Summary for the Colonial Period

by Dr Salah Zaimeche, BMHC

The 18th and 19th centuries witnessed the systematic colonisation of the then moribund Muslim world by Western powers. The parts that were not then occupied would fall under Western sway early in the 20th century. The colonisation of the Muslim world was aimed primarily at undermining its power and influence, undermining the hold of the Islamic faith, and also undermining, before reshaping, the Muslim economic potential in such a manner as to make Muslim countries permanently tributary to the West. These objectives were not always openly expressed in the colonial rhetoric. Instead, colonisation was presented, and still is in many Western quarters as well as literature, as a civilising mission of ‘barbaric’ Islamic societies. 1 Understandably the Muslims who stood against the Western dictate were looked at and described as fanatic opponents of enlightenment. Nonetheless such Muslim opposition managed in the end to remove the colonial presence, although the effects of colonisation are felt to this day. These are the points covered under this section.

A crucial remark in relation to the treatment of colonisation in the Western narrative needs to be made at this juncture. Generally, modern works by Western historians, and even by Muslims, have cleansed colonial history of its dark deeds. We even hear and read today that Western colonisation brought civilisation and progress to the colonised people. This is a gross re-writing of history, helped, it must be said, by an ineffective Muslim scholarship, both unwilling and unable to meet the Western intellectual challenge and its supremacy over historical studies. This section, which relies mainly on older Western sources, will show that colonial history was bloody and destructive, and that it has left a terrible legacy from which the Muslim world and the continents of Asia and Africa have not recovered yet.

Whilst this work shows colonial history in its true picture, it avoids dwelling, or going into its worst aspects, i.e the widespread massacres and genocides it committed. The destructive impact of colonisation can indeed be amply demonstrated without having recourse to unravelling the most barbaric deeds of the colonisers. Engaging in such an act, i.e dwelling on such deeds, serves no purpose other than opening graves that should be kept sealed. The modern British journalist, Robert Fisk, in a recent editorial, rightly held: ‘Some buried bones are best left un-dug.’ 2 This, however, should not be the opportunity for those responsible for those mass graves to claim that there are none, as the modern Western narrative of history generally holds, and as, generally, inept or complicit, Westernised modern Muslim intellectuals acquiesce.

Colonial Objectives

Western military conquest of the Islamic world aimed primarily:

  1. At breaking and eventually removing Islamic power wherever it was established.
  2. Undermining the appeal of Islam.
  3. Exploiting or looting Islamic economic resources.

These objectives have had a long life. Back in the late 13th century and early 14th, European ideologues had already drawn their conclusions on the causes and effects of the failure of the crusades (1095-1291). 3 It became obvious amongst them that the only way to vanquish Islam, the eternal foe, was by undermining its religious foundation, its appeal and influence, and its economic foundation, all at once. It was then preached by many such as Sanudo, Hayton, and William of Adam, that a crusade could only be successful if the economic wealth of the Muslim world had either been broken or diverted in favour of the West, and preferably both. 4

Early in the 16th century, as they rampaged at the expense of the weak and divided Arab and Muslim Indian principalities, the Portuguese sought to destroy both faith and economy at once. 5 The Portuguese commander, Albuquerque, once arriving in the Indian Ocean, to his men insisted on:

‘The great service which we shall perform to our Lord in casting the Moors out of this country and of quenching the fire of the sect of Mahomet so that it may never burst out again hereafter.’ 6

It was only the Ottoman arrival in the region, which prevented the Portuguese from realising their plan, and also occupying Madinah and Makkah.
19th century colonial theorists followed the same line as the Portuguese and also Spaniards, the other early colonial power. 19th century colonial enterprise was dominated by the two super-powers of the time: France and Britain. Dr Barth, whose travels took him in Northern and Central Africa, in regard to the rapid spread of Islam, says, that:

‘A great part of the Berbers of the desert were once Christians, and that they afterwards changed their religion and adopted Islam…. that continual struggle which, always extending further and further, seems destined to overpower the nations at the very Equator if Christianity does not presently step in to dispute the ground with it.’ 7

Islam, the faith, was considered a powerful obstacle in front of colonial aims, and vanquishing it remained the central preoccupation of Western colonial ideology. For Buchanan, the Muslims would never ‘bend humbly to Christian dominion while they remained Muslim.’ 8 This view was adhered to by both Western officials and Christian missionaries. 9 Sir William Muir (1818-1905), Lt Governor of the vast territory known as the North West provinces of India, acknowledged that Islam was ‘the only undisguised and formidable antagonist of Christianity.’ 10 Writing at the height of Western colonial power, the leading missionary, Zwemer, held:

‘Through incessant, spontaneous and almost fanatic parading, preaching, pushing of their faith by the mass of believers, and not solely by the power of the sword, Islam grew to its gigantic proportions. And if they used the sword, so also can we…. It is a bitter sword than theirs and slays to give Life Eternal.

