Early Advocate of Separation Between Religion and State, Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi, from the Mysteries of His Life to the Clarity of His Ideas

Ibrahim al-Ariss

Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi, a 19th century Syrian intellectual, is considered one of the most eminent enlightenment thinkers, having demonstrated the highest clarity in his political and intellectual undertakings. On the one hand, he aimed at seeing despotism destroyed through contemporary methods–through science and knowledge. On the other, he pointed to other means, that of the founding of an Arab political union that would be surrounded by a cohesive Islamic community.

Al-Kawakibi lived for 48 years, dying of mysterious circumstances in 1902, leaving only two major works which nonetheless earned him a place in intellectual history. During his short lifetime, he did not settle in any one place; this prevented him from bringing about the changes he envisioned in the structure of Arab and Islamic society.

Al-Kawakibi entered the history of Arab enlightenment, however, with the recognition of his contemporaries. They considered him to be one of the pioneers who laid the groundwork for enlightenment ideas which dominated early 20th century thought. He was also recognized as attempting to establish a link between religion and nationalism. Despite the fact that his most famous book “Um al-Qurah” (the name by which Mecca was known) gives the appearance that he favored the religious community over the nationalist, this was not the case.

There is a peculiar phenomenon that relates to al-Kawakibi, which has no precedent except in the works of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, the other prominent enlightenment intellectual who was, in many ways, the teacher of al-Kawakibi as well as the teacher of other various enlightenment intellectuals in the later half of the 19th century.

This phenomenon relates to the various mysteries which are raised around the life, and death, of al-Kawakibi. It centers on three questions, none of which have yet been answered adequately, despite the many books and studies written about the author of “Um al-Qurah” and “The Characteristics of Despotism.”

The first question relates to the intellectual upbringing of al-Kawakibi, especially in how it is reflected in his book, “The Characteristics of Despotism.”  This book appears confusing.  It seems to present something new in Arab thought and deals with the subject in depth, despite the fact that some of its sections were originally scattered fragments. The question is, however, was it al-Kawakibi who wrote this book, or did he copy or translate it from Italian in a deceitful way. Yet, he did not have command of the Italian language, so it is logical to question if his work is a translation, or if he was aided in the process?

The second question relates to the first, and specifically to the relationship between al-Kawakibi and the Italians, particularly the Carbonari group, which, as were told by Abbas Mahmoud al-Akkad, had branches in several Arab cities including Aleppo, the birth place of al-Kawakibi. Thus, it should be noted that the ideas of al-Kawakibi– the nationalist and socialist ideas– resemble to a large degree those of the Carbonari. 

The third question relates to the final mystery in the life of al-Kawakibi, that is, the mystery of his death. There are several sources which confirm that he was poisoned, and suggest that the poisoning was done by agents of the Ottoman authority.

It is certain that the solution to these puzzles, or at least one of them, would shed light on the personality of al-Kawakibi and the actual role he played in Arab politics and thought. Of special interest is the relationship al-Akkad suggested that might have existed between al-Kawakibi and the Italians, who helped him leave Aleppo when things were closing in on him, assisting him on the journey he made to the Arab Gulf on an Italian ship.

Al-Akkad goes so far as to suggest that al-Kawakibi’s work in “The Characteristics of Despotism” is a translation of Italian Socialist texts. These hypotheses and conclusions, which may be compared today to “scandal journalism,” must be cast aside when dealing with al-Kawakibi and his great enlightenment role. Instead, we must concentrate on his ideas themselves, because he was one of the basic sources of Arab thought in its socialist and nationalist dimensions. Apart from being one of the most prominent intellectuals of the enlightenment, al-Kawakibi’s concern with the question of interpreting reality and designing plans to reform it, all for the purpose of producing an alternative political system, becomes clear in these two basic books, “Um al-Qurah” and “The Characteristics of Despotism.” Similarly, such ideas are also presumed to be clear in two other books, “Al ‘Azmatu Lilah” [Glory for God] and “The Papers of Quraysh,” which were confiscated by Ottoman authorities in the wake of the author’s departure and have never been recovered. 

