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The Contemporary State of Islam

The population of Islamic regions has not greatly increased. Many wars have taken their toll. Infant mortality was high. A variety of epidemics reaped tens of thousands of souls. At one time, Sudan had a population of over eight million, but because of the Mahdi war and a terrible measles epidemic, now (1907) has no more than two million. Nevertheless, Wagner estimates the total Muslim world population in the year 1900 to be no less than 245 million. That amounts to 15.4 percent of the total world population. This mass of people just sits there as an unmovable block as Islam steadily spreads further in India, in Indonesia and, especially, in Africa. Others present us with different statistics. Exact figures are not really available. The lowest numbers available give us 145 million for mainland Asia, 50 million for Africa, almost 12 million for Europe and almost 30 million for Indonesia and a few other islands.

Among all the Muslim nations, Persia has adopted the most independent position but also the most isolated one, by which it weakened the power of Islam rather than strengthened it. Of its over nine million inhabitants, only two million belong to the Sunni sect, while the remainder follow the Shi’ites. From the beginning, Persia chose a hereditary monarchical government over against the democratic ideals of the Arabs. Therefore, they rejected the elected Caliphs Abubakar, Uthman and Omar and stood behind Ali, who should have succeeded Muhammad according to hereditary rights. In fact, they pushed their support for Ali so far that they attributed a divine incarnation to him, a notion that he himself declined but that nevertheless took increasing root among them. By this break with orthodox Islam, the high sense of nationalism that still characterizes Persia maintained itself, while the Arian spirit, that never allowed itself to be fully erased, sought to survive through philosophical contemplation and pantheistic speculation. This was the reason for the rise of new sects, among which some even replaced Muhammad with Ali. Not the least among these new sects were the Sufis and, in the nineteenth century, the Baha’i faith, which gained adherents in all circles. Voltaire’s spirit was also welcome in Persia, as seen among the Baha’i. It led to increasing estrangement between the official state religion and the spirit of the people. In some isolated areas one still finds some Guebres or fire worshippers and in one remote corner a remnant of the ancient Christian church, but the dominant atmosphere is provided by philosophy and poetry. So little support for Islam can be expected from Persia, that it is constantly at loggerheads with Turkey and tends to draw more of its inspiration from Western Europe. In this sense, Islam never conquered the Persian spirit so that the official Shi’a rule, even more today than previously, exists more in name than in actuality.

Five million Muslims live in Aghanistan. In the cities, they speak mostly Farsi (Persian) and are Shi’ites. But in the rural areas they hold on to their Afghani language and consider themselves Sunnis, with the exception of the Shi’ite Khazars. However, this country is too much of a buffer state between British and Russian interests to have any significance for Muslim power. Spiritual life hardly exists there, while it is unable to follow an independent political agenda.

Then we have at a still much lower level the country of Balutchistan with less than a million inhabitants. They claim to be Sunni, but they are so wild and uncivilized that they have as an expression, “Anyone who has not murdered a neighbour and seduced his wife is not a real Baluchi.” It hardly needs saying that this country carries no weight in the scale of Muslim power.

Persia separates these lands too far from Turkey, while an alliance with India is too difficult to motivate both Afghanistan and Balutchistan to do anything for Islam beyond serving as an isolated and superfluous reserve. That especially in Afghanistan the spirit of Islam still motivates a few individuals powerfully, is demonstrated by Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, whose attempts at reformation at the University of Al-Azhar were even amenable to the movement of Arabi Pasha. But such were totally isolated phenomena that had little following among the people.

The situation is totally different when you cross the Himalayas into India, where the Muslims are not less than 63 million in number and thus make the United Kingdom, India’s colonial ruler, the largest Muslim power. Muslims first entered India from Ghazni, an Afghani province, some three centuries after the Hijira, i.e., around the year 1,000 A.D. They remained in the northwest without making much progress initially. It was not till the middle of the seventeenth century that Aurangzeb, one of the great Moghul kings, who did not hesitate to use violence, exerted powerful propaganda and thus initiated the spread of Islam over a wide area. The Hindu caste system favoured conversions. The oppressed and despised untouchables were powerfully attracted to the position of equality that Islam offered. This process is still going on. The greatest concentration of Muslims is found in Punjabi. They also have a powerful presence in a part of Bengal, that was split in two to please Muslims. The rest live mainly in the coastal cities, where they maintain contact with Arab marine traffic from across the water.

