In the aftermath of the last Parisian attacks, a French reformist and self-defined Muslim wrote an “Open Letter to the Muslim World.” The “Muslim world” could not respond. The fact that the Muslim world does not exist as a subject makes its discursive production possible. Its concept enables certain kinds of subjects by disempowering others. The very act of writing a letter to the so-called “Muslim world” shows how critique can work as a silencing power. The invention of an imagined entity silences voices, thus paving the way for injunctions to civilize oneself through reform. The discursive function of the idea of the Muslim world is thus quite clear: writing to someone who is unable to respond to call for reform of Islam and to reawaken the Muslim world. ISIS is consequently seen as a monstrous symptom of the Muslim world’s sickness and in need of surgery.
The interesting point about this letter is that it was not written by an Islamophobic nationalist such as Donald Trump. It echoes what Elizabeth Shakman Hurd reminds us when she writes that the idea of the Muslim world is part of a wider epistemology shared by the liberals and leftists who criticize Trump’s policy towards Muslims. This letter was not written by a white Christian or a radical French secularist but by a so-called reformist who was brought up as a Muslim by his mother, a French Muslim convert. Does this discourse belong to the Islamic tradition because it is articulated by converted or Enlightened Muslims? Is the injunction to “reform Islam” in order to adapt it to a peaceful modernity and thus overcome ISIS an Islamic or a secularist order? Is this discourse reformist, secularist, or merely racist?
Elizabeth Shakman Hurd and Cemil Aydın’s contributions help us think about these questions although they do not address them directly. The Idea of the Muslim World demonstrates that the “Muslim world” is a modern colonial invention, a racially imagined entity articulated in the context of late nineteenth-century imperialism by Westerners and colonized Muslims alike. It is a common invention of orientalists such as Ernest Renan and of Muslim modernists who responded to him, such as Sayyid Jamal ad-Din Al-Afghani. The Muslim world is an act of resistance to racialization that mirrors what it tries to challenge.
Aydın’s critical genealogy is an act of intellectual decolonization because it tends to undermine a discursive strategy aimed at resisting Empire by demonstrating that this strategy is dependent on imperialism itself. The idea of the “Muslim world” is produced by Europe’s hegemony because even its anti-colonial affirmation makes sense in relation to the West, in the mirror and the eyes of Europe. Aydın’s theoretical gesture is interesting because it displays a double-sided critique: The genealogy of the Muslim world undermines Western imperial and Islamist political and epistemic assumptions. Islamism thus appears as the last form of an internalized colonization of the Islamic tradition: the false belief in the existence of a Muslim world. The binary opposing the West and the Muslim world is shared by neo-imperial ideologies such as the “clash of civilizations” and Islamists who reject Western secularism and materialism.
What are the assumptions of such a genealogy? First, Aydın thinks of the invention of the Muslim world in terms of race and racialization. Colonial power is therefore defined as a racialization of Muslims that differentiates them in order to deny their claim to equality. Aydın thus thinks of late nineteenth-century Islamic reformism and Islamism as responses to a racializing process, responses that have led to failure because they were articulated in the same language as the one they were trying to criticize.
Secondly, Aydın thinks that essentialism is the main cause of racialization and that the idea of the Muslim world has to be criticized as an illusionary essence produced by the imagination. In other words, Muslims are essentializing themselves by using the very concept of the “Muslim world” to counter racism and they thus confirm Western essentialist and racial prejudices.
Thirdly, Aydın assumes that a concept has the same meaning or, at least, similar epistemic values and political effects in two opposed discursive situations and strategies. The idea of the Muslim world remains the same idea even if it is articulated in different languages, in Western languages and in Arabic, Urdu, or Turkish, but also in colonial and anti-colonial languages.
