The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History

  • Book Title:
 The Idea Of The Muslim World
  • Book Author:
Cemil Aydın
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Introduction What Is the Muslim World?

Roughly a fifth of people now living are Muslims. Their societies, located in every corner of the globe, vary in language, ethnicity, political ideology, nationality, culture, and wealth. Yet throughout modern history, Muslims and non- Muslims have appealed to an imagined global Muslim unity.

One need only look at the headlines to see that this unity does not exist: today, the very people who claim to speak on behalf of all Muslims target other Muslims as their enemies; Muslim societies are more divided than ever, riven by civil wars and protracted conflicts across borders. Even so, the illusion of Muslim unity persists.

This illusion is captured most succinctly in the universally popular notion of a “Muslim world,” with its own collective his-tory and future, often contrasted with a putative “West.” But we rarely question the historical roots and conceptual shortcuts inherent in such terms. Since when do political leaders, intellectuals, and everyday people talk about a Muslim world? How has it encompassed a civilization, religious tradition, and geopolitical unit?

Why are the same people who take for granted the existence of a Muslim world reluctant to talk about a Christian world, an African world, or a Buddhist world in the same way? Why has the idea of the Muslim world become so entrenched, despite the obvious naïveté of categorizing one and a half billion people, in all their diversity, as an imagined unity?

When President Barack Obama made his 2009 address “to the Muslim world” in Cairo, he was confirming the modern assump-tion that t here is a global Muslim community to be engaged.1

Obama was trying to undo the damage President George W. Bush’s war on terror had done to Ameri ca’s image among Muslims. To that end, Obama praised the historical contributions of Muslims in areas such as algebra, medicine, navigation, and printing. He also criticized Americans’ negative stereo types about Muslim faith traditions. He mentioned the positive moral values of these traditions and lauded American Muslims. This was a kind of sweetener before he put forward his government’s views about the political tensions between the United States and diverse Muslim societies.

It was an odd gesture. Would it be acceptable, or even sensible, to appeal to the contributions of East Asian civilization, Buddhism, and Confucianism before addressing America’s political disputes with China?

Alongside Obama and so many others in the so- called West, Muslim leaders and intellectuals rely on the notion of the Muslim world to describe, simultaneously, the geopolitics, civilization, and religious tradition of diverse millions. About two de cades before President Obama’s speech, in January 1988, Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini wrote a letter to Mikhail Gorbachev on behalf of the Muslim world, urging the Soviet leader not to be misled by the capitalist West and to study the spiritual and po liti cal values of Islam. Khomeini ended his letter by declaring, “The Islamic Republic of Iran, as the greatest and most powerf ul base of the Islamic world, can easily fill the vacuum of religious faith in your society.”2

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How did we arrive at this point, where a fantastical entity could be so pres ent, so prevalent in po liti cal thinking? Why do so many Muslim and non- Muslim po liti cal leaders, intellectuals, and religious figures comfortably base many of their arguments and decisions on the idea of the Muslim World without reflecting on the accuracy of the generalization that this term signifies?

Contrary to widespread assumption, the term “Muslim world” does not derive from ummah, a concept as old as Islam, which re-fers to the Muslim religious community. Instead the idea of the Muslim world began to develop in the nineteenth century and achieved full flower in the 1870s. Also mistaken is the belief that Muslims were united until nationalist ideology and Eu ro pean co-lonialism tore them apart. This is precisely backward; in fact, Muslims did not imagine belonging to a global po liti cal unity until the peak of Eu ro pean hegemony in the late nineteenth century, when poor colonial conditions, Eu ro pean discourses of Muslim racial inferiority, and Muslims’ theories of their own ap-parent decline nurtured the first arguments for pan- Islamic soli-darity. In other words, the Muslim world arrived with imperial globalization and its concomitant ordering of humanity by race.

The racialization of Islam was bound up with its transformation into a universal and uniform religious tradition, a force in inter-national politics, and a distinct object in a discourse of civiliza-tions. Pol iti cal strategy and intellectual l abor made this new real ity, and both Muslims and Eu ro pean Christians took part.

The eve of World War I was the high point of perceived global Muslim unity. In the fall of 1914, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire drew on the authority he had cultivated as caliph of the global Muslim community to declare jihad on behalf of the Muslim world. Yet even then there were strong expressions of Muslim loyalty to the Ottomans’ enemies: the British, French, Dutch, and Russian empires.

Competing Muslim and non- Muslim conceptions of the Muslim world wrought dramatic changes over the next de cade. The abolition of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924 inspired self- reflection and debate on Muslim- world identity in an era when modernizing ideologies of nationalism and bolshevism threatened to obviate other po liti cal forms.

During World War II, the notion of the Muslim world re-mained a centerpiece of imperial propaganda, as both Axis and Allies sought Muslims’ support. But afterward, at the peak of decolonization during the 1950s and the 1960s, the Muslim world receded. No successor rose to anchor the Muslim world, as the Ottomans had. Indian independence and the messy partition of Pakistan sapped the influence of Indian Muslims, who, for a century, had been able to sway global affairs by pres-suring and cajoling their British overlords. In this period, few journalists and scholars referred to Islam as an explanatory factor in world politics.

