The talk was part of the Legatum Institute Summer School. A video of the talk is available below.

The early success of Islam as a world religion and its quick migration into the five major cultural zones—Arab, Persian, Turkish, Malay, and African—can be partly explained by conquest theory and the culturally adaptive nature of Islam. However, this does not reflect a realistic explanation of how Muslims think about Islamic expansion and civilization.

Many Muslims view early successes as a measure of their faith in God. Muslims never had to internalise being “down and out.” They had no odyssey. But why is there no great Middle Eastern state? Is the West disrupting the Islamic Civilization? Or does the problem lie in how Muslims see themselves?

Islamic fundamentalists consider themselves the answer to the debate—power is tied to true faith. They believe the answer lies in empowerment, not prosperity or fostering the economy. They’re not interested in why China is growing and they’re not. These issues of faith and power may resonate with the Muslim diaspora who, according to Nasr, are drawn to political and intellectual ideas that address empowerment issues.

Nasr also discusses the tribal influences on Islam, whereby more traditional groups “come out of the desert” and are confronted with a more modernised version of Islam. Nasr believes these tribal influences on Islam provide energy, revival and rejuvenation in the Islamic world, periodically allowing them to rebuild their political structures. However, in the Muslim identity, there is constant pressure for consolidation of puritanical orthodoxy from these tribal influences.

Vali Nasr is the Dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University.

The Legatum Institute Summer School is a place of fusion and fission bringing together up-and-coming global leaders and a world-class faculty across disciplines and generations. This year’s inaugural event took place in August at the Castiglion del Bosco estate in Tuscany, Italy, and explored the question “What makes civilizations flourish—and fail?"