A political refugee living in Egypt, the Syrian intellectual al-Kawākibī launched a vehement appeal against tyranny. The implied target was the Ottoman sultan, Abdul Hamid II. An Islamic reformist manifesto that continues to inspire contemporary Arab thinking

This article was published in Oasis 26. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:57:22


Islam was born democratic, argued a nineteenth-century Syrian intellectual, but then something went wrong and this drift will only end on Judgement Day, unless Muslims adopt a political style founded on consultation.


In the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate


Praise be to God, who created the universe according to a sound and stable order, and peace and blessings be upon his noble prophets who guided the nations to the revealed truth, and particularly upon the Arab prophet sent as a mercy for all creatures, that he might raise them in this life and the next, up the ladder of wisdom until they reach the supreme place.[1]


I am an Arab Muslim forced to remain anonymous; a weak, oppressed man who expressed his opinions [under a pseudonym] beneath the Eastern sky, hoping for his readers’ approval, in accordance with the saying that truth is known for its own sake, and not on account of the person who says it. In the year 1318 of the Hegira (i.e. 1900/1901), I left my homeland in the East and, looking for respite, I made my way to Egypt. Here I made my home, profiting from the climate of freedom that reigns under its lord ‘Abbās II,[2] who bears the same name as the Prophet’s uncle and has spread security throughout his realm. I found that in Egypt, too, as in the whole East, the minds of the élite were absorbed in reflections on the greatest question (I mean the social question), in the East in general, and amongst Muslims in particular. Like the others engaged in these reflections, Egyptians, too, were divided over the causes of the decline and its possible medicine.


Personally, I have come to the conclusion that the root of this illness is political despotism and its medicine constitutional consultation (al-shūrā al-dustūriyya). I arrived at this conclusion – and “every tiding has its time appointed” (Qur’an 6:67) – after thirty years of research that, I believe, embraced all the causes a researcher could imagine at the outset. Indeed, somebody may believe that he has identified the root of this evil or at least its main source but, when he goes into the question in greater depth, he does not take long to realise that matters are actually very different and that what he had indicated as the root of the evil is, in reality, one of its effects. For example, let us imagine that someone states that the root of this evil is a neglect of religious duties. Excellent, but why this neglect? Another person could say that the evil resides in a divergence of opinions, but where does this originate? If he answers that the source of the divergence is ignorance, he would then have to explain why, in reality, divergence is greatest amongst learned men. Falling then into a vicious circle, he will end up saying that this is God’s will for His creatures, forgetting that his own reason and his religion both teach him that God is wise, just and merciful.


I offer these studies that have cost me such effort and for which I have even risked my life in the hope that they may benefit readers. They will see that I have accepted the thesis that political despotism is the root of evil only after a long toil, which has probably hit the mark. And I ask God that my good intention may excuse my mistakes. […]


1320 of the Hegira – 1902 of the Christian era




[…] Before plunging into the question, we can summarize the conclusions reached by those who have studied the subject. They say the same thing in different words, according to their different schools and opinions.

The materialist says, “Power is the evil and resistance the medicine.”

The politician says, “Men’s subjection is the evil and the recovery of freedom the medicine.”

The wise says, “Arbitrary power is the evil and fairness the medicine.”

The jurist says, “The abuse of power over the Law (sharī‘a) is the evil and the Law’s supremacy over authority the medicine.”

The spiritual says, “Associating something with God in His Omnipotence is the evil and truly professing God’s oneness the medicine.”

That is what theoreticians say. As for the activists, the haughty says, “Submitting to chains is the evil and rising from the humiliation the medicine”.

The tenacious says, “The existence of unbridled leaders is the evil and binding them with heavy restrictions the medicine.”

The free man says, “Believing oneself superior to others is the evil and humiliating the proud the medicine.”

And those who are ready for sacrifice say, “Loving life is the evil and loving death the medicine.”



Despotism and Religion

Most historians of religions agree that political despotism stems from religious despotism. Others say that, if one does not stem from the other, the two are at least brothers, having abuse of power as their father and supremacy as their mother, or, rather, twins, being united by the need to collaborate in order to subjugate men. The likeness between them consists in the fact that both exercise a form of power, one in the kingdom of bodies and the other in the world of souls.


