It is difficult to feel sympathetic for dystopian fears in the US that the empire is dying and that this time it is for real. The pandemic has certainly made palpable the cracks in Euro-American coloniality; but since crisis is what capitalism is made of, we should not be too quick to succumb to its liberal threats that its demise will take everyone with it. We have heard this tale before. If Muslims survived the fall of the caliphate and communism, the collapse of racial capitalism may actually be an auspicious moment to think through the bonds between peripheries along the traces of unfinished decolonization projects.
Some of these attempts had already been set into motion before the pandemic. Indeed, part of what had drawn the three of us to the Imagined Borders, Epistemic Freedoms conference in Boulder, Colorado in early January 2020 was a desire to connect what was at that time happening in Beirut, Tehran, Baghdad, and Hyderabad with the mass mobilizations in Quito, La Paz, Caracas, and Santiago. It was an attempt that Catherine Walsh summed up as the opening of cracks and fissures in the veneer of totality, from which the modern/colonial matrix presents itself as indefectible. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the US, the Black Lives Matter uprising has spread around the world, forcing even the staunchest skeptic to seriously reconsider the logic of decolonial, anti-capitalist movements as one – if not the only – way to dismantle systems that perpetuate global inequalities.
Cracks and fissures here are openings to not only resist the carceral logics of racial capitalism, but also re-exist, as Glen Coulthard, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Lindsey Schneider, and Clint Carroll discussed regarding their involvement with indigenous land-centered praxis and the decolonial everyday. A considerable portion of the conference also focused on decolonizing pedagogy and education, with Motsaathebe Serekoane sharing their experience at the University of the Free State in South Africa on what decolonial knowledge praxis may mean beyond the ongoing demands for the removal of statues, moving instead towards more structural methods of de-linking from colonial and Eurocentric modes of knowledge production and pedagogy. We could not help wondering how Islam and Muslims fit into the decolonial praxis not only as supporting the politics and pedagogies of everyday life, but also in relation to our responsibility and solidarity with decolonial and abolition movements across the world.
For the three of us, the journey starts with complicating how we find ourselves as Muslims situated in a now-streamlined Cold War history that has made us into strangers by the very divisions in which so much of the world is still thought of as first, second, and third, or developed, semi-developed, and under-developed. Samira comes from the (former) third world, Piro from the (former) second world and Romana from the (former) first world by way of (post)colonial migration. Boxed into this disjointed Cold War spatiotemporality, we should have had no shared past or present political projects. But we did and we do, because the Cold War division of peripheries through the ideological confrontation between “Soviet/communist alternative to Western/capitalist hegemony” did not manage to entirely erase our Ibnbattutian geographies and political itineraries. To reclaim these geographies and critically examine the political projects that were imagined might be one way to start by what Sayyid (2016) calls clearing as a way of Muslims speaking from a decolonial and autonomous position. A Muslim autonomy and political position that “requires not only Muslims to know their deen but also to know their history,” without which “any understanding of our deen will be stilted, and simply reproduce and reinforce Orientalism.”
One way to think about Muslim autonomy and history is to start by acknowledging that what is happening in Muslim communities around the world is not just a matter of colonial histories and the obvious failure of both postcolonial nation-state politics and Islamist movements, but that there are ways in which those processes have also contributed to various degrees of colonization of the teachings and embodiments of Islam and the challenges Islamic praxis faces today in charting a decolonial Deen and Iman. Our very meeting and meanderings about these issues question what we are frequently told these days about there being no such thing as a “Muslim world” and that the Muslim world is a mythical creature of orientalism. This in turn has become its own convenient orientalist trope deployed daily as it were in the West to appease liberal anxieties that Muslims are not out to get them. Deconstructing the “Muslim world” as a modern phenomenon is just another way of denying Muslims the ability to speak, not to mention how a constant evocation (and internalization) of this notion of a “diverse” and “divided” Ummah has become almost a necessity to exist as an acceptable Muslim subject in modernity.
We realize, however, that there are difficulties and disenchantments in the intersections of decolonization and Islam, especially since so much of how we think of decoloniality today sits unwell with the Islamist movements of the early 70s that came to be all categorized as fundamentalist. But also, what we consider decolonization in Islamic thought is a wide variety of situated realities and revolutions, from the decolonization of Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, and Iran to the ongoing struggles for liberation in Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In this brief piece, therefore, we want to chart some questions about what decoloniality could mean in Muslim communities today and what lessons can be drawn from the larger histories of decolonization in the Muslim world. Perhaps the best way to do this is to first discuss what decoloniality is, to move toward a different kind of clearing, one that would – as S. Sayyid argues – clear misconceptions among ourselves about decoloniality and Islam. It is in the hope that widening our understandings and visions of our presents and pasts can empower us to start seeing – and being in – a different kind of “Muslim world,” one not imagined and held hostage by Western fiction but felt, faithed, and embodied by ourselves as we move in and around its cosmic, sonic, and sensory constellations. This may require bold steps for those working – like some of us are – in Western academic establishments, where questions about Islam and Muslims are still dominated by donor hostility to dictate the subject and its matter.
