Lies Your Colonizers Told You

My friend and I were already established bloggers when we decided to launch a faux Muslim advice website, piggybacking off of while poking fun at insta-fatwa e-zines. We concocted fake identities, he a stereotypical mufti and I an outrageous imam, giving absurd answers to made-up questions. And the site did well. Really well. We developed a readership that got our humor, and the deeper point behind it:

Question: Why can Muslim men marry four wives?

Answer: Because marriage is half the deen. So, if you get married four times, then you go to heaven twice.

Soon we asked our readers to submit their questions, thinking we’d get more of the same. But it turned out that Muslims worldwide were so desperate for advice, and so much at a loss for where to get it, that we got real issues. Families hating on their children’s marital choices. Depression. I mean, suicidal depression. Sexual abuse. Molestation. The Muslim world wasn’t farce, it was tragedy.

In hindsight, this shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Since when have we, as a Muslim community, been able to face up to our issues? We shut the site down, though it hurt to do so: Many Muslims needed help and we couldn’t provide it. In the years since, I’ve been disappointed by how rarely we admit to our real problems, though I know these aren’t exclusively Muslim problems.

But in our case, these problems are compounded by two inseparable realities. Many of our institutions and mentalities long ago passed their expiration dates. But we squeeze the hell out of these holdovers, rarely from reflective commitment, but rather because we feel these are parts of our embattled identity. To let them go would be to let the colonizer win.

As I travel to Muslim communities, here and abroad, I often hear young Muslims struggling with theodicy. Why does God let bad things happen? If God is all-powerful, why does He let innocents suffer? These are common questions, although in the case of the Muslim community – like the Jewish community – they have a collectivist component. For the Jewish community, the Holocaust was the great evil. For Muslims, the bloody and traumatic experience of colonialism plays a similar role, even here in America. Colonialism affected immigrant heritage Muslims as well as African-American Muslims, who after all are descended from West Africans on the receiving end of imperialism.

We’ve generally not come to terms with what happened, how it seeps into our discourse and how it distorts our pieties. Worse, we’ve bought into the myths behind these undeniable tragedies, and that may be colonialism’s most pernicious legacy. Perhaps the most decisive myth has been of Islam’s golden age, until 1258, when the Mongols kicked down the ramshackle edifice of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate. And then, nothing happened, until colonialism – either the just reward for our indolence or a cruel return to history – gifted by Christian Europeans whose confidence in the good intentions of their wars of choice never seems to wane. Colonizers justified their rule on these grounds: Lethargic Muslims didn’t deserve to rule themselves. They couldn’t. They – you – hadn’t accomplished anything in ages. Like domesticated Xerox machines, Muslim responses to colonialism depend on the same reading of history, frequently boomeranging between superficial fundamentalisms, whether Kemal Ataturk’s or Abul Ala Maududi’s. Our history isn’t a source of pride, it’s a source of shame and anger.

We imagine a distant past of faithful giants, who abruptly and inexplicably disappear, leaving us, their puny successors, in the world but manifestly not of it. We’re on the margins, and more than that, we too often want to be. We lack the courage to face up to the fact that the world is not black and white and rarely ever is, though to admit that would require disbelieving in the myth of golden age and decline. In the aftermath of colonialism, we cannot imagine successes, nor do we have the confidence to imagine the mental framework that would allow us to imagine success.


Last May, I led an intimate tour of Spain’s Muslim heritage. We passed our days in awe of Andalus’ aesthetics, gasping at its achievements and mourning its extinction. But the point wasn’t to take nearly 50 people all the way to southern Spain to kvetch and cry. Rather, I wanted Muslims to come to terms with their histories, that there was evil in its ages of splendor, and good in its times of hardship, and then figure out for ourselves how that history might speak to us today.

Our last three days were dedicated to Granada. We spent Friday morning at the Alhambra, but, oh, the Alhambra was built well after 1258. In fact, some of the most enduring legacies of Muslim architecture – the Taj Mahal, the grand mosques of Istanbul and Isfahan – date to centuries after the sacking of Baghdad. More folks became Muslim after the end of the Mesopotamian Caliphate than before, and many of this magazine’s readers are among them. In fact, in the last few centuries, Islam’s fastest growth has been in West Africa, and much of this under colonial rule.

If we buy the myth of golden age and irreversible decline, we cannot make sense of these achievements. Worse, the logic of this myth would force us to conclude that by this late point in our history, we are – to put it mildly – merely loitering in the world, waiting to go extinct. Nonsense. After 1258, Muslims had to re-imagine what Islamic societies could look like. And they did.

We are in a similar moment, and we can find strength in our history to face up to its complexities and nuances. Muslims have lived in, created and sustained pluralism and diversity for long enough and in enough places that we should not be overwhelmed by whatever faces us today. Let’s go back to 1258 and see what really happened.


The Mongols have savagely conquered Central Asia and the rich Persian heartlands of Islam. Their commander Hulagu strikes what many assume is the fatal blow: They burn Baghdad to the ground, trample the last Caliph, and move for Africa, threatening to end the Muslim world. But the Mamlukes, slave kings of steppe origin like the Mongols, stop them in 1261 – it is the first time the Mongols are delivered a real defeat on the battlefield. Let’s take a tour of what happened after.

