Islamic World Research Paper

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The Islamic (Muslim) world refers in a social or cultural sense to the community of Muslims spread across the globe. The term is also used in a geopolitical sense to refer to the collective of nations or states in which Muslims constitute a majority or in which Islam is the dominant faith, including politically. The Muslim world is also known collectively as the ummah.

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The Islamic world is generally defined contemporaneously as consisting of nation-states whose population contains a majority of Muslims. The individual nations are not all contiguous with one another, although in particular regions, such as the Middle East, several of them are. It is a world of enormous diversity, including numerous ethnic groups, a wide variety of languages, cultural practices, and social customs. This fact appears to mirror the diversity promised in the Qur’an as part of the divine design and as a manifestation of divine mercy: “And of His signs,” says the Qur’an, “is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your tongues and colors. Surely there are signs in this for the learned!” (30:22).

The Ummah

The term “Islamic world” may be understood to be congruent with the Arabic term ummah, a nebulous, yet powerfully emotive concept that has existed since the advent of Islam itself. Ummah means “community” or “nation,” and in general usage came to refer to the worldwide collectivity of Muslims, regardless of precisely where they lived.

The word ummah is of Qur’anic provenance and occurs sixty-two times in the Islamic scripture. In specifically Qur’anic usage, ummah does not always refer exclusively to Muslims but to the righteous and godly contingent within a religious community. Thus the righteous members within the religious communities of Jews and Christians comprise “a balanced nation” (in Arabic, ummah muqtasida, Qur’an 5:66) and “an upright nation” (Arabic ummah qa’ima, Qur’an 3:113). The community of righteous Muslims is described in the Qur’an as ummah wasat (“a moderate or middle nation”) and one that summons to the good and enjoins what is right (Qur’an 3:104). It is part of the divine plan, the Qur’an asserts, that there should be a multiplicity of religious communities, for “if He had so willed, He would have made you a single community” (Qur’an 5:48).

In the Constitution of Medina drawn up after the emigration of the Prophet Muhammad to Medina from Mecca in 622 CE, the Muslims and the Jews there are described as constituting a single community (ummah) with mutual rights and obligations. After the death of the Prophet in 632 CE, Islam expanded out of the Arabian Peninsula into the rest of western Asia and beyond. By the third century of Islam (ninth century of the common era), the Islamic realm stretched from the Indus River in southern Asia to the Oxus in Central Asia to Andalusia in southern Europe. In common—meaning extra-Qur’anic usage—the term ummah progressively came to refer exclusively to Muslims residing in farflung lands united by their faith into one transnational and transregional community, or a diaspora.

As far as ummah may be regarded as having a political dimension, some political theorists of the medieval period conceived of this transregional Muslim polity in the following way. Theoretically and ideally speaking, the ummah would be united under the rule of one ruler, known as the caliph (Arabic khalifa, literally “successor” [to the Prophet]), sometimes known as imam. This ruler was conceived of as the first among equals, appointed by at least the tacit consent of the people and granted legitimacy through the formal allegiance of the people of eminence and influence. The caliph was expected to rule his subjects through consultation with the learned among them, and his primary function was to uphold the religious law, maintain law and order in his realm, and fend off outside aggression. As far as their political duties were concerned, the ruled in return were expected to pay their taxes to the state treasury and be loyal to their ruler, so long as he obeyed the religious law. The first four caliphs after the death of Muhammad are idealized as the “rightly guided” because they are perceived to have observed the tenets of good governance, particularly in holding themselves accountable to the people. The period of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs and the constellation of virtues attributed to them had a lasting influence on the conceptualization of the Muslim polity and its governance. At the very least, it created an ideal against which the performance of later governments could be measured and criticized for failing to live up to it.

