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Understanding Islam By Placing It In The Context Of Global History

Marc Ryckaert/Naamsvermelding vereist
/
/Wikimedia Commons
The Sufi shrine of Shaykh Yusuf Abu al-Hajjaj in Luxor Temple, Egypt

UCLA historian Nile Green boarded a train for Istanbul at 17 to get as far away as he possibly could from his home in England. As he traveled through India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, he gradually learned the world’s Muslim population extends far beyond its Middle Eastern core.

“The vast majority of the Muslim world was also the colonial world in the 19th century,” Green says. “So one really can’t understand the roots of the Muslim experience of modernity, or indeed of globalization, without placing colonialism into that picture.”

Green’s early work focuses on Sufi Islam from a global perspective, and he says contemporary interpretations sometimes describe Sufi Islam as a mystical, minority sect. He writes in his book Sufism: A Global History that Sufi Islam spread worldwide as the dominant form of the religion until the early 1800s.

Read the first chapter of Nile Green's book Sufism: A Global History

“When we meet most Muslims in the west nowadays…this reformist Islam that has developed in a particular historical period has often defined itself against Sufi Islam as being backwards, superstitious,” Green says. “Through the more modern experience of globalization, in the colonial period through the present day,” Muslims have grappled with science on the one hand, of often missionary and colonial critiques of their religion as being backward and superstitious on the other hand…and using those to spread and propagate a new and sometimes more liberal, sometimes more self-consciously rational and modern version of Islam.”

But Green says this evolution has created a more fragmented Islamic religious marketplace with different sects competing with each other, often leading to violence.

“Many different voices will be saying, ‘Yes, jihad is legitimate,’ or ‘No, the real Islam is peaceful and has no jihad.’,” Green says. “Well, my take as a social historian and anthropologist is to say, ‘There is no real Islam…other than the various articulations that are made by these different self-described, self-made spokesmen, the entrepreneurs.”

The tragic events of September 11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Arab Spring protests have created a much wider awareness and a greater interest in promoting tolerant dialogue among both Muslims and non-Msulims.

“One of the things that I’ve tried to do is [work] on the literature of Afghanistan to provide a counter-narrative toward the picture of Talibanization,” Green says. “Rather than Afghanistan being a country just of Islam and of the Taliban, [it] has a very rich literary history behind the story of Khaled Hosseini and The Kite Runner.”

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KGOU produces World Views through a collaborative partnership with the University of Oklahoma’s College of International Studies,with a goal of bringing internationally-focused conversations to an Oklahoma audience. Help support these efforts with a donation online.

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Nile Green, welcome to World Views.

NILE GREEN: Thank you, it's my pleasure to be here.

GRILLOT: Well, Nile, you've done such interesting work on the subject of Islam in world history. And your purpose, as you've said in your work, is to place Islam in world history. What do you mean by that, and why do we need to do that?

GREEN: In terms of what motivated me, really, I think it was a desire when I was growing up to, like many teenagers, get away from home as far as I possibly could. In my case, that was getting a train to Istanbul when I was 17. From there and onward, as I started to travel through the Arab Middle East, and then to India and Iran and ultimately Pakistan and many other places, Islamic Africa and elsewhere too, I gradually realized that the Muslim world wasn't centered in the Middle East, and in fact the Middle East is in fact demographically a minority part of the Muslim world, or at least the larger Muslim populations in the world. So I became more interested in South Asia, in India and Pakistan, and also Afghanistan. And these are the regions where we do have a much larger Muslim population than we do in the Middle East. Countries like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. We have a much larger population than in the entirety of the Middle East placed together. The vast majority of the Muslim world was also the colonial world in the 19th century. So one really can't understand the roots of the Muslim experience of modernity, or indeed of globalization, without placing colonialism into that picture. But what I've tried to do in my work over the years is to understand things like colonization, and like globalization, that have usually been seen from the European side of that political process or that larger process of the discovery of a wider world in other cultures. But see that through the Muslim experience, through the languages that I studied - Persian, Urdu, and so on. And then to try to find materials, particularly travel writings in these languages, or otherwise in many cases religious works, and try to understand how Islam or various different kinds of Islam, various different what I call entrepreneurs of new Muslim firms, create different types, different brands, different Muslim products, different Muslim ideologies, different Muslim services in some ways, to respond to the new kinds of demand - cultural demand, religious demand, social demands - that modernization, that globalization, and in the 19th century colonization, created for ordinary Muslims around these many parts of the world.

GRILLOT: Well I want to get back to the notion of Muslim brands and entrepreneurs here in just a second, but some of your early work was focusing on Sufism from a global historical perspective. In this work, you refer to Sufism, or what you prefer to call "customary Islam" versus "modernist" or "reformist Islam." Can you kind of just put that into context for us, and then relate that perhaps to this notion of Muslim marketplaces and brands, and the entrepreneurship? Because I think that's kind of where you're getting at, from that perspective. Modern versus traditional or customary, is that right?

