The Making of an Arab Nationalist: Ottomanism and Arabism in the Life and Thought of Sati' Al-Husri

The Making of an Arab Nationalist: Ottomanism and Arabism in the Life and Thought of Sati' Al-Husri

by William L. Cleveland

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A loyal servant of the Ottoman Empire in his early career, Sati' al-Husri (1880-1968) became one of Arab nationalism's most articulate and influential spokesmen. His shift from Ottomanism, based on religion and the multi-national empire, to Arabism, defined by secular loyalties and the concept of an Arab nation, is the theme of William Cleveland's account of "the

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A loyal servant of the Ottoman Empire in his early career, Sati' al-Husri (1880-1968) became one of Arab nationalism's most articulate and influential spokesmen. His shift from Ottomanism, based on religion and the multi-national empire, to Arabism, defined by secular loyalties and the concept of an Arab nation, is the theme of William Cleveland's account of "the making of an Arab nationalist."

Originally published in 1972.

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The Making of an Arab Nationalist

Ottomanism and Arabism in the Life and Thought of Sati' Al-Husri

By William L. Cleveland


Copyright © 1971 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-03088-3


The Ottoman


During the thirty years from the Congress of Berlin in 1878 to the Young Turk revolution of 1908 various efforts were made to preserve the Ottoman Empire from further territorial dismemberment and to seek a means of internal consolidation and cohesion. The success of these attempts depended on military and administrative reform and on the ability of the multinational, multireligious, multilingual Empire to evolve a comprehensive basis of loyalty on which Balkan nationalists, Western-oriented intellectuals, and Muslim religious authorities could focus. The reign of Sultan Abdülhamid II (1876-1909) was filled with the efforts of these groups to achieve a reorganization of loyalties along the lines of the different solutions which they put forth.

In the past, the Ottoman Empire had organized its peoples according to their religion, not their language or nationality. The basic personal loyalties of an individual were to his religious community (millet) and he was identified by his millet affiliation. In this system, there existed for example, a Greek Orthodox millet and a Jewish millet, but there were no Turkish, Arab, or Roumanian millets. In the nineteenth century, however, this system was disrupted as the Greeks, Serbs, and Bulgarians began to rediscover their cultural heritage and to form ethnically and linguistically homogeneous national communities through political revolt. As Bernard Lewis has written, "new ideas from the West were affecting the very basis of group cohesion, creating new patterns of identity and loyalty and providing both the objectives and the formulation of new aspirations." The success of the revolts of the Ottoman subject peoples, of ten under Great Power patronage, was such that, by the conclusion of the Congress of Berlin, the once extensive territory under direct Ottoman control in southeastern Europe had been reduced to Thrace, Albania, and parts of Macedonia.

There was a growing awareness among the sultan and various elements of the intelligentsia that vigorous new measures were needed. Certainly, attempts had been made before the reign of Abdülhamid II to halt the decay of the Empire. Institutional reforms as well as Western political and social concepts had been, however superficially, introduced into the Ottoman Empire during the Tanzimat of the nineteenth century. The decrees of 1839 and 1856 had promised legal and administrative reform and had attempted to legislate an equality of citizenship among all the peoples of the Empire, irrespective of religion.

The concept of an Ottoman citizenship, like many of the other reforms, had its origins in Western European institutions. Through studies abroad and at the civil and military schools of the Empire, Ottoman intellectuals and officials became familiar with Europe, learned foreign languages, particularly French, and with increasing frequency embarked upon self-imposed journeys of exile when their experimentation with Western ideas attracted too much attention from the sultan. The fact that 1876 had seen the promulgation of an Ottoman constitution, however premature and forced it may have been, indicates the direction toward which some were looking in their hopes for reform. The magic words of constitutionalism, liberty, and progress denoted concepts which, while imperfectly understood and applied, seemed desirable in themselves and capable of curing the ills of the Empire. That the application of the 1876 constitution had failed was attributed by its supporters not to the inherent difficulties of forcing constitutional government on the Ottoman Empire, but rather to the absolutism of the sultan, Abdülhamid II, who had suspended it.

Indeed, the reign of Abdülhamid has justly been termed one of despotism, but at the same time it was a period of searching, by both sultan and dissidents, for a focus of loyalty which could unite as large a section of the variegated Ottoman population as possible and so preserve the Empire. There was, however, disagreement on what this focus of loyalty should be. Was it to be based on Islam, on Ottomanism, on local autonomous ties which would be embraced within a larger Ottoman institutional framework? The result of this disagreement was a proliferation of leagues and societies, themselves frequently torn by internal dissension, intent on finding regeneration and new groupings for the continued existence of the Empire. A brief survey of the most important of these societies and the various solutions they put forth will help illustrate the intellectual climate of the Hamidian regime.

