Book List: The 19th Century Muslim World

Ayah Aboelela

The long nineteenth century is so rich with transformations that it is impossible to understand the state of the Muslim world today without understanding the events that took place then. Spanning from the late 18th century to the beginning of World War I, this period witnessed the peak of European colonialism, which left no part of the Muslim world untouched by its claws. It witnessed the construction of railways and telegraph lines, multiplying networks of communication, trade, migration, and disease throughout the Muslim world and beyond. 

It witnessed the printing press being first utilised by the Muslims, forever changing the course of Islamic intellectual thought as shown in Rediscovering the Islamic Classics

It witnessed the rise of the Sokoto Caliphate in West Africa and the North African Sanusi movement as a force against the European Scramble for Africa.

It witnessed the Sepoy Rebellion in India, which informed the ways colonisers conceptualised and administered policies until well into the twentieth century. 

It witnessed the Ottomans embarking on their path-breaking Tanzimat reforms and later witnessed their fall, which has left Muslims without a caliphate ever since. 

These are just a few of the most radical transformations – political, cultural, economic, and intellectual – that the Muslim world experienced during this period. Even today, no Muslim individual or nation can claim to be untouched by the events and modernisation processes of this period. This book list recommends resources that examine nineteenth-century Muslim history from a variety of perspectives, and shed light on how parts of the Muslim world came to be as they are today.

Global Muslims in the Age of Steam and Print

Edited by James L. Gelvin and Nile Green

This collection of essays takes us on a nineteenth-century voyage all around the Muslim world – from the shores of Yemen to the palm groves of North Africa, and from the metropolises of Cairo, Beirut, and Istanbul to the islands of Zanzibar, Sri Lanka, and Java. Each chapter delves into a different historical story that sheds light on the globalising Muslim world, focusing on the use of modern technology – specifically steamships, railways, and the printing press. Together, they paint a picture of global and often unexpected connections. 

One story shows how the use of steamships led Yemeni and Omani merchants to sell dates to the US – an economic relationship so successful that it led to the existence of medjool farms in California today. Another story highlights the newly established relationships between Chinese Muslims and Azhari scholars and their resulting intellectual exchanges, which were made possible by printed newspapers and ease of transportation. Yet another follows the life of an Omani princess of Zanzibar, who moved to Germany before settling in Beirut. Tracing her life through her writings gives us a unique perspective of the globalising, cosmopolitan, nineteenth-century Muslim world. 

These are just some of the stories explored in this book, each of which is situated within a broader context. Through them, we can see how local, micro-level changes influenced or were influenced by global processes. As a whole, they allow us to reimagine the nineteenth-century Muslim world through the technologies, commodities, and, above all, individuals who shaped it. 

Length: 312 pages


Steam and print also enabled Muslims to redefine the geographies they inhabited, on both the concrete and conceptual levels. Old travel routes gave way to steam routes whose nodes were newly industrialised or colonised port cities such as Port Said, Aden, Beirut, Bombay, Singapore, and Mombasa, or for that matter London, Marseilles, Rio de Janeiro, and Yokohama. Old knowledge centres similarly declined in importance when faced with competition from new centres of printing, which commonly overlapped with hubs for steam transportation (Cairo and Lucknow, perhaps, being the rare exceptions to the rule).

The Ottoman Scramble for Africa

Mostafa Minawi

The decades following the 1878 Congress of Berlin are commonly referred to as the “scramble for Africa,” when European empires raced to colonise the continent. Often missing from this story, however, is the Ottoman Empire, which entered the race against European empires in an effort to keep North Africa under its control. As a political and global history, The Ottoman Scramble for Africa highlights the Ottomans’ agency in the inter-imperial, global playing field and how it battled the hegemony of the Great Powers. Minawi argues that the Ottoman experience in Africa shaped their policies on the Arabian frontier, such as the construction of the Hijaz Railway, telegraph line, and hajj administration. 

