Rashid Rida on the Emergence of Zionism

By Spahic Omer

Following the publication of “The State of the Jews” by Theodor Herzl – which, for all intents and purposes, should have been an earth-shattering revelation – no tremors of upheaval were felt throughout the Muslim world. Only partial, sporadic and frantic responses came to pass. The responses were not indicative of any kind of organized or widespread campaign, suggesting how ruinous the socio-political, religious and intellectual state of Muslims was. Caught up in the mire of political rivalry, sectarian squabbling, intellectual inertia and religious formalism, Muslims were oblivious to what was looming on the horizon.

In his study titled “Responses of Prominent Arabs towards Zionist Aspirations and Colonization Prior to 1908”, Emanuel Beska wrote: “Modem Jewish immigration and colonization of Palestine started in the eighth decade of the 19th century. But it took some time until the Arabs started to formulate their opposition towards these activities. At the turn of the century, with the formulation of the Zionist political program, some Arabs started to voice their opposition in various forms. They were increasingly well informed about Zionist goals and aware of the implications of their policies. However, several structural barriers prevented anti-Zionism from becoming a broader movement.”

Who was Rashid Rida?

One of those who stood out in confronting the arising Zionist problem was Rashid Rida (d. 1935). Rashid Rida was a leading Muslim scholar and reformer who was deeply influenced by Muhammad Abduh and Jamaluddin al-Afghani. A native of Lebanon, Rashid Rida ultimately migrated to Cairo to work with Muhammad Abduh, spending the majority of his years there. He was a “scholar who formulated an intellectual response to the pressures of the modern Western world on traditional Islam. He was concerned with what he considered the backwardness of the Muslim countries, a circumstance he believed resulted from a neglect of the true principles of Islam.” 

Rashid Rida likewise urged Muslims to emulate the scientific and technological progress made by the West, albeit without abandoning the spirit and guiding doctrines of the Shari’ah. He thus was among the first – together with the inspirational lights of Muhammad Abduh and Jamaluddin al-Afghani – to speak about the coalescence of the finest aspects of the East and West. This method, in addition, represented the first seeds of what later came to be known as Islamization of knowledge. Moreover, “in the political affairs of the Muslim community, he wanted rulers to respect the authority of the men of religion and to consult with them in the formulation of governmental policies” (Rashid Rida, Britannica).

Since Rashid Rida’s preoccupation was the reform (liberation) of the Muslim mind and purification of souls, he had no choice but to view the institution and proliferation of Zionism through the prism of the former. With great effort, he endeavoured to make use of the unexpected events to bring about a radical change to the difficult circumstances of Muslims and to allow them to pursue a prosperous course of both spiritual and cultural advancement. Zionism was still a secondary issue. Indirectly, it was brought about by the Muslim incompetence and a series of Muslim failures on all material and immaterial fronts. 

However, if Muslims did not attend to their shortcomings urgently, the Zionism menace could soon become the major problem for Muslims, superseding the majority of other problems. Hence, Rashid Rida was of the opinion that correcting the Muslim deficiencies was the paramount cause that could eventually impede the progression and actualization of the Zionist aspirations. It was only Muslim unity, solidarity and overall Muslim competence that could serve as an antidote to Zionism, just as the opposite was its incentive.

Rashid Rida’s two articles on the early Zionism

Rashid Rida presented his views on the emergence of Zionism in his two articles published in his magazine al-Manar, namely “News and Reflection” (Vol. 1, Issue 6, 1898) and “The Life of a Nation after Its Death” (Vol. 4, Issue 21, 1902). 

The first article, which was published about two years after Theodor Herzl’s publication of “The State of the Jews”, had two parts. In the first part, a question and answer from the magazine al-Muqtataf (Vol. 22, Issue 4, 1898) in Cairo, were reproduced. The question was a letter by a reader from Frankfurt am Main concerning the reaction of the Arab world in general and the Arab media in particular to the bombshell of Theodor Herzl. The answer was by the editorial staff of the al-Muqtataf magazine, which consisted of two persons: Ya’qub Sarruf and Faris Namir. Having cited both the question and answer in full, Rashid Rida then articulated his own perspective on the subject, which was slightly briefer than the combination of the mentioned question and answer.

