Bonaparte and his chief of staff in Egypt, painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1863

Early on the morning of 5 May 1798, Napoleon slipped out of Paris to join a 40,000-strong French army sailing towards Egypt. A popular general after his victories in northern Italy, he had been lobbying his civilian superiors for an invasion of Britain. But the Royal Navy was still too strong, and the French were not ready to confront it. In the meantime, France needed colonies in order to prosper, as its foreign minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand believed, and a presence in Egypt would not only compensate the French for their loss of territory in North America, it could also pose a serious challenge to the British East India Company, which produced highly profitable cash crops in its Indian possessions.

Expanding across India, the British had expelled the French from most of their early bases on the coast. In 1798, the British were locked into a fierce battle with one of their most wily Indian opponents, Tipu Sultan, an ally of France. French control of Egypt could tip the balance of power against the British in India while also deterring the Russians, who eyed the Ottoman Empire. ‘As soon as I have made England tremble for the safety of India,’ Napoleon declared, ‘I shall return to Paris and give the enemy its death blow.’ Apart from his country’s geopolitical aims, Napoleon cherished his own private fantasy of conquering the Orient. ‘Great reputations’, he was convinced, ‘are only made in the Orient; Europe is too small.’ From Egypt he planned to push eastwards in an Alexander-the-Great-style invasion of Asia, with him riding an elephant and holding a new, personally revised Koran that would be the harbinger of a new religion.

Napoleon travelled to Egypt with a large contingent of scientists, philosophers, artists, musicians, astronomers, architects, surveyors, zoologists, printers and engineers, all meant to record the dawn of the French Enlightenment in the backward East. The momentousness of the occasion – the first major contact between modernizing Europe and Asia – was not lost on Napoleon. On board his ship in the Mediterranean, he exhorted his soldiers: ‘You are about to undertake a conquest, the effects of which on civilization and commerce of the world are immeasurable.’ He also drafted grand proclamations addressed to the Egyptian people, describing the new French Republic based upon liberty and equality, even as he professed the highest admiration for the Prophet Muhammad and Islam in general. Indeed the French, he claimed, were also Muslims, by virtue of their rejection of the Christian Trinity. He also made some noises – familiar to us after two centuries of imperial wars disguised as humanitarian interventions – about delivering the Egyptians from their despotic masters.

Appearing without warning in Alexandria in July 1798, the French overcame all military opposition as they proceeded towards Cairo. Egypt was then nominally part of the Ottoman Empire though it was ruled directly by a caste of former slave-soldiers called Mamluks. Its meagre armies were not equipped to fight war-hardened French soldiers who outnumbered the Egyptians and were also backed by the latest military technology.

Reaching Cairo after some easy victories, Napoleon commandeered a mansion for himself on the banks of the then Azbakiya Lake, installed the scholars from his baggage train at a new Institut d’Égypte, and set about politically engineering Egypt along republican lines. He thought up a Divan consisting of wise men, an Egyptian version of the Directory that exercised executive power in Paris. But where were wise men to be found in Cairo, which had been abandoned by its ruling class, the Ottoman Mamluks? Much to their bewilderment, Cairo’s leading theologians and religious jurists found themselves promoted to political positions and frequently summoned for consultation by Napoleon – marking the first of many such expedient attempts at politically empowering Islam by supposedly secular Westerners in Asia.

Suppressing his allegiance to the Enlightenment, Napoleon vigorously appeased conservative Muslim clerics in the hope they might form the bulwark of pro-French forces in the country. He dressed up in Egyptian robes on the Prophet’s birthday and, much to the disquiet of his own secular-minded soldiers, hinted at a mass French conversion to Islam. Some sycophantic (and probably, derisive) Egyptians hailed him as Ali Bonaparte, naming him after the revered son-in-law of the Prophet. This encouraged Napoleon to suggest to the clerics that the Friday sermon at al-Azhar Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest buildings, be said in his name.

The devout Muslims were flabbergasted. The head of the Divan, Sheikh al-Sharqawi, recovered sufficiently to say, ‘You want to have the protection of the Prophet …You want the Arab Muslims to march beneath your banners. You want to restore the glory of Arabia … Become a Muslim!’ An evasive Napoleon replied: ‘There are two difficulties preventing my army and me from becoming Muslims. The first is circumcision and the second is wine. My soldiers have the habit from their infancy, and I will never be able to persuade them to renounce it.’

