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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 6    Issue 5   01-15 August 2011

The Role of Sufis in Anti-Colonial Resistance

Professor A. R. Momin

Colonialism generally refers to a period of history from the late 15th to the mid-20th century, when almost the whole of Africa, Middle East, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, all of North and South America and Australia were conquered and occupied by the European colonial powers, including the Spanish, Portuguese, British, Dutch, French and Italian colonial empires. The first colonies were established in the 15th-16th centuries in the Western Hemisphere by the Spanish and Portuguese colonial empires, beginning with the Portuguese conquest of Ceuta on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa in 1415. A significant impetus to colonialism came from the voyages and expeditions carried out during the Age of Discovery. Vasco da Gama’s arrival on the Malabar coast in 1498 heralded the discovery of a new sea route to India. The Portuguese were the first to set up trading posts in Goa, Daman, Diu and Bombay, followed by the Dutch, the British and the French. The Dutch colonized Indonesia in the 16th century and the British colonized India, North America, Australia and New Zealand between the 17th and 18th centuries. The colonization of Africa began in the 1880s and by the end of the 19th century virtually the entire continent was under the control of the European colonial powers. During the period of New Imperialism, between the 1880s and 1914, European colonizers added some 9,000,000 square miles—nearly one-fifth of the earth’s landmass—to their overseas possessions. The process of colonization was greatly facilitated by the technological and military superiority and practical skills of the colonial rulers, including expertise in cartography, navigation, shipbuilding, mining and agriculture.

Historians continue to debate about the balance sheet of European colonialism. It would be unfair to characterize European colonialism as an unmitigated disaster for the colonised societies, because it produced both negative and positive consequences. The positive, beneficial consequences include the building of infrastructure, introduction of new technologies in agriculture, mining, transportation and communication, modern medicine and healthcare system, and introduction of judicial, political and administrative institutions. However, colonialism’s calamitous and insidious consequences seem to outweigh its beneficial impact.

Colonialism had a whole set of adverse, harmful and insidious consequences for the colonized people, including the massive plunder and exploitation of natural and human resources, the impoverishment of indigenous industries and crafts, enslavement, genocide and diseases. Nineteenth-century Europe, which was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, needed vast quantities of raw materials, especially those which were not available on the continent, for its burgeoning industries and rising trade. The colonized territories were looked upon as extremely valuable sources for abundant and cheap raw materials, as strategic trade routes and as a huge and lucrative market for the sale of European goods and commodities. The scramble for Africa in the 19th century was propelled by the easy availability of valuable raw materials and mineral resources such as copper, cotton, palm oil, cocoa, tea, tin and diamonds, and the potential acquisition of military and naval bases for strategic purposes.

The colonizers often set up plantations and farms in which cheap labour from the colonies was employed and in which control as well as profits remained in their hands. In many cases, large tracts of land were taken over by force or deceit. In Indonesia, the Dutch colonial rulers set up an agricultural system aimed at producing spices and other export-oriented commodities such as coffee. The cultivation of exotic, export-oriented produce at the expense of food grain impoverished the local peasantry and undermined the country’s ability to sustain itself in respect of food grain. In Java, the Dutch colonial administration set up an agricultural system for the purpose of turning the region into a large-scale producer of export-oriented spices and other exotic products. Large tracts of land were put to the service of this system. This led to a steady decline in the production of food stuff, which was replaced by spices and coffee. Traditional industries and crafts were systematically impoverished and destroyed. European colonial rulers introduced new farming methods, which upset the ecology of whole regions and produced harmful consequences for the health of indigenous populations.

The map of dozens of countries in Africa, Middle East, South Asia and Central Asia was systematically drawn and redrawn by the European colonial powers. South Asia was divided into India and Pakistan, while Southeast Asia was divided into Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei. In most of the 50 independent nation-states in Africa, the political boundaries were arbitrarily drawn at the instance of the colonial rulers. Many of these national borders divided groups of people and ethnic communities that had lived together for centuries. This added to the ethnic and cultural diversity of the continent and fuelled inter-ethnic tensions and conflicts.

The well-known colonial policy of divide and rule was systematically and effectively used by the colonial rulers. In India, for example, the colonial rulers sowed the seeds of mistrust and discord between Hindus and Muslims and between Muslims and Sikhs. The roots of much of the ethnic strife and civil wars that continue to torment Malaysia, Kenya, Nigeria, Algeria, Pakistan and Chad can be traced to colonial machinations. In Algeria the French colonial rulers sought to create an ethnic divide between Arabs and Berbers and encouraged the formation of a separate Berber identity.

