Snouck Hurgronje, Christiaan

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Snouck Hurgronje, Christiaan

Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, born in Oosterhout in the Netherlands on February 8, 1857, was one of the most important Dutch scholars of Arabic studies and Islam. On account of his position as government adviser in the Netherlands Indies during a crucial stage of colonial development, his publications about Islam, and his role as professor of Arabic language and culture in Leiden, he was and remains a scholar of international standing.

Snouck Hurgronje went to the Dutch equivalent of a grammar school in the provincial town of Breda, where he studied classical languages. In 1874 he went to the prestigious University of Leiden to study theology, in which subject he acquired his first degree. He then continued his studies in Semitic languages, more specifically Arabic, under the tutorship of the well-known professor M. J. de Goeje. In 1880 Snouck finished his Ph.D. thesis with the successful defense of his dissertation, Het Mekkaansche feest (The Mecca Festival). After his graduation Snouck spent a year in Strasbourg, where he studied with professor Th. Nöldeke, before returning to Leiden to take up a position as lecturer at the College for East Indian Officials (Opleiding voor Oost-Indische Ambtenaren) and at the Higher Military School. These institutions trained civil and military personnel, respectively, for service in the Netherlands Indies. In 1887 Snouck returned to the university as a lecturer in Islamic organizations.

Snouck Hurgronje was quite unique in his approach to the study of Islam, which up until then had received little systematic scholarly analysis. First and foremost, his interest was in the language of Islam. His dissertation was a first effort at a new critical historical examination of Islam, and promised much in the way of new and original departures and a possible paradigm shift. After his dissertation, in which the emphasis is on religious culture, Snouck started to study Islamic law, or rather, as Snouck himself preferred to call it, the "Islamic duties." This subject has been at the heart of Islamic scholarship for many centuries, but was much neglected by European scholars in Snouck's time. Through a range of publications in article form, Snouck paved the way for new and original research focusing on the basis and content of Islamic law. These writings also made him one of the founders of the modern study of Islam.

Snouck, trained in the ethnographic tradition of Leiden, was not content to remain in the Netherlands, however: he wished to visit Mecca as a participant-observer and to discuss his ideas at first hand with fellow Muslim scholars. For this it was necessary for Snouck to convert to Islam, and thus his study of Islamic law and duties had a functional as well as scholarly purpose. After setting off for the Middle East, Snouck stayed in Djeddah, the port of Mecca for almost six months, before traveling on to Mecca, where he concluded the welcoming ceremony of encircling the Kaqaba seven times. However, here Snouck's scientific and personal adventure came to an abrupt halt. In a French newspaper article, Snouck was accused of trying to steal the possessions of the murdered French scholar C. Huber, which were left behind in Mecca. The French consul had a hand in this intrigue and stopped short what Snouck later called "the great event in my life" and "the beginning of a medieval dream." Just before the beginning of the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage at the heart of the Islamic belief system, Snouck was deported from Mecca. The unfairness of the incident could still make Snouck angry many years later. It did not, however, diminish his scholarly energies in any way, because soon after he concluded his second large publication, Mekka. This two-volume book, based on his experiences during his travels in the Middle East, reports the results of his fieldwork research in Mecca, and is one of the first Western scholarly descriptions and analyses of the town. The first volume describes the town and its rulers, while the second looks at day-to-day life in the town as Snouck found it in 1885. In addition, Snouck included an atlas with images to complete the set. The fact that the book was published in German made Snouck's research and ideas accessible to an international public for the first time, and made him internationally famous. In later years, Snouck would publish several other overview studies that were received well.

After the publication of Mekka, Snouck began a period of strong academic and political involvement with the Netherlands Indies. While in Mecca, he had encountered numerous Muslim pilgrims from the Netherlands Indies. At the time, this Dutch colonial possession was providing more pilgrims than any other region. These encounters imbued in Snouck the conviction that the Netherlands, then confronting frequent revolts in the Islamic state of Aceh in northern Sumatra, should study Islam thoroughly if it wished to rule its colony without problems. Snouck convinced the Dutch Ministry of the Colonies to let him make a study trip to the Netherlands Indies, though they would not permit him to start work in Aceh. During 1889 and 1890 Snouck first traveled through West and Central Java as a government advisor, tasked with making suggestions for the supervision of Islamic education and the functional improvement of Islamic councils. He produced numerous volumes of travel notes, which remain unpublished and have hardly been touched since they were deposited in his archives in Leiden. The Java trip did, however, yield several well-received articles on Javanese customs and traditions.

