Islamic and Muslim

Today’s post is a somewhat unusual one, a bit of a soapbox piece, a riff on a bit of linguistic usage to which I have grown more and more sensitive on this trip: the distinction between the words “Islamic” and “Muslim.” Now, to anyone who thinks about it for more than five seconds, the basic difference in meaning between the two words is pretty obvious: Islamic is an adjective that refers to something related to the religion of Islam, while Muslim is both an adjective and a noun, and means, in addition to something related to Islam, a practitioner and things related to such practitioners. That said, there are somewhat more subtle differences between the two words as currently used that merit analysis and present food for thought.

Let us consider the difference between the words “Islamic” and “Muslim” through the phrases the “Islamic world” and the “Muslim world.” To a large extent, these two phrases are used interchangeably–googling “Islamic world” takes you to the Wikipedia entry for “Muslim world” and I myself have been guilty of using both to refer to our current trip. And, in some strict semantic sense, the two phrases may be equivalent–they both refer to the parts of the world where Islam is the dominant religion or a dominant cultural force, where most people are Muslim. But I believe there is a meaningful difference in connotation that people need to be aware of.

To try to pry apart the potential difference between the two phrases, let us consider a correlative phrase: What comes to mind when you hear the “Christian world”? Initially, you might just think that the phrase refers to the countries where Christianity has been a dominant cultural force, i.e., Europe and places where Europeans settled, such as the Americas. If you think a little longer, though, your mind might make reference not only to place, but to a time: a time when the Christian religion was perhaps the most dominant cultural force–the Middle Ages. The most abiding image of the “Christian world,” I would argue, is Europe in the medieval era, perhaps even more specifically the Crusades. After all, why use religion (“Christian”) as a designator, unless you want to refer to the significance of religion in the place/time that you are designating? If no particular reference to Christianity is desired, you have the choice of alternate descriptions–including the “Western world,” which in the present refers to substantially the same geography as the “Christian world.” If you use the phrase the “Christian world,” you are probably using it because you want to make reference specifically to religion as *the* dominant cultural force.

Now, back to “Islamic” and “Muslim.” Because the Islamic/Muslim world stretches from Senegal and Mauritania in Africa, up to Bosnia and Turkey in Europe, through the Levant and the Gulf, into Central and South Asia and then out to Western China and Southeast Asia all the way to the southern Philippines, there is no easy non-religious way to describe the Islamic/Muslim world–no easy geographical alternative such as “Western.” We are forced to use the religion as the descriptor. However, just as with “Christian” in the phrase the “Christian world,” using the word “Islamic” or “Muslim” tends to emphasize religion–instead of just noting it as the common feature that distinguishes the region, a way of delineating geography, it makes religion appear to be *the* dominant force in the region, to make the places seem more religious than they actually are. Simply by referring to the region as a unit, we accidentally suggest the dominance of religion in the region–there is no “secular” way to refer to these places as a group.

Which is where the developed distinction between “Islamic” and “Muslim” comes in handy. I believe that the words “Islamic” and “Muslim” have developed in practice a similar relationship to each other as the words “Christian” and “Western.” “Islamic” focuses attention on the religion itself, the precepts of the faith; “Muslim” has become more general and almost geographical. For example, consider “Islamic art” and “Muslim art.” Islamic art is art somehow related to the faith of Islam, such as perhaps Quranic calligraphy or mosque architecture; Muslim art is art made by a Muslim or someone in the Muslim world (and may be rooted in traditions from the Muslim world, but not strictly religious ones). Does this distinction have any historical philological basis? Perhaps not, but it is a useful one nonetheless. “Islamic history?” The history of Islam. “Muslim history?” The history of Muslims.

In keeping with this, I believe that we should avoid “Islamic” whenever possible, unless referring specifically to the religion and its precepts, as it tends to highlight in a misleading and unhelpful manner the role of religion in Muslim societies. Yes, there is such a thing as Islamic law or Islamic finance, but just as often people use “Islamic” when trying to make reference to the region as a region, and not to the religion–in those cases, “Muslim” comes in as a better and more descriptive alternative, such as in the phrases “Muslim cinema” or “Muslim cultures.” Or, better yet, we should look beyond religion and recognize the usually more dominant cultural or national forces, and use more specific adjectives, such as “Arab” or “Persian” or “Turkic,” or “Saudi” or “Malaysian,” or even “Middle Eastern.” After all, how often do people hold “Christian art” exhibits, “Christian voices” festivals or workshops of literature by “Christian women” (other than those dealing specifically with religion)? The more we look upon the Muslim world as some sort of monolith driven by religion, the more confused and skewed our perspective becomes and the more likely that the Muslim world will feel it necessary to band together, in an unhelpful way, as victims of Western misrepresentation and persecution.