A notable feature of colonial policy was the planned and systematic migration and settlement of populations in the colonized territories aimed at the capture of fertile lands and mineral resources and the alternation in the demographic composition of different regions. In Algeria, by the end of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th, the French colonial government had settled some 600,000 European immigrants from France, Italy and Spain on nearly three million hectares of the country’s most fertile land—nearly forty per cent of Algeria’s landmass—and handed it over for cultivation to European settlers, who cultivated grapes, vegetables and citrus fruits. This vast stretch of land was either expropriated or bought at nominal rates. French settlers shifted cultivation from wheat to wine, substituted property rights for communal land ownership, and developed market economies in place of economies of exchange. Alexis de Tocqueville, the well-known French political scientist and historian who is widely regarded as a champion of democracy but who was in fact an unabashed defender of colonial conquest, argued that whole villages (in colonial Algeria) must be wiped out and their inhabitants not killed off but dispersed, if France were to conquer this territory and thus reestablish her preeminence as a European power. “Once we have committed that great violence of conquest, I believe we must not shrink from the smaller violences that are absolutely necessary to consolidate it,” he wrote. Following the annexation of Libya by Italy in 1911, thousands of Italian settlers migrated to the country. By the outbreak of World War II in 1939, some 150,000 Italians had migrated and settled in Libya. Interestingly, Italy signed a multi-billion dollar deal with Libya in 2008 as a mark of compensation for 32 years of colonial rule.

The colonial rulers brought poor labour from different regions to work on colonial projects such as plantations and the cultivation of export-oriented crops. In East and South Africa, Indian and Malay labour was imported by the colonial rulers to work on farms and plantations. In Malaysia, the British brought in Chinese and Indian immigrant labour. The immigrant communities often formed commercial and political alliances with colonial governments, which added to their economic and political influence. In Malaysia, for example, nearly eighty per cent of private sector wealth came to be concentrated in the hands of Chinese and Indian communities. This was resented by the local people, who were largely concentrated in the rural areas.

A similar policy of planned migration and settlement of population was adopted by the imperial rulers in the Soviet Union in the Central Asian republics. The Soviet authorities encouraged ethnic Russians to migrate to those areas where the national minorities were concentrated. By 1914 almost half of the population of Kazakhstan consisted of Russian immigrants, who captured millions of acres of fertile lands and grazing grounds. On the eve of the Russian Revolution, Kazakh Muslims were estimated to number about four million. One million of them died of starvation when their lands were forcibly taken over by the Soviet authorities in 1917-21 and handed over to Russian settlers. Large-scale killings ordered by Stalin led to a massive decimation of the Kazakh population.

As a result of contact with the colonial settlers, the indigenous populations, especially in the Americas, Africa, New Zealand and Australia, became vulnerable to diseases, such as smallpox, measles, malaria, yellow fever, whooping cough and flu, against which they had no resistance. Nearly half the population of Hispaniola in the Caribbean was decimated as a result of the outbreak of smallpox in 1518. A smallpox epidemic killed nearly half the indigenous population of Australia in the early years of British colonization. Following the Spanish conquest of the Americas, nearly 100 million Amerindians died as a result of violence and genocide or from diseases brought by the colonizers over the course of several centuries.

Colonial conquest and the ideology of colonialism were justified in terms of white supremacy and the self-styled moral obligation of European civilization to carry the torch of enlightenment and culture to the dark races of mankind. The common belief in Europe in the colonial era was that only the civilized Christian Europeans could be regarded as truly human, and all other men were rated as sub-human animals, monsters, damned souls, or the product of a separate creation. The structure of the colonial state was suffused with racism, which was reflected in the sharp distinction drawn by the colonial rulers between the white ruling class and the non-white subjects. In the aftermath of the Spanish and Portuguese colonial conquests in the 15th and 16th centuries, the indigenous people were treated in the most inhuman, barbaric manner. This provoked a fierce debate among intellectuals and the clergy in Spain. Some people argued that that the indigenous people had no souls and therefore were not entitled to the fundamental rights of mankind. Juan Gines Sepulveda (1489-1573), a Spanish theologian and philosopher, declared that the Amerindians were “natural slaves”. From the time of the arrival of the French colonizers in Algeria in 1830, the violent imposition of colonial rule over the country was justified in terms of a “civilizing mission”—the introduction of republican, secular, universal values in a society assumed to be steeped in superstition and cultural backwardness. Racist attitudes and sentiments are clearly reflected in the writings of some of the most eminent scholars and intellectuals of the time. Alexis de Tocqueville, the celebrated author of Democracy in America, wrote in 1843: “I must say that I emerged convinced that there are in the world few religions with such morbid consequences as that of Mohammed. To me it is the primary cause of the now visible decadence of the Islamic world”. One French commentator wrote, in the context of colonial North Africa: “Intellectually superior, morally superior, economically superior, the colon will drive out the Arab, only leaving him with those lands which he (the colon) judges too poor to make use of”.

