Networks, Muslim

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Muslim networks, like all networks, are decentralized circuits of communication and exchange that depend on mutual trust and reciprocal need. Muslim networks are very old, dating back to the seventh century. They embrace the pre-Muslim networks of pagan Arabia, trading networks that linked a merchant named Muhammad to the citied world of Mesopotamia and beyond.

Early History

Trading networks include travel in search of knowledge, pilgrimage on behalf of faith, and proselytizing networks to spread the faith. The fourteenth-century network of the famous traveler Ibn Battuta reveals a vast Islamic world that extended from the Mediterranean Sea to the Malay Peninsula. It included Muslim polities and communities set within large clusters of non-Muslim cultures and populations, each linked to one another through port cities upon which they depended for sea trade and the transportation of both people and goods. The annual pilgrimage, or hajj, presupposed overland and sea connections to the Hijaz region on the Red Sea in western Arabia, even as pilgrimage, in turn, expanded and reinforced these same networks.

Proselytizing often occurred through Sufi orders, organized male brotherhoods that traced their roots back to the period of the prophet Muhammad and expressed Islamic loyalty through devotion to saintly persons and pursuit of inner purity. The role of Sufi orders was as inextricable from local politics as it was from transregional commerce, and nowhere is that role more evident than in the expansion of Islam from South Asia to Southeast Asia through Indian Ocean networks of trade, travel, and proselytization.

The Case of Acheh

Acheh, a port city situated at the northern tip of Sumatra astride the Strait of Malacca, exemplifies the ways in which major nodes in the various networks of the early Muslim empires worked. Acheh was the first area of modern-day Indonesia in which a Muslim kingdom was established. Marco Polo observed a Muslim king on the north coast of Sumatra in 1292, over a half-century before the oceanic voyage of Ibn Battuta landed him further to the south on the same island.

Ibn Battuta had traveled throughout the Muslim world from port cities in the Mediterranean to Arabia to India before finally arriving at Acheh in the Malay Peninsula. He found the sultan of Acheh to be an orthodox Muslim who presided over a vast system of constant exchange and negotiation. The sultan was a Muslim networker par excellence. The wealth of his tiny court depended on tribute levied from neighboring regions, but also from the ships that used the harbor at Acheh. Later, in the sixteenth century, the sultan of Acheh fought, with initial success, against the invading Portuguese, who were using the Indian Ocean to establish their own trading network. However, he was never able to consolidate his own regional power beyond Acheh, due in part to the emergence of other like-minded Muslim sultanates in neighboring port-city states that were strewn along the vast Malay archipelago.

Later sultans of Acheh were able to benefit from expanded networks that linked them to powerful overseas Muslim allies, both in India (the Moguls) and Turkey (the Ottomans). Because he served as the common overlord of others, the prince carried the title of sultan. This was so even though the sultans never subdued the interior of the island, and even though Acheh itself was divided into many smaller districts, each governed by hereditary chiefs.

The office of sultan marks both the power and limits of Muslim networks. Its persistence from India to Indonesia demonstrates the cultural diffusion of a major Islamic political institution. Even the seal of the sultan of Acheh was ninefold, paralleling that of the Mogul emperors, and like his Mogul counterpart, the sultan of Acheh claimed to be the shadow of God on Earth. Yet the two seals applied to very different polities. While the shadow of God on earth projected the great Mogul as the semi-divine lord of a vast realm, the sultan of Acheh ruled a domain no bigger than Goa, the Portugese enclave of western India. At the same time, the ninefold Mogul seal competed with another local emblem, the fivefold seal used by the hereditary chiefs of Acheh. The latter signified the hand as a symbol of power, and meant the ability not only to project power over others, but also to protect one's own possessions and territory. By retaining both seals, the Achenese sultan sought to proclaim both his Malay and his Mogul identity as equally authoritative, yet he remained a local ruler with aspirations that far exceeded his practical resources and actual options.

The greater force of Indian Ocean networks may have been in the religious rather than the political realm. In the sultanate of Acheh, as in Mogul India, Islamic devotion was often linked to the mediating power of Muslim saints. Just as Muslim traders came to the Malay Peninsula seeking expanded markets, spiritual leaders who were identified with institutional Sufi brotherhoods came with them, but seeking different markets. These Sufi masters exemplified the appeal of the Muhammadan Way, and Islamic loyalty is often identified with them—specifically with the tomb cults that pervade Acheh. While the actual Achenese tombs are less grand than those of their precursors in Mughal India, both reflect the persistent tradition of visiting saintly tombs. And the purpose of such local pilgrimages is functionally similar in India, Indonesia, and throughout the Indian Ocean. Whatever their background or status, pilgrims came to these tombs with gifts and vows, seeking the spiritual favor of saints for material or medical relief.

Two other features of all Muslim networks are evident in the case of Acheh: internal difference and external limits. The relation of formal religious authorities (ulema) to representatives of indigenous traditions was marked by tension, negotiation, and compromise. An oft-repeated dyad pits preconversionary (pre-Muhammad) disbelief (jahiliyya) against divinely revealed faith (iman/Islam). It evokes a radical experiential break between the old and the new, the impure and the pure, the false and the true. In Southeast Asian Islam the dyad is framed as adat (Ar. ˓ada) and hukum (Ar. hukm), where adat refers to all that stands outside juridical Islam, and hukum means "laws," or the announced guidelines of Islamic collective life. Yet the distinction is less observed in practice than it is proclaimed in theory. For Achenese Muslims, the two polar extremes of social identity can, and did, merge. Social relations between so-called representatives of adat, the hereditary chiefs, and and the champions of hukum, the ulema, were more often marked by at least tacit politeness, and often mutual respect. Muslim networks in Acheh, as elsewhere, inscribed difference even when they celebrated transnational solidarity.

Colonial History

From the seventeenth century on a major challenge to Muslim networks came through the imposition of colonial rule. Dutch and Portuguese, then British and French commercial empires not only expanded overseas by oceanic routes, they also incorporated and then transformed the preexisting Muslim networks. As Kenneth McPherson has observed, in his essay "Port Cities as Nodal Points of Change," throughout the Indian Ocean region some ports became centers of European political, economic, and military power, while others declined or vanished. "The great European-controlled ports such as Karachi, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Rangoon, Penang, Singapore, and Jakarta grew at the expense of other ports in Gujarat, Bengal, southern India, the Malay Peninsula, and Java, which either declined or refocused their economies to become feeder points for these great ports or enclaves of local maritime activity."

The fate of Acheh was poignant. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, the harbor king, the sultan of Acheh, was able to keep his maritime polity cohesive by subsuming hereditary chiefs under his authority, at the same time as he waged war against the Dutch. When the Dutch finally subdued the Achenese, after more than thirty-five years of warfare, they shifted the reins of political power to Java. A bloody guerilla campaign against Indonesian forces persisted until 1956, when Acheh was recognized as an autonomous province yet made subservient to the Javanese state. In effect, the Muslim networks of modern-day Indonesia mirror the politically centrist power of the colonial, then postcolonial state. The nodes were not equivalent; but all of the separate provinces, from Acheh to Timor, came to reflect the pre-eminence of Java, and its capital city, Jakarta.

Beyond Southeast Asia, networks of colonization and migration proliferated throughout the Muslim world, from the Indian Ocean to the shores of the Atlantic. Though decentralized, they were marked by the same transregional logic of mutual trust and reciprocal need. A notable example is the new strand of Shi˓ite loyalty that emerged during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, at the same time as the Mogul and Safavid empires were experiencing internal revolt and foreign invasion. From Karbala and Najaf, shrine cities in the Shi˓ite heartland of Iraq, to commercial centers in Iran, to princely courts in northern India, there emerged a Shi ite network of scholarly and also familial connections. The traffic was two-way, providing material as well as spiritual benefit to all nodes on this extensive transregional circuit. While juridical scholars of Iraq and Iran received large sums from their wealthy Indian coreligionists, the scholars of India benefited from the prestige of their northern neighbors. Each of them found that the pursuit of rational sciences, along with the traditional religious sciences, not only enforced their own sense of academic prominence but also allowed them to engage European science.

Though wary of rational sciences, the Sunni world also expanded its networks of learning, through the travel and exchange of reform-minded scholars. From the Arabian Peninsula, whether the ritual heartland of the Hijaz or the strategic port cities of Yemen, to the east coast of Africa and to the Asian archipelago, Muslim reformers responded to the European colonial incursions by forming their own scholarly networks, committed to reviving and expanding the textual core of Islamic subjects. More than a few of these Sunni networks were motivated by loyalty to institutional Sufism, and to one of the most socially active of Sufi orders, the Naqshbandiyya. They promoted Islamic revitalization at all levels, and they also advocated a double jihad, militarily against European imperialism and intellectually against imitative Westernization.

