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Islamism is a political orientation based on a specific conservative religious view of Muslim fundamentalism. It is one that holds Islam as being not only a religion, but a system that also governs the politicial, economic and social imperatives of the state.

The goal of Islamism is to re-shape the state by implementing its conservative formulation of Islamic law. However, most Islamist literature deals not with other religions, but with political ideologies. This might be explained in the growth of Islamism as a reaction against and a replacement for competing political movements. Historically, the existence of undemocratic and corrupt regimes all over the Muslim world led to widespread socialist movements across these countries for most of the 20th century; however, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the leftist ideologies have largely lost influence. Islamism has emerged as the remaining revolutionary ideology, gaining much ground through adopting anti-Western sentiment which has emerged over issues like the occupation of the Palestinian-populated West Bank by Israel.

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Islamism, along with other political movements inspired by Islam, gained increased attention in the Western media. The media often confuses the term Islamism with related terms such as Islam, fundamentalism, militant Islam, and Wahhabism. Although the groups and individuals representing these are not mutually exclusive, within academia, each term does have a distinct definition. Some Islamist groups have been implicated in terrorism and have become targets in the War on Terrorism.

Islamofascism is an associated pejorative term.

This topic is also discussed in Islam as a political movement.


History of Islamism

Islamist movements developed during the twentieth century in reaction to several forces. Following World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, and the subsequent dissolution of the Caliphate by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (founder of Turkey), some Muslims perceived their religion as in retreat, and felt that Western ideas were spreading throughout Muslim society, along with the influence of Western nations. During the 1960s, the predominant ideology within the Arab world was pan-Arabism which deemphasized religion and emphasized the creation of a socialist, secular state based on Arab nationalism rather than Islam.

Governments based on Arab nationalism have found themselves facing economic stagnation and disorder. Some Muslims place the blame for these flaws in Muslim societies on the influx of "foreign" ideas; a return to the principles of Islam is seen as the natural cure. A persistent Islamist theme is that Muslims are persecuted by the West and other foreigners. In this context, Islamist ideas developed in several different settings.

The Deobandi Movement

In India, the Deobandi movement developed as a reaction to British actions against Muslims and the influence of Sayed Ahmad Khan, who advocated the reform and modernization of Islam. Named after the town of Deoband, where it originated, the movement was built around Islamic schools (principally Darul Uloom) and taught an interpretation of Islam that encouraged the subservience of women, discouraged the use of many forms of technology and entertainment, and believed that only "revealed" or God-inspired knowledge (rather than human knowledge) should be followed.

Though the Deobandi philosophy is puritanical and wishes to remove non-Muslim (i.e., Hindu or Western) influence from Muslim societies, it was not especially violent or proselytising, confining its activity mostly to the establishment of madrassas, or Muslim religious schools. These schools now number in the tens of thousands across Asia, mostly in Pakistan and India, and remain the core of the Deobandi movement. They are a major sector of Muslims in the region (the followers of Sayed Ahmad Khan being a significant minority). The Taliban movement in Afghanistan was a product of the Deobandi philosophy and the madarassas.

Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi

Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi was an important early twentieth-century figure in India, then, after independence from Britain, in Pakistan. Strongly influenced by Deobandi ideology, he advocated the creation of an Islamic state governed by sharia, Islamic law, as interpreted by Shura councils. Maududi founded the Jamaat-e-Islami in 1941 and remained at its head until 1972. His extremely influential book, "Towards Understanding Islam " (Risalah Diniyat in Arabic), placed Islam in modern context and enabled not only conservative ulema but liberal modernizers such as al-Faruqi, whose "Islamization of Knowledge" carried forward some of Maududi's key principles. Chief among these was the basic compatibility of Islam with an ethical scientific view. Quoting from Maududi's own work:

Everything in the universe is 'Muslim' for it obeys God by submission to His laws... For his entire life, from the embryonic stage to the body's dissolution into dust after death, every tissue of his muscles and every limb of his body follows the course prescribed by God's law. His very tongue which, on account of his ignorance advocates the denial of God or professes multiple deities, is in its very nature 'Muslim'... The man who denies God is called Kafir (concealer) because he conceals by his disbelief what is inherent in his nature and embalmed in his own soul. His whole body functions in obedience to that instinct... Reality becomes estranged from him and he gropes in the dark.

Inherent in these views was a total intolerance for rule by non-Muslims.

The Muslim Brotherhood

Maududi's ideas were a strong influence on Sayed Qutb in Egypt. Qutb was one of the key philosophers in the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which began in Egypt in 1928 and was banned (but still exists) following confrontations with Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser, who jailed Qutb and many others. The Muslim Brotherhood (founded by Hasan al-Banna) advocated a return to sharia because of what they perceived as the inability of Western values to secure harmony and happiness for Muslims. Since only divine guidance could lead humans to be happy, it followed that Muslims should eschew democracy and live according to divinely-inspired sharia. The Brotherhood was one of the first groups to advocate jihad against all those who do not follow Islam. As al-Banna said:

[Muslim] lands have been trampled over, and their honor besmirched. Their adversaries are in charge of their affairs, and the rites of their religion have fallen into abeyance within their own domains, to say nothing of their impotence to broadcast the summons [to embrace Islam]. Hence it has become an individual obligation, which there is no evading, on every Muslim to prepare his equipment, to make up his mind to engage in jihad, and to get ready for it until the opportunity is ripe and God decrees a matter which is sure to be accomplished...