From the time of the arrival of the French in 1830, the violent imposition of colonial rule over Algeria was justified in terms of a “civilizing mission”—the introduction of republican, secular, universal values in a society steeped in superstition and cultural backwardness. The notion of mission implied that the assimilation of Algerians to French culture was possible. But, on the other hand, and at the same time, the colonial adventure was legitimized by racist depictions of Arabs and Muslims which called into question the very possibility of the civilizing project. Racist attitudes and sentiments are reflected in the writings of some of the most eminent scholars and intellectuals of the time.

Francois Guizot, minister of foreign affairs in 1846, said that in America as in India, and now in Algeria, one is faced with “people who are half savages, accustomed to devastation and murder and therefore one is obliged to employ more violent and sometimes harsher methods than those who command the soldiers are naturally inclined to use”. The French settlers shifted cultivation from wheat to wine, substituted private property rights for communal land ownership, and developed market economies in place of economies of exchange. In addition, they closed down religious schools and libraries and seized the properties of the Islamic foundations that supported them. This was done with a view to eliminate all indigenous resistance to the imposition of French rule. The law of 1919 extended naturalization only to those Arab men who were willing to relinquish their “indigenous” status, which included following Islamic law. During the Algerian war (1954-62), some veiled Algerian women who were involved in the anti-colonial struggle transported messages, cash and arms under cover. So potent an instrument did the veil become that French soldiers patrolling the countryside violated Algerian women first by forcibly removing their veils and then raping them. Two million French soldiers had fought to keep Algeria under French occupation and 35,000 died fighting.

Sufi Resistance

Sufi orders acted as a great source of strength and inspiration for anti-colonial movements in the 19th and the early part of the 20th century. Many of the major wars against expanding colonial powers in the 19th century were fought by individuals and movements that were inspired by Sufism.

Imam Shamil

In the Caucasus region, Imam Shamil (d. 1871), leader of the Naqshbandi Sufis in Daghestan, launched a fierce resistance movement against Russian imperial expansion, which lasted for 25 years and ended in 1859.

Imam Shamil was born in the Avar village of Grimry, Daghestan in 1796. Quite early in life he was drawn to the Naqshbandiya order of Sufism. When Shamil was in his teens, Russians had already established their presence in the North Caucasus. Ghazi Mohammad, the first Imam of Daghestan and Shamil’s childhood friend, was able to gather a group of his disciples and forged them into a fighting force. Ghazi Mohammad’s fighters launched a successful offensive against Russian troops. Shamil joined this group and served under the next imam, Hamza Bek. Shamil made a pilgrimage to Mecca, where he met Abd al-Qadir, who taught him the techniques of guerilla warfare. When Hamza Bek was assassinated by the Russians in 1834, Shamil assumed the leadership of the movement. He successfully united the different, often quarrelling, Caucasian tribes and urged them to fight Russian imperialists as a cohesive group. Imam Shamil’s fighters carried out a series of successful guerilla strikes against Russian forces. The Russians responded with a fierce military onslaught in 1837 and then in 1839, but it failed to crush the movement. The Russians changed their strategy and deployed an even larger contingent to deal with the rebellion. In 1859 Imam Shamil surrendered to Prince Baryatinsky, following which he was taken to Russia and placed under house arrest. After a few years he was allowed to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca. He died at Madina in 1871.

The Naqshbandi Sufis also made determined efforts, often at the risk of their own lives, to safeguard the religious and cultural identity of Muslims in the North Caucasus region in the face of the Soviet policy of suppressing and obliterating religious identities.

The Sannusi Sufis

The Sansusi order of Sufism was founded by Sayyid Muhammad ibn Ali al-Sannusi (d. 1859) in Mecca in 1837. He was influenced by the Salafi movement, to which he added the precepts and teachings of Sufi shaykhs. The Sannusi Sufis, led by Sidi Ahmad al-Sharif, played a highly significant role in the resistance to the French colonial expansion in the Sahara and the Italian invasion and occupation of Libya. They established a wide network of Sufi khanqahs across much of Libya and the central Sahara region during the 19th century. When the Italians invaded Libya in 1911, the Sannusis joined forces with the Ottomans. After the Ottomans withdrew, the Sannusi Sufis remained at the core of anti-Italian resistance through the end of World War II. When Libya gained independence in 1951, Idris al-Sannusi, a direct descendant of Sayyid Muhammad al-Sannusi, became its first and only king.

