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A term of European origin, pan-Islamism denotes the intellectual and institutional trends toward Islamic unity that emerged among Muslim peoples, starting in the midnineteenth century and continuing throughout the twentieth century. The need for a unified Islamic identity was a product of the challenges posed by Western intervention in and domination of Muslim societies during the colonialist period. Leaders throughout the Muslim world appealed to the Islamic tradition to solidify public opposition to foreign occupation and thereby gain political independence. Like its European namesakes pan-Hellenism and pan-Slavism, pan-Islamism used cultural ideas to achieve nationalist political ends. Unlike the ethnic identities emphasized in European nationalisms, however, pan-Islamism emphasized the religious heritage and symbols that both united all Muslims and set them apart from their Western Christian colonialist occupiers. The nationalist purposes to which pan-Islamism was primarily directed may seem at odds with the universal principles on which it rests, but this tension was largely resolved in the practical drive for political, economic, and social progress that enveloped Muslim societies. Nowhere is this resolution more clearly defined than in the life and work of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (18391897), a Muslim reformer and key advocate of pan-Islamism.

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani

Born in Persia, not Afghanistan as his name suggests, al-Afghani led the life of an itinerant scholar and activist. After his initial education in Persia, he studied in India and then worked in Afghanistan, Istanbul, Egypt, and Paris. Al-Afghani's travels provided him with a unique insight into the modern condition affecting all Muslim peoples, a condition he believed was characterized by political weakness, social instability, and cultural ignorance. Contact with the West did not cause this condition, according to al-Afghani, but it did bring it into high relief; it also alerted Muslims to an essential but long-dormant element of their own tradition: rational thought. For al-Afghani, the power and success of the modern West rested on its rejection of the stultifying restrictions of Christianity and its turn toward reason; since Islam, by contrast, was rooted in rationalism, Muslims need only return to the essence of their faith to overcome the developmental asymmetry that had come to differentiate Western and Muslim societies.

Arguing for the rational nature of Islam was a common strategy among Muslim reformers, who wanted to facilitate change while maintaining cultural identity. It was a strategy that recognized the Western orientation of modern development and the threat this orientation posed to cultural authenticity in the Muslim world. Indeed al-Afghani believed that social and political change could only be brought about if Muslims had a firm sense of the civilization to which Islam had given birth. By civilization, al-Afghani meant the intellectual and moral achievements that contributed to the unity and greatness of a peoplea notion he borrowed from the French statesman-historian François Guizot (17871874) and employed to foster a usable Islamic past. This past did not lead inexorably to the unification of the entire Muslim community (the umma ) under a single Islamic state. Instead, al-Afghani viewed Islamic civilization, the foundation of pan-Islamism, as a common cultural stream that fed the national political aspirations of such distinct countries as India, Persia, and Egypt. Here the logical appeal of Islam as universal glue for all Muslim peoples was subordinated to the practical realities of a world where nation-states had become the political norm. Pan-Islamism, however, had served a very different political purpose under the Ottomans.

Late Ottoman Politics

If al-Afghani was the father of pan-Islamist thought, Ottoman sultans were the first to implement pan-Islamism as official state policy, a policy with imperialist, not nationalist, goals. As early as the 1860s, the then-sultan, Abdul Aziz (r. 18611876), tried to extend his political authority beyond the Ottoman Empire by casting himself as the caliph, the designated ruler of all Muslims and the defender of the faith. His successor, Abdul Hamid II (r. 18761909), adopted the same mantle of authority. This pan-Islamic appeal was tied to the growing Western influence in the Muslim world that the Ottomans themselves had facilitated through their efforts to reform. The need to reform had become apparent as European peoples began to win back territory in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that had been lost to the Ottoman expansion into Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The same rising tide of technological advancement that had allowed European nations to defeat the Ottomans in Europe also permitted them to project their power abroad. This new political reality was made clear to the Ottomans when, in 1798, one of their autonomous possessions, Egypt, was invaded and occupied by the French under Napoléon Bonaparte.

