Islamic Congresses

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Muslims, either of a certain faction or in general, convening to promote solidarity and interaction among Muslim peoples and states.

Although the concept of Muslim solidarity is intrinsic to the faith of Islam, it took no organized form until modern times. In the course of the twentieth century, Islamic congresses have emerged as the structured expression of that concept. Some of these congresses have evolved into international Islamic organizations that promote political, economic, and cultural interaction among Muslim peoples and states.

The idea of Muslims convening in congresses first gained currency in the late nineteenth century, in the Ottoman Empire. The advent of easy and regular steamer transport accelerated the exchange of ideas among Muslims and made possible the periodic assembling of representatives. The idea also appealed to Muslim reformists, who sought a forum to promote and sanction the internal reform of Islam. Such an assembly, they believed, would strengthen the ability of Muslims to resist the encroachments of Western imperialism.

A number of émigré intellectuals in Cairo first popularized the idea in the Muslim world. In 1900, one of them, the Syrian Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi, published an influential book entitled Umm al-Qura (that is, Mecca), which purported to be the secret protocol of an Islamic congress convened in Mecca during the pilgrimage of 1899. The fictional congress culminated in a call for a restored Arab caliphate, an idea then in vogue in reformist circles. Support for such a congress also became a staple of the reformist journal al-Manar, published in Cairo by Rashid Rida. The Crimean Tatar reformist Ismail Bey Gaspirali (in Russian, Gasprinski) launched the first concrete initiative in Cairo in 1907, when he unsuccessfully worked to convene a general Islamic congress.

Al-Kawakibi's book, Rida's appeals, and Gaspirali's initiative all excited the suspicion of Ottoman authorities. The Ottoman Turks believed that a well-attended Islamic congress would fatally undermine the religious authority claimed by the theocratic Ottoman sultan-caliph and, in particular, it feared the possible transformation of any such congress into an electoral college for choosing an Arab caliph. Steadfast Ottoman opposition thwarted all the early initiatives of the reformers.

With the final dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, some Muslim leaders and activists moved to convene general Islamic congresses. In each instance, they sought to mark their causes or their ambitions with the stamp of Islamic consensus. In 1919, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk convened an Islamic congress in Anatolia to mobilize pan-Islamic support for his military campaigns. During the hajj (pilgrimage) season of 1924, Sharif Husayn ibn Ali of the Hijaz summoned a pilgrimage congress in Mecca to support his claim to the caliphatea maneuver that failed to stall the relentless advance of Ibn Saʿud (Abd al-Aziz ibn Saʿud Al Saʿud). Following Ibn Saʿud's occupation of Mecca, he convened his own world congress during the pilgrimage season of 1926. The leading clerics of alAzhar in Cairo convened a caliphate congress there in 1926 to consider the effects of the abolition of the caliphate by Turkey two years earlier. The congress was supported by King Fuʾad, who reputedly coveted the title of caliph, but no decision issued from the gathering. In 1931, Muhammad Amin alHusayni, the mufti of Jerusalem, convened a general congress of Muslims in Jerusalem to secure pan-Islamic support for the Arab struggle against the British mandate and Zionism. In 1935, pan-Islamic activist Shakib Arslan convened a congress of Europe's Muslims in Geneva to carry the protest against imperialism and colonialism to the heart of Europe. Each of these congresses resolved to create a permanent organization and convene additional congresses, but all such efforts were foiled by internal rivalries and the intervention of the European powers.

