x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Islam's heartland shifts to the East

As the Pope steps down and discussion starts over whether a non-European will replace him, we should think about the relationship between the Arab and Non-Arab Muslim world

Europe is one of the least religious regions of the world, and yet later this month it will be home to the election of the new Pope. This single man is arguably the most influential of all religious leaders, heading a strictly hierarchical Catholic church of 1.2 billion people.

Despite an image of Catholicism as a white western religion, reflected in a long tradition of a Eurocentric papacy, only 24 per cent of Catholics live in Europe, and this number is falling. Most live in Latin America (41 per cent) and Africa is the only region where it is growing.

The resignation of the current Pope has therefore prompted questions about whether his successor will follow centuries of tradition in the European mould - the last non-European pope is recorded as the Syrian Gregory III in 741 - or whether he will come from the more populous regions like Latin America. Such a departure from a European papacy will demand a re-imagining of the shape and nature of Christianity today.

The politicking over the next Pope's provenance and what this says about Catholicism should make the Muslim world think about its own relationship between the Arab and non-Arab worlds. What does the Muslim world think about the question?

Islam too has a traditional heartland, which naturally is focused around Mecca and Madina. As the language of the Quran, Arabic is the lingua franca of Muslims. And since the early history of Muslims is intertwined with Arab history, Muslims feel a strong affinity with Arab lands.

But, analogous to the heartland and diaspora of the Catholic church, in today's Muslim world most Muslims are not Arab, nor do they live in the Arab world. Nearly 65 per cent of Muslims live in the Asia-Pacific region, and there are nearly as many Muslims in Indonesia alone as the whole of the Arab world. Muslims in the subcontinent outnumber both put together.

Yet global Islamic discourse and culture is heavily dominated by Arabic culture. That's not to say this is right or wrong, rather it's a frame for us to ask questions about the cultures, representation, voices, and leadership that are given primacy and legitimacy for the world's 1.8 billion Muslims.

Could we ever imagine that the leading authorities and voices for Muslims might be Asian? With growing numbers of Muslims in America and Europe, could we accept a shift of intellectual, economic and political Muslim leadership from those regions? Could the Muslim world ever imagine African leadership?

Religious authority is undoubtedly tied together with political and economic influence, and so it's no wonder that Muslim majority nations jostle for position in leadership of the Muslim world.

Saudi Arabia is undeniably home to the cradle of Islam. Asia-Pacific is seeking to claim commercial leadership through industries like Islamic finance, European and American Muslims believe they will drive modernity and bring Islam into the modern era. Iran asserts its culture and civilisation. Turkey wants to reclaim its historic political power and sees itself as the legitimate leader.

It doesn't need to be a competition. There is space for many voices and representations, and a multiplicity would offer greater value, strength and resilience to the Muslim world. And most of all, it would support the ummah's promise of respect for multiple tribes and nations.


Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk