“The Muslim world” refers to a strategic ally, a fallen foe, an existential threat, a glorious civilization, and even a badgered victim. Contemporary discourses across the political spectrum attribute unity to disparate societies, states, and governments on the assumption that an Islamic identity is what defines them. In his important new book, Cemil Aydın asserts “the ‘Muslim world,’ as a catchall description of people recognizing themselves as Muslims, has never been more than an illusion.” The idea of the Muslim world, Aydın argues, emerged through an exchange between European imperialists and Muslim intellectuals during the late-nineteenth century, and has enjoyed a cyclical revival post-WWII. What Aydın identifies as “the legacy of imperial racialization of Muslim-ness” was met with “Muslim resistance to this racialized identity,” thereby producing a notion of Muslim civilizational and geopolitical difference distinct from the West. This notion of difference is adapted to far-ranging ideological and nationalist ends, producing a racialized alter-ego that is alternately ally and foe, threat and victim.
The book’s 150-year historical survey seems to finally put to rest ontological claims of Muslim political unity. There has never been a governing authority under which all Muslims have lived nor to which they were uniformly subject. Aydın explains that even as the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties “claimed to champion the ideals of a single Muslim caliphate . . . both exhibited the characteristics of diverse, large-scale empires. They didn’t rule a unity of Muslims but attempted to maintain nominal control of many peoples in distant locales pressing different agendas.” Under subsequent empires, Mamluk, Mughal, and Ottoman sultans most often claimed the title of caliph when doing so was politically expedient. The vast geographic and social diversity over which empires ruled meant that the practices associated with the term caliphate varied significantly through time and space. Aydın suggests that pan-Islamist ideology today “relies on an ahistorical caricature of the caliphate, one that seems derived more from Islamophobic stereotypes than from Abbasid or Ottoman practices.” What Aydın refers to as historical amnesia also afflicts American and European proponents of anti-Muslim policies, which compel Muslim solidarity and thereby foment pan-Islamist responses. The same argument might be extended to Islamophilic movements that often rely on tropes of Muslim victimization.
If the Muslim world is a political fiction, is it a sociological reality? This question gets at two related points. One is that Aydın highlights the shifting commitments of key intellectuals at various historical junctures to refute the claim about Muslim political unity. In the interwar period these intellectuals include Muhammad Asad, Hasan al-Banna, Abul Ala Maududi, and Shakib Arslan all of whom “adapted to the age of nationalism gradually and nonlinearly, not giving up on the imperial era notions of Muslim kingship.” Aydın persuasively argues that such thinkers, considered key theorists of Islamic statehood, were not immune from the remarkable ambivalence that characterized the time between the end of monarchical rule and the beginning of twentieth-century nation-state politics. Yet in capturing the legacy of his protagonists under the rubric of Muslim political thought, Aydın prioritizes their Islamic subjectivity above other forms of being and belonging, further ascribing the ambivalence they experienced as internal to what it means to be Muslim. He also attributes to his protagonists a distinct form of political agency grounded in their Muslim difference. Aydın thus refutes one erroneous claim by nevertheless suggesting that Muslims are a sociological group whose behavior can be assessed, theorized, and represented. This raises a methodological question: Is it possible to refute a claim as expansive as global Muslim unity without proposing a similarly totalizing theory? To show how the exchange between and among elites in imperial, colonial, and neo-imperial contexts generated specific knowledges is one thing. However, I doubt there is an empirical claim to be made about Muslims across all of these time periods that does not flatten disparate experiences into a neat trans-historical narrative.
One of the main ways in which the alleged sociological coherence of the Muslim world is theorized in the book is in discussions of what Aydın calls the racialization of Muslims. Aydın recounts the processes associated with anti-Muslim racism from the 1820s to the 1880s, as well as in the post-Cold War through the lens of global intellectual history. Among the figures that appear in the book are Edward Blyden, a black Protestant in West Africa whose article “Mohammedanism and the Negro Race” interpreted the fate of Muslims and blacks distinctly from white Christians; the British historian Arnold Toynbee best known for his anti-Turkish propaganda; and Ernest Renan, the leading French historian and philosopher who claimed that Islam was incompatible with modern science. We are also told that interwar-era pan-Islamism was distinct from Cold War-era Islamism in the extent to which the former “imagined a unified, subaltern racial group in need of solidarity and empowerment” whereas the latter “distinguished among Sunnis and Shias, good Muslims and bad.” The book’s angle raises as many questions as it might answer for both the specialist and non-specialist. If racialization was generated at the level of elite politics, how were its processes articulated in local discourse and practice? Did “race” signify the same meaning as contemporaries attribute to it? Considering that such a term is the object of substantial critical and contested scholarly inquiry today, what are the implications for not engaging with its terminological indeterminacy in the book? How might scholars wishing to appeal to broader and more interdisciplinary audiences do so without compromising the careful work needed to delineate a term’s architecture?
In a recent essay on the Trump administration’s immigration policy, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd cautions against the misuse of conceptual references. Her discussion particularly takes issue with the widespread use of the term “Muslim countries” to describe states subjected to the executive order. Such an attribution “is sociologically sloppy, historically misguided, and politically dangerous,” Hurd argues, further suggesting that “[i]t is precisely this slippage, and the actions and policies it engenders, that contribute to creating a world in which it seems natural to talk about religion as if we all know what we mean when we say ‘Muslim countries.’” There are helpful resonances between the argument proposed by Hurd and the aim of Aydın’s book, namely their call to interrogate deep-seated assumptions about Muslims and Islam as well as the complicity of far-right and liberal internationalists in perpetuating these assumptions. Yet where Aydın retains the idea of the Muslim world in sociological terms, Hurd takes a different tack. She suggests “[t]o assert that there can be Muslim countries and Muslim politics obscures the complex realities of human action and affiliation . . . [T]here is no such thing as Muslim or Christian political behavior.” Whereas Aydın illuminates the history of “the Muslim world,” his retention of the term points to the book’s conceptual limits. Is there a way out of this bind? Hurd suggests a way forward, one that is simultaneously attuned to global and local dynamics as well as the impossibility of disarticulating religion from history, law, and politics.
Big history must reckon with the specificity of human experience, even if such an orientation yields more modest conclusions. The continued popularity of the idea of the Muslim world cannot be attributed to the elite alone. Today’s public spheres are saturated with political novices and seasoned politicians, academics, curious observers, and a vast range of nominally interested pundits, all of whom, it seems, have something to say about Muslims and Islam. Comment has never been freer and more pernicious. Any and all opinions find expression through more diffuse communication technologies than ever before. There are no guarantees that the provenance of a concept confines its use within the social networks that may have once given the concept meaning. If Aydın has written the history of an idea’s emergence, to what extent must its endurance account for a wider social field? How might scholars interested in both the emergence and circulation of ideas balance elite intellectual history with local consumption and interpretation? Can the history of an idea be written absent attention to the vernacular?