religious obligation of a Muslim to rebel against his authority. It is even conceivable and permissible not to have an Imam at all. They also hold that to commit a major sin is an act of infidelity. In the succession of Imams, they reject Ali because he accepted arbitration and Uthman because he misused his authority.

Within the Kharijites there is a moderate sect known as Ibadis. Ibadis believe that Muslim dissenters are infidels, but not polytheists; and that dissenters from their sect still belong to the body of Islam. It is permissible for them to intermarry among their own dissenters, to leave them legacies, and to inherit from them. For the Ibadis, faith includes action; the person who commits a major sin is still a monotheist, but not faithful. They follow Muslim jurisprudence in marriage, divorce, and inheritance, but resort to the judgments of wise men in questions of war, tribal solidarity, and trade.

The Arab Muslims of the Peninsula are extremely tolerant of each other. In Oman, for instance, the mosques are used without differentiation by Sunnis, Shi‘ites, and Kharijites; and in Yemen the former Imam often led Zaidis and Shi‘ites in prayer without distinguishing between them. The differences are regarded by these tribes as merely doctrinal variations within a community which is united in its customs and ways of thinking. Tribal customs and antecedents are more important than sectarian beliefs in maintaining unity among the people of the Arabian Peninsula.

The Levant

The Levant includes the Arab countries north of the Arabian Peninsula, except Iraq -- that is, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon. The Arabs in this area form a homogeneous group with a Sunni majority except in Lebanon which, like a Persian carpet, is made up of a colorful mixture of all the creeds and sects to be found in the Middle East.

The Arabs completed the conquest of the Levant within a few years of the death of the Prophet, their surprising success made possible by the inspiration of their new faith which filled their souls with confidence, and by the decline of the power of Persia and Byzantium as a result of their perpetual wars against each other. Since the population of this region was chiefly of true Arab stock they received the Muslim forces as kinsmen rather than foreigners. The Christians did not find Islam a strange religion for it upheld the mission of Christ and urged the following of his Book. The Qur’an says, "And thou wilt find the nearest of them in affection to those who believe (to be) those who say: Lo! We are Christians. That is because there are among them priests and monks, and because they are not proud." (Surah V, 82).

For almost a century after the death of Ali the Umayyads ruled from Damascus, giving to the Caliphate a royal character which was not found in the earlier years when the power centered in the Arabian Peninsula. Then the Caliphate moved to Baghdad under the Abbasids for five centuries and the Levant was ruled by a succession of dynasties -- the Ayyubids, the Mamluks, the Turks, and in 1339 (AD. 1920) came occupation by Western powers which continued until the end of the second World War.

The majority of the people of the Levant are Sunnis who are united in their beliefs concerning the fundamentals of Islam and the consequences. City-dwellers usually follow the school of Imam Abu Hanifa in their interpretation of the consequences -- the code of laws -- while the rural population usually follows Imam Shafi‘i. However, the distinction between the schools is so subtle that most Muslims of today hardly know which of the four schools of law they follow and are content to be known as Muslim Sunnites. In religious courts the judge usually passes judgment according to the canonical interpretation of the school of law which the suitors follow. In civil courts, however, the judge applies the civil code without making any distinction between citizens because of their religion or sect.

Syria is a parliamentary republic with its capital at Damascus, where it has been since the rule of the Umayyads. The great mosque at Damascus is still called the Umayyad Mosque after the dynasty which established it. Syrians are noted for their strong Arab nationalism, their religious zeal, commercial ingenuity, intelligence, and love of knowledge. Their university at Damascus has faculties of letters, sciences, medicine, pharmacy, and law; the university at Aleppo has a faculty of engineering, and at Salamiya they have a faculty of agriculture.

In the Hamah region near Salamiya is a group of the Isma‘ili sect with about twenty-three thousand followers, all paying allegiance to the Agha Khan as their spiritual leader. Salamiya has been one of the main centers of the Isma‘ilis since the early days and is still important for that sect even though the Agha Khan does not use it for his headquarters.

In Jabal ad-Druz there are some thirty-one thousand followers of the Druze sect, of the same beliefs as the Druzes of Lebanon. At Latakia there are some 356,000 Nusairis who at one time were an extremist branch of Shi‘a but are now returning to a more moderate position.

The Isma‘ilis trace the continuing succession of their Imams from Isma‘il, the son of the sixth Imam of the Shi‘ites. The believe that the Qur’an is God’s revelation but they interpret it in their own way, which is not secretive and allegorical as with the Druzes, but is philosophical according to the reasoning of their leaders. Second in importance to the Qur’an is the book Brethren of Serenity, which they recite as part of their prayers. Their living Imam is infallible and is aided by a number of missionaries who lead the faithful and explain their religion to them. They keep the five pillars of Islam but emphasize deep philosophical contemplation in prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage as did the Mu‘tazilites with whom they agree in considering God far above having any limiting attributes.