Decoloniality is not a search of some mythical pure past in Islam. We already have that: it is called Wahhabism. Indeed, the emergence of Wahhabism during the Cold War may in part be able to explain the problems with a critique of decoloniality as a search for the pure pre-colonial past. Unable to overthrow a colonial government in Saudi Arabia after its supposed formal decolonization, the Wahhabi thought that emerged out of Najd scholarship and would come to influence and finance the rise of Salafism became obsessed with the purity of piety and the past, while leaving actual politics to a Western maneuvered monarchy and its military. It was a step which, paradoxically or not, adhered to the secular formula of distinguishing public and private where religion is solely a matter of the latter. This poses the question: What does it mean to engage in the “purely” theological exercise of “interpreting” and “reinterpreting” the scripture without understanding how coloniality impacts our very understanding of “faith” and “religion”? We are thinking about the piety in politics and politics in piety in Islam as they do not exist separately from each other. But any call to merge the two – interestingly – threatens both Wahhabism and secularism. It is this depoliticization of Islam that the Saudi government found adaptable and exportable. So much of Wahhabism inevitably became a project of policing the boundaries of Islam, especially around body and gender through racialized class and caste structures.
So much of this approach came to influence post-revolutionary movements across the Muslim world from Malaysia to Morocco, where – while women were central to decolonization struggles – their participation in their aftermaths was stifled. Moreover, the Wahhabi-inspired body-and-behavior left geopolitics in the hands of secular nationalists like Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose Cold War aspirations for secular modernization suppressed Muslim movements for liberation, frequently deeming them inadequate and inconsequential to “development”. Nasser’s non-aligned commitments notwithstanding, his attempts to create a modern and moderate Islam along enlightenment secular/spiritual divide were divisive and ultimately inspired the postcolonial brand of institutionalized Islam that was sectioned off from the “secular” institutions of power. And while great work has been done in recent years to deconstruct secularism in the postcolonial nation-state context, decoloniality would mean to also think how Cold War developmentalist secular projects came to dictate geopolitics as well – the kind that continues to reverberate through much of the secular-spiritual splits and fissures in the Muslim world today. Nowhere was this perhaps more obvious than in the Egyptian revolution of 2011, where the freely elected post-revolutionary government led by Mohamed Morsi was overthrown and replaced with the West-backed Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Moreover, decoloniality would allow us to think through what Encarnación Gutiérrez Rodríguez calls the “coloniality of migration” – exploring how Muslims navigate migration between “racial capitalism and the asylum-migration nexus” but also how large migration and population exchanges in the mid-20th century continue to mark the absence of a home Muslims could belong in or return to, as populations marked as “Muslim” figure in the large population exchanges and re-settlements that marked the early 20th century.
Decoloniality, however, should not entirely be about reclaiming the decolonization dilemmas of the late 19th and 20th centuries – from the likes of Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī to Jalal Al-e-Ahmad, Ali Shariati to Zainab al Ghazali – regarding whether Islam should modernize or not, the role of Islam in “modern” life, etc.; rather it is about reclaiming these dilemmas from the geotemporal confines of Eurocentric epistemic infrastructures and strategic concerns to know “the Muslim mind,” so to speak, and move more towards understanding better what they mean for us today. This may require some unapologetic picking up of the pieces to deal with the struggles and strife in our communities to devise new repair and reparation strategies from the ongoing violence of racial capitalism, while also confronting poverty, anti-Blackness, misogyny, and homophobia in our communities. To a large extent, this is already happening, and it should be no surprise that women and women-led initiatives are at the forefront of these movements. From the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement to the Le Parti des Indigènes de la République and the Muslim Anti-Racist Cooperative, Muslim undercommons (to borrow from the poet Fred Moten), especially women and queer Muslims, are forging common forms of belonging, inviting questions about the possibilities of decoloniality and/with/in Islam akin to Sirin Adlbi Sibai’s (2017) urgings to become less concerned with preservationist concerns with the past and dogmas and doctrines and rather to be and think in Islam “above all as an experience” through the “decolonial option”. We think this means being in and speaking about events and issues that are not selectively curated to merge into a historical trajectory not our own.
Another subject that we found ourselves returning to during the conference panels and the breaks in between them was the shared mutuality, more than the direction that decoloniality can give Muslims, or vice-versa. How do we move beyond the indignation of Islamophobia, morphed as it has become into a global political capital and as important as it remains as a subjectivity, so that we can start to imagine different – and possibly decolonial – Islamic futurities? In other words, how can we de-link and divest from engaging with an ever-present gaze; both the gaze of the other and the gaze of our own – the internalized gaze that pushes us to constant self-policing? This direction is also what the subjects that emerge in Romana Mirza’s work dance and move towards – affirmations of the desire to be closer to one another which is the way to get closer to oneself in Islam. Mirza’s works utilizes digital platforms to understand how Muslim women walk, dance, and destabilize patriarchy and liberal notions of diversity.