The first of these groups to be considered, the Young Ottomans, was organized in 1865 in Istanbul and ended its activities with the suspension of the constitution and the exile or defection of its principal spokesmen. Although few in number and of minor importance in their time, their writings were to sustain the next generation and inspire it with a desire for liberty and a feeling of patriotism. The Young Ottomans objected to the bureaucratic centralization of the Ottoman Empire as represented by the leaders of the reform movement, Ali and Fuad Pashas, a centralization which they believed to be the cause of the Empire's increasingly weak position in relation to the West. Their primary goal was to introduce freedom and liberty into the Empire, to change "absolute rule into constitutional rule." The intellectual leader of the group, Namik Kemal (1840-1888), sought to formulate cohesive elements around which a liberal Ottoman state could form and in doing so he introduced important new concepts into the minds of educated Ottomans. It is to him that the popularization of the word vatan in the sense of fatherland is credited. To Kemal, the fatherland consisted of emotional ties as well as geographic territory, and in his sincere and romantic patriotism he articulated the notion of an imperial Ottoman citizenship in which the ideal of the union of the various peoples of the Empire, regardless of their race or religion, predominated. But as Bernard Lewis makes clear, Kemal's use of the terms fatherland and Ottoman was confused and the word Ottoman tended to refer exclusively to Muslims. In spite of his appeals to non-Muslim citizens, "the entity which he served is ultimately Islamic." Thus, while he could write about applying selected Western concepts to the Empire and expand on the idea of the common citizenship of all the Ottomans, he could also advocate a pan-Islamic unity in which the Ottoman Empire would take the lead in defending Islam against the threat of Western encroachment. Kemal, then, left no doubt that he was a Muslim and that the ultimate focus of loyalty for the rejuvenation of the Empire would have to be based on Islam.

When Abdülhamid II came to power, he suppressed Kemal's doctrine of liberalism and expanded his Islamic ideas in a way that the patriotic poet and author had probably never intended. By intensifying his claim to be the caliph of Islam and urging the reunification of all Muslims in a single state, the sultan hoped to gain worldwide Muslim support against Western imperialism and at the same time strengthen the loyalty of the Muslims within the Empire to his person and to his program of repression against liberals and nationalists.

Naturally, this policy, while it might appeal to the Islamic peoples within the Empire, could have little unifying effect on the Balkan and Arab Christians, the Istanbul Armenians, or the Salonika Jews. What was needed was a more inclusive focus of loyalty, something that would preserve the remnants of empire, not split them. With this aim in mind, a group of students from the Military Medical School in Istanbul founded, in 1889, a society the immediate goals of which were the overthrow of Abdülhamid and the restoration of the constitution of all the Ottomans. The society, called "Progress and Union," soon attracted new adherents and became active enough to feel the necessity of continuing in exile in Paris. The early members were all well acquainted with the proscribed works of the Young Ottomans, and views reminiscent of N am1k Kemal were set forth as the program of the society by one of its leaders, Ahmed Riza:

We demand reforms, not especially for this or that province, but for the entire Empire, not in favor of a single nationality, but in favor of all the Ottomans, be they Jews, Christians, or Muslims. We wish to advance in the path of civilization, but we declare resolutely, we do not wish to advance other than in fortifying the Ottoman element and in respecting its own conditions of existence.

In this was expressed both a desire to preserve the Ottoman Empire and to ensure that it remained, indeed, Ottoman.

This focus of loyalty around the idea of Ottomanism was seen again during the 1902 Congress of Ottoman Liberals which met in Paris under the leadership of Riza and Prince Sabaheddin, who had recently joined the movement in exile. The only viewpoint held in common by the delegates of various ethnic and religious backgrounds was a general dissatisfaction with the rule of Abdülhamid, and the congress soon split apart on national issues. The disenchantment of the Christian minorities with the Muslim state could not be shored up by Sabaheddin's call for a vague Ottoman loyalty inextricably bound to Islam, nor by Ahmed R1za's demand for the replacement of Abdülhamid by another member of the same family who, although serving under the revived constitution, would be both sultan and caliph of Islam. Thus, the movement splintered, the two main leaders, Sabaheddin and Riza, were left opposing each other as exiles in Paris, and Abdülhamid continued to reign in an Empire that could not become totally Muslim, Ottoman, or nationalist.

Despite the problems of sluggish reform and increasing repressions, the Arab provinces east of Suez appeared to be secure. Tied to the Empire by religion, these provinces were relatively untouched by the influence of nationalism. Nevertheless, here, too, there existed a search for identity, a desire to meet the challenge of Western superiority with the strongest possible platform. And, as was the case with the Ottoman Turkish intellectuals, the Arab search was primarily directed toward the preservation of the Empire.

For the great majority of Arabs who were Muslims this meant that the bases of loyalty and identity were articulated in Islamic terms. Thus, Muhammad 'Abduh, the leader of the Islamic reform movement in Egypt, sought, not Arab nationalism, but the inner revival of Islam. He devoted his intellectual efforts to an examination of how the Islamic religion could be reconciled with the demands of the modern world. Rashid Rida, a Syrian who immigrated to Egypt and became one of 'Abduh's disciples, although he emphasized the crucial role of the Arabs in Islam, was "not then opposed to the existence of the Empire, and indeed thought it necessary for the Arab and Muslim peoples, since it alone could provide the strength which they needed to protect them against foreign pressure."