The Druzes parted company with the Isma‘ilis in the time of al-Hakim-bi‘amr-Illah the Fatimite (died 411; AD. 1020) when they claimed that the Imamate ended with him, while the rest of the Isma‘ilis believe that the Imamate continued. The differences between the Druzes and Isma‘ilis have increased since that time, with the addition of a mixture of Greek, Persian, and Indian philosophy and mysticism to Druze beliefs. The Druzes believe that God was incarnated in the Imam just as He was in the prophets, that the Imam is infallible, that creation came about through a series of emanations, that after death souls are reincarnated in other bodies, and that holy jurisprudence changes with the succession of the prophets. They accept the Qur’an as inspired but have their own secret commentaries on it, which they received from their Imams. They tend to overlook most of the Muslim devotional practices and to emphasize the ethics of love and truthfulness. It is interesting to note that once when a number of young Druzes who had moved to America asked a Druze scholar what they should study to understand their religion he replied that they should go back to the Qur’an which is the source of all Islam.

An obscure sect found in Syria is called Nusairi after Muhammad Ibn Nusayr who was originally a follower of the eleventh Shi‘a Imam but later dissented and proclaimed the doctrine that the Imam is a divine incarnation. The series of Imams continues to the present, according to the Nusairis. They perform all of the Muslim devotions, but it is said that this is only a veil hiding their true convictions, which are flagrant contradictions of Islam, even including belief in a trinity made up of the spirit of God (Ali), the outer form (Muhammad), and the propagator of the shari‘a (Salman al-Farisi).

Many of these sects have recently tended toward a critical study of their beliefs and a concern for the spiritual life of their followers. There are hopeful signs of an attempt to bridge the differences between the sects by means similar to those encouraged by the Society for the Reconciliation of Muslim Sects which was established a few years ago in Cairo. Since the differences between Sunnis and Shi‘ites are political rather than doctrinal, and all of these sects were originally Muslim, it can be expected that as the fanaticism and racial antagonisms of the ages of degeneration disappear there will be even stronger tendencies toward reconciliation of their differences.

In Jordan and Palestine the Muslims are Sunnis who hold the same convictions and follow the same devotions and practices as do the Muslims of Syria. Their many family ties and common customs bind these people closely to the people of Syria. The Bedouins here, as in Arabia, tend to follow tribal customs rather than Muslim jurisprudence and know little of religion beyond the recital of words they have memorized but scarcely comprehend. They are chiefly concerned with deriving a scanty living from the desert; for them, water is often more important than religion.

The Arabs of Palestine are mostly the descendants of pilgrims, visitors, and refugees who sought a haven in the sacred land which is the home of the Mosque of the Rock and the Aqsa Mosque which is venerated by all Muslims as second only to the Ka‘ba as a sanctuary. Under the Ayyubids and the Mamluks, Palestine attained a high degree of prosperity which made possible the creation of numerous schools. The remnants of the schools which once surrounded the Aqsa Mosque still stand today with their huge ornate iron gates. Just before the first World War the Ottoman governor of Palestine brought in teachers from all over the Muslim world to create a university designed to be a small Azhar, but it did not survive the Turkish withdrawal. During the mandate after the first World War a number of schools and colleges were established, raising the cultural level of the country, but the budget for education was limited and attempts to introduce technical and industrial training were curtailed, forcing students to go to Cairo, Beirut, and the West for advanced education. Students of religion went to Al Azhar in Cairo, the foremost Muslim university.


When the Caliphate moved to Baghdad in the second century (eighth century AD.) one of the most outstanding cultural centers of the world was created. Baghdad became the melting pot where Muslim culture was mixed with the ancient Greek culture and with the cultures of Iran, India, and China. In this atmosphere of stimulating cultural interaction was laid the basis of Muslim theology, philosophy, linguistics, and letters as well as chemistry, mathematics, medicine, architecture, and astronomy. For five hundred consecutive years the flourishing of Muslim culture made Baghdad the lighthouse of knowledge for the whole world. Two of the greatest universities in the history of education were established there and all branches of knowledge grew from the study of religion and flourished in the service of religion.

