Global Islam

A Very Short Introduction

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Nile Green
  • Oxford, UK: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     184 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Global Islam: A Very Short Introduction is an accessible and far-ranging survey of the globalization of Islam across geographical, political, and cultural boundaries. Historian Nile Green interprets the recent developments facing Islam as an instance of the interplay of religion and globalization and as a “story of how the few have tried to change the beliefs of the many” (4, 6–7). He argues that global Islam has undergone different phases and mechanisms of globalization from 1870 to the present day. He traces the origins, expansion, and increasing diversification of global Islam in the form of individual activists, organizations, and states over the past 150 years. He surveys Islam not only in the Middle East and the West but also in Asia and Africa, covering political and nonpolitical versions of Islam ranging from Salafism to Sufism. Green points out how various competing organizations claim to represent the one true Islam.

Green develops his detailed survey in four chapters of lucid and entertaining prose, each covering approximately fifty years: “What Is Global Islam’?” (chapter 1), “Islam in the Age of Empire, Steam, and Print Truth” (chapter 2), “Defending Islam from the Secular World Order” (chapter 3), and “From the Islamic Revolutions to the Internet” (chapter 4). In the introduction, Green defines “global Islam” as the set of “doctrines and practices promoted by transnational religious activists, organizations, and states during the era of modern globalization” (1). Global Islam did not emerge “through some innate Muslim tendency toward expansionism,” but through attempts “by a variety of actors in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Europe, even and the Americas to resort to (but often thereby reinvent) religion in order to solve the major problems confronting their communities, whether social, political, moral or existential” (2).

One of the strengths of Green’s study is his systematic refutation of linear accounts of Islam. His approach serves as a clarion call against attempts to depict Islam as a unified development or single religious outlook. Instead one should focus on its many “glocal” adaptations and transformations. Green concludes that the central paradox of global Islam today consists in a tension between a social plurification and fragmentation, and a theological, legal, and ritual contraction. Many lessons can be learned from Green’s analysis, for example, that urban centers are mostly responsible for the export of Islam, while Africa and central Asia acted more as religious importers. The absence of long-established Muslim populations in the Western world “meant that global Islamic organizations faced far less competition there from existing Islamic religious establishments than they did in their original homelands” (131). Green draws attention to the fact that only a fraction of the traditional heritage of world Islam has been transferred to modern media, and thus what has been transported in recent decades to the Western world can best be seen as a distortion of its plurality. The written teachings of Sufi Islam are a potent reminder of this fact, prompting reflection on the role of mysticism within contemporary religion more generally.

Green believes that a premodern “world Islam” has been lost and that, during Europe’s imperial heyday, “many new Islamic activists rejected traditional world Islam as the underlying cause of Muslim weakness” (133). A main target of Green’s critique is the failure to distinguish sufficiently between “traditional world Islam” and the political “global Islam” of modernity. The author makes clear from the beginning that he approaches the topic as a social scientist rather than as a theologian or historian of religion. This decision has repercussions for Green’s treatment of the topic. Missing from Green’s overview, for instance, is a deeper engagement with theology, even though he acknowledges that Christian missionaries constituted a significant voice among the critics of traditional world Islam. One may object that the line between political and theological Islam needs to be drawn more clearly also in historiography. For example, it is questionable to what extent one may speak of “religious propagation” (daʻwa)—a key term in Green’s work—without referring to its theology.

Given that the theme of Green’s analysis is the rise of global Islam in modernity, it is striking that he does not discuss more thoroughly its methodological assumptions. If one accepts the vagaries and inherent dangers of equating modernity with globalization, then there is need not only to redraw the map on the spatial level, but also to question the penchant of historical research to focus on modernity—a tendency that radiates into all fields of the humanities. An aversion to theory may prove to have negative consequences in an analysis on Islam. Green’s study suggests that the field of “global Islam” may need to consider other periods of history. His decision to include the work of non-Western scholars may serve as a model for scholarship, which should complement its achievements with metahistorical studies that examine the cultural and religious positions and perspectives of the scholars involved. Ultimately, the study of Islam should seek not only to cover its many spheres but to transcend its local roots and concomitant apologetical presuppositions and purposes.

The book is impeccably written and edited. Besides illustrations, it includes a section on further reading (unfortunately without commentary) and a useful glossary and index. These are preceded by a one-page list of references, with only one source listed for chapters 2 and 3. On the internet, one can find an interview with Green in which he discusses his work and his experience with Iran as well as a lecture on the issue of world history. The book is recommended for readers from a wide range of backgrounds, including theologians, historians, philosophers, and social and political scientists. While Green’s revisions of world history and Islam studies are important, they should be complemented by theological research.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Philipp Reisner is visiting lecturer in American studies at Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf and Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, Germany.

Date of Review: 
March 23, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nile Green is professor of history and Ibn Khaldun Endowed Chair in World History at UCLA. A historian of the multiple globalizations of Islam and Muslims, his work has traced Muslim networks that connect South Asia and the Middle East with the Indian Ocean, Africa, Japan, Europe and the United States. He also hosts a podcast, Akbar’s Chamber: Experts Talk Islam.




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