Modernity in the Middle East


           The above picture was taken around 1870 by a French traveller visiting the Ottoman Empire. To describe it, in the context of an exhibition named "Visiting the Middle East in the XIXth Century: a European fantasy", Cecile Cayrol wrote: "The photography of the Ortakeui Mosque illustrates the mythical view that Europeans constructed while opposing their own experience of modernity to the Middle Eastern landscapes and populations they were discovering"[1]. This example is symptomatic of the historical trend that consists in describing the XIXth century as a period of mutation in the Middle East, eager to catch up with Western's modernity. But before examining to what extent this paradigm is genuine, let us define who and what is at stake, as well as the space-time framework.

            First of all, what is modernity? Although it is hard to provide a univocal description of this term, as it is utterly controversial, this essay will use the following definition: "Modernity is a characteristic form of civilization, which challenges all prior traditional cultures. Faced with the geographic and symbolic diversity of these cultures, modernity appears as an homogeneous paradigm, which irradiates from Europe to the entire world"[2].

            Second, where is the Middle East and who are its main protagonists? This essay will consider that the Middle East is comprised of the territories belonging to the Ottoman Empire, the Qajar dynasty, as well as the entire Arabic Peninsula and the totality of North Africa[3].


            Third, when does the XIXth century start and end? This essay will discuss based on the widest understanding of this period. Thus, let us consider that the XIXth century starts in the Middle East in 1789, when Sultan Selim III gathers a number of ulemas, officers and foreign philosophers to think of reforms for the Ottoman Empire, and that it ends with the beginning of World War I, in 1914.

            Now, to what extent is the Middle East entering the "Modern Age" during the XIXth century? Is the Middle East only responding to the external pressure of Europe's modernization? Or are there also internal mutations, peculiar to the Middle East, that paved the way towards modernity?

            This essay will first demonstrate that a priori, the process of modernization that the Middle East is undergoing during the XIXth century is a genuine one, which can be described as a top-down phenomenon, launched by the states. However, it appears secondly that the societies themselves are significantly evolving, and forging their own path to explore modernity. Lastly, care must be taken to avoid any teleological view of this period: modernization was not without resistance.


*  *  *

            Let us first discuss why the Ottoman Empire, the Qajar dynasty and the Egyptian leaders were willing to modernize their territories. This is due by and large to the emergence, in the XIXth century, of what historians named the paradigm of decline in the Middle East. Although this phenomenon's importance might have been over-exaggerated, it remains a reality. The diary of Rifa'a al-Tahtawi provides a helpful account that bears witness of this phenomenon.  Rifa'a al-Tahtawi was an Egyptian reformer that travelled to France around the 1820s, and compared his system to the one he was experiencing in Europe. The conclusion he reached, and that was shared by both the Qajar dynasty and the reformers of the Ottoman Empire, was quite logical: France's political organization "superiority"[4], embedded by its constitutional regime, was due to its scientific and technical development. This triggered the political ambition to catch up with Europe by launching a set of reforms. "In this regard, the Ottomans were a model and an intermediary for the Persians towards modernity, as the latter were further from Europe[5]".

            This phenomenon of modernization had three main centers of gravity. The first of them is comprised of the two successive phases or reforms launched by the Ottoman Empire between 1789 and 1876, often described as "defensive developmentalism", namely as a response to the pressure of the Europeans' intrusive modernity[6]. Between 1789 and 1807, Sultan Selim III decided to take steps to catch up with the European societies. The reforms he took mainly concerned the army, the administration, and the economy. However, this European-oriented reform yet did not suppress the Ottoman organization of society, which resulted in a "dualist[7]" tension that reached its paroxysmal point in 1807, when the Janissaries overthrew Selim III. This event reveals the importance of the traditional elitist military casts - mainly the Janissaries in Istanbul and the Mamluks in Egypt - in hampering the modernization process of the XIXth century. The second set of reforms is the Tanzimat. It gathers several measures that were implemented between 1839 and 1876. However, the Tanzimat was foreshadowed by Sultan Mahmud II (1808-1839). Consider this official statement from 1830: "I distinguish between my subjects, Muslims at the mosque, Christians at the Church and Jewish at the synagogue, but there is no other difference between them. My affection and my sense of justice for all of them is strong [...]"[8]. The Tanzimat in itself was launched by the 1839 Reform Decree. The main transformations entailed by the Tanzimat affected the tax system, notably by the introduction of a new system of land records that replaced the ancient tax farm system with individual titles, the army, through the introduction of a regular conscription, the administration, with the introduction of the census, the educational system, through the implementation of a network of elementary and middle public schools, and the political institutions, as the role of the Sultan became nearly symbolic, eclipsed by the Council of Ministers. Yet in 1876, the establishment of a Constitution, which established a Parliament, capped this evolution. This will be further discussed in the last part of this essay.

