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Thematic Guide to Islam Outside the Arab World

Rüdiger Seesemann, University of Bayreuth (Germany)


Beginning with Oriental Studies in nineteenth-century Western Europe, academic disciplines concerned with the study of Islam have tended to narrow their focus to the Islamic "heartlands" in the Middle East. With the exception of Iran and the Ottoman Empire (and later Turkey), Islam outside the Arab world received only scant scholarly attention, as many scholars of the colonial and early post-colonial period continued to identify "real" Islam with the Middle East. Only recently has Islam in the "periphery" emerged as a subject worthy of scholarly interest. Interestingly, the impetus for the study of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa and the central, southern, and southeastern regions of Asia has come from disciplines such as history and anthropology, rather than Islamic studies. Since the early 1980s, there has been a significant increase in the number of studies of Islam outside the Arab world.

Islam Expands, in All Directions

Although fewer than 20 percent of all Muslims are Arabs, the conflation of "Islam" with "Arab" is still common to public perceptions of Islam. Indeed, the demographic tide turned against the Arabs as early as the eleventh century CE. By that time, Persians, Berbers, Circassians, and Turks had joined the Muslim umma, to be followed by various peoples of Central and South Asia. In the later period of the Abbasid caliphate (750–1258 CE), the areas under Muslim rule stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Himalaya Mountains. By the sixteenth century, substantial Muslim populations lived in Southeast Asia as well as East and West Africa. The colonial period coincided with, and inadvertently assisted in, the conversion of large numbers of people to Islam, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Nowadays, more Muslims live in Africa south of the Sahara than in the Arab Middle East. The region with the largest Muslim population today is South Asia. Indonesia is the nation with the greatest total number of Muslims. Muslim speakers of Persian and Turkic languages outnumber Muslim native Arabic speakers. In the present age, Muslims live all over the world, thus rendering the notion of "the Islamic world" inadequate to capture the entangled realities of their global presence.

Islam's spread to so many and such diverse geographic areas and cultures gave the religion a distinct multicultural character, a fact that becomes especially evident during the annual hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca, when people from all over the world flock to the holy sites in present-day Saudi Arabia. Although the beliefs and practices of Muslims feature a number of unifying elements (such as reliance on the same body of sacred texts and, by and large, the same manner of conducting prayer and other rituals), many observers, academics included, have tended to depict Islam outside the Arab world as intrinsically different. The difference is often expressed with ethnic or geographic signifiers, such as Turkish Islam, South Asian Islam, or African Islam. According to this perspective, non-Arab peoples adapted Islam to their own cultural and social peculiarities, thus creating syncretistic versions of Islam that made them deviate from the purportedly normative Arab-Islamic pattern.

Not only does the fictitious notion of a pure Arab Islam as opposed to syncretistic other "Islams" display an ignorance of historical realities (often linked to colonial views with racist underpinnings), it also fails to acknowledge the religious commitment of non-Arab Muslims and the significant scholarly traditions that emerged outside the Arab world. Certainly, places such as Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Kairouan, or Fez functioned as poles of orientation and attraction for non-Arab Muslims, but as early as the ninth century CE, non-Arabs, particularly those from Iran and Central Asia, provided important impulses for the development of the Islamic sciences, in the fields of hadith (Prophetic traditions), tafsir (Qur'an interpretation), Arabic grammar, Sufism, and philosophy, as well as medicine, mathematics, and natural sciences. Notable centers of Islamic scholarship in the purported periphery emerged in Iran and central Asia at a relatively early stage, and later included places in sub-Saharan Africa such as Timbuktu on the banks of the Niger river or Luuq in Somalia (dubbed "Timbuktu of the East"), Bukhara in Central Asia, Lucknow, Delhi, and Deoband in India, to mention but a few of the most important.