The main actors in this story are Ottoman diplomats to Africa and the Hijaz, with the side actors being France, Britain, and local tribal leaders on the frontiers such as the Sanusis and Meccan amirs. By studying the writings of Ottoman diplomats, Minawi allows us to see the African and Arabian frontiers through the eyes of Istanbul. The agency of locals and tribal leaders is also emphasised, as Minawi both critiques the Ottomans’ perceptions of them and shows how their cooperation – or lack thereof – had the potential to strengthen or weaken Ottoman power. 

Length: 285 pages


If we focus on Yıldız Palace– driven negotiations, disputes, and rivalries with its European counterparts on the one hand and its strategic partnership with the leaders of the Sanusi Order and its followers in the eastern Sahara on the other, the outlines of a multileveled expansionist Ottoman strategy become clear. Following the methods of the so-called new imperialism, the empire reinvented itself as one clamouring for its “rightful” colonial possessions beyond its southern frontiers in the Libyan Desert. This Ottoman strategy in Africa between 1885 and 1900 had a direct impact on Istanbul’s policies along its southern frontiers-cum-borderlands in the Sahara and the Hijaz.

The Politics of Anti-Westernism in Asia

Cemil Aydin

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, there was a growing disillusionment throughout non-European regions about the alleged ideality of Western modernization. From the Ottoman Empire to Japan, non-Europeans acquired a strong sense of anti-westernism, reflected in their policies and intellectual writings. In this book, Cemil Aydin studies the parallel histories of pan-Asianism and pan-Islamism, arguing that they were used to create solidarity among non-Westerners against Western imperialism. 

Citing writings from Ottoman and Japanese intellectuals, Aydin shows how pan-Islamism and pan-Asianism have been conceptualised throughout the decades, as well as how they have been in dialogue with each other and manifested in their impact on global politics, as well as national and racial identities. This book is both an intellectual and a global history that complements The Ottoman Scramble for Africa; while Minawi studies the work of diplomats and politicians and their changing strategies throughout the scramble for Africa, Aydin tells another side of the story, that of intellectuals and the tide of anti-Westernism. 

Length: 320 pages


The comparative analysis of pan-Islamic and pan-Asian thought will illustrate that certain aspects of these two alternative visions of world order should be understood beyond monocultural analysis of the Muslim or Japanese context, as products of a global constellation of ideas, power relations, and international problems. More importantly, this historical reassessment of the politics of anti-Western thought in Asia can hold valuable lessons for current debates on the role of cultural identity in both justifying and criticising the existing power relations in the international order.

Egypt in the Reign of Muhammad Ali

Afaf Lutfi Marsot

Often hailed as the father of modern Egypt, one of the most influential leaders in the nineteenth-century Muslim world was Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman pasha of Egypt. Born to an Albanian merchant family in current-day Greece, Muhammad Ali joined the Ottoman army and rose through the ranks until he ended up overthrowing the last Mamluks of Egypt, subsequently starting his own dynasty. This book shows the extent to which Muhammad Ali Pasha took advantage of the transformations that occurred during his rule, which lasted for the first half of the nineteenth century. He reformed Egypt’s economy and society by relying on new technologies to introduce reformed systems of agriculture, industry, military organization, and education.

Many studies about nineteenth-century Muslim regions are Eurocentric, crediting European engineers, teachers, and diplomats with bringing enlightenment and modernization to the Muslims. This book, however, emphasises Muhammad Ali’s agency by exploring his visions for reform and showing how he invited Europeans to his court and applied their advice as he deemed fit. 

Muhammad Ali Pasha paved the way for significant transformations in the second half of the nineteenth century, including the construction of the first Egyptian railways and the Suez Canal. Through his life and policies, we can see the extent to which nineteenth-century technology and modernisation processes transformed one critical region of the Muslim world. 