            The second center of gravity of this top-down modernization process is Egypt under Muhammad Ali (1804-1849). Muhammad Ali's reforms significantly and deeply contributed to the construction of Modern Egypt. He succeeded in monopolizing the wealth of Egypt, and used the revenues to establish a powerful army and a bureaucratic state. He applied the technology of the industrial revolution to produce weapons and textiles for his army. He dispatched education missions to

European capitals and created a translation bureau to publish European books and technical manuals in Arabic editions. He even succeeded in suppressing the Mamluks in 1811. Muhammad Ali put Egypt on the path of reform, in a way that the Ottoman themselves imitated during the Tanzimat.

            In Iran, the situation is quite different. The Qajar dynasty (1786-1925) mainly relied on the local notables, and did not have any centralized bureaucracy or army until at least the end of the XIXth century. A few reforms were launched, but they failed to raise the tax revenues, which is symptomatic of the failure of the "defensive modernization" in Iran according to Abrahamian[9].

            Lastly, according to Gelvin[10], modernization was implemented through imperialism during the XIXth century, either by colonization, which mainly took place in Algeria and was launched by the French, or by occupation, such as in the case of Egypt, starting in 1882 with the British invasion, or by the implementation of a special administrative mandate in the case of Mount Lebanon. However, Gelvin argues, in all these cases, modernization remained a rhetorical argument rather than a concrete political will, and the reality was closer to European's exploiting these territories' resources.

*  *  *

            Until this point, this essay has analyzed the efforts of modernization launched by institutional powers as a response to Europeans' pressure. However, modernization also came from the Middle Eastern societies themselves.

            One of the fundamental trend of the XIXth century in terms of modernization is the nahda. This "Arabic literary renaissance"[11] is characterized by the will to reinterpret the traditional Arab cultural sources in the light of modernity. The nahda, although largely influenced by European ideas, is a distinctive movement, peculiar to the Arab world, which was initiated by Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani and his student Muhammad Abduh.

            The influence of the nahda can be read in the diary of a Wasif Jawhariyyeh, a musician living in Jerusalem during the XIXth century[12], who described the emergence of a real "modern public sphere"[13], due to the new importance of the city, the spreading of the printing press and the ubiquity of the coffee houses, a real place of exchange and dialog.  

            It is also crucial to mention the role played by a genuine intellegentsia, in Turkey and in Iran, at the turn of the XXth century. In Istanbul, one of the most significant manifestation of this phenomenon is embedded by the Young Turks. Born on July 14th 1889, that is to say exactly one hundred years later after the French Revolution, the Young Turks were a reformist political party, largely influenced by Europeans ideals, that seized power in 1908. By contrast, in Iran, the reformist Persian movement gathered diverse secret societies called anjumanha. These societies were particularly influenced by the Positivism of Auguste Comte. Moreover, at the end of the XIXth century, the emergence of a European-influenced intellectual class in Iran finally led to the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1906.

            Finally, it is essential to discuss the relation of nationalism, which became audible during the XIXth century, and modernity. Nationalism is a European concept, a concept that the French Revolution established as one of the pillars of modernity. Although nationalism may not be the dominant paradigm of the XIXth century in the Middle East, it remains a significant force. We might consider the case of Egypt, were the slogan coined by the Egyptians during the British occupation "Egypt for the Egyptian".

            *  *  *

            To conclude, let us keep in mind that this modernization process was far from being a smooth process. In the case of the Ottoman Empire, the Tanzimat was largely criticized by the Muslim population, who considered the Tanzimat as incompatible with Islam. Therefore, the reforms launched by the Ottoman Empire between 1876 and 1906 turned back the Tanzimat spirit. They are described by Gelvin as "autoritarian reforms"[14]. This idea was shared by other movements of the Middle Eastern societies, such as the wahhabism or certain branches of the salafism, which construct their project to counter the progression of what they considered to be a Westernization rather than modernization.

            Moreover, the opening to European trade and to European techniques, such as the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, or the first oil concession granted to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in 1901 by Iran, as well as the implementation of expensive reforms, eventually led to a situation of financial dependency and to the subjection of the Ottoman Empire and Iran economy to the Europeans creditors.

            Therefore, during the XIXth century, the Middle East was the stage of a genuine modernization. However, this process was far from being a completely successful, irresistible and homogeneous movement.

© Rosalie Calvet, Novembre 2015



[1] Cécile Cayrol, virtual exhibition,

[2] J. Baudrillard, A. Brunn, J. Lageira, « MODERNITÉ », Encyclopædia Universalis [online], viewed on oct 23rd, 2015.

[3] Although one can contest this definition of the Middle East, this essay has chosen to define the Middle East in the broader sense possible.

[4] Rogan, Eugene, The Arabs, Chapter 4

[5] Kaval Allan, "Turquie et Iran", Le Clés du Moyen Orient,

[6] Gelvin, History of the Modern Middle East, Chap. 6

[7] Hanioglu, An History of the Late Ottoman Empire, chap 2

[8] Kaynar 1954, p. 100 , reprod . Karal in 1982

[9] Abrahamian, A History of Modern Iran, chap 4.

[10] Gelvin, History of the Modern Middle East, Chap. 6

[11] Gelvin, History of the Modern Middle East, Chap. 8

[12] Gelvin, History of the Modern Middle East, Chap. 7

[13] idem

[14] Gelvin, History of the Modern Middle East, Chap. 6