Islam and Ourselves


I HAVE just been spending a month in traversing the Islamic World. I entered it at Adrianople; I left it at Basra. My route took me to Constantinople, Angora, Aleppo, Damascus, Baghdad, and Kerbela. I passed through the territories of three Islamic states — Turkey, Syria, and Iraq — and I skirted one corner of Persia. Of course my visit was brief, and I took only one cross section. To make a thorough survey, I ought to have gone on from Damascus to Egypt and Morocco and from Baghdad to Tehran and Samarkand. I ought to have given not a month but a year to the investigation. Still, even a glimpse tells one something — especially if one has had other glimpses before. At any rate, I have been able to feel the pulse of Islam once again as I have gone hurrying by in the course of this journey from England to Japan; and here on a British India mail boat, steaming down the Persian Gulf from Basra to Karachi, I have an opportunity to collect my thoughts and put them down on paper.

I will start with a general proposition. The several Islamic peoples that I have encountered are all trying to be Western — trying with all their might. But we must not flatter ourselves that they are adopting the ways of Western civilization because they are enamored of it. They do not really much like our ways; still less do they like ourselves. At the back of this astonishing metamorphosis there is, I fear, no love — nothing, for instance, that corresponds to the passion for Hellas and Hellenism that inspired and ennobled our Western Renaissance. The Muslims are Westernizing their life in a rather hard, matter-of-fact spirit and for rather prosaic reasons: because they have realized that they will go under if they do not do it, and because the thing is catching. You do not love chicken pox, but you catch it all the same and you endure the incubation philosophically. In this spirit these Muslim peoples are taking to sewing machines and automobiles.

So long as they possibly could, the Muslims held aloof from the West and took a sedate pleasure in their sense of superiority. ‘Whizz, whizz, all by steam! Whirr, whirr, all by wheels!’ as the Pasha expressed it to Kinglake. These restless inquisitive Franks might, monkey very ingeniously with the works of the Creator, but they would not be able to change one jot or tittle of His decrees. And had He not decreed that Islam was the true faith and the Islamic community the Chosen People? The Unbelievers were playing their pranks on sufferance. In the sight of God, they were beyond the Pale. Dar al-Islam was the orbis terrarum; the Muslims were Mankind.

That attitude died hard in the Islamic World; but I believe it is stonedead now; and though, if you looked in the right places, you could doubtless find some old-fashioned Islamic Fundamentalists still lingering on, you would also find that their influence was negligible. The vast majority of Muslims have succeeded in making a profound mental readjustment. They have perceived, at last, that while they have been looking on superciliously the Franks have made the planet their own and have laid the foundations of a world order which will develop, for good or evil, on the Western pattern. The Muslims have discovered with a shock that it is now they and not the Franks who are ‘a peculiar people.’ And since it is irksome and boring to be peculiar, when once you realize that you are, the Muslims are endeavoring to become as other men are, and not as that Pharisee, their former self.

This new craving to be ordinary — with our Western ordinariness as the norm — has expressed itself outwardly in a sweeping change of headgear; that is, of male headgear, for I shall come to the question of women’s dress in a moment. In Turkey, the Ghazi has simply put a ban on the old headgear — the red felt fez or the black sheepskin kalpak — and has ordained that every male citizen of the republic must wear a hat with a brim, the cut and color being left to the individual’s free choice. In Persia, Riza Shah Pehlevi has not only banned the old sugarloafshaped felt kulah, which the Persians have worn since they first left a sculptured record of themselves in the fifth century b.c.; he has further compelled them to wear, instead, a ‘Pehlevi hat,’ which is neither more nor less than a French officer’s kepi. You can have it blue-black or you can have it sandy brown, but that is the only choice that is allowed you. Finally, in Iraq, King Faysal has instituted the ‘Faysal cap,’ which is a version of the forage cap worn in the American and British armies, in two alternative colors — khaki or dark blue. The Faysal cap is not compulsory; but in the towns of Iraq to-day you seldom see a fez. Of course the tribesmen — whether Bedouins or fellahin — still wear the traditional Arab headdress, which suits their environment to a nicety: the woolen headcloth, kept in place by thick woolen coils.

