The Idea of the Muslim World

A Global Intellectual History

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Cemil Aydin
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , April
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Cemil Aydin’s new book offers a “critical genealogy of the idea of a Muslim world” (5) that traces tectonic shifts in understandings of Islam and the imagination of a global community of believers over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is a story of both European imperialism and its racialized formations of difference, as well as of Muslim responses to it. Aydin argues that “the idea of the Muslim world is inseparable from the claim that Muslims constitute a race” (5)—a point that as asserted in such absolute terms may be something of an overreach. Be that as it may, this particularly modern conception of the Muslim world was not merely one of imposition of Western visions, but rather was driven in fundamental ways by successive generations of Muslim thinkers.

Aydin characterizes nineteenth-century pan-Islamism as a response to a new kind of European critique of Islam, one animated by dynamics of essentializing rhetoric by both Islamists and Orientalists (69). At the same time, he reminds us that pan-Islamism did not necessarily imply anti-imperialism. Despite the resonance of such a vision of oppositional Islamic solidarity today, he reminds us that “it was not ever thus,” by recalling some of the ways in which “South Asian Muslims and Ottoman elites used the idea of the Muslim world to promote an Ottoman-British alliance” (82). Aydin thence narrates a history of the fluctuations of the appeal of pan-Islamism through the “long” twentieth century—over the course of which “the meaning of ‘caliphate’ became globally synchronized and refashioned… [as] a polity representing all Muslims” (67), to the point that by the turn of the twenty-first century, “mutually reinforcing cycles of Islamist and Islamophobic outburst had entrenched the illusion of the Muslim world, suffocating the diverse voices and political demands of actual Muslims in different parts of the world” (226).

Aydin’s clear and emphatic narrative makes an important intervention into contemporary conversations, historicizing the relatively recent rise of pervasive discourses on Islam in modern geo-politics. Historians of premodern periods, however, will have questions about his assertion that “the idea of the Muslim world began to develop in the nineteenth century” (3). For, as Shahab Ahmed argued in his posthumous magnum opus What is Islam? while acknowledging evidence of a broad cosmopolitanism in premodern imperial modes of governance it would be near impossible to “overemphasize the meaningfulness of the experience of the idea of the universal community of Islam, or of Islam as universal community, in Muslims’ conceptualization of Islam” (Princeton University Press, 2016, 141).

While it is clear that new dynamics in the formation of modern political conceptualizations did come to characterize imaginations of Muslim unity over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in steering such a sharp a corrective course, Aydin’s sweeping narrative glosses over and at times selectively ignores complexities of earlier historical eras. For example, he asserts that the fourteenth-century North African traveler Ibn Battuta did not have a concept of  a “threatening, alien, civilization… In fact for Ibn Battuta there was no abstract and globalized concept of a Muslim civilization” (27). However in a section of his famous travelogue, The Travels of Ibn Battuta, that Aydin does not reference, Ibn Battuta clearly voices sentiments of global solidarity with fellow Muslims and a sense of alienation from non-Muslim civilizations in the account of his time in China: “China, for all its magnificence, did not please me. I was deeply depressed by the prevalence of infidelity and when I left my lodging I saw many offensive things which distressed me so much that I stayed home and went out only when it was necessary. When I saw Muslims, it was as though I had met my family and my relatives” (H. A. R. Gibb & C. F. Beckingham, trans. The Travels of Ibn Battuta, IV. Hakluyt Society, 1994, 900).

For later authors, the foil for an interconnected complex of Muslim-majority societies across the Eastern hemisphere was not imperial China, but an aggressively expanding Western Christendom. While Aydin does touch upon nineteenth-century connections between the Ottomans and Southeast Asia, he overlooks the fact that three centuries earlier Istanbul was exploring alliances with other sultanates around the Indian Ocean littoral that sought to solidify Muslim opposition to European incursions into the region, which Giancarlo Casale has characterized as “juridical universalism” and Ottoman “soft empire” in the Indian Ocean (31). The mounting sense of competition even fuelled the further expansion of both Islam and Christianity into new areas of the world during this period as the arrival of the Iberians fostered the emergence of “a new political character to religious identity” (Anthony Reid, “Islamization and Christianization in Southeast Asia: The Critical Phase, 1550-1650,” in Southeast Asia in the Early Modern Era: Trade, Power, and Belief, ed. A. Cortesão, Cornell University Press, 1993, 151-179). In this both commercial and crusading impulses combined and mutually reinforced each other in propelling new dynamics into the reconfigurations of trade routes and patterns of religious conversion across the region.

Neglect of such earlier historical formulations detracts from the power of Aydin’s central argument about transformations of the idea of the Muslim world, but does not discredit it entirely. Rather, some more careful and substantial engagement with these complex earlier histories of both Muslim appeals to global solidarity and Western conceptions of a unified foe in the form of global Islam could significantly refine and strengthen his argument about the mutual entanglements that have produced visions of Islam and its communities of believers as a distinct block of humanity, separated and “foreign,” as well as a form of “racialized” identity in diverse contexts across Asia: from majoritarian Malaysia, to the communalist political discourses of India, and the state management of ethnicized Muslim minority populations in the People’s Republic of China. Aydin’s book is thus of great contemporary importance in highlighting the historical contingency, and thus also the potential for change in reimagining the contours of communal boundaries and conceptions of identity in the fraught world in which we all now find ourselves.

About the Reviewer(s): 

R. Michael Feener is the Sultan of Oman Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies.

Date of Review: 
September 24, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Cemil Aydin is associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


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