The history of Muslim societies. Interview with Dr Cemil Aydın

Interview with Dr Cemil Aydın, Associate Professor, Department of History, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Ph.D. in History and Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University. Interview conducted after Dr Cemil Aydın’s lecture at the New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD).


–        You have been teaching the history of Muslim societies in a public university in the United States. What is the state of Islamic Studies in the US?

There has been an impressive growth in the scholarship on Islam and Muslim societies in American universities in the last four decades. This is partly related to the globalization of American universities, because Asian studies and Latin American studies also improved in North America during the same period. American university administrators realize that they can’t just focus on teaching about Europe and North America to their students in a world that is not Eurocentric. In this context, the number of scholars of Islamic Studies or Middle Eastern Studies is now in several thousands, publishing hundreds of books and articles each year and educating both graduate and undergraduate students. As a result, the sophistication and quality of knowledge about Muslim societies in American universities is very high. Yet, at the same time, the gap between academic knowledge of Muslim societies and public ignorance about Muslims has increased. Stereotypes about Muslims have become more widespread among the American public since September 11, and part of this results from the deliberate political use of islamophobia. Scholars of Muslim societies in American universities are helping to correct confusions and stereotypes about Muslims among the American public.

–         You clearly have a gift for public speaking. But what other reasons encourage you to address talks to the wider public?

I believe that academics have a responsibility to share their research with the general public. Public service is part of our duties in addition to research and teaching. In the US, we make more efforts to share our research with the general public in various forms such as public lectures, library projects or web page contributions. Several years ago, I had the honor to direct a National Endowment for Humanities project on Bridging Muslim Cultures, specifically aiming to create connections between scholarship and public knowledge. You can access our project results at the following web page:

As an extension of this effort to enrich the quality of knowledge about Muslims among the American public, for example, NEH supported a big library reading project called Muslim journeys, encouraging hundreds of American libraries to create reading groups related to good books on Muslim societies.

I believe that we need similar connections between universities and the general public in Muslim majority societies as well. That’s why I appreciate NYU Abu Dhabi’s public lecture series and I was honored to be part of this series. I am also glad that NYU is putting all of these lectures on its website.

–         When talking to the public do you feel more restricted in what you can say than when you are writing or talking amongst academics? If so, could you give an example?

Different audiences have different questions in mind and as academics we need to understand the public sentiments, memory and ideas about our research topic. When I speak to majority Christian audiences in the US, I am familiar with their set of perceptions and images about the history of Muslim societies and I should focus on these. When I speak to a Muslim majority audience, I should be aware of their visions and assumptions of Muslim history. For example, in America, the general public thinks that Muslims had a great civilization in the past, at the time of Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad between 9th and 12th centuries, and then they declined in science, technology and philosophy afterwards. This idea of Muslim decline is then related to other unsubstantiated arguments about Muslim societies such as the oppression of women, violence of their political systems etc. Academic research and scholarship have proved the fallacy of this image of Muslim decline after the 12th century. Yet, it is important to note that many Muslims themselves believe in a story of golden age and decline, although with different emphases. Europeans and American assume that Muslims declined because they were too religious and fanatical, while Muslims may attribute their decline to lack of ijtihad or to colonialism or to bad rulers. Nowadays academics no longer talk about golden age and decline and they have a more complex understanding of the transformation of Muslim societies over the centuries. When we talk to the general public, we have to acknowledge that Muslim public opinion still accepts the golden age and decline narrative and we must discuss this issue openly with them to make our research make sense and contribute to a better understanding of Muslim history.

–         We noticed during your talk that you integrated features of cultural history into your discussion of political history. Do you foresee including environmental factors, such as water, food and disease, into your future lectures?

Yes, in fact new research on cultural history, environmental history or the history of food are very exciting areas of academic scholarship. Earlier scholarship on history focused excessively on political narratives of empires, wars and kings at the expense of a rich history of society and culture. Yet one can not understand politics without culture and environment. How can we say that stories of Arab poetry, or the development of coffee consumption and coffee houses, or environmental transformations such as temperature changes that affected agriculture are less important than some wars among Muslim dynasties?

–         Do you subscribe to notions of East and West? Are they like Left and Right, somewhat outdated?

I do not subscribe to notions of East and West. Nor any of my colleagues. But I do study the history of the ideas of East and West. When did they originate? How were they used? For example, in earlier times, Muslim philosophers and scientists considered themselves as belonging to the same intellectual tradition as Greeks and thought of Hindu Indian math or Chinese medicine as Eastern knowledge. In fact, the Middle East of today shares both Hellenistic culture and monotheism with Europe. But in the late 19th century, Arabs and Persians became considered Eastern, similar to Indians and Chinese, in contrast to a superior West identified with Europe and the US. This 19th century construction of East and West had a lot to do with the politics of imperialism and its legitimacy and my earlier research tried to show these connections. There is no meaning to use these terms to describe the diversity of world cultures and politics today.

–         How would you analyze anti-Westernism in a country like Saudi Arabia, given its complicated relationship with United States?

In my books on Anti-Westernism in Asia from 1880 to 1950s, I actually argued that what we consider anti-Western ideas (of Pan-Islamism and Pan-Asianism) were actually not against western civilization or modernity at all. In fact, they represented a desire to create and belong to a just international order by criticizing Western imperialism and its cultural hegemony. I think, more or less, this analysis is still true for today’s anti-Westernism in Saudia Arabia or elsewhere: namely we need to identify the particular critiques of foreign policy of Europe and America or particular discontent about the inequalities or injustices in contemporary world order when we read anti-western rhetoric. This will allow us to create a better dialogue between intellectuals of Arabia and the US. Yet I am also aware that there are currents of anti-Westernism that focus more on cultural and religious purity or are related to domestic politics rather than international affairs. Overall, however, I try to tell my readers in the US and Europe that they should not see the critiques and challenges to them emanating from the non-Western world as mere conservative religious anti-Westernism, and take the content of these critiques seriously and engage in a dialogue. After all, there are many anti-Western arguments advanced by intellectuals in Europe and America too.

–         Comparisons between Turkey and Japan have a long pedigree. But do you think it would be meaningful to compare Japan with Saudi Arabia?

Yes, there are many academic books on connections and comparisons between the Ottoman Empire-Turkey and Japan, but there could be interesting research projects with regard to Japan and Saudi Arabia as well. The history of connections, for example, will be a fascinating beginning. I saw many Japanese articles on Saudi Arabia and Ibn Saud published during the 1920s and the 1930s. There have been Japanese Muslims going to pilgrimage and or businessman doing trade from 1920s onwards. Because Japan itself was a modernizing empire under a monarch (and until 1945, the Japanese emperor possessed considerable powers), Japanese intellectuals of the 1930s looked at the modernization and transformation under King Saud with sympathy. He could have been, in their eyes, an emperor Meiji of Arabia. During the cold war period, both Saudi Arabi and Japan were part of the US-led alliance, and their trade relationship boomed. Meanwhile, there were many Arab intellectuals who argued for a Japanese style of modernization, perceived to be protecting the cultural tradition while strengthening the nation and economy. I could see many fruitful research and book projects on the relationship between Japan and Saudi Arabia and I hope young graduate students will pay attention to this fertile research topic. Now that East Asia (Japan, China and South Korea) is emerging as a new center for the world economy, challenging the primacy of Europe and the US, it is time for Saudi intellectuals and student to pay more attention to these countries.’

Dr Cemil Aydın’s Papers may be accessed through the following link:

Lecture videos may be accessed through:

Interview by Mrs Moza

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