Review Essay

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
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.


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

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