The second article of Rashid Rida appeared about four years after the first article. It was more comprehensive than the first one and its essence significantly richer. It was evident that Rashid Rida’s views on the issue at hand had become more enlightened and were founded on his greater insight into Zionism. He bolstered his views by extensively quoting Zionist luminaries. The article additionally features an extensive quote from the first article, whereby Rashid Rida sought to demonstrate the consistency of his thought and the consistency of the Muslim chronic adversity which not only did not improve, but rather worsened.

What follows are seven takes on the contents of the two articles.

First: a tepid reaction to Theodor Herzl’s pamphlet

While the Western newspapers, like the Times, the Daily Chronicle, the Daily Telegraph and the prominent newspapers in Austria, were awash with reports about the Zionist project enshrined in Theodor Herzl’s pamphlet, hailing and endorsing it and forecasting its success – as indicated by the questioner in Rashid Rida’s first article, who was residing in Germany – the Arab newspapers, on the other hand, were not as enthusiastic. There was no particular interest in the matter. Only a handful of newspapers gave the event cursory attention as part of their international news roundup – as disclosed by the editors of the al-Muqtataf magazine, whose observations Rashid Rida also fully cited.

Second: shrouding the Zionist statehood dream in deceptions

The Zionist dream of establishing a state in Palestine was not presented as an actual occupation, coupled with incessant hostilities and expulsion of the local Palestinian population form their homes and lands. Which is understandable, for at that particular juncture, the idea needed global approval and the placating of Muslim opposition. As a consequence, every manner of sugary persuasion and trickery was employed extensively. Honesty was the thing most sorely missed. This element, too, was evident in the substance of the question posed to the magazine al-Muqtataf.

According to the question, the justification for a Zionist state was as follows. As a result of the unabating humiliation and suffering of the Jews especially in the hotbeds of antisemitism in some eastern European countries, such as Russia, Bulgaria and Romania, a new movement called Zionism was established. Its aim was to liberate the oppressed Jews by asking them to migrate to Palestine where special settlements will be provided for them and in which they will be able to live freely and contentedly. The seminal Zionist idea was instigated by groups of enlightened Jews in Austria, Germany, England and America. It was thought that the idea will be possible only with the (anticipated) permission of the Ottoman government (the Sublime Porte) and the constant backing and protection of the European powers. 

The object was to develop the Palestinian lands by means of agriculture, various industries and trade. The move was also expected to reduce the number of the poor in Europe and to increase trade opportunities between the East and the West. It was a win-win situation for all parties. Consequently, under the auspices of the Sublime Porte, the Jews will be able to reside prosperously. Their own free and safe milieu was everything they needed.

It was believed that both the Ottoman government and the European powers were in favour of the initiative, the former because it aspired to populate and develop its territories, and the latter because Europe did not object to the notion that its poorest demographic segment should leave in order to spread knowledge to the East and strengthen economic dealings with it. It was stressed that the Ottoman government was set to gain much from the agreement, owing to the fact that the Jews were renowned for their loyalty towards a country that protected and lent a helping hand to them.

The content of the elaborate question was only partly correct. However, the questioner is not to be blamed for it, in that he transmitted no more than what he could come across in the leading Western media outlets, which, in turn, demonstrated how biased and unscrupulous those outlets had been.

Illustrating the accurate aspects of the answer, Theodor Herzl was explicit in his “The State of the Jews” that the chief reason for writing his Zionist pamphlet and for initiating the Zionist project was an attempt to liberate the Jews from the yoke of the growing global antisemitism and to provide a state for them where, finally freed, they will “mind their own business.” The Jewish question was one of the darkest problems of humanity and so, had to be solved once and for all.

Theodor Herzl said: “The Jewish question still exists. It would be foolish to deny it. It is a remnant of the Middle Ages, which civilized nations do not even yet seem able to shake off, try as they will. They certainly showed a generous desire to do so when they emancipated us. The Jewish question exists wherever Jews live in perceptible numbers. Where it does not exist, it is carried by Jews in the course of their migrations. We naturally move to those places where we are not persecuted, and there our presence produces persecution. This is the case in every country, and will remain so, even in those highly civilized – for instance, France – until the Jewish question finds a solution on a political basis. The unfortunate Jews are now carrying the seeds of Anti-Semitism into England; they have already introduced it into America.”

