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Civil society in the Arab world: historical traces, contemporary vestiges.

Is civil society possible in the Arab world? The sociologist, Max Weber, thought not. Writing in the late Nineteenth Century, he maintained that the norms of Arab culture were incompatible with the rational demands of capitalism and democracy. Both are considered pre-requisites of civil society. This essay examines the argument in terms of theoretical formulations on civil society and Weber's position. The historical record of Arab civilization is reviewed to argue that the emergence of civil society is neither unique to Western culture nor is Arab culture inherently incompatible with the rational demands of civil society.


The notion of civil society is Western in origin. It came into existence through the endeavors of Western political philosophers to understand the complex relationships among individual, state and economy as Western society was undergoing qualitative and quantitative changes through the dynamics of industrialization, urbanization and bureaucratization. The concept of civil society first appeared in the late 18th Century and reverberated through the intellectual debates of the second half of the Nineteenth Century, then fell out of fashion. In the 1970s, interest in the concept rekindled.(1)

The contemporary conceptualization of civil society is rooted in Hegel's approach which viewed it as a manifestation of the bourgeoisie's attempt to organize and harmonize conflicting interests within its body.(2) Although the associations of civil society are assumed to be independent of the state, they cannot operate outside the law as the law is a prerogative of the state. A degree of harmony between state and civil society, in other words, is a prerequisite for civil harmony.

Antonio Gramsci conceptualized civil society in terms of the superstructure which justifies the socio-economic formation of bourgeoisie capitalism. The ideological underpinnings of both the state and civil society are inherent in this superstructure. While a state may function to maximize its authority, the associations of civil society function to forestall state encroachment on personal autonomy. Civil harmony is possible because of the ideological compatibility between the state and civil society.(3) This suggests that where this ideological compatibility is not inherent in the superstructure, civil disharmony would prevail. If the relationship between civil society and the state is a function of ideological context, it follows that the conditions of civil harmony are historically specified, as are the conditions of civil strife. The configuration of civil society in Western culture, as well as its relationship to the state, is a historically specific manifestation of bourgeoisie organization.

Conceptualized as voluntary association in the nexus between state and economy, civil society constitutes a link between the spheres of personal and public identity in the institutional infrastructure of society.(4) The main idea underlying the concept is that of a plurality of voluntary associations capable of opposing the ideological monopoly of the political and economic order.(5) As such, civil society reflects the normative tensions within such cultural dichotomies as collective and individual, status and power,(6) cooperation and competition, violence and non-violence.(7) As an indicator of culture, civil society manifests the relationship between symbolic meaning and purposeful action in substantive form.(8)


Weber's sociology of Islam and the Islamic city founded the theoretical backdrop against which the West perceived Islamic culture. His analysis was grounded in the Mameluk period,(9) (1250-1517), a period characterized by the decline of both state and culture. Weber's analytic framework was based on two themes. First, his notion of Bedouin warrior nobles (in this case, Arab tribes)(10) who are drawn to prophetic religious movements when such movements contain beliefs which are specifically relevant to the occupational interests of a warrior status group. The second analytical theme in Weber's thesis is that clan and tribal groups do not have the ability to act in concert as a unified social and legal community;(11) they form a collection of distinct and separate entities which render any urban structure internally fissiparous - "to constitute a full urban community, a settlement must display a relative pre-dominance of trade-commercial relations with the settlement as a whole displaying the following features: (1) a fortification; (2) a market; (3) a court of its own and at least, a partially autonomous law; (4) a related form of association; (5) at least a partial autonomy and autocephaly.(12)

Weber's view of Islamic culture, Islamic city life and political regime (which he calls patrimonial) was limited and selective. Hence, he made invalid generalizations about Islamic civilization. Weber's analysis, apart from being selective, seems to be flawed by insufficient knowledge of Arab Bedouin tribes and the socio-economic transformations in the first three centuries after the death of the Prophet in about 632 A.D.


