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In search of missing link in Islamic and European history

In the period between the First and the Second World War, many Muslim intellectuals came to Europe. What impact did they have on each other’s, as well as on European thinking, and how were they in turn influenced? Leiden Islam expert Dr Umar Ryad has been awarded an ERC Starting Grant to investigate this ‘missing link’ in history.

Little attention for the interbellum

Muslims in Western Europe during the interbellum
Muslims in Western Europe during the interbellum

A great deal of research has been carried out on the contact between Islam and Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially on the basis of the writings of travellers to and from Islamic countries and diplomats. Similarly, the post-war period of labour migration from countries such as Turkey and Morocco, which began in the 1960s, has also been thoroughly explored. Much less is known about the circle of Muslim intellectuals, their contacts with one another and their influence on European thinkers in the intervening period. Ryad, who specialises in the relationship between Christianity and Islam in the early modern period, aims to fill this gap.

Europe as a place of refuge

Following the First World War, Europe lay in ruins, and the massive Ottoman Empire, which had also fought in the War, had collapsed. Many activists and intellectual Muslims from Arabic countries - 'intellectual agents' , according to Ryad – were, willingly or otherwise, drawn west, into Europe. They were against the Western Colonialism that had not yet ended but was encountering a growing opposition, to the dissatisfaction of the colonisers. They were also aware that the map of Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia was in the process of being re-drawn, a momentum they wanted to make use of. Ryad sees them neither as 'simply visitors' nor as 'colonial victims', but rather as 'engaged actors'.

Broadening and modernising Islam

These Muslims were Pan-Islamists who wished to broaden Islam, but they were also reformers, who wanted to modernise it. And they sought inspiration in Western culture. One example is the influential Lebanese activist Shakib Arslan (1869-1946). He was banned from his country – under the French Mandate – due to his anti-colonial ideas, and he took up residence in Geneva, Switzerland. The Muslims saw Europe as an intellectual refuge. They sought contact with their fellow believers already living in Europe, in particular their leaders, as well as with Western intellectuals. In many large cities they formed Muslim centres to try and create a religious and political movement. A point to remember is that the intellectual climate in Europe was not entirely free: the Western authorities kept a close eye on the activities of these Muslim centres.

European Muslim conference in Geneva, 1935. In the front row, slightly to the left from the centre, behind the second and the third sitting man, you can see Shakib Arslan, without a head-dress. Often, twin conferences were organised, one in an Arabic country and one in Western Europe.

European Muslim conference in Geneva, 1935. In the front row, slightly to the left from the centre, behind the second and the third sitting man, you can see Shakib Arslan, without a head-dress. Often, twin conferences were organised, one in an Arabic country and one in Western Europe.

Studying three regions

Ryad intends to study three regions:

  • Western Europe, home to Muslims from the Colonies

  • Central and Northern Europe, including Germany, home to many Tatars, Russian refugees and Muslims from the former Austrian-Hungarian Empire

  • South-Eastern Europe, where there were large communities of native Muslims

Tapping into new sources

Umar Ryad
Umar Ryad

For his research, Ryad will be making use of public sources from the interbellum period, but he will also be using unique personal archives and correspondence. Many of these sources have so far never or hardly ever been consulted. In the past few years, Ryad has set up a network of kindred spirits at universities and institutions in Denmark, Germany, Egypt, France, Saudi Arabia and Switzerland, where these documents are kept.

Ryad also aims to place the still recognisable division in Europe between fundamentalist and moderate/liberal Muslims in its historical perspective.

(15 August 2013)

 

 

 

Global Interaction of Civilizations and Languages is one of the themes for research at Leiden University.

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