If they did so much with theirs, surely we can do more with ours. We can do it if we will. We have a better message, a more glorious faith, a higher motive, a richer reward, a more certain victory, a nobler inspiration, a better comradeship, and a Leader before Whose great white throne and great white life the mock majesty and the great whitewashed immorality of Mohammed shrink in abject terror.’ 11

The crusading spirit and the subjugation of Muslim lands were closely associated, amongst the French, most particularly. This was obvious from the early stages of their entry in Algeria in 1830:

‘You have renewed with the crusades’ declared the French leading General de Bourmont to his soldiers. 12

‘Our war in Africa is a continuation of the Crusades,’ said Minister Poujoulat to General Bugeaud in 1844. 13

‘According to me,’ said another French general, E. Pelissier: ‘This is the second act (the independence of Greece being the first); this is the second act, I say, in the Mediterranean, of the inexorable absorption of the Muslim world by the Christians, a task being undertaken with great success by both the English and Russians in India and Central Asia.’ 14

The loot of Muslim wealth was also central to the colonial aim. The contemporary ideologue, writer, James Grey Jackson, for instance, was of the opinion that the conquest of Algeria would result in the ‘civilisation of the Berbers’ and their conversion to Christianity. 15 He then remarked that conquest should also lead to the occupation of Algeria’s neighbours, and he enumerates the advantages that would follow:

  1. 1. An incalculable demand for spices and East Indian manufactures of silk and cotton.
  2. 2. A similar demand for coffee and sugar manufactured and un-manufactured; as well as for other articles of West Indian produce.
  3. 3. An incalculable demand for all our various articles of manufacture. In addition, Britain would obtain from this fine country:
    1. a. An immense supply of the finest wheat and other grain that the world produces.
    2. b. Direct commerce with the interior of Africa.’ 16

Whilst these aims were central to colonial powers, they were, however, barely expressed, and colonisation was disguised as a noble act, the enterprise being termed as a ‘Civilising Mission,’ ie, that Western colonisation solely aimed at civilising barbaric Islamic societies.

The ‘Civilising Mission’

Islam was deemed the main cause behind this state of degradation and the barbaric nature of Muslim society. Abbot Raynal describes the degradation and the misery caused by ‘Islamic despotism,’ noting that:

‘The Muslim invaders destroyed Christian civilisation in North Africa thanks to their genius for destruction and their fanaticism, and replaced it with slavery and tyranny.’ And so he calls for Christian conquest to free Barbary from ‘a handful of barbarians.’ 17

The leading missionary: J.D. Bate (1836-1923), notes:

‘Islam reduces to a state of degradation every civilised state over which it obtains ascendancy and renders impossible the social and moral elevation, beyond a certain point, of even the most degraded people. Wherever Islam has obtained the sole ascendancy, the vast induction of twelve centuries tells one uniform tale-that the ascendancy has been the death knell of all progress and the signal for general stagnation.’ 18

And Lord Baring, (Lord Cromer,) the once ruler of Egypt (behind the façade of the Egyptian Khedive), says:

‘Islam is progress for the Black man who adopts it,’ but as a social system, it is ‘a complete failure,’ because of its ‘subjugation of women, the union of religion and law, toleration of slavery and sectarianism.’ 19

Pananti, for his part, explains that once the civilised Christians are:

‘Masters of North Africa, the harem walls must fall and suffer the miserable inmates to regain their natural rights in society, rendering the most beautiful part of creation what it should be, the happiness and consolation of mankind…. Christians would convert ‘those who are now scarcely superior to the brute creation into good men and industrious citizens…. The conquest ‘of Algiers’ would ‘lead to the civilisation of Africa.’ 20

And if the French respected Kabyle freedom they would be welcomed as liberators from their Turkish and Arab oppressors. 21 The ‘Civilising Mission’ resulted in millions of Muslim deaths. In Algeria alone, more than ten millions were killed or starved to death by the French. 22 In what was once Muslim ruled India, mass starvation proceeded throughout the 19th century in parallel with systematic loot of the country. Writing later in the century, W.S. Blunt concluded:

‘If we go on developing the country at the present rate the inhabitants will have, sooner or later, to resort to cannibalism, for there will be nothing but each other left to eat.’ 23

Hyndman notes that in the North-Western provinces, exports of grains were imposed, whilst 300,000 people died of hunger in a few months. 24 In 1877, in the province of Madras alone, 935,000 people died of hunger according to official reports. 25 It is now accepted that by the end of the 19th century, 29 million people starved to death all over the country. 26

