Annette Lienau


 Domesticating the “Foreign”: Revisiting the “Idea of the Muslim World,” its comparative “Racialization,” and the challenges of conceptual translation

By way of introduction, I am currently grappling with a project that engages with the (late colonial politics) of transregional Arabic and its long-term impact on (post)-colonial writing, examining the politicization of sacralized and vernacular language forms across imperial lines.  My interests (and training) generally fall within periods after European hegemony (19th-20th centuries).


“Contrary to widespread assumption, the term “Muslim world” does not derive from ummah, a concept as old as Islam, which refers to the Muslim religious community.  Instead the idea of the Muslim world began to develop in the nineteenth century and achieved full flower in the 1870s.  Also mistaken is the belief that Muslims were united until nationalist ideology and European colonialism tore them apart. This is precisely backward; in fact, Muslims did not imagine belonging to a global political unity until the peak of European hegemony in the late nineteenth century, when poor colonial conditions, European discourses of Muslim racial inferiority, and Muslims’ theories of their own apparent decline nurtured the first arguments for pan-Islamic solidarity.  In other words, the Muslim world arrived with imperial globalization and its concomitant ordering of humanity by race.  The racialization of Islam was bound up with its transformation into a universal and uniform religious tradition, a force in international politics, and a distinct object in a discourse of civilizations.  Political strategy and intellectual labor made this new reality, and both Muslims and European Christians took part.” (Cemil Aydin, The Idea of the Muslim World A Global Intellectual History, Harvard University Press, 2017, p. 3)

In the course of framing my current project, I find myself intrigued with (and building on) Cemil Aydin’s recent work on the relative novelty of the “Muslim world” as an emergent concept and fiction, gaining currency in the wake of inter-imperial shifts in the final two decades of the 19th century and intensifying through the lead-up to the first world war as European empires expanded over a new diversity of Muslim subjects.  Among Aydin’s theses is that this trend coincided with the progressive “racialization” of Europe’s Muslim subjects (cf. Aydin 3-11, 38-40, 69-72) — a provocative idea, but one that Aydin arguably falls short of fully nuancing and substantiating.  (What, precisely, is meant by racialization?)

To take problems of conceptual transposability/translatability and reception into account, one might pose the following questions:  To what extent did Europe’s colonial “racialization” of subject (Muslim) territories coexist with extant Arabic/Arabophone approximations of ethnic difference? What alternative (non-Europhone) forms of (self)-description and (self)-differentiation did Europhone taxonomies elide, eclipse, or build on?  To the extent that the historical presence of Arabic as a shared language of ritual and scripture offers a lens (or proxy) through which to interpret presumed religious unities: to what extent does the politicization of Arabic offer insights into something like transregional belonging and differentiation within this newly imagined realm (the “Muslim world”)? Alternatively, to what extent might non-Europhone, counter-imperial authors on the subject display a kind of indifference to this imported notion (“race”) within a (re)-envisioned “Muslim world” (particularly at this critical period towards the turn of the twentieth century)?

In response to suggested questions and in order to further explore and raise potentially “usable” thematics for broader discussion, I have outlined (below) two near-contemporary, orienting texts: an article published in Paris/London in 1907 and a text published in Egypt in 1908—texts that offer two distinct visions the “Muslim world” and its constituents, with each asserting the position of the Arabic language or (print) media at its center.

  • La Politique Musulmane” Alfred Le Chatelier (1907)

The first text under consideration is an opinion piece penned by the renowned French Orientalist (and former colonial officer in Algeria and the French Congo) Alfred Le Chatelier (1855-1929), first Chair of Muslim Sociology and Sociography at the Collège de France, and founder of the influential Orientalist publication Revue du Monde Musulman (“Review of the Muslim World”) in 1906.  Entitled “Politique Musulmane” (and initially addressed to a British readership),[1] the text is remarkable for its concise overview of the alleged state of the “Muslim world” at the turn of the 20th century (near the time of the journal’s founding), with prophecies for the future of Islamic revivalism and its potential perils for Europe’s “muslim powers” (principally France, Britain, the Netherlands).[2]

In the course of this piece, Le Chatelier identifies Arabic as a shared language of ritual and as a means through which to interpret the “Muslim world’s” presumed “unity,” but notes a related, vital transformation (in the wake of Western Europe’s recent, imperial ascendancy over subject Muslim territories.  Although unified by a shared “religious language” and “community of morals” which assures “the World of Islam” a certain “social homogeneity,” the “Muslim world,” he claims, can no longer be understood, monitored, and governed through recourse to “4th century Hijri” manuscripts and contexts, but through the careful review of a growing proliferation of new print publications within its boundaries (11).  This, he insists, is where French, British, and Dutch Orientalists are deficient relative to the more meticulous, comprehensive scholarship (and surveillance efforts) of German Orientalists and institutions, working in the service of German imperial and commercial interests (whose ambitions and influence within the “Muslim World” proceed through subtler forms of “soft power”).[3] (cf. pp. 14-17)

