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Book Review: ‘The Idea of the Muslim World’ by Cemil Aydin

The assumption that there exists a monolithic “Muslim world” is one that is often taken for granted by both those who seek to criticize this imagined world and those who seek to advance its imagined collective interests.

On the one hand, totalizing questions like “Is Islam compatible with democracy?” and “Can the Muslim world undergo reform?” pervade in the arenas of political discourse and punditry in western countries.

On the other hand, if one travels to Muslim-majority cities like Cairo, Istanbul, or Islamabad, it would not be out of the ordinary to hear questions like “Why is the Muslim ummah [collective body of believers] so divided today?” or “How can the Muslim ummah earn victory if it doesn’t unite?”

Underlying both of these discourses is the sustained myth of a timeless, singular, essentialized “Muslim world” that must necessarily have always existed and a concurrently existing “Western world” that must always have existed in perpetual conflict against it.

While the notion of this “Muslim world” has been thoroughly repudiated by scholars and academics in a variety of fields, it has primarily been done through a Saidian approach that critiques representation in film and literature. In his timely new book, boldly entitled, “The Idea of the Muslim World“, Cemil Aydin bolsters the repudiation through the angle of history. He locates the origin of the notion of the “Muslim world” in 19th century colonial politics and in the consequential and reciprocal pan-Islamic (or pan-Islamist, used interchangeably) discourses that came about as a result.

In the 19th century, the existing empires operated within a nebulous web of alliances and enmities as they competed for influence and power. Each one of these empires — be they British, French, Russian, and Dutch, or Safavid, Mughal, and Ottoman — ruled over vast numbers of minorities who, despite enduring unequal treatment at times, were not subject to inequalities on the basis of being seen as subordinates in a necessary civilizational religious divide. Simultaneously, these minorities were nonetheless seen as fundamentally inseparable from the empires under which they lived.

This is the central thrust of the book: That throughout history, competing cosmopolitan empires neither saw themselves as operating in a religiously-divided binary of “Muslim world” vs. “Western world” nor imagined “the other” as operating under this paradigm. The imperial rulers of various kingdoms and empires would conduct their domestic and foreign policies based not on assumed religious loyalties, but on political interests and expediencies. However, as time passed and colonial powers began to lose their influence, or as they reneged on their word toward their Muslim subjects and allies, these powers began to fear the potential of a shared “Muslim solidarity” that would emerge and undermine the otherwise-accepted legitimacy of their rule.

This led to the “racialization” of various Muslim populations who were aggregated under one static category where their unique particularities were interpreted as incidental. While this was happening, colonial politics caused Muslims to see themselves under this same racialized paradigm, which led to them mounting defenses of “Islam” and the “Muslim world” using the same civilizational discourses.

Aydin uses various examples throughout history to illustrate the initial absence of the “Muslim world” vs. “Western world” dichotomy. One such example is the issue of slavery. The gradual disappearance of slavery in Turkey and Egypt in the early twentieth century was not done out of consideration to grand ideas of religious or civilizational conflict, but out of political pragmatism and new ideas of morality. “Pragmatic and ethical state policies, new moral ideas about human equality as well as the capitalist labor market ended slavery in modernizing Muslim societies, all without any claims on behalf of the Islamic world and the Western world,” writes Aydin (page 47).

During the Siege of Vienna in 1683 fought between the Ottomans and Hapsburgs, Muslims fought on both sides, and the Ottomans fought on the side of Protestant Hungarians. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, it was he, not Muslims, who described Egyptians in terms defined exclusively by religion, even willing to convert to Islam to curry their favor. Though even then, Napoleon’s intent was rooted in political pragmatism and not in ideological fervor.

In 1798, when sultan Tipu of Mysore in southern India looked to the Ottomans to help him fight the British by appealing to a shared Muslim religious solidarity, the Ottomans refused. The notable Ottoman reforms known as “Tanzimat” were also not necessarily interpreted as “pro-Western” or “anti-Muslim” argues Aydin. Even in the late-1800s, when British and Ottoman interests began to diverge,  Muslim religious clerics in India required Muslim subjects to maintain political loyalty to Britain over the Ottomans.

When cracks began to emerge between the British and their Indian subjects in the lead-up to World War I, the British assured their subjects that in the case of war, Muslim holy sites under Ottoman control would be protected. In this case, Indian Muslims did not necessarily see a tension between recognizing the British as a political authority and the Ottomans as a spiritual one, and many indeed fought alongside the British against the Ottomans (who were allied with the Germans) in the war.

Aydin also presents instances when both western and non-western powers exploited the idea of a “Muslim world” if it suited their interests: “[W]hen American colonial officers in the Philippines faced armed Muslim resistance in 1898, they consulted Istanbul. In response, Sultan Abdulhamid sent a message to Philippine Muslim leaders instructing them to refrain from rebellion as long as American rule respected their religion,” he writes on page 95.

On the other hand, Istanbul also leveraged its status as a Muslim metropole to vie for the support of other Muslims whilst simultaneously balancing political alliances with the concert of western empires.

In both of the above instances, the idea of the “Muslim world” was exploited not because it was one that was necessarily believed in, but because it was politically convenient. Once again, pragmatism trumped ideology. Though this gradually changed as alliances shifted and signs of inconsistency began to emerge.