Finally, in 1891, Snouck had the opportunity to travel to Aceh, now as a government advisor on Asian languages and Islamic law. The visit lasted just over six months, but Snouck was not allowed to travel outside the Dutch military safety zone, which restricted the scope of his fieldwork studies considerably. Nevertheless, within three months he produced his report, the first two chapters of which were to form the basis for the two-volume government-sponsored publication De Atjehers (1893–1895; published in English in 1906 as The Achenese). The other chapters of the original report outlined Snouck's iconoclastic ideas about Dutch policies on Aceh. Snouck proposed a departure from the wait-and-see policy that had dominated Dutch actions for over a decade, and advised the government to break the resistance with force in the district of Aceh and Dependencies and thus achieve pacification of the whole area. The government was not enthusiastic about Snouck's proposal, however, and it would take several incidents in the area and a change of governor-general before his policy advice was implemented, starting in 1896.

The policy of pacification by force turned out to be very effective, in no small part due to the military skills of Colonel J. B. van Heutsz, who was in charge of the operations. Van Heutsz and Snouck cooperated closely in the field for several years. The chemistry between them was good, and in terms of devising policies and executing them in the greater Aceh area the two men were complementary. Snouck pushed strongly for the appointment of Van Heutsz as civil and military governor of Aceh, as he felt Van Heutsz was the best man to complete the task of full pacification. Snouck himself was appointed as advisor for Indigenous and Arabic Affairs in 1898, and in this position he was Van Heutsz's second-in command from 1898 to 1903, though he was only in Aceh until 1901. At the end of this period the relationship between the two men turned sour. Snouck did not agree with the way in which Van Heutsz pushed through the final submission of Aceh. In 1903, the same year a final treaty heralded an end to hostilities between the Dutch government and the sultan-pretender, Snouck asked to be relieved from his post. His request was honored, but it meant the end of his involvement with matters of colonial policy for five years. Only in 1908, when the new Dutch governor of Aceh, G. C. E. van Daalen—Van Heutsz's successor since the latter had been appointed governor-general of the Netherlands Indies in 1904—was sacked because of gross misbehavior during a number of military campaigns, did Minister A. W. F. Idenburg propose that Snouck be given a government commission to undertake an inquiry in Aceh. Snouck refused this offer, however, because, he claimed, his acceptance would cause Van Heutsz's resignation. Snouck, although not in agreement with Van Heutsz policy-wise, did not find Van Heutsz's resignation a viable option at that time.

In the following years, Snouck focused on the problem of pacification in other parts of the archipelago, and limited his political advice to those areas. It was only in Djambi that Snouck did research on the ground and kept a somewhat strong interest in developments over time. This put him in the position to advise the Dutch government concerning the Djambi Rebellion of 1916.

In the meantime, Snouck published prolifically, both under his own name and under several pen names. He wrote about topical issues in the press, but also kept up his academic work. Snouck prepared an orthography in Latin characters for the Aceh language, and wrote two important articles about the language. He began studying the Gajos language and culture in 1900, and in 1903 published Gajosland en zijn bewoners (Gajosland and Its Inhabitants). Though only based on materials collected outside of Gajos, the book became a standard work, and the linguistic material in it found its way into the dictionary prepared by another scholar, G. A. J. Hazeu, some years later.

Snouck's social skills were well developed, and during his life he developed friendly relationships with numerous people in the Netherlands Indies and the Arab world. For this reason, he was often better informed about developments in the Islamic world than were many of his contemporaries. The numerous opinions and recommendations Snouck offered during his long career—he would remain an official adviser to the colonial minister until 1933—comprised over two thousand pages in print and were published twenty years after his death.