The Arab World

Morocco was the last Arab country on our itinerary, and so I thought it fitting to do a brief recap of the Arab world, as visited by us. (Note: The Arab world should not be confused with the Muslim world, which includes non-Arab Muslim places.) As “Arab” is, at its most basic level, an ethnic designator, my survey will focus on demographics and cultural identity within these states.

Our entry into the Arab world on this trip began with a stopover in the Gulf, in the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Not only by its membership in the Arab League and the (Arab) Gulf Cooperation Council, but also through its name, the UAE reminds us that it is Arab. And, given its location in the Arabian Peninsula, one could hardly disagree, on many levels. However, as most who have visited the UAE know, the UAE is a country that may be owned and operated for the benefit of the local Arabs–called Emiratis–but is primarily inhabited by outsiders (80% of the population), some of whom are Arabs from other parts of the Arab world, but most of whom (perhaps a majority of the population) are from the Indian Subcontinent. One proud Indian resident told us that Dubai is the most modern Indian city–and in some ways it is hard to dispute the description of Dubai as an Indian city. Could South Asians at some point overwhelm the locals and take over the country? Have they already? Oman, though also solidly “Arab,” and populated far more by “natives” than overseas workers, has a distinct cultural identity owing to its former colonial empire, and dark skinned Omanis of clearly African descent but Arab identity seem to fit in quite seamlessly into Omani society–a multicultural vision of what it means to be Arab.

From there we traveled to Syria and Jordan. There is a dost-protest-too-much quality to Syria’s official name, the Syrian Arab Republic. As I described in my posts of 2008.04.16 and 2008.04.25, Syria may be squarely in the center of Arab history, as the base of the Umayyad Caliphate responsible for most of the expansion of Arab identity and Islam, but the actual ethnic makeup of Syria, in some genetic sense, is incredibly diverse and clearly not the same as the Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula. Basic awareness of history points out that the population must be not only of Arabian descent but of Phoenician, Greek, Persian, Turk and Roman (and perhaps even some Crusader and Mongol). Jordan is somewhat more Arabian, its royalty claiming descent from Mohammed, but the many Palestinians living in Jordan no doubt share the same genetic background as the Syrians.

After some more stops in the Gulf and a hiatus from the Arab world in the Turkic world (see post of 2008.11.05) and Iran-e Bozorg, or Greater Iran, by which I mean all of the areas in the Near East where Iranian languages are spoken, such as Afghanistan and Tajikistan (see posts of 2008.05.12 and 2008.06.12), as well as Muslim East Asia, we returned to the Arab world in Cairo.

Is the official name of Egypt–the Arab Republic of Egypt–as misleading as Syria’s? I would argue yes. Egypt, as the most populous country in the Arab League (more than twice as much as the next most populous country), may have a good claim to represent modern Arab identity today, but a comparison of the reliefs and paintings of Ancient Egypt–created hundreds and thousands of years before “Arab” existed as a significant cultural designator–with the faces of modern Egyptians shows that the population of the Nile seems to have remained largely constant. Egyptians may consider themselves Arabs, but they really are Egyptians first.

Again after leaving the Arab world, we returned in Mauritania, one of the newest members of the Arab League (see post of 2008.12.12), and one that somewhat straddles Sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa. This was followed by Morocco, a country that is increasingly recognizing its Berber identity as well as its Arab (see post of 2009.01.21).


Is there such a thing as the Arab world? A common sense of identity that the countries of the Arab League truly share? Yes, of course, but it is one of significant diversity–diversity of ancestry (with people of many different ancestries now claiming Arab ethnic and cultural identity), as well as diversity of religion (in particular the Christian populations of Egypt and the Levant, see posts of 2008.10.01 and 2008.04.16) and many minority groups (from the South Asians of the Gulf, see posts of 2008.04.03 and 2008.04.04, and the Kurds and Armenians of Syria, see post of 2008.04.16, to the black Africans of Mauritania, see post of 2008.12.12).