The interesting point is that this is an exact reversal of the conventions in dress that prevailed in Islamic countries until recently. In Turkey, for instance, before 1925, a man of fashion would wear a suit of the latest Western cut, so that, when you met him bareheaded, he might, for all you knew, be your own fellow countryman; but for headgear he kept rigorously to the fez, as if to show you that there were definite limits beyond which he declined to go along the path of imitation. He might clap on a hat when he crossed the frontier by train or went on board a steamer; but you would find him in his fez again when he was in the act of reëntering his native land. Nowadays, the convention is just the opposite. Your Persian, for instance, is free below the neck. He may still wear a cotton nightgown from neck to ankles (though I fancy that such conservatism is not well looked upon). But his head must be crowned with a Pehlevi hat, or the police will be after him. The fact is that, in the East, all headgear is intensely symbolic, and the symbolism of the new-model headgear is this, if I rightly interpret it. When the Pehlevi hat or the Faysal cap or the Turkish Homburg passes your Frankish sun helmet in the street, it signals: ‘My wearer is as good a man as yours, and he is going to stand on his rights from now onward! You will see!’


What are these rights which the Muslim peoples are claiming? For after all the mere cult of ordinariness, though it may carry one a long way, can hardly account for the whole of this immense upheaval that we are witnessing. The right which exercises the minds of Muslims just now is one which is fundamental in our Western scheme of life: the right to independence. In the name of all our Western prophets and apostles and martyrs of liberty, the Muslims are demanding independence from — ourselves. And they are demanding it on at least three planes: the political, the social, and the economic.

On the political plane, the victory is already substantially won, and one is amazed at the greatness of it when one remembers the political prostration of these nations ten or twelve years ago, just before and just after the Armistice. In 1919, Iraq was being governed (I believe, very well) by British administrators. Persia was having the pleasure of being swallowed whole by the British Empire — a reprieve from her previous destiny, when she had been condemned to be cut up alive in order to be divided equitably between the British and the Russians. As for Turkey, the Straits were occupied by the Allied fleets and Smyrna by the Greeks; and what the Greeks did not take in Anatolia was earmarked to provide two ‘zones of special influence’ for France and Italy. What a change in ten years! To-day, both Turkey and Persia are politically independent in absolute fact as well as in theory. Their territories are clear of foreign troops and they have successfully repudiated those ancient servitudes, the Capitulations. In Iraq, the British administrators (taught by the experience of the insurrection of 1920) have transformed themselves into an Arab National Government, which looks forward to attaining the status of complete sovereign independence through being admitted to membership in the League of Nations. At this moment, it looks as though Egypt, too, were at last within reach of the same goal. And these are the leading countries of the Islamic World.

Of course there are exceptions. In Northwest Africa, for instance, it looks (though appearances may be deceptive) as though the struggle for political liberty which was started nearly a century ago by Abd al-Kadir had ended in failure with the collapse of Abd al-Karim in 1926. Northwest Africa is on the periphery of the Islamic World; but that cannot be said of Palestine and Syria. Of Palestine I cannot speak, since I have not been there, either on this journey or before. I simply came across the wave of unrest which the Palestinian troubles were producing, a week or two ago, in Aleppo and Baghdad. I did see something of Syria; and there I found the exception which seems to prove the rule. Syria was the one Islamic country through which I passed that reminded me of the old Ottoman Empire. In Syria, one’s spirits are still oppressed by that atmosphere of helplessness and hopelessness which the neighboring peoples have thrown off by such a remarkable effort of will. The blame must be apportioned between the map makers who condemned Syria to strangulation by drawing her present frontiers and the officials who have been administering the French mandate since those frontiers were drawn.

The upshot is that Syria is Ottoman still — for evil and not for good. And her paralysis is faithfully symbolized in the headgear of her people; for, when you pass into Syria out of behatted Turkey, you are startled to find the Syrians still wearing the fez. I interpret their conservatism in this way. The new Turkish and Persian and Iraqi hats are symbols of being master in one’s own house. One clothes one’s head like a Westerner because one has successfully asserted one’s right to look him in the face and meet him as an equal. But the Syrians have not yet asserted that right. In 1925, they made a desperate attempt to drive the French out, and they failed. In Syria, the Westerners are still the masters; and all that the Syrians can do is to intimate that, although they have been beaten, they remain unreconciled. I fancy this is the message which every Syrian fez signals to every French officer in the army of occupation — if the Frenchman has eyes to see.

