This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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Islamic responses to Western imperialism

Prior to the 18th century, Islam had by and large experienced success wherever it went. There were territories or battles lost here and there, such as in Spain, but overall the Koranic reassurance that “If God aideth you, no one shall overcome you”[1] had proven true and had given a sense of legitimacy and value to Islamic expansion.

In 1798, Napoleon invaded Egypt and the Islamic cosmos, and the Islamic conscience, was shaken. Never before had they faced an opponent so militarily superior, and what was worse is that it was becoming clear that this was not simply an isolated incident but would become the norm for interactions with the West. Moreover, and what has become more true since, military defeat did not mean for the enemies of the West what it had traditionally meant for the enemies of Islam. Where Islam conquered it left local cultures, including local religions and customs, intact; where the West conquered it tended to level everything in favor of an aggressive modernism, bringing with it its style of enterprise and its ideologies. For a more familiar example of what this could mean for a local culture, one need only look at what happened to the native American people in the face of European expansion: they were not simply conquered, they were destroyed and very nearly wiped from the face of the earth.

This was a threat unlike anything Islam had encountered and it was not so much a challenge to their military power as it was a challenge to Islam’s relation to God. It made many ask what has happened to make God abandon his people.

We can identify three responses to this situation.

First and foremost—the response of the vast majority of the Muslims—was to endure, to remain faithful, and to continue on in the traditional fashion to the best of one’s ability. Again, we must emphasis that this was the approach taken by the bulk of the Islamic world.

Second, there were some who adopted a mindset of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ and these became the ‘Muslim modernists’. What followed from this approach was, from the political and economic point of view, an acceptance of Western techniques, an imitation of Western ideology, and a rapid industrialization of certain areas. On the plane of religion, it had a slightly different effect. It would be said that the Shariah was clearly for another time, and that due to starkly altered conditions, it no longer applied, or did not apply in the same way, and was discarded, and given what we have said about Islamic unity being based on orthopraxy, it should be clear what kind of dissolving effect this would have. What makes matters worse is that the concession made here has been in many cases self-defeating. It was assumed that modernization and an acceptance, to varying degrees, of liberal ideology, would bring true independence to the Middle East. What actually tends to happen is that the West intervenes in the name of ‘liberty’, but this liberation tends to mean the destruction of Arab political features and their replacement by a new, strictly economic form of enslavement, where only those who bow to Western interests are truly ‘free’ and everyone else is no better, and often fairs far worse, than before the ‘liberation’. This creates resentment and disappointment in those Muslims who argued for modernization and whose hoped they see dashed in front of them, and thus are sown the seeds of hatred that may germinate in future extremisms.

Third, there were those who, feeling abandoned by God, asked why, and, in answer, concluded that Islam had lost its way, had not remained true to its roots, and required reform and revival. This response gave birth to various groups and various ‘reformist’ interpretations, some of the aggressively hostile to the West, some of them hostile to traditional Islam itself, turning its critical gaze on Shiites, Sunnis, and Sufis all at once. Salafism is an example of this last type of response, which, closely allied to Wahhabism and having its origins also in Egypt, sought to return to ‘pure Islam’, after the fashion of the first generations of Muslims, the salaf, or the ‘pious predecessors’ hence the name of this movement. Others who, in their own way, formulated responses along this vein, took an eschatological tone, and this created a new wave of Mahdiism and even some who proclaimed themselves to be the Mahdi. Almost all of the groups that today we call ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘extremist’ have their origins in this period and in this third way of dealing with the problem of Western encroachment.

What we need to emphasize most, at this point, is that of these three responses, the two ‘extremes’ of modernism and fundamentalism fall outside the norm of traditional Islam and that both constitute a kind of ‘extremism’. Moreover, the actual numbers of Muslims involved in these minority movements are, doctrinally speaking, negligible, even if the actions and beliefs of these small groups have had significant and even disastrous consequences locally and across the globe.

Lastly, we reiterate that these extremisms have their origins in Western imperialism and constitute a kind of ‘backlash’ against the exercise of American and European intrusion, whether that be actual military intervention or aggressive, materialistic evangelization. These claims are not revisionist, they are historically demonstrable, but demonstration can do nothing to curb the impulses of the West, which is no driven, no less than historical Islam, by a reassurance that their actions are divinely sanctioned, even if they rarely admit such motivations.

[1] Koran 3:159.

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