Exploring the notion of a Muslim world

To discuss the idea of a ‘Muslim world,’ a second lecture is being delivered at Simon Fraser University (SFU) as part of the 2018–2019 lecture series. The talk will discuss assumptions about the united Muslim world while looking at how those assumptions became so widespread.

Narratives about the Muslim world evolved dramatically, though this change is seldom recognized,” says Cemil Aydin, PhD and professor of history at the University of North Carolina.

According to Aydin, the assumption of a clash between Islamic and the western world is being reinforced by the policies of certain world leaders. At SFU Harbour Centre on Nov. 29, the talk will discuss one of the professor’s latest books titled The Idea of the Muslim World, A Global Intellectual History.

An idea of unity

In 2002, Aydin completed his PhD in history and Middle Eastern studies at Harvard University. He focuses primarily on modern Middle Eastern history and modern Asian history. He currently teaches at the University of North Carolina and has made significant contributions through this book.

According to Aydin, there is no single Muslim or non-Muslim understanding of ‘the Muslim world,’ however, it is more likely for non-Muslims to consider the Muslim world in racial and geopolitical terms. When Muslims think of the Muslim world, it is more probable for them to corres-
pond it to the notion of ummah, which means the community of believers of Quran and followers of Prophet Muhammad.

“As a term, the Muslim world is comparable to the terms such as Africa, Asia or the Western World and not necessarily sim-
ilar to Ummah,” says Aydin. “Because, historically, until the 19th century, ummah meant a non-territorial and non-geopolitical connection among pious believers. It did not mean hundreds of millions of Muslims occupying a certain geography between Europe and Asia, for example.”

The evolution of an idea

Cemil Aydin, PhD and professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. | Photo courtesy of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

In present day, the idea of a Muslim world holds a different meaning compared to the meaning that it had a couple hundred years ago,” says Aydin. “In the 1880s, the British Empire was viewed as the greatest Muslim empire in the world because it ruled half of the world’s Muslim countries. Pan-Islamic solidarity was not meant to make a conflict between Islam and the West.”

During a time of secularist nationalism from the 1950s to 1960s, Pan-Islamism and Caliphate were almost forgotten while the Cold War was ongoing and empires had come to an end.

“Pan-Islamism was first revived to justify Saudi Arabia’s position against secular Arab nationalism and it was justi-
fying an anti-Soviet alliance between America and Saudi Arabia,” he says.

Aydin states that anti-American ideologies were not associated with Muslim unity until ideas of Muslim unity began to evolve in the Cold War time after the revolution in Iran.

“After the 1990s, anti-Muslim hostility in Europe and America revived the idea of a threat of a Muslim world menace, even perceived innocent Muslim workers and citizens in Europe as a sinister intrusion of the Muslim world into the Christian white world,” he says.

While talking about the idea of Muslim unity in present day, Aydin states that it can be important to think about the different sects in Islam and how they have affected each other over time. There was unity amongst Shias and Sunnis all the way up till the 1980s when Iran and Saudi Arabia were competing for leadership of the new imagined Muslim world.

“When Iran claimed leadership of the Muslim world, the Saudi-American alliance began to emphasize their Shia sect to isolate Iran. Since then, the Shia-Sunni division deteriorated with developments in Iraq and Syria,” he says.

According to Aydin, Saudi Arabia would emphasize Iran’s Shia sect to isolate them when Iran claimed leadership of the Muslim world. Since then the Shia-Sunni division became further aggravated by developments in Iran and Syria.

“The Muslim world is a modern geopolitical invention,” he says.

Aydin believes that it has evolved significantly in recent times and it could keep evolving with the shifting circumstances in the world.

For more information, please visit www.sfu.ca/sfu-community/events.html