History of the Modern Middle East—Lecture 2 (History of Islam) (6)

The following are notes from the lecture series done by Dr. Richard Bulliet for the History of the Modern Middle East course held at Columbia University (Columbia Course Catalog No. W3719) in the Spring semester of 2009.  

This final portion of the lecture covers the final wave of expansion of Islam, one that is going on today, that comes through the propagation of the faith through mass media at the end of the 19th century, through electronic media in the 20th century, and the Internet during the 21st.   Prof. Bulliet gives his predictions about the future of Islam, and concludes with his metahistorical musings comparing the unfolding of Christianity to that of Islam. 

12.  The Fourth Big Bang—Mass media and social media

Prof. Bulliet suggests that the fourth inflation begins in the last third of the 19th century, and is continuing on today.   It has to do with the change in the media by which Muslims become acculturated.    If you were a reasonably well-to-do person you might earlier have studied Islam formally in classes on hadith or classes on jurisprudence in formal schools and madrassas ?.  If you were of a different disposition or different social level, your acculturation might largely have been through the Sufi order, where you have a sheikh whom you follow.   But whichever of those forms it took or the other alternatives that were available, they were all predicated upon the idea of face time with the person you were learning from, like the Sufi leader you emulated as a murid, or the sheihk whom you emulated because he was the professor in your classroom.   Because we all know that properly you worship the professor (laughter), and when you see him, you follow him on the campus—ah, the good old days (laughter).   But what happens is that the revolution that had overtaken Christian Europe in the 16th century, that is to say, the print revolution, intrudes into the Muslim world in the late 19th century.   There were earlier newspapers and printing to some extent but they did not extend into the religious sphere.  The religious books really come to be printed in the last third of the 19th century, and then the print revolution has layered upon it the electronic revolution and then the internet revolution of today.  What this means is that, outside of the family circle, fewer and fewer people become acculturated into Islam through face time with a mentor, and more and more through what they read, what they hear on audio tapes, what they see on video tapes, or what they encounter on the World Wide Web.

If you go back to the pre-1860 notion of face time with a mentor, mentors were in a sense gatekeepers of Islam.   They were people who would tell you what Islam was and you trusted them because you knew who they were, who they came from, what their backgrounds were, and who their families were—this was someone whom you could respect.  When you read a book, you don’t know anything about the author.  And when you go to a website which says, “as a Muslim you should do this,” you don’t know who posted that.   The fact is that the most important things that we learn nowadays through print and other media are being mediated to us by people whom we don’t know anything about, and if we knew something about them we would not necessarily be pleased.

This was a great change in Islam; it meant that people who had negligible qualifications to be spiritual mentors could become spiritual mentors, so that the new elite go beyond the old professors and the old Sufi leaders, to include newspaper writers and editors, media personalities, people who write pamphlets and broadsides, and so forth.   You look at these people and you find that a lot of them have credentials for Muslim leadership that would not have been respected back prior to 1860.   The result is that there has been an explosion in the 20th century of ideas of what Islam is.   Islam has become an amazingly diverse religion in the 20th century, and it still becoming more diverse.   A lot of the ideas are ones that Prof. Bulliet personally doesn’t find appealing, but he says that since he is not a Muslim, that is perhaps not relevant.   The other way of saying this is that a lot of these ideas are lacking, and yet there is a marketplace for ideas in which people are drawn to them or repelled by them.  It is very hard to get any sort of geography of how this is happening, although groups are involved rather than simply individual exploration.

13.  The Fourth Big Crunch—The Future of Islam

You have an inflation of the notion of what Islam is that arises from individual communication through the print and electronic media that become available in the 19th century down to the present day.   At the present day, the question is, are we getting to the point where it is going to contract?   This is very interesting, because you are now having within the Muslim world leading figures who are getting very concerned about the broad distribution of new ideas about Islam.   This is something that has been accelerated by the events of 9/11.   Now you are getting groups that say “we really have to put boundaries on this; we have to reassert central control.”   Prof. Bulliet suspects that over time, boundaries are going to be put in place and that this great expansion of Islam will be tamed in some fashion, but that remains to be seen.

14.  Conclusion

Prof. Bulliet wanted to make one final statement on this subject, and that is that all of this description of how Islam has grown and changed over 14 centuries seems to suggest that the world community of Muslims has an innate tendency to pull together.  In other words, you could have another model where you would say, “I think you’re a heretic, you think I’m a heretic; let’s fight for a while and never speak to each other again until eternity.”  That’s the Christian model (laughter), where you are never able to come back together.  “I hate you, and I’ll never talk to you again and let God sort it out;” you have this fissioning model in which religions become more and more diverse.  But with Islam, you have this tendency to come back to something central, and Prof. Bulliet thinks that’s distinctive–that may not be exclusive to Islam, but he thinks it is distinctive.  What he is going to suggest is that because Islam has never had a church, has never had a hierarchy, and has not had a workable political central expression for 1200 years, since 835, it may be that the community of Muslims functions differently in its living of the faith with respect to other Muslims than other religious communities do.

That’s an hypothesis, that there is something special if not unique about the Islamic community over 14 centuries that has caused it to recognize when it is getting overextended and when to pull back.   This is the metahistorical, Big Bang-Big Crunch theory of Islam.

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