GREEN: Yeah. I think we often, ordinarily when we read about Sufism or we hear about Sufism, we see it packaged in a way that it's almost sometimes described as the mystical sect of Islam. The mystical branch, sometimes seen as the more liberal aspect of Islam. It's often seen to be a minority part of Islam. What I see as a historian, and in books I've written like my book Sufism: A Global History, I try to show that in fact, when we look at the way in which the Muslim faith expanded throughout the world from its early Middle Eastern core in the early period through into what's now India, and then beyond into what's now Indonesia and Malaysia and throughout Africa as well, it's really through the Sufi brotherhoods, the Sufi shrines that are places of popular pilgrimage and miracle-working. The saints of Islam as well, who are Sufi saints. It's these figures, this Sufi Islam, as I prefer to call it, rather than Sufism, which sounds as if it's somehow separate from Islam. It's the Sufi Islam that becomes really the normative in a sense, the orthodox Islam, for most ordinary Muslims worldwide until really the modern period. It's around the 1800s. Scholars debate whether this is beginning in the 18th century before the impact of European ideas of religion, often European Protestant ideas of religion, or the other argument is that this really happens in the 19th century during the colonial period. But we do get self-conscious reformists of Islam who are trying to create an Islam that is more modern. More rational. Sometimes more liberal in terms of women's rights, women's education. More amenable to scientific interpretations as opposed to saints and miracles and ideas that are seen as being, or religious claims that seem superstitious. So reformist Islam, which in many ways I think when we meet most Muslims in the west nowadays, their version of Islam is what they see as ordinarily "this is Islam" is really this reformist Islam that has developed in a particular historical period, and has often defined itself against Sufi Islam as being backwards, superstitious. So what I'm trying to say in many ways is that the Islam, as it were, of pre-modern globalization was this Sufi Islam. But through the more modern experience of globalization, in the colonial period through to the present day, Muslims have grappled with science on the one hand, of often missionary and colonial critiques of their religion as being backward and superstitious on the other hand, and have created, through these figures I call religious entrepreneurs, through the founding of new religious firms, new religious organizations if you like, that in many cases were reactions to and adaptations of the methods of the Christian missionaries themselves, and their organizations and their means of propagation through vernacular printing, through preaching, through proselytizing. So these new reformist religious firms have been adopting, in many ways, the techniques of western religious firms. We call them missionaries. And using those to spread and propagate a new and sometimes more liberal, sometimes more self-consciously rational and modern version of Islam. But ultimately, what I see, what this has created is a much more fragmented religious marketplace of Islam in which we have increasingly different numbers of what ordinarily the news media or other scholars might call sects and sectarian violence, sectarian competition. But what I prefer to see through a sociological and anthropological reading as these different competing organizations, with their different brands, their different forms of Islam, their different religious claims and services they provide, some miraculous, some anti-miraculous. Some in terms of social networking and finding jobs and employment. Some in terms of finding educational services. Some in terms of providing services that are perhaps more traditional or customary in terms of religious music, or miracles, or pilgrimage cults. Some are just forms of socialization. But these various different forms of Islam, I think in sociological terms, really need to be seen not just as abstract forms, but as real organizations, religious firms with their distinct leaderships. And indeed their distinct entrepreneurs that promote them. So my way of understanding Islam as a historian who's been very much influenced by anthropology, not least by my own experience in the field in many, many Muslim contexts, is really to see religion as operating in a way that is not distinct from other forces in the social world. So my sense of religion - it's a form of social organization and a claim to social power - that needn't to be analyzed in a way that's unique to religion. So I think there's a great difference between understanding religions theologically, where most try to understand their truth claims, their internal value, and I think that's fine, and can be very useful. But that's not what I do. I'm trying to understand their place and means of operation in the social world, in which unlike, say, a theological approach, religion doesn't need to be treated in a special and distinct way from any other form of organization, whether commercial or political.

GRILLOT: So let me just be clear then, when you say religious entrepreneurs, who are these people exactly? Are these just your, I guess you would equate them to say your church leaders? They're your leaders of the mosques? They're the clerics? They're basically those that are leading these firms or organizations as organizations? So they're not just theologians, and they're not just practitioners of a particular faith, but they are perpetuating and moving forward a particular institution that wants to survive and move forward into the future as most institutions want to do? And that this is a result of the modern period and globalization? Is that where you're coming from?