Al-Kawakibi’s short life can be summed up as follows, based upon writings by Sami al-Dahan, Mohammad Amarah, Fahmi Jouan, and others. Al-Kwakibi’s family, which supposedly can trace its lineage to the Imam Ali bin Abitaleb, reached Aleppo, the Syrian city where al-Kawakibi was born after generations of moving between the Arabian Peninsula, Iran and Iraq.  In Aleppo, the young al-Kawakibi completed his elementary education, which was followed by secondary education in Antioch where he studied Arabic, Persian, Turkish and religion, reading about fields such as theory and history before deciding to work in journalism. 

He started as an Arabic editor and translator with the Furat newspaper, which was linked to Ottoman authorities and published in Turkish and Arabic. However, he decided to leave government-sponsored journalism, never to return. This took place at the time he started to frequent the groups in Aleppo, including the Carbonari circles that were calling for liberation and progress. He then published the newspaper “Al Shahba” [the Star], and then “Al Atidal” [Moderation], through which he expressed the nation’s yearning for freedom and desire to overcome the state and its despotism.

As expected, these writings disturbed the authorities, especially when al-Kawakibi’s rival over who would control the al-Ashraf Union, Abba al-Huda al-Sayyadi, was favored by the Ottomans. The authorities closed both of al-Kawakibi’s newspapers and arrested him. He was soon released, however, for lack of sufficient evidence. He left Aleppo, wandering throughout the Arab world until he reached Egypt, where he mysteriously died in 1902.

Even though al-Kawakibi wrote “The Characteristics of Despotism” in the form of paragraphs, fragments and separate articles that seem to be nothing but a collection of texts written in different times, his other book, “Um al-Qurah,” appears to be more coherent, especially since he presents it as a dialogue. This book resembles the minutes of a conference held between representatives of different nations in the Islamic world with the goal of unifying them through a solid Arab core. This book, with its distinguished realist analysis, causes confusion and leads the reader to believe that it could not be the result of the writer’s imagination. Instead, it appears as a recording of a live dialogue actually taking place. Were we to add this puzzle to the various other puzzles surrounding al-Kawakibi’s life, we would have to raise this question: what does this enlightenment author present in his two main books?  We would be shocked to discover that his ideas remain current and contemporary today, as if he presented a blueprint for us and generations to come.

In “The Characteristics of Despotism,” al-Kawakibi presents the basic problem and its resolution. That problem is the issue of “despotism,” which appears for him to be an old problem, as old as the human social existence, dating back to the long years of dwelling in a natural state, with tribal subdivisions and groups governed by long-established sheikhs, led by those of strong physical might.  Man then lived in a Bedouin state as clans and tribes ruled by groups and sub-groups under the leadership of an emir, carrying out the group’s decisions. Al-Kawakibi saw that half of humanity still lives in that Bedouin mode. The other half lives in cities, and is “still suffering from hardship and social humiliation, searching for appropriate political systems.” What is stressed is that “deciding the form of government is a major, centuries-old problem for the people, and it is the battleground for the ideas of intellectuals, an arena few people would enter until Western man came with his basic principles based on reason and experimentalism, which later were embraced by other societies in search of decisions to bring about social change.”    


Al-Kawakibi assumes that these decisions remain unknown in the East, where despotism remains dominant. As for how to escape despotism, al-Kawakibi offers a solution based upon three principles: first, the nation that does not feel the pain of despotism does not deserve freedom; second, despotism is not resisted by violence but by gradualism; and third, it is necessary to prepare an alternative system to despotism.

Al-Kawakibi concludes that the nation which is humiliated by the despotic system loses its sense of freedom and no longer seeks it. He states, “If a nation becomes discontent, it will revolt against the despot, not against the despotic system itself, and could substitute one despot with another. Furthermore, when a nation achieves freedom without putting up a fight, it will not reap its benefit because this freedom will change into a harsher despotism, as when a patient’s disease worsens.”

