Review: Islamic Imperialism: A History, by Efraim Karsh

Islamic Imperialism: A History, by Efraim Karsh. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007 (updated edition). 284 pp. $17.00 (paperback).


Since 9/11, cultural critics and religious apologists have argued the question of Islam’s militaristic nature: Is Islam inherently violent, or is it a peaceful religion corrupted by today’s Islamic terrorists? Efraim Karsh does not argue that Islam is necessarily more inclined to violence than any other religion, or that today’s terrorists have perverted Muhammad’s message. Rather, he claims, Islamic culture has always been (and potentially always will be) associated with and spread by bloodshed and violence. This, he believes, is less because of the fundamental tenets of Islam than because of the fact that the religion’s leaders and adherents have always been motivated by delusions of imperial grandeur achievable only by force.

In trying to explain the motivation behind the attacks of 9/11 and the militancy of today’s Islamists in general, Karsh documents Islam’s history of political violence. He tells the story of Islam, from Muhammad’s rise to power in the early 7th century, through the rule by caliphates of the medieval period, through the rise and fall of the Ottomans, up to today’s “renewed quest,” headed by terrorists such as Osama bin Laden, for a universal Arabic-Islamic empire.

In Karsh’s view, Islamic violence has always been driven more by political and imperial ambition than by religious fervor. Recounting key aspects of Islamic history, from Muhammad’s many raids; through the persecutions, assassinations, and wars of conquest that followed; through the resurgent violence in the last century, Karsh leaves the reader with no doubt that Islam’s past and present have been riddled with violence, and that its future likely will be too.

Karsh explains that Islam developed on a foundational premise of an “inextricable link between religious authority and political power,” established by Muhammad himself (p. 13). What “made Islam’s imperial expansion inevitable” is that Muhammad’s umma (community of believers) accepted a credo that combined a universal religion with the necessity of territorial conquest to establish political rule to enforce that faith (p. 18).

Islamic Imperialism: A History is not a comprehensive or straightforward history of Islamic empires or culture. Rather it is a history of Islamic leaders’ dream (Karsh’s word) of achieving a global empire and the actions they have taken toward realizing that dream—a dream that, Karsh argues, can never become a reality.

Karsh catalogs the corruption, violence, nepotism, and political opportunism that have characterized and undercut these leaders’ efforts. The tenets of Islam, he argues, have not been the fundamental driving force behind its leaders’ endeavors, but merely one of two justifications for them, the other being their fantasy of a “pure” Arab nationality—an integral feature of Islamic expansion. Muhammad and the early caliphs “went to great lengths to make Islam synonymous with Arabism” (p. 27).

Karsh sees today’s Islamic violence as deeply rooted in the religion’s imperial past. He rejects the ideas that contemporary Islamic terrorism is merely a “backlash by a deeply frustrated civilization reluctant to come to terms with its long-standing decline” or a “misguided . . . response to America’s arrogant and self-serving foreign policy by a fringe extremist group” (p. 1). The cause of the violence, he argues, is that Islam, from its inception, was spread via belief in the political-economic necessity of imperial expansion. From Muhammad’s time, Islam’s leaders found it increasingly necessary to expand and conquer in order to provide booty and rewards for Islam’s warriors and followers. And the prophet’s injunction against killing other Muslims meant that the leaders had to conquer non-Muslims. This is a recipe for a march toward global political-economic conquest—a conquest that, according to Karsh, has always been the primary motive behind Islamic violence. The religion, he says, has merely provided a “moral sanction and a unifying battle cry” for those pursuing that dream (p. 24).

The failure of Islam’s leaders to achieve a global empire, he claims, is a consequence of a chasm between their dream and the political reality in which they have pursued it. Islam was “initially conceived as a distinctly Arab endeavor” that unified its adherents via religion and the Arabic language (p. 18). Religion and language were supposed to supplant territorial, racial, and cultural heritage in a Muslim’s identity. Throughout Islam’s history, and particularly during the 20th century, the Arabic-speaking populations were “indoctrinated . . . to consider themselves members of ‘One Arab Nation’ or a universal ‘Islamic umma’ rather than patriots of their specific nation-states” (p. 7). This indoctrination, however, has foundered on what Karsh says is an inescapable reality of the modern nation-state: the fact that people, including Muslims, have values other than religion and language, values that are incompatible with a world-girdling Islamic state. American Muslims, for example, have embraced many American values that now define them; thus, they reject the idea of an “Arab nation” that repudiates those values. This, says Karsh, is an insurmountable obstacle to those who pursue the dream of a restored and global caliphate.