In the Abbasid period Muslim culture became society-oriented, with emphasis on such subjects as the sciences and engineering and architecture; but no contradiction was felt between these fields and religion, for all scholars combined religious knowledge with mastery of other fields of learning. During the same period, Muslim culture, although it did not initiate the tendency, turned toward the development of the arts which are dependent upon the existence of a wealthy leisured class, as has happened in the West recently. Muslims became engrossed in the study of music, the art of storytelling, and exerted great efforts to perfect the art of writing prose and poetry. They reveled in performance of shadow plays, imported from China. Since religion did not demand austerity such pleasure-seeking was tolerated. It was not to be wondered at that such a religious figure as al-Jahiz should write about singing, wine drinking, and jokes.

In the field of religious research new questions were raised concerning matters which had formerly been blindly accepted without rational analysis. Questions about the nature of God, the nature of the Qur’an, the Other World, punishment and reward, predestination, and the whole realm of metaphysics were fervently disputed everywhere.

This tremendous intellectual energy which was released under the protection of religion was brought to a disastrous end by the Mongol invasion in the seventh century (thirteenth century AD.) when Baghdad was destroyed, its books burned, and its inhabitants slaughtered. The Caliph moved from Baghdad to Cairo and the glory of Iraq was irretrievably lost. Under the later Ottoman rule the Muslim culture in Iraq reached its lowest level. It is only since the first World War that there has been a revival in Iraq. Today there is a university in Baghdad with faculties in the sciences and letters, and religious schools similar to the old Azhar exist in Najaf and Karbala for Shi‘ites and in Baghdad for the Sunnis.

The inhabitants of Iraq are divided today about equally between the Shi‘a and Sunni sects, with most of the Shi‘ites in the south and the Sunnis in the north. Every effort is made by the government to persuade the younger generation to disregard their sectarian differences.

The Iraq of today is far behind the Iraq of the past. Young men who have graduated from the modern civil schools, and those who have gone abroad for study, are interested in modern sciences and accept the modern scientific outlook, while those who studied in the old style religious schools are still mainly engrossed in traditional religious learning. There has rarely been a thinker who had familiarity with both fields and could attempt a synthesis which would open up new intellectual horizons as happened during the Abbasid age.

The fundamental problem in Muslim culture, not only in Iraq but in the whole Muslim world, is that the political and social conditions which are necessary for the development of a culture have not existed. The social insecurity, which results from foreign rule and the foreign pressures which are effective so long as the Arab world is broken into small states with an average population of one to five millions, makes it impossible for Islamic culture to flower as it did in the days of the Abbasids.


The Arabs invaded Egypt early in the first century of the Hijrah, starting a gradual process of Arabization and the spread of Islam which continued until Arabic became the language of the people and Christians became a minority. The Islamic culture of Egypt was similar to the culture of the rest of the Muslim world. For about a century Egypt was under the Umayyads; then the Abbasids ruled the country. The Fatimids held the power in Egypt in the fifth and sixth centuries of the Hijrah (eleventh and twelfth centuries AD.), giving way to the Ayyubids for more than a century; the Mamluks then seized the power and held it until the Ottoman Turks established their rule in the tenth century (sixteenth century AD.). For the past century and a half until quite recently Egypt was dominated by Western powers.

During the rule of the Fatimids, Shi‘a doctrines were spread in Egypt and the Druze sect came into being. The Ayyubids were Sunnis whose strong opposition to the Druzes drove them out of Egypt to their present settlements in Syria and Lebanon. Since the time of the Ayyubids Egypt has been entirely Sunni.

The most important event during the Fatimid rule was the founding of Al Azhar University in 362 (AD. 972) in Cairo. Azhar, the oldest university in the world, has played a decisive part in the history of Muslim civilization, not only in the Arab countries, but throughout all the non-Arab Muslim world as well. For centuries it has served as the main center for the study of Islamic doctrine and as a meeting place for Muslim students from all over the world who come to receive training for careers as judges, jurists, and scholars; above all, it is a great mosque where prayers are said, and Friday sermons are preached to the assembled worshipers and to the thousands who hear them over the radio. The Azhar’s traditional pattern of instruction was for the students to choose their teachers according to their inclinations and the standards they had achieved, continuing their studies for an indeterminate time with no examinations until they were ready to graduate. Recently it has been divided into two departments with the general department continuing the old system and a special department which is composed of faculties of theology, jurisprudence, and the Arabic language, to each of which is attached a number of primary and secondary schools. In the special department students are taught modern subjects with a defined curriculum, given annual examinations, required to specialize and submit a dissertation, and awarded academic degrees. Some of the teachers have studied in the West, notably the present Rector, who is a graduate of a French university with a high degree. The present enrollment at Al Azhar University includes several thousand students from foreign countries.

Although Egypt is entirely Sunni and most of the people are followers of the Hanafi school, Azhar teaches the four schools without distinction, and the religious courts pass judgment according to the religious school of the defendant.

