The idea of the Muslim world

The idea of the Muslim world

The idea of the Muslim world

‘The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History’ by Cemil Aydin (Harvard University Press, 304 pages, $30)

In “Young Islam on Trek: A Study in the Clash of Civilizations,” Basil Matthews described a journey through Muslim societies in the early 1920s on behalf of the London Missionary Society. The book is today almost entirely forgotten, but it voiced convictions that remain stubbornly persistent.

The idea of the Muslim worldMatthews drew an equivalency between religion and civilization, conflating religion and geopolitics. He considered pan-Islamism the necessary political identity of every Muslim, based on the idea of a unified, timeless “Muslim world” that was interrupted by modernity. The Muslim societies he observed were in the grip of rapid modernization – full of combustion energy, steamships, railways, telegraph cables, telephones and wireless radios – which Matthews saw as fatal for “essential Muslim unity.”

Similar views are often espoused today. Last year, Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution published “Islamic Exceptionalism,” which also reinforced a civilizational view of political difference. The natural state of majority Muslim societies, Hamid claimed, is to have a prominent role for religion in public life, owing to immutable differences in how Islam relates to the state. Hamid’s book resonated in a media landscape that often traces current trouble in the Middle East as a belated product of the “artificial” nation states that emerged after the fall of the Ottoman Empire 100 years ago. According to this narrative, the region prospered as an organic whole before the imposition of modern nationalist ideologies.

“The Idea of the Muslim World” by Cemil Aydin is a bracing rebuke to such simplistic notions. Aydin, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, argues that the idea of the “Muslim world” is little more than “ahistorical romanticism” imagining a “fantastical entity.” Roughly a fifth of people now living are Muslims. Their societies are located in every corner of the globe and vary in language, ethnicity, political ideology, nationality, culture, and wealth. It is, Aydin writes, naive to categorize this “one and a half billion people, in all their diversity, as an imagined unity.”

So where did the idea of a single continuous “Muslim world” come from? Aydin argues the term does not derive from “ummah,” or Muslim religious community. He instead traces it back to the late 19th century. The belief that Muslims were united until nationalist ideology and European colonialism tore them apart is “precisely backward,” he writes. Muslims, Aydin suggests, “did not imagine belonging to a global political unity until the peak of European hegemony in the late 19th century.” Ironically, the idea then became cherished by Islamophobes and pan-Islamists alike.

Previously there had been no effective binary of Muslim and non-Muslim lands. Diversity and difference were as important as commonalities and connections. Shared religious knowledge and practices never meant or implied a political unity and solidarity across the globe. “Muslim emperors, kings, emirs, and sultans ruled over hundreds of distinct Eurasian and African dynasties. Muslims rulers fought among themselves, sometimes in alliance with so-called infidels, as much as they fought non-Muslims,” writes Aydin. “The geographical area … from Mali and Nigeria to Southeast Asia was too broad and disconnected to support a single political system.” Around the year 1800, approximately 30 dynasties ruled Muslim societies and they were far from united. These divisions were not imposed or fostered by outsiders; they were in the natural order of things.

Perceptions shifted with the rise of European imperial power in the 19th century. Aydin describes how the essentialist idea of a “Muslim world” was pushed both by shallow European concepts of Muslim racial inferiority and by subaltern appeals to Muslim internationalism in response. Since the late 19th century, writes Aydin, both pan-Islamists and Islamophobes “have used the assumption, idea, and threat of Muslim unity to advance political agendas. Together, and in tension, they created the Muslim world for their own strategic purposes and positioned it in everlasting conflict with the West.” Non-Muslims and Muslims alike mistakenly assumed that the racialized narrative of eternal conflict between the Muslim world and the West reflected a historical reality prevailing since the 7th century.

The Muslim motivation for pushing this narrative was reactive. In asserting that Muslims were also civilized and deserved dignified treatment, Muslim intellectuals essentialized Islam and Muslim identity. In a defensive posture, they tried to “define Islam for all peoples, in all places, at all times and in such a way that the religion would champion rationality, modern civilization, and progress – just what European racists believed most lacking in Islam,” writes Aydin. These arguments yoked the earliest Islamic texts and history to an idea of a single “Muslim world” that would not have made sense in their own time.

Over subsequent decades, the view of Muslim subjects as members of a single civilization was manipulated by European powers. Germany pushed its allies in the Ottoman Empire to declare global jihad during the First World War, with Kaiser Wilhelm saying he wanted to provoke “the whole Mohammedan world” into a “wild revolt” against the British Empire. The Second World War saw similarly futile attempts by the Axis powers to forge an alliance with an imagined Muslim world against their Allied rivals. Later during the Cold War the U.S. saw the world’s 350 million Muslims as an important ally against the Soviet Union, based on assumptions that they formed a coherent bloc with shared fundamental characteristics. Western policy over the next decades saw unofficial and indirect alliances with Islamists in various parts of the world during the Cold War. Most infamous was the arming of the Taliban against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan during the 1980s.

Among the most illuminating sections of Aydin’s book is on British historian Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975). Toynbee developed a civilization-based historical framework, drawing a sharp distinction between the Islamic and Western worlds. Once an enthusiastic backer of European imperialism, he ultimately became a committed non-universalist, viewing the “Muslim world” as one of the few durable civilizations able to resist the destructive materialism of the West. His conclusions found unexpected backers among thinkers who later became known as Islamists. The fact that Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb and Iranian revolutionary Ali Shariati shared so much intellectual territory with Western critics of postcolonial modernity speaks to the historical novelty of Islamism, writes Aydin. It is, he suggests, “less an extension of traditional religious beliefs and education and more a participant in the global response to capitalism and the Enlightenment.”

Today, the idea of a distinct “Muslim world,” incompatible with nationalism and the nation-state based world order, is entrenched among both Islamists and Islamophobes. It may be a fantasy, but its tenacity shows that an idea need not be based in fact to change the world. That is one of the sobering conclusions drawn by “The Idea of the Muslim World,” a tightly argued and impressive book.


An earlier version of this article misleadingly suggested that "natural state" was a term used by Shadi Hamid in his book. This has been amended and HDN apologizes for the error.

Cemil Aydın,