Why the Muslim World Matters: Building a Home with the Homeless


Anyone who has been homeless can tell you it is not a place you want to be. The pangs of hunger, the cold, lonely nights roaming the street or countryside, the uncomfortable position of sleeping in reclined car seats, hard benches and the grime of the dirt, the silence you experience from passerby’s, the endless sicknesses you carry without a cure in the body, mind or heart, and the harassment from law enforcers and a seemingly uncaring public. At the very least, the state of homelessness is an abomination against basic social welfare and dignity as defined by any ethical law system.

Since the rise of the now five-hundred-year-old modern/colonial matrix of power (i.e. coloniality), and especially following the last two-hundred years of Western imperialism and domination over the entire planet, Muslims have been slowly pushed to the peripheries of the capitalist world-system and have been made homeless. The anti-Muslim normativity of such a space and time necessitates understanding the psychology of homelessness as a social and personal reality. One strident example of this being-made-homeless is the example of Israeli apartheid policies which promote the demolishing of Palestinian residences. Islamicate Palestine has been made homeless in many ways, but one of the most overt has been by way of settler-authorities literally demolishing Palestinian homes. When Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem lose their homes to demolition, the process not only breaks apart the ageless beige Jerusalemite stone bricks of their beloved physical homes, but also their mental and emotional homes. The pain of losing one’s home – becoming homeless literally and/or metaphorically – is a personal and social phenomenon that promotes social death over social life, economic destruction over regeneration and the victory of the psychological lower self over the higher self, as is evidenced in an Israeli NGO’s research on the socio-cultural, economic and psychological effects of home demolitions. This experience of Muslim homelessness can be extended to the lived reality and history of the Rohingya, Uyghurs, Syrians, Somalians, Muslim minorities in various locations, and the list unfortunately goes on.

“Five-centuries of coloniality and, even more so, the post-9/11 War on Terror era has made the homeless condition of Muslims sharp and clear.”

Five-centuries of coloniality and, even more so, the post-9/11 War on Terror era has made the homeless condition of Muslims sharp and clear. Whether in Africa, Asia, Europe or the Americas, Muslims are always found and aware of themselves on the margins of the capitalist world-system, and more literally as refugees, exiles and systematically exploited. In such a planetary context – exceptions and contradictions like Gulf metropolises and the neoliberal capitals of the Muslim ummah withstanding – should Muslims not be asking, where is our home? Do we have the right to live in a home? Who took our home away from us? Where can this home be built? And how?

The Muslim World – To Be or Not to Be?

Recent debates have arisen on the validity or perceived authenticity of the idea of the Muslim world in the Anglosphere Islamicate realm. Postcolonial Muslim thinker Cemil Aydin’s historically compelling and revealing The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History (2017) has shaken some of the foundations on which the idea of the Muslim world has been standing. Aydin’s work largely argues that the idea of the “Muslim world” is a modern colonial invention in response to the essentialization and racialization of Muslims as a single category and homogenous civilization in the late modern period. He argues that this process only begins to occur in the late nineteenth century at the high-tide of European imperialism, and discredits analyses of Islamophobia and Pan-Islamism that date the negative correlation between Islam and the West to the medieval Crusades or fall of al-Andalus as false ahistorical narratives (Aydin 2017: 232). Aydin’s work attempts to dispel said ahistoricism by brilliantly displaying the contradictions existing during both the period of the medieval Crusades and European imperialism in the nineteenth/twentieth century in which Muslim-Christian alliances seemed nearly as abundant as antagonisms. Pan-Islamism and the Muslim World, for Aydin, are more so pragmatic and utilitarian devices that Muslims used to counter the essentialism of Europeans who racialized them (235). In short, Aydin’s work acknowledges that it is both the West and Muslims who have forged the idea of the Muslim world; yet privileges the idea that this contradiction necessarily denies any neat and clear construction of the universal idea of a Muslim world from either side.

