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Political Islam: An Evolutionary History



By Nadeem F. Paracha

24 Oct, 2014

The term ‘Political Islam’ is an academic concoction. It works as an analytical umbrella under which political analysts club together various political tendencies that claim to be using Muslim scriptures and historical traditions to achieve modern political goals.

The term most probably emerged in the 1940s in Europe, to define anti-colonial movements that described themselves as Islamic in orientation. It is a 20th century construct and its first prominent expression is believed to be Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, formed in 1927.

Even though as a political tendency, Political Islam covers a wide range of movements involving various Muslim sects, sub-sects, nationalities, leftist as well as rightist rhetoric and narratives; it is the commonalities in these varied movements that make analysts study them as a single ideological entity.

There is a rightist and a leftist side of Political Islam.

Till about the late 1960s, movements associated with rightest aspects of Political Islam were largely intellectual pursuits with limited political influence.

They were seen with suspicion, even by those movements and groups that adopted the main aspects of Political Islam and fused them with varied leftist ideologies.

Thus one can also suggest that during the Cold War era (1949-90), the central theological and political tussle in most Muslim countries was not exactly between ‘Islamists’ and secularists, or between religious political groups and communists; the main conflict was between the rightest expressions of Political Islam and its leftist versions.

The rightist side produced tendencies such as ‘Islamic Fundamentalism,’ ‘Islamism’ and ‘Neo-Fundamentalism,’ while the leftist sides came up with ‘Islamic Socialism,’ ‘Ba’ath Socialism’ and ‘Arab Nationalism’/‘Arab Socialism’. Balanced at the centre was Muslim Nationalism.

During the Cold War, the rightest expressions of Political Islam were backed and supported by Western powers and oil-rich Arab monarchies, mainly due to the fact that the leftist sides of Political Islam had largely moved into what (during the Cold War) was called the ‘Soviet camp.’

The rightist sides were severely repressed by Muslim regimes operating from the left flanks of Political Islam, but it is also true that the right-wing of Political Islam had by and large failed to attract any worthwhile mass support.

However, things in this respect began to change from early 1970s onwards. The right-wing expressions of Political Islam experienced a surge, especially after the death of popular Egyptian leader and ‘Arab Socialist,’ Gamal Abdul Nasser in 1970.

Later, the bankrolling of the anti-Soviet ‘Jihad’ in Afghanistan by the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in the 1980s, also became a catalyst that triggered the shifting of political and social influence in many Muslim countries from left-leaning Political Islam to its rightist expressions.

The ‘Afghan Jihad’ also added a more militant dimension to right-wing Political Islam. It reached a peak in the late 1980s after the Afghan conflict resulted in a stalemate and the Soviet forces in Afghanistan had to pull out.

In the early 1990s, encouraged by their successes in Afghanistan, the militant expressions of right-wing Political Islam began to pull away from the orbit of its former backers (US, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan), and tried to trigger ‘Islamic revolutions’ in various Muslim countries.

Their methods of creating chaos through bombings (to unleash an uprising) antagonised the regimes that had formerly backed them, but now found themselves under attack.

The revolutions failed to materialise, but the bombings continued. Frustrated, the militants found themselves bordering on taking nihilistic action that has caused the deaths of thousands of civilians and members of the security forces in countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Algeria, Yemen, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria and Lebanon.

Meanwhile, the more classical expressions of right-wing Political Islam have tried to repair the damage inflicted to their cause by their more militant cousins, by getting involved in the democratic process in countries like Pakistan, Egypt, Tunisia, Indonesia, Sudan, and Turkey.

But on most occasions ‘moderate’ right-wing democratic expressions of Political Islam have proven to be more successful on the social front, but lack the acumen required to devise and implement coherent economic policies or act decisively against their more violent brethren.

So can one cautiously ask whether the Political Islam that emerged in the 1930s-40s and then peaked in the 1980s, is now a withering phenomenon?

The answer to this can be looked up in the historical trajectories of some of Political Islam’s more prominent outcomes.

The First Triangle

The earliest manifestations of Political Islam were the so-called Islamic Fundamentalism, Pan-Islamism and Muslim Nationalism.

'Islamic Fundamentalism' is a vague term. It is largely associated with various radical and militant tendencies found in the Muslim world, nut critics of this definition claim that it only means the following of the ritual fundamentals of Islam.

So, though usually attributed to the beliefs of modern-day extremist movements in the Muslim world, Islamic Fundamentalism is basically a firm belief in the theological musings of classical Islamic jurists and traditions.

