How did sheikhs help legitimise French colonialism in Muslim countries?

Religiosity in the service of treason." How did the sheikhs participate in legitimising France's occupation of Muslim countries? "Sheikhs of the sulta

"Religiosity in the service of treason." How did the sheikhs participate in legitimising France's occupation of Muslim countries?

In the years following the Arab revolutions, the phrase "sheikhs of the sultans" has resurfaced. Millions of youths in the Arab world were shocked by many religious figures who had always listened to their sermons, and were surprised by the fact that they justified to the authorities the legality of using violence against demonstrators. The will of the large groups of young people, with their demands for democracy and social justice, came up against the fatwas of some sheikhs who belittled these demands, forbidding rebellion against the rulers, and ordering people to obey the " ruler " and to stay at home. This is where the difference between the ideals and values that these sheikhs always chanted in their sermons and speeches about justice, charity and the sanctity of blood became apparent. Of course, this failed its first realistic test when it came to opposing political power, of course, with a few exceptions.

However, the phenomenon of the 'sheikhs of the sultans' had more serious manifestations than simply legitimising the existing political authority and prohibiting criticism or opposition to it. Rather, it was exploited by the European colonisation of Islamic countries during the 19th century. All this was done in order to consolidate its foundations and to facilitate its mission of controlling the Muslim population. In addition to cutting off the popular enthusiasm of the armed popular resistance that was fighting it, under the guise of religion. To do this, it was necessary to exploit the sheikhs of the Zawiya, and the rest of the religious institutions, for their symbolism among the people, to persuade their people to refrain from fighting colonialism, as happened in several countries.

During European colonial campaigns in Muslim countries, religion often played a motivating role in resisting foreign occupation of Muslim lands. Sufi orders and traditional sheikhs played a prominent role in armed resistance in the 19th and 20th centuries. The evidence on this point is perhaps endless, the most prominent being the resistance of Amir Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza'iri, affiliated with the Qadiriyya (Zawiyah), and Omar al-Mukhtar al-Libi and the Senussi movement. Add to this Muhammad ibn Abd al-Karim al-Khattabi in Morocco, and Al-Azhar's participation in the resistance to the French occupation of Egypt, and others.

Nevertheless, the occupation also knew how to use the symbolism of religion and put it at its service in order to fight these resistances. For this purpose, it bought the reputation of certain sheikhs and religious figures and persuaded them to work in its interest. In return, he offers them protection or material benefits such as money, tax exemptions and the guarantee of maintaining their power over the population. 

But, the most important ruse that the French occupation in Algeria was able to exploit was to obtain a fatwa from the main religious institutions of the time. These included the Kairouan Mosque, Al-Azhar, and the scholars of Mecca and Medina. Such institutions were lured by the occupation to issue a fatwa that was used to legitimise the French occupation and criminalise its struggles, and considered resistance as "throwing oneself into destruction."


Tunisia. The Sufi Orders, the French occupiers' "guards".

In 1881, the French occupation entered Tunisia, but it had to recruit men from the heart of Tunisian society to serve and facilitate its mission. In some of the elders of the Zawya, he found the right men to carry out this task. The French were able to use the religious passion of the Sufi orders to build their pillars. They secured the loyalty of some of their sheikhs. The fact that these orders were the only popular institutions framing the local community in Tunisia. This was the case in the absence of political parties or of formations of any kind or of any orientation.

Dr Al-Talili Al-Ajili, in his book "Sufi Orders and French Colonialism in Tunisia", mentions the role played by the Qadiriyya Zawiya of the Kef region in north-western Tunisia. This role consisted of preparing for the arrival of the French and inciting the local population to obey them. This happened through the role of Sidi Kaddour, the Sheikh of the Qadiriya-Zaouia of this region. He announced his rapprochement with the French leaders and declared his obedience to them. He used his spiritual and social influence to alienate the armed resistance and called on the resistance fighters to abandon jihad. The author also points out that Muhammad bin Shaaban, sheikh of the Qadiriyya sheikhs and imam of the Bardo mosque at the time, was one of those coordinating with the occupation. According to the sources, "he was seen welcoming the French troops when they entered Tunisia".

The situation was no better in neighbouring Algeria. Sufi sheikhs worked to make society submit to the French occupation and to extinguish unrest and revolutions. This is what Al-Bashir bin Muhammad bin Si Al-Eid, the great sheikh of the Tijaniya, did in Tamasin, in southern Algeria. While, during the uprising in the south in Tunisia and Algeria, the sheikh worked to 'ease tensions, spread calm and submit to France', as the author points out.