Conflicts across nationalities have inevitably led to conflicts within the Islamic world as well. A recent example is the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. That war is one of many symptoms of “a deep dissonance between the reality of state nationalism [by which Karsh means today’s widespread acceptance of the inviolability of sovereign nations] and the dream of an empire packaged as a unified ‘Arab nation’” (p. 235). In this clash between the Islamic dream and political reality, violence is the inevitable outcome, even among those who share the dream.

One of the book’s main values is Karsh’s documentation of Islamists’ perpetual willingness to resort to the sword, and the inevitable failure that follows. Karsh notes that the only period during which the Islamic empire was unified under a single ruler was that of Muhammad’s rule. Ever since then, rival caliphates have constantly tried militarily to unite the Muslim world under a single leader and a single “Arab nation”; they have even violated the Islamic prohibition against killing other Muslims in the process. But they have never succeeded in achieving this dream. And he notes that, whereas the Christian West has mitigated its own tendency to crusade by instituting the separation of church and state, the Islamic world has persistently sought to unify mosque and state—an effort that has both required violence and spurred further violence.

Karsh provides abundant evidence of the usual foibles of imperial power as practiced by the caliphs and sultans—nepotism, paranoia, persecution—and any reader who wishes merely to learn that today’s Islamic violence is not unique will find adequate evidence in this book. Although Karsh does not explain this tendency to violence in philosophical terms (more on this later), he does make clear that violence is an inescapable aspect of the Islamists’ dream of a global empire.

The book is thoroughly researched, well documented, and mostly good. For those who want to understand the motor behind Islamic jihad today, the opening and closing chapters are the most interesting and revealing. Chapter one, “The Warrior Prophet,” documents Muhammad’s rise from teacher to conqueror, and compares his life and the violent creation of the first Islamic empire to the life of Christ and the relatively peaceful origins of Christianity. Although not fully developed, the comparison between the two is stark. The closing two chapters and epilogue describe the revival of the post-Ottoman Islamism in 1920s Egypt as the springboard for the modern terrorist movement, and include disturbing figures about the continuing growth of Islam in Western Europe.

The book has a few minor flaws and one major one. Across the chapters of the book, the story is chronological, but within them, the reader occasionally finds himself leaping across centuries and continents as Karsh illustrates various aspects of the history. This is confusing at times, particularly as he refers to many figures (sometimes without adequate context or explanation). Nor does he always adequately define important terms or explain important points. For example, he does not provide an adequate account of the difference between the two main Islamic sects (Sunni and Shi’a), which is important for the contemporary reader, particularly as that schism is inextricably linked to the Muslim-on-Muslim violence that is integral to Karsh’s thesis. (Today’s civil violence in Iraq indicates the importance of this issue.) Additionally, his writing is overly dramatic and psychological at times; he describes Muhammad variously as “terrified,” “traumatized,” and “embittered” (pp. 11–17), as if these emotions were his fundamental motivation.

The deepest flaw of the book, however, is that its general theme is false. The idea that political or economic factors are the primary motive behind Islamic leaders’ willingness to resort to the sword is mistaken. The primary motive underlying all political and economic endeavors is fundamental philosophy—in this case, the fundamental tenets of Islam, such as the idea that one must have faith in Allah and submit to His will. Acceptance of these religious ideas is the ultimate cause of Islamic violence.

Because Karsh regards political and economic factors rather than the fundamental ideas of Islam as the primary motivating factor in Islamic imperialism, he offers a correspondingly dubious outlook for the future. Islam, he implies, could or should be recast as a purely private matter, and Islamic leaders might someday bow to the political reality that some Muslims want to embrace secular, Western values along with Islam. Further, he holds that the “determined counterattack by the United States and others” (p. 240) will stem the tide of Islamic expansion. This latter, however, is hopelessly out of touch with reality. What he calls a “determined counterattack” is nothing more than a military placebo that leaves the West open to further attacks and grants the enemy time and leeway to plan them. (For a penetrating account of the ineptitude of America’s response to Islamic terrorism, see Winning the Unwinnable War, edited by Elan Journo, Lexington Books, 2009.) As long as the leaders of Islam take the religion seriously, they will seek to make others submit, and they will do so by force.

Although Karsh does not grasp the fundamental philosophic issues at hand, Islamic Imperialism: A History is worth reading for its historical data and for the important causal connections it makes at the political, economic, and psychological levels.

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