Conscious of their declining power, the Ottomans embarked on a series of military, educational, social, and governmental reforms throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, and they sought technical assistance and advice from the very European nations that threatened the empire's territorial sovereignty. While dramatic and far-reaching, the reforms came too late to prevent the Ottomans from becoming known as the Sick Man of Europe, an inefficient and weakened empire whose lands in the Middle East and Central Asia looked ripe for the picking. The competition to take control of Ottoman possessions was widespread in Europe in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, but it was played out on a grand scalereferred to as the Great Gameby two imperialist powers bent on world domination, Great Britain and Russia. For the Ottomans, pan-Islamic propaganda seemed a viable means of reasserting its sway over Muslim subjects whose loyalty was being tested by new ideas like nationalism and undermining the progress of European influence among Muslim peoples in places such as India. Ultimately unsuccessful as an imperialist ideology, pan-Islamism did serve the nationalist desires of Muslim peoples trying to break free from both Ottoman and European rule. It failed, however, to take hold in modern Turkey, the nation that arose out of the heartland of the defeated and dismembered Ottoman Empire.

The Khilafat Movement

The first popular pan-Islamist political movement, the Khilafat movement (19191924), emerged in India after World War I, though support for the caliphate locally among Indian Muslims had been gaining momentum throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. Chafing under British occupation and mindful of the glory days of Mogul rule, Indian Muslims directed their spiritual and later political longings toward the remaining seat of independent Muslim rule: the Ottoman caliphate. With the Ottoman Empire in ruins after World War I and the office of the caliph, the caliphate, under threat of extinction, Indian Muslims organized to preserve what many viewed as the last vestige of Islamic unity and power. In 1919 activist groups like the Association of Servants of the Ka'ba and the Council of the All-India Muslim League convened a Khilafat Conference, during which the movement took official form as the All-India Central Khilafat Committee.

The politics of the Khilafat movement were clearly anti-imperialist and pro-independence, which accounts for the popular support it received across Muslim sectarian lines in India and across the Muslim world. Activists within the movement spread their message through publications at home and abroad. Delegations were sent to England, France, and Switzerland to shape public attitudes and government policy regarding the caliphate and the future of Muslim societies. In the end, however, it was not European leaders but the new leaders of Turkey who decided the fate of the movement by adopting a secular path for the nation based on a narrowly conceived ethnic identitya path that mirrored European strains of nationalismand then abolishing the office of the sultan in 1922 and that of the caliph in 1924. The Khilafat movement protested Turkey's actions, but with no power to impose its will and with its reason for existence eliminated, the movement had gradually faded from public view by the late 1920s. Pan-Islamism in India, however, continued to play a part in Muslim cultural and political life, especially the communal debates that resulted in the formation of Pakistan in 1947.

A World of Nation-States

The division of the Muslim world into nation-states has given rise to new strands of pan-Islamism. First, transnational organizations like the Organization of Islamic States (OIC) have been formed to express the collective sentiments and concerns of Muslim peoples. It remains to be seen whether the OIC or similar organizations can be effective in a world of nation-states, a question made more serious in light of the events following September 11, 2001. Like the United Nations, the OIC depends on its integrity and moral authority to effect change unless it has the backing of a strong state. Second, Islamism, or Muslim fundamentalism, has laid claim to the pan-Islamic heritage in order to remake, if not undermine, the modern system of nation-states that divides Muslim societies. While pan-Islamism advocates Muslim unity and strength, it is not conducive to the totalizing agenda espoused by Islamists who wish to (re-)Islamize every aspect of society. Lastly, pan-Islamism remains a current of feeling and thoughttypically associated with calls for justice and hopethat runs throughout Muslim societies and also minority Muslim communities in the West. Like religion itself, there is a certain ambiguity and ambivalence about the purposes to which it is put and the events that evoke it. The only certainty surrounding pan-Islamism is its perennial nature.

See also Cultural Revivals ; Empire and Imperialism: Middle East ; Ethnicity and Race: Islamic Views ; Fundamentalism ; Islam ; Nationalism: Middle East ; Pan-Africanism ; Pan-Arabism ; Pan-Asianism ; Pan-Turkism ; Westernization: Middle East .


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Jeffrey T. Kenney

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"Pan-Islamism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Pan-Islam. Movements to unify the Muslim world, particularly in reaction against Western threats of encroachment. Theoretically, Pan-Islam is a natural expression of the fundamental and necessary Muslim concept of ʾumma, but its realization in practice is elusive.

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"Pan-Islam." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Pan-Islam." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . (December 15, 2017).

"Pan-Islam." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from