New mediums – from Mangal collective and Decolonial Kiratkhana to The East is a Podcast and Critical Muslims – are doing just that by opening up spaces to people who are not keen on maneuvering the mainstream academia and media or are banished from them altogether. Trans and queer Muslims – from Waria al-Fatah trans-led madrassa in Jakarta and Shemale Association For Fundamental Rights mosque in Islamabad to the Women’s Mosque of Canada and the London Queer Muslim-run zikr and theology group – are (re)claiming their time and making their space in Islam. Artists like Hushidar Mortezaie, Faluda Islam, Saba Taj, Jassem Hindi and Laylatul Qadr are engaging with what we might call a decolonization of Islamic aesthetics and desire as Insurgent aesthetics (Ronak Kapadai, 2020). Moreover, a slow but certain synthesization of transnational solidarities has widened our peripheral visions, as in the last three decades young Muslims in music have pushed towards solidarity through what Hisham Aidi calls Rebel Music. Important to note here is also the decolonial computing work of Syed Mustafa Ali concerned with what digital mediations of Islam may mean for Muslims in the present future.
The other question that we want to bring attention to concerns universalism, Islam, and decoloniality, especially since the decolonial praxes from Latin America have stressed the importance of pluriversality. We want to stress here that while we acknowledge Islam being universal, it does not claim universality. Muslim decolonial doing and thinking therefore would have to start from situated circumstances and cannot assume an overarching framework for the Ummah, so to speak. A decolonial Islamic framework today would not seek out conflict between, say, politics of piety and piety in politics. Instead, it would have to task itself with taking up questions of class, race, gender and geopolitics, desire from the Insān (individual) to the Iman (faith) and ijtihad (independent imagination) and the jamaat (assembly) all the way down to Adab (everyday decency). We want to lay stress on ijtihad, in particular, as a method that has been used in fringe communities in Islam historically to question the dominant narratives and embodiments of Islam, such as what Sherman Jackson calls Blackamerican Islam. But we also acknowledge that in some contexts, ijtihad might also be used to aspire to coloniality by packaging Islam in the most agreeable way to modernist/colonialist/capitalist palate in the name of re-interpretation. From that point of view, decolonial de-linking can be thought of as an almost essential part of what it means to be Muslim in today’s world. Here we are thinking of Islamic feminism and wondering if Islamic feminist praxis is at all possible without a decolonial framework. In other words, how do we avoid replicating an Islamic iteration of colonial feminist rhetoric in Islamic feminism without deeply engaging with decoloniality? In some contexts, such as those in which Muslims find themselves in India or the US today, ijtihad might mean intersectionality. Whereas geopolitically, it certainly means aspiring less to Euro-capitalist progress and strengthening and aligning more with movements in the Global South, especially in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. In other words, we are thinking of decolonial praxis in Muslim communities as a potential politics of not only questioning the ways in which coloniality/modernity has alienated us from ourselves and our communities both local and global, but also how to imagine an Islamic otherwise in line with abolition that is not saturated in either capitalist dystopia or Marxist Eurocentric-nostalgia.
As most of our work relies on praxis and people that charted a different way of thinking about Islam, Muslims, and the contemporary capitalist-colonial matrix, in this short piece that came out of those reflections at the conference, we wanted not so much to anthologize but rather to reference and acknowledge the people and praxis that got us here, as a way of thinking through the entanglements of Islam in and through decolonial praxis by piecing together fragmented and neglected common histories and shared conditions through references where we all met somewhere: a place where Hamid Dabashi, Amina Wadud, S. Sayyid, Taha Abderrahman, Catherine Walsh, Inderpal Grewal, and Meyda Yeğenoğlu meet Saba Mahmood, Ramon Grosfoguel, Leila Ahmed, Talal Asad, Houria Bouteldja, Malek Alloula, and Fatima el-Tayeb. But we also intended to ask: How do we envision the discourse on decoloniality and Islam in praxis? With these reflections we are less interested in attaining a prescriptive praxis of what decoloniality could mean for Muslims and Islamic praxis today, and more in opening up conversations around issues that are articulated under different registers and regimes of coloniality.
 See, for instance, Mahmood, Saba. Politics of piety: The Islamic revival and the feminist subject. Princeton University Press, 2011 as well as Khanna, Ranjana. Algeria cuts: women and representation, 1830 to the present. Stanford University Press, 2008;
 For more on the population exchanges and migration see, Iğsız, Aslı. Humanism in ruins: entangled legacies of the Greek-Turkish population exchange. Stanford University Press, 2018; Blumi, Isa. Ottoman refugees, 1878-1939: migration in a post-imperial world. A&C Black, 2013; Khalidi, Omar. “From torrent to trickle: Indian Muslim migration to Pakistan, 1947—97.” Islamic studies, 37.3 (1998): 339-352.