One of the distinguished features of Islamic civilization was that whenever there was a political downfall in parts of the Muslim World, it would not necessarily translate into a corresponding economic, scientific or social downfall as well.
HISTORICALLY, THIS HAS proven to be true because Islam requires certain obligations that are the responsibility of the individual alone, regardless of the participation of the community or the state. And so, in the absence of a collective change, life is always advancing, at least, on the individual level.
A good example of these types of obligations is Zakât. It is a financial and social pillar of Islam that can be fulfilled by individual Muslims who would channel it in accordance to the dictates of Islam. In addition, scholars would teach religion to people through their individual efforts. In the past, the scholars taught the general public, and therefore schools were established and maintained.
Typically, these scholars attracted large numbers of students, and most of these schools occurring in Islamic cities did not belong to, or were not part of, the Islamic State. One of the most prominent religious institutions and fortresses for science and knowledge in our history was, and still is, Al-Jâmi¢ (Grand masjid) Al-Azhar in Cairo, Egypt. It was established in 361 h/971 ce. Similar institutions included Jâmi¢ Al-Zaytûnah in Tunisia and Jâmi¢ Al-Qarawiyyîn in Fez, Morocco.
The situation in Egypt at the end of the eighteenth century was deteriorating politically. The leaders at that time were from the Mamluks (Al-Mamâlîk) and they were trying to separate from the Ottoman State (Turkey). These leaders were very skilled in fighting and warfare, but they were unjust and oppressive rulers. They misused and consumed the wealth of the country. However, scholars from Al-Azhar were very firm with them. The scholars took a strong stand against this oppression and issued many religious decrees invalidating many of these rulers’ decisions whenever they went against the Islamic Sharî¢ah.
One famous incident that occurred shortly before Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt involved a scholar named Shaykh Al-Sharqâwi. Peasants came to him and complained about the oppressions committed by the state soldiers who were overburdening them with fines, fees and taxes. The Shaykh immediately closed Al-Jâmi¢ Al-Azhar, instructing the people to close their shops in protest. Another scholar, Shaykh Al-Sâdât cooperated with him on this mission. Their protest continued until finally, the Sultan submitted and accepted all of the conditions stipulated by the two scholars, one of which had him sign a document of commitment.
At that time, the Ottoman Empire was quite occupied in wars with the Russians. In addition, the Ottomans had to deal with Britain and France, who were competing to control the oceans and to secure strategic global locations, much of which was part of the Ottoman Empire. It was this situation that gave Napoleon Bonaparte the idea of conquering Egypt —besides his dreams of becoming the new Alexander the Great and conquering the east— so as to prevent the British from controlling the Mediterranean Ocean.
Napoleon succeeded in entering Egypt in 1213 h/ 1798 ce after some resistance from the people of Alexandria. When he approached Cairo, he defeated the Sultan and his Mamluk army in their first battle. The Muslim Historian, Al-Jabarty attributed this defeat to the character and conditions of the Mamluk army:
…because they were covetous to live and enjoy luxury, they were boastful, and they badly underestimated their enemies. They always argued, and were not united.
Later, as Napoleon entered Cairo, he wrote a statement to the people which was designed to deceive. His spies suggested that he write a statement that showed him as one who loves Islam. The statement said:
I have not come to you except to save you and your religion from injustice. I am the slave of Allah, Almighty. I respect His Prophet Muhammad, and the Gracious Quran. All people are equal.
The Egyptian people and scholars soon realized this was a big lie. No one believed Napoleon or his army. Egyptians did not need evidence, for the French started killing them, burning their towns and confiscating their wealth.
The Revolution of Al-Azhar
After the failure of the political and military leadership in dealing with the French invasion, the leadership of the Ummah moved to the scholars of Al-Azhar, who were not removed from the affairs of life. This was quite natural. The Islamic spirit, which is always superior to all kind of defeats, even at times of degeneration, was the factor responsible for the Ummah in Egypt to take matters in hand. Not only the scholars realized the role of their religion within life, but the common people also were brave and sincere in their loyalty to the faith and the Ummah.
This point is important to note here because of the current state of our Ummah and the fact that, today, scholars are forcefully removed from living in relationship with, and dealing with, its affairs. At the time of the French invasion of Egypt, the plans to weaken the scholars’ role within the society were not yet planned. This was to happen later at the time of Muḥammad ʿAli Pâsha and Jamâl ʿAbd Al-Nâser.
Napoleon realized that the leadership was in the hands of the scholars, so he called them to a meeting. At that meeting, Napoleon took some fabric that bore the colors of the French flag and put one on the shoulder of Shaykh Al-Sharqâwi, then the head scholars. With his face changing colors, Al-Sharqâwi threw the emblem onto the floor in anger. The translator told him, “Napoleon only intended to honor you by putting this badge of honor on you so that people will in turn exalt you.” The Shaykh’s response was:
But I will be lower with Allah and the Muslims.
Nevertheless, Napoleon succeeded in establishing an administration to manage the affairs of the country. The majority of its members included scholars who initially threw his symbol of conquest on the floor. They later either freely accepted or were forced to accept. They felt that their participation might reduce the damage to the country, and felt that it was the lesser of two evils.
On the other hand, the younger scholars of Al-Azhar opted to fight the French and they led an uprising against the French army. Secretly and quietly, the elder scholars within the French administration knew about the revolution and fully endorsed it. Meanwhile, Cairo closed its markets and a delegation of people went to the administration complaining about the new taxes. Slowly, the revolution spread through Cairo.
By that time, Muslims around the world had heard of the invasion. Scholars in the Ḥijâz (Makkah and Madinah) area incited people to help the Muslims of Egypt. Soon, more than six hundred mujâhids participated in the resistance against the French in South Egypt. Later on, people joined from close-by regions as well.
Bonaparte was surprised by the unrest. He instructed the artillery to destroy Al-Azhar and level everything around it. The French army went on a rampage that continued from noon until night. The elder scholars pretended that they had nothing to do with the resistance, and requested peace and a cease-fire. Napoleon responded to their request, but then broke his promise to them. On the following day, the French soldiers entered Al-Azhar on their horses, breaking lamps and destroying the students’ desks. They stole valuable items and threw the Quran onto the floor.
Napoleon executed thirteen scholars from Al-Azhar, among them was Shaykh Aḥmad Al-Sharqâwi, ʿAbd Al-Wahhâb Al-Shabrâwi and Shaykh Sulaiman. Napoleon did not question the elder scholars despite their knowledge of the revolution. He thought that he could calm the people through his use of these scholars. He even hoped that they would deliver fatâwa to acknowledge the validity of the French rule, and that the people would in turn, offer their pledge of allegiance to him.
The scholars were quiet; only Shaykh Al-Sharqâwi spoke. The latter said to Napoleon, ‘If you want the Arabs and the Muslims to join under your banner, then embrace Islam.
Napoleon was overwhelmed, and he later returned to France.
Soon another period of struggle against oppression would begin, again led by scholars, such as ¢Umar Al-Naqîb and Aḥmad Al-Maḥrûqi. The people bravely resisted and the leader was capable of establishing factories to manufacture and repair artillery and guns. A student of Al-Azhar from the city of Aleppo, Sulaiman Al-Ḥalabi, managed to kill the French-appointed ruler of Egypt and soon the French left after having occupied Egypt for three years.