The vast majority of Indian Muslims are Sunnis of the Hanifite school. There is also movement of sects from Persia, while the Hindus who convert to Islam continue to cling to many features of their former religion. Still, on the whole, Indian Islam is of an orthodox character. The Sultan of Turkey is acknowledged as the legitimate head of Islam. The atmosphere is increasingly open to mystical influences of the spiritual orders. Even in the area of scholarship new life is beginning to stir among them. They surpass the Hindus in courage, resilience and pride, while in the moral sphere they have shown themselves to be carriers of a higher culture. Because of their growing numbers and increasing influence, the British government increasingly favours them. All indications are that Muslims in British India will assert themselves more than they have in the past.

At first glance, the Islam of Indonesia appears to be of far greater significance in so far as it has been adopted by almost the entire community, especially on the main island of Java. The number of Muslims in Indonesia is about half of those in India. On the island of Sumatra it is sharply delineated, but this is not the case to the same degree on Java. Here much of the traditional religion with its many traditions and local customs lives on in the shadow of the crescent. The character of the Javanese is much less fanatic.

During recent years even here a more decisive tone has penetrated from Al-Azhar University. Sometimes the pilgrimage to Mecca produces fanaticism. Arab immigrants goad them into action. In these so-called dependencies, Muslim propaganda goes on relentlessly but mostly under the radar. The Netherlands government must thus keep a watchful eye on the situation, for the strength of the more than 30 million Muslims who find their home in this Archipelago can be ignored only at the expense of Dutch power.3333I find it striking that Kuyper seems to accept the colonial status without any qualms, while my published critique of colonialism is the product of the Kuyperian worldview (See J. Boer, 1979, throughout). Pan-Islam has its secret agents everywhere, while Constantinople is also interested in every aspect of this island nation.

The number of Muslims under Russian control in southern Russia, the Caucasus and in Central Asia is smaller but by no means insignificant. Statistical data put the number of the combined adherents of Islam under the authority of the Czar at well over seventeen million—eight million in Europe and the Caucasus, and a good nine million in Central Asia. Quite a few have left the Caucasus for Turkey, but the unique way in which Russia treats its Muslims soon put a stop to this exodus. The government does not touch their religion. It grants them every freedom to conduct their social life according to their own tradition. It operates a strong regime to maintain peace and order. It establishes schools for Muslims and has even given them their own Sheikh-ul-Islam who, as their own spiritual leader, keeps them from developing close relations with Constantinople. The extreme manner in which the authority of the Czar was originally established has cultivated resignation with respect to their subjugation. While Russia continued in a state of war with its Jewish population, it managed to establish complete supremacy over its Muslims, especially after the destruction of the Tscherkessen people, so that there is little to be concerned about from that side. Also the balance of the Slavic colonization in Central Asia is changing so that the preponderance of Muslims in those regions is gradually reducing.

