The Idea of the Muslim World: A Conversation with Cemil Aydin (S. 5, Ep. 38)

How did the idea of a unified global Muslim community come about? That’s the question Cemil Aydin and Marc Lynch tackle in this week’s podcast. Aydin’s new book explores the how the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims have become seen as a single religious/political bloc.

“In many ways, I wanted to engage with the contemporary discussions of Muslim unity, Muslim solidarity or Muslim exceptionalism by going back to the last 200 years to try to understand the genealogy and the roots of the idea of Muslims constituting a global community and a shared political project,” says Aydin, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In his book, Aydin makes the argument that up until the 19th century, there really was no Muslim world. “That doesn’t mean there weren’t many different Muslims in different parts of the world. They have always had different global or regional imaginations— but it doesn’t match with our current conceptions of a Muslim world extending from Senegal or Morocco to Indonesia. Different Muslim legal scholars may have categorizations about the ‘land of Islam’ versus the ‘land of the land of non-Muslims,'” says Aydin. “But these are legal classifications. We need to ask, ‘Who made them?’ or ‘Who read them and how they applied them.’The fact that there were such legal categories doesn’t mean that these categories are almost like a party program or a doctrine that every Muslim child had to read…. and memorize it and imagine the world accordingly.”

“We have to account for the fact that Muslims lived in empires— and different empires and different empires of the world to work with. There were so many different Caliphates.”

Aydin sees the history he just wrote about reflected in current events. “Publishing this book after Donald Trump is also very ironic in the sense that Trump’s Muslim ban— or a kind of ‘new’ Islamophobia, which actually  originates from the 1980s onward, after Salman Rushdie appears— again created the kind of outer boundaries of the Muslim world. The new racism against Muslims actually creates a context for Muslims to defend themselves. So I have one message for Muslims: ask for your rights, whether in America or Europe or other places, without being trapped by poisonous, bad narratives. Sometimes they think that the old narrative of Muslim solidarity to preserve themselves, or to negotiate with the colonial powers,  might actually not serve their interests, but further try to ‘racialize’ them.”

“There was an assumption that only Muslim solidarity could help Muslims, which created the counter-narrative that Muslims are almost isolated from the rest of humanity. So I try to think about these symbiotic relationship between racism against Muslims in the West and the Muslims or Muslim’s own pan-Islamic thinking that their solidarity is needed to empower them.”

By showing how deconstruction this is, “We can think differently. We can imagine a different future. That doesn’t mean that Muslims don’t have a right to imagine a politics based on their religious values. As a Muslim, I also do that— some of my values come from the example of Prophet Mohammad and others. But that shouldn’t be a trap. Some of my values also come from the examples of Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela. So why am I only thinking that they will only come from a specified, narrow notion of religion?”

Music for this season’s podcast was created by Feras Arrabi. You can find more of his work on his Facebook and Instagram page.

You can download this week’s podcast on Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, follow us on SoundCloud, or listen below:

Click here for maps, images, bibliography and extended conversation about Cemil Aydin’s book, and here for a selection of his recent publications.