The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History 
by Cemil Aydin.
Harvard, 293 pp., £16.95, April 2019, 978 0 674 23817 6
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Inthe summer of 1325, Abu ʿAbdullah Muhammad al-Lawati al-Tanji, known to posterity as Ibn Battuta, left his home in Tangier to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca. He returned 29 years later, having travelled through North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, India, Malaysia, China, Afghanistan, the Caucasus, Anatolia, Somalia, Tanzania and Mali. When he set off on his journey, Morocco was ruled by Abu Saʿid Uthman, the tenth sultan of the Marinid dynasty, which had its origins in the Berber tribe Banu Marin. By the time Ibn Battuta returned home in 1354, Abu Saʿid’s grandson, Abu ʿInan, was on the throne and, for the first time in his family’s history, he had included the title of the caliphate in its regnal style.

As a Marinid subject, Ibn Battuta accepted Abu ʿInan’s political claim, referring to him as ‘Commander of the Faithful and Defender of the Faith, the refuge of the poor and needy, Caliph of God upon earth, whose zeal in the Holy War transcends its obligations’. But people living beyond the Marinid territories had little reason to accept the new caliph’s legitimacy. Tlemcen, the first entrepôt to be mentioned in Ibn Battuta’s travelogue and just a few weeks’ journey from Tangier, was ruled by Sultan Abu Tashufin of the ʿAbd al-Wadid dynasty, a rival of the Marinids. Ibn Battuta continued on to Tunis – whose Hafsid rulers also styled themselves as caliphs – and then to Cairo, seat of the Mamluk Empire and home to yet another caliph, al-Mustakfi.

Reflecting on this jagged tilework of petty and grand sultanates, the historian Ibn Khaldun (a contemporary of Ibn Battuta) described the wellspring of dynastic rule as ʿasabiyya, or ‘group feeling’. States rose and fell like living organisms: the vigour of the founding generation gave way to the indolence of its children. ‘Under the influence of royal authority and a life of ease,’ Ibn Khaldun wrote in the Muqaddima, ‘the second generation changes from the desert attitude to sedentary culture, from privation to luxury and plenty, from a state in which everybody shared in the glory to one in which a single man claims all the glory for himself.’ By the third generation, ‘group feeling disappears completely,’ making the dynasty vulnerable to the predations of new claimants. The largest states – such as the great empires of the Umayyads and Abbasids – began life with a deeper reservoir of group feeling, and so could exert their dominion across continents. But even these behemoths would not endure. As time passed, an office as glorious as the caliphate could inspire only the narrowest loyalties, as in the pop-up sultanates of Ibn Khaldun’s day. The rise and fall of political authority was a recurring cycle of consolidation and fragmentation.

Five hundred years after Ibn Khaldun’s death, the idea of the caliphate returned – briefly – as a symbol of group feeling among Muslims. Cemil Aydin’s book explores this moment in the late 19th century, when Muslim revivalists and political activists began rallying around the faded office of the caliphate as part of a groundswell of pan-Islamic solidarity. The significance of that moment was enormous: it not only planted the seeds of modern Islamist movements but, Aydin argues, created the very idea of the Muslim world. A standard view of Islamic political history holds that the Muslim world was most vivid as an imagined community during the age of its great medieval empires: afterwards, it gradually weakened until European colonialism shattered it for ever. Aydin thinks this has it ‘precisely backwards’: ‘In fact, Muslims did not imagine belonging to a global political unity until the peak of European hegemony in the late 19th century, when poor colonial conditions, European discourses of Muslim racial inferiority, and Muslims’ theories of their own apparent decline nurtured the first arguments for pan-Islamic solidarity.’ It was the imperial encounter and the reactions it inspired from colonised subjects that created the idea of the Muslim world.

This is a story of the racialisation of religion. During the first half of the 19th century, the main players on the world’s political stage were large, multiconfessional, multiethnic, multilingual empires. Despite their differences, the Ottomans, British, Russians and French were similarly committed to a view of empires as agents of universalist values, engaging with one another as equal partners. Although the 19th century witnessed dozens of wars between these powers, they worked together to maintain the imperial balance and even to legitimise one another through lavish state visits and strategic alliances. The logic of imperial cosmopolitanism trumped ethnic and religious solidarities.