Moreover, Theodor Herzl also said about the Jewish economic activities in a new Zionist state: “The plan, simple in design, but complicated in execution, will be carried out by two agencies: The Society of Jews and the Jewish Company. The Society of Jews will do the preparatory work in the domains of science and politics, which the Jewish Company will afterwards apply practically. The Jewish Company will be the liquidating agent of the business interests of departing Jews, and will organize commerce and trade in the new country. We must not imagine the departure of the Jews to be a sudden one. It will be gradual, continuous, and will cover many decades. The poorest will go first to cultivate the soil. In accordance with a preconceived plan, they will construct roads, bridges, railways and telegraph installations; regulate rivers; and build their own dwellings; their labour will create trade, trade will create markets and markets will attract new settlers, for every man will go voluntarily, at his own expense and his own risk. The labor expended on the land will enhance its value, and the Jews will soon perceive that a new and permanent sphere of operation is opening here for that spirit of enterprise which has heretofore met only with hatred and obloquy.”

At first, the proposed Jewish state was to be either in Argentina or Palestine. Argentina was an option because it “is one of the most fertile countries in the world, extends over a vast area, has a sparse population and a mild climate. The Argentine Republic would derive considerable profit from the cession of a portion of its territory to us. The present infiltration of Jews has certainly produced some discontent, and it would be necessary to enlighten the Republic on the intrinsic difference of our new movement.” 

However, Palestine soon proved the only viable alternative. It was the ever-memorable historic home of the Jews, the home whose very name was able to attract the Jews “with a force of marvellous potency.” The choice of Palestine was the point where “the practical men” of Zionism were united with the movement’s “dreamers”. None of them wanted to know anything about Argentine. “Palestine alone came into the picture for a national concentration of the Jews.”

Rationalizing the Palestine option, Theodor Herzl elaborated: “If His Majesty the Sultan (Abdul Hamid II) were to give us Palestine, we could in return undertake to regulate the whole finances of Turkey. We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism. We should as a neutral State remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence. The sanctuaries of Christendom would be safeguarded by assigning to them an extra-territorial status such as is well-known to the law of nations. We should form a guard of honour about these sanctuaries, answering for the fulfilment of this duty with our existence. This guard of honour would be the great symbol of the solution of the Jewish Question after eighteen centuries of Jewish suffering.”

On the other hand, the inaccurate aspects contained in the above-mentioned question are like so. The Ottoman government was never in favour of the idea of a Zionist state in Palestine. The Zionists were told to “leave Palestine alone”, that no part of the Empire can be given away, and that “vivisection” will not be allowed. According to some reports, Sultan Abdul Hamid II refused Theodor Herzl’s offers to pay down a substantial portion of the Ottoman debt (150 million pounds sterling in gold) in exchange for a charter allowing the Zionists to settle in Palestine. He is famously quoted as telling Theodor Herzl’s emissary that “as long as I am alive, I will not have our body divided, only our corpse they can divide” (Abdul Hamid II, Wikipedia).

In addition, the object was not to develop the land of Palestine and to facilitate economic relations between the West and the East, but to fully occupy Palestine, displace its Muslim population, and exterminate the traces of the existing Islamic culture as well as civilization. The creation of Israel was envisioned as a feature of the Western “mission to civilize (colonize or Westernize)” the world, targeting Muslims specifically.

The Zionist State was an agent of the Western unholy plans in the heart of the Muslim world. As expected, the Zionists did not intend to nurture any constructive relations with Arabs (Muslims). Rather, they wanted to serve as a bulwark of Europe against the potential influences and spread of Islam. But this paradigm entailed a high level of insecurity for Israel, due to which the West was assigned to constantly support it and guarantee its existence. Hence, Western colonization and the Zionist occupation of Palestine are deemed a twinned criminality. The criminality-cum-illegality of Israel perhaps should not be so surprising if one takes into consideration that its creation represented at once the net result and the pinnacle of the Western antisemitism. Israel was created and encoded in the image of the Western polities.