Aydin’s deconstruction of certain ontic contradictions in relation to the West and Islam is admirable; ontic here means concrete, specific realities, as opposed to “ontological”, which siginifes deeper, immanent structures of power and reality. Aydin’s overemphasis on these ontic – as opposed to ontological – contradictions, and seeming denial of the possibility of a Muslim world-cum-universal is not well substantiated. In effect, Aydin’s argument eclipses the possibility for Muslims to legitimately respond through a counter-hegemonic political ontology that takes Islam as its universal. What is meant by a counter-hegemonic political ontology is that Islam can serve as a post-essentialist foundation by which coherency and contradiction can co-exist under the master signifier of Islam, or, in other words, the Muslim world, in the struggle against ongoing Western hegemony. Shahab Ahmed’s What is Islam (2017) is one work that comes to mind which makes a related – albeit less explicitly political – argument about Islam in the premodern world which views Islam/Islamic civilization as a “coherently contradictory” human phenomenon for universal meaning-making (2017: 301 – 302). Additionally, Aydin’s postcolonial reading of Islamophobia unfortunately overlooks the systemic ways Islamophobia shaped the world – including the Muslim world – prior to the nineteenth century. In contrast to Aydin, Anouar Majid’s decolonial reading of Islamophobia in We are All Moors: Ending Centuries of Crusades Against Muslims and Other Minorities (2012) argues that the clash of civilizations – whether between Islam and the West, or the West and the Rest – becomes a global systemic reality in the post-Andalusian/1492 CE age which is marked fundamentally by anti-Muslim racist logics. The difference between postcolonial and decolonial scholarship, as argued by Puerto Rican thinker Ramon Grosfoguel, is important here. The decolonial critique points out postcolonial scholarship’s normative limits in understanding the longue durée of modernity’s systemic effects on the underside of modern epistemology, political economy, ontology and historiography.

There have also been challenges to Aydin’s idea that the Muslim world – whether in its legal, political, cultural or economic (Dussel, 2013: 21) forms – is something that has never existed as a unifying or normative concept or civilization, whether literally or by allegorical comparison to other terms with a shared or similar meaning, such as ummah or dar al-Islam. For example, Aydin’s historical distinction between the “theological” ummah and the modern “geo-political” Muslim world (Aydin, 2017: 18) are important to consider, yet do not necessitate a clear break from these same words’ ability to share in meaning. Nor does it necessitate their untranslatability or co-determinality in various contexts past or present. To hold that the idea of the Muslim world is too modern/colonial is to argue too strong a break and untranslatability between the Muslim past and present. Such a position lacks rigor in taking seriously the legitimacy of pan-Islamist agency and futurism (i.e. a call towards a future reality wherein Muslims have an ontological home) in mobilizing the idea of the Muslim world as part of emancipatory struggles, as flawed and imperfect as they may be. To overemphasize the Western production of this term as 1) overpowering the pan-Islamist conception of this term and 2) as an ultimate concession to Islamophobia is a disservice to understanding the innate validity and long-standing durability of Muslims creating an alternative to Western modernity/coloniality.

“This is not to say that any type of Islamic universality or world is necessarily ethically just, but is to say that the space for an Islamic universality and world is a necessity. Muslims must not stay homeless, and have every right and responsibility to struggle for a home outside of the alienating and unethical necropolitical orders of our times. “

