Relations with the British Of Iraq

Relations with the British

By the beginning of the 18th century, Great Britain was not only the rising power in the Gulf and Indian Ocean, but its representatives in Istanbul, Basra, and Baghdad commonly intervened forcefully in the local politics of the region. This was largely because of the importance of British trade to the region, especially to the port city of Basra, whose merchant community, no less than its governor, was dependent on the arrival of large trading ships from British India, as well as the hundreds of smaller trading vessels that monthly or weekly docked at Basra’s harbor.

There is even some evidence that shows that certain Mamluk pashas were only confi rmed in power as a result of British infl uence with Istanbul. In fact, British authority became so signifi cant that it is estimated that “[D]uring the last three decades of Mamluk rule (i.e., down to 1831), hardly any mutassalim (deputy governor) of Basra could maintain offi ce without British support or consent” (Nieuwenhuis 1982, 82).

One of the incentives for trade on the part of British residents (the precursors to British ambassadors in the 20th century) in Baghdad and Basra was that up to the mid-19th century, British consular offi cials also functioned as representatives for the East India Company, the most important commercial establishment in the region at the time. As such, they were allowed to trade on their own account and oftentimes monopolized certain commodities, much to the chagrin of the local merchant class.

This and their sometimes excessive political interference in matters of state often made them unpopular, to the point where they had to be reined in by their superiors. Such, for instance, was the case of Claudius James Rich, the resident in Baghdad from 1808 to 1821, and an inveterate traveler and sometime ethnographer of Kurdish tribes. Because he stepped on too many toes, especially those of the powerful Dawud Pasha, he got into hot water both with his superiors and the Mamluk governor.

As evidence that Dawud’s writ ran farther than Rich’s, the pasha rescinded some of the commercial privileges (called the Capitulations) granted to foreign merchants by the sultan, seized British goods, and “made Rich prisoner in his own Residency” (Nieuwenhuis 1982, 83).On the other hand, not every British resident was as obtuse as Rich. There is evidence that Samuel Manesty, the East India Company agent in Basra (1784–1812) as well as British representative, got along relatively well with Suleyman the Great; however, the relationship deteriorated as a result of a fi erce dispute between Manesty and the deputy governor, ostensibly over murder accusations of a British-protected Armenian merchant (Abdullah 2002, 183).

Intellectual and Cultural Affinities

The provinces of Iraq (Baghdad, Basra, Shahrizor, and Mosul) were also united by longstanding intellectual and cultural affi nities. Legions of Arab, Kurdish, and Turkmen scholars had graduated from the same religious schools and attended the same pious circles devoted to teaching the Qur’an, prophetic sayings, jurisprudence, grammar, and exegesis; they had sat at the feet of the most notable professors of the period and received certifi cates of scholarly merit.

Some of them even traveled abroad in search of knowledge; whether they traveled to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina or to Egypt or India, scholars from Iraq mixed with each other and the larger Islamic learned fraternity, read the same books, studied the same curricula, argued over the same doctrinal or theological questions, and created unities in thought and behavior that cemented ties over long distances.

Although Iraq’s religious and literary leadership became increasingly entwined with the governing classes of the three provinces over time, the Iraqi scholars, or ulama, who served the state were never completely associated with it; the bonds of learning and the circles of knowledge that they had passed through made the ulama far readier to identify with a particular professor of law or student of religion than with the government of the moment. Thus, the leadership of the learned community could never be taken for granted by the government; while many of them became subservient to the state, the majority strove for autonomy in all intellectual and rational pursuits.

The Shii Shrine Cities of Iraq: Kadhimain, Najaf, and Karbala

Historically, the complexity of Iraqi society’s main groupings—Arab Sunni, Arab Shia, Turkmen, and Kurds belonging to the two Muslim sects as well as to Christianity and Judaism—are both admixtures of ethnicity and religion and separations based on such. This has been compounded over the centuries by both Sunni and Shii conversions. Essentially, the Kurds, in the north, are and have historically been overwhelmingly Sunni.

Arabs, both Sunni and Shii, occupy cities and towns throughout Iraq, though Baghdad and the area to the west and north came to be a densely populated Sunni region. Shii populations, which became a majority in Iraq during the 18th to 20th centuries, tended to be most dense in the south, and, indeed, the Shii holy cities of Najaf and Karbala are located south of Baghdad. A third holy city, Kadhimain, was at this time a separate entity, just north of Baghdad, but by the 20th century, it became incorporated as a suburb of the sprawling capital.