The undermining of Islam was a major aim of colonisation, and education was one of the means used for the purpose. It was commonly acknowledged that modern education in India would destroy the old religions, and that it was essential to fill the gap with Christianity. 27 The main ‘old religion’ was, of course, Islam, for its own sake, and also because the Muslim, as the conquered, was regarded as the most likely source of threat to British rule. 28

In Egypt, likewise, the looting of the country went hand-in-hand with the other colonial aim: the undermining of Islam. The removal of Islam from Egypt was seen as all too normal, as here expressed by Sir A.C. Lyall of the British Foreign Office, who recalled the ancient expulsion of Christianity from Egypt, and concluded:

‘Moslems can hardly complain if Christianity and civilisation are now taking their revenge.’ 29

The French vision was that:

‘The Algerians would love their conquerors for their gentleness and their justice… and religion itself would weave a crown for the Monarch who will bring the sacred fire of Christianity with civilisation to the country of Augustine and Cyprian.’ 30

The worst aspect of colonisation, though, was the systematic destruction of local societies. In Algeria, to the population, at the moment of their entry into the country, in 1830, the French colonial enterprise was presented as a temporary occupation, simply aiming at expelling ‘the despotic Turks,’ and then to return the country to the Arabs, ‘its legitimate masters.’ 31 The French invasion ‘to free Algeria from Turkish yoke,’ soon turned into a bloody colonial enterprise. Terror, massacres, sacks constituted the daily acts of the strategy of conquest. 32

‘According to me,’ says Montagnac, ‘all populations that refuse to accept our conditions have to be eradicated. Everything must be taken, sacked, without distinction for age or sex. Grass should not grow anywhere the French army sets foot.’ 33

‘This is how war should be made to the Arabs,’ he said: ‘Kill all men over the age of 15; take all women and children, fill boats, and send them to the Marquise Islands or elsewhere. In a word eradicate everything that does not crawl at our feet like dogs.’ 34

The mass removal of Algerians, other than by killing in the field of combat or thereafter, was through mass starvation. In order to do this, the French took from their Algerian owners the vast majority of arable lands. 4 million hectares of arable land were expropriated from their Algerian owners through the so-called Senatus Consultus of 1863, a piece of legislation that individualised tribal lands before they passed from powerless Muslim individuals into European hands. 35 Crops and trees were also destroyed on a vast scale; in the western plains, 300,000 olive trees were cut down in one campaign, 36 the widespread destruction thus depriving the population of a main source of sustenance. The French also decimated the other source of Algerian livelihood: their livestock. A total of 18 million sheep, 3.5 million cattle, and one million camels were killed between 1830 and 1845. 37 Greater numbers were killed in the following decades. Deprived off their lands, crops, livestock, hundreds of thousands of Algerians were thus starved to death. 38 Dr Bodichon, one of the French theorists of colonisation, advocated that France should go beyond ‘the limits of common morality at times; the essential thing is that she establishes a lasting colony and that, later, she brings European civilisation to these barbaric countries.’ 39 To him, this is for best of humanity, and in order that it should be carried in the shortest and fastest manner possible, there should be therefore the use of various methods, including the use of terror.

‘We can fight our enemies,’ he declared, ‘by powder and fire, joined by famine, internal division, war between Arabs and (Berber) Kabyles, between the tribes of the Tell and those of the Sahara, by brandy, corruption and disorganisation. That is the easiest thing in the world to do.’ 40 These policies were put into effect during the whole French presence in Algeria, over the period 1830-19162. These policies caused the Algerian population to fall from 10 millions in 1830 to 2.1 millions in 1872 according to some sources. 41 Others put at between 8 and 10 millions those who died following military uprisings, hunger and disease between 1830 and 1962. 42

Select Reading List

  • H. Alleg; J. de Bonis, H.J. Douzon, J. Freire, P. Haudiquet: La Guerre d’Algerie; 3 vols, Temps Actuels; Paris, 1981.
  • C. Bennett, Victorian Images of Islam, Grey Seal, London, 1992.
  • Y. Courbage, P. Fargues: Chretiens et Juifs dans l’Islam Arabe et Turc, Payot, Paris, 1997.
  • N. Daniel: Islam; Europe; and Empire; University Press, Edinburgh, 1966.
  • N. Housley: Documents on the Later Crusades; 1274-1580; Macmillan Press Ltd; London; 1996.
  • W. Howitt: Colonisation and Christianity: Longman; London; 1838.
  • M. Lacheraf, in Louis Blin: l’Algerie du Sahara au Sahel, l’Harmattan, Paris, 1990.
  • K.M. Panikkar: Asia and Western Domination; George Allen and Unwin Ltd; London; 1953.
  • D. Sari, La Dépossession des Fellahs; SNED, Algiers; 1978.
  • R.B. Smith: Mohammed and Mohammedanism; London; Smith Elder; 1876.


