Cemil Aydin, The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017). 304 pages, $29.95, ISBN: 9780674050372. Reviewed by Chandler Barton.
Although Cemil Aydin’s The Idea of the Muslim World is as ambitious as its title would lead you to believe, anyone expecting a normative history lesson on the convoluted concept of the “Muslim world” would be pleasantly (or unpleasantly) surprised at the radically different direction Aydin takes the discussion. However, the goal of this review is not so much to offer a survey prospectus of the book’s contents (this has been achieved to great effect already; see here and here among others) but rather to briefly analyze the opening theses of The Idea of the Muslim World in the context of the greater discussion occurring. By this point it is no secret that Aydin’s book has ignited a contentious discourse and received criticism for some of the claims presented; however, by the time of this writing, Aydin has offered a thorough response and clarification on many of the objections raised as to the central points of the work, something I will return to at the end of this review.
“Aydin’s only folly was to incite that particularly carnivorous wolf pack within academia by failing to more tactfully state his claims from the get-go.”As for the book’s introduction, I will admit that I was a bit piqued as I came across what sounded like a declaration that the idea of the Muslim world amounted to little more than a twisted bastard child of western colonialism, manufactured for the sole purpose of promoting racial division within colonial empires—an assertion I felt so swiftly and harshly sweeps away centuries of Islamic thought going as far back as the days of Muhammad—but as I read further, I felt that Aydin had only done himself and his brilliant scholarship an injustice by asserting his claims in the manner that he did. In fact, by the end of the book I felt that some of my own long-held theories had been swayed by his eloquent presentation of the material; I would venture to say that Aydin’s only folly was to incite that particularly carnivorous wolf pack within academia by failing to more tactfully state his claims from the get-go.
Unpacking the Muslim Unity Argument
Aydin begins by highlighting that the idea of modern Muslim unity is little more than an illusion by referencing the rampant discord and in-fighting that exists within the Muslim community and between self-identified Muslim states and movements—a claim justifiably asserted. However, where we see a questionable turn in Aydin’s “illusion of unity” argument is when he stretches his claim from a modern context to the historical backdrop of inter-Muslim competition and politics (the Ottomans and Safavids as an example) and even as far back as the dawn of the Islamic religion and ideology, coupled with an analysis of Muslim identity as being directly tied if not invented by colonial western empires. While Aydin’s point that the use of the Muslim world carries such a vague and generalized connotation in modern times and that both Muslim and non-Muslim alike have employed the concept for a variety of nefarious means is accurate enough, his supposed dismissal of the Muslim world’s validity or even subjective use for reasons stated invites the question that many other readers have already raised: how can we even possibly begin to discuss Muslim historical consciousness prior to the modern era if the idea of the Muslim world is not only a western colonial fiction, but an outright falsehood and impossibility as suggested?
“After all, never in human history has such a hegemonic unity ever existed that the totality of individuals identifying with one particular religion (or any other identifier for that matter) acted or thought in complete solidarity, especially when we are talking about millions or even billions…”
The impression given is that since every Muslim polity in every place at every time didn’t agree or unite under a single banner that we cannot speak of a Muslim world or Muslim unity. We must naturally be hesitant to give credence to such a “No True Musliman” theory because it is not only unrealistic, but also untenable. After all, never in human history has such a hegemonic unity ever existed that the totality of individuals identifying with one particular religion (or any other identifier for that matter) acted or thought in complete solidarity, especially when we are talking about millions or even billions—1.8 to be exact in modern figures—of individuals claiming to be Muslim. However, equally as defective is the assertion that because such unity is impossible—or at the very least has yet to show itself—that we are incapable of speaking of a Muslim world, or further, that because the term has been appropriated by colonial entities or hijacked by political or religious demagogues we are henceforth incapable of making use of or re-evaluating the Muslim world as a viable, living concept, especially when we can find numerous instances of a legitimate, historical Muslim world consciousness not only thriving, but also promoting and functioning as a marker of national, ethnic, and group identity.
