May 5, 2020

Studying racism in pre-modern Muslim contexts

Some thought provoking methodological reflections on my timeline recently, mostly critiques of Cemel Aydin's book, The Idea of the Muslim World. I was particularly taken with this argument: "Perhaps the better argument is that such ideas [the Muslim world] represent a rebirth of classical ideas, and are not simply some construct of colonial modernity, even if colonial modernity created the conditions in which they gained new salience."

 For historians, who ideally are trained to see things in terms of dynamics and evolution, rather than origins, this idea makes intuitive sense. However, I've seen a lot of reluctance among Islamic studies scholars to apply this  methodology to forms of social prejudice and governing distinctions with roots in the premodern Muslim past, that also clearly affect modern social life among Muslims. Indeed, in popular Muslim circles the exact opposite is usually claimed. A popular take from a few years ago attributed most all recent critical revisionist scholarship on the issue to 'Orientalism' and anti-Muslim Afrocentrism. I do not think such a position can be sustained. Put simply, my contention is that racism(s) in the Muslim tradition (like in the Christian or Jewish traditions) have an independent pre-modern history that was not erased by colonial modernity and thus continues to impact the present.

 In a comment left below the article linked above, one cogent commentator, Sarah, asked: "Is what religiously matters to Muslims whether it was “American” racism, or whether there was discrimination at all? Are we discussing personal-level xenophobia, cultural ideas, the history of religious legal institutions, or the possibilities of religious primary sources?" In short, a lot of today's simplistic constructions of Muslim history around race are reflections of genuine contemporary hope and faith in Islam as an alternative to the systemically embedded racism of a morally exhausted post-civil rights US society. From this perspective it is understandable why scholars might be reluctant to talk about how modern forms of Muslim racism have much deeper roots than colonial modernity, fearing they will lend support to the rantings of racist western bigots. But in doing so, scholars leave themselves no way of meaningfully analyzing forms of racism originating from people thoroughly steeped in the Islamic tradition, well before the west became the west. When these are analyzed, it is rare to see commentary that goes beyond modern notions of generic anti-racism, in which race is merely a sinful aberration.

But the roots of racism within this 'special world-system' of Islam are complex, not merely the manifestation of human sin, or the universal tendency to favor one's tribal in-group. Remember that forms of racial difference have always co-existed ideologically with socially leveling ideas, sometimes within the same religious or political group. Belief systems with the ambition to universally reorder all humanity into a new community, can give birth to their own unique forms of systemic exclusion. While not unilinearly linked to color or complexion, Muslim forms of racism took shape in the historical patterns of acculturation, accumulation and dominion that accompanied the worldly success of Muslim empire. Scholars might profitably analyze the whole cluster of ideas in the Islamic tradition relating blood, culture, color and lineage, as ideas about race. We might then see more clearly how race, as an assemblage of ideas about physical and cultural traits, informed the creation of multiple cross-cutting social hierarchies of value in Muslim societies.

 TL:DR , saying 'race and racial difference is a modern colonial construct' is about as conceptually useful as saying 'the Muslim world is a modern colonial construct'. That is not to deny that a particularly pernicious form of racial difference, birthed in the European colonial encounter, had a world-historical impact and continues to operate globally. Race was an indispensable tool of governance in the colonial Atlantic world. But the Americas are not the origin of the construction of racial difference, any more than they are the origins of capitalism. In each case one needs to carefully unpack the historical meanings encompassed within the modern discursive signs.


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