India has among the most diverse Muslim populations in the world. That’s because India too held off the Mongols. Lahore, on the far western frontier, was frequently sacked – for which reason we don’t have much pre-13th century Muslim legacy there – but the Delhi Sultans held firm. India became a pre-modern America, a place of refuge for Muslims of means or just the good fate to get out before Mongol swords got to them.

This meant an enrichment of India, with Arabic and Persian speakers in high demand, whatever their origins, as well as numerous Islamic movements, from Sunni to every type of Shi’i, all of them putting down roots. Later, one branch of the Mongols even conquered India, using guns and gunpowder to steal India from those Delhi Sultans – albeit these Mongols, the Mughals, were Muslim by then.

The Indian Ocean littoral also absorbed Muslim refugees. Thousands of Central Asian Muslims fled the advancing Mongols and settled in Somalia, and were fully integrated into this maritime Muslim culture. A hint of this can be found farther south, on the island of Zanzibar, many of whose inhabitants call themselves Shirazi, for that glorious city in Iran where supposedly they fled from. It’s possible they did, and more telling that they could. Without a hegemonic caliphate, a common market or shared political identity, Islam (re)-created a truly global culture.

All along the Indian Ocean coast, from Madagascar to Java, new cities popped up, many independent. They traded across the ocean, creating new populations and new languages. Men took wives from opposite coasts and raised bicoastal children, a legacy of which can be seen in Yemen and Indonesia. According to Engseng Ho’s spectacular book, The Graves of Tarim, these connections went so deep that as recently as the 1990s, a high-ranking minister in Yemen was a first cousin of a high-ranking minister in Indonesia.

Moving west, Catholic Spain and Portugal drove out ethnically Spanish and Portuguese Muslims, who were once the (indigenous) majority in Iberia, just as Columbus sailed west to subvert the much wealthier Muslim world. In fact, confiscated treasures from the Granadan Nasrid dynasty might have paid for Columbus’ voyages, meaning – on a deep level – Muslims helped invent America.

In 1498, Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and after him the Portuguese savagely attacked the thitherto peaceful Muslim dominated trade across the Indian Ocean. But when da Gama arrived in India, he was stunned to find Lusophone Muslims, Portuguese who had long before been forced out of the Algarve – that is, al-Gharb – to India. No big deal to the global Muslim culture of the time. We even have evidence of Iberian Muslims as far as Tatarstan, which welcomed educated Spaniards. Spanish Muslims became part of the long legacy of Russian Islam, which dates as early as the 10th century – a story told in Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, and the movie The 13th Warrior.

Eventually, the Ottomans drove the Portuguese out of many of their bases, just one chapter in the history of the first global conflict, wonderfully narrated by Giancarlo Casale in The Ottoman Age of Exploration. The Ottomans simultaneously took on the Spanish, conquering North Africa with pirates who linked the economies of Europe and West Africa. Many of these pirates were Protestant refugees from an intolerant Europe, eager, like the Ottomans, to crush the great Catholic powers, later making way for England and the Netherlands to rise.

These pirate city-states were remarkably open: Conversion to Islam, regardless of your origin, gave you upward mobility, and pirates decided matters in mercantile parliaments. Sala, for example, now basically modern-day Rabat in Morocco, was an independent pirate power. One of its elected presidents was Jan Janszoom van Haarlem, a Dutch noble and convert to Islam who took the name Murad Rais; his son, Anthony, settled in Gravesend, Brooklyn, and is noted in the records of the time for his dusky features and disinterest in church services.

The pirate city-states faded, but their ideas and methods had made an impact in places such as England. John Locke noted how the Ottomans, like the Mughals the English were getting to know, had no need for eradicating alternative forms of religion, and wondered why such live and let live couldn’t catch on in England. This is the same England that reached Australia in the late 18th century, after which the original Australians were driven nearly to extinction.

Muslims traded with these first Australians for decades, maybe centuries, and never felt any need to convert or crush them. These Muslims were part of a wider culture that slowly expanded across Southeast Asia, and even founded Manila, though that city was seized by the Spanish soon after. Much to their surprise, the Spanish had sailed around the world and found Muslims on the other end. Filipino Muslims were driven south, until the Americans inherited the colonial mission and went to war too in Moroland.

And that’s just skimming the surface.


We either own up to our history, or that history owns us. Of late, Egyptians have faced down tanks. Tunisians toppled a tyranny. Brave Syrians and Bahrainis face down fire and worse. I’d like to think it’s because deep down, farther than everyday conversations, we know we’re the product of a civilization that has done great things – and can do them again. Islam demands dignity and doesn’t let one merely accept things as they are.

We’ve been duped by the myth of decline, which has tempted us into rigid and intolerant postures. When you’re certain you’re done for, you’ll blindly cling to what little you have left, convinced it cannot be added to, only subtracted from. Certain that globalization and openness are our opposite, we have celebrated narrowness as indigenous to us, as if it’s all-or-nothing: first all and then, for centuries, not a thing. The lies our colonizers told became the stuff our authenticity is made of. What would our ancestors think? §

Haroon Moghul is a senior editor of the Islamic Monthly and a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. He will be leading tours of Spain, Turkey and Bosnia in 2012.

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    Haroon Moghul

    Haroon Moghul is a co-producer at Avenue M, a widely published writer and a popular public speaker.

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