Many thanks to Micah Hughes for coordinating this forum and to scholars who contributed to it. All the points made by the forum contributors have clarified and expanded on the main arguments of my book, and I am especially thankful for the theoretical rigor and generosity of these close readings. I would like to focus on three main points for further reflection in light of the reviews and the critical engagement on this forum.
First is the question raised by colleagues about the lineages and legacies of the pre-nineteenth century concepts of Dār al-Islām and Dār al-Harb, as well as ummah. There is a long history of political thought produced by Muslims, who also happened to be many other things, such as Ottoman, Abbasid, or British Indian. I am aware that we cannot take the moment of the mid-nineteenth-century imperial racialization of the Muslim Word as year zero of modern geopolitical imaginaries about Muslims. There was clearly an inheritance of earlier centuries in the formation of the geopolitical categories of the Christian West and the Muslim World. Yet, pre-nineteenth-century empires ruled by Muslim dynasties were not modern states following a strict ideological program inspired by legal or theological texts.
Moreover, political thought and global imaginaries in Muslim societies were never stagnant, thus we need to pay particular attention to both the location and the time period in which they took shape. As Micah Hughes wrote, the transition from the theological concept of the ummah, or the legal category of Dār al-Islām, to the geopolitical notion of the Muslim world was not a benign translation or natural historical transformation. We need to pay attention to contingent factors such as turbulences in the Ottoman-British alliance and the post-WWII Cold War landscape in shaping new notions of the Muslim world. The line separating Dār al-Islām from Dār al-Harb in the age of empire as well as of nation-states is as much of an imaginary geography as the line demarcating the Orient from Occident or the Muslim world from the Western world. As Basit Iqbal succinctly put it, we need to rescue the idea of the ummah from the geopolitical narratives of the Muslim world so that we can rethink its content.
The second major point raised by the essays deals with Islam as a discursive tradition and political theology in Muslim societies that may encourage Muslims to seek solidarity and unity in order to address various political, social, economic, and cultural needs. Scholars of Muslim traditions do constitute communities of interpretation and educated Muslims may partake in a discursive tradition as they refer to a common set of vocabularies and historical texts in making their truth claims. I would agree with the contributors that the alternative to rejecting racial essentialism of the Muslim world is not assuming that there are only Muslim individuals who can define Islam in any way they wish, or that Islam as a religious tradition does not matter. Yet, at the same time, what constitutes an Islamic tradition and its manifestations across time and space is too rich to be captured by a singular explanatory label or adjective like “Muslim” to make sense of the political acts of its followers. Neither the Ottoman, Safavid, or Mughal Empires nor modern nation-states with Muslim majority populations were built by simply following the inspiration of a discursive textual tradition based on the Qur’an and Sunnah.
Scholarly interpretative traditions should not be confused with the totality of politics engaged in by Muslims; they do not de facto call for the geopolitical unity of all Muslims or for labeling a nation-state Islamic. When some Muslims in India decided to revolt against British rule in 1857, for example, their political tradition allowed for unity with their Hindu comrades, while many other Hindus and Muslims decided to ally with the British. The moment of 1857 and many other similar events that are now taken as a sign of clash between a victimized Muslim World versus a Christian imperial West, in fact reveal the flexibility of (Muslim) political loyalties and legitimacy.
Therefore, in my book I focused on the late nineteenth century as a turning point in how the racialization of Muslims and Muslim modernist formulations of an “authentic” Islamic tradition formed a symbiotic relationship. The destiny of Muslim societies became further entangled in the early twentieth century than in the period of the fifteenth century. Irrespective of the piety of individuals, millions of people were grouped and categorized as Muslims with regard to geopolitical, historical, civilizational, and religious attributes. What mattered in this process was not necessarily an interpretation of a Qur’anic verse or a saying of the Prophet Muhammad. The way Greek, Bulgarian, and Serbian independence from the Ottoman Empire began to be conceptualized as necessarily linked to the destiny of Muslims in India ruled by the British Empire relied on many contingent historical decisions beyond their identification as belonging to a shared Islamic tradition. The Turkish-Greek population exchange in 1923, the partition of Palestine to create a Jewish state, and then the partition of India into Muslim and Hindu parts not only obliterated the legacies of post-Mongolian imperial visions, but also ended a century-long Tanzimat project of creating inclusive empires. It is due to these irreversible transitions from empires to nation-states with homogeneous populations that we begin to see the modern roots of the notion of a “Muslim country.” Leaders like Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and Eleftherios Venizelos, or Muhammed Ali Jinnah and Jewaharlal Nehru may have had bigger roles to play in the historical creation of the idea of a Muslim country than Ibn Taymiyyah or any Abbasid caliph.
Mona Oraby highlights the third major issue underlying the critique expressed in the book: If we are refuting the terminologies of clash of civilization, or the constant reduction of everything to a Muslim adjective, what languages can we use to make sense of a contemporary political scene involving individuals who happen to be Muslim among many other things? I have been involved in multiple projects dealing with alternatives to civilizational views of world history, and it is clear that we need more interdisciplinary cooperation to offer alternatives to dominant explanatory frameworks. As part of this interdisciplinary effort, we must follow the suggestion by Beth Hurd that “there is no such thing as Muslim or Christian political behavior,” and therefore we need to think of religion in particular historical, legal, and political contexts. We need this methodological caution even when historical actors themselves use the adjective of Muslim or Islamic to make sense of their decisions and behaviors, and make narrative claims about authenticity that posit an eternal continuity from the time of the Prophet Muhammad to the present. Assuming the adjective “Muslim” functions as an independent variable to explain the behavior of an individual, the policies of a particular country, or the political choices of large populations can only be achieved with an ideological agenda. There is no dependent variable that the Muslim adjective could ever explain.
