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A. Üner Turgay
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


In modern times, nationalism emerged first in Europe and then on other continents. It was the ideological expression of complex political, economic, and social developments. By the eighteenth century English nationalism had already manifested itself in the works of Milton and Locke and later in those of Blackstone and Burke. It was with the French Revolution, however, that a truly national state was created. Political and social institutions were secularized and transformed to serve the purpose of a national state. In other parts of Europe, Italians, Poles, Germans, Greeks, and Slavs in the Balkans gained national feeling and consciousness and strove toward creating, maintaining, and increasing the power of the national state.

The emergence of national consciousness and nationalism in a politically meaningful way among the Muslim peoples dates to the late nineteenth century; the formation of national states to the early twentieth century. Although linguistic, racial, and territorial notions regarding political entities, similar to Western perceptions, were known to Muslims earlier, the integrating factors remained their common identity as Muslims and their allegiance to dynastic rulers—sultans/caliphs. During medieval times, Muslims considered themselves members of the ummah, all brothers and sisters belonging to the community of Islam, even though the political philosophy of the state was based on distinct social estates with mutual obligations between themselves and the ruler. Christians and Jews lived in Muslim lands as dhimmīs, protected members of the society, and had formal legal status.

In the Ottoman Empire (c.1300–1918), the most powerful of the Muslim empires, the social estates or erkân-ı erbaa, the division of the society into occupational groups, formed the economic and social foundations of the state. Concomitantly, from the rule of Mehmed II (r. 1451–1481) until the nineteenth century, the population was divided into religious-communal organizations or “millets.” By the end of Mehmed II's reign, Orthodox Christian, Jewish, Armenian, and Muslim millets were organized. Each was headed by its own highest-ranking religious leader—the Greek Orthodox patriarch, chief rabbi, Armenian patriarch, and şeyhülislâm, respectively. The heads of the millets and other officials were elected by their constituents; their positions were confirmed by the Ottoman government. Millets had the right to decide matters related to religion and personal status and establish their own social and cultural institutions. The system covered the entire empire.

The Ottoman Empire gradually declined beginning in the seventeenth century. Political and economic developments, both outside and within the empire, and European military successes affected the traditional social structure. By the end of the eighteenth century, the social estates had disappeared. In response to these changes, the Ottoman government first restructured its army and then reformed its educational institutions. Beginning early in the nineteenth century the reforms intensified and, with the Hatt-ı Şerif of Gülhane (The Rescript of the Rose Chamber) in 1839, the Ottomans entered the period of Tanzimat, or reorganization.

The Hatt-ı Şerif, which promised security of life, honor, and property for all and equality among Muslims and non-Muslims, ushered in fundamental administrative, educational, and financial reforms. Particularly after the Crimean War (1853–1856), it also furthered European influence and interference in Ottoman affairs. This often undermined the relations of the Porte with its non-Muslim subjects. The protection granted to Christians and the favorable economic privileges given to them by European powers subjected this segment of the population to socioeconomic forces different from those affecting the Muslims. The Hatt-ı Hümayun (Imperial Edict) of 1856 reaffirmed the rights of all Ottoman subjects, Muslim and non-Muslim, and brought in further reorganization. The reforms also changed the structures of the millets so that the laity gained ground at the expense of the clergy, and ethnic affiliation and the use of the vernacular slowly overcame the universalist ideas of the church and its language. Thus secular ideas and increasing awareness of ethnic identity gave rise to nationalist ideals and movements first among Christian Ottomans.

Paradoxically then, the Tanzimat had created cultural and political crises. The Ottoman government, by issuing the law of nationality and citizenship in 1869, attempted to establish the concept of Ottomanism as the legal basis of the empire. The first cohesive response of the Muslim intelligentsia came through the Young Ottomans (1856–1876). Within the framework of Islamic precepts and Ottoman historical experience, they formulated a concept of fatherland (vatan; Ar. waṭan) and nation. In their writings, the liberal intellectuals İbrahim Şinasi (1824–1871), Ziya Paşa (1825–1880), and Namık Kemal (1840–1888) criticized the Tanzimat and argued that many of the reforms along Western lines had undermined basic Islamic values. They pointed out that the reforms had not answered the needs of the empire, and they demanded a constitutional system.

The constitution of 1876, promulgated by Abdülhamid II (r. 1876–1909), emphasized Ottomanism as the ideological basis of the empire. The chamber, which held only two sessions in 1877–1878 before it was prorogued, included deputies from all peoples of the empire. Yet it was during Abdülhamid II's reign that various Balkan provinces were lost and some other territories came under European control. This, combined with the influx of Muslims from Russian territories into the Ottoman lands, changed the composition of the population heavily in favor of Muslims.

These developments, along with increasing Western financial and political dominance, helped transform the ideology of the state. Ottomanism, which no longer appeared viable, gave way to Muslim nationalism. Increasingly, Islam became the social and political basis of the empire. Although the legal system, which recognized all subjects as equal, remained in effect both in theory and practice, Abdülhamid II's policies generated solidarity through Islam.