In China, the number of Muslims is estimated at over twenty-three million. Some authorities even estimate thirty-three million. They already started penetrating here in the eighth century. It is said that Khalif Abu Giefer sent 4000 Arabs to China to help the ruling dynasty against a rebellious population.3434Translator’s note: I could not find anything about Khalif Abu Giefar to confirm this history. However, I did find the following quote about the incident: “An Lu-shan, a favorite of Emperor Hsuan Tsung, rebelled against the T'ang Dynasty. Of mixed Sogdian and Turkish descent, the enormously fat An Lu-shan, a skilled military commander and governor of three provinces, led an uprising in 755 after Hsuan Tsung abdicated in favor of Su Tsung. When An Lu-shan captured and occupied Ch'ang-an, Su Tsung, apparently influenced by the Muslim success at the Battle of Talas, wrote to A-p'u ch'a-fo - rather a good rendition of the Arabic name of the second Abbasid caliph Abu Ja'far al-Mansur - asking him to send troops to help him recapture Ch'ang-an. The caliph responded by sending 4,000 men - who did help Su Tsung retake the capital, but who also settled in China, took Chinese wives and, in effect, established the first Muslim community in China” (Chinahistoryforum.com). For this reason, the emperors have had special regard for Muslims and even entrusted them with high posts and honours. The community increased by marrying Chinese women and by buying up children, which they then would bring up as Muslims.3535These and similar or parallel practices are still common among Muslims in various countries even today in the 21st century. (J. Boer, vol. 7, 2008, pp. 61-62, 155, 161-162.) But it was exactly this privileged position of theirs, combined with their excessive pride of character and sense of moral superiority, that tempted them often to armed resistance. In the province of Yunnan and neighbouring areas where they were greatest in number, a civil war broke out between them and the indigenous Chinese in 1855 over a mine dispute that was squashed by imperial troops with unprecedented cruelty. This was not altogether undeserved, for Maheen, the leader of the rebels, boasted that he personally had killed no less than a million Chinese! In 1877, a new rebellion broke out under Yakub Bey. This was repeated in Chinese Turkestan, while simultaneously numerous Muslims joined the Boxers. However, the Chinese government managed every time to retain control over their territories. Even though Muslims constitute little more than five percent of the population and have adopted much of the dominant religion and customs in order to find acceptance, they nevertheless represent a power that must be taken into account in China. We will likely hear more about them in the future.3636Kuyper’s prediction came true. A century later, during the very months this article is being translated (July-September, 2009), the struggle has again revived and is indeed again in the news.

Outside of Russia and the Turkish Empire, the number of Muslims in Europe is negligible. In Bosnia and Herzogovenia that are currently Austrian protectorates, as in Bulgaria, Muslims are little more than half million strong. In addition, a hundred thousand live in Romania, Greece, Servia and Montenegro. But even if you add European Turkey to all this, this would give all of Europe, apart from Russia, no more than three million. In European Turkey, the figure hardly surpasses two million. But Turkey as a whole remains an Islamic superpower for two reasons. First, it is the seat of the Sultan. Second, it is the only independent power of considerable significance because of its extensive territory, the size of its population and the availability of a significant army. We may as well disregard the nominal sovereignty of the Sultan over Egypt, but even then, taking everything together, including Tripoli, Turkey still has a Muslim population of two million in Europe, controls well over fourteen million in Asia and one and a quarter million in Africa. Put together, a total of eighteen million along with a military force that, together with a reserve, amounts to about one million. Of course, this is a low number compared to the total figure of 245 million Muslims over the entire world, but Turkey is and remains the historic continuation of the original Muslim world power. The Islamic world as a whole wants the Sultan to continue to serve as sovereign, but within Turkey the original power of the Khalifate has been transferred to the Turkish Government, for it alone knew how to maintain it all. This is the reason that almost all Muslims look upon Turkey as the actual world centre for Islam. In almost every mosque prayers are offered for the Sultan of Turkey. Even in Egypt the national party backs Turkey.

However, new pockets of resistance are constantly emerging from Arabia, usually from the Wahabis, that receive their strength from the traditional Arab resentment of the Mongols. But now that the railway line from Damascus to Medina is near completion, the chances of the Sultan to retain control over this area by the rapid transportation of troops are greatly increased. The difficulties always arise from independent tribes in Arabia that even now still form a power of over three million, but the main thing is that the Sultan will not allow Mecca to slip out of his hands and that the Upper Sherif remains faithful to him. For this reason, the Turkish government strongly encourages the construction of railways. It is very aware that nothing is more effective for the maintenance of her supremacy over such a wide area. Whoever has access to well-trained troops and an extensive railway system can easily retain control over such a wide area, especially when the people are deeply divided and lack all national cohesion, even if other conditions are unfavourable.