Muslim Networks in the Information Age

The revolution in communications that marked the late twentieth-century global economy also transformed the nature of Muslim networks. Cassette tapes helped foster the Iranian Revolution. Satellite TV overrides governmental controls on local TV stations to beam alternative Muslim messages, including cleric talk shows, fatwa workshops, and a variety of Islamic entertainment to Arabic-speaking audiences. Since 1997, a major alternative to CNN-style global news has been provided through the Gulf based Al-Jazeera. CD-ROMs, too, have become popular, circulating both literary texts and visual artifacts to broad Muslim audiences. Finally, there is the Internet, which offers many networking options, from chat groups to websites, and, of course, e-mail. All these options for expanded exchange and alternative authorities rely on access and speed but, even more, on the need for new criteria of trust.

These new conditions for the exchange of information have generated new kinds of networks, most notably transnational alliances of women who are working for conflict resolution, human security, and justice at the local and global levels. Since the 1980s, and particularly since the 1985 United Nations conference on women in Nairobi, networks of Muslim women have been fighting for their rights in a newly Islamizing political context where women's rights and roles are highly contested. Some of these women's networks are local, like the ones that have appeared in Pakistan, Sudan, and Algeria; others have a global reach, like the Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML), whose Islamic feminist agenda is to empower women to seek their rights as observant Muslims, and it includes the exchange of information about ways to deal with gender discrimination and also transnational collaboration to reform Muslim Personal Law to make it more friendly to women.

In the current era, as in preceding phases of rapid change, networks remain pivotal yet ambivalent. The war that inaugurated the twenty-first century was the U.S.–led attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan. The administration of President George W. Bush marked terrorism as, above all, Muslim inspired, even while proclaiming that Islam itself was not to blame, just certain Muslims. Many news groups have referred to al-Qa˓ida, the guerrilla organization linked to the Saudi dissident Usama bin Ladin and cofounded by the Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri, as a terrorist network. It is terrorist because it intends to destroy Western, specifically American, targets wherever it can find them. And it is a network precisely because it is structured around nodes that communicate with one another in nonlinear space, relying on neither a hierarchical chain of command nor conventional rules of engagement. Al-Qa˓ida might be best defined as a coalition of dispersed network nodes intent on waging asymmetrical warfare. Like Colombian and Mexican drug cartels, they feature small, nimble, and dispersed units capable of penetrating and disrupting, with the intent to destroy, massive structures. Often they elude pursuit and evade capture, although in the case of al-Qa˓ida, its operatives kill themselves, or are killed by others, in each nodal attack on a fixed target or group.

While the case of al-Qa˓ida has become compelling in the aftermath of 11 September 2001, there is another case that demonstrates the long-term organizational power of modern-day Islamic networking. The women of Afghanistan became a subject of intense scrutiny after the U.S.–led invasion in October 2001. Much media footage was devoted to the oppression of veiled, secluded, and often brutalized Afghan women, yet decades before 11 September 2001 a network of Afghan women had mobilized, and also projected themselves, their history, and their cause, via the Internet. RAWA, or the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, predated the Internet. It was founded in 1977, even before the Soviet invasion, and it worked to defeat the Soviets but also to provide help for Afghan refugees in Pakistan. It was a network of transnational cooperation and multitiered resistance throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Now its pivotal role on behalf of Afghan women has been dramatized through its website at, where RAWA advocates strive to maintain a distance both from the Taliban and their would-be successors, the Northern Alliance. RAWA, even more than al-Qa˓ida, demonstrates not just the persistence but the resilience of Muslim networks as a major form of social and political organization.

Muslim networks are no longer primarily male-dominated structures. They include women and others who resist oppression and who participate in horizontal alliances that project Muslim values of justice. Above all, they seek to build structures that are at once democratic and capitalist, yet not coeval with Euro-American imperialism. While it is too early to gauge their impact, it is impossible to ignore either their novelty or their determination.

See alsoGlobalization ; Ibn Battuta ; Internet ; Qa ida, al- ; Travel and Travelers .


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Bruce B. LawrenceMiriam Cooke