Colonial encounter and the Construction of ‘Muslim world’ idea

Written by; Cemil  Aydin, Professor of History, University of North Carolina  

Roughly a fifth of people ­ now living are Muslims. Their societies, located in every corner of the globe, vary in language, ethnicity, political ideology, nationality, culture, and wealth. Yet throughout modern history, Muslims and non-Muslims have appealed to an imagined global Muslim unity. One need only look at the headlines to see that this unity does not exist: today, the very people who claim to speak on behalf of all Muslims target other Muslims as their enemies; Muslim societies are more divided than ever, riven by civil wars and protracted conflicts across borders. Even so, the illusion of Muslim unity persists.

This illusion is captured most succinctly in the universally popular notion of a “Muslim world,” with its own collective history and future, often contrasted with a putative “West.” But we rarely question the historical roots and conceptual shortcuts inherent in such terms.

Since when do political leaders, intellectuals, and everyday people talk about a Muslim world? How has it encompassed a civilization, religious tradition, and geopolitical unit? Why are the same people ­who take for granted the existence of a Muslim world reluctant to talk about a Christian world, an African world, or a Buddhist world in the same way? Why has the idea of the Muslim world become so entrenched, despite the obvious naïveté of categorizing one and a half billion people,  in all their diversity, as an ­ imagined unity?

How did we arrive at this point, where a fantastical entity could be so pres­ent, so prevalent in political thinking? Why do so many Muslim and non-Muslim political leaders, intellectuals, and religious figures comfortably base many of their arguments and decisions on the idea of the Muslim World without reflecting on the accuracy of the generalization that this term signifies?

Contrary to widespread assumption, the term “Muslim world” does not derive from ummah, a concept as old as Islam, which refers to the Muslim religious community. Instead the idea of the Muslim world began to develop in the nineteenth century and achieved full flower in the 1870s. Also mistaken is the belief that Muslims were united until nationalist ideology and European colonialism tore them apart.

This is precisely backward; in fact, Muslims did not imagine belonging to a global political unity until the peak of European hegemony in the late nineteenth 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.

In other words, the Muslim world arrived with imperial globalization and its concomitant ordering of humanity by race. The racialization of Islam was bound up with its transformation into a universal and uniform religious tradition, a force in international politics, and a distinct object in a discourse of civilizations. Political strategy and intellectual labor made this new reality, and both Muslims and European Christians took part.

The eve of World War I was the high point of perceived global Muslim unity. In the fall of 1914, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire drew on the authority he had cultivated as caliph of the global Muslim community to declare jihad on behalf of the Muslim world. Yet even then there were strong expressions of Muslim loyalty to the Ottomans’ enemies: the British, French, Dutch, and Russian empires.

Competing Muslim and non-Muslim conceptions of the Muslim world wrought dramatic changes over the next decade. The abolition of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924 inspired self-reflection and debate on Muslim-world identity in an era when modernizing ideologies of nationalism and bolshevism threatened to obviate other political forms.

During World War II, the notion of the Muslim world remained a centerpiece of imperial propaganda, as both Axis and Allies sought Muslims’ support. But afterward, at the peak of decolonization during the 1950s and the 1960s, the Muslim world receded. No successor rose to anchor the Muslim world, as the Ottomans had. Indian independence and the messy partition of Pakistan sapped the influence of Indian Muslims, who, for a century, had been able to sway global affairs by pressuring and cajoling their British overlords. In this period, few journalists and scholars referred to Islam as an explanatory factor in world politics.

But it was not to last. Amid interrelated political events from Arab-­ Israeli conflicts to the Iranian Revolution, the 1970s and 1980s witnessed a resurgence of pan-­Islamic patterns of thinking born in the imperial age. The Muslim world was again seen as a geopolitical unity, even though Muslim societies were by then ruled by more than fifty postcolonial nation states.

How to explain this resurfacing of century-old tropes during the 1980s despite the radical transformation of the global system? Gone was European imperial hegemony in Muslim societies. Gone was the Ottoman caliphate. And there were all those nation-states. Yet the discourse of Muslim unity survived. It returned through the renewed racialization of Muslims and in the form of post– Cold War Islamist ideologies.

The idea of the Muslim world is inseparable from the claim that Muslims constitute a race. The distinction of the Muslim world and the Christian West began taking shape most forcefully in the 1880s, when the majority of Muslims and Christians resided in the same empires. The rendering of Muslims as racially distinct— a process that called on both “Semitic” ethnicity and religious difference— and inferior aimed to disable and deny their demands for rights within European empires.  

Muslim intellectuals could not reject the assumptions of irreducible difference but responded that they were equal to Christians, deserving of rights and fair treatment. The same conception of Muslim unity and difference justified appeals to Muslims as a global community during World War I and World War II. Racial assumptions also ensured that later subaltern and nationalist claims for rights would be framed in the idioms of Muslim solidarity and an enduring clash between Islam and the West, giving rise to the Islamism and Islamophobia of the 1980s and beyond.