Najaf, located 100 miles (160 km) south of Baghdad, is the center of Shii power in Iraq and probably the holiest city in Shii Islam. It is revered as the burial site of the fourth caliph and fi rst imam, Ali. It is also the site of one of the largest, if not the largest, cemetery in the world, which includes the tombs of several revered community leaders.

Karbala, approximately 50 miles (78 km) northwest of Najaf and 60 miles (100 km) southeast of Baghdad, was the site where Husayn ibn Ali and his companions were slain. Traditionally, Shiis make twiceyearly pilgrimages to the city. Kadhimain, an early important Shii city, is the burial site of both the seventh and ninth imams, Musa al-Kazim (d. 799) and his grandson Muhammed al-Jawad (d. 835).

Shii activity is centered on the al-Kadhimain Mosque, built in 1515. While these and other Shii holy cities never lost their spiritual signifi cance, their importance vis-à-vis other Shii holy cities waxed and waned. For example, in the 19th century, the city of Qum in Iran, home to a shrine for Fatima, daughter of the Prophet, replaced Najaf as the preeminent city of Shii Islam.

This tension between Iranian and Iraqi Shiism was played out in other important aspects of the sect as well, the most basic being that two schools of thought predominated in the Shii world community: One legal interpretation, associated with Isfahan (Iran), preached a more activist social role for Shii clergy and went under the name of Usulism; the other, more conservative strain, found mainly in Iraq and Bahrain, was labeled Akhbarism.

Basically, the difference centered on the amount of power allowed the class of jurisprudents, or legal scholars, in any Shii shrine city to interpret the holy law. The Akhbaris confi ned themselves to a reading of the Qur’an and the sayings of the prophet Muhammad and the imams, while the Usulis “insisted that the consensus of the jurisprudents could also serve as a source of legal judgment, as could the independent reasoning (ijtihad) of the jurist” (Cole 2002, 66).

Because of a number of damaging blows to Iranian Shiism in the 18th century, including the invasion of an Afghan army, a large migration of Shii scholars to Iraq ensued. By 1779, Usulism had made vast inroads in the Iraqi shrine cities and, from Najaf and Karbala, was even brought to India.

The implications of this intra-Shii dispute on the development of Shiism in Iraq was immense. According to historian Juan Cole, Shiism in Iraq developed from a quietist current to a more activist one at precisely the same time as more localist movements were coming to the fore in the rest of Iraq as both the Ottoman Empire and the “vassal state” were in decline (Cole 2002, 77).

With the rise of the Usuli school of law, a central tenet of which was the right of the mujtahid (a person qualifi ed to interpret and give opinions regarding Islamic law) to represent “the absent Imam and [serve] as exemplars for lay believers” (Cole 2002, 77), local alliances between not only religious scholars but representatives of secular authority, such as leaders of tribes and bosses of town quarters, made their emergence.

The Nineteenth Century: An Uneven Centralization and the Co-optation of Local Elites

At the beginning of the 19th century, the northern provinces of Iraq (Mosul and Shahrizor) were still under autonomous family rule, while the Mamluks governed the central and southern provinces. But in the 1830s, a combination of the plague, the fl ooding of the Tigris, and an Ottoman army at the gates of Baghdad brought down the last of the Mamluks, Dawud Pasha.

A short time later, the Jalilis of Mosul were also dislodged, as were the Babans of Shahrizor (ca. 1850). Henceforth, Istanbul sent a steady stream of governors to reclaim the provinces of Iraq. The history of the mid-19th century onward in Iraq is largely that of the interaction between a centralizing state and a society still autonomous in its philosophy and traditions.

This period in Ottoman history is characterized by a series of Western-infl uenced reforms, prompted by edicts called tanzimat (“regulations,” in Turkish) that were promulgated in 1839 and 1859.

New standing armies were raised; land laws went into effect reorganizing land tenure, production, and revenue; a new administrative map was created that reordered provinces on a more “effi cient” basis; and local municipal governments were reorganized to include previously marginalized groups, such as Christians, Jews, and other minorities.

It has often been stated, somewhat incorrectly, that as a result of these provisions, the provinces of the Ottoman Empire underwent a process of rapid “modernization.” The Tanzimat era is generally seen as the period in which reforms associated with European modernity were adapted and applied, fi rst, to Istanbul and its surrounding region and, later on, to both European and Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire.

But, as many recent studies have shown, this so-called Westernization was often only a gloss on ongoing, internal developments within the empire itself. Much of the “new” thinking was not so much the result of an overt application of European models but a continuous sifting of different paradigms to reshape a state and society in the throes of an internal transformation.