Islamic Jihad movements

This exhortation was followed by the Egyptian Islamic Jihad organisation, responsible for the assassination of Anwar Sadat, but with a twist: Islamic Jihad focused its efforts on "apostate" leaders of Islamic states, those who were secular and introduced Western ideas and practice to Islamic societies. Their views were outlined in a pamphlet written by Muhammad Abd al-Salaam Farag, which said: "...there is no doubt that the first battlefield for jihad is the extermination of these infidel leaders and to replace them by a complete Islamic Order..."

Another Islamic Jihad group emerged in Palestine as an offshoot of the Egyptian group, and began militant activity against the state of Israel, and consistently opposed itself to the policies of the secular Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Yasser Arafat.


Another influential strain of Islamist thought came from the Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia. The Wahhabists, who emerged in the 18th century led by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, also believed that it was necessary to live according to the strict dictates of Islam, which they interpreted to mean living in the manner that the prophet Muhammad and his followers had lived in during the seventh century in Medina. Consequently they were opposed to many innovations developed since that time, including the minaret, marked graves, and later television and radios. The Wahhabis also considered those Muslims who violated their strict interpretation to be heretics, and thus used violence against other Muslims. When King Abdul Aziz al-Saud founded Saudi Arabia, he brought the Wahhabists into power with him. With Saud's rise to prominence, Wahhabism spread, especially following the 1973 oil embargo and the glut of oil wealth that resulted for Saudi Arabia. The Wahhabists were proselytizers, and made use of their wealth to spread their interpretation of Islam far and wide.

Modern Islamism

Islamism went through its major political and philosophical developments in the early part of the twentieth century, but it was not until the 1980s that it became active in an international arena. The Khomeinist revolution in Iran, though Shi'a in character, provided an inspiration to many radical Islamists and served as an example that an authoritarian Islamic state could be established.

During the conflict against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, many Islamists came together to fight what they saw as an atheist invading force. This confluence resulted in many alliances being made between groups with similar ideologies. Significantly, Osama bin Laden, a Saudi influenced by Wahhabism and the writings of Sayed Qutb, joined forces with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad under Ayman al-Zawahiri to form what is now called al-Qaida. The aftermath of Afghanistan eventually led to the rise of the Deobandi Taliban, a movement which bin Laden helped influence in more radical directions following his arrival in Afghanistan in 1996.

Islamists are also active in Algeria, the Palestinian territories, Sudan and Nigeria.

Much Islamist activity since has been directed against secular governments in Muslim societies, which Islamists oppose because they are governed according to human law, not divine law.

A considerable effort has been made to fight Western targets, especially the United States. The United States in particular is a subject of Islamist ire because of its support of Israel, its presence on Saudi Arabian soil, what Islamists regard as its aggression against Muslims in Iraq, and its support of the regimes Islamists oppose. In addition some Islamists have concentrated their activity against Israel, and nearly all Islamists view Israel with hostility. Osama bin Laden, at least, believes that this is of necessity due to historical conflict between Muslims and Jews, and considers there to be a Jewish/American alliance against Islam.

There is some debate as to how influential Islamist movements remain. Some scholars assert that Islamism is a fringe movement that is dying, following the clear failures of Islamist regimes like the regime in Sudan, the Wahhabist Saudi regime and the Deobandi Taliban to improve the lot of Muslims. However, others (e.g. Ahmed Rashid) feel that the Islamists still command considerable support and cite the fact that Islamists in Pakistan and Egypt regularly poll 10 to 30 percent in electoral polls which many believe are rigged against them.

An alternative direction has been taken by many Islamists in Turkey, where the Islamist movement split into reformist and traditionalist wings in 2001. The reformists formed the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party, which gained an overall majority in the Turkish parliament in 2002, and has sought to balance Islamic values with the requirements of a secular and democratic political system. Some in the Justice and Development Party see the Christian Democrat parties of Western Europe as a model, which has led some to question whether it is a genuinely Islamist movement.

Islamist movements

See Also

External links

  • The struggle of Hizb ut-Tahrir
  • Discussion and Opinion regarding Terrorism and Islamic Reform
  • Is Islamism Dead?: The Future of Islamism in the Muslim World
  • Distinguishing between Islam and Islamism
  • Fighting Militant Islam, Without Bias
  • Is Islamism a Threat? - a panel discussion hosted by Middle East Quarterly, December 1999
  • Evaluating the Islamist Movement - written by Greg Noakes, an American Muslim who works at the Washington Report
  • Muslim Scholars Face Down Fanaticism - written by Aicha Lemsine, an Algerian journalist and author.
  • Children of Abraham: An Introduction to Islam - a discussion of Islamism
  • Bearers of Global Jihad: Immigration and National Security after 9/11
  • List of Islamist websites as of July 16, 2004

Further reading

  • Children of Abraham: An Introduction to Islam for Jews, Khalid Duran with Abdelwahab Hechiche, The American Jewish Committee and Ktav, 2001
  • The Islamism Debate, Martin Kramer, University Press, 1997
  • Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook, Charles Kurzman, Oxford University Press, 1998
  • The Vanguard of the Islamic Revolution: The Jama'at-i Islami of Pakistan, Vali Nasr, Univ. of California Press, 1994
  • The Failure of Political Islam, Olivier Roy, Harvard Univ. Press, 1994
  • The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New World Disorder, Bassam Tibi, Univ. of California Press, 1998

Last updated: 02-06-2005 07:09:08
Last updated: 03-18-2005 11:16:12