Moreover, the Zionist statehood scheme was such that Muslims were set to gain nothing therefrom. The purported loyalty and cooperation of the Jews with their neighbours, should the state of Israel become a reality, were mere myths. The actual content of Theodor Herzl’s “The State of the Jews” suggested that the Zionist model was intrinsically aggressive, yet genocidal. By solving the Jewish question as one of the darkest problems of humanity, the Zionists were bent on creating a “Palestine question” as the future darkest problem of the human race.

Third: taking the declared idea of a Zionist state in Palestine lightly 

The way the editors of the al-Muqtataf magazine responded to the mentioned question – as fully quoted by Rashid Rida – implies that Theodor Herzl’s “The State of the Jews” and the domino effects it was destined to generate, were taken lightly. The proposed ideas enshrined in the historic pamphlet (book) were simply too far-fetched to be achievable. They were thus dismissed as implausible. For the slumbering mind of the Muslim world – including that of non-Muslims, for the al-Muqtataf editors were Lebanese Christians – the Zionism theses were too much of a distraction. Even if they were not dismissed completely, the theses were still considered of lesser significance. 

This is apparent from the editors’ remarks that it did not make sense that the Jews should come to Palestine to cultivate its lands, for if they in their current home countries did not devote themselves to agriculture, it was not expected that they will do so in Palestine. Whereas there was no new revelation in assertions that the Jews were disposed to commerce, industry and crafts, to the point that they had already managed to take control of those economic sectors in Palestine. Hence, there was no reason to change the status quo.

It was added by the editors that numerous complications with regard to land acquisition in Palestine, the logistics of mass immigration, and the possibility of the Jewish condition in Eastern Europe getting imminently improved, will eventually hinder the realization of the Zionist Palestine-related enterprise. The staunch opposition of the Ottoman authorities was likewise cited as a critical factor. 

All in all, unable to see that the Zionist socio-economic justifications were pure diversions, the editors wrote off the prospect of the Zionist dreams becoming realities. They stressed that while theory is one thing, implementation is another. However, if push came to shove – emphasized the editors – the Argentina option was more feasible than that of Palestine. 

Anyhow, the editors seemed to not have read Theodor Herzl’s pamphlet, nor to have been well-versed in the intricacies of the ideology and political predilections of Zionism. They admitted nothing about this, but the same can be gleaned from the nature and compass of their answer. They certainly should have conceded the truth, leaving the door open for subsequent more enlightening answers. As for the subject matter raised in the question, more prudence should have been exercised. It was incontestable that something seismic was in the offing, which called for a more rigorous investigation and a more insightful response. The reading public, and society at large, deserved better.

Fourth: Zionism as a catalyst to invigorate Muslims

Rashid Rida decided to perceive the inauguration of Zionism in a different light, casting it into his reformist mould. He wanted to employ the idea and its corresponding social movement as an instrument to encourage Muslims to unity and constructive action. This by no means implies that he underestimated the latent danger in the developments, but for Rashid Rida – an embodiment of judiciousness and soundness of judgement – adhering to the principle of prioritizing tasks and dealing with the most pressing matters first, was of the utmost importance. 

What made Rashid Rida worry the most were the deplorable spiritual, intellectual and socio-political conditions of Muslim societies. In almost all areas, Muslims were in a state of great disorganization and confusion. As such, they could be a vulnerable target for any external antagonists, including Zionism. 

Predators are perpetually in pursuit of their prey; they will invariably prey upon those who are weak and fragmented. However, the final outcome is never in the hands of a predator, but in the hands of a potential prey. What a predator wants is the possession of a prey, making it more difficult to steal than to protect.

The same rule applies to Zionism and their unhallowed plots. They will certainly try to implement their plans, by hook or by crook, but whether they will succeed and how much, it all depended on Muslims. They will occupy the holy land of Palestine only if Muslims allowed them by persisting in their appalling conditions. Thus, Zionism per se was not the cause for immediate concern for Rashid Rida, but Muslims. The law of causality was the linchpin of his thought process.

Fifth: learning from the Zionists 

Rashid Rida believed that the formation of Zionism and the sudden awakening of the Jews signified a phenomenon worth studying. There must have been positives embedded in the novel events from which something could be learned. Rashid Rida was guided by the words of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him and his family) that wisdom is the lost property of the believer, so wherever he finds it, he is most entitled to it (Sunan Ibn Majah).