In other words, by Le Chatelier’s admission, the distinction or transformation between periods before and after Anglo-European invasion or hegemony within subject Muslim territories are to be understood not only through the emergence of new print-media within the “Muslim World” (rendering obsolete or limited older exegetical and historical referents), but also through new practices of print-colonialism and politically interested forms of Orientalist scholarship–disciplined, reorganized, or reconfigured through the shifting calculus of inter-imperial threats and politically contingent modes of collaboration.  Indeed, Le Chatelier’s initial publication of this piece in the English journal The Standard (later republished in French), was above all a plea for the more “stringent,” “collective” and “unified efforts” of Europe’s “Muslim powers” in their collaborative approach to their Muslim subjects (against German ambitions) (21).

In the course of his conclusions, Le Chatelier equally identifies the stakes of ignoring the need for greater inter-imperial cooperation (principally between France and Britain), which he prophesied if left unheeded would lead to the declining influence and economic obsolescence of Europe’s (former) “Muslim” empires.  To this end, he claimed to characterize a principal global structure or dynamic persisting from before (to afterAnglo-European invasion or hegemony, by equating the “Muslim World” (or “Islam”) to a vast and exploitable global market—previously in ascent and returning again to a state of global domination in response to “a natural law: that of the instinctive drive towards higher profit by the least effort” (13). (He specified, however, that, as a commercial entity, “Islam” after European hegemony would have the new advantages of a demographic preponderance and the methods of European commerce—making all the more urgent France’s sustained engagement with the “Muslim World” as a matter of commercial interest and economic survival.) To cite him directly:

We can expect another manifestation of this law, when Islam will have thus attained its social equality with Western civilization. Islam will remember the time when it was the master of African and Asian commerce, when Ibn Batoutah visited its markets in India, China, the Maghreb, and Sudan. Guided by the methods of its European competitors, it will know how to profit from the advantages of a preponderant geographical situation. Old Europe will thus no longer be combatting against Mullahs and Ulemas, nor against Emirs and Rajas; she will be fighting against the bankers, traders, and manufacturers of a revived Islam. […] You doubt this? See what takes place not only in Syria, Tunisia, or Egypt, but in every port from the Red Sea to the Sea of China. […] This is the secret of the future. But it should not be forgotten that the future also has its laws that we cannot ignore if we do not wish to be swept into the past. (13-14)

Le Chatelier’s claims, then, expose the more mercenary incentives of Orientalist scholarship on the “Muslim World”– with the impending “risk” that Europe’s mismanaged or misgoverned Muslim subjects could independently revert to their former status as Imperial Europe’s more formidable economic rivals or commercial superiors within an African and Asian space.

Mediating this outcome, he claimed, was the rise of new (“occidentalized”) forms of literacy and higher rates of (westernized) education within the “Muslim world,” which, along with the development of a local press, would inevitably lead to evolving forms of nationalism within subject Muslim territories:

Under these conditions, what will be the consequences of the revival of Islam and its push towards western progress? At the end of the 19th century, the Muslim world barely counted a hundred journals. There are now close to a thousand, and there will easily be 2,500 or 3,000 in 1915.  […] If the proportion of “evolved” Muslims (that is, possessing occidental culture) is now no more than 2-3 percent, it will be not many years before that figure attains 10 percent. […] When Egypt attains 10 percent of “evolués” she will pass without a fight, by the simple force of things, from the rank of Realm in Trust to that of Nation in the Making (V. The Empire and the Century.)  The same will be true for Algeria and Tunisia, as for Russian Asia. It would have been otherwise, if Muslim nations were isolated within narrow borders; but the global expansion of Islam necessarily provokes a reaction from country to country through the development of the press. (pp 11-12)


If Le Chatelier here expressed anxieties regarding Europe’s prospective imperial decline and the rise of new “nations in the making” within the “Muslim World,” key figures in Egypt, a site he names as representative of this impending transition, offered an obverse perspective on these geopolitical shifts.  Emerging as the unrivaled, global center of an Arabic language press by the turn of the twentieth century and witnessing an Arabic literary revival (now known as the Nahda), many of Egypt’s major (Nahdawi –“men of the Nahda”) intellectuals were actively debating the terms of an anticipated cultural or civilizational ascent (vis-à-vis Europe in its technological or scientific dominance) and therein reassessing the status of Arabic as both (1) an inter-ethnic, religious language and (2) an inter-confessional language of increasingly “secular” (or non-religious) and “modern,” scientific vocation.[4]

The terms of this debate often involved a double orientation to assess: whether Egypt’s impending cultural revival would involve the emulation of Europe’s ‘technological’ advances and/or the emulation of past examples of Arab-Islamic geopolitical and cultural “superiority.”  This is particularly evident within the pages of Egyptian publications dedicated to the translation and domestication of new (European) scientific terms into Arabic (as Marwa Elshakry’s work attests).