Napoleon’s attempt to introduce Egyptian Muslims to the glories of French secularism and republicanism were equally doomed. Cairenes deplored his dramatic alterations to the cityscape, and the corrupting influence of the French in general. As one observer wrote, ‘Cairo has become a second Paris, women go about shamelessly with the French; intoxicating drinks are publicly sold and things are committed of which the Lord of Heaven would not approve.’ In the summer of 1798, Napoleon made it mandatory for all Egyptians to wear the tricolour cockade, the knotted ribbon preferred by French republicans. Inviting members of the Divan to his mansion, he tried to drape a tricolour shawl over the shoulders of Sheikh al-Sharqawi. The Sheikh’s face turned red from fear of blasphemy and he flung it to the ground. An angry Napoleon insisted that the clerics would have to wear the cockade at least, if not the shawl. An unspoken compromise was finally arrived at: Napoleon would pin the cockade to the chests of the clerics, and they would take it off as soon as they left his company.

The Islamic eminences may have been trying to humour their strange European conqueror while trying to live for another day. Many other Muslims saw plainly the subjugation of Egypt by a Christian from the West as a catastrophe; and they were vindicated when French soldiers, while suppressing the first of the Egyptian revolts against their occupation, stormed the al-Azhar mosque, tethered their horses to the prayer niches, trampled the Korans under their boots, drank wine until they were helpless and then urinated on the floor.

Napoleon, though ready to burn hostile villages, execute prisoners and tear down mosques for the sake of wide roads, actually indulged in fewer atrocities in Egypt than he was to elsewhere; he was always keen to express his admiration for Islam. Still, the Egyptian cleric and scholar ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti, who chronicled Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt, described it as ‘great battles, terrible events, disastrous facts, calamities, unhappiness, sufferings, persecutions, upsets in the order of things, terror, revolutions, disorders, devastations – in a word, the beginning of a series of great misfortunes’. And this was the reaction of a somewhat sympathetic witness. When the news of Napoleon’s exploits arrived in the Hejaz, the people of Mecca tore down the drapery – traditionally made in Egypt – around the sacred Kaaba.

The dramatic gesture clearly expressed how many Muslims would see Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. It had disrupted nothing less than the long-established cosmic order of Islam – something that human history had shown to be more than a widely shared delusion.

The word ‘Islam’, describing the range of Muslim beliefs and practices across the world, was not used before the nineteenth century. But few Muslims anywhere over the centuries would have doubted that they belonged to both a collective and an individual way of life, an intense solidarity based on certain shared values, beliefs and traditions. To be a good Muslim was to belong to a community of like-minded upholders of the moral and social order. It was also to participate in the making and expansion of the righteous society of believers and, by extension, in the history of Islam as it had unfolded since God first commanded the Prophet Muhammad to live according to His plan. This history began with astonishing successes, and for centuries it seemed that God’s design for the world was being empirically fulfilled.

In AD 622, the first year of the Islamic calendar, Muhammad and his band of followers established the first community of believers in a small town in Arabia. Less than a century later, Arab Muslims were in Spain. Great empires – Persian and Byzantine – fell before the energetically expanding community of Muslims. Islam quickly became the new symbol of authority from the Pyrenees to the Himalayas, and the order it created wasn’t just political or military. The conquerors of Jerusalem, North Africa and India brought into being a fresh civilization with its own linguistic, legal and administrative standards, its own arts and architecture and orders of beauty.

The invading Mongols broke into this self-contained world in the thirteenth century, briskly terminating the classical age of Islam. But within fifty years the Mongols had themselves converted to Islam and become its most vigorous champions. Sufi orders spread across the Islamic world, sparking a renaissance of Islam in non-Arab lands. From Kufa to Kalimantan, the travelling scholar, the trader and the Friday assembly gave Islam an easy new portability.

Indeed, Islam was as much a universalizing ideology as Western modernity is now, and it successfully shaped distinctive political systems, economies and cultural attitudes across a wide geographical region: the fourteenth-century Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta had as little trouble getting jobs at imperial courts in India or in West Africa as a Harvard MBA would in Hong Kong and Cape Town today. The notion of a universal community of Muslims, the umma, living under the symbolic authority of a khalifa (caliph), in a Dar al-Islam (land of Muslims), which was distinct from the remote and peripheral Dar al-Harb (land of war), helped Muslims from Morocco to Java to imagine a central place in the world for themselves and their shared values.