Early criticism of Abdülhamid II's repressive policies came from the Young Ottomans, but most of them were exiled by the end of the nineteenth century. Then new opposition was formed by students from military and military-medical schools as well as young bureaucrats, together known as the Young Turks, who would later establish the Committee of Union and Progress.

Moreover, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the coastal regions of the Fertile Crescent had experienced economic and social development closely resembling that in the Balkans a few decades earlier. This gave rise to ethnic and linguistic awareness. The graduates of the new schools established in the major cities in Syria and Iraq had been exposed to new ideas and had gained political consciousness as well as pride in the Arabic language and history. Soon they expressed particularist and nationalist sentiments.

The Young Turk Revolution of 1908 brought about fundamental changes. In the newly established Ottoman parliament, the Union and Progress Party under the control of the Young Turks pursued secularist and, in certain important programs such as education, pro-Turkish policies. In addition, the Young Turks’ efforts to centralize caused serious concern among Arab leaders who favored decentralization and even nurtured aspirations of independence. The Arab revolt of 1916 against the Istanbul government during World War I clearly charted the course of nationalism in the Middle East. Arab nationalism, though still lacking cohesive expression and clear territorial definition, had taken root. It would lead to the formation of the independent national states of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan after the British and French mandates of the interwar period.

Despite the emphasis the Young Turks placed on Turkish identity, the ideology of the state remained Ottomanist within an Islamic framework. Whereas Balkan nationalism did not inflame Turkish nationalism, the nationalist movements of non-Turkish Muslims, such as Albanians and Arabs, did; they influenced the emergence of Turkish nationalism with secular tendencies, which received sustenance from its chief ideologue, Ziya Gökalp (1876–1924), a sociologist. Early in the Turkish War of Independence (1919–1922), the “National Pact” (1920), although still couched in Ottoman terms, with its territorial definitions and expressions of popular will, set the agenda for the formation of a Turkish state, the Republic of Turkey, in 1923.

In the development and expression of nationalism and the formation of nations among the Muslim peoples, two trends can be observed. First, certain economic and social formations are reached in order to allow nationalism to develop as an ideological force. As the medieval socioeconomic system disintegrated and modern conditions developed, individuals’ identification with a particular social group lessened. The result of this process, with variations, is indeed similar to nationalism in the West. Second, in the Muslim world, nation-building received great impetus from religion, particularly from the anti-imperialist tendencies of Islam. As religious groups participated extensively in the nationalist movements from the Maghrib and Egypt to India and Indonesia, Islam lent a driving force to nation-building. Thus, although the ummah was transformed into nations, Islam continued to be one of the major components of the ideologies of independent Muslim nations.

See abdu‥lhamid II; G‥okalp, mehmet ziya; Kemal, Mehmet Namık; Millet; Şinasi, İbrahim; Tanzimat; Turkey; Young ottomans; Young Turks; and watan.


  • Ahmad, Feroz. The Young Turks. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969. Detailed study of the formation and activities of the Committee of Union and Progress and the Young Turks.
  • Badran, Margot. Feminists, Islam, and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995.
  • Berkes, Niyazi. The Development of Secularism in Turkey. Montreal, 1964. a penetrating analysis of intellectual currents in the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
  • Curtis, Edward E., IV. Black Muslim Religion in the Nation of Islam, 1960–1975. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
  • Davison, Roderich. Reform in the Ottoman Empire, 1856–1876. Princeton, N.J., 1963. Irreplaceable work on Tanzimat reforms.
  • Dawn, C. Ernest. From Ottomanism to Arabism. Urbana, Ill., 1973. well-balanced articles on Arab nationalism.
  • Ghayasuddin, M., ed.The Impact of Nationalism on the Muslim World. London, 1986. an Islamic view of the concept of nationalism in theory and practice.
  • Haddad, William W., and William Ochsenwald, eds.Nationalism in a Non-National State. Columbus, Ohio, 1977. eleven articles on various issues related to nationalism in the former Ottoman territories.
  • Hefner, Robert W, and Patricia Hovwatich, eds.Islam in an Era of Nation-States: Politics and Religious Renewal in Muslim Southeast Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.
  • Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798–1939. London, 1962. Excellent work on the intellectual history of the Middle East.
  • Karpat, Kemal, ed.Political and Social Thought in the Contemporary Middle East. London, 1968. Contains selections from the writings of the major contributors to intellectual developments in the Middle East, with the author's analysis of the resulting political and social trends.
  • Khadduri, Majid. The Islamic Law of Nations: Shaybani's Siyar. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
  • Lewis, Bernard. The Emergence of Modern Turkey.2d ed.London and New York, 1968. One of the best accounts of Ottoman/Turkish history.
  • Mardin, Şerif. The Genesis of Young Ottoman Thought: A Study in the Modernization of Turkish Political Ideas. Princeton, N.J., 1962. The best account of the Young Ottomans and their arguments.
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