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But it was not to last. Amid interrelated po liti cal events from Arab- Israeli conflicts to the Ira nian Revolution, the 1970s and 1980s witnessed a resurgence of pan- Islamic patterns of thinking born in the imperial age. The Muslim world was again seen as a geopo liti cal unity, even though Muslim socie ties were by then ruled by more than fifty postcolonial nation- states.

How to explain this resurfacing of century- old tropes during the 1980s despite the radical transformation of the global system? Gone was Eu ro pean imperial hegemony in Muslim socie ties. Gone was the Ottoman caliphate. And there were all those nation- states. Yet the discourse of Muslim unity survived. It re-turned through the renewed racialization of Muslims and in the form of post– Cold War Islamist ideologies…

An Imperial Ummah before the Nineteenth Century

Tipu Sultan needed allies. It was 1798, and the sultan of My-sore, in southern India, wanted to push the British East India Company out of his territory, but he lacked the forces to do so on his own. When he sought aid from the rulers of France, first the royal court and later the Republic, Tipu spoke of an alliance against a mutual enemy, the British Empire.

When he sought the same from Ottoman Sultan Selim III, he did so in the name of Muslim solidarity. In addition to military assistance, the prestige of Ottoman support would help him compete with regional Muslim rivals.

But the sultan in Istanbul was less forthcoming than Tipu hoped. Tipu’s language of shared religion and culture could not sway the Ottomans from their strategic interests, allied as they were with Britain and Rus sia against Napoleon, who had just invaded Ottoman Egypt. Instead, Selim discouraged Tipu’s partnership with France and urged peace with the British. When war came to Mysore the next year, shared religion again proved no source of unity: British soldiers conquered and plun-dered the territory with the cooperation of other Indian Muslim kings, such as Nizam of Hyderabad, who provided troops and munitions.

As Tipu discovered the hard way, the idea of Muslim solidarity was po liti cally impotent. Notions of ummah and Muslim- ness existed, but, what ever they meant, it would be almost a hundred years more before they inspired narratives of global Muslim unity along either geopo liti cal or civilizational lines.1

This had been the condition of Muslim empires for more than a millennium. From mid- thirteenth- century Mongolian expan-sion to the Napoleonic wars, Muslim emperors, kings, emirs, and sultans ruled over hundreds of distinct Eurasian and African dy-nasties. Muslim rulers fought among themselves, sometimes in alliance with so- called infidels, as much as they fought non- Muslims.2

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Modern advocates of Muslim- world unity, such as the Indian- Pakistani Islamist Abul Ala Maududi and the Iranian revolutionary Ali Shariati, tend to read this period as befits their political interests. Some take a selective approach, glori-fying the military achievements of the Ottomans and Mughals in order to inspire a kind of patriotic fervor. Others depict the rulers of cosmopolitan empire as impious, unable to recognize the necessity of empowering a global Muslim community.3

 These histories assume a shared and invariant Muslim po-litic al imagination, albeit one routinely abandoned by self- aggrandizing rulers. The real Muslim po liti cal experience from the seventh through the eigh teenth century, however, tells a story of multiplicity, contestation, and change, leaving the idea of the Muslim world to emerge later, alongside the later civili-zational narrative of the West.4

Early Muslim Empires: Diversity and Synthesis

The pre- nineteenth- century notion of ummah was deterritori-alized. It urged cross- tribal affiliation, shared legal practices, and a collective eschatological vision— the Prophet Muhammad says that, in the hereafter, he will gather his ummah from all gen-erations across time— but demanded no specific government or place on a map. Members of the ummah neither lived in one land nor were subject to one po liti cal authority.

Even when Muslims expanded the territory under their con-trol, the extent of the ummah was not necessarily at issue. Pop-ulations in Persia, North Africa, Central Asia, and South Asia gradually converted to Islam, but t here was no attempt by Muslim rulers to convert all subjects, let alone all of humanity. Muslim theology does not require conversion as a precursor to salvation.5 Thus the expansion of Muslim dynasties did not in-volve consistent and aggressive missionary zeal toward people of other faiths, especially fellow People of the Book— Christians and Jews.

It is in part because of this willingness to allow conquered people to maintain their traditions that, throughout history, Muslim- ruled domains were so diverse. Another factor is the behavior of Muslims themselves, who followed multiple spiritual paths, subscribed to various legal schools, spoke many languages, and hailed from diverse backgrounds. Muslims in diff er ent parts of the world were connected—t hrough education, trade, pil-grimage, politics, and kinship, not just religion and not through collective competition with a non- Muslim other

. Yet po liti cal loyalties and self- perception were not primarily defined by mem-bership in a global religious and civilizational bloc.6

Exchanges among distant Muslims could conceivably have engendered global solidarity. Written texts and oral narratives of the religion circulated widely. Madrasas (educational institu-

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