In January 1988, Ayatollah Rohullah Khomeini, who had successfully led the Islamic Revolution in Iran nearly a decade earlier, wrote a letter to a neighbouring leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who was nursing an outdated and terminally ill revolution on its deathbed in the erstwhile Soviet Union.
Writing on behalf of the Muslim world, Ayatollah Khomeini urged the Soviet leader not to be misled by the Capitalist West and to study the political and spiritual values of Islam. At the end, Khomeini declared that the Islamic Republic of Iran, as the greatest and the most powerful base of the Islamic world, could easily fill the vacuum of religious faith in Soviet society. Gorbachev ignored the advice but the letter’s contents were entirely in keeping with both the character and convictions of the Ayatollah.
It was, however, not the first time that a Muslim leader imagined the whole Muslim world as a geographical entity and spoke on behalf of it. Pan-Islamists during the last century had promoted this idea of a Muslim world extending from Senegal and Morocco to Indonesia. Similarly, Western leaders like President Obama – when he delivered his Cairo speech in 2009 – have also embraced the idea that nearly 1.5 billion Muslims in the world constitute a single religious/political bloc.
Islamophobes, including President Trump when he imposed his recent Muslim travel ban, have also relied on this shibboleth of a united fantastical entity while painting all Muslims with the same brush despite their diversity in culture, language, ethnicity, political ideology, wealth, stage of economic development and nationality.
In a bold and provocative book titled The Idea of the Muslim World – A Global Intellectual History, Cemil Aydin has traced the genealogy of the idea of the Muslim world and shows that it is a colonial construct which can be dated back to the 1880s. Aydin, an Associate Professor of History at the University of Northern Carolina at Chapel Hill, emphasises the fact that Muslims were never united before the nineteenth century. Moreover, they cooperated and coexisted with non-Muslims and lived as subjects of various empires – which were ruled by both Muslims and non-Muslims.
Aydin’s book, a veritable tour de force, is packed with insights and observations which are both original and profound. It makes the distinction between the idea of Ummah, which is a religious concept based on faith but spread over centuries and not limited to geographical boundaries; and ‘the Muslim world’, which is a geographical construct.
Aydin also challenges the notion that there was a homogenous ‘Muslim world’ before the advent of Western imperialism which divided them, and that now this monolithic Muslim world is asserting its rejection of Western values as represented by modernity. At the moment when Western imperialism arrived, in 1800, about thirty dynasties ruled Muslim societies around and they were far from united. More importantly, the geographical area where Muslims lived, extending from Mali and Nigeria to Southeast Asia, was too broad and disconnected to support a single political system.
Muslims have been divided amongst empires and kingdoms in history even before Western imperialism took hold in their territories, as shown by numerous examples. Three Muslim dynasties – the Abbasids, Fatimids and Umayyads – competed for legitimacy and leadership of Muslims at the same time. Later, the Safavids ruling Persia versus the Ottomans in modern-day Turkey fought each other. The Mughal Empire in India was weakened by the attacks of Nader Shah of Persia and Ahmad Shah Abdali of Afghanistan. Tipu Sultan was refused help by the Ottoman Caliph and his Muslim rivals in the Deccan fought against him alongside the British.
In the 1840s and 1850s the Ottomans, despite being sworn enemies of Russians, did not help Caucasian Muslims against Russian Imperial expansion – leading to ethnic cleansing of Muslims, forcing millions to migrate to Ottoman controlled territories. But there were also those Muslims who stayed behind and integrated into Russia: it was accepted that the Russian Tsar could rule over Muslim subjects, granting them their religious rights – just as the Ottoman Sultan could rule over his Christian subjects.
The Ottomans and the British cooperated with each other in the Crimean War from 1853-56. A year later, when the 1857 Great Revolt broke out against the British in India, the Ottomans did not respond to call for help from the Muslims on behalf of the weak Mughal Emperor and sided with the British – as the imperial alliance was beneficial for both. Subsequently, the British often referred to their friendship with the Ottomans to justify their rule in India.
In the backdrop of the Ottoman-Russian war of 1877-88, the notion of ‘the Muslim world’ appeared for the first time. British Prime Minister Gladstone criticised the Ottomans, framing the conflict in terms of Christians versus Muslims, and downgraded the bilateral relationship from alliance to neutrality – which resulted in an Ottoman defeat. As British and French forces occupied Egypt and Tunisia – formerly part of the Ottoman Empire – in the early 1880s, the idea of Muslim world unity solidified. In 1884, Jamal-ud-din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh published the first pan-Islamic magazine Al-Urwat al-Wuthqa – both anti-British and anti-imperialist – from Paris.
As the British Empire reached its zenith, pan-Islamism and the idea of a united Muslim World gained traction. This concept spread and gained acceptability due to the connectivity of Muslim populations through steamships, telegraphs and printing in an imperial context.
On the other hand, according to Aydin, imperial racism – not imperialism itself – fuelled the idea of a monolithic Muslim world. Europeans came to perceive Muslims as one racial group via their religion, similar to Jews and Hindus. But unlike the Jews or Blacks, who were seen as an internal enemy, Muslims were seen as an external political threat with a large population and a large geopolitical strength.
The main thrust of the book is on the growth of pan-Islamism and lists six prominent themes which have contributed to the phenomenon: the idea of a distinct Islamic civilisation; the notion that Islam is a universal religion that could dispute the claims of both Christian missionaries and secular Orientalists; interpreting recent Muslim history as product of Western humiliation and thus harking back to a glorious past; a new historical consciousness positing conflict between the “Muslim world” and the “Christian West”; a growing awareness of the extent of Muslim-majority territory and its population; and anti-colonial internationalism.
Pan-Islamism, led by well-educated and well-connected Muslim intellectuals in its earlier phase, was concerned with improving the position of the Muslims within the Empire and rejected European discourses of Muslim inferiority. The founding fathers of Muslim modernism – Jamal-ud-din al-Afghani, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Syed Ameer Ali et al – were of the view that the idea of a Muslim world with its distinct civilisation and universal religious values was a good way to convey to European elites that their racism was illogical and irrational.
According to pan-Islamists, the notion that Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia were a single entity, connected with each other through their distinct civilisation and universal religion, empowered Muslims and gave them a bargaining chip to counter the racist imperialist discourse.
Aydin posits that the racial imperial thinking about Muslims did not fade away with colonisation and persisted during the Cold War era down to this day. Another important point that the book illustrates is how pan-Islamists, Muslim modernists and political Islamists (in the 1980s) embraced the idea of a ‘Muslim world’ and linked it, for geopolitical or anti-imperialist purposes, to earlier notions of Ummah. However, Aydin argues, what they ended up doing is establishing a symbiotic relationship between pan-Islamism and European racism toward Muslims.
As a result, today we live in a world where the idea of a Muslim world, although a historical illusion as Aydin has tried to prove, is equally cherished by both Islamophobes and pan-Islamists – thus fuelling a powerful but pernicious narrative of clash of civilizations or Islam versus the West.
During the Cold War era, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia seized upon the idea of the Muslim world, primarily to empower himself against Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser – who was promoting pan-Arabism, Socialism and the solidarity of the Third World – and to make Saudi Arabia a regional power in alliance with the United States. However, the impotence of the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) over the decades has been clearly evident to everyone.
The book is a must-read for both Muslims and general students of history as it covers a wide range of subjects such as Imperialism’s racist policies towards Muslims, the rise and growth of pan-Islamism as a response, the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire, politics and rivalries of the Muslim countries during Cold war era and the rise of Islamism in the post-Cold war age.