It is thanks to this elaboration of both Muslim difference and Muslim unity that contemporary writing, scholarly and otherwise, tends to emphasize Muslim exceptionalism. The assumption is that Muslims, due to their piety and the nature of their faith, naturally resist the liberal international order of in dependent, pluralistic nation-states. Muslims’ attitudes toward politics are presumed different from ­those of Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and Christians, whose socie­ ties need not be explained by reference to faith tradition or civilizational identity.

However, this theory of Muslim exceptionalism is unsupported and unsubstantiated. The Ottoman Empire, Republican Turkey, British-ruled Indian Muslims, Afghanistan, the Saudi Kingdom, Pakistan, postcolonial Egypt, and Iran under the shah ardently supported the imperial and later nationalist world orders.

The seeming importance of Islam in the contemporary politics of Muslim-majority societies derives not from theological requirements or a uniquely high level of Muslim piety but from the legacy of imperial racialization of Muslim-ness and from the particular intellectual and political strategies of Muslim resistance to this racialized identity.

The geography and technology of empire were essential to these processes of racialization and resistance in the second half of the nineteenth century. New transportation and communication technologies such as steamships and the telegraph fostered unprecedented levels of connection among Muslims, naturalizing the geopolitical concept of the Muslim world in Europe and its colonies. The networks enabled by these technologies were the medium of pan-Islamic thought born of confrontation with imperial racism.

Imperial racism, but not empire itself. Muslim leaders and thinkers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were not, for the most part, anti-imperialists. Instead they sought fair treatment from the four major European empires: British, Dutch, French, and Russian. These were cosmopolitan arrangements, home to wide-ranging ethnic and religious groups. But racialized legal ­ categorizations shared across European empires, the empowerment strategies of colonized Muslim subjects, and tactics employed in imperial rivalries confirmed rather than challenged Muslim difference, ensuring that Muslims would be a separate class within the imperial whole.

The British ruled almost half of the world’s Muslims and therefore played an especially important role in guiding the development of pan-Islamic thought. British fears of rebellion and policies of oppression engendered specifically Muslim responses. At the same time, Muslims understood that their vast numbers and the reality of their overwhelming loyalty to the empire allowed them real clout.

Thus Muslim solidarity was of strategic importance. The Ottoman sultans, as the most powerful modern Muslim rulers and overseers of the Muslim holy cities, enjoyed a special position as leaders of the global Muslim community. They used this to their advantage, claiming spiritual sovereignty over Muslims globally and leveraging this influence in political wrangling with the British and other European empires. Seeking a competitive edge by any means available, empires variously used the idea of global Muslim solidarity to weaken their rivals, justify alliances with them, and bolster propaganda campaigns.

The advances of the imperial age led to increased wealth and an intellectual renaissance, including for Muslim subjects of Christian rule. Printing and steamship technologies enabled mobility and productivity in Muslim thought and publishing. Women’s rights, education, and economic activity improved. 1

Yet by the early twentieth century, the categorization of Muslims as an inferior, colored race prone to rebellion against global white hegemony had provoked paranoia in colonial metropoles, leading to oppression and Muslim perceptions of their own victimization. Late nineteenth-century Muslim intellectuals responded to the inequalities of racialization with a number of strategies. By articulating a concept of Islamic civilization, these reformers sought to elevate the esteem in which Muslims were held and thereby contest the assertion of racial inferiority— if not racial difference itself.

Pioneers of the idea of Islamic civilization distinguished the values, ideals, and accomplishments of Muslim societies from Islam as a faith tradition itself but assumed that the civilization was inspired by the values of the faith. This involved a new focus on a “golden age” of lay Muslim philosophy, art, and cultural production.

The reformers’ goal was to make Islam compatible with modernity. Rebutting the likes of French historian and philosopher Ernest Renan, who claimed that Islam was incompatible with modern science, reformist writers argued that Islam was in harmony with modern standards of reason and progress. The civilization wrought by Muslims was the evidence. Modernist reformers emphasized Andalusian Muslim history as a sign of Islam’s contribution to Europe, carving out a place for Averroes and Avicenna in the global history of science and medicine.

Discussion of Islamic civilization in relation to world and European history became a hallmark of intellectual life in every Muslim society. But this strategy of contesting inferiority by upholding a narrative of Islamic civilization only reinforced the European racial discourse in which Muslims were united—and divided from ­others—by their religion and heritage.

