Twelve years ago in Damascus a friend and I attended a discussion between two Muslims. One was a Syrian professor of Qur’an recitation and Hanafi jurisprudence. The other was a scholar visiting from the West. The latter had requested the meeting to discuss the status of the juridical terms dar al-harb (abode of war) and dar al-islam (abode of peace), given that they are not found in the Qur’an.

The Syrian shaykh apologized for not having had the time to fully prepare a response but listed a lengthy series of classical scholars, including the eponymous leaders of the Islamic legal schools, who employed these terms. The jurists’ authority suffices to establish the terms’ validity for the umma (Islamic community) today, he said. Besides, although the scholastic terms came about later on, their meanings were already present in the revelation.

Indeed even aside from their Orientalist caricature (by which they establish the fanatical antagonism of Muslims toward the temporal/secular order), the terms dar al-islam and dar al-harb have had a long juridical career. Of particular interest here is their ambivalent relationship to territoriality, for the genre of siyar (conduct) was not, strictly speaking, a law of nations (blood and soil). Instead precolonial Islamic law was both personal and territorial, in that it applied to conduct among Muslims wherever they may be and to conduct between Muslims and others within dar al-islam. With certain legal variations, these terms set the scope for the jurisdiction of Islamic law.

But the traditional basis of these terms was not what the visiting scholar was after. He clarified: “My question was whether their definition has remained fixed. My understanding is that at least one aspect of these terms is to define the relationship between the individual and the state. But the nature of the state is so different now—we don’t live in a caliphate—and also how the state affects individual lives, that too has changed.”

The shaykh was skeptical: “Well, but those changes do not affect the Muslim who wants to live his Islam. He has in his heart what is right or wrong, and God the exalted will not punish him because he was unable to practice this limited issue, because of other limitations that have been created surrounding him. It is still dar al-islam if the population is majority Muslim, and they practice their religion freely.”

My friend, a close student of the shaykh, interjected to ask about the historical status of a place like India, which had been ruled by Muslims but never had a majority Muslim population.

“If the power is in the hands of the Muslims, it is considered dar al-islam.”

The visitor replied, “But if we look at the contemporary situation in the West, for example, there are local Muslim populations who are able to practice their religion without constraint. But places like Central Asia, where the population is supposedly majority Muslim, you cannot practice freely.”

The shaykh demurred, saying he needed to study this further. But then he appealed to another logic: “Even in non-fiqhi terms, any economic activity you pursue there [in authoritarian states with Muslim populations], who would gain its benefit?”

The visitor was not having it: “Usurious banks! Ultimately the economies of these countries are beholden to multinational corporations—”

“Sure, but what if someone worked as a physician? Who benefits directly? The population.”

The visitor replied, “Okay.”

The Shaykh continued, “And if the country were attacked, with whom do you stand? Look, you may have exceptions, but in general the majority of benefit from activities in the West will go to non-Muslims. Taxes in the States are sent to Israel to kill the Palestinians, or to Iraq to kill Iraqis. Your interests wherever you are lie with your neighbours. You are with them, one way or another. And to me, that is what the question of dar al-islam and dar al-harb comes down to.”

My recording goes quiet here, but for the sound of the street outside.

“Unfortunately in our time, it is very cloudy, because there is no caliph. One hundred years ago even those Muslims who lived as far as India or Morocco were attached to the caliphate. But for Muslims, in reading history, this is the exception, not the norm.”

The visiting scholar acknowledged the difficulty of the present but insisted that this difficulty might trouble the juridical terms as well: “The contemporary situation is very complex, as you said. There’s no caliph. And in other ways too . . . the situation here [in Syria in 2004] is also bad, but thinking for example of Pakistan, where the army is killing its own people, bombarding villages . . . It becomes difficult to define this place as dar al-islam, when such governments attack their own populations for economic deals from the West . . .”

The shaykh asked, “So don’t you see the West as dar al-harb? And meanwhile the most sophisticated, educated, trained Muslims are leaving for the West. The best are going, and the rest are oppressed.”

