The “Islamic world” was not invented by Europeans

Aeon has published a piece, What is the Muslim world? Islamists and Western pundits speak of ‘the West’ and ‘the Muslim world’ but such tribalism is dangerous colonial propaganda. The piece itself is more subtle and textured than the headline and subhead. Unfortunately, I’m 99% sure that 90% of readers will simply take the headline at face value and not engage with the text of the piece.

That being said, I also strongly disagree with the overall message of the author’s piece. He has written a book, The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History, where he presumably extends the argument. By the message, I mean that I believe the author overemphasizes the contingent, necessary and sufficient role of European colonialism in the idea of an Islamic world.

Anyone who has read a history of the modern world, as I have, knows that it is essential to integrate into that understanding the rise of the West after 1500, and the supremacy of the West after 1800. To a great extent, modern history is Western history.

But the West did not create everything anew, and there were, and are, preexistent identities which predate the West as we commonly understand it. Anyone who reads Al-Biruni knows very well that scholars in Islamic societies had a sense of us vs. them. Al-Biruni could admit that Indian civilization was characterized by a high level of intellectual sophistication, while also asserting its differences and uniqueness in relation to the Islamic civilization which had emerged in the wake of the Arab conquests.

In the Aeon piece, the author points out that Pan-Africanism, Pan-Asianism, and Pan-Islamism, developed as reactions to European colonialism. The first thing is to observe that Pan-Islamism is a very different thing than the idea of the “Islamic world,” a set of societies delimited by a cluster of beliefs and practices. Pan-Islamism is a modern ideology, strongly influenced by the rise and domination of the West. As such, contemporary Islamic fundamentalism is a reaction to modernity. But Islamic fundamentalism draws on older traditions within Islam, for example, the thinking of Ibn Taymiyyah.

Additionally, like many post-colonial thinkers, the author in the piece collapses different movements together in a mishmash as if they were equivalent. Pan-Asianism and Pan-Africanism have no deep historical roots, but were and are geopolitical responses to European domination. In contrast, arguably the West can not be understood without integrating the rise of Islam. Pan-Islamism appeals to a genuine history of pre-modern unity, before its dissolution and decay. Pan-Africanism and Pan-Asianism have been relative failures in comparison to Hindu nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism because they were thin, artificial, and purely geographic, constructions. In contrast, Hindu nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism appeal to and extend from true commonalities that have deep resonances.

The theoretical foundation for understanding what Pan-Islamic identity is and its historical precursors is that it is a “meta-ethnic” identity. Islam, like most of the world religions, binds together people of disparate backgrounds. It does not collapse differences, and it does not impose homogeneity. Nor does it mean that every Muslim shall stand with every other Muslims against every non-Muslim. Rather, it simply gives people from diverse backgrounds who may not know each other an immediate common ethical and cultural currency, tenuous as that may be.

Modern political movements have to be understood as reactions to events and situations of the modern era. But those political movements were not created ex nihilo out of a cultural vacuum. It is surely correct that in most cases one cannot understand the modern without considering the colonial era, but it is also true in many cases that one can not understand the modern without understanding the deep history of many regions of the world which long predate the colonial area.

4 thoughts on “The “Islamic world” was not invented by Europeans

  1. I cannot get past the introductory paragraphs of that Aeon article which seeks to use Wilson as an entry point to a Western misunderstanding of Islam. It’s significant, but perhaps not all that important, that the U.S. did not declare war on the Ottomans, so to a large extent was not likely to have much influence on the terms of peace, let alone the preservation of the Caliphate.

    But prior to U.S. entry, the British threat to empower Ottoman subjects if the “Empire” persisted in siding with Germany was given form by the Sykes-Picot Agreement promise to create “an independent Arab State or a Confederation of Arab States.” Doesn’t sound like a religious distinction is being made, but Wilson’s Twelfth Point was less favorable to self-determination in advocating “complete and definite emancipation of the peoples so long oppressed by the Turks,” in that it was more receptive to some degree of great-power administration over the freed nationalities, so long as that control was not from the Turks and so long as such control secured autonomous development. This basically sets the stage for the mandates.

    So I don’t read Muslim and Hindu Indians as necessarily advocating for the preservation of the caliphate out of some principled reasons or to correct some misunderstanding. It seems the world order being constructed at the time is one that legitimizes colonialism by some, but not others. None of which has to do with religion. And who abolished the Caliphate anyway?

  2. Good article. One thing I would add is that while I do agree that “Hindu nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism appeal to and extend from true commonalities that have deep resonances.” I think that this is less true for the former than it is for the latter. There’s been a lot of literature on the formative influence of colonial rule for creating and hardening the notion of”Hinduism” as a single “religion”. You note how Islamic fundamentalism draws from older traditions of Islamic thought. On the other hand, I’m not aware of any older tradition that prefigures Hindu ethno-nationalism. As far as I’m aware, “Hindus” did have have anywhere near the same sense of cohesion and “togetherness” that Muslims did in precolonial times.

    Apologies if this comment is duplicated. The site says it is but I can’t see it.

  3. First thing, did a ctrl-f search for “Dar” or”daar” and got nothing. The author doesn’t once mention the Dar Al-Islam or Dar As-Salaam even as concepts. They also didn’t mention the Hajj. Can’t underestimate the Hajj in promoting and maintaining the concept of the Ummah.

    In the context of Indian History, if there was no such thing as Muslim solidarity, why would all those Arab, Iranian and Central Asian carpetbaggers go to India looking to make their fortunes? Certainly there was intra-Muslim ethnic factionalism, but that shouldn’t cloud the fact that Muslim learned men and mercenaries from the MidEast and Central Asia had good reason to believe they could prosper at Indian Muslim courts.

  4. Interesting post. I’m reminded of some academic work (Shlomo Sand) similarly purporting to show that “Pan-Judaism” is a post-Enlightenment invention. As far as I can tell, that argument relies heavily on easily disproven hypotheses about lineage and genetics.

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