Gibraltar and Ceuta

The Rock of Gibraltar

Islands are often conquered by external powers. Two of the first British colonies in the New World were Roanoke and Jamestown, both islands. Europeans first established themselves in West Africa on the island of Goree just off of now Dakar. The African island of Zanzibar was held by the Portuguese and then the Omanis, as were the islands of Pemba and Lamu up the coast. Singapore and Hong Kong are both islands. The appeal of taking an island is obvious–an island is much more easily defended (some even had the advantage of being relatively unpopulated when “found”) but can still serve as a base for restocking ships or for forays into the mainland. On a relatively small piece of land can be built a formidable economic and administrative center. The extent to which one can develop an enduring and distinct social or political culture on an island is quite astonishing–consider that Arab Zanzibar lasted until 1964 and Hong Kong held by the British until 1997. Singapore remains an unchallenged, independent city-state and Taiwan is still controlled by the “Nationalist” Chinese, who have built a thriving, prosperous democracy just miles away from a rival many many many times its size.

And, it doesn’t take an island to accomplish these ends–a peninsula or “near-island” has also been used countless times. Examples include the city of St. Louis in now Senegal, Macau and the city of Bombay.

Our route from Morocco to Spain took us into two of the three odd territories in the region that are still examples of a “foreign” power in control of territory acquired in the colonial era: Spanish Ceuta on the African continent and British Gibraltar on the Iberian peninsula (the third is Spanish Melilla, also attached to Morocco). The colonial histories of Ceuta and Gibraltar go way back–Portugal or Spain has held Ceuta since the early 15th century, and Spain kept Ceuta even after it gave up its colonial control over (other) parts of Morocco, and the British have been in control of Gibraltar since the early 18th century, with its residents overwhelmingly rejecting Spanish sovereignty as recently as 2002–and in each the culture of the controlling power has taken deep root, battling against the geographical and demographic forces that will no doubt, over time, put stress on their statuses. How long will they last?

Some photos to consider the unique socio-political circumstances existing in Gibraltar and Ceuta.

Gibraltar’s Muslim history is recalled in the prominent white mosque built by the Saudis in 1997.

The name Gibraltar comes from Gibr Tariq, meaning Rock of Tariq, the Muslim Berber conqueror of Gibraltar and much of the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century.

Other street names serve to remind you that you’re on British soil, like this avenue just in from the Spanish frontier.

British-style booths and bobbies, despite the fact that locals actually speak not English, but a language indistinguishable from Spanish.

Moorish-inspired architecture is a reminder that you are not only close to Spain, but the Arab world. Below, the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity.

The Union Jack, flying on the Rock

The geography of Ceuta explains in part how long it has remained in control of a different power than the mainland. The border does not currently lie at the narrowest point, but the isthmus is still marked by medieval walls and moat.

Churches and mosques vie for space.

Ceuta is not only a bit of Spain in Africa but a bit of the European Union in Africa, an entry point for refugees and migrants from all over the continent. In the second picture, Moroccan workers commuting into Ceuta. Just as Moroccans commute to work in relatively wealthier Ceuta, many Spaniards and Gibraltarians living in Spain commute into Gibraltar.

Muslim woman, walking in downtown Ceuta

[Gibraltar and Ceuta are, geographically speaking, examples of near enclaves. For a list of similar places, see:

We passed near a couple other notable enclaves on our trip: Nahwa, now pay attention, a piece of the UAE inside a piece of Oman inside the UAE–we just *had* to make a detour here when we were in the UAE/Oman in April 2009–and the many enclaves of Central Asia. “Islands” of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan lie in Kyrgyzstan, islands of Kyrgyzstan in Uzbekistan and islands of Tajikistan in Uzbekistan–all this despite the fact that the ethnicities in these countries are totally mixed up anyway (see post of 2009.07.08). The enclaves appeared after the disintegration of the Soviet Union–had the practice of reuniting all ethnic groups with their ethnic name country continued, Central Asian boundaries would have been almost completely redrawn! For more information, see and]

From Africa to Europe

As I’ve said before, one of the great things about overland travel is being able to experience the transitions between places. Places may appear as solid blocks of color, delineated by neat lines, on a map, but the reality is that places blend and bleed into each other. Derek used to remark how, when taking the New York subway, your location shifts as if by magic–as if by pneumatic tube, which of course some early subway systems were based on, you are whisked from one place to another, instantaneously and jarringly, without seeing any of the places in between. Each neighborhood exists in one’s mind as a certain radius around each subway entrance, unconnected to other neighborhoods. And so it is with air travel. I remember as a child reading the introduction to the book The Twenty-One Balloons, and its elegy on balloon travel. We may not have the teleportation it disdains, but travel by modern jet is similar–traveling by air disconnects us from what used to be a fundamental part of the travel experience, the “getting there.” In a world where you can fly direct from Paris to Mopti in Mali or from Verona to Samarkand, places until recently reached only by exerting extreme effort, there’s a lot to be said for avoiding air travel when possible.