During the Ottoman rule Muslim culture declined in Egypt because of the belief of the rulers that the study of philosophy, geography, mathematics, and related fields would lead to heresy. In the beginning of the last century a modernist movement emerged, encouraged by the Egyptians’ desire to attain independence of the Ottoman Empire, and by their new ties established with the West as a result of the opening of the Suez Canal. During this time Egypt continued to be a center for continuing cultural and commercial emigrations from neighboring Arab countries as well as a crossroads for the infiltration of Western culture -- an infiltration which remained within the bounds imposed by the desire to maintain the Arabic and Islamic character of the culture of Egypt.

During the last century two men appeared who were destined to change the direction of Islamic culture -- Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani (died 1315; AD. 1897) and Muhammad Abduh (died 1323; AD. 1905). Jamal ad-Din was the man who awakened spiritual consciousness wherever he went in the Muslim world. He directed attention to the Muslim legacy in philosophy and to the impact of Western culture. Political problems, however, dominated his thinking. His disciple, Muhammad Abduh, followed in his steps by beginning his career with an interest in politics, but soon turned to cultural concerns.

Muhammad Abduh was a true genius whose talents extended to almost all spheres of life and whose activities touched many countries of the Muslim world. In the spiritual sphere he attempted to rejuvenate Islam by a clarification of its fundamental principles and an elucidation of its doctrines in modern terms. He refuted the attacks of Western scholars against Islam by showing that there is no contradiction between Islam and reason; rather, that for Islam reason is the key to faith in God. In literature he delivered Arabic style from its ornate redundancies, setting the literary form which was followed by newspapers and essayists from that time on. He encouraged the revival and printing of old Islamic manuscripts and the introduction of some of the literary classics into the scholastic circles of the Azhar. In the social sphere he persuaded the people to establish and use organized charities instead of relying on haphazard private acts of charity. In politics he advocated the democratic system. No man of his stature and talents has since come to the fore.

Another influence of great importance in the cultural life of Egypt was the establishment of the Egyptian University shortly before the first World War. This university has grown to include faculties of medicine, pharmacy, engineering, agriculture, commerce, law, and letters. The growing desire for education which it has stimulated led to the establishment of another university in Alexandria and later a third, Ein Shams, in Cairo. The establishment of these universities has introduced modern culture into the stream of Arabic culture without the least resistance or protest, with the result that Egypt is now being pulled in two directions -- the scholastic path by the Azhar and its subsidiary religious institutions, and the modern scientific way by the system of modem secular education. These two great forces maintain in Egypt a remarkable equilibrium without either destroying the other -- perhaps because of the deep-rooted faith in religion which has been growing in the hearts of the Egyptians for hundreds of years -- and education in Egypt continues to rest on the dual foundation of religious and secular studies. It is not likely that Egypt will give up either of these two foundations, but it is expected that they will draw closer together to form one firm base for Egyptian culture. Religious fanaticism as well as scientific monomania are both giving way at present, while the Sufi orders which used to exert great influence are waning as a result of the spread of education among the middle classes. Many intellectuals who were at first intrigued by secularism are becoming genuinely interested in religion.

Some Western scholars lament that Muslims, especially in Egypt, have closed the door to free interpretation, ijtihad, in the fundamentals. Ijtihad has been denied in Egypt because Egypt is the leader of all Muslim countries -- in spite of the fact that it is smaller than some of them -- and since it has been subjected, together with other Muslim countries, to imperialist invasion it has had to direct all its energy toward deliverance from imperialism and the protection of its own and its neighbors’ safety. Ijtihad in religion at such a time could easily have led to such schism that only the imperialist powers would have profited. This is the reason for the silence with which Islam has met the double challenge from the atheist East and the Christian West. A primitive, naïve faith with safety was felt to be better than a rationalistic faith with the peril of disintegration and confusion. Ijtihad, however, remains inevitable and will come as soon as the Muslim world is secure from the evils surrounding it and can attain respite and tranquillity.

Nationalism in Egypt has taken an unprecedented turn since the people won their independence. Formerly, nationalistic movements set aside religion in order to maintain unity among all citizens, whether Muslim or Christian, while religious movements tended to exclude Arab nationalism. In this new nationalism the two movements meet in unison and harmony without secular nationalist opiniativeness or religious rigidity. This internal harmony is the basis for the desire of Egypt to be neutral in relation to external nationalistic conflicts between the East and the West. If there were any tendency for Egypt to favor one side, it would be toward the countries which still cling to religious values, if it were not for the antagonistic stand adopted by the West toward the Arab cause, especially in Palestine and North Africa.

North Africa

This section on North Africa is based on material written by Shaikh Muhammad al-Fadil Ibn Ashur of Tunis.

