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Political Islam: An evolutionary history

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

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 anticolonial movements that described themselves as Islamic in orientation. It is a
20th century construct and its first prominent expression is believed to be
Egypts 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.
Till about the late 1960s, movements associated with rightest aspects of
Political Islam were largely intellectual pursuits with limited political
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
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, Baath 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 leftleaning 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 Islams 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
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 (Mutazilites), influential Muslim thinkers such
as Imam Ghazali insisted that a perfect synthesis (between the two) had been
reached and that Islams social and spiritual philosophy had achieved

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


12th century Islamic thinker, Imam Ghazali, who advocated an end to 'ijtihad'
(independent reasoning) with the view that Islamic thought had reached
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 madrassahs.
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
But Islamic Fundamentalism continues to be frozen in an understanding of the
faith and its texts developed centuries ago by ancient Islamic scholars and

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

Members of the Tableeghi Jamat in Pakistan. The Jamat is one of the largest
Islamic evangelical movements in the world. Observers have described it as a
genuine Islamic fundamentalist movement but with no political agenda.
Muslim Nationalism was perhaps Political Islams 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. PanIslamism 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
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 Indias 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 Islams scriptures. In this
context, they were both progressive ideas.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was one of the early architects of Muslim Nationalism
(along with Syed Ameer Ali). Pan-Islamists and orthodox clergy criticised him
for adopting the Western concept of nationalism for the Muslims of South
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.

Poet-philosopher, Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), tried to bridge the

universalism of Pan-Islamism with the Muslim nationalist identity that South
Asia was trying to shape up.
The new country was to be based on Muslim Nationalisms 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-Islamisms 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
By the mid-1970s, Muslim Nationalisms disposition had begun to shift from
the centre and towards the right. And by the 1980s, it had largely incorporated
into its fold Islamisms 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
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.
Islamisms 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).

Ibn Saud.
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 worlds first Islamic State, but one that was under the control of a
The Saud familys 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 Taymmiya), went down
well with the people of the region; but the familys 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
Pioneering Islamism scholars such as Egypts Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb,
and South Asias 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.

Prolific author and Islamic scholar, Abul Ala Maududi was one of the first
major ideologues of what became to be known (in the West) as Islamism.
Qutb, on the other hand, implied that 20th century Muslim societies were in a
state of jahiliyya 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

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

Egyptian Islamic ideologue S. Qutb (right) with an American intellectual in

1950. He was hanged by the government of Gamal Abdul Nasser in Egypt in
1966 (on charges of treason and inciting violence).
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
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 Islamisms 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
Islamisms leading organs were receiving (from the West), movements
attached to Islamism started to weaken and fragment. Consequently,
Islamisms less intellectually inclined (and more brutal) cousin, NeoFundamentalism, 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.

Post-Cold War Islamism triumphed at the polls but failed at governance.

Muhammad Morsi, a member of Egypts Muslim Brotherhood, was elected
President of Egypt in 2012. Within a year he fell from grace as millions of his
opponents took to the streets demanding his resignation. He was ousted in a
military coup in July 2013.
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, NeoFundamentalists 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.

Some observers have defined the violence associated with NeoFundamentalism as an anarchic and desperate symptom foretelling the
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 Baath 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 anticlerical, socially liberal and mostly sympathetic towards communist powers
Soviet Union and China.
It eventually became the left-wing of Political Islam. Egypts popular leader,
Gamal Abdel Nasser, became Arab Socialisms leading advocate and
practitioner; while in Syria and Iraq the concept became to be known as Baath
Socialism (Baath in Arabic means renaissance).

Gamal Abdul Nasser (right) with famous Marxist revolutionary, Che Guvara, in
Cairo (1960).

After the political successes of Arab Socialism and Baath 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 Algerias independence from France (1962) described
itself as a follower of Islamic Socialism, and so did the populist Pakistan
Peoples Party in Pakistan.
Libya too began calling itself an Islamic Socialist state after Muammar alGadhafi toppled the Libyan monarchy in a coup in 1969. Yasser Arafats
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.

Poet, painter and author, Hanif Ramay, is considered one of the main

ideologues and theorists of modern Islamic Socialism in Pakistan. He was one

of the founding members of PPP.

A 1970 poster of the Young Socialist Alliance, an international group of leftist

student outfits allied to Baath/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

Iranian thinker and activist Ali Shariati expressed revolutionary Islam through
Marxist symbolism. He was assassinated in 1975 by the agents of the Shah of
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
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 Peoples 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
The last bastion
Though many liberal Muslims consider 8th and 9th century Islamic rationalists
(the Mutazilites) 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.

The founder of modern Turkish nationalism, Kamal Ataturk, was one of the
staunchest expressions of Liberal Islam (in the political context).

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 Islams 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.

The founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, tried to bridge the political
gap between Muslim Nationalism and Liberal Islam in South Asia.

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 unIslamic 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,
Roger Hardy, The Muslim Revolt, (Harsh Publishers 1999) p.18
Ziauddin Sardar, Islam, Post-Modernism & Other Futures (Pluto Press 2001)
Martin Kramer, Fundamentalists or Islamists? (Middle East Qutarly, 2003)
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)

dawn.com (http://www.dawn.com/news/1139847) October 23, 2014