Muslim thinking and writing about Islamic civilization created an abstraction linking Mecca to Java and Senegal, Istanbul to Samarkand and Delhi. This narrative of a singular Muslim civilization led to amnesia about cosmopolitan Muslim empires, which could not be reduced to a simplistic civilizational model. Centuries of shared experience with Hindus, Jews, and Buddhists; shamans; Christian Arabs, Greeks, and Armenians; and others were ignored.

While reformers aimed to elevate the nonreligious characteristics of Islamic history to which non-Muslims could relate as equals, they sought to use their faith tradition for new purposes, recasting Islam by collapsing its diverse traditions into a singular world religion comparable to Christianity. Its true spirit recovered, Muslim modernists claimed, Islam would be an instrument in the revival of the victimized, declining Muslim world. As followers of a universal religion compatible with science, Muslims would also appropriate and respond to secular European ideologies such as the Enlightenment, social Darwinism, and progress.

In order to bring uniform and systematic meaning to this new world religion, modernist scholars focused strictly on texts from which they claimed to deduce the essence of Islam beyond differences of culture, time, and place. Of course, there has long been a rich Muslim tradition of textual interpretation. Innumerable debates, such as Ghazali’s critique of philosophy and Averroes’s responses insisting on harmony between revelation and reason, illustrate an enduring struggle to understand God’s will by deciphering and arguing about religious texts. But reformers took a novel approach. They discounted vernacular Muslim practices that, historically, were as integral to the meaning of Islam as was textual scholarship.

Late nineteenth-century Muslim intellectuals wrote books with essentializing titles such as The Spirit of Islam, Islam and Progress, The Rise and Decline of Islam, Christianity and Islam, and Women’s Rights in Islam. Whereas earlier Muslim scholarship refrained from such generalizations and preserved a polyvocal tradition, these works lumped together diverse Muslim practices and criticized their supposed impurities or simply overlooked them.2

Muslim societies of the nineteenth century were not actually less diverse than previously, but reformist elites hoped to refashion them as such, fixing the content and principles of Islam in order to create a unity that would empower Muslims.

This process of reformation unfolds in the work of two generations of modern Muslim intellectuals, from Syed Ahmad Khan, Syed Ameer Ali, and Muhammad Abduh to Rashid Rida, Shakib Arslan, and Muhammad Asad. Their ideas inspired unity not only across faith differences but also what had been wide-ranging political and moral agendas. Approaches to slavery provide a case in point.

When Ahmet Bey, Tunisia’s ruler, banned slavery in the mid-nineteenth century, Muslim scholars justified the ban on the basis of sharia. But their reasoning did not reflect a monolithic principle of Islam. It was understood that sharia scholars in Egypt and Zanzibar might rule differently.   After the Ottomans banned the slave trade, it eventually disappeared in Muslim-ruled states without any universal claims about Islamic rules concerning slavery. Within less than a century, however, Ahmadiyya Muslim missionaries in Europe and America spoke of Islam’s categorical ban on racism and slavery, in contrast with Christianity’s condoning of racial discrimination.

Thus, in time, the nineteenth-century goal of positioning Islam as enlightened and tolerant—and therefore Muslims as racially equal to their Western overlords— produced the notion of Islam in the abstract, providing the core substance of Muslim reformism and pan-Islamic thought in the early twentieth century. This Muslim modernist strategy to defeat the notion of racial inferiority and articulate Muslim belonging in a universal humanity counter intuitively contributed to a rigid Orientalist conception of Muslims as essentially different from the rest of humanity. Ironically, in both the colonial and postcolonial contexts, this assumption further racialized Muslim societies.

Although the historian may distinguish the geopolitical, civilizational, and religious modes of knowledge and discourse inherent in the racialization and reformation of an imagined Muslim world, all were tightly interwoven. Both Christian missionaries and secular theorists such as Renan argued that defects in the Muslim faith itself produced the civilizational decline that legitimized empire.

Thus secular Muslim reformers responded by rewriting the history of science and philosophy— typically irrelevant to geopolitics—and theological reformers responded with new religious exegeses. They tried to refute missionary claims and social Darwinism but also, in some respects, embraced them by accepting the narrative of Muslim decline and reinterpreting the Quran and other religious texts to urge believers toward salvation by moral improvement.3

This nineteenth-and twentieth-century history helps to reveal falsehoods in today’s dominant narratives about politics in the Muslim world— both the politics imagined by Muslims and the politics of Islam imagined by non-Muslims. The literature of Muslim exceptionalism relies on an essentialized notion of Western Europe as nationalist, democratic, and progressive, in contrast with a conservative, antinationalist caliphate born from selective reading of Islamist critiques of Western modernity and redefinitions of Muslim traditions.

Both Muslims and non-Muslims often assume that modern Europe created the notion of national sovereignty at the Treaty of Westphalia and that this norm then spread to the rest of the world thanks to the expansion of Eurocentric values projected as universal. Some of today’s transnational Islamist political projects and identities claim to challenge Westphalian national borders in the name of the borderless Muslim world.