In the Abbasid period, which began at about 723 A.D., and until the first foreign invasion by the Buwayids in about 945 A.D., city life and urban activity reached its zenith. Ellis Goldberg argues that during that period an Islamic bourgeoisie flourished and engaged in associational formations and societies that developed and sustained business and industrial activities which Islamic law protected.(13) Islamic law, in other words, being in the independent hands of jurists, provided a high degree of autonomy to civil society which, therefore, did not need to advance its interests through the state to counterbalance state power as is the case in the West. Both state and civil society acted under the authority of Islamic law.

The development of industry manifested itself in a large number of factories, markets and crafts. "In Baghdad, there were 400 windmills, 4000 glass factories and 3000 porcelain factories."(14) In Egypt, a large scale textile industry involved manufacturing of cotton, silk, linen and woolen articles; manufacturing of crystal, soap, wax, metals, mosaic, ebony, boats and paper was increasingly important.(15) The Arabs of Spain distinguished themselves in the manufacture of gold, silver, iron, copper, leather, arms and drugs.(16) The Abbasid house encouraged industry and trade by establishing protocol houses in important urban centers like Kufa, Khuzistan, Damascus and Kurasan. It founded the Karkh quarter markets in the western part of Baghdad as a center of industry and commerce.(17)

In the Islamic empire, markets were integral to the flourishing of urban life. They involved three categories: suq (market), qaisariyya (caesarian) and the khan (caravanserai).(18) As a rule, each trade and craft could have its quarter in the market apart from others. Each industry was supplied by a great number of factories and was assigned a market quarter, such as glass market, porcelain market, flower market, butchers' market, etc.(19) Of special interest is the khan (sometimes called funduq). It was the storehouse of the foreign traders who elected a person amongst themselves to supervise the khan, or funduq. The number of buildings was up to 300, with inhabitants as many as 4000. The khan was like a big wholesale department store which increased in number as trade flourished.(20) The khan also acted like a modern day bank in which merchants and capitalists deposited their boxes of silver and gold, and engaged in business transactions and exchange using a monetary document called "saqq" - a modern day cheque.(21) Both Muslim and foreign business communities established quasi agencies (sikalat) for exchange of goods and transfer of money. Trading activity deriving from local and international markets was free from state control and pricing was left to market mechanisms except for consumables.(22) An indication of urban prosperity at the time is provided by tax revenues. It was estimated that daily tax revenue from the city of Fustat was, on the average, 880,000 dirhams, or $107,317; from Damietta, Tinnis and Ushmunain (in Egypt) 2,200,000 dirhams or $268,292.(23)

The strength of the Muslim bourgeoisie derived from their organization and extensive commercial and financial network. Members of the vast array of crafts, industry and trade organized themselves into societies or guilds that acted to maintain high standards of professionalism and protect the interests of the members. Those societies not only reflected solidarity of membership, but were also a medium for professional identification and pride.(24) The practices and ethical conventions of each society found para-judicial legitimation and were invoked in case of legal conflicts.(25) The potency of socio-professional cohesion of these societies provided them with a political voice. "In 976 . . . they [the Buwayids] imposed a new tax on cotton and silk textiles in Baghdad. The members of affected societies rose in active protest till the tax was repealed. A few decades later, members of some societies engaged in combat against Turkish military troops."(26) Embedded in Muslim civil society was a social dimension: "When any member died, the whole group cooperated in maintaining his widow until she married again or died, and his children were taken care of until they were trained in some art or occupation."(27)