This is not to say that there were no local demands for reform and decentralization in the Arab provinces, especially in Greater Syria where a concentration of Christians had had intensive contact with the West for several decades. The organization of a small society by a group of young Christian Arabs in Beirut in 1875 and its activities in circulating anti-Turkish pamphlets has been interpreted by one author as the beginning of a political movement directed toward separation from the Empire. However, other historians of this period have presented convincing evidence to the contrary and have shown that the society's political activity met with almost no sympathetic response and that even the most radical appeals for reform did not go beyond demands for autonomy or independence within the Ottoman framework. Even Christian Arabs like Adib Ishaq (1856-1885), Ibrahim al-Yaziji (1847-1906), Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq (1801-1887), and Butrus al-Bustani (181g-1883) defended Eastern civilization in terms of Islamic greatness and concentrated their efforts on Ottoman reform rather than on Arab separatism. The majority of Arabs, even with their sense of cultural identity, were not yet prepared to abandon the larger political identity of the Ottoman Empire or the religious identity of Islam as represented by the sultan-caliph of that Empire for political Arabism.

The impetus which finally drove the Arabs into open political revolt was given by a group which, in its origins, had no intention of splitting the Ottoman Empire into its various ethnic components. The Young Turks were, in their opposition to Abdülhamid, the heirs of the Young Ottomans of Nam1k Kemal's day and were in contact with their compatriots abroad led by Ahmed R1za and Prince Sabaheddin. Mainly composed of young officers embittered by the poor record and miserable conditions of the army, the Young Turks were not content simply to protest in journals and congresses abroad. With central headquarters in Salonika, the society spread in cell groups to all the garrison towns of Macedonia within a few months of its formation in 1906. There was less sterile ideological debate among this group than among the Paris exiles. When the two organizations agreed to coordinate their activities in 1907 under the name "Committee of Union and Progress" (CUP), their goal was plainly stated: "The fundamental purpose being to bring into force and continue the constitution of Mithat Pasha published in 1292 (1876)." What sounded on the surface like an echo of Kemal's and Sabaheddin's Ottoman-based rejuvenation was to result in something quite different as the summer of 1908 began and warnings came out that the sultan was growing suspicious of activities among the officers of the Third Army based in Salonika.

It was against this background of absolutism, conspiracy, and conflicting concepts of reform, Westernization, Ottomanism, and Islamic revival that Sati' al-Husri was born and grew to manhood. His response to these trends, and his gradual and perhaps incomplete reconciliation of the conflicts embodied in his own person as an Istanbul-trained Muslim Arab will now be traced.

The Early Years, 1880-1908

Sati' al-Husri's father, Muhammad Hilal ibn al-Sayyid Mustafa al-Husri, was one of many Arabs whose lives were spent in the civil service of the Ottoman Empire. The son of a well-established commercial family in Aleppo, Muhammad Hilal was born in 1840 and received the best traditional education that was then available. He studied Arabic and the Shari'ah at the lsma'iliyyah School in Aleppo and then obtained a degree in Cairo from al-Azhar University, the citadel of Islamic learning. After completing his studies, he returned to Aleppo where he held the position of qadi in various towns of the vilayet. He married Fatimah hint 'Abd al-Rahman al-Hanifi who was also from Aleppo and who was related on her mother's side to the noted al-Jabiri family of the city.

At this time the Ottoman Empire was in the process of a piecemeal reorganization of its judicial system. One of the products of this reform was the establishment of a new system of penal laws and courts. Muhammad Hilal, because of his experience and fine record in the Shari'ah courts of Aleppo, was encouraged to take the examinations necessary to qualify him for a position in the new courts. After a successful performance in the examinations, he was appointed Director of the Court of Criminal Appeals (Mahkame-i lstinaf Reisz) in Sana, the capital of the vilayet of Yemen which had only recently come under tightened Ottoman control. It was there that his third son, Mustafa Sati' ibn Muhammad Hilal al-Husri was born in 1880.

The first thirteen years of Sati's life were spent in almost constant travel in various vilayets of the Ottoman Empire as his father was frequently transferred. After two years in Yemen, Muhammad Hilal took his family with him first to Adana, then to Ankara, to Tripoli in Libya, back to Yemen, and finally to Konya.

Because of these numerous changes of residence, Sati' did not receive formal elementary school training in the madrasah with all the rote learning of the Quran and Islamic studies that such training implied at that time. In fact, he remained a basically secular man all his life. His education took place in the home where the language spoken was the Turkish of the educated Ottoman classes as well as Arabic — not until 1919 did Sati' make Arabic his first language. In addition, he learned French from his two older brothers, Bashir Majdi and Badi' Nuri.


Excerpted from The Making of an Arab Nationalist by William L. Cleveland. Copyright © 1971 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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