What is the “Muslim world?” Is it solely a descriptive term employed in the social sciences and humanities to name a shifting geographical boundary of Muslim-majority countries? Or, as its critics argue, is it a term that emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a strategy to imagine a new transnational, religious unity at the end of empire? To ask these questions is to inquire into the genealogy of a concept, the history of its discourse, and the political (and polemical) logic at work in its deployment.
Cemil Aydın’s impressive new book, The Idea of the Muslim World, examines the claim that the “Muslim world” is a unified geopolitical entity purportedly bound together across a diverse geography by a shared religious tradition. It is tempting to claim that to move from the Islamic concept of umma (the community of Muslims) to the geopolitical and racially charged notion of a “Muslim world” is an act of innocent translation, but Aydın’s wager is that there is more at stake. As one recent reviewer pointed out, the Islamic tradition does provide a legal framework for differentiating Muslim from non-Muslim political entities (subjects and territories) through the concept of dār al-Islām. In addition to legal-political concepts that theorized Muslim connectivity, de facto scholarly networks crossed empires connecting Muslims who often traveled to study with renowned scholars or to teach in some of the world’s greatest educational institutions of their time; all of this, of course, overlapping with global trade routes.
But, as The Idea of the Muslim World demonstrates, precolonial forms of communal difference and interaction did not directly correspond to the kinds of intra- and inter-imperial claims concerning citizenship and belonging that were at stake in the formulation of the idea of the Muslim world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. European empires sought control over Muslim polities and often subjected Muslims to a rubric of progress based on European claims to embody civility against the various barbarisms of Europe’s non-Western others. Citizenship under British, French, or Dutch rule often came with the promise of integration into the “civilized” political order, yet with varying degrees of fulfillment and often dependent on whether the colonial subject had been sufficiently “educated” into Europe’s civilizational order. One of the more interesting aspects of Aydın’s argument is that Muslims contested and complicated these European claims to racial and religious superiority leveled against them in the age of empire not by rejecting the terms of the debate—i.e., “civilization”—but by marshaling its resources for their own goals. One of the ways in which this contestation took place was through staking a political claim to citizenship by way of a newly imagined Muslim unity in imperial-cum-internationalist terms, namely, as constituting “the Muslim world.”
However, it would be misguided to read Aydın’s book solely as a historian’s attempt to disband a twentieth-century illusion by historicizing its complicated past; it is not that the Muslim world is simply a fiction, but rather that it is a political discourse created out of the ambiguities of imperial politics and imbued with powerful claims to representation and belonging. As Aydın shows, the most prominent strategy in the making of imperial subjects, as well as citizens, was the notion of civilization and its twin, race—that is, racialization. In this way, Aydın echoes Partha Chatterjee, who forcefully argues that colonial power operates through a “rule of colonial difference,” where the colonized are embedded in social and political relations of inferiority vis-à-vis their colonial counterparts. For Chatterjee, this is done through emergent notions of race and practices of racial difference.
The Idea of the Muslim World takes the argument further in a vein similar to the work of the anthropologist David Scott. As Scott points out, the colonial experience was not identical across time and space, but rather shaped experiences and was shaped by events that changed over time. The trick is to develop concepts and practices of criticism that can account for these shifts in their discursive particularity—what Scott calls “problem spaces.” Aydın’s argument resonates with Chatterjee’s insistence on racial difference as a key component of imperial power and Scott’s critical revision that the creation of racialized subjects takes place through practices that change over time, adapting to new circumstances thus enabling the production of new kinds statements, arguments, and practices in turn.
It is tempting to see this account of the Muslim world as a product of its historical conditions alone—the world of empire giving way to notions of civilizational unity (and difference) that eventually dissolved in the interwar period through the creation of sovereign nations out of empire’s debris. Yet Aydın’s work is a cautionary tale, not only about the ambiguities of the past and the taken-for-granted forms of political and social belonging that manifest in the present, but also about the forms of politics they might actualize in the future. Implicit in Aydın’s criticism of the Muslim world as invoked by progressives, conservatives, and Islamists alike is a concern for the future of a political and social discourse that unwittingly relies on certain concepts without a sense of their historical uses. While the idea of bounded entities, which are, supposedly, culturally and religiously distinct, has been subject to numerous revisions and criticisms, it has maintained a constant presence in news media and policy circles. Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” narrative has reappeared in the likes of Donald Trump’s recent speech in Poland, where he questions, in racially and religiously coded terms, whether the “West has the will to survive,” or if its “civilization” can be “preserved”; these are strong indications of the lasting hold of imperial concepts on the imagination of policymakers and politicians even as we acknowledge a transformation in the historical conditions of their articulation.
Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s 2017 article in the Boston Review titled, “The Myth of the Muslim Country” echoes the critical aim of Aydın’s argument through a brief reflection on the way the “Muslim world” has transformed into the “Muslim country” in the rhetoric of international politics. Hurd is able to get at an underlying assumption undergirding political rhetoric that relies on the modifier “Muslim” to explain the kinds of political or social action taking place.
To assert that there can be Muslim countries and Muslim politics obscures the complex realities of human action and affiliation. Social, legal, and political worlds are not naturally structured around perceived distinctions between Muslims and others.
She goes on to claim that assuming the adjective “Muslim” tells us something about the kinds of political actions one undertakes is not only delusional, but also dangerous for democratic politics.
There is an urgency to Hurd’s article and Aydın’s book—an affective force coupled with a critical sense that asking “whither a Muslim world?” is not just an exercise in historicism, but a blatantly political question in a time when the United States government is redeploying the rhetoric of racial and civilizational difference in order to mark new boundaries of inside and outside.
Drawing from these recent provocations to think differently about the idea of the Muslim world and the Muslim country, this forum seeks to explicate the various ways in which these terms have been taken up in scholarship and political discourse more broadly. How have they been used to explain the political action of Muslims beyond the imperial context, that is, beyond their deployment as historically specific solutions to particular political problems? How has the notion of a “Muslim world” been utilized to mark civilizational and racial difference both historically and in the present? In what ways has the political calculus of the modern nation-state drawn upon idealized or demonized notions of “Muslim countries” and “Muslim actors” to enact its policies? What does it mean to take up these questions in the political present concomitant with a global rise in authoritarian rhetoric, racism, white nationalism, and Islamophobia?
These are but a few examples of questions this forum will engage. The responses draw from various fields of expertise and touch upon these larger themes concerning the racialization of Islam and Muslims, the construction of the “Muslim world” historically, and its relevance for political discourse surrounding the “Muslim country” in light of its contemporary iterations.