These two groups of scholars are right as far as the meaning of the ancient myths, the historical books of the Torah[3] and the Epistles added to the Gospel are concerned but they err as far as the didactic and moral sections of these sacred books are concerned, just as they are also mistaken in thinking that the Qur’an supports political despotism. The Qur’an’s subtlety and the difficulty in understanding the doctrines hidden in the folds of its eloquence or in the circumstances of revelation are not, in reality, a good reason [to ignore the Holy Book] and substitute its study – as they state, by way of self-justification – with the observation of the condition in which Muslims have found themselves for centuries until the present day, a status characterised by despots who prop themselves up on religion.


These free thinkers (muharrirūn) maintain that religious teachings (including the heavenly Books[4]) drive men to fear a terrible and frightful force that cannot be reached by reason; a force that would so threaten man with calamities in this sole life (in the case of Buddhism and Judaism) or in this life and after death (in the case of Christians and Islam) as to make their bodies tremble, paralyze their strength and induce a state of confusion and inertia in their minds.[5] At that point, such teachings open gates of salvation for people so that they may enter a paradise of delights. However, Brahmins, priests, clergymen and other such figures watch over those gates and they do not allow people to enter paradise if they do not first both exalt those figures by humiliating themselves before them and enrich them with votive gifts and offerings in order to obtain forgiveness. In some religions, these guardians even claim to be able to prevent souls from meeting their Lord if they have not first collected from them the taxes that allow them to leave their tombs or be freed from purgatory. How much terror these figures instil in people, regarding God’s anger! They threaten them with calamities and punishments that could come down on them in order then to make them believe that the sole salvation and the only remedy consists in having recourse to the inhabitants of tombs,[6] who would have the familiarity, indeed the power, to protect people from divine chastisement!


These same free thinkers claim that politicians build despotism on similar foundations. Indeed politicians, too, seek to terrorize people with their rank and their superior appearance and they forcibly humiliate them, extorting money from them until they obtain complete submission. They enjoy them, then, as if they were flocks from which to draw milk to drink and meat to eat, animals to be used as beasts of burden and boasted about to others. In the free thinkers’ opinion, this similarity in the construction and results of the two types of despotism (the religious and the political one) can be found in France outside Paris, where they act in agreement, backing each other up, and in Russia, where they perform the same function, as though they were the pen and paper by which to decree a common destitution to the nations. These thinkers further maintain that the similarity between the two forces drags the common herd (which constitutes the vast majority of the population) to the point of losing any sense of the difference between God, who is legitimately adored, and a tyrant who is forcibly obeyed.[7] At that point, God and the tyrant are confused in the narrowness of the people’s minds because of some similarities: the right to be glorified, the power to do without asking and unaccountability, for example. As a consequence, ordinary people think that they have no right to monitor the despot, because of the abyss that separates his loftiness from their lowliness. In other words, the common herd finds that the God it adores and the tyrant have many elements in common, in terms of names and attributes. Thus, they become one and the same thing, in its eyes. Common people are no longer able to distinguish, for example, between the absolute Agent and the autocrat, between Him who “shall not be questioned as to what He does” (Qur’an 21:23) and the irresponsible ruler, between the Benevolent One and the politician dishing out favours, between the Omnipotent and a mighty king. In this way, ordinary people glorify tyrants as if they were God, or rather, as if they were superior to Him, since, God is forbearing and generous, delaying punishment and deferring it, whereas the tyrant’s vendetta is immediate and abrupt. […]


In short, all political scientists maintain that politics and religion march together and that reform of religion is the simplest, most effective and fastest route to political reform. The ancient Greek sages were perhaps the first to take this road, i.e. to use religion to reform politics. They had the shrewdness to make their tyrants accept political participation, by teaching them the doctrine of participation in divinity, which they had taken from the Assyrians and then embellished with their own myths.[8] Thus they gave justice a god, war a god, the rains a god and so on and they attributed to the god of gods the right to preside over them all and to adjudicate differences between them. Once they had planted this doctrine in people’s minds, giving it the form of majesty and clothing it with the magic of eloquence, it was easy for these sages to urge people to require tyrants to renounce their monopoly on power. The earth was to be administered like the heavens. And the kings were forced to give way, against their will. This was the most powerful means by which the Greeks finally succeeded in creating the republics of Athens and Sparta. And the Romans did the same. This ancient example of the division of power into monarchies and republics, in their various forms, has remained valid to the present day.


