Ahmad Masood / REUTERS Muslim pilgrims near Mecca, Saudi Arabia, September 2015.

How the Muslim World Was Invented

The Complicated Origins of a Universal Idea

In This Review

The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History
By Cemil Aydin
Harvard University Press, 2017
304 pp.
Purchase

“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” This was the statement that Trump read aloud at a rally in December 2015, during his campaign for the U.S. presidency. In one sentence, Trump cast Muslims as threats emanating from abroad. He delivered on that characterization as president, signing executive orders that sought to ban the citizens of several Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.

Trump’s push for the so-called Muslim ban provoked intense controversy. Yet its subtext—that there exists some uniform, foreign community of the planet’s Muslims—is a longstanding construct, as the historian Cemil Aydin shows in his timely book, The Idea of the Muslim World. The notion of a “Muslim world” is not a result of Islamic “theological requirements or a uniquely high level of Muslim piety,” Aydin writes. It is a product of the West’s historical “imperial racialization of Muslimness,” on the one hand, and of “Muslim resistance to this racialized identity,” on the other. This process of exchange, concentrated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, made meaningful the idea of a Muslim world for those beyond and within it. The term refers not to a place but to a series of narratives developed by Muslims and non-Muslims to navigate racialized notions of faith, foreignness, and modernity.

THE MUSLIM WORLD ISN’T FLAT

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the British Empire ruled over so much of the Muslim-majority world that it is perhaps not surprising that imperial administrators used the lens of Islam to characterize the lands they governed. The Anglo-Muhammadan courts of British India, for example, uniformly deployed Islamic law to settle disputes among the subcontinent’s Muslims, despite their diversity. (The courts also helped to divide Muslims from the members of India’s other religions.) 

Muslims under British rule, meanwhile, cultivated solidarity among members of the faith to counter the ideas that Muslims were backward and Islam was incompatible with modernity. The Indian jurist Syed Ameer Ali, for instance, wrote of the prophet Muhammad as a civilizational innovator and of Islam as a rational and universal tradition akin to those of the Enlightenment and classical Greece. Other reformist Muslim thinkers across the globe—from the nineteenth-century British convert William Henry Quilliam to the twentieth-century Pakistani scholar Abul A’la Mawdudi—promoted their own visions of the “Muslim world” to similar ends. In many cases, their goals were social and political, rather than religious: Muslim thinkers invoked the idea of a unified Muslim world (the umma) to envision a future in which the umma would reverse its humiliation at the hands of colonial powers. By arguing for a Muslim world capable of self-government, however, Muslim reformers also “reinforced the European racial discourse in which Muslims were united—and divided from others—by their religion and heritage.”  

The Ottoman-era Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, November 2012.
The Ottoman-era Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, November 2012.

If Western ideas served as foils for Muslim thinkers, so did they provide a kind of intellectual framework. Westerners such as the French scholar Ernest Renan, the American political scientist Samuel Huntington, and the British historian Arnold Toynbee, Aydin argues, shared a “template of a racial, civilizational, and geopolitical Muslim world distinct from the West” that Muslim intellectuals downloaded to construct identities along similar lines. So too did Muslim political leaders, such as the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II, the Palestinian Haj Amin al-Husseini, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran, all of whom grounded their political projects in the idea of Muslim nationhood.

Aydin’s challenge is to pinpoint when and how this transfer happened. Consider his discussion of how Toynbee’s ideas were received by Muslim writers during the Cold War. Disillusioned by the ravages of World War II, Toynbee argued that the West was suffering from degeneration, and he exhorted other societies to resist its materialism and destructiveness. Islamic civilization, Toynbee claimed, was best suited for that role because its cultural, philosophical, and theological values were fundamentally at odds with those of the secular West. “Among Toynbee’s biggest fans,” observes Aydin, “were the kinds of thinkers who later were known as Islamists." The Turkish writer Sezai Karakoç, who was drawn to Toynbee’s attempt to promote Islamic revival as an alternative to socialism and capitalism, is one example. The result of these affinities was that some Muslim intellectuals embraced ideas that were in reality “an insult to their religious and cultural heritage.” Instead of seeing anything within Islam that might be compatible with secularism or socialism, argues Aydin, Islamists viewed attempts to reconcile their religion with those political projects as bids to imitate the values of the Islamic world’s Western enemies. Apart from providing a few passing examples, however, Aydin does little to substantiate his claims about Toynbee’s influence: readers are mostly left to assume that Toynbee affected contemporary Islamists because of the similarities between their ideas.

More generally, by playing up the influence of European thought on Muslim intellectuals, Aydin makes those thinkers captive to a version of history in which Muslims did not create unifying identities on their own terms before the imperial expansions of the nineteenth century. The upshot is that Aydin downplays the significance of premodern instances of Islamic political-identity formation. Yet within the Muslim-majority territories of the premodern era, notions such as umma (the Muslim community), caliphate (a political community headed by a caliph), and imamate (a Shiite political community led by an imam) played important roles in calls for political unity. In the West, too, the idea of the Muslim world had some roots in precolonial encounters, such as the medieval interactions between Christians in the Latin West and Muslims in North Africa and Spain. The eleventh-century epic poem The Song of Roland, for instance, recast the 778 defeat of Charlemagne’s soldiers at the Battle of Roncevaux as a mythical struggle between Christians and Muslims—and between good and evil. Even if the idea of the Muslim world took distinctive shape in the nineteenth century, as Aydin suggests, some terms historically associated in the West with that formation—“Arab” or “Saracen,” for example—appeared earlier, helping erect a longstanding binary in which Islam and the Muslim world would come to serve as homogenizing, negative referents.

Detail of a fifteenth-century tapestry depicting the Battle of Roncevaux.

Detail of a fifteenth-century tapestry depicting the Battle of Roncevaux.

US AND THEM

The Idea of the Muslim World appears just as such homogenization of Muslims is coming into renewed vogue in the West. The so-called Muslim ban is one example. So is Senate Bill 68, a piece of legislation introduced in January by Ted Cruz that asks the U.S. State Department to designate the Muslim Brotherhood, an international Sunni organization, as a terrorist group. Much as European colonial planners deployed the idea of the “Muslim world” to inform their administrative practices, some pockets of the American right have seized on the phrase “Muslim Brotherhood” to characterize religious Muslim organizations as fronts for terrorism. It is this logic that has led Muslim civil-rights organizations, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, to be lambasted as outlets for the Brotherhood. (Soon after Cruz introduced his bill, for instance, Ohio state treasurer and Senate candidate Josh Mandel described the Council as “bad people” tied to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.)

The governments of some Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have used a related logic to demonize the Brotherhood. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has led a harsh crackdown against the group and its perceived allies, and some Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have cast the Brotherhood’s populist sensibilities as a threat to their conservative regimes. Like the idea of the Muslim world, the Brotherhood has become a symbol, deployed in the West and in the Middle East for political ends. It is here that Aydin’s book proves so valuable: by revealing how the racial, civilizational, and political biases that emerged in the nineteenth century shape contemporary visions of the Muslim world, within and beyond it. 

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