What is the Muslim or Islamic World?

by Jennifer Parker

What is the “Muslim or Islamic World”? This widely accepted expression presumably implies the collection of countries whose official, dominant, or major religion is Islam. At Yale, a prominent Professor teaches a literature course entitled “Classics: The Arabic-Islamic World.” The University also offers a class on Maghrebi literature and culture, “focus[ing] on the relation between the Islamic world and the French colonial experience.” However the casual usage of “Islamic or Muslim World” implies an ignorance about the phrase’s troubling connotations, origins, and implications.

The modern “Muslim World” is extraordinarily diverse—geographically, politically, ethnically, linguistically, and religiously—consisting of countries as disparate as Nigeria, Iran, Bosnia, Turkey, Bangladesh, Eritrea, and Indonesia. Therefore, the expression is also misleading, as several of these aforementioned countries (and others) are probably not meant to be included in the “Muslim World.” Islam, as practiced in the “Islamic World,” varies greatly within and among the different countries. In Iran, the vast majority of Muslims are Twelver Shi’ites, whereas Turkey is essentially a secular nationalist state. And although Islam factors significantly into many of the politics and national identities of this “World,” the term understates powerful (and often competing) non-religious affiliations. The Kurds, Palestinians, and Shi’ites probably feel stronger ties to their respective ethnolinguistic group, nationality, and religious denomination than as members of the “Muslim World.” If pan-Islamist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had achieved their political and religious goals, the “Islamic World” might be a more accurate description today. But ultimately, pan-Arabism and various nationalist movements gained more popular support.

Koran from Ethiopia on display in Times Square (Courtesy Flickr Creative Commons)

The “Muslim World” perpetuates destructive Orientalist narratives: namely the West and the Orient are antithetical; all Oriental/Islamic societies are fundamentally similar; and there is inherent “clash” between “Western Civilization” and the “Islamic World,” as Samuel P. Huntington argued. Is the “Muslim World” fundamentally different from the non-Muslim world? Nope. Does Islamic theology and dogma unite this “World,” creating a cohesive unit, with singular goals and strategies? Definitely not.  In the “Muslim World,” does Islam permeate all facets of life? No. Islam is a powerful, important way of life for millions of people around the world, but  the “Muslim World” can not –and should not– be studied, understood, or referred to as a collective.

Jennifer Parker ’11 is a Modern Middle East Studies major in Silliman College.