The Future of Islam as a Colonial Project: Bernard Carra de Vaux on the Segmentation of Islam

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January 21, 2019

Taymaz Tabrizi is currently Director of Research at the Berkeley Institute for Islamic Studies. He holds a PhD from McMaster University, Canada from the Department of Religious Studies where he specialized in the anthropology of religion and Imāmī Islamic law. He also holds a doctoral diploma in Gender Studies and Feminist Research from McMaster University from the Department of English and Cultural Studies.

Bernard Carra de Vaux in his response to colonial journalist Edmond Fazy, details the steps which Western colonial powers must take to preserve their imperial hold on Muslim populations.

 

Bernard Carra de Vaux (1867-1953), also known as Baron Carra de Vaux, was a French orientalist of Islam. He was from an aristocratic family and pursued the scholarly study of Islam after completing his studies at the Polytechnique in 1886. He was appointed Professor at the Catholic Institute and mainly taught Arabic.[1] He spent much time travelling and his chief task was to spread French influence in the countries he went to. In 1900, De Vaux wrote a monograph on Ibn Sina (Avicenna) where he detailed his philosophy and the philosophy of Islam up until the philosopher’s death. Two years later, he wrote a monograph of Abū Ḥamid al-Ghazzālī (d. 1111) and later translated his Tahāfut al-Falāsifah (Incoherence of the Philosophers). De Vaux wrote numerous books on Islam, including Le mahométisme; le génie sémitique et le génie aryen dans l’Islam and La doctrine de l’Islam where he attempted to trace the historical development of Islamic thought and sects. De Vaux saw the scientific contributions of Muslims as largely being indebted to the Greeks while acknowledging that some original contributions were of their own.

Bernard Carra de Vaux, 1867-1952.

Below is an excerpt from Bernard Carra de Vaux on his views about the future of Islam. The question was forwarded to him by Edmond Fazy (d. 1911), a Parisian journalist and editor of La Republic française. The newspaper which Fazy worked for, namely La Republique francaise, was and still is the government gazette of the French government where it took the position of the national Government of France and published its major official pieces. As a representative of France’s imperialist government in some ways, his strong anti-Ottoman feelings were of no surprise.[2]

The excerpt in question, which I translated from the original French below, was published in the French colonial journal Question diplomatique et coloniales in May of 1901 under the title L’Avenir de l’Islam[3] (The Future of Islam). Fazy sought to interview a number of orientalists on the future of Islam, a curiosity which was cued by his concern on Muslim population growth across the world. He sought knowledge on how the French republic could better ready itself, perhaps even counter, the danger which he felt Muslims posed to French and perhaps Western colonial power right at the turn of the twentieth century. The scanned document of the source can be found here.

Le grand et général danger qui menace les puissances chrétiennes dans leurs rapports avec le monde de l’Islam, vous l’avez nommé, Monsieur, c’est le Panislamisme. Une prise d’armes simultanée de tous les Musulmans, du Maghreb à l’Extrème-Orient, est une éventualité qui, pour n’être pas très probable, n’en est pas moins possible, et j’irai jusqu’à dire possible à n’importe quel moment et en l’absence de tout prétexte apparent. Nous pouvons à peine nous rendre compte des circonstances qui seraient capables de provoquer un mouvement de ce genre. Il y en a de fort mystérieuses, et dont l’action serait secrète. L’attente d’un Mahdi, d’une espèce de sauveur et de messie glorieux qui rendrait à l’Islam l’empire du monde, est un article de la foi mahométane, orthodoxe ou non. Il y a des prédictions qui fixent l’heure à laquelle doit paraître ce Mahdi. Mais ces prédictions, comme il arrive d’ordinaire, ne sont pas tellement claires qu’elles ne puissent être appliquées à n’importe quelle heure et à n’importe quel temps. L’histoire a déjà enregistré l’apparition de bien des faux Mahdis. La plupart de ces aventuriers ont préparé leur venue par des systèmes de propagande occulte, systèmes dans lesquels les Musulmans se sont toujours montrés très experts depuis le haut Moyen-age.