As far as the issue of using non-violence to resist despotism, the only method al-Kawakibi recommended was progress, which can only be achieved through learning. Despotism is often supported by an alliance with a foreign power and by its military might, as well as by financial and religious power. Meanwhile, it is not possible to fight despotism through popular ideas, because those ideas vacillate, and are easily changed.  Despotism cannot be resisted by violence, otherwise communal fitna or civil strife will occur. This strife becomes natural when the despotic regime becomes more oppressive. In this case, moderate and rational people should pull back and work on establishing justice through intellectual guidance.

Al-Kawakibi adds that a revolution by the commoners against despotism is determined by a set of emotional factors. “An alternative to the despotic regime,” he writes, “necessitates knowledge of the purpose behind changing the system, a purpose that should not be vague but rather specific, known, and earning the support of a vast majority.”

Such talk may appear today normal and simplistic, as it did to those well-versed in Western political thought even in al- Kawakibi’s time. Yet, within its context and time, it was new and revolutionary, especially when al-Kawakibi presented theoretical opinions applied to Arab conditions under the Ottoman regime. He can be considered one of the few of the enlightenment intellectuals who fought that regime; most enlightenment thinkers who were in search of avenues of progress declined to criticize the Ottomans, and presented their ideas and projects within a framework loyal to the state.

For al-Kawakibi, his loyalty was in another place: it was the Arab people. It is possible to note in al-Kawakibi the seeds of the Arab nationalist idea. It is true that al-Kawakabi’s main book, “Um al-Qurah,”presupposes the existence of a group aiming to unify the Islamic community, but it is also noticeable, as Mohammad Amarah stated, that al- Kawakibi, through a calculated and precise logic, did not envision the existence of an Islamic community except as it interfaces with a central Arab core. In this framework, al-Kawakibi was advocating a solid and cohesive Arab community that would support the religious and existential bonds that connected the different peoples of the Islamic community. 

It is no coincidence that al-Kawakibi says in “Um al-Qurah” that nations such as Austria and America are guided by scientific methods and principles, laying the foundation for a national union without religious homogeneity, based upon political association but not administration. Supporters of this idea ask why we don’t then think about following some of these European and American models. At the same time, they say to the non-Arabs and foreigners who have been inciting enmity: let us take care of our own affairs, let us understand each other and communicate in the classical language and show humanity through brotherhood, comfort each other in conditions of distress, let us be equal in happiness; let us take care of our worldly lives, and make religions rules in the other world only. Let us agree on similar principles like “Long live the nation, live the country, let us live free and cherished.”

This position is confirmed by Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Ridda when he says, about his relationship with al Kawakibi, “We were in agreement on most reform issues, even when the head of the state Mukhtar Basha al -Ghazi, accused us in authoring the book “Um al Qurah” together after he read it. Perhaps we could point to the issues with which we differ with the late al-Kawakibi, most important of which is the separation between the religious and political authorities.” Al-Kawakibi’s position reveals that his nationalist tendency is cultural and humanistic, rather than racial or chauvinistic. He says that “the most important wisdoms of government are that it adopts the moralities of the community until it succeeds in attracting its members. Government’s morality is its nationality, just the way the Umayyads,  the Abbasids and monotheists are, and so are all non-Arabs which had Islamic governments like the Suljuks, Ayoubbids,  and others who before long became Arabized, adopting the morals of the Arabs with whom they assimilated and became part of.”

Al-Kawakibi’s consciousness was ahead of his time. But it is unfortunate that the studies about him remain, until today, partial and eclectic, and often changes from scholar to scholar, or within one work of scholarship, such as when Mohammad Amarah changed his interpretation of al-Kawakibi more than three times in 20 years without justifying such changes.

Translated from the Arabic by Elie Chalala

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 4, No. 24 (Summer 1998)

Copyright (c) 1998 by Al Jadid