The Muslims invaded North Africa in 22 (AD. 642) after Amr Ibn al-As had concluded the occupation of Egypt, but the effective invasion came some forty years later under the Umayyads who established a Muslim Arab garrison town at Qairawan near Tunis. That invasion was steadily extended westward until it reached the shores of the Atlantic, bringing into Islam great numbers of Berbers -- remnants of the Romans and Vandals -- who soon attained equal civil status with the invaders and became recruits in the Arab armies. It was with the help of the Berbers that the Umayyad forces were able to push on from Morocco to conquer Spain.

The city of Qairawan became the capital of the Maghrib, as North Africa is commonly called, governing the five states of Tripolitania, Tunisia, Algeria, al-Maghrib al-Aqsa (Morocco), and Andalusia. From Qairawan were exerted the efforts to spread Islam and the Arabic language among the Berbers. In the year 100 (AD. 718) the Caliph stationed there the missionary delegation, better known as the Mission of the Ten Scholars, which receives the credit for persuading most of the Berber tribes to embrace the Arabic language and Islam. By the second century of the Hijrah many of the Berbers were contributing to theological discussions and Arab literature.

The Kharijites appeared in the Maghrib after they were scattered by their struggles with Ali and Mu‘awiya, but they were successfully resisted by the Umayyads and confined to certain regions in the center of the Maghrib and in Africa, where societies of a special social and political character were established. The people of North Africa adopted Sunni Islam and followed the interpretation of the Maliki school since most of their students went to study at Medina, where the school of Malik held sway. Their loyalty to Sunni doctrines and the Maliki school was consolidated at the end of the third century of the Hijrah by their opposition to the Fatimid dynasty of Egypt. The resistance to the Shi’a forces of the Fatimids centered in Qairawan and Tunis, where most of the Maliki scholars gathered forces.

At the beginning of the sixth century of the Hijrah, Muhammad Ibn Tumart -- known as the Mahdi, that is, the Imam who is to come -- appeared as a reformer and established a new state with the avowed purpose of reforming dogma and the social order. His new dynasty was able to unite the whole Maghrib for a time, and the four succeeding dynasties, although they struggled for political power, did not renounce his spiritual leadership.

At the end of the ninth century (fifteenth century AD.) Arab rule over Andalusia finally collapsed and its Muslim communities took refuge in the Maghrib. Parts of North Africa were seized by the Spaniards and held until the coming of the Ottoman Turks, who delivered Tripolitania, Tunisia, and Algeria. Morocco was spared the Ottoman rule and continued to be governed by sultans who traced their ancestry to the Prophet. After the Ottoman rule, in more recent times, France and Italy seized control of North Africa and held it until in the past few years, Libya, Tunis, and Morocco were able to establish their own governments, leaving only Algeria struggling for emancipation from French imperialism.

In modern times the population of North Africa is composed of Arabs and Berbers who have intermarried. Arabic is the common language, although it is spoken in various dialects, influenced chiefly by geographic conditions. The Berber influence is obvious in customs and in language, especially among the Berbers of the mountain regions in the Atlas, and in Morocco. It is least obvious in Tunisia where less than one per cent of the people are Berber. There are about two million Berbers in Morocco, one million in Algeria, and only about fifty thousand in Libya. All the inhabitants of North Africa are Muslim except for a million and a half Christians and Jews, of whom a million live in Algeria.

Most of the Muslims of the Maghrib are Sunnis of the Ash‘arite school, following the interpretations of the Maliki school in matters of jurisprudence. In Morocco all the people follow the school of Malik, while in Algeria and Tunisia a limited number are Hanafis. Those who follow the school of Hanafi are descendants of families who came to North Africa with the Ottoman army and are found chiefly in cities which used to be army headquarters.

There are still about one hundred thousand Kharijites in Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya; they are members of the Ibadi sect, with their headquarters in Ghardaia where they have schools and shari‘a courts which follow their doctrines in deciding issues brought before them.

Among the Sunnis there are many Sufi orders, all tracing their origin to the famous mystic al-Junayd (died 298; AD. 910). The three main orders are Qadiri, Shazili, and Tijani, each having many subdivisions. These orders work through lodges (tekkes) -- organized communities which seek to spread their Sufi teachings and practices. There are more than seven hundred such lodges in the Maghrib. Although the influence of these orders has declined during the present century, there are still important lodges in Algeria and Libya whose influence extends into central Africa.