The Islamic bourgeoisie established an international trade and financial network based on a credit system which enabled them to transfer sufficient capital without much concern about fixed assets,(28) and to build mechanisms for capital transfer in case of serious threat to the operation of free enterprise.(29) The trade routes (both sea and land) extended from Baghdad to Egypt, North Africa, and Spain. They extended east to India, China, Korea, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Malaysia.(30) Internationalization of trade necessitated new forms of responsive financial enterprises which were formalized and legitimized under Islamic law. A wide range of corporations included partnerships and limited partnerships (shanan); limited liability (al-mufawadha); shareholders (al-wujuh); marketing companies (al-rakkadh); and a form of monopoly of certain industry (al-khazan) and commission agencies.(31) State regulatory activity of professional and economic undertakings was minimal because of the independent religious stratum that was the source of law-making and legitimation. The state engaged in assessing a fair (almost nominal) tax regime on local industry and trade, ensured equivalence of tariff on Muslim exports and protected business people from foreign impingement.(32)

The financial houses on which the credit system was founded were beyond the scope of the Islamic state. Such houses were founded in India, China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Basra.(33) They formed networks of intermediaries that financed commercial transactions without involvement of individual business people in each and every opportunity. Two main institutions stood out in the network; "al-sarrafeen" (money exchange houses) and "aljahabeza" (equivalent to modern-day banks).(34) The staunch support the Islamic state lent to free enterprise and the middle class was epitomized by Ibn Khaldun's dictum "The state is the greatest commercial market."(35) The Islamic urban middle class derived its independence from the sovereignty of law, independence of judiciary and integrated matrix of Islamic society.

At about 945 A.D., the Buwayids invaded Baghdad, and established a Turkish military government in the name of Islam. The Buwayid period was followed by the Seljuk invasion in the Eleventh Century. These invasions resulted in not only undermining the political power of the Muslim Arab state in the center of the Islamic empire; but also produced detrimental socio-economic restructuring of Islamic society. Both regimes were based on military hereditary rule and were inimical to industry and trade. They favored land-control in what was akin to hereditary feudal system. The Turkish feudalism that derived from this historical context alienated the farmers and displaced them from landownership. At the same time, both regimes persistently burdened crafts people, workshops and business ventures with heavy taxation, fraudulent minting and confiscation.(36) This resulted in the flight of capital and skilled labor to the periphery which was under independent dynasties.

The closure of the "Gate of Ijtihad" deprived the legal religious stratum of power and potential for independence; that potential was finally eliminated when that stratum was assimilated into the military state - in effect transforming the stratum of religious legal jurists into state functionaries. The interconnection between the religious legal class, state and civil society as they evolved in Islam had been seriously severed. And there appeared a religious vacuum which was filled by Sufi orders of Turkoman and Turkish outlook that emphasized self-salvation through rejection of worldly pleasures and prosperity: a foreign military regime, with a foreign cultural outlook, controlled the state apparatus and compromised the sovereignty of law. While that transformation was taking shape, the social forms of Islam maintained social continuity and cohesion. The foreign rulers were conscious to maintain the office of the Caliphate as a symbol of unity and legitimation.

It was this period which Max Weber chose for analysis of Islam, and which ultimately flawed his logic and reasoning. In the West, interest groups of civil society use their power to advance their interest through state machinery and to acquire legal approbations for their position. In Islam, theoretically, both the state and civil society derive their boundaries and relationships from independent law. The primary principles of law exist a priori and transcend the interests of state and civil society. These principles bind lawmaking to the rational exercise of human reason in the service of the law - that is, in the service of a moral social order.

The succeeding periods witnessed new forms of military confrontations; the crusades and the Mongols. The crusades began in 1096(37) and symbolized, during its course of about 100 years, the arrival of conquering armies in the name of religion. During the course of the crusades, foreign armies seized and occupied nearly all of the Levant coast from the borders of Turkey to the borders of Egypt.(38) The crusades were probably the first Western attempt at economic penetration. They established a network of trading stations to draw out resources from Islamic territories.(39)

The Mongol invasion, and the establishment of their reign (1258-1335) over Iraq proved more destructive politically and economically than previous foreign military invasions. The Mongols irreparably destroyed the delicate irrigation network, expanded military feudalism, imposed new heavy taxes on almost all economic activities and uprooted a large number of skilled craftsmen. The Mongols severed Iraq from the rest of the Arab Muslim world, and redirected trade routes to favor their homeland.(40) Under the Mamelukes (1250-1517), the economic pattern was land-based feudalism. The conditions for the re-emergence of urban society was not present.(41) The result was economic deterioration and wide-spread impoverishment.