The visitor replied: “They are declared enemies of Islam and Muslims, no doubt about it! I see your point about Muslims living in the West contributing to attacks on Muslims elsewhere. But don’t you think this is part of a bigger issue? Everyone who wants to leave—they already live in a non-Muslim, Westernized mental space, with economic and technological structures that do not—”

Interrupting, the shaykh declared, “Those changes have nothing to do with how we need to change. Even the Umayyad mosque [in Damascus], built less than one hundred years after the Prophet, wasn’t built in the same way as the Prophet built his mosque. They asked a Roman architect to come and build this mosque in such a way.”

The visitor responded, “But not with flat walls where the sound doesn’t carry, not square shapes, straight lines—instead architectural features that reflect Islamic values! But what I’m saying is that the defining features of the space in which Muslims live, even in dar al-islam, are rapidly being Westernized. When it is all being materially invaded, reshaped, how much of dar al-islam remains?”

The shaykh answered: “If you are speaking of a perfect dar al-islam, there is no perfect dar al-islam. We are far from the teachings of the Qur’an and sunna, have become very Westernized, are about to be swallowed completely—but strangers on the street here, they are Muslim; elsewhere, we don’t pray over them when they die. This is a very significant difference.”

The visitor objected, “But how does that—there are non-Muslims in dar al-islam too. And if a Muslim dies in dar al-harb, people pray over him too.”

The conversation grew strained.

The visiting scholar clarified his line of inquiry: “Look, I do not want to redefine these concepts. My interest is to understand the present situation in the light of the past. . . . There is no physical separation between dar al-islam and dar al-harb, as you said. When Musaylima the Liar sent his message to the Prophet declaring that the earth had been divided equally between them, the Prophet replied that the earth belongs wholly to God. If we understand that the whole earth is a muslim place, we make whatever part of it into what we do.”

The shaykh declared, “The whole earth has always been for God the exalted.”

The visitor insisted, “Of course, but there has never been a time in history when so many millions of Muslims have arrived at other lands as refugees and immigrants. If this doesn’t alter the concepts of dar al-islam and dar al-harb, were those spaces fixed historically?”

And the shaykh responded, “This is like the sea when it goes to the shore and comes back. Take Israel, for example; fifty years ago it was dar al-islam; now it is dar al-harb. I cannot give you a map and mark where it begins and ends.”

There my recording cuts off.

These (edited for length and clarity) are the conditions under which I read Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s “The Myth of the Muslim Country” and Cemil Aydın’s The Idea of the Muslim World, which together provide a historicizing revision to the geopolitical, religious, and civilizational discourse of the Muslim world. In that world-picture, as once there was Christendom—a territorial monolith—so too there was Islamdom. After secularization, the former has become the post-Christian West, while the latter (now racialized and so bound to religion) has become the “Muslim world.” But this theologico-geopolitical assumption of Muslim unity has outlasted the imperial politics in which it arose. Against the teeming manifold of history (Muslims fighting Muslims, Muslims allied with Christians, and others), against the historical facts of Muslim diversity and communities riven by antagonisms (including the butchery in Syria since the discussion above took place there)—against all that, the “illusion” of Muslim unity persists. Tracking the rise and fall and “resurfacing” of this discourse, as Aydın does, returns that discourse to contingent history and confronts the political constraints imposed upon the present by what he takes to be anachronistic idioms.

Although Hurd and Aydın might not adopt these terms, their work teaches us that the story of globalatinization (the Christianization of the world, or the extension of the analogy from Christendom to Islamdom) is also the racial story of secularization. And the actors of this story are not confessionally bound (there is equal opportunity globalatinization). Thus Aydın writes that Muslim reformers themselves “recas[t] Islam by collapsing its diverse traditions into a singular world religion comparable to Christianity,” while today Islamists and Islamophobes alike invoke narratives of eternal conflict between Islam and the West. Yet the idea of the Muslim world is itself “secular.”

The confusion of umma and Muslim world operationalizes a secular logic of identification, Hurd astutely comments; there is no such thing as “Muslim” political behavior. Meanwhile Aydın shows that the idealization of Muslim unity racializes Muslims, obliterating “obvious differences.” The narrative of Islam versus the West is a myth which needs to face reality. This is the relentless refrain of the book: The Muslim world is “imagined,” its idea relying not on “timeless doctrine” but “contingent politics and ideas.” “Theoretical distinctions” found in the juridical and textual traditions are “far removed from practice”; exogenous alliances were “forbidden in theory but common in reality.” Aydın’s operation of exposure methodologically relies upon the opposition of imagination to reality, elite interpretations, and textual theory to local adoptions and vernacular practices. Muslim societies were no different from the rest of the world. Islam is not exceptional. Instead it is historical.

