The Muslim world has had a long history of revolutions, beginning with the revolt against the third caliph `Uthmān. This was followed by the uprising of Husayn, then that of the city of Madinah, and then that of the legal scholars led by `Abd al-Rahmān b. Al-Ash`ath. There were also the Khārijite revolts, and the revolution that heralded the beginning of the Abbasid Caliphate. The insurrection of Mūsā al-Kāzim and the Zaydite revolt can also be mentioned for the early days of Islam. The Mamluke and Ottoman empires likewise saw their fair share of rebellions, like the uprising of the scholars of al-Azhar University
Yet, of all these, only the Abbasid revolt seems to have been successful in ushering in an empire that endured for centuries. History also gives us the revolt of the legal scholars and the Qur’an reciters in the East and in Andalusia.
Globally, there have been revolutions that resulted in a transformation of society as a whole, affecting both the political and economic systems, substantially changing the course of history. The clearest examples took place in Easter and Western Europe as well as the Americas.
The eighteenth century French monarchy was unable to hold back the changes taking place in society which ultimately led to the 1789 revolution. Political, economic, and social instability persisted for more than eighty years before French people achieved for themselves a stable democratic state. Scarcely ten years after the French Revolution, power was seized by a twenty-nine year old general, Napoleon Bonaparte who ruled as an emperor until his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.
Only two decades after the revolution, the formal royal family returned and the monarchy was restored, as if hundreds of thousands of people had never sacrificed their lives to put an end to it. Then in 1830, another evolution took place, replacing one heavy-handed ruler with another who did everything in his power to stamp out the very revolutionary interests that put him in place.
Then in 1848, the people revolted again, pouring out into the streets. The conflict was between two factions:
1. French people of all classes who were willing to sacrifice everything to break the power of the autocratic regime
2. The extreme upper class consisting of the ruling family, the nobles, and other prominent people who enjoyed power and prosperity under the regime
As a result of this revolution, the French Second Republic was declared and the people calmed down, believing they had finally done away with one-man rule. Alas, the republic’s elected president, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, followed in his uncles footsteps, declaring himself emperor and submitting the people to his rule.
It took his humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 to put an end to his rule. This uprising established the French Third Republic which finally brought stability and democracy to the French people. The people were finally guaranteed their rights, just government, and human dignity.
Most of the countries of Europe continued to witness revolutions. Some of these resulted in democratic constitutions and new social contracts between the people and the state. European history continued to be a record of revolution and counter-revolution. However, counter-revolutions that re-established monarchical rule or church authority were never welcomed by the people as a desirable outcome.
What is so strange is how huge majorities in many advanced European countries rose up in support of Fascists and Nazis. These most despotic and totalitarian of all regimes came to power through democratic institutions, which unfortunately did not have structures in place to prevent the seizure of autocratic power. As a result, a number of intellectuals and philosophers, Karl Popper among them, began speaking about the “lesson of the twentieth century”, which is that the most important essentials of democracy is a system that prevents the seizure of power by any political parties, factions, families or individuals.
Eastern European states had to wait until near the end of the century to benefit form that lesson, after the fall of the Soviet Union allowed them to shake off their dictators.
Today, political research institutes are reporting democratic countries are enjoying continued prosperity and development, while more and more pressure is being placed on despotic regimes to change.