In the Middle Eastern empires and Qing China, problems of
internal political decline were accentuated by the menace of
Western intrusion. It appeared that China would recover
fully under the Manchus and that the forces of Western
merchants could be contained at the ports of Macao and
Canton. Qing China appeared as safely dominant in East Asia
In contrast, the Ottoman Empire seemed on the verge of
collapse in the eighteenth century. Internal independence
movements, European encroachments, and political disarray at
Constantinople seemed to be harbingers of imminent disaster.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the picture had
changed. European military intervention in China exposed the
Qing dynasty as weak to external assault. Internal
disruptions swept away the imperial system of China leaving
little in its place. Foreign forces competed for dominance
in the wreckage of the Qing empire. The Ottoman Empire
recovered from its eighteenth-century malaise. Although much
of the Middle East was lost, Turkish reformers overthrew the
sultanate, but quickly reformulated a new government.
- From Empire to Nation: Ottoman Retreat and
the Birth of Turkey
The Ottoman Empire depended on capable sultans. When the
quality of rulers declined, internal disintegration was
rapid. Factional struggles within the palace and corruption
of provincial officials paralyzed the government. As
competition with European imports destroyed the market for
Ottoman products, urban artisans rebelled. The Ottomans
became progressively more dependent on European goods.
External pressures were also severe. First the Habsburg
Empire, then the Russians seized territory. Independence
movements in the Balkans also challenged and eventually threw off Ottoman
- Reform and Survival
Britain's intervention in the Mediterranean to prevent
Russian access actually saved the Ottoman Empire from
collapse in the later nineteenth century. Survival came to
depend on the abilities of individual sultans to enact
reforms. Attempts by Sultan Selim III to enact military and
administrative changes angered the Janissaries, who overthrew
him in 1807. Fear of Janissary conservatism led Sultan
Mahmud II to destroy the corps in 1826. With less to fear
from military reaction, Mahmud created a diplomatic corps and
westernized the remaining military forces.
In the Tanzimat reforms from 1839 to 1876, Westernization was
introduced to other facets of Ottoman society. University
education was reorganized, postal and telegraph systems were
introduced, newspapers were established, and legal reforms
were mandated. A new constitution along Western lines
appeared in 1876 as the culmination of the reforms. Artisans
suffered from the opening of the Empire to Western trade, and
women gained little from the reforms.
- Repression and Revolt
As the reforms produced a Western-educated elite, many came
to view the sultanate itself as archaic. Sultan Abdul
Hamid reacted to the perceived threat by nullifying the new
constitution and imprisoning many of the Western-oriented
elite. Resistance to Abdul Hamid's reactionism led to his
overthrow by the Young Turks in 1908. A group of military
officers seized the government, restored the constitution,
and promised additional reforms. The sultan was reduced to a
powerless religious figurehead. The officers who ran the
government proved no more successful than the sultans in
maintaining the farther outposts of the Ottoman Empire. Arab
portions of the empire became increasingly resistant to the
maintenance of Turkish rule. Turkish participation in World
War I on the side of the Germans initiated the final
dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.
- Western Intrusions and the Crisis in
the Arab Islamic Heartlands
By the early nineteenth century, the Ottomans had controlled
the Arab peoples of the Middle East for centuries. Arabs
were aware of the diminishing capacity of the Turks to defend
them from European encroachments.
- Muhammad Ali and the Failure of Westernization in Egypt
Following the French withdrawal from Egypt in 1801, Muhammad
Ali, an Albanian army officer, emerged as the ruler of the
region. Muhammad Ali introduced Western-style military
reforms that enabled him to ignore the Ottoman sultan.
Muhammad Ali extended his control to Arab Syria. Attempts to
introduce economic reforms based on the production of
commercial crops for export were less successful. Diversion
of available money to the military forced Muhammad Ali to
ally with the ayan and suppress the peasantry.
After his death in 1848, Muhammad Ali's successors were
unable to maintain his military dominance and retreated to
Egypt and the Sudan. The successors were referred to after
1867 as khedives.
- Bankruptcy, European Intervention and Strategies of
Muhammad Ali's successors continued his general plans with
disastrous results. Cotton production expanded at the
expense of food products. As a single export commodity,
Egyptian cotton was vulnerable to price and demand swings in
the world market. Educational reforms were limited to the
elite. The general population barely profited from the
reforms. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the
khedives were heavily in debt to European creditors.
Europeans were attracted to Egyptian cotton and the plan to
construct the Suez Canal, completed in 1869. Islamic
intellectuals met in Egypt to discuss means of expelling the
European threat. Some argued for strict Islamic religious
observance, others for greater Westernization in science and
technology. The two groups were unable to reconcile their
different approaches. French and British investors, who held
the majority of shares in the Suez Canal, urged their
governments to intervene directly in Egypt. An Egyptian army
rebellion under Ahmad Orabi induced the British to send
military units to Egypt in 1882. Thereafter the
administration of Egypt was in the hands of British consuls.
- Jihad: The Mahdist Revolt in the Sudan
Egyptian forces had long been engaged in attempts to extend
control down the Nile River into the Sudan. The khedives
enjoyed little success, and their control was limited to
towns, such as Khartoum. Attempts in the 1870s to eliminate
the slave trade added to the discontent with Egyptian
overlordship in the Sudan.
Resistance to Egyptian and British influence was focused by
Muhammad Achmad, head of a Sufi brotherhood in the Sudan.
Taking the title of Mahdi, Muhammad Achmad claimed descent
from Muhammad and declared a jihad. He offered to purge
Islam of foreign influences and restore purity. The military
forces of the Mahdi enjoyed military success against the
Egyptians until his death from disease. His role as leader
of the Sudan insurgence was taken by Khalifa Abdallahi. A
British expeditionary forceled by General Kitchener finally defeated the Mahdist army
in a campaign from 1896 to 1898. The British thus extended
their power along the Nile.