Returning to the exchange transcribed above, each of the interlocutors was deeply vested in the possibilities of Muslim flourishing under postcolonial conditions of state and market. But they fundamentally differed in how they regarded the contemporary situation, as well as in how to inherit the terms of Islamic legal traditions. Although the discussion engaged a pair of jurisprudential terms, it did not reflect significant accounts (e.g., by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Tariq Ramadan, and Wahba al-Zuhayli) of how to read them after the birth of territory and the consolidation of the nation-state. Their conversation condensed what Aydın describes as the six “major themes” of pan-Islamism—themes which he writes “still shape much of transnational Muslim thought” having long outlasted their original political contexts. The themes include a notion of Islamic civilization, the reinvention of Islam as universal world religion, a lachrymose decline narrative begging heroic renewal, a deep-historical conflict between Islam and the West, a spatial appreciation for the global reach and number of Muslims, and an anticolonial, intersectional internationalism. Thus the Syrian shaykh and visiting scholar agreed despite their differences that the West was at war with Islam, that the loss of caliph had clouded the political present, that Muslim societies were collectively weakened but could rise together, and more. Aydın’s book refers their conversation to history, exposing the imagined quality of their terms (indeed their “amnesia”).

But the conversation also demonstrates the complexity of the question. Although Aydın takes pains to distinguish his terms (“Contrary to widespread assumption, the term ‘Muslim world’ does not derive from ummah, a concept as old as Islam . . .”), the scholars’ exchange shows how the language of umma (which for Aydın is strictly theological) has been conscripted into the geopolitical grammar of the Muslim world. (So Aydın writes that the philosopher-poet Muhammad Iqbal’s conception of umma “is synonymous with modern geopolitical Islamic civilization.”) But if umma and Muslim world are properly distinct, and yet have been historically synonymized (globalatinization), how then to “decoloniz[e] (and perhaps deconstruc[t])” these concepts? And can we best understand the scholars’ discussion by showing how they relied on invented traditions or theoretical abstractions?

As Talal Asad once wrote about the umma-concept, “The crucial point therefore is not that it is imagined but that what is imagined predicates distinctive modes of being and acting.” Over the course of their exchange the visiting scholar expanded a perception of governmentality (“how the state affects individual lives, that too has changed”) into a critique of globalization (even regarding Islamicate architectural aesthetics: “Not flat walls where the sound doesn’t carry!”). Meanwhile the local scholar emphasized an abiding eschatological dimension to the practice of the law (“God the exalted will not punish him”) and insisted that the juridical terms remained adequate to apprehending the contingency of history itself (“this is like the sea when it goes to the shore and comes back”).

And although their discussion exhibited the symptoms of anachronistic pan-Islamism, neither of them ignored the historical diversity that Aydın employs to deconstruct the idea of the Muslim world. Indeed, it was their affective attachment to the umma, which accounted for the pain they each felt at perceiving the contemporary condition of the diverse Muslim world. Rather than a synonym for “modern geopolitical Islamic civilization,” these elements of their discussion suggest that the umma-concept is here historical (in Aydın’s sense of real, not abstract) but also asymmetrical to history (in that it interrupts the historicist rendition of a diverse Muslim world composed by diverse Muslim nations). The deterritorialized grammar of Islamist politics might then only intersect, not converge, with what Hurd calls “the politics of religious authenticity” or Aydın tracks as modern racialized Islamophobia.

The conclusion of Aydın’s book asks the reader to understand its historicist operation of exposure in another light. He writes that “the struggle on behalf of the Muslim world has been especially prone to co-optation because there is no clear limit to who might speak on behalf of an imagined entity. Just about anyone can claim its custodianship and then betray the people who believed themselves at last represented.” Read as a work of care, Aydın’s book releases the umma-concept from its geopolitical formation. This leaves the umma remaining to be read.