In the early 21st century, it is time to rethink traditional area studies approaches to the history, culture, religion and societies of Middle East and Islamic world. Today large numbers of Muslims live outside the Middle East and South Asia. Some find themselves in diasporic communities in Europe and North America while other groups have become refugees in neighboring countries.
Although we associate this transnational condition with the post-colonial experience and globalization, it is equally true that the model of the nation-state, which was predicated on notions of a culturally homogenous political community, does not lend itself to re-conceptualizing these multi-ethnic and multi-religious relationships.
To understand the Islamic world today requires appreciating the constant development within and the exchange with Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist communities. Indeed, Islam began as a minority faith and throughout its history Muslims remained a minority of the population in many areas of Europe, Africa and Asia, such as late Medieval Spain and modern China.
Over the centuries, the historical process by which Islam became the religion of the majority in the Middle East and other parts of Asia, also unfolded through dynamic exchange with other societies, religions and cultures. Under Muslim rule, members of different religious communities shared economic life and lived in relative harmony. This is true even where Muslims were not a numerical majority, such as in the Balkans and the Indian Subcontinent. These experiences deeply imprinted the cosmopolitan and pluralistic traditions of Islamic societies.
Regrettably, modernity has tended to occlude the memory of this millennial, multicultural heritage. Although European colonialism added new cultural dimensions to a long relationship between Islamic and Western Christian societies, it also ignored many of the contributions that Islamic societies made to that shared modernity. No less importantly, colonialism and the dislocations that followed it, especially during the Cold War and its often violent aftermath, adversely affected relations between Muslims and their neighbours.
Colonialism had other far-reaching consequences: it led to social breakdown in, territorial division of, and forced migration from what previously had been multi-religious and multi-ethnic polities. As refugees, guest workers, and migrants in search of better lives, Muslims began to settle in large numbers in Western Europe, North America and the Gulf states. These conditions may not precisely replicate historical precedents. However, as this program seeks to highlight, Muslim diasporic experiences today should be connected to Islamic pluralism before colonialism.