Il nous est évidemment très difficile de suivre ce qui se passe dans les milieux musulmans fanatiques de la Tripolitaine ou du Maroc, qui sont les contrées où la tradition comme l’histoire rendent l’apparition d’un Mahdi le plus probable. Néanmoins, je le répète, je ne crois pas que les chances d’un pareil accident soient fort nombreuses ; et en tout cas peut-on employer une certaine politique pour les réduire le plus possible et pour les rendre à peu près nulles. Il faut éviter les imprudences. Il ne faut pas injurier les Musulmans d’une façon gratuite, ni les importuner, ni les presser trop fort.

La colonisation est une oeuvre qui demande du temps, et dans laquelle toute brusquerie peut devenir fatale. La Chine vient de nous donner cette leçon sous une forme assez dramatique; et il parait bien dans cette histoire que c’est justement l’esprit de l’Islam qui a provoqué la résistance armée contre le progrès trop brusque des étrangers. Comme vue plus positive touchant la conduite à tenir par l’ensemble de la Chrétienté à l’égard de l’Islam, j’indiquerai celle-ci : je crois que l’on devrait s’appliquer à scinder le monde mahométan, à en rompre l’unité morale, en se servant à cet effet des divisions politiques et ethniques qui déjà s’y trouvent existantes. L’Islamisme des différentes races ne peut pas ne pas présenter certaines différences spécifiques; autre est celui des Soudanais, autre celui des Chinois; autre est celui des Persans, autre celui des Malais. Appliquons-nous donc à accentuer ces différences, de façon a augmenter le sentiment de la nationalité et à diminuer celui de la communauté religieuse dans les diverses races mahométanes.

Profitons pour cela des conditions politiques. L’Égypte, par exemple, aujour-d’hui régie par la puissance britannique, doit arriver à former un tout. moral clairement distinct du Soudan régi par la France ou de l’Arabie restée libre. Faisons de l’Égypte une barrière entre les foyers de l’Islamisme africain et ceux de l’Islamisme asiatique. En un mot, sectionnons l’Islam.

Puis, servons-nous encore de ses hérésies et de ses confréries. La plupart de ses hérésies ont des caractères ethniques qui les rendent plus aptes à se développer dans une contrée que dans une autre. Le Babisme notamment, qui est une religion fort intéressante et à tendances libérales, devrait être soutenu en Perse, et importé s’il se peut dans le voisinage des centres fanatiques Africains. Les confréries musulmanes sont d’esprits variés, les unes portées au libéralisme, les autres au fanatisme. Opposons les unes aux autres, soutenons les unes sur un point, les autres sur un autre. Sans doute cette politique pourrait avoir l’inconvénient de donner prétexte à quelques troubles locaux; mais, dans l’ensemble, elle serait tout à fait de nature à affaiblir l’Islam, à l’énerver, à l’engourdir, à le rendre à jamais incapable des grand réveils.

Voilà, Monsieur, ce que je puis vous répondre sans me mettre à composer un livre. Je souhaite que vous rencontriez d’autres prophètes plus sûr d’euxque moi-même, et j’espère que leurs prévisions ne seront pas trop en désaccord avec les miennes.

Baron CARRA DE VAUX

The great and general danger that threatens Christian powers in relation to the world of Islam, you named it Sir, is the world of Pan-Islamism. A simultaneous armed uprising of all Muslims, from the Greater Arab Maghreb to the Far East is an eventuality which, although not very probable, is no less possible and I would go as far as to say that it is possible at any moment in the absence of any obvious pretext. We can hardly realize the circumstances that would be able to provoke a movement of this kind. There are some mysterious ones whose actions would be secret. The expectation [of the coming] of the Mahdi, who is a sort of savior and glorified messiah who would give Islam the empire of the world, is an article of Muhammadan faith, be it orthodox or not. There are predictions that have fixed the hour in which this Mahdi must appear, but these predictions, as it usually happens, are not so clear that they cannot be applied to any hour or time. History has already recorded the appearance of many fake Mahdis. Most of these adventurers prepared their advent through occult propaganda systems which Muslims have always been experts at since the Middle Ages.

