The Myth of the Muslim World

Source: The chronicle of Higher education

MAY 14, 2017

In his influential History of the Saracen Empires, the early-18th-century British scholar Simon Ockley remarks benignly about Islam and its beliefs: “The intellectual image of the Deity has never been degraded by any visible idol; the hours of the Prophet have never transgressed the measure of human virtues; and his living precepts have restrained the gratitude of his disciples within the bounds of reason and religion.” Such views influenced Edward Gibbon and his largely favorable depiction of Islam in his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Similar positive assessments of Islam continued to be found through the first quarter of the 19th century; Goethe lists the Prophet Muhammad as his third source of inspiration, after Jesus and Apollo.

But a very different view emerges in the latter half of the 19th century. More typical of European attitudes during this period was that expressed by the French philosopher Ernest Renan in his now (in)famous lecture titled “Islam and Science,” delivered at the Sorbonne in 1883. Renan pilloried Islam as being opposed to reason, progress, and reform. Continuing a familiar Orientalist theme grounded in the racial theories of the period, he attributed medieval Arab advances in the sciences and philosophy to Aryan and non-Muslim (primarily Greco-Sassanian) influences.

Cemil Aydin, in his thoughtful and provocative new book The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History (Harvard University Press), explores the reasons for this sea change in fundamental European attitudes toward Muslims. His study of the historical record demonstrates that the racialization of Muslims as a homogeneous group and the construction of the “Muslim world” as a seamless whole began in this period, with the onset of Western colonization of much of what we term today the Middle East and other parts of Asia.

What is interesting is that this European project of constructing a monolithic “Muslim world” was bolstered by Muslim intellectuals themselves, who, in the same period, sought refuge in Pan-Islamism. Aydin’s exhumation of the historical record yields no evidence from before the period of colonization of a pan-Muslim consciousness arrayed against an imagined monolithic Western Christian polity. Travelers like the 14th-century North African Ibn Batutta and the 17th-century Ottoman Evliya Çelebi wrote about the cultural and linguistic diversity of Muslim lands and displayed no sense of an “abstract and globalized concept of a Muslim civilization,” nor did they feel threatened by alien non-Muslim cultures. Aydin skillfully recounts the complex web of relationships that existed between and among European Christian and Muslim nations before the 19th century, in which religious affiliation played no predictable role as a unifying, rallying factor.

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