But this narrative of the encounter between the modern West and the Islamic world is a historical and relies on myths of what constitutes the West and the Muslim world. In reality, before and during the colonial period Muslims’ political views could be as imperial as Queen Victoria’s, as nationalistic as Gandhi’s, and as socialistic as Lenin’s. In the age when imperialists and reformers were inventing unitary Islam, individual Muslims were anarchists, feminists, and pacifists. They were as modern as their European counterparts.

Muslim political visions from the mid-nineteenth century onward, including pan-Islamism, reflect not enduring tradition but rather the particular entanglement of Muslim intellectual history and the shifting international order from the age of empires to that of the contemporary nation-state.

I started researching this topic in 2008, while ruminating on post–September 11 debates about Islam in international affairs. Yet even as late as 2012, I could not have imagined that today there would be a self- proclaimed caliphate in areas controlled by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. ISIS’s call attracts and repulses potential followers across the world. Meanwhile Islamophobia in Europe and America insists on categorizing ISIS leaders and their Muslim victims as members of the same racial and civilizational unity.

ISIS’s caliphate is a caricature, yet it demands acknowledgment of its supposed authenticity. Is today’s self-­proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, even aware of the cultural practices of the last Ottoman caliphs, such as Abdulhamid II or Abdulmecid, who enjoyed operas by European composers and, in the fashion of imperial courts, painted portraits of their daughters? Does that so-called caliph know that Muslim rulers once wore proudly the medals bestowed on them by Christian leaders and offered such honors in return?

Similarly, the politics of Sunni-Shia division are today presented falsely as fundamental to Muslim life. Do rivals in Syria and Iraq, marshaling ideas of Muslim solidarity against each other, realize that the Shia-Sunni distinction had no political valence in the Eurocentric imperial world of the early twentieth century, when Shi’a and Sunni Muslims both looked to the Ottoman caliph as their spiritual ruler and representative on the world stage?

These dangerous mistakes raise questions that must be approached through nuanced and thorough readings of history. How is it that terms such as “ummah” and “caliphate” can signify such different practices now than they did a hundred years ago? What are the narrative and historical links between World War I and the present, today’s Muslim question and its imperial past?

In paying close attention to the evolution of Muslim-world narratives over a 150-year period, one sees concepts and epistemologies of the Muslim world transferred from the age of empires to the postcolonial period. Each generation gave new political meanings to these concepts and ways of thinking. Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II, Haj Amin al-Husseini of Mandate Palestine, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, and Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran had different political goals, but they all relied on a similar framework of the imagined Muslim world in relation to the Christian West.

Likewise, even though Renan and later scholars such as Arnold Toynbee and Samuel Huntington represent different political sensibilities, they shared the same template of a racial, civilizational, and geopolitical Muslim world distinct from the West. It is in this theater, not of timeless doctrine but of contingent politics and ideas, built by many hands in the late nineteenth century  and since renovated repeatedly, that contemporary conflicts play out.


  1. Ansev Demirhan, “Female Muslim Intellectuals: Understanding the History of Turkey’s Woman Question through the Construction of Islamic Tradition” (MA thesis, University of North Carolina– Chapel ­ Hill, 2014); Nile Green, “Spacetime and the Muslim Journey West: Industrial Communications in the Making of the ‘Muslim World,’ ” American Historical Review 118, no. ​ 2 (April 2013): 401– 429.
  2. For polyvocality argument, see Jonathan Berkey, The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East, 600– 1800 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003). This does not mean that Muslim scholars before the nineteenth century ­ were ­ immune from any form of essentialism. A book by al-Suyuti, titled The Perfect Guide to the Sciences of the Qur’an (Al-Itqān fi ‘Ulum al-­Qur’an) (Reading, UK: Garnet, 2010) would obviously have its author’s firm conviction about how to read and understand the Quran. But al-Suyuti and many others in his generation would not feel the need to think of writing a book just on Islam or “Islam and Christianity” as abstract, global, and systematic religious traditions. Questions such as “Which interpretation of Islam, when and where, and understood by whom?” would seem to qualify the scholarship on Muslim faith tradition before the late nineteenth century, when Muslim scholars responded to essentialist writings of Orientalism and missionaries about Islam with equally apologetic or polemical essentialist abstractions.
  3. Katharina A. Ivanyi, “God’s Custom Concerning the Rise and Fall of Nations: The Tafsir al-Manar on Q 8: 53 and Q 13: 11,” Maghreb Review: Majallat al-Maghrib 32, no. 1 (2007): 91– 103.

[Source: Cemil Aydin, The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History(this post is taken from the introduction of the book), Harvard University Press, 2017. Page 3-13.] 

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