Another symptom of discouragement in Syria is that the Syrian women have reverted to the veil, though I am told that during the war, when Syria was still part of the Ottoman Empire, they had begun to discard the veil like their Turkish sisters. In Turkey, of course, the veil has now almost completely disappeared, and, with it, that relation between women and men which the veil implied. The change in the position of women in Turkey is, I am convinced, both genuine and profound; and although at present there is little sign that the Syrians, Iraqis, and Persians are following the Turkish lead in this matter, I feel confident that, in time, this great emancipation, which is now an accomplished fact in one Islamic country, will spread throughout the Islamic World. And this is a greater step toward true independence than abolishing the Capitulations or even than driving foreign invaders beyond the frontier.

It is interesting to notice that in Turkey the process of Westernization has been much more spontaneous among the women than among the men. The men have been dragooned into wearing hats and have submitted. The women have merely received permission from the authorities to discard the veil and to wear whatever headdress they choose. On one or two occasions when the authorities have attempted to dragoon the women, too, the women have taken steps to show that they value asserting their liberty even more than being in the fashion; and, in each of these trials of strength, the authorities have got the worst of it. At present, the vast majority of Turkish women have discarded the veil without putting on the hat. Hats are expensive and they are ugly. So the Turkish women very sensibly continue to wear the charshaf — the black, madonna-like coif or wimple which was the universal headdress of all women, in Dar al-Islam and in Christendom alike, not so many centuries ago. The Turkish women are steadily moving forward, but they are choosing their own pace, and they do not seem to be succumbing to that revolutionary frenzy which rejects the old and adopts the new on principle, without discrimination. Among the men who control the destinies of Turkey to-day, a certain streak of this inverted fanaticism is discernible. The more calm and liberal temper of the women is a valuable antidote. The women may still save Turkey from the setbacks to which revolutions are notoriously subject when the revolutionaries move too fast. The achievement of social independence is the women’s task.


But if independence is to be complete, it must be achieved not only on social and political planes but on the economic plane as well; and it is greatly to the credit of the Ghazi that he set to work on this task as far back as 1923, immediately after the Turkish War of Liberation against the Greeks and the principal Allied Powers had been won. Moreover, the Ghazi has encouraged economic regeneration by example as well as by precept; and he has avoided the common mistake of ignoring agriculture, which in all these countries must remain the basic industry for a long time to come. On the outskirts of Angora, the Ghazi has established a model farm; and similarly, on the outskirts of Baghdad, King Faysal has established a model cotton plantation. This is one of the greatest services that either ruler could render to his country.

A sign of the times is the activity of the Turkish and Persian Governments in building railways. (The Iraq Government is in the fortunate position of having had the essential skeleton of a railway system constructed for it by the British Army during the Great War. The network is now being completed by the extension to Mosul of the line that already runs from Baghdad to Kirkuk). The Ghazi found the whole northeastern half of the territory of the Turkish Republic unequipped with railways — the reason being that, before the war, the Imperial Russian Government had imposed a permanent veto upon railway construction in those Ottoman provinces, on the ground that it would threaten Russian military security in Transcaucasia! This deficiency is now being remedied as rapidly as possible. A new line has already been built from Angora to Cæsarea, and this is to be extended to Sivas and Erzerum. Another line is being carried southward from the Black Sea port of Samsun in order to open up the tobacco-growing districts round Amasia.

As for Riza Shah Pehlevi, when he took control of the destinies of Persia he found, I believe, no railways in existence at all except a five-mile tramway between Tehran and a suburban shrine, and a fragment of track, between Tabriz and the Russian frontier, which linked up the second city of the Persian Empire, not with other parts of Persia, but with Transcaucasia — in other words, with the Soviet Union.

The Shah has now embarked on the ambitious project of building a TransPersian Railway from Khor Musa, an estuary at the head of the Persian Gulf, to Bandar Gaz, a port at the southeast corner of the Caspian. The supervision of the work has been entrusted to American engineers (I have mentioned in another article that I traveled from Damascus to Baghdad in the company of one of them, who was on his way to Ahwaz).

