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Global Islam: A Very Short Introduction

Introduction: What Is ‘Global Islam’?

A Question of Definition

In recent years, Global Islam has become a pervasive yet opaque subject of contemporary discourse. Both citizens and scholars struggle to correlate rhetoric about the unity of Islam with the evident diversity of the world’s Muslim populations. This book aims to bring clarity through defining the distinctive characteristics of ‘Global Islam’ and demarcating its varied manifestations from other historically prior or geographically localized ways of being Muslim.

As used here, the term ‘Global Islam’ refers to the multiple versions of Islam propagated across geographical, political, and ethnolinguistic boundaries by religious activists, organizations and states in the age of globalization.

To speak of Global Islam, then, is not to make generalizations about the world’s Muslims at large. It is to adopt an analytical category to describe the particular forms of Islam promoted by religious actors who have operated across borders via the communicational possibilities of modern globalization since around 1870. To study Global Islam is therefore to scrutinize both the varying methods and theologies of different kinds of transnational religious actors. Bringing together the terms ‘global’ and ‘Islam’ allows us to focus not only on the doctrinal profile of different actors, but equally on their techniques of movement and transfer. This is what makes the doctrines promoted by particular activists, organizations and states not only Islamic but also global. The same approach could be taken to study of global Christianity, for example, by means of a focus on the methods of European Protestant missions to the Pacific and the success of African Pentecostal churches in Britain.

What characterizes Global Islam is not a particular theology but rather scale of outreach; that is, the ability of particular religious actors to propagate their teachings and replicate their organizations and activities across boundaries of different kinds. Given this global scale of enquiry, an abstract definition of religion runs the risk of leading to vague generalizations that are not only confusing but also misleading. For this reason, the focus in this book is on specific actors, their methods of organization and outreach, and their distinct teachings. This broadly sociological approach has the advantage of avoiding abstract or ‘essentialist’ models of Islam that depict all Muslims (or all forms of Islam) as fundamentally alike, when the social reality is that they are not. Moreover, looking at methods of organization, communication and mobility helps explain why some Muslim religious organizations (and their distinct theologies) have increased their transnational impact by making use of globalization’s opportunities while others have not.

The history of Global Islam is therefore not only a story of diversity, but also of divergence from earlier forms of Muslim religiosity. In order to recognize this divergence, it is helpful to make an analytical distinction between Global Islam and World Islam. To recap, as used here, the term ‘Global Islam’ refers to the versions of Islam propagated across geographical, political, and ethnolinguistic boundaries by Muslim religious activists, organizations and states that emerged in the era of modern globalization. By contrast, the term ‘World Islam’ refers to the versions of Islam that developed and adapted to local and regional environments during the millennium before the onset of modern globalization.

Thinking in terms of World Islam rather than through the older category of ‘local Islam’ (or such regional counterparts as ‘Indian Islam’ or African ‘Islam noire’) enables us to capture the interconnections made by the Sufis and ulama who crossed continents by foot, animal transport and sailing boats while nonetheless recognizing that this was not yet a world (or a religion) that was transformed by the forces of modern globalization.

Far from being identical, Global and World Islam have often been in conflict. Global Islamic organizations have often deliberately distinguished themselves from the traditional versions of Islam they seek to replace. As a result, the doctrinal, organizational and economic foundations of Global Islam have evolved in deliberate distinction from the various regional expressions of World Islam. In part, this is because the traditional institutions and leaderships of World Islam comprised the time-honored religious establishments with which the new transnational proponents of Global Islam sought to compete. Thus, over the past century and a half, many proponents of Global Islam have thus seen it as their duty to eradicate the ‘corrupted’ and ‘erroneous’ teachings of World Islam, which often emphasize the powers of Muslim holy men and saintly shrines to work miracles and intercede with God. Consequently, World Islam has survived most fully in regions away from the networks through which Global Islam has moved.

Global Islam should therefore not be conceived as the sum total of all versions of Islam practiced worldwide because hundreds of millions of Muslims still follow their traditional regional versions of World Islam. Nor should Global Islam be conceived as a single form of religiosity that dominates every region of the globe equally because not all regions of the planet have been equally impacted by – indeed, open to – the various promoters of Global Islam.

This approach helps dispel the widespread misconception that Global Islam is a homogeneous phenomenon, indeed that globalization promotes cultural and religious homogenization. In organizational terms at least, the evidence we will examine over the next three chapters suggests otherwise, for the opportunities of globalization have enabled a cumulatively increasing number of religious actors to promote not only different versions of Islam but rival claimants to religious authority.