Given the epistemic structure of global Westernized social sciences, decolonial Muslim thinker Salman Sayyid argues that critiquing philosophical Islamist essentialism without also critiquing philosophical Western essentialism – and without the affirmation of a counter-hegemonic post-essentialist grounding – is in effect a surrender to a dominating Western universal. The nascent rise of a multi-polar world with the likes of Russia, China and other meta to medium-sized nation-states and transnational corporations suggests that the American-led Empire’s days may be limited; yet, the social fact remains that the majority of the planet’s qiblah is inextricably linked to US dollarism and Western imperialism (cultural, economic, psychic, etc.) of various sorts. During modernity/coloniality (post-1492) and especially the hyper Islamophobic and philic times of the War on Terror (post-9/11), we are never devoid of the hard fact of anti-Muslim social relations on an attempted planetary and totalizing scale. Thus, in taking into account one of the primary and immanent conditions of our context – the deontologization of Islam and Muslims vis-a-vis the racist/sexist secular/capitalist modern/colonial world-system – the denial of the possibility to build a home for the homeless is the denial of the possibility of an Islamic universality. This is not to say that any type of Islamic universality or world is necessarily ethically just, but is to say that the space for an Islamic universality and world is a necessity. Muslims must not stay homeless, and have every right and responsibility to struggle for a home outside of the alienating and unethical necropolitical orders of our times. And, like most of Islamicate civilization and history during and since the time of Revelation, this home must put forward a critical process for accommodating, rejecting or being enriched by the nominally non-Islamic as well, whether inside or outside the walls of said home.

Ottoman Map of Africa, US Library of Congress Online Archives.

When thinking comparatively, the argument against or for the idea of the Muslim world is not necessarily unique. In Pan-Africanist discourses concerning the idea of Africa, for example, there are similar debates arguing for a type of denial of originary African ontology. Such debates came about largely from deconstructionists in the post-independence period as “African” (itself a very modern term to describe the entirety of the continent) countries were forced to deal moreso with constructing a positive conception of the African world for the sake of itself, and not only for the sake of resistance against overt exploitative Western administration. There is a deep critique of African essentialisms, such as Negritude, as there are defenses of the value and utilization of said discourses in struggles for Pan-African liberation and self-determination. Like Aydin argues in relation to Pan-Islamist contradictory allegiances to Western empires during the 19th century in the Ottoman khilafah (Aydin 2017: 4), there are just as many historical examples in modernity of contradictions between Africans selling other Africans in the European slave trade, or for further sake of comparison, various Indigenous tribes and nations working with European colonizers in the Americas. The balance between being and becoming, or ontology and the ontic, is key in those debates, and similar to the tensions Muslims face in relation to the question of the Muslim world. Some argue for one over the other while others try to reconcile the two.

To debate whether Africa as an idea should exist, or something like Turtle Island as an idea should exist, or the Muslims world as an idea should exist, in my opinion, is detrimental to reconstructive world-making under Western-led planetary epistemicide and ecocide. The grounds and ontology of the Muslim world as an idea and lived social reality should not be denied; rather, the debate should be concerned with the ways it has and will be shaped in terms of becoming and the ontic. This allows for what post-foundationalist political philosophy calls a “grounds” – in the sense of historical grounds and not stagnate essences – which is not the same as ultimate or final grounds; if we were to better theologize the above post-foundationalist approach, it may share a type of conceptual similarity with the normative position across various schools of kalam that only God is the Ultimate home and Return, while the dunya is but a temporal ground. The problem remains whether we become mystical liberal scholastics who stick our heads in the sand out of care towards the Other (including the Ultimate Other), or ideologues who over-metaphysicalize the will to power with less care for whom gets stepped on along the “ideal” path towards victory and God. One way to understand this tension in struggling for a more just Muslim world ontologically and ontically is to interrogate the relationship between political ontology and ethics.

Between the Political and Ethical – Building Power, Centering Margins

Critique of hegemonic power becomes futile and irresponsible when we are also not engaged in building counter-hegemonic power. On the other hand, overemphasizing the will to build power without an ethical orientation towards the margins (i.e. those who are homeless) will at best leave us with a palace in Damascus and neoliberal charity organizations, and at worst with authoritarianism and undemocratic squashing of dissent. Rather than picking sides, or simple deconstruction of both sides, we must follow a reconstruction of the ethical and political Muslim self and world. One way to reconcile such tensions is through a stern yet flexible commitment to both 1) a counter-hegemonic political ontology and 2) an ethical orientation towards a hermeneutics of alterity.