The Senussi order was started in 1253 (AD. 1837) in Mecca, somewhat influenced by the Wahhabi movement but tracing its origin back ultimately to the Shazili order of Sufis. It advocated the prohibition of music, dancing, and smoking, but discouraged exaggerated forms of asceticism. It placed great emphasis on the establishment of lodges for communal living; each member of the lodge would engage in a useful community activity such as cultivation, education, or commerce which would make the lodge self-sufficient. They are opposed to the use of force, and although they are a bridge between Wahhabi and Sufi practices, they follow orthodox Sunni doctrines, rather than the usual Sufi teachings, and accept the school of Malik in the particular requirements of religion. They rely upon the Qur’an and the Traditions of the Prophet and reject consensus (ijma) and individual interpretation (ijtihad) as sources of legislation.

Like the Wahhabis, the Senussi order began as a religious reformation and ended by establishing new Muslim states. Because of their closeness to the Wahhabis they were permitted to establish a lodge in the Hijaz. In North Africa the Italians made a special effort to destroy the Senussi lodges in the years before the second World War. Today the Senussi order exists in Libya as a spiritual movement led by the present sovereign.

Education in North Africa is provided through religious schools associated with the mosques and lodges and through secular schools supported by the state. Half a century ago the Tunisians modernized their schools by opening them to boys and girls alike and offering instruction in arithmetic, natural science, geography, and French -- a pattern of secular education which has been followed in varying degrees by other North African countries. The teaching of Arabic and the Islamic religion in these schools was formerly very meagre but it has received greater emphasis in some countries in recent years with the growth of nationalist governments. Opportunities for higher technical and professional training are still lacking in North Africa, making it necessary for doctors, lawyers, and engineers to get their training abroad, chiefly in France. There is no doubt that such foreign education has had a great effect on North African culture, especially in Algeria and Tunisia. In Algeria, because of the direct French control, the official schools have shown no concern for Muslim Arabic education. The only exception is the three government schools for training judges and lawyers in the shari‘a with the number of students limited to the positions to be filled.

The religious schools, which are only concerned with teaching the Qur’an, Islamic doctrines, and Arabic, have greatly declined in the cities and villages because of the spread of modern schools and are now found chiefly in the desert and the lodges of the Sufi orders. There are many more such schools in Morocco than in Tunisia, where there are a greater number of secular schools. The Algerians have taken the initiative in spreading Muslim education through the establishment of modern nongovernmental institutions which are found in most towns and villages. The Association of Muslim Ulama has been active in promoting these schools and controls some one hundred and thirty of the three hundred religious schools in Algeria.

It is worthy of note that all mosques in North Africa are not only places of worship but also popular schools where religious instruction is given to the people. Those who supervise the performance of devotional practices in the mosques also teach and are paid for their services with funds from the religious trusts -- except in Algeria and Tunisia where they receive their salaries from the state because of the limited funds available from the religious endowments. In Libya, the religious education which was formerly given in the major mosques was almost entirely supported by the Italian rulers. There are still, however, three main Senussi lodges with over fifty subsidiary lodges which are concerned with the training of religious leaders who work for the maintenance and propagation of Islamic culture.

Higher education in religion is offered in Morocco at the University of Qarawiyin in Fez and the Big Mosque in Tatwan; in Tunisia the center of higher studies is at the famous old University of Zaitouna and its subsidiaries; and in Libya advanced work in religion is given at the University of Benghazi. The education at these universities is purely Muslim, in Arabic, with a nationalist orientation, and centered around a mosque. Attached to the Qarawiyin is another great mosque in the capital of the south, called the Mosque of Ibn Youssif, and the Zaitouna Mosque in Tunisia has twenty branches spread all over the country. Education in these two universities includes literary subjects, mathematics, and natural sciences at a secondary level; and at the higher level Qarawiyin trains scholars and specialists in jurisprudence and literature, while Zaitouna has faculties in jurisprudence, theology, philology, literature, and the Qur’an. There are about two thousand students at the higher level, of whom fifteen hundred are in Tunisia. Both institutions have libraries which contain many valuable Islamic manuscripts.

The Rest of Africa

Islam came to Africa in three stages. During the first four centuries it spread through North Africa and into the Sudan; from the fourth to the middle of the fifth century Islam was embraced by the Christians of Nubia, the Swahilis and the people of the Zanzibar coast, and the tribes of the desert; the third stage dates from about 1160 (AD. 1747) to the beginning of the present century, during which time Islam was introduced by the Sufi orders in competition with the Christian missionary work of the Protestants and Catholics.