Only that this system of associating [men with divinity], apart from being false in itself, had a far more damaging effect since it gave impostors from all social classes ample opportunity to claim certain divine characteristics for themselves, such as the attributes of sanctity or spiritual powers. Before then, only isolated, individual tyrants had dared to claim them, such as Nimrod in the time of Abraham or Pharaoh[9] with Moses, but from then onwards whole hosts of Brahmins, priests[10] and mystics stepped forward. And because there was, in various respects, a correspondence between this corrupting innovation and human nature – a correspondence that we will not investigate in this study – this false belief spread, blinded many people and enlisted an infinite army at the despots’ service.


It was at that very moment that the Torah came to teach action and save men from an apathetic resignation that had brought them to the point of asking God and his prophet to fight in their place. It came and brought order to confused dreams, getting rid of the doctrine of polytheism by substituting the numerous gods with angels, for example. But the kings of the house of Cohen were unable to content themselves with monotheism and they corrupted it. Then came the Gospel, bringing a heavenly source of sweetness and forbearance, but it collided with the resistance of hearts burnt by the fire of cruelty and despotism. The Gospel, too, taught the law of monotheism but its first preachers met with decadent peoples, who accepted Christianity before the higher nations and they failed to make them grasp that paternity and sonship were two metaphorical expressions whose meaning reason could only accept in those figurative terms (and the same goes for the question of predestination that the Islamic thinkers inherited from the Indian religions and the Greek fables). Thus the nations accepted the notions of paternity and sonship in the sense of an authentic generation, because this was more accessible to their limited intellects, always reluctant to rise above sensible realities, and also because they had previously declared some of their first tyrants to be sons of God. Thus it was now an onerous matter for them to accord Jesus – peace be upon him – a lesser position than their first kings. Then, when Christianity spread amongst numerous peoples, it clothed itself with garments that were not its own (as had the other religions preceding it) and was expanded with Paul’s epistles and other writings. In this way, the message clothed itself in pagan garb and rites taken from the Romans and Egyptians were added as well as  the rites of the Israelites, other myths and forms of [ancient] kingship. In this way, Christianity ended up glorifying the clergy to the point of believing that it acted on God’s behalf and in His place, that it was infallible and that it had the power to make laws. All this was finally rejected by the Protestants i.e. those who rely on the Gospel in their way of judging.[11]


Then came Islam, to purify Judaism and Christianity and totally destroy polytheism, building on the foundation of wisdom and firm resolution and on the rules of an intermediate political freedom falling between democracy and aristocracy. Islam provided the full basis for monotheism and eliminated every form of religious authority and usurpation that claimed to judge souls or bodies; it laid down the Law emanating from its wisdom as a universal norm that was to be valid for every place and every time; and it gave birth to a natural political society in its noblest form (madīna fitriyya sāmiya). It brought forth a form of government such as that of the rightly guided caliphs: not only had history never seen anything like it but, with the exception of a few isolated cases such as ‘Umar Ibn ‘Abd al-‘Azīz,[12] the Abbasid al-Muhtadī[13] and the martyr Nūr ad-Dīn,[14] even amongst Muslims this government had no successors of the same calibre. Those rightly guided caliphs understood the meaning of the Qur’an that had come down in their language and they took it to guide their actions, thereby giving birth to a form of government that decreed equality in the joys and sufferings of life even between the caliph and the poorest member of the Islamic community. They created feelings of brotherhood and ties of social commonality that are hard to find amongst brothers-german who live under the sway of the same father and in the embrace of the same mother. However, this noble way of managing power, which is the style of the prophet Muhammad, was only followed in all its aspects by Abū Bakr and ‘Umar.[15] Then it began to disappear and the Muslim community began to regret it and long for it, from the time of ‘Uthmān to the present day. And it will continue to regret it until the Day of Judgement unless it strives to recover it through a political style founded on democratic consultation (tirāz siyāsī shūrī), a style achieved by some Western nations of which we could truly say that they have learned more from Islam than Muslims themselves.


Even in its narrative sections, this noble Qur’an is brimming with passages that teach us to suppress despotism and give new life to justice and equality. Amongst these there is, for example, the speech that Bilqīs, the queen of Sheba from the Tubba‘[16] Arabs, addressed to the nobles amongst her own people: “She said, ‘O Council, pronounce to me concerning my affair; I am not used to decide an affair until you bear me witness.’ They said, ‘We possess force and we possess great might. The affair rests with thee; so consider what thou wilt command.’ She said ‘Kings, when they enter a city, disorder it and make the mighty ones of its inhabitants abased. Even so they too will do’” (Qur’an 27:32-34). This story teaches that kings must request the counsel of the leading figures (i.e. their noblest subject) and must not take any decision without having first heard their opinion. It further demonstrates that strength and power must remain in the hands of subjects, that only the executive function falls to kings and that it is solely in that functional capacity that they are to be honoured, thereby putting tyrants to shame. […] So, on the basis of all this, there is no room for the accusation that the Islamic religion would support despotism, as hundreds of clear verses demonstrate.