Sayyid’s call for a decolonial Muslim political ontology in Recalling the Caliphate: Decolonization and World Order (2014), is one such attempt at conceptualizing a critical post or transmodern project for Islamic decolonial political ontology. Sayyid argues that the philosophical drive of pan-Islamist social movements and the call for the reestablishment of the Caliphate undergird a type of Islamic universalism which can both sustain the onslaught of the West while also building Muslim political autonomy. The strengths of Sayyid’s argument are in its commitment to building power that will sustain an Islamic social order that is able to be both resistant to the West and build a safe home for Muslims. The weaknesses of such a claim is that it is less vocal on internal issues and contradictions within the Muslim world as to what said Caliphate or social order would actually look and feel like in practice, especially for those who are the margins of the margins (i.e. religious, racial, and gender/sexual minorities; the impoverished; the areligious; etc.).

In Hamid Dabashi’s Islamic Liberation Theology: Resisting the Empire (2008), he argues for a philosophical hermeneutics of alterity which is able to keep Islamic social movements and politics ethical. Dabashi emphasizes the universal nature of neoliberal capitalism and its penetration of both the core and periphery of the world-system which has, in Dabashi’s view, erased or subsumed the socio-political and cultural difference between the West and Islam. Dabashi’s commitment to resistance at all odds – he claims that Islam loses its liberatory potential whenever it comes to power, citing in one example something akin to Ali Shariati’s revolutionary Alid Shi’ism vs imperial Safavid Shi’ism – is convincing and provocative from the perspective of internal critique (the idea of “permanent revolution” is a prominent theory in Leninism as well). While Dabashi’s hermeneutic of alterity is admirable for its commitment to the margins, his seeming abandonment of a strong conceptualization of political ontology leaves Muslims with a less fortified home in the world to build power or make the world anew. Permanent opposition to power – or, in other words, only fighting from a position of homelessness – is also not an ethical choice, especially when coming from groups marginalized by a centuries-old world-system.

Sayyid’s conception of the political and Dabashi’s conception of the ethical aid in decolonizing the Muslim self and world through a dialogical process which 1) promotes a hermeneutics of alterity and 2) a counter-hegemonic commitment to building autonomous political power. This tension is inherent in other traditions, and one need look no farther than the West itself – the theoretical and literal conflict between Heideggerian ontology and Levinasian ethics – to see that this problem is not unique to Muslims. Such an approach is neither solely deconstructive nor constructive, but reconstructive, in the Iqbalian sense of positive world-making. The political and ethics cannot remain pre-determined theological idols; the political and ethics must be processed along a mizan (i.e. scale of balance) which the Muslim confronts and interprets according to contextualized material needs, desires, dreams, time and space. The Muslim builds a political and ethical home with the homeless – including the more homeless amongst homeless – thereby necessitating the idea of the Muslim world as a post-essentialist ground to do so.

The Liberatory Praxis of Building Homes with the Homeless

Least be said, thorny issues remain. What kind of home is this? A mansion in Gaza, or the humble abode of a former Uruguayan president? The shacks of Black and Brown workers in the Gulf metropolises, or the oases of oil money and a capitalist Caliphate? Are the homeless a fixed category completely separate from those supposedly superior and privileged rulers building their homes for them? Or do the homeless and those less homeless within the ummah work together from a place of tadaamun and takaaful (i.e. mutual aid and social solidarity), always conscious of and striving to correct the fissures within? According to Iranian liberation theologian Ali Shariati, the Qur’anic paradigm posits a dualistic human nature of spirit and clay. The combination of this spirit and clay is a process of becoming toward the tawhid of the Creator and the tawhid which the Creator desires amongst creation. The goal is in principle geared towards greater theological and social unity (i.e. the tawhidic spirit), but the fact is humans must also deal with the messiness of clay in practical ways as well.