The ‘political roots’ of this tendency, however, lie in the 12th century, when after three hundred years of open debate in the Islamic world between traditionalists and rationalists (Mu’tazilites), influential Muslim thinkers such as Imam Ghazali insisted that a perfect synthesis (between the two) had been reached and that Islam’s social and spiritual philosophy had achieved completion.

Islamic Fundamentalism is rooted in this 12th Century intellectual triumph of traditionalists.

The 'fundamentalists' usually emerged in the shape of scholars (ulema) and clergymen (Maulvis and Imams), who worked as advisers to Muslim kings, or in mosques and madrasas.

Truth is, during the disintegration of Muslim empires from the 19th century onwards, the many reformist Islamic movements that emerged in reaction to the collapse criticised the performance of Islamic Fundamentalists, blaming them for getting too close to ‘decadent kings’ due to whose ‘negligence of Islam,’ Muslim political power had crumbled.

This movement has historically been more interested in rectifying ‘cultural and social aberrations’ in a Muslim society, and for this it used the mosque and evangelism.

But Islamic Fundamentalism continues to be frozen in an understanding of the faith and its texts developed centuries ago by ancient Islamic scholars and jurists.

Though it is vocal in its rhetorical demands for the imposition of ‘Islamic laws’ (Shariah), it has little or no political agenda. It never did.

It remains largely associated with apolitical conservative ulema, the clergy and Islamic evangelists – even though at times many such individuals have been accused of endorsing militant action to ‘enforce the fundamentals of Islam’ in a society.

Muslim Nationalism was perhaps Political Islam’s first major modern manifestation (along with Pan-Islamism). Both emerged in the 19th century as critiques of classical Islamic Fundamentalism which they accused of being apolitical, frozen in time and anti-progress.

Both were also the reactive products of the rise of European colonialism. Pan-Islamism viewed the Muslims across the world as a single entity (Ummah) that should be united under single ‘Islamic state’ (a global caliphate).

Pioneering Pan-Islamic thinkers such as Jalaluddin Afghani (1839-97) were perhaps the first to allude to the creation of an ‘Islamic State’ (albeit a universal one). It was a concept culled from the Western idea of the state and then furnished with the theory that the governmental set-ups in Makkah in the 7th century during the initial rise and triumph of Islam were organic ‘Islamic States.’

Though Pan-Islamism eschewed and abhorred the idea of nationalism defined by political borders, it still managed to inspire Muslim Nationalism. Muslim Nationalism emerged in India soon after the complete collapse of the Mughal Empire and the victory of the British Colonialists in the 1857 Mutiny (triggered by sections of rebellious Muslim and Hindu soldiers and the remaining scions of the Mughal Empire).

Pan-Islamism was in fact critical of Muslim Nationalism that was being shaped by men like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Syed Ameer Ali. For example, Afghani accused Muslim Nationalists (in India) of attempting to confine the Muslims of India as a group defined by their geographical location (and thus limitations).

Pioneering 19th Century Pan-Islamic thinker Jalaluddin Afghani. Though he advocated the infusion of modernity in traditional Islamic thought, he was critical of India’s Muslim Nationalists because he thought they were reducing the Muslims of South Asia as a nation confined to South Asia.


But just as Pan-Islamism had adopted modern western ideas of the state, Muslim Nationalism adopted another European idea, that of nationalism. It defined the Muslims of India as a separate nation of people who were different than the Hindus in majority.

Pan-Islamism and Muslim Nationalism were also equally interested in popularising modern (European) models of education among Muslims, and of advocating a more ‘rational’ understanding of Islam’s scriptures. In this context, they were both progressive ideas.

But Muslim Nationalism largely remained an urban and reformist phenomenon associated with the Muslim bourgeoisie of India. It was further elaborated and bolstered by the scholarly works of philosopher and poet Muhammad Iqbal. By the 1930s, it had become the central plank of the All India Muslim League.

Muslim Nationalism thus became the main driver behind the movement that created Pakistan (in 1947), because it advocated the formation of a separate country for the ‘Muslim nation’ of India.

The new country was to be based on Muslim Nationalism’s central planks i.e. reforming the Muslims of South Asia into becoming a constructive and distinct nation, and rational modern-day manifestations of the political, militaristic, cultural and scientific achievements associated with Muslim Empires and societies of yore.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Muslim Nationalism came under attack once again, this time by Pan-Islamism’s more conservative expressions.