It remains to be seen whether the railway system will not cause an internal weakening of Islam by encouraging the penetration of a foreign higher culture. At this point, it can only be said that in Egypt, where the influence of Western culture has penetrated the farthest, already since the time of Mehemet Ali, and even more after the establishment of British rule, one detects few traces of a radical change in the hearts of the people. In Algeria and Tunisia the experience is the same. Morocco with its population of eight to nine million people is totally independent in spirit. The Sultan there, who boasts of being a descendant of Muhammad’s family, is an independent Khalif and has no relations with Turkey as a political power or with the Sultan of Turkey. Nevertheless, this country remains Muslim through and through. The contempt for death that the tribes from the interior exhibited against the French troops around Casablanca demonstrated clearly that here also the spirit of Islam is still capable of generating a fanatic defiance. The Islamic fire is far from extinguished.

Islam along the coast of Africa and in its interior is, with the exception of Tripoli, almost totally under European control. This is important on two counts. First, because at the moment Islam exerts its strongest propaganda in Africa and, second, the African continent is beginning to count more and more in world affairs. Of its population of 170 million, almost 60 million have already converted to Islam, among them the 24 million of the northern coastal states, including Egypt, while the rest live in the interior and along the east coast. All the attempts since the sixteenth century to convert the Sub-Saharan Black peoples to Christianity have failed, while Muslims, who penetrated deep into the interior, succeeded to win one ethnic group after another without meeting strong resistance anywhere.3737Kuyper clearly was not familiar with the situation in the region that the British turned into Northern Nigeria. Here Traditionalist ethnic groups throughout the nineteenth century resisted this Muslim encroachment. Their resistance lost its force only under British colonialists who, under the “Pax Britannica,” in many ways favoured Islam at the expense of Traditionalists, one of the ways being the imposition of Muslim emirs on Traditionalist-Christian tribes. What Muslims could not achieve on their own during the nineteenth century was given to them on a silver platter by the British during the twentieth. (J. H. Boer, 1979, pp. 71-74, 101, 141-143, 211-213, 500-506; 1984, pp. 60-63; 2004, vol. 3, pp. 86-88, 203-204, 214, 286-287; 2005, pp. 101-102; 2008, pp. 194, 286-287, Appendices 8-10--p. 422. The Sahara and Sudan have as good as been won over; the propaganda among the Bantu peoples from central Africa, the Zulus and other Black populations has already been started with great energy. If it is not possible to stem this tide by putting up a dam,3838The idea of a “mission wall” was, perhaps unbeknown to Kuyper, already close to a century old. Allow me to cite a paragraph from my 1979 dissertation. “Already in the 1820s men began to dream about an ‘Apostle Street,’ a route that was yet to be determined, along which would enter the King of Glory. A station was to be established every 100 miles along the route for the spread of the Gospel. This idea was adapted later by the German missionary Krapf, who devised a complete plan for an east-west chain of stations. He envisioned a total distance of some 2700 miles that would be divided into sections of 300 miles, each with its own station manned by four missionaries. The entire cost would be between L4,000 to L5,000 annually. The project was to be called the ‘Equatorial Mission Chain’ and it was to be completed within a dozen years” (p. 101). then it can be foreseen that the day is coming that, with the exception of Ethiopia, Madagascar and the British colonies in South Africa, this entire continent will fall into the lap of Islam.3939That was, in fact, a consuming fear of the Western missionary movement of the day to the point of it being a missionary crisis that was felt throughout the ecumenical church. The milestone Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910 spoke of “the most critical missionary problem in Africa” (J. H. Boer, 1979, pp. 101-102). Here Kuyper had his finger on the missionary pulse of his day. It is perhaps unfair to have expected these missionaries and Kuyper to have foreseen the tremendous explosion of the African church, especially since independence. Today, in Nigeria, the most populous African nation, Muslims find themselves confronted with a Christian community equal in number, some 65 million of each! There are entire African countries that consider themselves “Christian.” We should not lose sight of the fact that all these newly-won lands border on each other, so that, if the above scenario is realized, eventually this entire contiguous land mass from the Mediterranean to Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) with its population close to 100 million, will belong to Islam. In Asia, Muslim groups exist in isolated pockets among other large world religions. In Africa, to the contrary, one huge mass of intermingled peoples will hold the banner of Islam high. No matter how divided they may be among European colonies, they will find their unity in Islam. Blacks once converted, regardless of their current status, become brothers to the adherents of the religion to which they convert. The enthusiasm displayed in the Sudanese Mahdi uprisings indicates that Africa is susceptible to strong religious upheavals.