  1. A. Thomson: Barbary and Enlightenment: Brill; Leiden; 1987;
  2. R. Fisk: The Independent; 10 December 05; p. 39.
  3. See N. Housley: Documents on the Later Crusades; 1274-1580; Macmillan Press Ltd; London; 1996; pp. 78-9.
  4. Ms in Bale; A.i,28 f.232 vo-245 vo; Ed. Ch. Kohler, in Recueil. des Historiens des Croisades Documents Armeniens, II..
  5. W. Howitt: Colonisation and Christianity: Longman; London; 1838; pp. 173.4.
  6. In K.M. Panikkar: Asia and Western Domination; George Allen and Unwin Ltd; London; 1953; p. 49.
  7. R.B. Smith: Mohammed and Mohammedanism; London; Smith Elder; 1876 ed; p. 49.
  8. Buchanan: Memoir of the Expediency of an Ecclesiastical Establishment for India; London; 1805.
  9. N. Daniel: Islam; Europe; and Empire; University Press, Edinburgh, 1966; p.252.
  10. Sir William Muir: The Mohammedan Controversy, in N. Daniel: Islam, Europe; op cit, p. 32.
  11. S. Zwemer in M. Broomhall: Islam in China; 1910; p. 38.
  12. A. Surre-Garcia: l’Image du sarrasin dans les mentalites de la litterature Occitanes: De Toulouse a Tripoli, Colloque held between 6 and 8 December, 1995, University of Toulouse; AMAM, Toulouse, 1997; 181-9; at p. 186.
  13. Ibid.
  14. E.D. Pelissier: Quelques mots sur la colonisation Militaire en Algerie; Paris; 1847; in N. Daniel: Islam; Europe; op cit; p. 330.
  15. J.G. Jackson: An Account of Timbuctu and Hausa; London; 1820; p. 463.
  16. In A. Thomson: Barbary; op cit; p. 136; 50; etc.
  17. Abbe Raynal: Histoire philosophique et politique des etablissements et du commerce des Europeanens dans l’Afrique; Paris; 1826; Vol I; pp 106 fwd and 137.
  18. J.D. Bate: The Claims of Ishmael; London; W. Allen; 1884; p. 301.
  19. In N. Daniel: Islam, Europe; op cit; p. 470.
  20. F. Pananti: Narratives of residence in Algiers; London; 1818; p.415; p. 412; 416..
  21. A. Thomson: Barbary and Enlightenment: Brill; Leiden; 1987; p. 109.
  22. M. Lacheraf, in Louis Blin: l’Algerie du Sahara au Sahel, l’Harmattan, Paris, 1990; note 3, p 112.
  23. W.S. Blunt: Ideas about India; London; 1885; p.47.
  24. G. Le Bon: La Civilisation Arabe; Syracuse; 1884; p. 466.
  25. Ibid; p. 465.
  26. J. Hari, The Truth: Our empire killed millions; in The Independent; 19 June 06; p. 29.
  27. N. Daniel, Islam, Europe and Empire, op. cit. p.262.
  28. C. Bennett, Victorian Images of Islam, Grey Seal, London, 1992, p. 15.
  29. Sir A.C. Lyall, Foreign Office /633/ 12, pp. 37-40.
  30. N. Daniel, Islam, Europe, op. cit. p. 329.
  31. Y. Courbage, P. Fargues: Chretiens et Juifs dans l’Islam Arabe et Turc, Payot, Paris, 1997; pp 108-9.
  32. H. Alleg; J. de Bonis, H.J. Douzon, J. Freire, P. Haudiquet: La Guerre d’Algerie; 3 vols, Temps Actuels; Paris, 1981: p. 64. P. Christian: L’Afrique Francaise….; Paris 1845-46.
  33. Colonel L. Francois de Montagnac: Lettres d’un Soldat; Paris; 1885.
  34. Ibid.
  35. For good detail, see D. Sari, La Dépossession des Fellahs; SNED, Algiers; 1978.
  36. H. Alleg et al: La Guerre d’Algerie: op cit; p. 64.
  37. N. Abdi quoted in Louis Blin: l’Algerie du Sahara au Sahel, l’Harmattan, Paris, 1990; p. 68.
  38. See Jo Melia: The Triste sort des Indigenes d’Algerie; D.Sari: La Depossession; op cit.
  39. Cited in C.H. Favrod: Le FLN et l’Algerie; Paris; Plon; 1962; p. 31.
  40. Ibid.
  41. L. Blin: l’Algerie du Sahara; op cit, p. 68.
  42. M. Lacheraf, in L. Blin: l’Algerie; op cit; note 3; p. 112.