By the middle of the eighth century, however, the ummah had a legitimate caliphate based in Baghdad and a counter-caliphate in Muslim Spain. By the next century, lesser rulers by the title of sultan or emir had emerged, often ruling their territories with some measure of autonomy. By the eleventh century, political theorists started to acknowledge these changed realities and recognized the possibility of having more than one ruler for the Muslim polity, provided that at least a large body of water separated them.

The office of the caliph survived many vicissitudes of fate. It greatly diminished in the wake of the Mongol depredations in Baghdad in the thirteenth century but resurged under the Ottomans in the sixteenth century. The Ottomans circulated the story that the last Abbasid caliph (the Abbasids ruled from 749/750 to 1258, with their capital in Baghdad) had transferred the title of the caliphate to them and thus they were entitled to assume the office themselves. The last Ottoman caliph was deposed in 1924 by the Republican Turks, who abolished the caliphate.

The caliph, as at least the titular head of the worldwide Muslim polity, manifested the symbolic unity of the Islamic realm. And despite the diversity of cultures and languages in different parts of the Islamic world that were often politically autonomous, there was indeed a unity in terms of shared religious observances, social customs, and a distinctive way of viewing the world. The term Islam refers not only to the religion but to a civilization with a specific yet varied constellation of values. Islamic civilization was (and largely remains) multicultural, multiethnic, and multireligious. Not only Arabs, but Persians, Indians, Africans, Chinese, Malays, and others have been an integral part of it, as have Jews and Christians, in addition to Muslims. We call the civilization and its world Islamic because all these diverse peoples lived (and continue to a certain extent to do so) under the aegis of various Islamic administrations, not necessarily because they adhered to the religion of Islam. The inhabitants of the Islamic world did (and do) subscribe to certain common Islamic civilizational values and ideas, such as charity, hospitality, and patronage of learning, which created (and creates) a sense of group solidarity and a shared identity.

Dar al-Islam

The world of Islam was also conceived of in specifically territorial terms, especially by the medieval jurists. They coined the term dar al-Islam, referring to the “abode” or “territory of Islam,” opposed to which was the dar al-harb, the “abode” or “territory of war.” The celebrated jurist ash-Shafi’i (d. 820 CE) added a third category: the abode or territory of treaty or reconciliation. These concepts and terms are not to be found in the Qur’an or in the prophetic Sunna (sayings and practices of Muhammad); rather, they reflect the legal and political pragmatism of these jurists, who wished to make sense of and impose moral order on the historical reality of their times.

In this, they were following a time-honored custom of defining themselves and the polity they inhabited by demarcating the limits of the civilized world as they knew it from the realm of disorder and moral chaos. Greeks in classical antiquity saw themselves as the very antithesis of all non-Greeks, whom they termed barbarians; similarly, the pre-Islamic Arabs set themselves apart from the uncivilized non-Arabs. Among earlier religious communities, the Jews separated themselves from the impure non-Jews, while Christians regarded the unsaved infidel as beyond the pale. For the Muslim jurists of this period, the territory of Islam represented all that was lawful and morally right in God’s world, being under the governance of God’s law. Beyond its confines, the rest of the world was in need of divine guidance and, ideally speaking, through propagation of the message of Islam or by acknowledging the suzerainty of the Muslim ruler, could in time (so it was hoped) be brought into the abode of Islam. Such a world vision was created by the spectacular spread of Islamic dominion in the few decades after the Prophet’s death, which tended to foster a sense of the inevitable and ultimate triumph of Islam. Such a worldview, however, did not include the forcible conversion of nonbelievers, strictly forbidden in the Qur’an (2:256), but only their political capitulation, preferably peacefully, but through military means if necessary.

Thus, although Egypt and Syria were conquered militarily by the Arabs in the late seventh century, the native populations remained largely Christian until about the tenth century. Similarly, the military conquest of the western Indian province of Sind was followed by the extension of the status of “protected people” (ahl al-dhimma) to Hindus, a status traditionally reserved under Islamic Law for Jews and Christians, which allowed them to continue to practice their Hindu faith in return for fealty to the new Muslim administration. Such imperial designs were not supported by all jurists; dissenting jurists and many ordinary pious Muslims were aghast at the notion of offensive military activity that could be justified by the invocation of an assumed confrontational bipolar world.