Between the 1820s and 1880s, according to Aydin, something changed. A new ‘consciousness of racial and geopolitical unity and difference’ began to challenge the imperial consensus. Before the 1800s, he suggests, it would have been natural for a French colonial official to regard Muslim subjects within the French Empire as importantly different from the Muslim subjects of the Ottoman Empire: the fact that they shared a faith wouldn’t have led him to assume they belonged to a single racial group or political community. But during the second half of the 19th century, a new political order began to obscure the differences between Muslims from as far apart as Montenegro and Malaysia, India and Egypt, and the idea of a unified global Islam started to coalesce. In the first half of the century, ‘there were no hegemonic and monolithic narratives of Islam versus the West’; by the 1880s, they were everywhere.

The precipitants of this shift are complicated. Perhaps most important was the clamour for independence from Ottoman rule by Greek, Serbian, Romanian and Bulgarian communities. The Balkans had been part of the Ottoman Empire since the mid-16th century, but with the First Serbian Uprising of 1804-13 they began to slip from Istanbul’s grasp. Greece got its independence in 1830; Romania and Bulgaria in 1878. Aydin suggests that Christian liberation movements like these, in the heart of Ottoman Europe, were an inspiration to anti-colonial struggles among Muslim communities elsewhere. The imperial framework would reassert itself – first in the Crimean War, and again during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 – but the Ottoman-Russian War of 1877-78 marked a point of no return. It was the first war to exhibit ‘a full mobilisation of Muslim and Christian identities globally, with the racialised distinction between Muslims and Christians overshadowing imperial logic’. By the early 1880s, Aydin argues, Europeans increasingly saw Muslims as a racial rather than religious group: the descendants of an inferior ‘Semitic’ race. Rather than contesting this racial claim, however, thinkers such as the Syrian scholar and editor Rashid Rida and the Indian jurist Syed Ameer Ali ‘thickened the racial discourse by proudly talking back to an imagined European imperial centre’, adding to a growing literature on medieval Islam’s contributions to science, philosophy and art. In combating the theories of Ernest Renan and other Europeans who held that Islam was fundamentally fanatical and opposed to rational thought, 19th-century Muslim thinkers ‘essentialised Islam and Muslim identity on their own terms’ by conjuring an image of a glorious civilisation that had simply fallen on hard times.

As a political project, pan-Islamism would fail: the solidarity that had developed between Muslims in India, Turkey and Indonesia as a result of the common experience of colonial racism retreated in the years following the First World War. In time, it would be replaced by ideologies such as Third Worldism and pan-Africanism, and of course the rise of nationalism during the period of independence. But its legacy endures, Aydin suggests, and not only in the language of Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Even today’s well-meaning efforts by liberals to resist Islamophobia through the promotion of Islam as a tolerant, progressive religion run the risk of essentialising what has never been, historically speaking, a unitary phenomenon. ‘More than Wahhabi and other fundamentalist interpretations of Islam,’ Aydin writes, ‘it was the Muslim-ness constructed in the conversation between European Orientalists and Muslim modernists that created current obsessions with Islamic texts, cut off from a millennium of diverse Muslim religious and political experience.’ In other words, it’s not just the idea of Islam as menace that is problematic: it is the idea of Muslimness as such.

There are limitations to Aydin’s helpful reframing of the history of pan-Islamism, however, particularly his premise that the Muslim world is a 19th-century invention. This is a puzzling and demonstrably false assertion. Why insist, gratuitously, that the idea of the Muslim world was ‘invented’ in the 1880s? Why not ‘reinvented’ or ‘reconfigured’? This isn’t just a matter of rhetoric: it’s a problem of method. Severing the connection between a vision of Islam that emerged in the 19th century and its premodern beginnings places a burden on the author to explain away a vast intellectual tradition that meditated for centuries on the idea of the Muslim world – a strange lapse in an otherwise fine book.

A reasonable candidate for the premodern idea of the Muslim world is the term ummah, which Aydin discusses in his first chapter. ‘Contrary to widespread assumption,’ he writes, ‘the term “Muslim world” does not derive from ummah, a concept as old as Islam, which refers to the Muslim religious community.’ Unlike the 19th-century understanding of the Muslim world, the classical idea of the ummah was ‘deterritorialised’ and did not carry with it a requirement for Muslims to submit to a single political authority with jurisdiction over a defined geographical space. While Muslims around the premodern world were connected by trade, education, the rite of the hajj and so on, Aydin argues that they didn’t see themselves as belonging to a common ‘global religious and civilisational bloc’. Rather, they ‘followed multiple spiritual paths, subscribed to various legal schools, spoke many languages and hailed from diverse backgrounds’. The ummah was a faith community, not a political body.