In this regard, the discourse and pedagogy of Islamic Liberation Theology are helpful in thought and practice. There are two major concepts in Islamic Liberation Theology which differ from the likes of contemporary post/modernists, neo/traditionalists and mainstream Islamists; 1) that of the pre-textual preferential option for the mustad’afun fi al-‘ard (oppressed of the earth) in approaching text and context and 2) that of the emphasis on praxis, or what South African Muslim liberation theologian Farid Esack calls jihad, correlating to the implementation of a radical pedagogy and theology based on action and reflection on that action – what Sufi-philosophers might call idraak (i.e. realization) or dhawq (lit. “taste”) in their own phenomenological-centered epistemologies. The praxis of building homes will be messy and heterogenous, especially with regards to internal critique, and there must be an embracement of this messiness to a certain extent – especially around such issues as conceptions of tradition, sectarianism, religious minorities, racism, gender, sexuality, class, speciesism and ecocide. This embracement of heterodoxy and messiness is not a denial of orthodoxy or seemingly traditional Islamic norms, nor a denial that tradition itself is inevitably historically constructed and changing according to time and place; the Arabic adage li kulli maqaam maqaal (each setting requires a contextualized response) comes to mind, as do a number of usuli legal proverbs concerning sensitivity towards polysemic interpretations of text and context. The method and theory of homebuilding with the homeless is a process of working through realpolitik priorities and idealist sensitives based on the praxis of shaping the mud of a more just, revolutionary and merciful dunya.

To provide one example of what such a method and theory looks like in our times, decolonial Muslim activist Houria Bouteldja has argued for a situated and contextualized heurism for dealing with issues external and internal to the ummah in social struggle. From the existential complexity of being theologically and philosophically located between Islamism, secular Leftism, and gender/sexual justice as a Muslim woman of color, to strategically confronting the three-headed hydra of race, class and gender in social struggle in Islamophobic France, Bouteldja argues for an openness in theory to issues seemingly less urgent to the quantitative mass of the ummah, and a more restricted practice of prioritizing certain issues over others when dealing with the reality of transforming the Muslim self and world. Bouteldja’s method suggests a process of both dealing with oppressive forces external to the Muslim world, as well as dealing with the ummah’s dirty laundry, at a pace which does not necessarily override the impulse to safeguard, empower and carry the majority of the community. Note that this process does not necessitate the abstraction nor rejection of the Muslim world as the universality which grounds a revolutionary praxis of love, caring for a pluriversal world external to the seemingly Islamic, and the smashing of evils that hurt the planet most. Diversity can exist within unity, but this call must come from an active engagement “from below” in critical dialogues with mainstream base communities and social struggle, and not primarily “from above” as part of disconnected and abstract liberal scholastic debate.

Diversity can exist within unity, but this call must come from an active engagement “from below” in critical dialogues with mainstream base communities and social struggle, and not primarily “from above” as part of disconnected and abstract liberal scholastic debate.

In conclusion, the grounds of the Muslim world must be affirmed and fought for under the conditions of global coloniality. Yet, the debate concerning how the Muslim world’s garden is seeded, plowed and watered on that ground should also remain alive and well, as the likes of Aydin and others point towards in great detail, and should ideally strive to come from the margins. The Muslim world is thus not an option for discussion in our times, it is necessarily a demand for a home. For homeless Muslims, this home is tied to a further struggle that deals with internal contradictions autonomous to Western supremacy, where Muslims struggle to be in solidarity as much as possible with the homeless in our own neighborhoods, whether they are nominally Muslim, of the same species, or not.

Iskander Abbasi is a Palestinian-American PhD candidate at the University of Johannesburg. His work focuses in the fields of Islamic Liberation Theology, Decolonial Studies, Critical Muslim Studies, and Islam and Ecology. He is the Co-Convener of the Biennal Cape Town Critical Muslim Studies: Decolonial Struggles and Liberation Theologies Summer School, and a member of the steering committee of the Liberation Theologies group at the American Academy of Religion.

*Top image: Israeli Home Demolition in East Jerusalem (2005). Photo Credit – Anna De Sacco.