There is no need to make special mention about the small group of Muslims in Siam (Thailand), Indochina and a few Portuguese and Spanish possessions. Their total number probably does not exceed three million. What is important to realize about the power of Islam is that of the 245 million Muslims more than 180 million are under European control; only 65 million are independent. Great Britain leads the pack with 72 million. China is next with its 33 million, after which follow The Netherlands with 30 million, France with 22 million and Russia with 17 million. The statistics for the other European countries are negligible: Germany, two and a half million; Italy, one and a half; the rest, from half a million down to a few thousand. The largest groups of Muslims are under European sovereignty—Great Britain, The Netherlands and France—and number a total of 135 million and thus constitute more than half of the entire world Muslim population.

Leaving aside its government, I doubt that the people of my own country, The Netherlands, are conscious of this fact. They do not give much thought to Islam. Certainly, the Dutch missionary movement is not sufficiently aware of the kind of battle with which it needs to approach Islam. From the scholarship point of view, we can hold our heads high. We have several missionaries of international repute, such as Veth, Dozy, De Goeje, Snouck Hurgronje and Houtsma, but our people do not pay attention and fail to sense the significance of the problem with which Islam confronts little The Netherlands. Hence the Dutch missionary thrust in Indonesia lacks the necessary persistence and the specific kind of approach that is necessary for all missions to Islam.

From the above data about the distribution of Muslim power in Asia and Africa, it is clear that Islam does not constitute a serious political challenge. Islam, more than any other worldview, demands unity of spiritual and political power, but only one quarter of the total Muslim community in the world live under Muslim sovereignty. Turkey is supposed to represent the unified power of Islam, but the Sultan has only a little over 18 million subjects that probably cannot all be considered Muslims. That is such a tiny fraction of the whole that the unity of spiritual and political power really does not exist anywhere. When only a quarter of all Muslims live under Muslim sovereignty and even that one quarter is so bitterly divided that the power of the Sultan extends to little over one third of that one quarter, Islam is not only doomed as a political power but is also undermined in its foundations. Islam requires that Muslims rule other nations. That, in fact, is their privilege and calling. But they themselves may not be subjected to foreign rule. Where the latter does happen, Muslims will patiently accept the situation temporarily, but deep in its soul Islam will eventually come to resist it and constantly look forward to the glorious day that it will regain its freedom and restore its own sovereignty.4040Italics by translator. Translator’s note: Wanting to rule over other nations is, of course, not unique to Muslims. It is called imperialism, a disease that has long afflicted the West as well. Much of the religious, political and cultural revival of Islam at the end of the 20th century is in reaction to Western imperialism over them. Kuyper foresaw this scenario already in his own day. Islam depends for such a turn of events on supernatural help, because it fully realizes its military weakness. Even Turkey, in the absence of a navy, is in no position to buttress its claims with any authority. Everywhere, Muslims have had the painful experience that their fierce heroism and fanatic devotion are no match for modern European weaponry.

Pan-Islam was born out of this awareness of Muslim political and military powerlessness, combined with their unimpaired faith and relentless heroism. Every now and then some independent Mahdi would attempt to hasten that day of victory, but, while these morning stars would emerge with sudden speed, they would invariably with equal speed sink back into oblivion. The consciousness that this Mahdi route was not the way to restore the prestige of Islam grew deeper and deeper. Islam became powerless through its scattered constellation; only the revival of spiritual unity could promise better days.


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