Modern Relations between the Arab World and Non-Arab Muslims

The relationship between Arab and non-Arab Muslims is a complex one. Muhammad, the recipient of the final divine revelation according to Muslim belief, was an Arab and received the revelation in Arabic. Therefore, Muslims all over the world commonly hold Arabness and the Arabic language in high esteem, and literacy in Arabic is a sine qua non for a Muslim who seeks recognition as a scholar. Much of the religious literature produced by non-Arab Muslims is in Arabic, and many biographies of scholars include at least a stint in one of the famous centers of Islamic learning in the Arab world. There are instances of non-Arab Muslim individuals who have adopted a fictitious Arab pedigree because of the prestige attached to such a genealogy. In certain regions of northern and northeastern Africa, Islamization and Arabization went hand in hand. In many other cases, however, Muslims—whether literate in Arabic or not—produced a rich religious literature in vernacular languages, frequently taking the form of poetry. As literacy in Arabic remained restricted to small circles of highly educated scholars, vernacular poetry was an important means in the spread of Islam in Asia and Africa. Qur'an interpretation and mosque sermons in vernacular languages played a similar role and led to the emergence of Turkish, Persian, Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Malay, Swahili, and Hausa as major Islamic languages. To this list, one can now add Spanish, English, French, and German, which have become important idioms for the expression of Islamic beliefs and ideas.

While it is true that lived Islam outside the Arab world can display features that are uncommon in Arab countries, one should exercise great caution with judgments about purity or syncretism. A case in point is Sufism and its related beliefs and practices, whose presence nowadays appears much stronger in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia than in Arab countries. However, this does not make non-Arab Muslims less "orthodox" than their Arab counterparts. Rather, it is indicative of the different course and impact of modernization processes in the Middle East compared to other regions with a large Muslim population. Popular religion in Egypt shares many features with popular religion in, say, Indonesia—just as Indonesian Muslim scholars have a lot in common with their Egyptian counterparts.

Some of the major contemporary intellectual trends and religious movements within Islam have their roots outside the Arab world. Examples include the Tabligh-i Jama'at reform movement, which originated in South Asia and soon spread all over the world, or certain Sufi communities and networks, such as the followers of the Turkish scholar Fethullah Gülen or the Senegalese Sufi leader Ibrahim Niasse. Various African and Asian countries also host major institutions of higher Islamic learning, such as the International Islamic University of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, the International Islamic University in Islamabad (Pakistan), the International African University in Khartoum (Sudan), the Islamic University in Say (Niger), and its counterpart in Mbale (Uganda). Many of the new intellectual trends within Islam receive their impetus from individuals and institutions outside the Arab world; prominent examples include the Swiss-born Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan, the Indian intellectual Asghar Ali Engineer, or the International Institute of Islamic Thought in Virginia, USA.

Further Reading

  • Bulliett, Richard W. Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period: An Essay in Quantitative History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979.
  • Ernst, Carl W., and Bruce B. Lawrence. Sufi Martyrs of Love: The Chishti Order in South Asia and Beyond. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
  • Jenkins, Everett. The Muslim Diaspora: A Comprehensive Chronology of the Spread of Islam in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Vol. 1: 570–1500; Vol. 2: 1500–1799. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland Publishers, 1999–2000.
  • Levtzion, Nehemia, and Randall L. Pouwels, eds. The History of Islam in Africa. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000.
  • Loimeier, Roman, and Rüdiger Seesemann, eds. The Global Worlds of the Swahili: Interfaces of Islam, Identity and Space in 19th- and 20th-century East Africa. Berlin: Lit, 2006.
  • Manger, Leif O., ed. Muslim Diversity: Local Islam in Global Contexts. London: Curzon, 1999.
  • Metcalf, Barbara D., ed. Islam in South Asia in Practice. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009.
  • Ricci, Ronit. Islam Translated: Literature, Conversion, and the Arabic Cosmopolis of South and Southeast Asia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.
  • Westerlund, David, and Ingvar Svanberg, eds. Islam in the West. New York: Routledge, 2011.
  • Westerlund, David, and Ingvar Svanberg, eds. Islam Outside the Arab World. Richmond, U.K.: Curzon, 1999.

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