Breaking the ‘Muslim’ stereotypes


American artist Frederick Arthur Bridgman’s 1904 painting, The Harem

The last 20 years have seen a growing appetite for knowledge about Islam and Muslims among literati world over. Various theoretical, as well as tangible, reasons can be advanced for this curiosity. Much of it was stirred in the wake of American scholar Samuel Huntington’s theory about the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ that projected Muslims along with some other Asian nations as the ‘Other’ to the West. Even when one disputes the validity of his ideas, what cannot be disputed is their all-permeating impact. As a result, Islam and Muslims have become the subject of intellectual and epistemic inquiry, particularly in the Western world.

The unique events of 9/11 that entailed a large loss of human life in New York gave further credence to Muslim Otherness vis-à-vis the West. The demonisation of Muslims that ensued also synchronised with similar developments such as the London bombings and acts of terrorism in Madrid and Paris. The figure of ‘Muslim’, constructed and confirmed as the diabolical ‘Other’, became the most sought after subject for scholarly investigation in universities around the world. Academics and writers like Bernard Lewis and John L Esposito became relevant because ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslims’ already formed the focus of their scholarship.

As the Western academy was doing all it could to unravel the epistemic convolutions around Muslims and their faith from a typically rational Western standpoint, several Muslim writers have come up with their apologias for Islam and Muslims. One such work is Ali Mahmood’s voluminous Muslims.

The 528-page tome is so exquisitely produced that, at a first glance, it appears as a coffee-table book. But even a random browsing of its pages shows it to be a serious endeavour in popular history writing that is encyclopedic in its scope and character. I call it popular history because the author does not have formal training as a historian. It is written as longue durée history that focuses on long term trends rather than on specific events. This approach is not currently in vogue but Muslims is such a delightful read that it could bring readers back to reading history books.

One must acknowledge the amazing extent of the author’s erudition. It reminds me of Syed Ameer Ali’s A Short History of the Saracens which is one of my favourites despite it being written almost 120 years ago. The author of Muslims engages with the West in almost the same manner as Syed Ameer Ali did — highlighting Muslims’ contribution to world civilization, particularly when Europe had descended into a dark age. Despite this uncanny resemblance, I am surprised at not finding A Short History of the Saracens in the bibliography for Muslims.

Before looking critically at the contents of the book, it will not be out of place to first problematise the term Muslim(s). What makes it really tenuous is its signification as the sole identity marker for disparate groups of human beings inhabiting different spaces, different times and different cultures. Religion is the only commonality between them, but, despite their ethnic, lingual and sociocultural differences, all of them have been lumped together under a single rubric.

Before going any further, it will be worthwhile to dwell on the lexicology of the word ‘Muslim’ to make better sense of it.

‘Muslim’ (Arabic: ) means “one who submits (to God)”. It is the active participle of the same verb of which Islam is a verbal noun, based on the triliteral S-L-M which means “to be whole, intact”. A female adherent of Islam is a Muslima (Arabic: ). The plural form in Arabic is Muslimun or Muslimn and its feminine equivalent is

Muslimt. The word Mosalman (Persian: ), alternatively Mussalman, is a common equivalent for ‘Muslim(s)’ used in Central and South Asia. Until at least the mid-1960s, many English-language writers used the term Mohammedans or Mahometans. Although such terms were not necessarily intended to be pejorative, Muslims argue that these are offensive because they allegedly imply that Muslims worship Muhammad rather than Allah. Other obsolete terms include Muslimite and Muslimist.

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