An intriguing detail emerges within these early twentieth century publications on the assimilation and arabicization of “foreign” terms, suggesting the trans-historical persistence of debates about the indigeneity or inter-ethnic status of the Arabic language as a religious medium (both before and after European hegemony).  In evidence: Egyptian (Nahdawi) authors and intellectuals of the early 20th century redeployed longstanding, nominally “medieval” or “classical” concepts of indigeneity and foreignness (‘arab vs. ‘ajam) to make sense of their predicamentself-consciously asserting that they were not the “first” to domesticate “foreign” words (referred to categorically as: kalimat ‘ajamiyya) within an otherwise sacralized, religious language.  In so doing,  late 19th and early 20th century Nahdawi authors drew connections between their “present” predicament– re-standardizing the Arabic language for new print-media through the controversial “naturalization” of “foreign terms”– and the predicament of early Arabic philologists during the (8th-11th century) foundational history of the language’s standardization, in its domestication of “foreign (“ajami”) influences during the first centuries of Islamic expansion, and amidst emerging orthodox claims on the (lexical) integrity of Arabic as a revealed, immutable and sacred language.

One particular figure, Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Maghribi, is frequently singled out among Nahdawi intellectuals as a more conservative, traditionally trained author, who defended the assimilation of “foreign” terms into Arabic through relatively orthodox, religious claims.  In so doing, Al-Maghribi characterized the Arabic language as a changeable, inherently inter-ethnic medium that complements—rather than challenges—its Islamic religious vocation.  As ElShakry explains, he “drew repeated parallels between the growth and evolution of language and that of a people,” seeing in the perennial linguistic “naturalization” of ‘ajami (foreign, non-Arab) influences the shifting boundaries of the “ummah” (where this latter term might be ambiguously understood—either as nation or as confessional community).  According to Stetkevych’s overview of al-Maghribi’s principal claims:

The [ummah] formed itself out of two elements and along two paths: by natural increase of the autochthonous population inside the Arab ethnic group (al-tawalud), and by assimilation of non-Arabic elements (al-tajannus). In a similar way, the Arabic language emerged, grew, and should continue to grow both by derivation from Arabic roots (al-isthtiqaq, which is analogous to al-tawalud), and by assimilation of foreign vocabulary (al-ta‘rib, which could correspond to al-tajannus [the naturalization of “ajam”/foreign peoples). (Stetkevych 6).[5]

Two broader points here are implied by al-Maghribi’s position on Arabic as a historically changing, inter-ethnic medium. (1) First, to build on Cemil Aydin’s more general insight: “Muslim networks did at least as much to spread diversity as enforce uniformity” (Aydin 36).  (Note this seems to qualify or temper the arguments of an Orientalist like Le Chatelier, who claimed that Arabic as a religious language assured a certain social homogeneity within the “Muslim World”—rendering it vulnerable to the spread of proto-nationalist ideas within its broadly circulating print media.) (2) Finally, given that the object of these remarks are the shifting boundaries of an “ummah” ambiguously defined—as nation or confessional community—al-Maghribi’s claims point to the ambiguities associated with nascent or inchoate forms of nationalist identity, assuming new meanings in the earliest decades of the twentieth century with the unsettled identification of “Arabness” with “islamicity.”[6]  (Note: that the term he uses for the “naturalization” of new, non-Arab (‘ajam) converts– “tajannus”– into an ummah is etymologically related to the Arabic term that has come to mean “citizenship” – “jinsiyya” –in Arabic.)


Broader Implications

If Aydin is correct that the “Muslim world” as an imagined realm increasingly subject to European imperial control is  a recent (19th century) fiction –enabled by imperial Europe’s gradual exclusion of a weakening, Ottoman counterpart—and if a “Muslim world” equally features as a concept in counter-imperial, pan-Islamic writing (as Aydin also suggests) : the “racialization” through which claims (and counter-claims) of Muslim unity are interpreted deserves further scrutiny, through not only the metropolitan languages of imperial Europe, but (also) the cosmopolitan languages of Europe’s (polyglottic) Muslim subjects– Arabic being the principle example of such a medium.