As more and more countries in the Middle East achieved political independence following World War II, Muslim leaders increasingly offered new plans for the creation of a permanent organization of Muslim states. After the partition of India, Pakistan took a number of initiatives in the late 1940s and early 1950s but soon encountered stiff opposition from Egypt, which gave primacy of place to panArabism and the Arab League. When Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser transformed pan-Arabism into a revolutionary doctrine, Saudi Arabia sought to counter him by promoting a rival pan-Islamism, assembling congresses of Muslim activists and ulama (Islamic clergy) from abroad. In 1962, the Saudi government sponsored the establishment of the Mecca-based Muslim World League, which built a worldwide network of Muslim clients. Beginning in 1964, Egypt responded by organizing large congresses of Egyptian and foreign ulama under the auspices of al-Azhar's Academy of Islamic Research in Cairo. These rival bodies then convened a succession of dueling congresses in Mecca and Cairo, each claiming the sole prerogative of defining Islam. In 1965 and 1966, Saudi Arabia's new king, Faisal (son of Ibn Saʿud), launched a campaign for an Islamic summit conference that would have balanced the Arab summits dominated by President Nasser, however, had sufficient influence to thwart the initiative, which he denounced as a foreign-inspired Islamic pact, designed to defend the interests of Western imperialism.

Israel's 1967 devastating pre-emptive attack on Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, along with its annexation of Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai, eroded faith in the brand of Arabism championed by Nasser, inspiring a return to Islam. This set the scene for a renewed Saudi initiative. In September 1969, following an arson-ist's attack against the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, Muslim heads of state set aside their differences and met in Rabat, Morocco, in the first Islamic summit conference. King Faisal of Saudi Arabia took this opportunity to press for the creation of a permanent organization of Muslim states. The effort succeeded, and, in May 1971, the participating states established the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC; Munazzamat al-muʾtamar al-Islami ). The new organization, headquartered in Jidda, Saudi Arabia (pending the liberation of Jerusalem), adopted its charter in March 1972.

The OIC eventually earned a place of some prominence in regional diplomacy, principally through the organization of triennial Islamic summit conferences and annual conferences of the foreign ministers of member states. The OIC's activities fell into three broad categories. First, it sought to promote solidarity with Muslim states and peoples that were locked in conflict with non-Muslims. Most of its efforts were devoted to the cause of establishing a state of Palestine and recapturing Jerusalem. Nonetheless, it supported the movement
of Muslims from Eritreaincorporated into Ethiopia in 1962to the Philippines. Second, the organization offered mediation in disputes and wars among its own members, although its effectiveness was greatly limited by the lack of any force for truce supervision or peacekeeping. Lastly, the OIC sponsored an array of subsidiary and affiliated institutions to promote political, economic, and cultural cooperation among its members. The most influential of these institutions was the Islamic Development Bank, established in December 1973 and formally opened in October 1975. The bank, funded by the wealthier OIC states, financed development projects while adhering to Islamic banking practices.

The OIC represents an ingenious attempt by various Arab governments to organize Muslim states. But it has not put an end to instances of individual states to summoning international congresses of ulama, activists, and intellectuals. Saudi Arabia and Egypt, realigned on the conservative end of the Islamic spectrum, have cooperated increasingly in mounting large-scale Islamic congresses. Their rivalsIran, Libya, and Iraqhave done the same. Divisive events, such as the war between Iran and Iraq (19801988), the lethal attack upon several hundred Iranians in Mecca during the pilgrimage season of 1987, and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, produced congresses and counter-congresses, each claiming to express the verdict of a united Islam. Leaders of Muslim opposition movements have also met in periodic congresses, sometimes in Europe. Less than a century after alKawakibi's book, a crowded calendar of congresses now bind Muslim states together more than ever before. On the whole, to the extent that healthy and heated discussion of alternatives between friends is salutary, such effortshowever confusing to the outsiderappear most salutary and indicative of a new political awareness among Muslim states and their peoples.

see also abd al-aziz ibn saʿud al saʿud; arab league; arslan, shakib; atatÜrk, mustafa kemal; azhar, al-; gaspirali, ismail bey; husayn ibn ali; husayni, muhammad amin al-; muslim world league; organization of the islamic conference; pan-arabism; rida, rashid.


Kramer, Martin. Islam Assembled: The Advent of the Muslim Congresses. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Landau, Jacob M. The Politics of Pan-Islam: Ideology and Organization. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Moinuddin, Hasan. The Charter of the Islamic Conference. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

martin kramer
updated by charles e. butterworth

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Islamic Congresses

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Islamic Congresses