Islam and Nationalism

History and culture have always contributed to our understanding of the ever-changing roles religion has had over time. The distance between religion and our daily actions has been shrinking over time with its increased involvement in our daily political and social affairs. The survival of a religion is pegged on it been able to shape itself according to the current power and social dynamics in play. This has seen Islam historically finding its way right in the middle of the modern world problems. (Chidester, 2005)

Islam’s modernity has seen the religion have its voice heard beyond the confines of the minaret calls to prayer. The identity of Islam has been shaped by the significant geopolitical dynamics in the turn of the twentieth century such as the wars and political alliances. Islam and its leadership were caught up in the middle. This article will show how religious leadership played politically influential wars to shape the identity of the Muslims during the war and post-war periods. The Islamic political voice expectedly faced a myriad of challenges because it threatened to tip the scales of power and this kept very powerful forces sleepless nights. (Wilson, 2005)

Discussion of religion in colonial contexts shows a pattern of blatant disregard of the importance of its functions and how it identified with the people by colonial masters. The British colonial masters were especially the culprits when it came to denying Islam the voice to express itself, from North Africa to the Middle East.  As it will be shown with Islam in the former Ottoman Empire, this inevitably forces the religion to participate in this modernity by appealing to its followers to take a certain political or military path. Islamic leadership was at the forefront of the geopolitical events that shaped the world during the pre-war, world wars, and cold war periods.

The power wielded by Ottoman Sheikhs was more than religious, as seen by the global call for Muslims around the world to join in the Holy Jihad against the Allied forces as seen in   here  The 1914 declaration by the Ottoman chief cleric gave Islam the nationalism call that it did not have in periods preceding the war. The political power wielded by sheikhs, under the influence of German Nazis coalition, was further boosted by the ouster of the previous temperate regime and the incoming of more radical Young Turks who were more than willing to identify Islam with the War. (Aydin, 2016)

Figure 1 The Sheikh Ul-Islam proclaiming the Holy War in Istanbul, after the Turkish government formally entered the war.  Alamy Stock Photo. (2014)

The quest for pan-Islamism was however not really achieved, because Muslims all over the world did not directly identify with the Ottoman jihad. To the disappointment of the ottoman cleric, many Muslims such as the ones in India took up arms and fought alongside the Allied British forces that they had been called upon to fight. In the long run, the Ottomans were defeated alongside their German counterparts by the British team.  The Islamic caliphate and its proponents were done away with. The defeated Muslims either had to remain loyal to their British masters or continue with underground mobilizations of a nationalist agenda inspired by Islam. During the inter-war period, the pan-Islamic movement persisted. (Reogan, 2016)

Religious modernity also saw calls for the replacement of sharia law with another constitution for the caliphate. Secularist factions of nationalism in the Ottoman Empire saw Islam as a hindrance to overall social modernity. Failing to acknowledge the great role Islam played in politically identifying the people in the War, the secularist authorities ended up shutting down sharia schools and abolishing Quran studies. The final blow came when Turkey was officially secularized in 1928. The country was no longer the symbol of Islamic panache, but a symbol of the religion’s failure to defend its people.  (Reza, 2011) 

Figure 2 Muslim Turkish Soldiers in Ukraine dressed and equipped in German  Military Style  (1915-1916) History.Com Stock Photo (2018)

The Cold-War Turkey environment brought different dynamics for the role of Islamic leadership in an era of increased secularization and modernization. A national divide between two factions was evident, with one calling for secularization and the other for returning Turkey to an Islamic republic just like in the Ottoman era. This brought to light the role of education as a threat to Islamic identity. This is because the faction calling for full secularization of Turkey was mainly comprised of young university students. On the other hand, the rural uneducated majority in Turkey wanted the traditional sharia laws of Islam to rule Turkey. However, these two factions had a common enemy that they united to face against.

Figure 3Kemal Ataturk: First Turkish President who Introduced secularist reforms in the formerly Islamic Ottoman State. History.Com Stock Photo

 They were both against the kemalist approach to nationalism. Kemalism was coined at the then modernist Turkish President Kemal Ataturk. This official state ideology was anchored on the six points in the Republican Peoples Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, or CHP). The rational theology in the secularization of Turkey made Islam a by-standing religion in his rule. More reading on Kemalism can be done by following this link   Therefore, they united under the banner of Islam. The Islamization movements gained wide popularity in Turkey in the 1950s. The spread of political Islam was not a Turkish affair only. Arab and Middle Eastern nations also joined the bandwagon and rose against their secular regimes in the 1960s. (Ayturk, 2014)

       Political Islam and Islamization shaped the identity of the religion as a motivational and calls to arm call for Muslims during and after the war period. Islam can be termed to have being a political religion in the Ottoman Empire because it was used as a rallying tool for nationalism during and after the war. It has been established how Islamic leadership gave a religion a role to play in the period of modernity. During the war period, Islamic teachings were applied as tools of propaganda in a bid to unite all the Muslims in the world into a single fighting force.

However, Islam’s role in achieving unity of all Muslims in the era of modernism was not played in a very welcoming field. Islamic religious and political leadership faced immense opposition. First, the slow uptake to the call of jihad by Muslims all over the world was demoralizing to the visionaries of the caliphate. Moreover, divide and rule tactics were used as to create different jihad factions that consistently opposed each other ideologically.    


Cemil Aydin, The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History (Harvard University Press, 2016), Ch. 4, “The Battle of Geopolitical Illusions (1908–1924)” and Ch. 5 “Muslim Politics of the Interwar Period (1924–1945)”

David Chidester, “Colonialism and Postcolonialism.” Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol. 3. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 1853-1860. Gale Virtual Reference Library.

Ilker Ayturk “Nationalism and Islam in Cold War Turkey, 1944-69” Middle Eastern Studies. 2014. Vol. 4 No. 5. 693-719.

John F Wilson, “Modernity,” Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol. 9. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 6108-6112. Gale Virtual Reference Library.

Kemalism – Oxford Islamic Studies Online. (2019). Retrieved December 3, 2019, from website:

The Sheikh Ul-Islam proclaiming the Holy War in Istanbul, after the Turkish government formally entered the war.  Alamy Stock Photo. (2014)

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