- Retreat and Anxiety: Islam Imperiled
Much Islamic territory passed under the control of Western
forces during the nineteenth century. Ottoman reformers and
religious revolutionaries were able to slow the process, but
not halt it entirely. Islamic civilization became
increasingly anxious over its fate.
- The Last Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of
the Qing Empire in China
Nurhaci was able to unite the Manchu nomads under eight
banner armies and to introduce Chinese administrative reforms
into Manchu government. After a local Chinese official
invited the Manchus within the Great Wall, the nomads
advanced and captured the Ming capital at Beijing in 1644.
As a result, the Manchus were able to establish a new
dynasty, the Qing. The Qing incorporated much of the former
Ming state, including the scholar-gentry, but assumed a more
direct role in appointment of local officials. Ethnic
Chinese continued to be admitted into the imperial
government. The Manchus, unlike the Mongols, retained the
civil service examination system.
- Economy and Society in the Early Centuries of Qing Rule
The Manchus preserved the integrity of the Confucian social
hierarchy. Women continued to be subject to patriarchal
authority in the household, although they might hope to gain
some control over household activities. Widows were
permitted to remarry. The Qing attempted to relieve distress
among the Chinese peasantry, but population pressures made
their efforts virtually useless. As the value of labor fell,
rural landlords gained a stranglehold over the rural economy.
Commercial and urban expansion continued under the Qing.
Profits from overseas exports produced a new group of
merchants, the compradors, who specialized in silk exports.
- Rot from Within: Bureaucratic Breakdown and Social
By the late eighteenth century, corruption riddled the civil
examination system. Posts became hereditary or available for
purchase. Wealthy families used the bureaucracy as a means
of establishing local authority. Revenues were diverted from
state projects to enrich local bureaucrats. Spending on the
military and public works projects declined. Floods wiped
out some of China's most productive farm land. Food
shortages produced widespread peasant migrations and
banditry. Problems were of such scale that the normal cycle
of dynastic decline and replacement was threatened.
- Barbarians at the Southern Gates: The Opium War
By the nineteenth century, a new type of barbarian, the
Europeans, threatened China. Initial confrontations arose
over the British plan to export opium from India to China in
order to improve the European balance of trade. The Qing
government recognized the threat to both their economy
and their society posed by unlimited importation of opium.
In the 1830s, the Qing emperor appointed Lin Zexu, a renowned
bureaucrat, to stamp out the opium trade. Lin blockaded
Canton and confiscated European opium supplies. British
merchants demanded that their government intervene to protect
investments. In 1839, the British routed the Chinese junks
in the first stages of the Opium War. When the British sent
a military force ashore, the Qing emperor sued for peace.
By the 1890s, 90 Chinese ports were open to European,
Japanese, and American merchants. Britain, France, Germany,
and Russia actually leased certain ports and their
hinterlands. Trade passed increasingly into the hands of the
non-Chinese, and the Qing court was forced to accept European
- A Civilization at Risk: Rebellion and Failed Reforms
Defeat at the hands of the Europeans helped to set off a
series of rebellions against the Qing. In the 1850s and
1860s, the Taiping rebellion, a semi-Christian movement under
a prophetic leader, called for land redistribution, the
liberation of women, and the destruction of the Confucian
scholar-gentry. When the local gentry became sufficiently
alarmed, provincial forces finally defeated the rebellion.
Honest officials at the provincial level began to carry out
much needed reforms, including railway construction and
military modernization. Resources moved from the
central court to the provinces, until the provincial leaders
posed a real threat to the Qing government. The Manchus
continued to obstruct almost all programs of reform, despite
repeated defeats at the hands of the Europeans and the
The last decades of the dynasty were dominated by Cixi, the
dowager empress. Cixi refused all attempts at reform. The
dowager empress clandestinely supported the Boxer Rebellion
from 1898 to 1901 as a means of ousting foreign influence.
- The Fall of the Qing
Resistance to the Qing at the end of the nineteenth century
was centered in secret societies, which sponsored local
uprisings against the central government. The involvement of
Western-educated compradors and some of the scholar-gentry
gave these scattered movements more focus. Although they
drew on Western ideas for a reformed government, the
revolutionaries wanted to restore Chinese territorial
integrity and expel foreigners from their soil. In 1911,
widespread uprisings throughout China could not be put down
by provincial officials. In 1912, the last Qing emperor,
Puyi, a boy of 12, abdicated.
- The End of a Civilization?
Even prior to their abdication, the Qing had abandoned the
Confucian examination system as inappropriate to the problems
of the government. Abandonment of the examinations signaled
the end of patterns of civilization in China first
established almost two and one half millennia before.
- Conclusion: Islamic and Chinese Responses
to the Challenge of the West Compared
The Muslims were long accustomed to the military threat posed
by the West. In China, the West's military dominance in the
nineteenth century came as a rude surprise. The Muslims
could justify some borrowing from the West on the basis of a
shared cultural foundation the Judaeo-Christian and Greek
heritage from which both civilizations drew. China had
remained intentionally culturally isolated from the West.
They regarded Western culture as barbaric.
More politically fragmented than the Chinese, the Muslims had
time to learn from early mistakes. The Chinese equated the
survival of the civilization with the maintenance of the Qing
dynasty. When the dynasty collapsed, Chinese civilization
was destroyed. Muslims could always fall back on religious
faith as a last resort. The Chinese had no great religious tradition with
which to counter European belief in its inherent superiority.