The discovery of a sea route around the Cape of Good Hope in the late Fifteenth Century was a deadly blow to Muslim trade. The Portuguese established military trade stations at Aden Straight, the Persian Gulf, India and Mombasa (Kenya) and attacked Muslim trade ships. It was an age of Portuguese sea supremacy and trade prosperity. Equally, it was a period of Muslim trade disruption.(42) The five centuries that followed the Buwayid invasion transformed the Islamic economy from industrial-urban to feudal-rural.

The Ottoman Turkish Empire consumed the Arab Muslim world between 1517-1639. Its vast territory stretched from Gibraltar to the Balkans and up to the gates of Vienna, from Yemen on the Red Sea, and along the North African coast as well as portions of the Persian Gulf. Ottoman society was multicultural; each religious community had its own rights and ruling structure.(43) The Ottoman state was founded on military feudalism.(44) In Ottoman society, social prestige was attached to occupations in the civil service, and to religious and military professions. Therefore, there was no serious attempt to improve and develop traditional urban industry. The Ottoman state, particularly in the Seventeenth Century, interfered significantly with traditional industry and crafts' organizations.(45) In addition to Portuguese hegemony over sea trade, western economic infiltration began at about 1534 A.D. when France obtained a privileged status in a trade agreement with the Ottoman state. Such privileges were given to the British and the Dutch between 1580-1612. With the weakening of the Ottoman state by the Nineteenth Century, these trade concessions turned into springboards for Western economic domination supported by Western military power. The dismantling of Egypt's economic infrastructure and industrial development under pressure of Western states in mid-Nineteenth Century is an example.(46) Such economic domination involved appropriation of lands for commercial exploitation; agricultural fields increasingly devoted to export crops; roads, ports, and railways implanted to facilitate the draining of mineral and agricultural riches.(47) With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, every portion of the Muslim Arab World (except Saudi Arabia) fell under the imperial domination of Europe.


The physical presence of Western imperialism mobilized the nationalist energies of all groups, classes and organizations toward one single goal: formal independence. However, colonialism imposed certain distortions on the Arab World; (l) urbanization without industrialization; (2) formal education without productive training; (3) secularization without scientification; and (4) capitalist greed without capitalist discipline.(48) Colonialism had also initiated dualism in every aspect of Arab Muslim society. Dualism in the economy between the traditional sectors and modern sectors; dualism of state with the two-headed structure of the palace and residence of the consul-general; dualism of urban spaces with the contrast between local towns and European-style districts; dualism of the military; dualism in the intellectual spectrum of society between those trained in Western schools internalizing Western values, and those with indigenous cultural outlook; dualism of administration, justice, education, religion, press, artistic and sports activities, etc.(49)

In the Arab World, independence meant independent Arab nation states devised and created by Western imperialism. The new Arab regimes were based on either Europeanized elates imposing quasi-Europeanized culture on the people, military cliques accustomed to command and one-way communication, or tribal elates empowered by Britain to supervise over the tribal occupants of vast oil concessions. The nature of such regimes made them vulnerable to the quest for legitimacy. This quest had a three-fold trajectory. First, they continuously endeavored to neutralize any potentially powerful group or movement that might pose any threat or opposition to the regime by co-optation, intimidation or elimination. Second, they engaged in mass-propaganda and large-scale ideological campaigns identifying enemies of Arab security. Israel was the arch foreign enemy; reactionary elements were allies to imperialism both within the state and across states. Third, they embarked on grandiose development projects espoused by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