Aydın’s book is a timely contribution to Islamic studies and historical criticism. Nevertheless, these three assumptions should be questioned. First, is the idea of the Muslim world really “inseparable from the idea that Muslims constitute a race,” as Aydın writes? Secondly, is essentialism the real problem? Does the critique of essentialism provide a better political strategy against Islamophobia? Is it only the assumption of a false homogeneity that is criticizable in the idea of the Muslim world or is it the set of religious and political assumptions carried by this term and their consequences on Islamic practices and reasonings? Thirdly, how are we to think of the structural difference between the idea of the “Muslim world” as an imperial act of hegemony and as an anti-colonial act of protest? If one assumes that the meaning of a word is its situated discursive use, one should try and think about the differences between discursive spaces in which concepts are situated despite the apparent identity carried by words such as the “Muslim world.”
Ernest Renan’s famous text on Islam and Science is a key case in Aydın’s genealogy. However, Aydın does not examine this text precisely, and neither does he examine the ways in which Renan responds to Al-Afghani’s critique. A careful reading of the texts shows that Renan does not talk about the Muslim world but begins by criticizing vague categories such as the “Arabs” or the “Muslim civilization.” In other words, Renan’s critique of Islam as fanaticism is certainly imperial but it is not merely essentialist. For Renan, Islam is a confusion of secular life and religion, which makes cultural secular rationality such as science or philosophy impossible. Renan’s strategy consists of asserting that the so-called “Islamic” philosophy is not Islamic at all since orthodox Muslims always were reluctant to reason.
Renan does racialize Afghani of course. But Renan does not dismiss Afghani as an intellectual. Renan praises his civilized spirit as being non-Arab and non-Islamic. Afghani is pictured by Renan as an exceptional Enlightened Muslim whose intelligence confirms what he thinks about the majority of orthodox and therefore uncivilized Muslims. According to Renan, Afghani is not a representative of an imagined and racialized “Muslim world”—a term that is not central in Renan’s articles. Afghani appears as a representative of Afghanistan that he describes as one of the most independent nations among the Muslim-majority countries. In other words, Renan’s racism does not reduce religion to race, as Aydın tends to suggest. It is neither Islam nor the Muslim world that are being racialized, but Muslims as they belong to different nations and cultures. For Renan, the so-called “Islamic golden age” is not Islamic. It is the work of Parsis, Christians, Jews, or heretical Muslims internally revolting against their own religion. In one word, Renan criticizes Islam as secularist—as someone who identifies progress with the decline of religious influence and orthodoxy on culture and politics. This narrative of progressive secularization is at the core of his dismissal of Islam, not mere essentialism.
In other words, Renan’s racism does not essentialize the Muslim world. Renan divides “Muslims” into nations and asserts that the less Islamic they will be, the more national, patriotic, and civilized they will become. Renan’s racism is thus inseparable from his secular views on religion and society. Renan’s response to Afghani displays a typically secular distinction between Islam as orthodoxy and Muslims as individuals. In his response, Renan is willing to claim that his critique of Islam as fanaticism is not an insult towards Muslims as individuals. Renan also displays a kind of de-essentialization by asserting that Muslims should not feel committed to Islam and therefore feel insulted by religious criticism. By doing so, Renan presupposes an essentialized concept of orthodoxy precisely because it denies the Islamic character of Muslim’s reform or attitudes. Renan’s gesture is thus comparable to classical assessments of the so-called “failure” of Muslim reformists and modernists.
Afghani’s response is not primarily concerned with asserting the existence of the Muslim world. It asserts that the Islamic golden age is really Islamic and that the Muslim world was, at that time, superior to the Christian world in terms of intellectual culture. Afghani affirms that Islamic civilization will become civilized again. Afghani’s strategy is inseparable from an extension of the concept of religious intolerance and religion to Christianity and Islam. It subverts Renan’s narrative of secularization by extending it to Islam, not in the name of the Islamic religion but of the “millions of people” who would then be deprived of civilization. What Afghani upholds is a linear progressive narrative. He assumes that Islam will secularize and pave the way to science and progress because Islam is historically younger than Christianity.
It is not the affirmation of the idea of the Muslim world that is problematic here but the very concept of civilization that Muslims translated, as Aydın shows brilliantly in Chapter 2, into their own imperial policy or more generally into the Islamic tradition. Islamic law thus became a way of “civilizing” moral practices of unlettered Muslims by restoring the family within Islamic societies.