Outsiders have criticized this undertaking on various grounds. The route that has been chosen misses, they say, most of the important centres of population and production; to carry the railway over the mountains of Luristan toward one end and over Elbruz toward the other will be very expensive; and neither the Caspian nor the Persian Gulf is any longer the natural outlet and inlet for the trade of Persia. In this era of trans-desert motor transport, they say, the right policy for the Persian Government would be to concentrate all its energies upon opening up routes to the Mediterranean — the gateway to the markets of Europe and America. The Persians reply that these criticisms miss the point. The TransPersian Railway, as planned, may not be the most profitable way of opening up Persia if the problem is considered exclusively from the economic point of view; but in Persian minds the primary function of the railway is to promote the independence of the country. On the trans-desert route to the Mediterranean, they would have to traverse the territories of two foreign countries, Iraq and Syria, which would have the trade of Persia at their mercy if its How were to be directed along that line. As it is, Persian trade is at the mercy of Iraq in the Shatt al-Arab; for the whole breadth of the Shatt is Iraqi territorial waters up to low-water mark on the Persian side, so that the Persian port of Muhammerah, at the junction of the Shatt with the Persian river Karun, has no direct communication with the open sea. The point of the Trans-Persian Railway is that the southern terminus, Khor Musa, is a port on the open sea which lies wholly within Persian territory and under Persian control. The sea may be the wrong sea from the mere economic standpoint; but from the standpoint of independence, that is a trifle!

The sincerity and the strength of this passion for independence may be gauged by the fact that both the Turkish and the Persian Governments are making a heroic attempt to build all these railways without borrowing foreign capital. Financially, this heroism is akin to folly. It is practically unheard of that such poor and undeveloped countries should be able to execute ambitious railway-building schemes out of current income. The common-sense course, in an undeveloped country with latent natural resources, is to build on credit and eventually pay off the debt as the new railways produce their effect in developing the wealth of the country. This has been the history of railway building in the United States, in Canada, in the Argentine. But then the people of these countries were not obsessed by an almost morbid fear that the foreign capitalist would make himself master of their country and take their independence away. This fear does obsess the Turkish and the Persian mind; and when one recalls the history of the financial relations between Islamic governments and Western capitalists during the past century, one is forced to admit that there is some justification for apprehensiveness.

’ Once bitten, twice shy.’ These Islamic countries do want capital, but they want independence more; and therefore, at present, they insist on imposing conditions upon the import of foreign capital which the capitalists find intolerable.

‘ Do you suppose that we are going to put money into your wretched country on these conditions?’ they ask with indignation. ‘Why, the whole of tropical Africa lies open to us and the whole of Latin America. Good-morning, gentlemen. And next time you want capital, apply elsewhere!’ But the Turks and Persians are not moved by such expostulations. Politely, they bow the foreign capitalists out, and congratulate themselves on having been firm enough to refrain from putting themselves in their power. Development is good, but independence is better; so, if it is a choice, development must take its chance.


This is an impasse which may retard the economic progress of the Islamic World for many years. It is difficult to see a way out; for the standpoints of your foreign capitalists and your Islamic government are very wide apart; and, from their respective standpoints, they are each amply justified in taking an intransigent line toward the other.

But there is an insidious factor at work which may eventually break the impasse down. Under the blandishments of salesmanship, the Muslim peoples are going the way of the rest of the world. They are beginning to develop new and expensive wants. Let us move from this writing desk in the lounge into the smoking room, and peer down through the windows at our fellow passengers traveling third class on the foredeck. There they are, apparently making the voyage in the traditional fashion. The steamship company takes fifteen rupees from them per head (from us, 274!) for the journey from Basra to Karachi; gives them water to drink and an awning to shelter them from the fury of the sun; and that is all. For the rest, they must fend for themselves, finding their own food and cooking it on deck as best they may.

Look at that old man in spectacles, lying sound asleep on the boards without even a piece of matting under him. Surely his wants are infinitesimal? Yes, but wait a moment. Let us look more closely; for, perhaps, the old man is no longer entirely typical. Look, for example, at that Indian family — husband, wife, and one little boy — who are camped a few feet away from him. They are traveling with an iron bedstead and a deck chair. And what is this that comes trundling round the corner of that pile of baggage, where three graybeards are making coffee over a spirit lamp? It is a little brown child on a toy tricycle. And that brazen note that beats upon our ears from the foot of the ladder that leads up to the fo’c’sle? I am blessed if it is n’t a gramophone. Yes, even here the insinuating arts of Western salesmanship are making headway. These simple people, who used all to live like the birds of the air, or like that sleeping old man, are acquiring the taste for expensive toys; and one can foresee what is likely to follow. To buy they must pay; to pay they must produce; to produce they must lay out capital; and to find capital in any quantity that counts they must look abroad. There are forces at work here which will assuredly bring Muslim governments and Western capitalists together in the long run.