The Rampant Discourse of “the Muslim World”
In Aydin’s defense, these problematic assertions, more so the product of flawed presentation than of intent or end result, unfairly biases the reader against the material presented in the later chapters of his book. Of his best researched arguments include how aimlessly “Muslim world” has been thrown around in political and religious circles over the past few centuries, as well as demonstrating through diligent reference of source material how the idea of a central Muslim world identity has not only been weaponized and politicized by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, but at times carried less weight than the ink that was used to emphasize its existence. In undertaking an elegant survey of the complex imperial politics that often pitted Muslim empires against each other, Aydin also makes us keenly aware that just as Christianity played a key role in European political rhetoric from the age of Constantine onwards, so did Islam similarly function as a device for imperial ambition and agenda; both by Muslim empires seeking to promote hegemony through Muslim identity, as well as colonial powers in seeking to racialize and marginalize Muslim populations within their borders.
“Aydin also makes us keenly aware that just as Christianity played a key role in European political rhetoric from the age of Constantine onwards, so did Islam similarly function as a device for imperial ambition and agenda…”But using these points as a premise for discounting the use or idea of a Muslim world/identity altogether simply does not stand the test of history. I offer my harshest objections to his framing of the Islamic concepts of ummah and caliphate as discontinuous terminology relative to Muslim identity, because to affirm so would force us to conclude that Muslim racialization (either by Muslims or non-Muslim empires) is the spontaneous product of an imaginary political or historical vacuum.
Aydin addressed some of the more prominent criticisms to his book in his response “After the Muslim World: Beyond Strategic Essentialism.” In his response, Aydin methodically clarified his positions to better align his introductory remarks to his material, noting amongst other things that his book does not seek to establish the starting point of Muslim identity in the colonial era, but rather seeks to evaluate the real, continuing influence of colonialism on Muslim consciousness and identity. Additionally, Aydin emphasizes that using “Muslim” as a qualifier is far too entrenched in centuries of historical flux to be fairly pinned down to one single traditional understanding (and, vice versa, far too rich to be discounted altogether), while also stressing the imperative duty to carefully evaluate context when encountering the “Muslim” adjective so as to avoid the trap of either over-generalizing or inadvertently validating political, religious, racial, or imperialist agendas.
“In his response, Aydin methodically clarified his positions to better align his introductory remarks to his material, noting amongst other things that his book does not seek to establish the starting point of Muslim identity in the colonial era, but rather seeks to evaluate the real, continuing influence of colonialism on Muslim consciousness and identity.”Finally, rather than seek to totally discredit use of the Muslim world as his initial remarks might lead one to assume, he explains that his intent is more so to demonstrate the flexibility of Muslim ideological traditions as malleable manifestations of particular times and places, and the importance of accounting for mid-nineteenth century colonial policies and Muslim politics operating within empires. Aydin concludes his response with a discourse on social justice theory as it applies to his work, and though beyond the scope of this brief review, is nonetheless an essential topic of discussion.
A Provocative and Comprehensive Survey
The end result of The Idea of the Muslim World is a masterfully researched and presented synthesis of the work’s namesake, though unfortunately haunted by a discontinuous introduction of the book’s claims and intent. In reading the reviews and comments of other readers I felt that the general instinct for many after digesting the first part of the book was to immediately stop and take to the streets in arms rather than give Aydin a chance to present his arguments and explain himself. But, with his response and clarification made public, I feel we can finally find some calm and give Aydin the credit he deserves for elaborating on the discussion of Islam’s place in the world as an identity, its complex history and function, and ultimately its future going forward.
“The end result of The Idea of the Muslim World is a masterfully researched and presented synthesis of the work’s namesake, though unfortunately haunted by a discontinuous introduction of the book’s claims and intent.”
Those seeking to widen their understanding of Islamic history and politics can look no further than Aydin’s book. The volume offers a comprehensive look into the genesis of early modern Muslim nations, the complex religious and identity politics that permeated beneath the surface of colonialism and empires, and the development of Muslim identity well into the contemporary age. Aydin’s book is provocative—it forces the reader to reconsider the mainstream perceptions and portrayals of Muslims and Islam by critically examining the common rhetoric employed across all fields of the academy and the media.
*Chandler Barton is a graduate student and teaching assistant at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. His studies encompass history, literature, philosophy, and sociology. This review was written as a part of a graduate seminar on Islamic empires in world history with Dr. Cengiz Sisman in the fall of 2017.