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Lesson Plan: "The Roots of Democracy and Constitutionalism in the Middle East"

Corinne Blake
Associate Professor of History
Rowan University

Course: History of the Modern Middle East, Middle Eastern Politics, Ottoman History
Syllabus Section: The Roots of Democracy and Constitutionalism in the Middle East


In December 2010 antiregime activists in Tunisia, Egypt, and other countries engaged in sustained demonstrations against decades of authoritarian rule. Facilitated by social media, protesters called for dramatic political and economic reforms, especially the implementation of truly democratic governments and the rule of law. Although the long-term impact of this movement remains unclear, these demonstrations have already led to the overthrow of two rulers, effected reforms in a number of Middle Eastern countries, and brought increased attention to the lack of democracy, freedom, and human rights in the Middle East.

This lesson plan is designed to help students understand the origins of support for democracy and constitutionalism in the region. With the spread of European influence during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, political leaders and modernists in the Middle East, as in other parts of the world, began to view constitutionalism and democracy as key sources of European strength. Reformers such as Rifaʿa Rafiʿ al-Tahtawi, Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi, Mehmet Namîk Kemal, Ali Suavi, Musa Kazîm, and Muhammad Husayn Naʿini differed on a number of points, but they all sought to limit the arbitrary powers of rulers through constitutionalism and the establishment of elected parliaments. Constitutional governments drawn from Western models were briefly implemented in Tunis in 1861, the Ottoman Empire in 1876 and 1908, Egypt in 1882, and Iran in 1906.

Teachers might begin by discussing the historical development of democracy and constitutionalism in Europe and the Middle East, assigning articles about Islam and Democracy, Constitutionalism, Elections, and Human Rights as a basis for discussion. Students who lack an understanding of the historical context of this period should read about Ottoman reform and modernization, the Tanzimat (1839–1876), Sultan Abdülhamid II, the Young Turks, and the Iranian constitutional revolution (1905–1911), as well as articles about modernism and secularism in the Middle East. Assigning biographies of each writer will facilitate students' understanding of these primary sources; reading about these writers' diverse backgrounds and career paths also provides insight into the social history of the era.

Questions for Discussion

  1. 1. What internal and external challenges prompted the development of reform movements in the Ottoman Empire from the late eighteenth century?
  2. 2. What is the relationship among concepts such as constitutionalism, democracy, freedom, human rights, and secularism?
  3. 3. How do reformers and modernists characterize the relationship between these concepts and Islam?
  4. 4. What led to the outbreak of constitutional revolutions in the Ottoman Empire and Qajar Iran?

Primary Sources

The primary sources discussed below include four texts written in the nineteenth century and two pieces written after the establishment of constitutional governments in the Ottoman Empire and Qajar Iran in the early twentieth century. The texts are ordered chronologically.

The first text, The Extraction of Gold, or an Overview of Paris and The Honest Guide for Girls and Boys, was published in 1834 by Rifaʿa Rafiʿ al-Tahtawi (1801–1873), an Egyptian religious scholar who traveled to France with a student mission sent by Muhammad ʿAli. In this excerpt from his book, al-Tahtawi praises freedoms such as equality before the law, religious freedom, and freedom of the press guaranteed by the French Constitutional Charter of 1814. In a longer excerpt from another book, A Discourse on the Homeland, published decades later, al-Tahtawi extols the virtues of his Egyptian homeland and patriotism, then elaborates on various types of freedoms: "Freedom is divided into five types: natural freedom, behavioral freedom, religious freedom, civil freedom, and political freedom." He argues that "freedom, in all these meanings, is the greatest means for making the people of kingdoms happy" and asserts that these freedoms are necessary to civilization: "The rights of all the people of the civilized kingdom are based on freedom."

The second text was published in 1867 by Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi (1822–1890), a modernist Tunisian leader who began his career as a Circassian slave and ultimately served as grand vizier of the Ottoman Empire from 1878 to 1879. An excerpt from his book, The Surest Path, argues that Muslim countries should strengthen themselves by adopting a number of European practices, including liberty, "the basis of the great development of knowledge and civilization in the European kingdoms." Al-Tunisi connects the idea of political liberty—"the demand of the subjects to participate in the politics of the kingdom and to discuss the best course of action"—to shura (consultation) and the shariʿali ah principle of sharing power with "those qualified to loosen and bind" (political power brokers).

