Political Islam

In the wave of the Arab Spring, international media increasingly express concern over several Islamic political parties’ possible ascendency to power: Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Tunisia’s Al-Nahda (Renaissance), Morocco’s Party of Justice and Development (PJD), and Yemen’s Islah (Reform) party; while Islamists may be active in the fight to topple the Qadhafi regime in Libya. Other Islamist parties had their moments in the limelight in the past forty years, rounding out this newly spotlighted collection: Palestine’s Hamas, the Iraqi Islamic Party, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), and Jordan’s Islamic Action Front, among others. Understanding the roots of these religious-political movements, collected under the banner of political Islam – or “Islamism” – is key to understanding the balance of powers in the Maghreb, especially in light of recent democratic changes opening space for these parties to come to power.

Islamism emerged independently from two sources: Wahhabi Islam, inspired by the 18th century Islamic scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, revived in the 1910’s and 20’s in Arabia when it was adopted by the Al-Saud family to unite disparate tribes across the peninsula under its banner.[1] Later, the ultra-conservative  al-Saud monarchy used Wahhabism as an anti-communist ideology.[2]

Hasan al-Bana established a similar current of political Islam with the Muslim Brotherhood’s founding in 1928. While al-Bana emphasized social reform and welfare services, Sayid Qutb, al-Bana’s successor, became an international leader for violent jihad directed at secular influences; Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s current commander, is a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

To understand Islamism, one must understand both its ideology and the social context from which it emerged. Both played a role in forming this movement.

The Ideology of Islamism

Traditionally, there is no distinction in Islam between political and social moral codes. The shari’a encompasses both. In embracing this, and other concepts, Islamists often claim to be returning to a “purer” form of Islam, in response to what they consider to be corrupt, Western influences on Islam. But despite this claim to traditional Islam, Islamists also break with tradition in their claim to authority over the texts and accusations against Muslims with differing interpretations as being un-Islamic, or, worse, infidels. Thus Islamism is a break from a long tradition of interpretation (tafsir) in which scholars of Islam intentionally preserved differing and even contradictory interpretations of texts. A better understanding of the roots of Islamism reveals that the movement is in fact more modern than it is traditional.

Islamist leaders, like Qutb and Mawdudi, advocated a restoration of true Islam from destructive Western influences. Qutb, who briefly studied in the United States, associated the West with jahiliyya, or ignorance of the Divine guidance. He argued that “Western civilization is unable to present any healthy values for the guidance of mankind.”[3] Similarly, Mawdudi emphasized a hard distinction between the land of infidelity and war (Dar al-Harb) and the land of Islam (Dar al-Islam), arguing that “Islam wishes to destroy all states and governments anywhere on the face of the earth which are opposed to  the ideology and programme of Islam.”[4] These scholars represented a movement that sought to purify Islam by narrowly defining it – they rejected not only non Muslims in the “West” but Muslims throughout the world who did not follow this “purer,” literal interpretation of Islam’s scriptures.

In doing so, these scholars rejected much of the interpretive process that had characterized Islam for centuries. Al-Tabiri’s collection of tafsir in the ninth century included numerous versions of Quranic stories. Indeed, almost nothing about Islam was standard even three hundred years after Muhammad’s death except the text of the Qur’an itself – and even that varied slightly across the Islamic Empire.[5] For centuries, during the Golden Age of the Islamic Empire from the 8th to the 13th centuries, Muslim scholars, called the ulama, grappled with questions of theology, philosophy, law, and science in a culture of openness and in a tradition of scholasticism.[6]

Many in the West accept Islamism as representative of Islam. For example, many assume Islam requires violent jihad and the strict enforcement of Salafist interpretations of shari’a. But these ideas are part of a new, minority interpretation of Islam. Traditionally, jihad, which comes from the Arabic verb to struggle, referred to a Muslim’s personal struggle to live the faith or to defend Islam against threats. Qutb, Mawdudi, and the Palestinian Abdullah al-Azam were prominent advocates for the idea that the term refers to violent struggle against infidels, thus associating jihad with suicide bombings and terrorism.[7]

Some similarly misconstrue the concept of shari’a. There is no universal, codified shari’a cannon. Shari’a is an interpretation based on the Qur’an, which Muslims believe was divinely revealed to Muhammad, and the Sunna, the prophet’s divinely inspired example. As such, there are many interpretations, old and new, of what the shari’a should be. The main schools of Islamic thought, whose followers are distributed more or less regionally, represent many of these interpretations. Many of these schools began as early as the eighth or ninth centuries.

