The Muslim thinker Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi (1854-1902) was born in Aleppo to a noble family of Kurdish origin. He graduated from a traditional school, and by the age of 22 had been appointed editor of Aleppo's official newspaper. Two years later he began publishing his own newspaper, in which he called for the implementation of reforms and criticized the activities of Kamil Pasha, the Vali of Aleppo. The price of this criticism was the closing of the newspaper. The same fate befell his second newspaper, which he began publishing a year later. Al-Kawakibi then began to engage in politics, while occupying various positions in the Ottoman civil service. But his opinions once again led to tension in his relations with the new Vali of Aleppo, Jamil Pasha, which led to his resignation. Al-Kawakibi then decided to open an independent law office, but there too the Vali put obstacles in his way. No longer willing to tolerate the situation, al-Kawakibi, together with other Aleppans, complained about the Vali to the central government in Istanbul. As a result, an emissary was sent from Istanbul to investigate, and al-Kawakibi organized the presentation of the residents' complaints before him. The Vali on his part responded by throwing al-Kawakibi and his supporters into prison on the false charge that they were involved in a plot against his life; it was only through the intervention of the emissary that they were released.
These events increased al-Kawakibi's popularity in the town, and in 1892 he was appointed to the position of mayor of Aleppo for a period. After a number of attempts to implement reforms he resigned from this position and went to Istanbul - according to his own account, in order to study the nature of tyranny at close range. Upon his return to Aleppo he attempted to enter the tobacco trade, but failed. He once again returned to the Ottoman civil service, this time as head secretary of the shar'i court in Aleppo, but was dismissed following a combined intrigue of the Vali and the Qadi against him. He was appointed to other administrative positions and again entered into confrontations with the authorities because of his opinions. The Vali increased his harassment against him, inciting local Armenians to raid his fields, until al-Kawakibi could stand it no longer. At that time al-Kawakibi's book, Umm al-Qura, was ready for publication, and he decided to publish it even if he had to leave the Empire in order to do so.
In 1899 al-Kawakibi left Syria secretly and went to Egypt. A few days later, the Egyptian newspaper al-Mu'ayyad began to publish sections of his other book, Taba'i' al-Istibdad. Shortly afterwards both books appeared in print and aroused much commotion. A sultanic decree banned the import of the books into the Empire. The Egyptian Khedive, Abbas Hilmi, who was said to have designs on the caliphate, was impressed by al-Kawakibi's powers of expression and hired him to disseminate propaganda in his favour. Al-Kawakibi accordingly went on a six-month journey to the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa and India, returning to Cairo three months before his death. He managed to write sequels to his two books, but died before he was able to publish them.(1)
AI-Kawakibi was a revolutionary by nature. He was once heard to say, 'If I had an army at my command I would overthrow Abdulhamid's government in 24 hours'.(2) He did not have an army, but his book Taba'i' al-Istibdad [The Nature of Tyranny] was directed against the oppressive rule of Sultan Abdulhamid II, despite the fact that the Sultan's name was not mentioned explicitly in the book, and that al-Kawakibi declared at its beginning that the book was not intended against any specific tyrant.(3) In its pages al-Kawakibi attacked the tyrannical ruler who treated his subjects as a cow to be milked. The subjects must not tolerate this situation because the ruler was to serve the people and not vice versa. An intelligent society would know how to revolt against a tyrannical ruler, and the latter, when he saw the oppressed people opposing him, would cease his evil actions. Here al-Kawakibi arrived at the topic of religion and state. In a chapter entitled 'Tyranny and Religion' al-Kawakibi established that political tyranny stemmed from religious tyranny. While most religions tried to enslave the people to the holders of religious office who exploited them, the original Islam was built on foundations of political freedom standing between democracy and aristocracy. In the original Islam religious leaders did not control the people, and the existing situation, which was contrary to the spirit of Islam, was the cause of the sad situation of the Muslims at the time.(4) In another section of this book, where he appealed to non-Muslim Arabs, calling them to forget the affronts of the past and unite with the Muslims in a joint struggle against tyranny, al-Kawakibi suggested that they achieve a non-religious national unity, saying: 'Let us take care of our lives in this world and let the religions rule in the next world'.(5)
In his second book, Umm al-Qura [The Mother of Villages-Mecca], al-Kawakibi told his readers that he had decided to find the causes of the sad state of Islam at the time and had therefore established a society - including 22 scholars besides himself, from all parts of the Islamic world - which met in Mecca to discuss the necessary means for bringing about an Islamic reviva1.(6) (The society and the conference it held were, of course, nothing but the fruit of al-Kawakibi's literary imagination.) The main part of the book is a discussion about the causes of the inferiority of the Islamic world and the steps that should be taken in order to amend this situation. Here too, al-Kawakibi did not miss the opportunity to attack dictatorial regimes in the Islamic world a number of times. Thus, for example, the Muslim scholar from Jerusalem expressed his opinion that the cause of Islam's weakness was that the Muslim states had ceased to be representative democracies and had become absolute governments.(7) However, al-Kawakibi's most explicit statement with regard to the question of religion and state appeared in an appendix (lahiiqa) to the book, where he presented a dialogue between the Muslim scholar from India and an amir. The amir expressed his opinion that 'religion is one thing and the government is another ... The administration of religion and the administration of the government were never united in Islam, except during the periods of the Rashidi caliphs and Umar ibn Abd al-'Aziz ...' Afterwards, the caliphate was separated from the secular government. Therefore, the amir suggested the following plan: an Arab caliph of Quraysh descent would be set up in Mecca, whose political authority would be limited to the Hijaz. He would work for the establishment of an advisory council with 100 members from all the Islamic countries, which would concentrate only on religious matters. The oath of loyalty to the caliph should be renewed every three years and would become void if he transgressed certain conditions. The election of the caliph would be in the hands of the advisory council. The caliph would not intervene in the political or administrative matters of other Islamic countries. He would not have any sort of military force under his command; internal security in the Hijaz would be in the hands of a military force of two to three thousand Muslim soldiers from other states, under the command of a Muslim also from another state, and defending the advisory council.(8)
(1) A concise book about al-Kawakibi's life is SamI al-Dahhan, Abd al-Rahmin al-Kawiikibi 1854-1902 (Cairo, 1964). See also Muhammad Gharib al-Tabbakh, A'lam al-Nubala' bi-Ta'rikh Halab al-Shahba' (Aleppo, [1341/1923] 2nd rep. 1408/1988), vol.7, pp. 473-87, Ahmad Amin, Zu'ama' al-Islah fi al-'Asr al-Hadith (Cairo, 1965), pp. 249-79, Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1798-1939 (London,  1970), pp. 271-73, and Elie Kedourie, Arabic Political Memoirs and Other Studies (London, 1974), pp.109-1.
(2) So Ibrahfm Salim aI-Najjar related in the periodical al-Hadith (1951), p. 118, cited in
al-Dahhan, Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi, p.37.
(3) Al-Rahhala K [Abd aI-Rahman al-Kawakibi], Taba'i' al-Istibdad wa-Masari' al-Isti'bad (Cairo ed., 1350/1931), p. 2.
(4) Ibid., pp. 12-24.
(5) Ibid., pp. 109-11.
(6) Al-Sayyid al-Furati [Abd aI-Rahman al-Kawakibi], Umm al-Qura (Cairo ed., 1350/1931), pp. 3-6.
(7) Ibid., pp. 25-26.
(8) Ibid., pp. 197-209.
Religion and state
in the thought of Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi