'Abdul Rahman al-Kawakebi

(1849- 1903) 


From The Arab Awakening, George Antonius, G P Putnam's Sons, 1946. 


Born in Aleppo in 1849 to a well-known Syrian family, Abdul Rahman al-Kawakebi was educated at the leading Muslim college in his native town in the unscientific but profoundly humanistic tradition which prevailed at the time. His career began in journalism and law, then he entered the public service where he earned for himself first the frown of his chiefs and later a term in prison for his outspoken denunciations of tyranny. On his release in 1898, he left Syria and went to live in the freer atmosphere of Egypt. Two years later he started on a journey to study the life of some of the remoter Arab populations and visited Somaliland, Zanzibar and the hinterland of Yemen. After a long sojourn in Mecca he returned to Cairo where he died suddenly, at the age of fifty four.  


Little has been written about Kawakebi but people who knew him well saw his personality  reflected in his writing. It is certain that he had a profound belief in the destinies of Islam and of the Arab race, and a profound hatred of intolerance and injustice. He is described as a brilliant speaker who charmed his audiences at daily sittings in the “Splendid Café” in Cairo, with the novelty and daring of his opinions and the humor with which he could express them. His circle of friends was large and varied, it included Christians and Jews as well as Muslims. But his real friend were the poor – he established an office in Aleppo at his own expense and gave free legal advice to help the poor of all communities. His nickname in Aleppo was  Abul Du'afa' (Father of the Weak) and he earned it in years of unremitting efforts in a fight against injustice. 


His first book was entitled Umm al-Qura (a name occurring in the Qur'an as one of the designations of Mecca).  It is a symposium on the destiny of Islam. Twenty two fictitious characters representing scholars and divines from as many parts of the Muslim world, are imagined to have assembled in Mecca for the pilgrimage and, after an exchange of views lasting over a dozen formal meetings, to have agreed on founding a society for the regeneration of Islam. The greater art of the book is taken up what purports to be the verbatim record of the imaginary proceedings; it then gives the statutes of the new society, and concludes with a digression on the caliphate. It is a distinguished, witty composition and its form lends itself well to the presentation of Kawakebi's views.  


His other book, Taba'i al-Istibdad (The Attributes of Tyranny) is a reprint of articles he had published in the Egyptian Press, on the subject of Tyranny. It is a thoughtful and profound work.  


Both books were published in Cairo in the author's lifetime and were widely read and discussed. Copies were smuggled to Syria and distributed in secret. Taken together they form a brilliant analysis of the decrepitude of the Muslim world in general and of the Arab portions in particular, of its causes and probable remedies, with an impassioned plea for the adoption of the right remedy. Two requisites seemed to him of fundamental importance: one was that a serious and organized effort be made to combat the obscurantism of the theologians and the ignorance of the masses; the other, that the function of the Arabs in the destinies of Islam be restored to its proper place. He believed that some such society as he imagined in Umm al-Qura, with branches in all parts of the Muslim world, would be adequate for  the one; and for the other, his digression on the caliphate and his book on Tyranny furnished an eloquent appeal. As contributions to the Arab political movement, his books stand in a class apart for their originality, their range and their audacity. 


In his campaign, Kawakebi  differentiated between the Arab movement and the general pan-Islamic revival preached by Jamaluddin al-Afghani. He was undoubtedly influenced by his predecessor and there are points of similarity both in form and substance, which show a close connection between the two minds. But whereas Jamaluddin regarded the whole world of Islam as one field to be united under a caliph –   be he Turk, Afghan or Egyptian – provided he were powerful enough to be master in his own house, Kawakebi drew a sharp distinction between Arabs and non-Arab Muslims. He derived this distinction from the lessons of history; that is to say from the part played by the Arabs in the rise and spread of Islam, from the intimate connection between the Arab genius and the spirit of Islam, and from the special place to which the Arabs were entitled in the fortunes of Islam by their language and their descent. So, while fully upholding the doctrine of the unity of Islam,  he advocated the abolition of the sultan's title to the caliphate and the setting up of a Quraish- born Arab as caliph in Mecca. 


The doctrine preached by Kawakebi contributed to the gradual transference of the leadership in the Arab national movement to Muslim hands. His campaign was a plea against sectarian dissension, and his writings contain passages in which he pleads for equality between the creeds for the sake of national solidarity.