The Salafi movement began at the turn of the 20th century. It rejected taqlid (imitation of precedent), and advocated a return to the early years of Islam. The name derives from salaf meaning “pious ancestors.” Salafis have their own interpretations of shari’a. Contemporary Islamists tend to associate with the Salafi school of thought.

Olivier Roy, the prominent expert on political Islam, distinguishes between Islamism and neo-fundamentalism, or conservative moralism. While the former came from an educated elite seeking to reform society and politics, the latter emerged in the 1980’s as more anti-Western than Islamism and led by individuals with professional rather than scholarly training – doctors, engineers, and teachers. It is marked by Islamic traditional dress, a rejection of common social activities, and the exclusion of women from politics. For example, the Algerian FIS in the 1990’s rejected women’s right to work; whereas, during the Iranian Revolution, Khomeini took it for granted that women would be part of the workforce. Similarly, neo-fundamentalists emphasize the letter of sharia, rather than some of the interpretations favored by Iranian and Egyptian Islamists.[8] Roy’s interpretation of the movement lends nuance to more general discussions of Islamism.

Islamism as a Social Response:

Technological advancements aided the growth of Islamism: the printing press and the increased power of the state contributed to its spread. With the printing press, it became possible for Muslims outside the scholastic tradition to assume the authority for religious interpretation, rather than resting on the ulama.[9] Much like the Protestant Reformation, this helped some reject the authority of the scholarly elite.

Islamism is also, in part, a response to the increased power of the state; today, national governments regulate personal codes more intimately than was possible under the expansive Ottoman Empire.[10] Thus in many ways Islamism would not have been possible in an earlier era.

Many scholars explain the emergence of Islamism as a response to political and social changes. Most common among these is the explanation that Islamism emerged in order to counter Islamic societies’ economic, political, cultural and scientific decline, and subsequent European domination. This helps explain the vehement denunciation of the West by scholars like Qutb and Khomeini. Those who see the movement as particularly recent frame its emergence as a reaction against meddlesome Western foreign policy in the Middle East: Islamism rose to prominence after the defeat of Arab states at the hands of the Israeli army in the 1967 Six Day War.[11] But this dates the movement three decades too late. Others argue that it is an expression of frustration by the large, educated population for whom the economy failed to provide employment, thus explaining the high numbers of engineers and other professionally schooled members of Islamist parties. Still others argue that Islamism is a backlash against secular regimes, especially in Algeria and Egypt. Undoubtedly, all of these factors – a response to Islamic decline, Western foreign policy, struggling economies, and secular dictatorships – affected the rise of Islamism in different ways.[12]

Diversity of Views

Although violence has characterized many Islamist movements, peaceful Islamic parties are gaining prominence every day. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood is participating in the democratic process in Egypt, and the Al-Nahda party will run candidates in upcoming elections in Tunisia.

The Maghreb has battled with Islamist extremists and fostered Islamist moderates. At its edges, in Sub-Saharan Africa, Nigeria and the Sudan, Islamism has fueled serious civil unrest and civil war. At its heart, it has felt the brunt of terrorist attacks, as in Casablanca in 2003 and recently in Mauritania. It has also seen Islamist movements willing to play by the rules of democracy, as in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia. Understanding Islamism and its many influences is critical for understanding the recent trends in the Maghreb.

Colleen McCullough

Summer 2011 Maghreb Center Intern


[1] Wahhabism is commonly associated in the West with terrorism; however, the teachings of Ibn Wahhab do not condone such actions. The term has taken on a meaning of its own in the West in the past decade.

[2]Mamdani, Mahmoud. “Whither Political Islam.” Foreign Affairs, 2005.

[3] Sayyid Qutb, “Introduction.” Milestones. Online version available at: http://web.youngmuslims.ca/online_library/books/milestones/Introduction.htm

[4] Seyid Mawdudi, “Jihad in Islam.” The Holy Koran Publishing House. March 27, 2006. http://www.muhammadanism.org/Terrorism/jihah_in_islam/jihad_in_islam.pdf

[5] Jonathan Berkey, The Formation of Islam. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[6]Ibid.

[7] John Esposito, The Future of Islam. (USA: Oxford University Press, 2010). Pp 69.

[8] Olivier Roy, The Failure of Political Islam. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998). Pp 83.

[9] Jonathan Berkey. The Formation of Islam (London: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[10] Qasim Muhammad Zaman, NES 240. Princeton University. Lecture 21. Fall, 2010.

[11] Are Knudsen, “Political Islam in the Middle East.” Chr. Michelson Institute, 2003. http://bora.cmi.no/dspace/bitstream/10202/166/1/R2003-03.pdf

[12] Ibid.

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