Abdurrahman ibn Ahmad Al-Kawakibi was born in 1271 A.H., corresponding to 1854 in Aleppo in Northern Syria. His father was a scholar who studied in Damascus and was appointed the Judge of Aleppo, and a good orator. As a judge he tended to settle most disputes by agreement between conflicting parties. His was a family known for its scholarship, piety and dedication for several centuries. The young boy, Abdurrahman lost his mother when he was only five years of age, and was looked after for the next three years in Antioch by his aunt, Safiyah, who was conversant with the Turkish language, in addition to Arabic, and had some schooling at a time when the overwhelming majority of people were illiterate. He returned to Aleppo when he was nine, where he was educated in the Kawakibiyah school, run by his father. He learnt Arabic, Turkish and Persian, in addition to religious education and achieved excellence in Arabic.
Al-Kawakibi was a keen reader, devouring whatever he could lay his hands on, which meant that he read numerous works translated from European languages, and he added to his education the study of mathematics and physics. By the age of 20, he was exceptional in the breadth of his education. In addition to all this, he possessed a serious personality and fine intelligence, as well as a keen desire to attend the circles of scholars and literary figures.
The second half of the nineteenth century during which Al-Kawakibi lived was a period of continued decline for the entire Muslim world. Most Islamic areas were in a state of weakness, governed by dictators who were keen to amass wealth, caring little for their people. Ignorance and illiteracy was the order of the day. Injustice was widespread. Internal strife was frequent. The few who were educated knew little about the true nature of Islam. Hence, they leant toward the West, calling for the adoption of a Western way of life. The image of Islam was confined, in many people’s minds, to some ignorant rituals, superstition and deviant practices.
Only a handful of well-educated people advocated a return to Islam in its pure image. Foremost among these was Abdurrahman Al-Kawakibi, who criticized the widespread injustice under the declining Ottoman power, which was leading to a state of total backwardness.
At the age of 22, Al-Kawakibi was appointed as an unofficial editor of the government owned paper, Furat, which was published in Arabic and Turkish between 1867 and 1911. Within a year, he was its official editor. A year or so later, i.e. in 1878, Al-Kawakibi published the first independent Arabic newspaper in Aleppo, named Al-Shahbaa, which publicized the great talent of its publisher and editor. However, Al-Kawakibi was quick on the attack, calling for total reform of public life and speaking out against autocratic rule and criticizing the governor in particular. Only 15 issues were published and the paper was closed down by order of the governor. Al-Kawakibi soon issued a third paper, Al-I’tidal, in both Arabic and Turkish, advocating freedom and justice, but again his paper was closed down.
Al-Kawakibi served in various government posts. At the age of 25, he was an honorary member in the education and finance committees, and later an honorary member of the board of lawyer examinations. He was then appointed manager of the government printing department in Aleppo, and subsequently a member of the commercial court. In all his positions, Al-Kawakibi earned respect because of his integrity and efficiency.
He introduced reforms wherever he worked and tried to get rid of whatever impeded the smooth running of work or hampered public interests. At the same time, he wrote numerous articles in the papers issued in Istanbul and Beirut. The governor was unhappy with his writings and caused him several problems. This led to his resignation from government service in 1886, when he started to work as a lawyer.
He returned to government service at the age of 40, taking up several posts. Again he was exemplary in his work, well loved by his colleagues and by the public. His popularity was always a cause of irritation to governors, who tried to suppress his activities. He continued to urge reform, making injustice the prime target of his criticism. Therefore, governors continued to make things uneasy for him. Finally, he decided to leave, traveling to Egypt in 1900.
In Egypt, Al-Kawakibi was welcomed by the intelligentsia and he soon established a close relationship with Sheikh Ali Yussuf, the editor of the well-known paper, Al-Muayyad. He began to publish articles on dictatorship, which were later published in a book called Taba’ie Al-Istibdad, or The Nature of Dictatorship. Another book was soon to follow under the title Umm Al-Qora. Both books were highly influential.
In his introduction to his first book, The Nature of Dictatorship, Al-Kawakibi says that it is not directed against a particular government or dictator. He simply wants to alert his people to the cause of their malady, so that “they would know that they should blame none other than themselves. They should blame neither foreigners nor fate. I only hope that those who care for their nation may be able to do something to change this situation before it becomes too late.”
Al-Kawakibi mentions that he borrowed some of his ideas from other writers. It is clear that he was influenced by Voltaire, Rousseau and Montescue, although he could not read any of these writers except in translation.
In his book, Al-Kawakibi makes it clear that accountability is essential if a government is not to be dictatorial. This was shown in early Islamic government, and in the British system of government. He accepts that political dictatorship is often the product of religious dictatorship, but he rejects the notion that Islam allows dictatorship. On the contrary, Islam “combines wisdom and firm resolve. It destroys pagan beliefs and establishes the foundation of political freedom.” He believes that dictatorship and education run in opposite directions. All dictators are in trouble when their people become well-educated. Hence, they try to keep their people in a state of ignorance. Moreover, dictatorship weakens the national economy and encourages social corruption, destroying moral values.
His other book, Umm Al-Qora is innovative in its conception and structure. Al-Kawakibi presents it in the form of the minutes of an imaginary conference attended by representatives from 22 Muslim countries. The theme chosen for the conference is “the identification of the causes of the state of backwardness of the Muslim peoples, its symptoms and how to overcome it and set the Muslim people on the road to recovery.”
The first three days of this imaginary conference are taken up by the first topic, discussing the causes of the weakness of Muslims and how to overcome them. The second topic the conference discusses is “the true definition of Islam.” Three main points are mentioned here: 1) The belief that the Prophet Muhammad conveyed his message complete and intact, leaving out nothing; 2) Nothing may be added to what the Prophet has conveyed to us; and 3) Muslims are free to conduct their worldly life as they please, provided they do not contravene any principle of Islam.
The conference identifies no less than 86 causes of Muslim weakness, some of which are subsidiary causes. It forms an association dedicated to reforming Muslim affairs. One of the main objectives of this association is to encourage the widespread use of education throughout the Muslim world, encouraging all sciences and arts. The main conclusions of the conference are as follows:
Muslims are in a state of chronic lethargy;
A cure for this state is most essential;
The microbe causing this malady is ignorance; The only cure is through education and motivating young people to work for a better status; There is an urgent need to convene educational assemblies; These tasks must be fulfilled through the joint efforts of all who can contribute to them, particularly scholars and people of insight and wisdom.
Al-Kawakibi was a great advocate of freedom and education as the only way forward for the Muslim community. He died in 1902, at the young age of 48. May God bless his soul.