By roughly the twelfth century, these terms had begun to lose their efficacy and began to be redefined in response to changing historical and political realities. The Muslim polity had become quite fractured, having split into several autonomous realms with independent rulers who sometimes fought with one another. Muslims also sometimes traveled to non-Muslim territories and settled there. The question was posed: were these realms and Muslims no longer to be regarded as a part of dar al-Islam? In recognition of the changed situation, some jurists in this period formed the opinion that non-Muslim territory in which Muslims were free to practice their religion could be subsumed under the rubric of dar al-Islam. Thus, already in the medieval period, we see a broadening of the concept of the Islamic world to include not only countries and regions where Muslims predominated, but also territories that included minority Muslim populations who were not impeded in the practice of their faith. In a similar vein, in the contemporary era, the term Islamic world now includes not only the traditional heartlands of Islam, but also Europe and North America, both of which have sizeable minority Muslim populations. This may be understood to reflect a resurgence of the concept of the worldwide ummah, signaling certain shared values and common religious observances among Muslims regardless of where they may be located and whether they are under the political jurisdiction of a Muslim ruler or not.

The Contemporary Islamic World

The vast majority of Muslims today are concentrated in southern and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and northern Africa, with sizeable minority populations in the rest of Africa and Asia, Europe, and North America. Islam has been described as the fastest growing religion in the world today, with currently about 1.2 to 1.5 billion adherents, or approximately one-fifth of our world’s population. Although the Islamic world is seemingly disparate and even divisive, it is still possible to speak of it as cohesive at a certain level.

Shared traumatic experiences under Western colonial rule have forged at least formal alliances among a number of the Islamic countries (and also with other underdeveloped or developing countries with similar experiences). Many in the Islamic world today continue to feel very vulnerable and under assault from secular modernity, economic globalization, and Western cultural mores, sometimes regarded as a continuation of the previous era of physical colonization, and thus termed neo-imperialism or neo-colonization. Elements in Islamic societies have become radicalized due to a sense of impotency visa- vis the status quo in the postcolonial world. These radical elements have attempted to assert a highly politicized and in some cases highly militant Islamic identity in an effort to resist Western-generated globalization and secularization, and, one might say, the economic and cultural “occupation” of the Islamic world. From time to time, these elements have caused and continue to cause great havoc both in their own societies, since they oppose many of the local ruling elites (whom they regard as the willing clients of the West), and beyond. The vast majority of the people in the Islamic world do not endorse their bloody tactics, although they may share their economic and political frustrations.

A worldwide body claims to speak on behalf of Muslim peoples everywhere today and may be regarded as a modern-day concretization of the nebulous concept of the ummah. This body, known as the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), established on 25 September 1969 in Rabat, Morocco, has fifty-seven members as of 2010 that represent countries with majority Muslim populations, plus thirteen observer states. The OIC website recognizes “the concrete expression of a great awareness, on the part of the Ummah, of the necessity to establish an organization embodying its aspirations.” Moreover, the OIC represents the desire on the part of the member states to “speak with one voice to safeguard the interest and ensure the progress and well-being of their peoples and those of other Muslims” throughout the world. The political leaders of the member states meet once a year in a major Islamic capital city. Certainly, the OIC may be regarded as a microcosm of the Islamic world, seeking to define a commonality of interests, mediate internal conflicts, and articulate a unified position on many current issues and political disputes. In recent years, the OIC has taken specific stands on global issues such as the Persian Gulf War, the United Nations’ peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Its effectiveness in both intra-Muslim affairs and global politics has been marginal to date but the OIC retains credibility as the sole organization which publicly articulates universal Islamic claims and aspirations and attempts to make them part of the global discourse.


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