As Indian Muslim subjects under British rule received news that the British were supporting Christian Greeks seeking independence from the Ottomans, they began to question why they, as Muslims, were required to accept British rule. As Christian nationalist armies drove Muslims out of places like Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece, the Ottomans responded by brutalizing Christian minorities, particularly Greeks and Armenians, in their own empire. The ethnic cleansing and massacre of the Armenians by the Ottomans in 1915 was directly motivated by such politics, and consequentially ended the cosmopolitanism of the Ottoman empire as it had existed for centuries.

Another instance of inconsistency was when the British made promises to Arabs in Mandate Palestine that they would inherit the land as sovereigns after the Great War, but instead reneged on this promise by producing the Balfour Declaration which favored the Zionist project for a Jewish state. Once this happened, the mufti of Jerusalem sought the help of Muslim intellectuals and activists, convening a conference in Jerusalem in 1931 to deal with the crisis of Palestine,  which became the “symbol of enduring Muslim humiliation” (page 175).

Gradually, through the work of imperial powers, the writings of public intellectuals, and the discontent of the broader masses, civilizational discourses became more solidified.

Even as Muslim states gained their independence and modernized, such processes were done no longer on their own terms, but against the idea of Islamic backwardness, with Turkey ironically being the prime example: Ataturk’s logic was that he was abandoning the stagnancy of “the Muslim world” for the modernization of “the West.”

Once the idea of a “Muslim world” had become thoroughly cemented in public imagination, competing nations began to leverage it to their advantage for better or worse: Be it in World War II, Cold War alliances, the Sunni-Shi’a divide, or the post-9/11 War on Terror. These discourses continue up until this day.

Aydin argues that six themes have characterized pan-Islamic thought up to the current era:

1) The idea of an “Islamic civilization.”

2) A notion of Islam as a singular “world religion” defined in response to Christian and secular polemics, e.g., frequent usage of the expression “XYZ according to Islam.”

3) The interpretation of every aspect of Muslim history as a product of Western humiliation.

4) A new historical consciousness positing eternal conflict between “the Muslim world” and “the Christian west.”

5) A growing awareness of the extent of Muslim-majority territory and its populations.

6) Anticolonial internationalism.

As I read the book, a few questions came to mind:

  1. While there is no way that over 50 “Muslim countries” can be boxed into one, is there still a possibility for their peoples to use a shared Islamic vernacular to achieve liberation and dignity without reinforcing racialized and civilizational discourses?
  2. Is it possible to appeal to Islam’s emancipatory and revolutionary ethos that transcends nation and tribe without subsuming all Muslims into one monolithic category?
  3. Is it worth exploring the potential for an inherent unifying power in Islam at all and can Muslims base their solidarity with other Muslims upon it?
  4. If my pursuit of justice is inspired by the Qur’an, would I be a pan-Islamist?
  5. Does the racialization of Muslim societies fully negate the existence of an Islamic international polity?

Surely there a distinction between the pursuit of freedom and justice inspired by Islamic ethics and the pursuit of the modern political project of Islamism. In this regard, I believe Aydin could have done more to delineate between the two and more deeply engage with these questions in his concluding remarks.

At the same time, what Aydin has presented is more relevant now than ever. Our world today is experiencing profound tectonic shifts that threaten to shatter the current global order, and political polarization has exacerbated this process of disruption. Our situation today appears very similar to the conditions in the lead-up to World Wars I and II.

We must then ask ourselves if we — not as a “Muslim world” or as a “Western world” — but as a human civilization, are yet again willing to buy into the same grand narratives that led to the violent destruction of the previous order that devastated entire peoples that came before us.

Indeed, my first time being exposed to the terminology of the “Muslim world” wasn’t by Islamophobic writers or even by well-intentioned non-Muslims. It was by local leaders of my own community. A common grievance today is that the stagnation “of the ummah”, i.e., a collective body of Muslim believers, is because of our division, infighting, and abandonment of Muslim international solidarity.

I grew up learning that the occupation of Palestine and Kashmir, the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, the dictatorships across the Arab world, and the rampant corruption, inequality, and stagnancy of Muslim countries as different from each other as Egypt and Indonesia was all a consequence of the “Muslim world’s” collective failures.

It is because of this upbringing that I found this book to be an enlightening and refreshing read. It was a powerful remedy for me because it provided me not merely with relief from spiritual guilt, but with deeper insight into the dynamics of our current international arena and how it came to be the way it is. Do I completely reject every aspect of what I was taught growing up about the Muslim ummah? Not necessarily, but I appreciate knowing that things are a bit more complicated than I have always imagined them to be.

To learn the nuanced mechanics of historical alliances and the particularities that characterized their composite parts allows us not only to counter dangerous myths and assumptions about a divergent range of populations, but it also empowers us to surmount more meaningful and focused ways to pursue justice for those populations. Aydin seeks not just to expand the reader’s understanding of history, but to persuade the reader to act.

This text does not only do an excellent job at undoing the racialization of Islam but also of “the West.” Those seeking to counter orientalist narratives about Muslims should be cautious as to not fall into what the late Syrian academic Sadiq Al-Azm described as “Orientalism in reverse” of the West, as Aydin aptly notes.

To point out that “the Muslim world,” and for that matter “the West,” are contingent constructs born out of certain political trajectories is not enough; one must take it further and understand why this point even has to be made. Indeed, to recognize contingency of contemporary politics and to work from there as a starting point is the most effective way to apply the antidote that will counter and defeat both Islamophobia and radical Islamism without harming Muslims or non-Muslims in the process.

Only then can the idea of the Muslim world finally be undone.

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