A Review of The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History
By Cemil Aydin
(Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), 304 pages.
In May 2017, President Donald Trump made his first official foreign visit to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, saying "I chose to make my first foreign visit a trip to the heart of the Muslim world." (1) He, like his predecessors, used the term "Muslim world" to refer to a global and unified Muslim community. What does "Muslim world" mean, and why is it such a widespread construction? The book answers these questions in a timely and vital analysis of the lexicology of the Muslim world, which is all too often taken for granted in Western discourse.
In the book, Aydin argues that, contrary to modern sentiment, Muslims across the world did not imagine belonging to a global political group until the peak of European hegemony in the late 19th century. He further writes that this imagination was used in contrast to the alleged creation of the Christian West that began taking shape most forcibly in the late 19th century, not as a representation of the ummah (the Muslim religious community), but as a tool to maintain the equality of the Ottoman Empire with the growing European empires.
The book begins in the 14th century and historicizes the idea of the Muslim world for the next seven centuries. Each historical period is riddled with empirical examples illustrating how the construct of Muslim unity was used, and why. In the 1300s, Muslim scholar and explorer Ibn Batuta wrote that there was no abstract or globalized construct of a Muslim civilization. Four centuries on, European explorers and Ottoman scholars made no distinctions between the Muslim world and the West. However, by the mid-to-late 1880s, the idea of pan-Islam did emerge. This is where the crux of Aydin's argument takes shape. He details precisely how politics of the time related to the Muslim world in the next fifty years.
Contrary to popular thought, Aydin argues that pan-Islam was not constructed on the basis of shared norms or identity, but rather a more realist approach to the geopolitics of the late 19th century. The character of European imperialization during this period led to the racialization of the Muslim world. Ottoman leaders did their best to uphold the universalism of the Concert of Europe but became increasingly identified as inferior by European writers. When the Ottoman Empire experienced a decline, a new global narrative of pan-Islam...