Snouck left the Netherlands Indies for good in 1906, in order to escape his contentious relationship with Governor-General Van Heutsz. Having refused the offer of a chair in the Malay language in Leiden in 1891, and several other offers of a professorship in later years, Snouck was ready to return to academia. In 1907 he accepted the chair of Arabic language and culture in Leiden, succeeding his teacher De Goeje. His inaugural lecture, presented on January 23, 1907, was entitled Arabia and the East Indies, and dealt with the subject of study Snouck had first embraced in his Ph.D. dissertation, though now set in a mature context of a quarter of a century of personal involvement, field research, and extensive study.

Professor C. van Vollenhoven, occupying the chair in East Indian law, transferred his lecture series on Islam to Snouck. Snouck used these as a platform for his ideas on Islamic politics based on neutrality toward religion as such, and a strict intolerance toward politics based on (extremist) religion. In many respects, Snouck showed himself to be a child—if not a proponent—of the Ethical Policy in both its theoretical form and its development over time. Beginning in the 1890s as a proponent of the unification of the colonial state through the subduing and incorporating of rebellious regions, Snouck shifted in the 1910s and 1920s toward support for emancipation and the development of an indigenous administration. This was most evident in the pleasure he took in educating the sons of traditional political leaders. Snouck and his colleague Van Vollenhoven became staunch defenders of the thorough reform of the administrative structure of the Netherlands Indies through Western education and the association of elites on both sides of the political divide. In reaction to this, a conservative group set up and financed alternative courses at the University of Utrecht aimed at preparing aspiring civil servants for service in the East Indies. At the same time, Snouck kept on promoting the interests of the population of the Netherlands Indies in his lectures and publications.

After 1903 Snouck published no large works. The list of his smaller and often topical publications is impressive, however. He wrote about the demise of the Ottoman caliphate and the rise of the Turkish state, about the Arab revolt against the Turks, about the rise of the Saudi kingship in Arabia, and about Islam and race relations. In this period several articles were also published in English or French, which enhanced his international status further. He was asked repeatedly to give advice on international matters, and in 1925 he was offered the chair in Arabic language and culture of the National Egyptian University in Cairo. In 1927 Snouck resigned his chair in Leiden, though he remained closely connected to the university until his death, not least because of his appointment to a special chair in modern Arabic and the language of Aceh.

Snouck's family ties were interrelated with his work as an academic. The son of a Dutch Reformed minister, he married Ida Maria Oort, who came from a family that boasted several Leiden-based scholars of early Christianity, the Old Testament, the history of the Middle East, and law. His main teacher, De Goeje, was also part of this family group. At the same time, during his years in the Netherlands Indies, Snouck married two women according to Islamic rites, and had five children with them. For political reasons he never publicly acknowledged either of these wives or his children with them, although he did look after them. Snouck died in Leiden on June 26, 1936.

see also Aceh War; Ethical Policy, Netherlands Indies.


Benda, H. J. The Crescent and the Rising Sun. The Hague: W. van Hoeve, 1958.

Benda, H. J. "Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje and the foundations of Dutch Islam policy in Indonesia," The Journal of Modern History 30 (1958): 338-347.

Drewes, G. W. J. Snouck Hurgronje en de Islamwetenschap. Public lecture on the event of the 100th birthday of Dr. C. Snouck Hurgonje, 10 Februrary. Leiden, Netherlands: Universitaire Pers, 1957.

Drewes, G. W. J. "Snouck Hurgronje, Christiaan (1857–1936)." In: Biografisch Woordenboek van Nederland. Available from

Gobée, E. and C. Adriaanse, eds. Ambtelijke adviezen van C. Snouck Hurgronje 1889–1936. 3 vols. Gravenhage, Netherlands: Nijhoff, 1957–1965.

Pedersen, J. The Scientific Work of Snouck Hurgronje. Public lecture for the members of the Oosters Genootschap in the Netherlands, on the event of the 100th birthday of Snouck Hurgonje, 8 Febr. 1857. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1957.

van Niel, R. "Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje." Journal of Asian Studies 16 (1956–57): 591-594.

Wertheim, W. F. "Counter-insurgency research at the turn of the Century-Snouck Hurgronje and the Acheh war." Sociologische Gids 19 (1972): 320-328.