Itinerant Muslim traders from India were still displacing Hinduism and Buddhism in Indonesia and even Indochina as late as the seventeenth century. Extensive mercantile networks and pilgrimage routes to Mecca from all corners of the world affirmed the unity of Dar al-Islam. World trade in fact depended on Muslim merchants, seafarers and bankers. For a Muslim in North Africa, India or South-east Asia, history retained its moral and spiritual as well as temporal coherence; it could be seen as a gradual working out of God’s plan.

Though beset by internal problems in the eighteenth century, Muslim empires still regarded Europeans as only slightly less barbarous than their defeated Crusader ancestors. So the success of Napoleon suggested something inconceivable: that the Westerners, though still quite crude, were beginning to forge ahead.

Europe was to express, as the nineteenth century progressed, an idea of itself through its manifold achievements of technology, constitutional government, secular state and modern administration; and this idea, which emerged from the American and French revolutions and which seemed to place the West in the avant-garde of progress, would be increasingly hard to refute. Already in 1798, a remarkably high degree of organization defined the post-revolutionary French state as well as the French people, who were coming together on the basis of an apparently common language, territory and history to constitute a separate and distinct ‘nation-state’.

Faced with the evidence of Europe’s advantages, many Muslims were initially bemused and unable to assess it correctly. ‘The newly established republic in France’, the Ottoman historian Asim recognized in 1801, ‘is different from the other Frankish polities.’ But then he went on to say: ‘Its ultimate basis is an evil doctrine consisting of the abandonment of religion and the equality of rich and poor.’ As for parliamentary deliberations, they were ‘like the rumblings and crepitations of a queasy stomach’. Some of this cultural arrogance lingered in the eyewitness accounts of Napoleon’s conquest by ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti. The cleric generally found French practices distasteful, even barbaric: ‘It is their custom’, he wrote, ‘not to bury their dead but to toss them on garbage heaps like the corpses of dogs and beasts, or to throw them into the sea.’ ‘Their women do not veil themselves and have no modesty … They [the French] have intercourse with any woman who pleases them and vice versa.’ Al-Jabarti also mocked French hats, the European habit of peeing in public, and the use of toilet paper. He contemptuously dismissed Napoleon’s claim to be a protector of Islam, laughing at the bad Arabic grammar of the Frenchman’s proclamations, and he sniggered when the French failed to launch a hot-air balloon at one of their demonstrations of European scientific prowess.

Al-Jabarti’s limited experience of political institutions made him misunderstand French revolutionary ideals: ‘their term “liberty” means,’ he concluded too hastily, ‘that they are not slaves like the Mamluks’. He sensed the hostility to his own Islamic values in Napoleon’s claim that ‘all the people are equal in the eyes of God’. ‘This is a lie, and ignorance, and stupidity,’ he thundered. ‘How can this be when God has made some superior to others?’

Still, al-Jabarti, who had been educated at al-Azhar, couldn’t fail to be impressed when he visited the Institut d’Égypte, where the intellectuals in Napoleon’s entourage had a well-stocked library.

Whoever wishes to look up something in a book asks for whatever volumes he wants and the librarian brings them to him … All the while they are quiet and no one disturbs his neighbor … among the things I saw there was a large book containing the Biography of the Prophet … The glorious Qur’an is translated into their language! … I saw some of them who know chapters of the Qur’an by heart. They have a great interest in the sciences, mainly in mathematics and the knowledge of languages, and make great efforts to learn the Arabic language and the colloquial.

Al-Jabarti was also struck by the efficiency and discipline of the French army, and he followed with great curiosity the electoral processes in the Divan that Napoleon had created, explaining to his Arab readers how members wrote their votes on strips of paper, and how majority opinion prevailed.

Al-Jabarti was not entirely deaf to the lessons from Napoleon’s conquest: that the government in the world’s first modern nation-state did not merely collect taxes and tributes and maintain law and order; it could also raise a conscript army, equip well-trained personnel with modern weapons, and have democratic procedures in place to elect civilian leaders. Two centuries later, al-Jabarti seems to stand at the beginning of a long line of bewildered Asians: men accustomed to a divinely ordained dispensation, the mysterious workings of fate and the cyclical rise and fall of political fortunes, to whom the remarkable strength of small European nation-states would reveal that organized human energy and action, coupled with technology, amount to a power that could radically manipulate social and political environments. Resentfully dismissive at first of Europe, these men would eventually chafe at their own slothful and uncreative dynastic rulers and weak governments; and they would arrive at a similar conviction: that their societies needed to attain sufficient strength to meet the challenge of the West.


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