The following year, Mehmet Namîk Kemal (1840–1888), a noted Ottoman poet, journalist, and translator, also published an article advocating consultation, " And Seek Their Counsel in the Matter [Qur'an, Sura 3, Verse 159]" in the Young Ottoman journal Hürriyet (Liberty). Like al-Tunisi, Kemal stresses the critical need for consultation to strengthen the Ottoman state: "Would buildings and other expenses have plunged the treasury to its present level if we had already adopted the method of consultation and established an assembly of the people?" Believing that "the opinion of the public is not a poison but an elixir of health," he argues that "the salvation of the state today is dependent upon the adoption of the method of consultation."

Ali Suavi (1839–1878), another Young Ottoman writer and journalist, makes similar arguments with explicit references to democracy in his article " Democracy: Government by the People, Equality," published in 1870. Although Suavi later broke from the Young Ottomans and repudiated constitutionalism, in this piece he ties democracy to the earliest form of government in Islam: "Everybody knows that democracy is the highest form of egalitarian government and the most in accord with the holy law." He expresses concern about the feasibility of implementing democracy in the Ottoman Empire, but concludes that "government based upon the principle of consultation should be embraced, and "our High Council . . . should be enlarged, a chamber of deputies elected by the people should be opened, and the ministers should be held accountable."

In 1908, just after the Young Turk Revolution led to the restoration of the 1876 constitution, Musa Kazîm (1858–1920), a religious scholar who served as an Ottoman senator and shaykh al-Islam (chief religious official) under the Young Turks, wrote a treatise entitled The Principles of Consultation and Liberty in Islam. In this text, Kazîm argues that the principles of constitutionalism and freedom are drawn from Islam: "Thus it is clear that the fundamental principles that form the bases for humanity and civilization—principles such as consultation, equality, freedom, and justice—are a legal right granted by God 1300 years ago to Muslims and all human beings."

Similarly, support for constitutionalism and democracy can be found in Qajar Iran during the Constitutional Revolution of 1905–1911. The text included here, " Government in the Islamic Perspective," is an excerpt from a treatise published in 1909 by one of the leading theorists of the revolution, Muhammad Husayn Naʿini (1860–1936), a Shiʿi religious scholar from Najaf, then part of the Ottoman Empire. After asserting that Europe "appropriated the principles of civilization and politics implicit in the Islamic holy books and traditions, and in the edicts of ʿAli [son-in-law and fourth successor of the Prophet] and other early leaders of Islam," Naʿini condemns tyrannical and autocratic government. In the second part of the treatise, he puts forth arguments in support of constitutionalism and representative government: "True accountability and responsibility will preserve the limits on power and prevent the return of possessive government only if the executive branch is under the supervision of the legislative branch, and the legislative branch is responsible to every individual in the nation."

Questions for Discussion

  1. 1. What do these writers mean by "consultation," "freedom," "liberty," "justice," and "equality"?
  2. 2. How do these writers characterize the relationship among Islam, constitutionalism, and democratic governments? Can their views be characterized as secular or anti-religious?
  3. 3. What do you learn about the attitude of these writers towards Europe?
  4. 4. How do these writers think constitutionalism and representative government will benefit Muslim societies?
  5. 5. Do these texts offer any hints as to why constitutional and democratic governments failed to take root in the Middle East during this period?

Further Reading to Support Lesson Plan

  • Afary, Janet. The Iranian Constitutional Revolution, 1906–1911. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.
  • Brown, Leon Carl, ed. The Surest Path: The Political Treatise of a Nineteenth-century Muslim Statesman. A Translation of the Introduction to The Surest Path to Knowledge Concerning the Condition of Countries by Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1967.
  • Hanioğlu, M. Şükrü. The Young Turks in Opposition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Kurzman, Charles. Modernist Islam, 1840–1940: A Sourcebook. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Mardin, Şerif. The Genesis of Young Ottoman Thought: A Study in the Modernization of Turkish Political Ideas. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2000.
  • Newman, Daniel L., trans. An Imam in Paris: Al-Tahtawi's Visit to France (1826–31) by Rifaʿa al-Tahtawi. London: Saqi Books, 2004.
  • Sohrabi, Nader. Revolution and Constitutionalism in the Ottoman Empire and Iran. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

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