In its quest to manufacture legitimacy, the state in the Arab World encroached on all aspects of civil society. In effect, the state became society, a role imposed on society through oppression, repression and monopoly of resources and control of all organizations and instruments of law. Oppression and abuse of basic human rights were not occasional expedient measures. They are better understood as the public administration style of Arab regimes. Only eight Arab states signed the U.N. convention against torture, and most of them expressed reservations about articles 21 and 22 which require the state to submit to reviews by a committee upon individual or group grievance petitions.(50) Further, half of the Arab states which have signed the U.N. declaration on basic human rights do not report periodically as required, despite dozens of reminders.(51)

Under such authoritarian regimes there was no room for autonomy of any movement or organization - to say nothing of civil society as such. Ironically, it was authoritarianism and grandiose development plans that eroded the legitimacy of the Arab state. The state did not possess sufficient expertise, resources or experience to implement promised socio-economic projects and welfare transformation processes. In its active pursuit to suppress perceived opposition, the state depleted its resources, exhausted its energy, and suffered severe legitimacy crisis. Between 1948-1991, inter-state and intra-state conflicts cost Arab regimes about 2.2 million casualties, $1,400 billion, and 3.3 million displaced persons.(52) The following table provides the details.


The decline of the authoritarian state was further aided by Western intervention, particularly the United States which has actively supported selected Middle East regimes in the context of inter-Arab politics: Lebanon and Jordan against Nasser's regime; the Shah's Iran against Iraq; Kuwait against Iraq; Saudi Arabia against Egypt and Saddam Hussein's Iraq; Morocco against Algeria; North Yemen against South Yemen; Egypt against Libya, and of course, Israel against all regional states.(53)

The retreat of the authoritarian state created "a free space" for the emergence of voluntary organizations, or civil society, particularly after the Arab defeat in the June 1967 war. However, the retreat was not without a cultural toll that afflicted the character and outlook of members of society and voluntary organizations. The number of organizations of civil society in the Arab World reached 70,000 by 1995.(54) Twenty thousand (20,000) of them are in Egypt. Women and human right organizations were the first to emerge in Arab societies because their demands were usually beyond state capacity to co-opt them. However, the typical state response to voices of opposition drove them to seek affiliation with international and regional organizations of similar interest to protect themselves from overt oppression. Professional syndicates and organizations also sought regional association for the same purpose. Strong business groups emerged because of their coherence with international principles that had primary interests in globalization of markets. The travail of Arab civil society coincided with direct and indirect Western pressure on Arab states for liberalization of politics and incorporation of domestic economies into international markets.

In the post-cold war era, and amidst the peace process with Israel, the exhausted Arab state, ceteris pribus, is likely to succumb to Western pressure for economic liberalization and political democracy. However, Western pressure does not appear to be motivated by higher values of liberty and democracy because reports on systematic abuse of human rights, and state tyranny in the Gulf States pass unnoticed by the West.(55) In the West, civil society and state co-evolved free from foreign interference. In classical Islamic society, they evolved in a symbiotic relationship. Under Islamic law, both state and civil society were created by a sovereign source of law. The Twentieth Century Arab civil society emerged characteristically dependent on state acceptance and international support. How this dependent nature will impact on their socio-political, socioeconomic and socio-cultural role in society warrants examination.


1. Abd al-Baki al-Harmasi, "Al-Mujtama' al-Madani wa al-Dawlah fi al-Mu'marasa al-Siyasiyah al-Gharbiyah" in al-Mujtama' al-Madani fi al-Watan al-'Arabi (Beirut: Markaz Dirasat al-Wahdah al-'Arabiyah, 1992) p. 91.

2. Ibid., p. 93.

3. Sa'id Ben Sa'id al-Alawty, "Nasha'at wa-Tatawur Mafhum al-Mujtama' al-Madani fi al-Fikr al Gharbi al-Hadith" in al-Mujtama' al-Madani fi al-Watan al-'Arabi, pp. 62-64.