[‘Abd al-Rahmān al-Kawākibī, Tabā‘i‘ al-istibdād wa masāri‘ al-isti‘bād (The Nature of Despotism and the Damage caused by Servilism), Kalimāt ‘arabiyya li-l-tarjama wa-l-nashr, al-Qāhira, 2011, pp. 7-9, 12-13 and 21-26 passim, Italian translation by Martino Diez. English translation by Catharine de Rienzo, revised on the basis of the Arabic original by MD]


[1] The word is in Arabic ‘iliyyūn (see Qur’an 83:18-20 and the various exegesis on the passage).
[2] ‘Abbās II Hilmī (1874-1944) was the last Khedive of Egypt (1892-1914) before the British Protectorate.
[3] By “Torah”, the author means here the whole of the Old Testament.
[4] In Islam, the heavenly Books are the Torah, the Psalms, the Gospel (in the singular) and the Qur’an.
[5] “The Jewish [religion], and then the Christian and Muhammadan ones, in their admitting a sole God, the absolute and terrible lord of all things, must have been and have actually been and still are much more predisposed to tyranny” (Vittorio Alfieri, Della Tirannide, chapter eight – “Della religione” [“On Religion”], Archivio Guido Izzi, Rome, 1985, p. 50).
[6] Al-Kawākibī targets the belief in the intercession of the pious faithful, in line with the typical modernist polemic against the cult of saints (including and especially the Islamic ones).
[7] “The idea that the common herd has of the tyrant comes so close to the idea of God (as falsely conceived by almost all peoples) that one could infer that the first tyrant was not, as it is customarily supposed, the strongest man but, rather, the shrewdest knower of men’s hearts, who first gave them an idea – whatever it may have been – of divinity. And so, amongst very many peoples, civil tyranny was created from religious tyranny; often both of them were united in one body; and almost always they have been helping each other” (Vittorio Alfieri, Della Tirannide, p. 50).
[8] “Pagan religion, with its infinite multiplication of gods and its making heaven almost a republic, and its subjecting Juppiter himself to the laws of fate and to other customs and privileges of the celestial court, must have been, and in fact was, very favourable to free living” (Ibid.).
[9] In the Qur’an, Pharaoh says to the Egyptian notables, “Council, I know not that you have any god but me” (28:38).
[10] The Arabic (bādrī) would appear to be a phonetic transcription of the Italian word “padre” (“father”).
[11] Here, too, the agreement with Alfieri’s text is remarkable, both in the positive assessment of the Reformation and, above all, in the accusation of the clergy having deformed Christ’s authentic preaching. On this second point, the Qur’anic message and the Protestant/Enlightenment critique are in perfect agreement. “Over time, the excessive abuses [in Christian religion] forced some peoples that were much wiser than they were fanciful to hold it in check, stripping it of many harmful superstitions. Those men, then distinguished by the name of heretic, reopened a road to liberty, which was reborn amongst them after long being banished from Europe, and prospered there to a fair measure […]. However, the peoples who, not restraining Christian religion, wanted to keep it in its entirety (I mean not the religion preached by Christ, but the one that had been transfigured by his successors, by art, deceit and even violence) increasingly closed off every road to recovering freedom” (Vittorio Alfieri, Della Tirannide, p. 52).
[12] An Omayyad caliph known for his piety, he reigned from 717 to 720.
[13] An Abbasid caliph. He sought to restore order in the court but reigned for less than a year, from 869 to 870.
[14] Emir of Aleppo at the time of the Crusades (1118-1174), he led the resistance against the Franks.
[15] Abū Bakr’s caliphate lasted from 632 to 634 and ‘Umar’s from 634 to 644. ‘Uthmān was caliph from 644 to 656, but the 12 years of his reign are traditionally divided into six good years and six bad ones. It should therefore be noted how short Islam’s golden era is in al-Kawākibī’s idealized reconstruction (which, on this particular point, only reproduces classical Sunni thought).
[16] Tubba‘ is the term used by the Arab sources to refer to the pre-Islamic dynasty of the Himyarites, which governed Yemen between the third and the sixth century A.D.