The Chronicle Review

The Myth of the Muslim World

Pep Montserrat

May 14, 2017

In his influential History of the Saracen Empires, the early-18th-century British scholar Simon Ockley remarks benignly about Islam and its beliefs: "The intellectual image of the Deity has never been degraded by any visible idol; the hours of the Prophet have never transgressed the measure of human virtues; and his living precepts have restrained the gratitude of his disciples within the bounds of reason and religion." Such views influenced Edward Gibbon and his largely favorable depiction of Islam in his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Similar positive assessments of Islam continued to be found through the first quarter of the 19th century; Goethe lists the Prophet Muhammad as his third source of inspiration, after Jesus and Apollo.

But a very different view emerges in the latter half of the 19th century. More typical of European attitudes during this period was that expressed by the French philosopher Ernest Renan in his now (in)famous lecture titled "Islam and Science," delivered at the Sorbonne in 1883. Renan pilloried Islam as being opposed to reason, progress, and reform. Continuing a familiar Orientalist theme grounded in the racial theories of the period, he attributed medieval Arab advances in the sciences and philosophy to Aryan and non-Muslim (primarily Greco-Sassanian) influences.

Cemil Aydin, in his thoughtful and provocative new book The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History (Harvard University Press), explores the reasons for this sea change in fundamental European attitudes toward Muslims. His study of the historical record demonstrates that the racialization of Muslims as a homogeneous group and the construction of the "Muslim world" as a seamless whole began in this period, with the onset of Western colonization of much of what we term today the Middle East and other parts of Asia.

What is interesting is that this European project of constructing a monolithic "Muslim world" was bolstered by Muslim intellectuals themselves, who, in the same period, sought refuge in Pan-Islamism. Aydin’s exhumation of the historical record yields no evidence from before the period of colonization of a pan-Muslim consciousness arrayed against an imagined monolithic Western Christian polity. Travelers like the 14th-century North African Ibn Batutta and the 17th-century Ottoman Evliya Çelebi wrote about the cultural and linguistic diversity of Muslim lands and displayed no sense of an "abstract and globalized concept of a Muslim civilization," nor did they feel threatened by alien non-Muslim cultures. Aydin skillfully recounts the complex web of relationships that existed between and among European Christian and Muslim nations before the 19th century, in which religious affiliation played no predictable role as a unifying, rallying factor.

All of this would change during the cataclysmic political encounters between European colonizers and colonized Muslim populations. The former painted Islam as a backward ideology that, in promoting political despotism and resistance to science, had contributed to the civilizational decline of Muslims, who were now imagined as an undifferentiated collectivity. Such accusations prompted impassioned responses from Muslim intellectuals, like Muhammad 'Abduh, Syed Ahmad Khan, and Syed Ameer Ali, who challenged imputations of cultural inferiority by emphasizing the superior values and intellectual contributions of a global Islamic civilization. As Aydin remarks, "In these circumstances, civilizational conflict was the principal lens through which global history was understood." Collective amnesia wiped out memories of earlier cosmopolitan Muslim empires that had regularly interacted with Hindus, Jews, and Buddhists; shamans; Christian Arabs, Greeks, and Armenians.

In the postcolonial world and particularly in the 21st century, the racialized European imperialist discourse of the 19th century has become transmuted into Islamophobia, while the Pan-Islamism of the same era has been succeeded by political Islam or Islamism. The assumed fault lines between the West and Islam have become only more entrenched in these new, acrimonious discourses, which, as the author shows, are in many ways the mirror image of each other: Islamophobes and radical Islamists equally embrace the narrative of civilizational difference and conflict that makes their exclusivist worldviews credible.

Yet one must ask if the idea of a unified Muslim world is totally without antecedent in the premodern era. The concept of Dar al-Islam (Abode of Islam) has no basis in Islamic scripture but was created by early Muslim jurists to refer to realms under Muslim control, as Aydin briefly notes. Contraposed to it was the Dar al-Harb (Abode of War), which indicated non-Muslim realms that were potentially hostile. An Abode of Peace or Security was posited by one group of jurists to refer to those non-Muslim polities that had entered into peace treaties with Muslim authorities and were therefore not considered to be hostile. But another group of jurists argued that once non-Muslim polities signed peace treaties with Muslims, they were to be considered part of the Abode of Islam. In their more capacious and cosmopolitan conceptualization of the Muslim polity, it is peaceful intent, rather than confessional faith, that signifies inclusion in the Abode of Islam. These early contestations of the meaning of belonging could have been fruitfully explored in further detail, since they have important repercussions for contemporary Muslims as they similarly negotiate parochial and cosmopolitan understandings of their collective identity.

On the whole, however, this is a carefully argued book that will provoke specialists and nonspecialists alike to revisit commonly held assumptions about the nature of relations between "Islam and the West" in the past, present, and future. As Aydin reminds us, there was nothing inevitable about the development of the clash-of-civilizations thesis made popular by academics like Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis in the late 20th century, for it is in the theater "not of timeless doctrine but of contingent politics and ideas … that contemporary conflicts play out."

Aydin counsels toward the end of the book that we should study premodern history, with its messy record of shifting political allegiances in both Muslim and Christian realms — which often had nothing to do with religious identity — in order to challenge simplistic contemporary stereotypes. The current ascendancy of right-wing illiberal groups in the United States and Western Europe that demonize Islam as a common enemy of the West makes this message both timely and urgent. The author’s masterly historical survey drives home the point that, in the past, shared values and interests rather than shared religion typically allowed for the creation of alliances among people from varied backgrounds. Those are exactly the kinds of alliances that need to be forged today.

Asma Afsaruddin is a professor of Islamic studies in the School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University at Bloomington. She is the author of Contemporary Issues in Islam (Edinburgh University Press, 2015).