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.

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