In fact, it would be these expressions which would evolve to become so-called Islamism. Early architects of this aspect of Pan-Islamism, such as prolific Islamic scholar, Abul Ala Maududi, attacked Muslim Nationalism of being a ‘western idea’ and too ‘secular’ in its political orientation.

He also attacked it for compartmentalising the Muslims of India as an artificial South Asian entity, thus negating the universality of Islam.

However, the process of a compromise between Muslim Nationalism and the ‘universal’ ideals of Islamism began almost immediately after the creation of Pakistan.

By the mid-1970s, Muslim Nationalism’s disposition had begun to shift from the centre and towards the right. And by the 1980s, it had largely incorporated into its fold Islamism’s many notions, turning the idea of Pakistan from being a nationalistic Muslim-majority state into a state striving to become ‘the epicentre of the Ummah.’

Mind the Gap

As a term, 'Islamism' first emerged in the early 1970s (in France), even though it had already (albeit sparsely) been in use among European writers in the 19th century.

In the modern political context, Islamism came to explain a series of (post-19th century) Islamic movements that advocated Islam not only as a religion of morals and rituals, but also as a distinct political ideology.

Islamism’s roots can be found in the Islamic reformist movements that appeared in South Asia and in Arabia in the 19th century.

Incensed by the gradual crumbling of the Mughal and Ottoman empires, a series of reformist movements emerged, advocating ‘a return to true Islam’ which was said to be free of innovation and corruption.

Some of these movements emphasised applying reason in religion, but many also added the importance of ‘jihad’ not only against western colonialism but also against traditional Muslim clergy, and especially against Sufi tendencies that these reformists believed were a ‘negative innovation’ and an anathema to ‘pristine Islam.’

But after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire (1922), a bulk of Muslim regimes (especially in Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey) vigorously adopted the modern western economic, social and political models, such as liberalism and nationalism (sans democracy).

However, not in what today is Saudi Arabia.

One of the first major experiments of Islamism that actually took off was when (in the early 20th century), the Al-Saud family conquered a vast tract in Arabia with tacit support from the British (who were trying to undermine Ottoman rule in the region).

Head of the Saud family, Ibn Saud, was an ardent follower of Abd Al-Wahhab – an 18th century puritanical Islamic reformist. The Saud family soon enacted the world’s first ‘Islamic State,’ but one that was under the control of a monarchy.

The Saud family’s adherence to the more puritanical strain of the faith and the imposition of laws (culled from the ideas of literalist 8th century Islamic jurist, Ibn Hanbal, and 14th century Islamic theologian, Ibn Taymiyyah), went down well with the people of the region; but the family’s growing ties with the British and its monarchical tendencies made a lot of them uncomfortable as well. It was a puritanical monarchy.

On the other hand, as modern Muslim nationalists dominated the anti-colonial liberation movements in the 20th century in South Asia and the Middle East, early thinkers of Islamism scorned at them and labelled these movements as ‘anti-Islamic.’

Pioneering Islamism scholars such as Egypt’s Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, and South Asia’s Abul Ala Maududi, began interpreting the Quran and other Islamic texts through the prism of modern political concepts and lingo.

For example, Maududi expanded the Quranic concept of Tauheed (oneness of God) by suggesting that it also meant the (political) oneness of the Muslim Ummah that can only be achieved by ‘Islamising the society’ and through attaining state power to finally formulate an ‘Islamic state’.

Qutb, on the other hand, implied that 20th century Muslim societies were in a state of Jahiliyyah– a term used by classical Muslim scholars to define the state of ignorance the people of Arabia were in before the arrival of Islam in the 7th century.

Qutb suggested that a jihad was required in Muslim countries to grab state power and rid the Muslims from the ‘modern forces of Jahiliyyah’ (that to him were secularism, Marxism, nationalism and ‘Western materialism’).

Islamism purposefully eschewed a number of ancient commentaries on Islamic scriptures and Shariah. It rejected these scholarly works as being either ‘stuck in the mosque’ or undertaken to serve kings who had divorced Islam from politics.

It is, however, ironic that Islamism (across the Cold War), was largely supported and funded by Western and oil-rich Arab powers to prop up opposition against Muslim regimes that were in the ‘Soviet camp’ or were seen detrimental to Western economic and geopolitical interests.