To my mind, part of what complicates this issue is compelling historical evidence on the relative untranslatability of “race” as a concept in Arabic—an idea poorly or ambiguously translated in the (Arabophone) contexts to which Aydin claims to apply his insights.  In evidence: Marwa ElShakry’s treatment of the subject (of Darwin’s translations into Arabic in the late nineteenth century), underscores that the Anglophone/Europhone term (“race”) had no universally accepted equivalents in Arabic on the occasion of its reception as a pseudo-scientific idea (roughly after the 1860s).[7]  

Part of the challenge is that there are a variety of potential ways to address these implications and a diversity of texts against which to test them—any (individual) response will, of course, fall short.  My current inclination, however, is to contend with these implications by further exploring a second issue on which we’ve been invited to comment– on the durability or repurposing of certain (pre-colonial) concepts (“after European hegemony”), within the writings of several non-Europhone authors: on questions of “assimilation” or “acculturation” within the supposed boundaries of a “Muslim world,” on the (potentially related) thresholds of “Arabness” and “non-Arabness”  (on questions of assimilation and difference as inflected through Arabic as a shared, transregional language of scripture).

To this end (and although I am still contemplating my choice and may supplement this with observations on other texts), I am interested in revisiting the work of several Nahdawi Egyptian writers, including Jurji Zaydan, Taha Hussein, and Abd al-Qadir al-Maghribi, on questions of lexical borrowing and the linguistic boundaries of “Arabness” (in its relationship to scripture)—noting where turn of the 20th century texts explicitly reference earlier (pre-1500) translational practices.  In a prospective essay, I would be interested in exploring how Nahdawi writers, by engaging with more general, second order debates on the renovation or reform of Arabic itself as a receptive medium for “foreign” (‘ajami) influences, appear to be re-deploying longstanding, pre-colonial (Arabic) concepts of ethnic difference to assess new thresholds of belonging within a broader (Arabophone) community of Muslim believers (an audience presumably consonant with evolving projections of a putative “Muslim world”).

[1] First published on April 18, 1907 in the English paper The Standard, followed by a French version published in pamphlet form.  All citations are taken (and translated) from the French publication (archived at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France)—I have yet to locate the English version.

[2] Germany (as a “non-Muslim” European power)—as opposed to Europe’s “Muslim” Powers, France, Britain, the Netherlands) is here the principal object of Le Chatelier’s concern. The piece needs to be understood in the context (also) of the first Moroccan crisis (1905)—in which Germany’s apparent ambitions in North Africa became manifest– and the Anglo-French Entente Cordiale (1904) which helped to resolve Anglo-French imperial disputes in North Africa.

[4] Note that Le Chatelier in his piece implied that the ‘Arabophone’ and ‘Anglophone’ might be considered in near analogous terms—with “Arabic” as a religious language contributing to a certain “social homogeneity” within the “Muslim World,” much as the Anglophone ensures this for the British.

[5] Jaroslav Stetkevych, The Modern Arabic Literary Language: Lexical and Stylistic Developments. Georgetown UP, 2006.

[6] Cf. For context: Ami Ayalon, Language and Change in the Arab Middle East:The Evolution of Modern Political Discourse. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. 21-23, 27-8; and Israel Gershoni and James Jankowski, Egypt, Islam, and the Arabs: The search for Egyptian Nationhood, 1900-1930, Oxford UP, 1987.

[7] To cite Elshakry directly: “Race was [an] increasingly popular nineteenth century term with no universally agreed equivalent in Arabic.  Nineteenth century Arabic science journals found that they had to render new concepts of race—often ambiguous in the original too, of course—in various ways.  Some translators played off older classical older classical or religio-moral notions of human difference by using the phrase “tabaqat al-umma” (literally strata of people), utilizing the classical term “‘umma” (as in the concept of a Muslim ‘umma), meaning “community, peoples” or, later, “nation.”  Other renditions, such as “al-‘asnaf al-bashariyah” or “al-‘anwa’ al-bashariyah” (meaning “human types” or “human kinds,” respectively), gave general terms for the “type” or “kind” the specifically biological connotation of “species”: Darwin’s Origin of Species, for instance, was similarly rendered into Arabic as ‘Asl al-‘anwa.” Marwa Elshakry, “Knowledge in Motion: The Cultural Politics of Modern Science Translations in Arabic,” ISIS, December 2008, Vol.99(4), p. 714.  For Elshakry’s further treatment on “race” in Arabophone Contexts, cf. Reading Darwin in Arabic. Chicago UP, 2013, pp. 87-89, 246-7, 260.