During the fifth century (eleventh century AD.) the most active tribes in the diffusion of Islam were the barbaric tribes which had embraced Islam under a Sufi Shaikh who established a lodge -- that is, a dwelling, school, and mosque -- on an island near the Senegal coast. Some of his followers, who were called al-Murabitin, invaded Morocco and established the State of al-Murabitin; another group of his followers penetrated the interior of the continent and captured the Kingdom of Ghana, between the Senegal and the Niger, whose people embraced Islam. Subsequently Islam spread among the tribes living along the upper banks of the Niger. During this century Islam reached Timbuktu and was accepted by the people of the desert. Two centuries later it reached Nigeria. In East Africa the Faith was spread by the merchants who settled in Mombasa and Zanzibar and eventually extended Islam to Uganda and the Congo. In the eleventh century (seventeenth century AD.) Islam expanded southward through the activities of Muslims from India until it reached Natal and Cape Province and spread a little into the Transvaal and Rhodesia.

Islam found its way into the African continent through three channels: through the merchants who came from Egypt, the Maghrib, and Zanzibar in the east; through followers of Sufi orders and graduates of the Islamic schools of Fez, Zaitouna, and Cairo; and through the intermarriage of Muslim merchants and religious leaders with African women.

There was a strong interest in Sufism in Africa in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (eighteenth and nineteenth centuries AD.) which found expression in a renaissance of the two old orders of Qadiri and Shazili and the creation of two new Sufi orders, the Tijani and Senussi. The Qadiri order was the most enthusiastic of the orders in the propagation of Islam in Africa, using education and trade as its means. The followers were distinguished for their tolerance which they inherited from their founder, who in the sixth century (twelfth century AD.) had been known for his genuine veneration of Jesus and was accustomed to say, "We should pray not only for our own selves, but also for everyone who is created by God as we are." In Africa they established lodges with schools and even established schools in villages where there were no lodges. They sent the best of their students to the great Islamic schools in Fez, Zaitouna, and Cairo to be trained and sent home as religious leaders and missionaries.

The Shazili order was one of the first Sufi orders in the Maghrib. Its center was in Morocco, and its followers were known for their extreme obedience to their leaders, whether at home or when sent on missions abroad. The Tijani order was founded in Fez in Morocco less than two centuries ago and spread chiefly into the Sudan. The Senussi order, which has been discussed above, also spread in the Sudan and western Egypt and into mid-Africa in the vicinity of Lake Chad.

These Sufi orders resembled each other in their extreme love of the Prophet, their strictness in observing their religious duties, their application of the shari‘a in as far as possible, their respect for their leaders, and their guidance of followers of the order until they could be promoted to the highest ranks. At the same time they differed in details. Each order had its own invocation; some of them made their prayer beads of a hundred beads, others used only twelve. And while the Senussis were tolerant and would perform their recitations and prayers with others, the Tijanis preferred isolation for their devotions.

There are several reasons for the success of the Sufi orders in propagating Islam among the people of Africa. Islam is a religion of ease and simplicity which charges the Muslim with no more than proclaiming his profession of faith and performing its easy religious rites. Another reason is that Islam has a social character which strengthens the morale of the group, bringing men together as brothers without discrimination in a way which facilitates travel, trade, and the struggle for a livelihood. Also, the Sufi orders have some practices which resemble those of the tribes of Africa, such as the prescribed daily recitations, the gathering around the Shaikh, or head of the order, belief in spiritual powers, and communal living.

Undoubtedly, Islamic belief among the African peoples was not safe from pagan influence and did not reach the Africans in its perfect state. Nevertheless, the spread of Islam had its distinct effects. It has spread monotheism and driven out heathenism which was based on the worship of spirits which were symbolized in the mean forms of animals and inanimate objects. The spread of Islam in Africa has helped in the encouragement of education because in every lodge there was a school which taught reading, writing, and the Qur’an. Islam has also introduced moral values higher than those of heathenism; it has prohibited adultery and wine-drinking; it has introduced cleanliness through its required ablutions; it has introduced fraternal gatherings for prayer; and it has created a spirit of cooperation in the agricultural communities of Africa.

There have appeared in Africa some people who pretended that they were the Mahdi -- the saviour who is to come to wipe out oppression and fill the world with justice. One of these pretenders appeared in Senegal in 1244 (AD. 1828) and created a revolution which failed and ended in his death. The most important of the Mahdis was the one who appeared in the Sudan in 1300 (AD. 1882) and led a revolt against Egypt. His success in several engagements with the Egyptian army greatly strengthened his hold over his followers and made him the ruler of all of Sudan. When he died after three years he was succeeded by one of his leaders, who failed in an attempted invasion of Egypt, was faced by revolt at home, and was vanquished by Lord Kitchener in 1314 (AD. 1896). Another Mahdi appeared on the scene in Somalia about that time. He started as a Sufi mystic and ended by claiming to be a Mahdi, which gave him influence with his tribe. At the end of the first World War the Italians exterminated his influence in Somalia. He died in 1339 (AD. 1920).