The exception in this regard was the Islamism associated with the Shia Islamists in Iran. Though the main groundwork for the 1979 revolution in Iran was done by leftists and constitutionalists, the Iranian forces of Islamism successfully steered the revolution towards becoming an Islamic one. Iran also remains to be Islamism’s only tangible ruling enactment – though it has greatly suffered from constant economic, political and social strife.

The arrangement between Islamism and its Western and Saudi backers reached a peak in the 1980s during the ‘anti-Soviet jihad’ in Afghanistan.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, and the drying up of the patronage and funds Islamism’s leading organs were receiving (from the West), movements attached to Islamism started to weaken and fragment. Consequently, Islamism’s less intellectually inclined (and more brutal) cousin, Neo-Fundamentalism, soon began usurping its agenda and political space.

Forces attached to Islamism tried to rebound after the Cold War through the democratic process but were (on the one end) accused of being apologists of violent Neo-Fundamentalists and of being lukewarm towards 'Islamising' the society on the other.

Wherever they have managed to come to power (through democracy), they have struggled to initiate effective political and economic reforms mainly due to the fact that they end up creating polarisation and administrational chaos by trying to address solutions to non-religious issues with certain ill-defined religion-orientated alternatives and manoeuvres.

Decent Into Madness

Neo-Fundamentalism in Political Islam is a tendency that aims to politicise and radicalise the social and cultural aspects of Islamic Fundamentalism.

The term was popularised by French author, Oliver Roy, who suggested that Neo-Fundamentalism rose with the emergence of the Taliban in 1996 (in Afghanistan and Pakistan), and began filling the void created by the post-Cold War weakening of Islamism.

Like traditional Islamic Fundamentalism, Neo-Fundamentalism too maintains that there is no room for reason in the act of understanding religious texts that are to be understood literally.

However, unlike Islamic Fundamentalism, Neo-Fundamentalism looks to impose laws, morality and piety by force and through armed struggle (and through the creation of an ‘Islamic Emirate’). Apart from the Taleban, Roy also describes outfits such as Al Qaeda and various modern militant and sectarian groups that emerged in its wake as Neo-Fundamentalist (including the recent emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS).

Where Islamic Fundamentalists use concentrated evangelical tactics to supposedly ‘cleanse Muslim societies of un-Islamic practices,’ Neo-Fundamentalists use coercion.

Neo-Fundamentalism has further narrowed its world view to become a squarely anarchic tendency that in the last decade has exhibited extreme displays of religious and sectarian xenophobia and violence. It is also devoid of the rich intellectual tradition associated with Islamism, settling instead for radical polemical literature that advocates violent action and an extremely narrow and polemical worldview.

Some observers have defined Neo-Fundamentalism as an anarchic and desperate symptom foretelling the final, violent collapse of Political Islam.

If this indeed is the case, one is not quite sure exactly what (in Muslim countries) will replace it. And whatever happened to the leftist tendencies of Political Islam? Are they still relevant?

The Left Flank

One of the strongest among the left-leaning tendencies of Political Islam was dubbed Islamic Socialism. As a term it was first used by the Muslim Socialist community in Kazan (Russia) just before the 1917 Communist revolution there. Staunchly anti-clerical, the community supported communist forces but retained its Muslim identity.

The term then became popular among some left-leaning Muslim Nationalists of the All Indian Muslim League.

Islamic Socialism – an ideology that attempted to equate Quranic concepts of equality and charity with modern Socialist economics and (consequently) trigger a cultural, intellectual and political renaissance in the Muslim world – was adopted as ‘Arab Socialism’ and Ba’ath Socialism in Iraq, Syria and Egypt; where nationalist Muslim leaders fused Islamic notions of parity and justice with socialism and Arab nationalism.

Though known for its usage of Islamic symbolism, Islamic Socialism was anti-clerical, socially liberal and mostly sympathetic towards communist powers – Soviet Union and China.

It eventually became the left-wing of Political Islam. Egypt’s popular leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, became Arab Socialism’s leading advocate and practitioner; while in Syria and Iraq the concept became to be known as ‘Ba’ath Socialism’ (Ba’ath in Arabic means renaissance).

After the political successes of Arab Socialism and Ba’ath Socialism (in the 1950s and 1960s), the idea of Islamic Socialism also gained currency in Pakistan, Algeria, Indonesia, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Libya. The National Liberation Front that led Algeria’s independence from France (1962) described itself as a follower of Islamic Socialism, and so did the populist Pakistan People’s Party in Pakistan.