We’ve completed two great overland stretches on our trip–from Shiraz, Iran to Xian, China, through the old Silk Road, and from Cairo, Egypt to Venice, Italy, through Palestine and Turkey, using one short flight to cross from Israel to Cyprus–and are nearing the end of our third, from Dakar, Senegal to Spain, crossing the Sahel and the Sahara. And today we took one of the most monumental and defining steps of that journey, the crossing of the Strait of Gibraltar from Africa to Europe, a continental shift in geography and politics.

Morocco may lie in Africa and Spain in Europe, but of course even the most minor delving into the two countries identifies their close ties throughout history–history which ties almost all connected regions together, despite their apparent differences. In the case of Morocco and Spain, the two Mediterranean regions have often been part of the same cultural and political spheres, from the Carthaginians to the Romans to the Arabs. Even the break caused by the Reconquista and more recent times is being eroded by proximity and deeper historical cultural ties, as Moroccans emigrate northward and Europeans vacation and retire southward, and perhaps even more by technology, in the form of a futuristic tunnel connecting Andalucia to the North African coast.

So, by ferry, a farewell to Africa, and a welcome to Europe.

The line to get on the ferry, headcover helping to identify the ethnic Moroccans, perhaps travelers perhaps new immigrants perhaps citizens of Spain

The pillars of Hercules, in sculptural form

From mid-Strait, it’s possible to see Africa on one side and Europe on the other

Walled Cities of the Muslim World

Walls of Taroudannt, Morocco

Encircling walls have been, historically, a common feature of cities around the world. Beijing’s and Paris’s old walls may have been replaced by ring roads quaintly maintaining references to the old gates, and few big cities have maintained their walls (Istanbul comes to mind), but most of the cities of the world were at all point surrounded by walls protecting the urbane and civilized from the relative lawlessness of the hinterlands as well as foreign invaders. Walls distinguished what was inside, the developed density of organized city life, and what was out.

I don’t want to get into causes–an interesting discussion, no doubt–but many of the greatest walled cities that survive into the present day seem to be in the Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East. Cairo, Damascus and Jerusalem are some of the most fabled, while smaller but still notable examples include Khiva in Uzbekistan, Lefkosa/Nicosia in Cyprus and Meknes in Morocco. Even among the Muslim cities that have lost their walls, many such as Old Delhi and Kashgar have retained much of that old walled atmosphere.

Walls of Cairo

Walls of Lefkosa/Nicosia

Walls of Khiva

That old walled city atmosphere–what is it? It has a lot to do with density–when walls constrain the growth of a city, urban life is forced to develop inward and upward, and life of every sort fills the alleys. Commerce and markets–the souqs so characteristic of Muslim cities–consume much of the urban core. Families are seen strolling from home to workshop to restaurant to hammam. And just as safety was one of the main reasons for building walls, to be able to maintain the order of civilized life inside, safety still reigns in these cities. Children run in the side streets, and scale and proximity somehow prevents the anonymity of city life from developing, every neighbor a constant presence.

We thought that we had a pretty thorough experience of Muslim walled cities by the time we got to Morocco, but we were pleasantly surprised. Of all the walled cities that we have visited, none equals the atmosphere of Fez–probably the most genuine, authentic and atmospheric walled city in our travels. More than any place else, one feels a continuity in Fez–a sense that the same people have occupied the same homes and narrow alleys for hundreds of years, living their lives in very much the same ways. Below, some images of Fez.

Fez is actually two different walled cities in one, with a substantial royal enclosure to boot. Here, the walls of Fez al-Jadid, or “New” Fez.

Markets fill many of the main arteries of traditional walled cities. Sometimes, covered.

Commerce is not limited to the “traditional”–here, a Credit Agricole branch.

Complementing the markets are warehouses or inns, called funduqs or khans, for merchants and merchandise.

Greeting neighbors, perhaps on the way to the mosque beyond

Fresh water and proper sewage facilities are of course essential to the functioning of a city–perhaps the single civil engineering technology most important to life in density. The street of Fez are still filled with fountains, public restrooms and hammams.

And room for industry as well. The famous tanneries of Fez are still in full production, not only for the local market but for import abroad.