At the present time there is a strong tendency in Africa to purify Islam of its alien innovations. This is being done by African students who study in the higher educational institutions in Cairo and North Africa and go back to their countries with new ideas acquired from the reform movements which are being advocated by enlightened Muslims. When such students see that the ceremonial practices of the Sufis have lost their power in Egypt and the other Arab countries in Asia, they have no doubt that the same thing will happen in other parts of the Muslim world. In addition to the tendency to purify Islam of its alien innovations there is today a strong movement for expansion of education among Muslims. There is nothing which can purify the Faith better than the return to the original sources of Islam -- to understand them by study and meditation. Any excessive dependence of the Sufis on intuition and rites will be corrected by recourse to the Qur’an by educated men.


It is apparent from what has been said that when education and civilization flourished in the Muslim world the distinctively religious aspects of Islamic culture were exalted, and when the civilization was weakened and stagnated religion also suffered. During the Abbasid era, for example, Muslim culture progressed rapidly, and the religious texts were interpreted in a way which suited the spirit of the age. During the periods of eclipse, however, Muslims adhered to texts in their liberal form and closed the door against rational interpretation -- ijtihad -- in the fundamentals and the consequences of the Faith.

Islamic culture has been affected by the cultural, social, and political conditions in which it existed and by the challenge which the Muslims faced, a challenge which stimulated them to meditate on their Faith and to present it in its genuine form, free of alien interpolations. Because the cultural, social, and political conditions were favorable and their religion was being challenged, the Islamic culture in Iraq and Egypt reached a high level. Among the primitive tribes which were isolated from civilization and from any challenge to their religion, Islam has stagnated.

Sufi orders prevailed among the illiterate and naïve tribes of Africa because illiterate people rely completely on others for an understanding of their religion, while an educated Muslim would turn to the Qur’an to know what Islam really is. Because of the tendency of the illiterate to want religion presented to him in a way which suits his imagination, we find that educated Muslims today disapprove of the innovations invented by the Sufi orders, such as veneration of saints, seeking blessings from tombs, seeking the mediation of religious leaders, and excessive asceticism.

At the time when Muslims were not keeping up with the course of civilization, and illiteracy was so widespread among them that the educated class became an exclusive minority, they thought that religion was everything in life, determining their situation. But religion is only one factor in civilization. There are other effective factors, such as education, scientific thinking, legislation, polities, social and economic institutions, and the like. Had the Muslims thought more objectively about the causes of their backwardness they would have seen that it was not due to their religion. Some Western scholars have made the same mistake of attributing the backwardness of the Muslims to their religion. But it is apparent that if religion were the real cause, Muslims in every time and place would have been in the same condition of backwardness, and this is not the case; there was a great difference in Islamic culture in the time of glory and the time of eclipse. At all times, there is a vast difference between the educated and the uneducated Muslims. Those who observe that modernization in Islam in recent times was carried out by the secular Muslims should be aware that this was because they are the ones who had acquired some degree of education.

The scholars who study Islamic culture today point out that the chief factors which have influenced contemporary Arab Muslim society are: the Western ideas which penetrated Arab society through education and increased contact with the West, socialist concepts which have spread throughout the world, communist doctrines which challenge religion in general, the expansion of university education, the admission of Muslim women to higher education, the study of ancient and modern philosophy in the universities, and the modern Muslim movements which have been so influential. As a result of all these factors we find the following tendencies in Islamic culture in the Arab world: there is a movement calling for the re-evaluation of religion; methods of philosophical research are being embarked upon as preparation for consideration of religious studies which deal with the fundamentals of Islam; a new study of the shari‘a is being made to clarify its relation to civil legislation; a dissolution of the Sufi orders is taking place; reconciliation among the Muslim sects is progressing with increasing success; Muslim sects are reviving, and their views, which have remained concealed for a long time, are being reconsidered; a study of genuine Islam is being made in order to purify it of alien ideas; religious controversy between Muslims and Christians is disappearing; the enthusiasm for translating the Qur’an is increasing; the issuing of religious verdicts (fatwas) is decreasing, a step toward confining religion to its own area so that civilization may be adopted without hindrances.

Finally, we must remember that although some of the Islamic people of the Arab and African countries have attained their independence, only after all of them have become free can they proceed to the next stage of security, peace, and prosperity which is so necessary for the growth of Islamic culture. Then they will be able to meditate on the relation between God and man. Then they will turn back to religion with a view to understanding it in the light of the new ideas and knowledge that will be brought forth in the world. Then we can expect Islamic culture to flourish again.