In the late 18th and 19th centuries, European nations were engaged in an aggressive and competitive campaign to secure new territories and new markets. In this age of European imperialism, certain key areas of the Muslim world attracted increased European attention. The European nations expanded their influence and established colonies in the Middle East, Africa, and India. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed in defeat in 1918 at the end of World War I, France and Great Britain assumed control of the Ottoman Empire's Middle East and north African territories.
In the 19th century, in response to the political and economic challenges of European imperialism, a number of schools of Islamic thought emerged that included important political and social components. Called Islamic revivalist movements, these schools, such as the Wahhabi movement in Arabia and the Mahdi movement in Sudan, were concerned that Islamic society appeared to be in decline. While not necessarily agreeing in the details, they shared a conviction that returning to careful adherence to the Quran and the sunnah would restore independence and influence to Islamic societies.
In the 20th century, Muslims struggled with the political and economic challenges presented by European colonialism and imperialism, and with the intellectual and moral challenges presented by a rapidly-changing world of nationalism, secularism, anti-colonial struggles, and the Cold War. Two very different hypotheses found wide appeal among Muslims. Some, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, built on the revivalist teachings of the 19th century and argued for a return to Islamic traditions. Finding wide support among the working and impoverished classes of Muslims, they taught that Islam is a positive alternative to the modern world, which had left so many behind. They led reformist movements that advocated for an Islamic system of government. Many of them spent time in prison for their political leadership and publications, particularly in Egypt and Syria.
Others advocated a search for a positive synthesis with the modern world, arguing that Islam can and should be reinterpreted in light of modern issues and concerns. In their writing, they built bridges between the traditional teachings of Islam and the modern challenges of secularism, nationalism, multiculturalism, and democracy. These modernists—such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, Qasim Amin, Sayyid Ahmad Khan, and Muhammad Iqbal—were popular with the educated classes of the Middle East and south Asia.
In the 1950s and 1960s, most of the Muslim world won independence from the European colonial powers. Many of the newly-independent states had not existed in their present forms prior to European intervention, including Lebanon, Syria, Sudan, Jordan, Iraq, and Pakistan. Pursuing their own interests, the European powers had created these states by drawing artificial borders on maps and appointing European allies as rulers. As a result, the anti-colonial struggle was replaced by another prolonged struggle, this time over national identity and political legitimacy. Who is Lebanese, and who is Syrian? Who is Pakistani, and who is Indian? Should the Arabs all be unified into one state? Why should former colonies continue within national borders imposed from London or Paris? Who is responsible for the Palestinians? Who has the right to lead the countries, and how should the leader be chosen? Struggles to find consensus on the answers to these intractable questions were conducted in the context of the Cold War and the American and Soviet tendencies to conduct that war by proxy, in a strategy the United States called "low-intensity warfare." As a result, political conflict was frequently conducted through wars instead of public debate, with a bewildering number of local and foreign interests influencing critical national events.