Omar Mukhtar

Omar Mukhtar, (d. 1931), who was affiliated to the Sanusi order, organized and led a powerful resistance movement against the colonization of Libya.

Omar Mukhtar was born in eastern Cyrenaica in 1862. He received his early education at the local mosque and thereafter began teaching the Quran at a madrasa. He was drawn to the Sannusi movement in his early youth. In 1899 he was sent to assist Rabih al-Zubayr, who was fighting French forces in Chad. In October 1911 Italy invaded Tripoli, which was then under Ottoman control. This marked the beginning of a series of battles between the Italian forces and Libyan fighters under the leadership of Omar Mukhtar. Omar Mukhtar had great expertise in techniques of guerilla warfare, which he used to great advantage in his successful attacks on Italian forces. Mukhtar’s forces skillfully carried out strikes against Italian military outposts, ambushed Italian troops and cut their lines of supply and communication networks. The Italian forces were taken aback and demoralized by the guerilla attacks carried out by Mukhtar’s fighters. In 1929, Pietro Bodoglio, governor of Libya, held extensive negotiations with Mukhtar and concluded a peace accord. However, realizing the treacherous motives of the Italians, Mukhtar denounced the accord and ordered his men to resume strikes against Italian forces.

General Rodolfo Graziani, Italian military commander, launched a massive offensive against Mukhtar’s forces in June 1929, which ended in failure. The Italians then initiated a clever strategy to break the resistance by moving the entire Muslim population of Gebel, consisting of more than 100,000 people, to concentration camps on the coast, by closing the Libyan-Egyptian border and by hiring informers and collaborators from the local population. At the same time, Mukhtar’s forces were attacked by Italian planes and pursued on the ground by Italian forces, aided by local informers and collaborators. Though Mukhtar put up a brave fight, he was ultimately ambushed near Zonta on September 11, 1931, bringing his 20-year long resistance to an end. In less than three days he was sentenced to be publicly hanged. He was hanged at the concentration camp of Suluq at the age of 73 years.

The strongest opposition to the French invasion and colonization of Algeria was provided by a Sufi shaykh of the Qadiriyya order, Emir Abd al-Qadir al-Jazairi (d. 1883). In Morocco, Sufi shaykhs such as Sidi Muhammad ibn Abd al-Qadir al-Kattani and Ahmad al-Hibah laid down their lives in the course of the anti-colonial struggle. The forces of the Berber leader Muhammad Abd al-Karim (d. 1963) launched a relentless campaign—which came to be known as the Rif Rebellion—against the Spanish and later the French occupation forces from 1920 to 1934. In 1921 his followers defeated Spanish forces at the battle of Annual, in which nearly 19,000 Spanish soldiers were killed. This event marked the greatest defeat suffered by any European force in the history of North Africa.

The Sufis of Naqshbandiya, Qadiriya and Shattariya orders waged a relentless struggle against Dutch colonial expansion in Indonesia. Muhammad Abdullah Hasan (d. 1920), a Sufi leader, established the Dervish state in Somalia that fought a war against the British, Italian and Ethiopian forces for over 20 years. Though the uprising was brutally crushed by the colonial rulers in 1920, it nevertheless slowed down colonial expansion in the Horn of Africa for nearly two decades.

The resistance to French colonial rule in Senegal was led by a Sufi, Shaykh Ahmad (or Ahmadou) Bamba. He founded a large Sufi order known as the Muridiyya (Mouride), which attracted a large number of followers. On account of his huge popularity and influence in the region, he was exiled by the French in 1895 and again in 1903.

A major anti-colonial uprising in Senegambia was led by Shaykh Umar ibn Said al-Futi. At the beginning of the 19th century, an anti-Dutch movement in Sumatra—the Padri War of 1821-32—was spearheaded by the Sufis. In Malaysia, Sufi shaykhs and the ulama mobilized the local people against colonial rule and set up a countrywide network of institutions in order to protect Malay Muslims from the baneful influence of colonialism and evangelization. Al-Hajj Umar Tal, a Sufi shaykh of the Tijaniya order, organized a formidable anti-colonial movement in Guinea, Senegal and Mali. At the end of the 19th century, Muhammad Abdullah Hasan (d. 1921) of the Salihiyya order of Sufism, led a major anti-imperialist war in Somaliland against the British. The Naqshbandi Sufis headed a rebellion against Chinese rulers in Xinjiand in 1863 and in Shaanxi and Ghansu in 1862-73.

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