Length: 300 pages


The genius of Muhammad Ali lay in that he learned from the mistakes of his predecessors, and packaged their ideas into what developed into a coherent programme that continued the transformation of the socio-economic basis of local society, a transformation that had begun long before his arrival. In this he was an innovator as well as a follower, the perfect link with the Mamluk past, for the first decade of his rule bore all the imprints of a Mamluk system, as we shall see, and one could easily have called him ‘the Last of the Mamluks’. At the same time, he showed the way to the future by destroying the Mamluk system, by his plans for industrialization, increased irrigation, the continued and extensive production of export crops, and lastly by Egyptianizing the bureaucracy. In brief, he drew the outline of a nation-state.

The Unsettled Plain: An Environmental History of the Late Ottoman Frontier

Chris Gratien

This book studies the environmental and cultural history of Çukurova, or the Cilician Plains of southern Anatolia, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although it is a relatively small region, Çukurova serves as a lens to examine tensions between the globalising Ottoman Empire and locals who were intimately connected to their land. 

Gratien argues that global and state-level changes in political and environmental ideologies affected the lives of Çukurovan locals, who were forced to sedentarise over the course of this period. Various historical agents are analysed through state documents, folk songs, and memoirs, including those of Ottoman officials, Europeans, immigrants to Çukurova, and the pastoralists and merchants native to the region. 

Gratien shows how ideologies influenced by global trends, such as modernisation and the European and Ottoman versions of the civilising mission, directly transformed Çukurova. By examining the physical outcomes of these ideologies, such as malaria, cotton cultivation, settlement/sedentarisation, and railway construction, Gratien tells the story of the extreme changes to Çukurova’s environment and people in the context of a rapidly globalising world.

Chris Gratien is also the producer and co-creator of the Ottoman History Podcast, which features interviews with a wide array of scholars and is an excellent resource for those interested in Ottoman history. 

Length: 328 pages


In the pages that follow, many actors will emerge in this multivocal history of environmental transformation in Çukurova and its mountainous hinterland. Bandits, bureaucrats, immigrants, landlords, workers, doctors, tourists, shepherds, goats, and mosquitos will each have their moments at centre stage. Their experiences have been preserved in archival documents, memoirs, newspapers, local histories, and folklore in Turkish, Armenian, and a host of other languages that constitute the fragmentary and international source base for the history of a region that was never the centre of a unified modern state.

Why Europe Grew Rich and Asia Did Not

Prasannan Parthasarathi

The single most influential transformation of the long nineteenth century was the Industrial Revolution. We are typically taught that it originated in Europe and enabled the invention of steam-powered trains and ships. But few of us question why the Industrial Revolution originated in Europe and not anywhere else in the world. In this book, Parthasarathi explores various reasons why the Industrial Revolution occurred in Western Europe as opposed to India. 

Avoiding a Eurocentric approach, he examines factors such as culture, ecology, colonialism, economic policies, and political actors in Western Europe and India. Ultimately, he argues that states and political actors responded differently to ecological and economic pressures, which led to the “Great Divergence”. Understanding the Industrial Revolution and the Great Divergence is important for contextualising the broader transformations that occurred during the long nineteenth-century in the Muslim world and beyond, and this book offers a good place to start. 

Length: 380 pages


With hindsight one can conclude that industrialization produced the divergence between Europe and Asia, but neither Europeans nor Asians in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries were attempting to develop an industrial society. Only from the nineteenth century did men and women make economic and political choices with that goal. And from that moment, industry became the universal yardstick of economic development. Before then the advanced regions of Europe and Asia were following different paths of economic change as they each responded to their own economic, political and social pressures and needs. In the centuries before 1800, the paths of economic change were diverse and multiple.

Ayah Aboelela is a graduate student in World History and Digital Humanities at Northeastern University. She hopes to combine her background in software and love for history and storytelling to make historical stories more accessible to diverse audiences. You can follow her on Instagram @caveofkutub.

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