These third-class passengers are mostly (though not exclusively) humble people. The greater folk are buying not only bedsteads and gramophones, but cars. The provincial governor who entertained me at one country town in Iraq drove his own car — an Americanism that would have shocked his predecessor under the old Ottoman dispensation! A tribal shaykh, with whom I took lunch in his little mud castle, had a chauffeur. And I am told that the chiefs of the desert tribes now have themselves driven majestically from pasturage to pasturage — at the head of their menservants and their maidservants and their wives and their children and their flocks and their herds — in motor cars. Hitherto the caravans of camels, traveling in single file, roped head to tail, have submitted to being led by a donkey. I should not be surprised to hear that they were now threatening to strike unless the donkey were replaced by something at least as up to date as an old Ford. This is conjecture, but I can testify that, throughout the Islamic countries which I have been traversing, one sees cars plying for hire in almost every village and the common people riding in them — disdaining the snail-like pace of oxcarts and arabas.

At this point, the toy turns into an effective source of economic productivity; for when cars come to be used to this extent it means that the whole standard of traveling and transportation is being raised; and this is another way of saying that one of the most important stimuli of production is being ‘tuned up.’

In Iraq, the next most conspicuous new want, after the demand for motor cars, is the demand for pumps, driven by oil engines, in order to lift the water from the Tigris and the Euphrates on to the fields. At this moment, the importation of these pumps is increasing rapidly, and the area of cultivation is expected to extend in proportion. . . .

Yes, the meshes of our economic net are entangling them. They are being drawn into our vast world-wide system of production and consumption. They are being Westernized in every limb and every organ — except the heart.

Their hearts are still far from us. I felt it all the time, but perhaps most acutely when I was talking to that quiet and kindly officer of the Iraq Police Force who was doing me the honors in a certain celebrated holy city. I had no Arabic and he no English; so, rather tentatively, I opened the conversation in Turkish, wondering whether it was quite tactful to address him in the language of the ancient oppressor from whose yoke his country had been liberated twelve years ago by British arms. As the first Turkish word fell timidly from my lips, his face lighted up. ‘Speak Turkish? I should just think so’ — and he beamed. ‘Why, I was in the Turkish service before the war. I served everywhere. In Istanbol — that is one of the great cities of the world. In Salonik — the Turks had made a really European city there, really modern, with quays and trams. Afterward I had a glimpse of Europe. I went to Brindisi in Italy. And I saw that the city which the Europeans had made at Brindisi was a poor thing compared with the city that the Turks had made at Salonik.’ ‘Then perhaps you came from Turkey-in-Europe, or at any rate from Anatolia? You speak Turkish so fluently/ ‘Oh no, I am a Baghdadi.’

Being a Baghdadi, my friend had taken service first with the British and then with the new Iraq Government after Iraq had been separated from Turkey for good and all. In this stage of his career, he had won the British Military Cross. In the previous stage, when he was fighting against the British during the Great War, he had received the Iron Cross from the Germans! And of course he had Turkish decorations as well. Like a good soldier, he had served one master at a time and each of them faithfully. He was evidently not discontented with the present régime. Probably his reason told him that Iraq was better off as an independent state than she had been as a pair of outlying and rather neglected Ottoman provinces. And I think, from what I saw of his relations with the local British police inspector, that he was also intelligent enough to realize the necessity for a temporary course of British tutelage if Iraq was to stand on her own feet in the end. But his reason and his heart spoke with different voices. When he was talking his native Arabic, no sense of national pride seemed to be evoked in him. It was the sound of Turkish that brought the light into his eyes; and, in spite of those British and German decorations, it was his Turkish service that was the romance of his life.

What had the Turks done to secure this extraordinary hold upon his affections? Knowing my Turks, I knew that they had done nothing intentionally. The Turks exert themselves to make a Baghdadi policeman love them? The mere suggestion was ludicrous. No, that was not it. It was the story of Brindisi and Salonika that supplied the key. What the Turks had done for my Baghdadi friend was this: they had made him feel that — in one case, at least, which he had seen with his own eyes — an Islamic nation had beaten a Western nation at the Franks’ own game of material efficiency. Salonika better than Brindisi! That was balm to Muslim eyes, and to Muslim sensibilities. The Turks had done for him a great thing indeed. They had given him confidence in the power of the Islamic peoples to hold their own. They had helped him to look Western civilization in the face and hold up his head. Though they had slain him (and they would have done it for a trifle), I think he would have loved them still.