These historical remarks tend to suggest that the idea of the Muslim world should not be criticized as “essentialist” but as being part of a teleological narrative that is essential to enlightened modern historical reason and temporality. Muslim elites facing Western empires, whether colonized or not, have accepted an Enlightenment narrative of Islam as having declined. Reformists asserted consequently that Islam should be reawakened through reform.
Nevertheless, we should not dismiss reformism too quickly. I am not convinced that criticizing Muslims’ call for unity is really needed, although one is right to criticize the ways by which they articulate their unity and solidarity. There is a difference between calling for a unification of Muslims throughout the world and the idea of the “Muslim world” as a racialized essence that is not sufficiently taken into account and addressed by Aydın. The former assumes that the Muslim world does not actually exist as it should while the latter refers to an unchanging blueprint of a violent social order. The former is a virtual unity and the latter is an ahistorical essence. Even if both seem to share the same language, they remain conceptually and politically different, if not opposed.
It does not mean that one should accept the idea of the Muslim world and avoid criticism of its possible forms of essentialism. Neither does it deny the importance of Aydın’s work. It shows that something more is at stake than essentialism and race in the ways in which Islamism and Islamophobia work together. As Talal Asad reminds us, it is not the fact that Islam is essentialized that is problematic, since Muslims do essentialize Islam in their discursive practices and reasonings, but the ways in which this essence is conceptualized. Tradition is this discursive space in which one can assert and argue about what is essential to Islam. For this reason, I think that asserting that Islam does not exist might not be a satisfactory strategy. This anti-essentialist claim for non-existence is precisely what makes liberals incapable of countering Islamophobia in a successful way since they often deny the followers’ commitment to what they follow: Islam as a normative tradition. Liberalism consequently urges Muslims to civilize and assimilate precisely because Islam does not exist, only Muslims do.
In my view, the crucial question posed by the interaction between empire and reform since the nineteenth century is not the question of the actual existence of a Muslim world. My own work has led me to study Renan in the context of nineteenth century imperial secular thought. I examine how the European concept of secularization was constructed in relation to some practices of cultural translation between secular and Islamic languages authorized by empires, especially in colonial Algeria. Consequently, I show that Renan’s work is not reducible to the display of an essentializing logic that critics still wrongly, in my view, identify to “orientalism.” My study of the conceptual assumptions of secular ontologies led me to study the ambiguity of some French Muslim reformists such as Ismaÿl Urbain and the role they played in colonial Algeria and Africa more generally.
This work convinced me that it is crucial to examine carefully how Islamic modern reformism depends on different temporalities, that is to say both on a secular Enlightenment historicity that is inseparable from empire and on an Islamic traditional temporality consisting in reencountering pasts and futures through present practices. Criticizing reformism’s modern and imperial assumptions might make sense only by practicing genealogy within tradition. The act of dismissing a language of reform only makes sense if one is committed to a tradition, that is to say to the ethical or political consequences that one’s criticism might have. For this reason, it is not always clear whether Aydın’s critique is normative or historical since “decolonizing Islamic reason” by “deconstructing” the idea of the Muslim world is supposed to urge Muslims to imagine new kinds of solidarities.
The genealogy of the Muslim world should therefore belong to Islamic tradition, to an ethical commitment to the practice of an Islamic critique. The nonexistent Muslim world thus testifies the existence of Islam as a discursive space in the world. It is only within this discursive space that reformers articulated the need for a non-existing unity of Muslims around the world to be actually achieved. Consequently, asserting that Islam does exist might be a better strategy than the one non-essentialist liberals use unsuccessfully against conservative nationalist Islamophobia. For this reason, I think that Aydın’s historical synthesis calls for an Islamic critique of Islamist politics and ontology. After all, the case of Renan suggests that imperial powers actually divided Muslims through colonial territorialization and only unconsciously produced the material conditions for new kinds of unity to emerge. If the strategy of unifying the “Muslim world” and the restoration of caliphates should come to an end, our languages of unity should thus be reimagined, both within and beyond the limits of “Islam.” It does not mean, in my view, that any achievement of political unity should be dismissed.