4. Calhoun, C. "Civil society and the public sphere." Public Culture, 5(2), (1993, Winter): 267-280.

5. E. Gellner, "Civil society in historical context." International Social Science Journal, 43(3) (129), (1991, August): 495-510; and C. Taylor, and P. Chatterjee, "Modes of civil society." Public Culture 1, 3,(1) (1990, Fall): 95-118.

6. J. Lucas, "The state, civil society and regional elites: A study of three associations in Kano, Nigeria." African Affairs, 93(370), (1994, January): 21-38.

7. R. Bleiker, D. Bond, and M.S. Lee, "The role and dynamics of nongovernmental actors in contemporary Korea." Korean Studies, 18(1994): 103-122.

8. J.C. Alexander and P. Smith, "The discourse of American civil society: A new proposal for cultural studies." Theory and Society, 22(2), (1993, April): 151-207.

9. Bryan S. Turner, Weber and Islam: A Critical Study (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974), p. 98.

10. Ibid., p. 95.

11. Ibid., p. 97.

12. Ibid.

13. Ellis Goldberg, "Khatima Nadhariya wa-Tarikhiya: al-Mujtama' al-Madani," in Al-Dimuqratiya fi al-sharq al-Awsat, Ahmed Abdulla, Ed. (Cairo: Markaz al-Guil, 1995), p. 384.

14. Hassan I. Hassan, Islam: A religious, political, social and economic study, (Baghdad: The Times Printing and Publishing, 1967), p. 462.

15. Ibid., p. 464.

16. Ibid., p. 465.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid., p. 467.

20. Ibid., pp. 466-467.

21. Ibid.

22. Abd al-Aziz al-Dury, "Mugadima fi al-Tarihk al-Iqtasadi al-Arabi," Idar al-Tali'a (Beirut: 1969), pp. 69-70.

23. Hassan, p. 472.

24. al-Dury, p. 66.

25. Ibid., pp. 67-68.

26. Ibid., pp. 67-68.

27. Hassan, p. 472.

28. Goldberg, p. 386.

29. Ibid., p. 365.

30. Al-Dury, p. 68.

31. Ibid., p. 69.

32. Ibid., pp. 69-70.

33. Ibid.

34. Ibid., p. 70.

35. Ibid., p. 69.

36. Ibid., pp. 91-92.

37. Ibid., p. 99.

38. Graham E. Fuller, & Ian O. Lesser, A Sense of Seige (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995), p. 30.

39. Al-Dury, p. 99.

40. Ibid., p. 100-101.

41. Ibid., p. 104-111.

42. Ibid., pp. 112-113.

43. Graham, p. 34.

44. Al-Dury, p. 123.

45. Ibid., p. 133.

46. Ibid., pp. 135-138.

47. Graham, p. 35.

48. Ibid., pp. 34-35.

49. Ibid.

50. "Al-Haraka al-Arabiya li Huquq al-Insan," in al-Takrir al-Istrateji al-Arabi (Cairo: Markaz al-Darasat al-Siyassiya wa al-Istratijiya, 1995), p. 327.

51. Ibid., p. 328.

52. Files of The Arab Data Unit (ADU), Ibn Khaldun Center for Developmental Studies.

53. Graham, p. 42.

54. Augustus R. Norton (ed.), Civil Society in the Middle East, Vol. 1 (New York: E.J. Brill, 1995), p. 9.

55. Al-Mu'tamar al-Arabi al-Sadis, (Beirut: Center for Arab Unity, 1996), pp. 247, 262.

Tareq Y. Ismael is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary and Director of the International Center for Contemporary Middle Eastern Studies, Eastern Mediterranean University, Turkish Republic of Cyprus. Jacqueline S. Ismael is a professor of social work at the University of Calgary.
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Author:Ismael, Jacqueline S.
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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