Rashid Rida was determined to jolt Muslims out of their lethargy, to make them recognize the predicament they have created for themselves and what must take place to improve their lot. The resurgence of the Jews, spurred by their sense of nationhood, unity, industriousness and commitment to learning, was analogous to what Muslims were required to do. Consequently, Rashid Rida seized the opportunity to drive home some essential points. He did so especially in his second article which was duly titled “The Life of a Nation after Its Death.” If the nation of the Jews was able to experience a renaissance, so could – and should – Muslims too. 

However, if Muslims failed to learn lessons, there could be an unexpected, yet tragic, turn of events. At the time of Rashid Rida’s writing of the second article, the conditions of the Jews and Muslims were in many ways comparable. Neither was in an ideal shape. But the key difference was that the negligeable and dispersed good of the Jews was owing to their dynamic ascending trajectory, whereas the correspondingly negligible and fast-disappearing good of Muslims was owing to their dynamic descending trajectory. As things stood, for the former the only way was up, and for the latter down. That also indicated that for the Jews, there was a lot of excitement and hope, while for Muslims there was a lot of uncertainty and despair. If the future was with the Jews, it looks like Muslims were not as fortunate. 

Rashid Rida was emphatic in his evaluations. He warned that although in the past the Jewish plight was used as a metaphor for weakness and humiliation, the future may yet bring a reversal in this dynamic. The tables may be turned and balance of power change. The Jews may come to be regarded as a symbol of success and pride, while Muslims may replace them on the pedestal of hopelessness and shame. To make things worse, such could happen right in the Muslim midst, in Palestine, offering an eternal reminder of what Muslims used to be in the past, yet are no more, and, in the same manner, what Jews had been before, yet are no more. A time may come when the masters of land, life and fortune will become servants, and vice versa. 

Rashid Rida warned that the conspicuous signs were there. All components were in alignment for that unfortunate scenario to come to pass. For example, unlike most Muslims, the Jews were united and respected each other, devoted themselves to learning, cooperated with one another, were increasingly admired by the world, were industrious and productive, and were inquisitive as well as creative.

Sixth: Jewish excellence versus Muslim mediocrity

Through his analysis, Rashid Rida did not mince his words. Urging Muslims to promptly adjust at once the styles and contents of their educational systems and their general as well as Islamic behavioural patterns, he drew attention to the fact that the ascendancy of the Jews was not a matter of luck, but rather a result of their merit. They were not thriving because of their lineage (a galaxy of prophets), their fancy titles (God’s chosen people, God’s favourite sons, etc.), or because of the otherworldly powers and interventions of Torah, but because they observed and fully subscribed to the laws of nature and the historical laws pertaining to the rise and fall of nations (civilizations); they remained united and conscious of one another despite being scattered and maltreated throughout the world – and history; they cooperated with each another in preserving their national identity, language, culture and self-respect; they excelled in modern sciences and valuable crafts by virtue of their unparalleled commitment and diligence; they rose to prominence by amassing wealth and subsequently utilising it to benefit their nation, “and indeed wealth is the foundation of all power and honour in this modern age”; they created a number of national associations so as to consolidate, oversee, facilitate and further stimulate progress, “and indeed the success of nations lies in associations (as a sign of good organization and effective functioning).”

Rashid Rida added that there was more to the Jewish genius than just hard work, scientific and organizational excellence, and hoarding riches. In addition, they cherished their Jewishness and venerated their lives and dignity more than anything else, so much so that generally in the West a single Jewish life has become more valuable than the life of an Eastern (Muslim) sovereign. To illustrate what he meant, Rashid Rida said that any European power could threaten the greatest Eastern (Muslim) ruler and could coerce him through either diplomacy or force into humiliation, whereas the same was impossible even with regard to a single ordinary Jew. Rashid Rida then gave an example of an incident in France whereby a Jew was mistreated and humiliated, following which the whole country had to endure a series of grave consequences, some of which bordered on internal conflicts. 

Rashid Rida inferred that this systematic approach of the modern Jews yielded impressive results, bringing them ever closer to the fulfilment of their dreams. Their national pride and might were gradually restored. The only thing they were missing, in order to become the most successful nation in the world, was a kingdom, which nonetheless they were steadily and naturally progressing towards. 