Madeleine Elfenbein rightly points out that we should not “diminish the historical and contemporary reality of Islam’s political resonance, not just for those who fear it, but for Muslims themselves, and for those of us who look for its ideals and practices for inspiration.” Yet, each time we see the designation, label, or adjective Muslim attached to a civilization, country, or empire, even by Muslim actors themselves, we have to read it in its embeddedness in historical cultural contexts. While there is important transcendental moral significance to the Muslim faith tradition in the behavior of its believers or practitioners, for outside observers, it is almost impossible to generalize a causal chain of explanation predicting any behavioral outcome. For example, as a Muslim myself, I do hope to see individual Muslims giving to charity and Zakat. But, the reality of practices of Zakat, especially in the era of capitalism, is so complex that I cannot automatically attach a progressive social justice value to this Muslim obligation.
Last but not least, all the contributors rightly noted the dilemma of strategic essentialism that subaltern and racialized Muslims had to resort to so that they could create spaces of liberation and advance their emancipatory agenda. Madeleine Elfenbein points out how a Pan-Africanist such as W. E. B. DuBois spoke on behalf of the Black race and Pan-Africanism to resist racial discrimination and otherization. Other Subaltern groups had to embrace the category African, Asian or Muslim world in order to speak back to discourses claiming their inferiority by Western/Christian publics. We must recognize the emancipatory value of this strategy at least within a temporal framework when the generation of anti-imperial and anti-racist thinkers needed to free themselves from the subjugation of oppressive regimes justifying hegemony by utilizing the “superiority” of Western civilization, Christianity, and the white man’s burden. Subaltern actors’ “strategic essentialism” in proclaiming Muslim unity against colonial and neo-colonial oppression offers hope for intersectional emancipation through the solidarity of the oppressed. Do we throw the baby out with the bathwater by not recognizing the empowering act of calling for Muslim unity for people who claim an authentic Islam for their emancipatory decolonial projects like Malcolm X or Ali Shariati? Should Palestinians trying to liberate their homeland or Muslim feminists reclaiming their faith tradition from patriarchal interpretations not make claims on behalf of their vision of Islam or Muslim world solidarity?
Partly as a result of this recognition, Mohamed Amer-Meziane notes the difference between calling for a unification of Muslims throughout the world, and the idea of the “Muslim world,” as a racialized essence. Yet, at the same time, the Muslim world as an imaginary geography empowering subaltern Muslims is continuously being utilized to silence, exploit, and manipulate them. The strategic invocation of the Muslim world as practiced by the German, Japanese, and Ottoman Empires, and by the Cold War American-Saudi alliance as well as the post-revolutionary Iranian regime is continued by contemporary liberals and reformist Muslims, even though they know that the Muslim world cannot speak or respond because it is not an agent. In this case, claiming and talking on behalf of a Muslim world assumes that Muslim societies are like tribal communities looking up to their leaders, without difference or qualification, which then becomes a theme used to racialize them. In some sense, the assertion that the Muslim ummah constitutes a cohesive community shaped by singularity of purpose and identity is highly apolitical, even anti-political, which in turn could make assuming this undifferentiated ummah offensive to actual Muslims.
I do, however, share the conviction that it is possible to have internal Muslim critique and interpretation to empower social justice oriented practices. I am aware of the spiritual and moral values inspiring my Muslim faith tradition and I hope to personally learn from and draw on these values to live my life as a better human being. This ethical commitment does lead me to the practice of critique when I disagree with other Muslims, which naturally testifies to the existence of Islam as a discursive practice in the world. When I see Muslim clerics claiming that women are inferior to men, or that capitalism is divinely ordained and poor people are in poverty because they are lazy and they need to work harder, I do have to push back and show why their depiction of the Islamic tradition is not acceptable and wrong for me as well as many others. I can try to give examples from the early Muslim community or later ones as a model for justice. But I do not want to see Muslims trapping themselves in an isolated universe of references where they can only quote an early Islamic text or another Muslim to make sense of this world in the name of authenticity alone.
Only after freeing the concept of the ummah from the formation of narratives about modern geopolitics, can we perhaps re-read it in a decolonizing and emancipatory mode. This was exactly the set of concerns that initially inspired my study. Thus, if do not want to leave the baby, namely emancipatory Muslim political traditions, with the bathwater of imperial and Cold War geopolitics, we need go and find it a better, warmer tub in our decolonial critique that might not rely only on Muslim intellectual and spiritual traditions but on a shared human heritage. There have been successful examples of this path, in the tradition of Muslim feminism and in other forms of justice-oriented Muslim legal and theological reinterpretation of texts and traditions. Yet, those who try to rescue an emancipatory tradition of thought and faith cannot achieve this goal unless they destroy the geopolitical and racial myths about Muslim unity that were given canonical authenticity in the last two centuries. Otherwise, the narratives of Muslim unity and civilization used by subaltern groups still end up becoming tools of racialization. The Idea of the Muslim World is an invitation to reflect on how our own categories of history, religion, and civilization become complicit in sustaining such discourses of racialization.