In fact, the meaning of the term ummah is difficult to pin down. In the Quran, it appears dozens of times with different referents, from the idea of a generation of contemporaries with similar beliefs, to a longstanding religious community like the Jews or Christians, to the vision of mankind as a united body. Following Muhammad’s death and the establishment of the caliphate, the concept of the ummah developed an overtly political connotation. It was understood by most thinkers and jurists as the community that conferred political authority on the caliph, whose leadership, in turn, was seen as necessary to maintain the unity of the ummah. Throughout the history of Islam, the political salience of the ummah was variously emphasised. Under the Umayyad caliphate, which based its claims to legitimacy primarily on genealogical and ethnic grounds, the relevance of the ummah – as a super-ethnic, multilingual community of believers – was less important than it would become under the Abbasid caliphate, which ruled over an increasingly decentralised empire. In Ibn Khaldun’s view, the group feeling that sustained the early caliphate was replaced by royal authority as it matured, before it eventually succumbed to the vulnerabilities that beset all types of dynastic rule. Nonetheless, the Abbasid caliphs remained symbols of the ummah’s unity, at least for some Muslims, long after they ceased to be politically significant.

The relationship between the caliphate and the ummah – the question of powers, responsibilities and sources of authority – was one of the most widely debated subjects in medieval Islamic political philosophy. Muslims didn’t wait until the 1880s to begin reflecting on these matters: later writers picked up the threads of some of the oldest ideas in the Islamic intellectual tradition. This was just as true for ideas about the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims. Aydin argues that it was only in the 19th century that a binary opposition was imagined between the Muslim and non-Muslim world. Oddly, this statement occurs alongside his introduction of just such a binary: that of the Abode of Islam (dar al-islam) and the Abode of War (dar al-harb), a pair of medieval categories that divided the world into two zones – one where the principles of Islamic law were in force, and one where they weren’t. Aydin acknowledges the existence of these categories but suggests they were ‘theoretical distinctions, far removed from practice’. He is partly right: the categories may sometimes be found in late medieval histories of the early Islamic conquests, describing a world when the boundaries between Islamic and non-Islamic territories were relatively clear-cut. But the terms are also widespread in taxation manuals and collections of juristic opinion, and were clearly seen as useful principles in tax and treaty law. Just like the term ummah, the practical salience of the concept of dar al-islam waxed and waned throughout history.

Aydin​ wants to remind us that Muslims have always lived in discrete empires, spoken diverse languages and had vastly different cultural traditions. But this doesn’t mean there was no idea of the Muslim world in the premodern era. Here, it may be helpful to return to Ibn Battuta. In a well-known study from 1986, Ross Dunn argued that Ibn Battuta ‘regarded himself as a citizen not of a country called Morocco, but of the Dar al-Islam, to whose universalist spiritual, moral and social values he was loyal above any other allegiance’. Everywhere he went, he seemed to find himself among people with cosmopolitan attitudes and backgrounds similar to his own. He passed from one territory to the next as though strolling along a broad road that stretched from Tangier to Mecca, lined with Sufi convents, hostels and colleges where he made the acquaintance of a confraternity of scholars, judges, pilgrims and other travellers. Similar curriculums at madrasas across many of the lands he visited – along with the use of classical Arabic as a lingua franca – helped to propagate a shared patrimony of authoritative texts in various literary genres. Scholars imagined themselves as members of a community far more durable and extensive than the political dynasties rising and falling all around them.

Dunn’s description of Ibn Battuta as a citizen of the Abode of Islam is probably overstated. He must have seen himself as a member of a number of communities rather than just one: a man from Tangier, a descendant of the Lawata tribe, a Marinid subject, a follower of the Maliki legal rite, a ‘Westerner’ (which is to say, someone from the Islamic West) – and, yes, a Muslim. It would be odd to argue that this last community wasn’t as vivid to him as the others, or that membership in the Marinid political community was somehow more important to him than his identity as a Muslim. Nor was the Muslim community an abstract collective with no connection to politics. Ibn Battuta’s recognition of the Marinid sultans as caliphs went hand in hand with their having ‘notched the blade of polytheism and … wrought havoc among the worshippers of the Cross’. The fact that some of these sultans were guarded by a personal troop of Christian mercenaries didn’t trouble him. Aydin is in a sense right: a very specific understanding of the Muslim world did appear in the 19th century. But it certainly wasn’t the first, and as a basis for solidarity it was rather less compelling – narrower, more attenuated – than the living legacy of Islamic thought and ritual that was evident in Ibn Battuta’s travels.

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