Libya too began calling itself an Islamic Socialist state after Muammar al-Gadhafi toppled the Libyan monarchy in a coup in 1969. Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) also described itself as being Islamic Socialists, and during the same period (late 1960s/early 1970s) Islamic Socialists also came to power in Pakistan, Sudan and Somalia.

 A 1970 poster of the Young Socialist Alliance, an international group of leftist student outfits allied to Ba’ath/Arab Socialist parties and regimes in Egypt, Syria and Iraq, and with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).


In Iran, radical anti-Shah militant organisations that fused Islamic symbolism with Marxist/socialist ideas also appeared. They took an active part in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, but were then eliminated or banished by the new Islamic regime.

Islamic Socialism was vehemently attacked and criticised by conservative Muslim monarchies, as well as by those forces associated with Islamism.

They accused Islamic Socialism of being a concoction constructed by ‘atheist powers’ (Soviet Union and China), and (according to Maududi) was the ‘Trojan horse used by anti-Islam forces and ideas to enter Muslim societies and politics.’

The charisma attached to Islamic Socialism began to wither after the death of Nasser in 1970, and when most Muslim countries began coming closer to the conservative oil-rich Arab monarchies.

The international oil crises of 1973-74 saw the economic policies of regimes professing Islamic Socialism come under great stress, creating disillusionment among the masses that began being drawn towards the advocates of Islamism.

The last major expression of Islamic Socialism was the (Soviet-backed) ‘Saur Revolution’ in Afghanistan in 1978, led by the People’s Democratic Party.

By the late 1970s Islamic Socialism had all but withered away, even though today some mainstream right-wing parties in Muslim countries have (ironically) began to adopt old Islamic Socialist slogans despite the fact that most of their conservative predecessors had opposed Islamic Socialism during the Cold War.

The demise of Islamic Socialism (and its manifestations) finally created the room the more right-wing expressions of Political Islam needed to become the dominant force in the Muslim world. But this rise (especially after the Cold War) was also paralleled by the evolution of what is casually called Liberal Islam.

The Last Bastion

Though many liberal Muslims consider 8th and 9th century Islamic rationalists (the Mu’tazilites) to be the first philosophical expressions of Liberal Islam, in the political context, Liberal Islam too is a late 19th/early 20th century creation (despite the fact that there is historical accuracy in the claim that major Muslim empires of yore were already largely pluralistic and non-theocratic).

Again, in the political context, Liberal Islam can find its roots in some 19th century reformist movements and in the way Muslim countries such as Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey adopted western economic and social models in the early 20th century.

The emergence of the nationalist movements in the Muslim world too gave impetus to the thought attached to Liberal Islam, and so did the coming to prominence of effusive ideologies such as Islamic Socialism.

Liberal Islam has been a flexible entity. Sections in both the anti-West as well as pro-West segments in the Muslim world profess it, with the anti-clergy factor being the common link between the two.

Many democratic political parties of the left and of the right and also authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world can be termed as having liberal views about Islam’s political role.

These parties and regimes are highly suspicious of the clergy and repulsed by the political ambitions of Islamism and Neo-Fundamentalism.

They encourage Ijtihad in matters such as the understanding of the Quran and Shariah, and emphasise that Islam is best served through religious institutions instead of through the state and the government. They also believe faith to be a strictly private matter that should not be soiled by the amorality of politics.

An emphasis on multiculturalism, nationalism and democratic pluralism too is made, even though, as mentioned earlier, some Liberal Muslim organs have been authoritarian as well.

Most mainstream political parties in the Muslim world today can be said to be following various degrees of Liberal Islam. Not all of them are secular in the western sense of the word, but they are flexible in their outlook towards matters such as the Shariah, and concepts and practices that are deemed as ‘un-Islamic’ by their more conservative opponents.


Oliver Roy, The failure of Political Islam (Harvard University Press, 1998) p.2

Muhammad Ayoob, The Many Faces of Political Islam (University of Michigan, 2007)

Roger Hardy, The Muslim Revolt, (Harsh Publishers 1999) p.18

Ziauddin Sardar, Islam, Post-Modernism & Other Futures (Pluto Press 2001) p.100

Martin Kramer, Fundamentalists or Islamists? (Middle East Quarterly, 2003) pp.65-70

Abdullah Saeed, Freedom of Religion & Islam (Ashgate Publishing, 2004) p.90

James Toth, Syed Qutb (Oxford University Press, 2013) p.324

Nadeem F. Paracha, Islamic Socialism: A history from left to right (DAWN.COM, February 21, 2013)

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and