GREEN: Yeah. So I think when we look, if we sort of move back the clock to a period, let's say around 1800 for the sake of argument. At that period, religious authorities, really just leaders in that period, even let's say religious entrepreneurs in that period, are going to be typically from a fairly narrow background. They would either be figures we would call the Ulama. So that's to say the learned, in a sense the clergy from a Muslim context who would be, let's say, their claims to authority would've been through their education. Mastering the core religious texts. The Qur’an, the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, the Hadith and so on. The other types of religious leadership or authority would be coming from the Sufi brotherhoods. And their claims to authority would be through their claims of mystical proximity. Of coming close and having a personal closeness, a personal friendship as they called it, with God, which would give them not only authority, but as it were, miraculous powers as well. So in that sense, around 1800 the means of religious authority, of expressing religious authority, and indeed the social roots to using religious power are coming from a fairly narrow set of backgrounds. From other an Ulama type of background, perhaps being trained in a madrassa. Or Sufi background being trained in a Sufi lodge, a Sufi khaniqah as they're called. From 1850 onwards, or indeed from 1800 in my example, but really it speeds up from 1850 and speeds up increasingly through to the present day, a much wider social array of these entrepreneurial figures. Figures who are using religion for social authority or whatever other rationales they have. Whatever the motivations they have can come from a far wider range of backgrounds. They might not necessarily be from a Sufi or an Ulama background. In the 20th century, one of the things we've seen in particular is the rise of journalists. Many religious leaders in the 20th century, such as Abul Ala Maududi, the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami, one of the world's largest Islamist organizations, was a journalist by training. And we see, as it were, access to the public sphere, access to new means of communication, allowing as it were, these figures from journalistic backgrounds to be much more entrepreneurial in terms of finding audiences and finding followers. But other types of entrepreneurs might be from a much wider range of backgrounds. Perhaps religious leaders, perhaps business leaders. In other cases, figures who have actually been trained by Christian missionaries were adapting in the 19th centuries, and in some ways through the present days, adapting the techniques of Christian missionaries, often being their local helpers. Translators, printers, and so on. And then learning new modes of religious propagation to become entrepreneurs in a different way. And what this created then is a much wider range of possible social backgrounds that can create religious entrepreneurs that can produce religious authority. In turn, that's created what I've called a fragmentation of the religious landscape, of the religious economy. When we have far more competing sects, but what I would call religious firms. Each with their entrepreneurs and leaders. I think that's in many ways what underlies in terms of what we see in terms of sectarian violence in some contexts. Of course in other places there were peaceful means of competition as well. Islam in America, when we actually look at Islam in America in a context like Britain where I'm from, or mainland Europe, when we actually look behind the idea that these are all Muslims, what we actually find are actually a range of religious firms and organizations, each with their leaders with their different rationale. And that’s why it can be very confusing for ordinary people to understand what Islam is, because many different voices will be saying, ‘Yes, jihad is legitimate,’ or ‘No, the real Islam is peaceful and has no jihad.’ So what is the real Islam?” Well, my take as a social historian and anthropologist is to say, "There is no real Islam around this other than the various articulations that are made by these different self-described, self-made spokesmen, the entrepreneurs. And that's why I think it's tremendously important to understand the social organization behind what otherwise just seems to be a muddy field of many different Islams, and it's not clear which one we should say, "OK, that's the one."

GRILLOT: Well, this muddy field, and I just want to end here, is...do you see that we're starting to see that part of the world with new eyes? With new perspectives? And understanding all the things that you've just told us about the muddy picture out there?

GREEN: I think so. I think certainly in the last ten years...obviously after the many tragic events in various parts of the world, post-9/11 I think the good thing that has come out of it is a much wider awareness and a greater interest among non-Muslims and Muslims about promoting tolerant dialogue and understanding. I think in many ways one of the most important things there has been art-related projects. Of course we have to understand that Islam as a religion is only one aspect of the life of Muslims. Of course, obviously Muslims worldwide have cultural lives, literary lives, family lives, and many other multiple dimensions of their full human potentialities. I think in that way that's one of the things that I've tried to do is working on the literature of Afghanistan to provide a counter-narrative toward the picture of Talibanization. A book I co-edited with the Afghan journalist Nushin Arbabzadah a couple of years ago called Afghanistan and Ink, tried to show that rather than Afghanistan being a country just of Islam and of the Taliban, but has this very rich literary history behind the story of Khaled Hosseini and The Kite Runner, there's this very rich literary tradition that is still ongoing today. So I think it's really very important than even though I'm a historian of religion, I would be the first person to say religion is only one part of the broader picture of Muslim lives.

GRILLOT: Well Nile Green, thank you so much. We could go for many more minutes but that's all the time we have today, but thank you so much for being with us on World Views.

GREEN: Thank you for inviting me.

Copyright © 2014 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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