The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 4

By Judith M. Brown; Wm. Roger Louis et al. | Go to book overview

17

The British Empire and the Muslim World

FRANCIS ROBINSON

By the 1920s the British Empire embraced substantially more than half the Muslim peoples of the world. For much of the twentieth century Britain was the greatest influence over their development. Imperial security in large part dictated which territories of former Muslim empires or petty Muslim states the British came to rule. Imperial interests in combination with those of rival empires and local forces dictated precisely, and sometimes not so precisely, where the boundaries of new states were to fall. By the same token, they determined which peoples would have to learn to live together—or not, as the case may be—in the increasingly demanding environments of the modern economy and modern state. Imperial techniques of government shaped the developing politics of these dependencies, often leaving major legacies to the years when the British had gone. The British Empire was the context in which many Muslims experienced the transition to modernity.

At the beginning of the assertion of British power in the eighteenth century what has been termed the Islamic world system was almost at an end. Long-distance trade, a shared body of knowledge, a common legal system, and a common language of learning had linked peoples from Africa's Atlantic coast through to Central and South Asia. As time went on their influence had reached to the China Sea and island South-East Asia. According to the pattern of commerce and the play of power, great entrepôt cities flourished from time to time in West Asia and the eastern Mediterranean—Baghdad, Cairo, Istanbul, Isfahan. Ibn Battuta, the fourteenth-century Moroccan traveller, who spent twenty-four years journeying through this world visiting the territories of over forty modern Muslim states and finding employment as a judge, attests to the reality of this system. So, too, do those eighteenth-century scholars whose pilgrimages to Mecca were made from places as far afield as Timbuktu, Sinkiang, and Sumatra.

By the late eighteenth century the great empires which had dominated the Muslim world since the early sixteenth century were either dead or dying. The Safavid was long gone, having crumbled in an afternoon before a whiff of Afghan tribal power; the Mughal was reduced to a few villages around Delhi; the Ottoman

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