Algeria. Sufi sheikhs stopped carrying weapons to inform about the resistance.

The Sufi orders in Algeria carried the banner of armed resistance against colonialism for many years. They were able to mobilise the population against the coloniser, and several leaders of the resistance came out of their kuttab (Koranic schools) and mosques. The most important of these was Amir Abdul Qadir (al-Zawiyya al-Qadiriyya), in addition to several other resistance fighters, such as the Wled Sidi al-Sheikh, al-Za'atsha, al-Zawawa, Ahmed bin Salem and others.

However, this relationship with French colonialism underwent a radical change later on. Sufism shifted from being a factor in mobilising people for military resistance to the occupation, to being a means of controlling the various tribes. This is done by using the authority of the religion and the moral influence of the sheikh of the Zawiyahs and his social status. The French occupation was able to study these Zawiyahs, build relationships with them, and get closer to their sheikhs. Some even considered that the occupation was the bearer of an enlightening message.

The message sent by the Alawite sheikh Ibn Aliwa perhaps sums up the views of some Zawiyas regarding the French occupation and their intellectual approach to it. In his letter, he says: "... Since when has the Algerian territory been covered with the French flag and adorned with its splendour? Everyone admits that it is one of the countries making the most rapid progress towards reform. But we have not benefited from this reform, except for what we see, such as building prisons with our idiots and roads with our children, empty of the work of this world and the hereafter. Nevertheless, I am not saying that the (French) government has deliberately abandoned reform, no, but I am saying that it did not know the way, so it went home and missed its door".

"sheikhs of the sultans"
"sheikhs of the sultans"

Léon Roche... the spy who issued a fatwa to legitimise the occupation

The French occupation of Algeria used one of the most cunning tricks to exploit the religious sentiments of the population and discourage them from resisting. It sought to obtain a fatwa from the high religious institutions of the time declaring that it was forbidden to fight the occupation. The French governor-general entrusted this task to one of the most controversial figures in the history of the French occupation of Algeria, Léon Roche, a soldier and translator who had served in the French army in Algeria.

In his book "32 years in Islam", translated and edited by Muhammad Khair Mahmoud al-Bikai, Léon Roche mentions that his father took part in the French occupation of Algeria in 1830. Two years later, he joined the army and was able to learn Arabic and integrate into society by getting closer to the Algerians. He socialised with them in cafés, attended sessions of the Muslim court, and became a translator for the French administration. During the truce between France and El Amir Abdul Qadir, known as the 'Treaty of Tafneh', he was able to convince El Amir Abdul Qadir that he had converted to Islam and changed his name to 'Hajj Omar'. He showed them that he had made a good conversion to Islam and that he wanted to join the Amir's state, allowing him to become his personal translator and writer. However, at the end of the truce between Amir Abd al-Qadir and the French, Léon Roche fled, declaring that he was not a Muslim, only to be exposed as a spy by the French.

The French were confronted with armed resistance in all parts of Algeria. The most important of these was undoubtedly the resistance of Emir Abdul Qadir. They also suffered from the massive exodus of the population following the occupation of their lands. They refused to live in the lands occupied by the French, which they considered to be "lands of infidels", subject to an infidel ruler with whom they were not allowed to trade or obey. Statistics show that more than two-thirds of the population of the Algerian capital left after the French occupation. The French restrictions on worship, the closure of mosques and their policy of repression made this all the more true. This is not in their interests because they cannot find the necessary workers, merchants and farmers.

The French therefore played on the religious strings in order to stifle these revolutions and force the population to stop emigrating. All this was achieved by fatwas issued by Sufi orders in Algeria, the most important of which was the Tijaniyya, whose sheikh, Muhammad al-Saghir, was in conflict with Abdel Qader. In addition, the fatwa was endorsed by the major Islamic institutions of the time, which had influence and religious legitimacy among Muslims. The most prominent of these were Kairouan in Tunisia, Al-Azhar in Egypt, and the scholars of Mecca and Medina in the Hijaz. They also issued a fatwa against fighting the French, approved by the sheikhs of Alexandria. The greatest success for Leon Roche and the French occupation was the fatwa issued by the Sharif of Mecca and his scholars.

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