As if Rashid Rida was indirectly resigned to the success of the Zionist plans and that Palestine will eventually become their home – of course unless Muslims stop their rot and change. This unfortunately appeared to be the case because there was nothing to stop the Zionists. Whatever the decadent Muslims, both at the individual and institutionalized levels, were able to muster as resistance, will be no match for what was coming their way. In point of fact, the impending confrontations – and tragedies – will not transpire between people and their physical armies, but between ideas, merits and overall immaterial conditions, for which people and armies are mere repositories as well as means. The looming conflicts were set to be between excellence and mediocrity, vigour and lethargy, strength and weakness, courage and cowardice.

Seventh: from individual progress to collective initiatives

The positivity of the Jewish case Rashid Rida employed as a backdrop for projecting the negativity surrounding the case of Muslims and their failing societies. He thrust into the spotlight the notions that Muslims were divided, weakened, lacklustre, indolent, indifferent, incapacitated, not educated properly and sufficiently, poorly grounded in the Islamic faith, and were led by incompetent and corrupt leaders.

This indeed was the root cause of all perils, not the question of Zionism and their Western patrons. They appeared mighty and scary only because Muslims were virtually nothing and nowhere to be found in the realms of global influence. Seemingly undefeatable, their advance was only made possible due to the fact that the sentry posts that lined the trails leading to the innermost depths of the Muslim civilizational existence had been forsaken or inadequately guarded.

For that reason did Rashid Rida end his second and more consequential article by reiterating what Muslims needed to do in order to improve their sad situation and become again a force to be reckoned with, in the process enabling themselves to resist their internal and external adversaries, including Zionism. His emphasis revolved around an Islamic reawakening, educational revisionism by mastering all beneficial knowledge, strong economies, uplifting moral principles, good governance and social contract. 

It is noteworthy that Rashid Rida did not call for overthrowing Muslim corrupt leaders, because doing so would only aggravate the predicaments. Nothing but his extraordinary sagacity and practicality of thought drove him to such a viewpoint. Ordinary people were more capable of instilling hope than governments that had been entrenched as much in futility as in corruption.

People were to take care of their own spiritual improvements. They needed to become better members of society, for every change starts from within the self. That is to say, people needed to be better Muslims and to organize themselves at levels different from that of governments, most of which were useless anyway. The ideas of pan-Islamism, human development and social engagement could be initially sparked from the grassroots level and subtly spread out across the multitudinous facets and components of civil society. It is unimaginable that the spirit of the most fundamental values of Islam were to be found not with Muslims, but with the Jews. Without question, it was only Muslim preparedness and capabilities that could provide an effective counterbalance to the plotting of their foes, and their ineptitudes that invited the latter.

Rashid Rida summarized the crux of the matter at the beginning of his second article when he quoted the following Qur’anic verse: “Have they not travelled in the land so that they should have hearts with which to understand, or ears with which to hear? For surely it is not the eyes that are blind, but blind are the hearts which are in the breasts” (al-Hajj, 46). 

Rashid Rida then drew some incredibly harsh conclusions, exhibiting how disillusioned he had become. He proclaimed that Muslims do not learn lessons from the episodes of history, nor heed the signs associated either with nature or the destinies of nations. That is so because over their vision is a veil, in their ears deafness, and their hearts are under coverings. Therefore, advising and warning such people is useless, producing no results whatsoever. Unfazed by the harmful results of their own misdeeds, it was highly unlikely that they could recognize any potential risks stemming from other sources, like Zionism, for example. Perchance, when the Zionist goals become ultimately achieved and Palestine come to be securely in the Zionists’ hands, the majority of Muslims will have a notion of what had been taking place for some time, but unfortunately it will be too late to make a difference. Lamenting, pleading and protesting will be both inadequate and untimely.

The current events in Gaza and elsewhere in Muslim countries suggest that Muslims did not substantially change since the time of Rashid Rida. How long do we need to understand that what – more accurately than who – gave Palestine away, can only get it back? ***

(Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer is an academic in Department of History and Civilisation, AbdulHamid AbuSulayman Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences.)