It is, of course, very difficult for us to follow what is happening among Muslim fanatics from Tripolitania[4] to Morocco which are regions where tradition, like history, render the apparition of the Mahdi more probable. Nevertheless, I repeat, I do not believe that the chances of such an accident are very numerous; and in any case we can employ a certain policy to reduce their likelihood as much as possible and to render them practically impossible. We must avoid imprudences. We must not insult Muslims freely nor harass them, nor press them too hard.

Colonization is a business that requires time, and in which any abruptness could become fatal. China has just given us this lesson in a rather dramatic form.[5] It appears very well in this story that that it is precisely the spirit of Islam that has provoked armed resistance against the abrupt progress of foreigners. As a more positive view of the way in which Christendom as a whole deals with Islam, I will indicate this: I believe that we should split the Muhammadan world, and break its moral unity, taking advantage of the political and ethnic divisions that already exist in it. The Islamism of different races cannot fail but present certain specific differences; one is that of the Sudanese, another is that of the Chinese, that of the Persians and the Malay [and so on and so forth]. We should accentuate these differences among the diverse Muhammadan races in such a way so as to increase nationalist sentiments and diminish those of religious communitarianism. [emphasis belongs to the original author]

Let’s take advantage of the political conditions. Egypt, for example, which is reigned today by British power, must come to be completely and clearly morally distinct from Sudan which is reigned by France or from Arabia which is [currently] free. Let us make Egypt a barrier between the homes of African Islamism and those of Asian Islamism. In one word, let us segment Islam. [emphasis belongs to the original author]

Then, let us serve again these heresies and [Sufi] brotherhoods. Most of these heresies have ethnic characteristics which make them more apt to develop in one region than in another. Babism,[6] which is a very interesting religion with liberal tendencies, should be supported in Persia and imported, if possible, in the neighboring African fanatical centers. Muslim brotherhoods are of different minds, some are taken by liberalism, others by fanaticism. Let us make one oppose the other, and let us support one on one point, and others on another. There is no doubt that this policy might have the inconvenience of giving pretext for some local troubles; but on the whole [this approach] would, by nature, absolutely be capable of weakening Islam, make it restless, numb it, and render it forever incapable of grand awakenings.

There you go Sir, what I could answer without having to write a book. I hope that you would meet other prophets surer of themselves than I, and I hope that their predictions would not disagree too much with mine.

Baron CARRA DE VAUX


[1] Shaykh Inayatullah, “Baron Carra De Vaux: His life and Works (1867-1953),” Islamic Studies, 10, no. 3 (September 1971): 201.

[2] Martin Kramer, Arab Awakening & Islamic Revival: The Politics of Ideas in the Middle East (New York: Routledge, 1996), 84 footnote #34.

[3] “L’Avenir de l’Islam,” enquête par Edmond Fazy, Questions diplomatiques et coloniales 11, no. 102 (15 May 1901): 587-88. For an excellent discussion on this piece, see Joseph Massad, Islam in Liberalism (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2015), 65-66.

[4] A former province of Libya. It was a separate Italian colony from 1927 to 1934.

[5] De Vaux is most likely referring to the Boxer Rebellion (also known as the Yihetuan movement) in China which took place between 1899 and 1901 towards the end of the Qing dynasty. The group was largely formed in opposition to Western colonialism and Christian missionary activities.

[6] Babism was founded in 1844 by Ali Muhammad Shirazi (d. 1850). Shirazi, known as the Bāb (gate), is one of the main figures of the Bahá’í faith. Babism later opened the way to the founding of the Bahá’í faith in the 19th century by Bahá’u’lláh.

2019-04-03T15:34:46-08:00
Published Date: January 21, 2019
Type: Translations

Taymaz Tabrizi

Taymaz Tabrizi is currently Director of Research at the Berkeley Institute for Islamic Studies. He holds a PhD from McMaster University, Canada from the Department of Religious Studies where he specialized in the anthropology of religion and Imāmī Islamic law. He also holds a doctoral diploma in Gender Studies and Feminist Research from McMaster University from the Department of English and Cultural Studies.
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