Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

August 19, 2018

The Muslim world stands upon the shoulders of the Ummah

Filed under: History,Islam,Muslim World — Razib Khan @ 12:48 pm


The two plots above are from a new working paper, On Roman roads and the sources of persistence and non-persistence in development. The basic argument is that good Roman infrastructure correlates with modern patterns of prosperity. An ingenious way the authors tested the predictive power is to contrast Europe, where carts and therefore roads, remained critical, and the Middle East and North Africa, where the rise of domestic camels rendered roads less important in the post-Roman period.

We should take these sorts of models with a grain of salt. Too often in economic history, there seems to be a tendency to search around for striking correlations, and then exclaim that this explains it all! Basically, I think some of the issues that plagued psychology and particular social psychology, are relevant here. Of course, most economists are statistically well trained, but there are limitations of data (look at how few data points they have above).

But the bigger takeaway is that historians are able to suggest deep structural reasons for the patterns we see around us today. This doesn’t mean that we should take any particular explanation as “proven” or at face value. Rather, they are interesting models and explanations in a constellation of explanations. To borrow and modify a phrase from evolutionary biology: both the proximate and the non-proximate matter.

This has been on my mind after finishing The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. I’ve written a few posts on this book before, The “Clash Of Civilizations” Is A Thing, Just Not The Only Thing, and The “Islamic World” Was Not Invented By Europeans. The reason that I’ve given some thought to the book’s thesis, and decided to read it after the essay in Aeon, What is the Muslim world?, is that I thought the thesis reflects something in our current Zeitgeist, and, it was audacious.

The audacity is the tacit assertion that the idea of the Muslim world is something very recent, and emerges out of the engagement with the colonial experience. After all, how can you deny the idea that the “Muslim world” was imagined as a thing by people such has Ibn Battuta?

Let me quote in full a few portions of the last chapter:

Simplistic and ahistorical frameworks of European empires vesus non-European subaltern colonized masses must be scrapped and replaced with the history of the world as it actuall existed….

…Critically they [Muslims] talked to each other, all over the world, and to non-Muslim Asians and Africans, about solidarity against imperial domination, racism, patriarchy, and economic exploitation….

…By decolonizing (and perhaps deconstructing) our categories and conceptions of religion, civilization, and the world order, we can better confront the rising anti-Muslim racism in Europe and the United States and work in solidarity to tackkle the ongoing crsis of the unjust global order.

After having read the book I was a bit surprised that the author wants us to move beyond the simplistic dichotomy between European and non-European, because to a great extent the book operates within that framework. Since this work seems in the tradition of postcolonialism, that makes sense. The argument that I see at the heart of the book is that the “imagined Muslim world” (a phrase the author uses repeatedly) emerged as a response to the intrusion of European imperialism and that Islamic solidarity precipitated out of the context of a rising ideology of white supremacy which racialized Muslims as colored people.

There’s obviously some truth to this. The Idea of the Muslim World benefits from outlining the argument and then supporting it with facts. Lots of facts. Perhaps the most surprising assertion made by the author (to me) is the preeminence of South Asian Muslims in international discourse in the period between 1850 and 1950. The author argues that this was due to demographic and economic heft, as well as the fact that South Asian Muslims were embedded within a powerful British Empire. Though they were a subordinate people, the monarchy had to take into account Muslim concerns, and the overrepresentation of Muslims in the Indian army was also something that was relevant when it came to force-projection.

I don’t know enough about the details of Indian Islam in relation to West Asian Islam during this period to judge this as a valid assertion or not. But, there are other aspects of the work which left me confused and unconvinced. For example, the author asserts that sectarian divisions between Shia and Sunni Muslims were generally minimal, leaving us with the perception that conflict along sectarian lines is a feature of very late modernity (that is, the late 20th century). But during the 17th century and 18th century both Iran and India saw massive forced conversions on sectarian lines. In Iran, it was the transformation of what had been a predominantly Sunni region to a uniformly Shia one. In India, the Mughals, in particular, Aurangzeb, targeted “heretical” Muslim groups, in particular, Ismaili Shia. In Crossing the Threshold and Mullahs on the Mainframe the authors both argue that substantial numbers of Ismaili Muslims were forcibly converted to Sunni Islam (or in some cases, the more acceptable Twelver Shia sect, which is dominant in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, as well as some parts of South Asia).

The point I’m making is that Islamic sectarianism has had multiple phases of salience and relevance, before abating. Though I agree with the author of  The Idea of the Muslim World that “Islamic fundamentalism” is actually a very modern development, it is also important to understand that these modern ideological movements draw upon much older thinking and precedents. For example, the popularity of Ibn Taymiyyah among many Sunni radicals is important to understand and entirely unsurprising, especially in light of the fact that Ibn Taymiyyah lived during a time when the Muslim world as he understood it was under threat from non-Muslims.

Fundamentally, the author’s observations that Muslims repeatedly sided with non-Muslims against other Muslims due to their own self-interest does not negate the power and depth of the Islamic world. The reality is that these “meta-ethnic” universal loyalties are always at tension with situational interests. History is filled with Hindus in Muslim armies, Protestants marching with Turks against Catholics, and Muslim bodyguards of Catholic monarchs (Frederick II). But Muslim and Christian are not arbitrary and imaginary constructs. These identities have important predictive power over the long run.

The final chapter was at some tension with the rest of the book, because it foregrounded values and views which were clear within the subtext of the book, but which were not prominent. That is, the author has a particular view on current geopolitics and justice, and seems to be suggesting that his scholarship might help in forwarding this project. I bolded the part about “patriarchy” in the quote because I don’t think modernist Muslim intellectuals in the earl 20th century had problems with patriarchy in a way we’d understand it today. True, many favored the education of women and even equal political rights for women, but I don’t think that that’s the way “patriarchy” is defined today in “social justice” circles in 2018.

An attempt to take historical facts, and leverage them for current social and political concerns, often results in these sorts of anachronisms. For example, I have heard people who support gay rights speak as if anti-homosexual legislation derived from the colonial period invented and created prejudice against homosexuality in non-European societies, when the reality is that that prejudice was already there, albeit with modifications and variations. Consider, that Pashtun tolerance of pederasty does not imply that Pashtun society is not homophobic.

The Idea of the Muslim World is a decent book in light of its intellectual tradition, which I disagree with. That is, the author marshals evidence in support of his thesis, rather than engaging in argumentative bluster. But I do have to say that it seems that in the 40 years since Edward Said’s Orientalism was published the field of postcolonial studies hasn’t really made any big conceptual breakthroughs. Rather, scholars seem to be using the same tools on different topics and coming to similar general conclusions.

In the end, it’s all about goblin-kind.

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