Islam and Islamism : an Overview

April 14, 2013 at 21:49
Asjad Bukhari


“It is I, the King of Kings.” Gilgamesh was his name from the day he was born, two-thirds of him god but a third of him human, from the epic of Gilgamesh.



The marriage between power and divine (in different forms) is not something new to human society. Whether we read books on ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Indian, Greek and Roman civilizations, or we study the history of organized biblical/monotheistic religions, the footprints of divine or sacred kingships are everywhere.

Religion by itself is an expedient and voluntarily scheme to set up morality, spirituality and social interaction. The synergy religion creates within society can contribute towards progress, but it also has potential to generate bigotry and hatred. Throughout human history, fanatics and extremists have exploited religion as a driving force for some of the worst atrocities. Conquerors, monarchs and warlords justified wars on the base of religious differences or sometimes in an effort to spread their faith. This religiously motivated adventurism has cost millions of human lives. In modern history, 14th to 16th century Renaissance Movements in Europe accomplished significant developments to separate religion from power politics, but still there are miles to go. In some societies the distance is in hundreds of miles and in some in thousands, but still we are far from better. Although in the developed world, the Church has no authority to govern the state, it still has some influence and involvement into power politics via political parties, pressure groups and lobbies.

Islam is a monotheistic belief system articulated by the Qur’an, a text considered by Muslims to be the words of Allah (God). It endorses certain moral and ethical values to lead a person with the blend of spirituality and morality. In Islam, believers (Muslims) need to shape their persona according to the prescribed guidelines to progress their soul for the betterment of this life and also to get the reward from the divine in life after death. According to the Quran, this message is the complete and universal version of faith that was revealed at many times and places including biblical prophets e.g. Abraham, Moses, Jesus etc. In Islamic belief, Muhammad (c. 570 – 632) is not the author of Islam, but instead is regarded as the last messenger of Allah.

Islamism: Historically, Western writers used the terms Islamism and Mohammedism for Islam as a religion and Mohammedans was an alternate to Muslims. By the turn of the twentieth century, the term Islamism replaced by the Arabic term Islam and by 1938, when Orientalist scholars completed The Encyclopaedia of Islam, the term Islamism disappeared completely. The Orientalist scholars removed this term as it offended Muslim writers and readers.

The resurrection and redefinition of Islamism, like its birth, took place in France in the late 70s as it started appearing in titles of books and articles to describe new Islamic movements and Islam as a political ideology. Retrieval of the term ‘islamisme’ never went without criticism and most notably by a French historian of Islam Maxime Rodinson, stating “If one chooses this term, the reader may become confused between an excited extremist who wishes to kill everyone and a reasonable person who believes in God in the Muslim manner, something perfectly respectable.”

Parallel to that, American authors started using the term Islamic fundamentalism for politically motivated Islamic movements. In the mid-90s American authors like Graham Fuller expressed their disagreement with the term fundamentalism and suggested that “this more recent phenomenon in the Muslim world is not so much of an old-fashioned theology but it is a current political ideology” and they suggested using the term ‘Islamism’. Because of this, a majority of scholars are now using this term to describe the inflexible ideology of Islamic movements and individuals they believe:

‘Islam (Islamic state) should rule personal, social and political life of every Muslim and wherever Muslims are in majority or they are in governing position, the law of the land must be in conformity with the Islamic Sharia. Moreover they believe it is the core duty of every Muslim to spread this ideology all across the globe. The ultimate goal is to establish Caliphate (Islamic theocratic rule) in the entire planet.’

Upon the appearance of Islam, the social structure of Hijaz was based on tribal systems where every tribe was considered as a separate nation with some variation in their traditions. In Mecca, the birth place of Islam, Quraysh was a powerful merchant tribe that controlled the area and its Kaaba (the holiest shrine of the region). Prophet Muhammad was born into the Banu Hashim clan of the Quraysh tribe. When he was in his late 30s, he periodically went off in isolation to a cave in the surrounding mountains for days. At the age of forty, sitting in the cave, he reported receiving his first revelation from God. Three years after the first revelation, he started preaching these revelations publicly: God is one and submitting to Allah is the only way for salvation and he himself is a prophet and messenger of God, in the same vein as other prophets e.g. Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Jesus etc. Monotheist theology and social values preached by Prophet Muhammad were progressive and different (in some areas) than the pagan tribal traditions of Hijaz. This new religious and social movement stressed the unity of the Quraysh and that caused division and discord. After decades of long struggle by means of preaching and battles, in the end Prophet Muhammad and his companions managed to convert all Quraysh and other significant neighbouring tribes into Islam and they once again united. Although Prophet Muhammad’s message brought a number of social reforms in Hijaz, it still remained a tribal society where the status of an individual was determined by what tribe they were born into. On a socio political horizon, there was no other tribe wealthier or more powerful than the urban elite of Mecca, the Quraysh. Coincidentally, the most reliable and closest friends of the Prophet were also from Quraysh. Aftermath to the death of the Prophet, his closest companions prudently influenced followers that the caliph (leader/ruler after Prophet Muhammad) should come from Quraysh. This proposal was supposedly backed with the words of Prophet Muhammad.  In fact during that time, the people of Hijaz were not aware of anyone’s political leadership except that of the Quraysh and they had the popular support of the masses, and no tribe could challenge this position. History witnessed that all four Caliphs of Rashidun and four major Muslim dynasties after that established their legitimacy on the basis of this. Evidently this was not the divine rule to impose one ‘chosen’ tribe on all others. Rather, it was the pragmatic strategy for that time by the Prophet’s most reliable companions to avoid the battles for successors and to progress Muslims society after the Prophet’s death.

Compared to tribal pagan rituals, Islamic monotheist theology with better social and moral norms, became a great source for early Muslims to unite all tribes of Hijaz under one umbrella. Since these early Muslims did not have a clear vision and examples of the institution of the state, their first model of the state was very much like a tribal honor-system, where the chief holds all of the sources of power. The honor-system developed by early Muslims to run the society worked for a couple of decades. The reason for their success could possibly be the lifelong companionships and direct inspiration by the prophet. But how long this system survived and how it was destroyed by civil wars and monarchs – is a separate area of history and politics. What needs to be identified is, rather a 1400 year old tribal culture of the desert and power structure is the core value in the message of Islam. Or can this message be separated by tribal traditions and power structure of that time? In principle, the majority of Muslim scholars, whether they are Islamists or reformers, agree that values and guidelines of Islam are core, not the tribal culture. The differences begin when you identify, what is desert culture and what are the fundamental values and norms of Islam. Traditionalists perceive the majority of tribal traditions of that time as fundamentals of Islam, and they drive principles of an Islamic state from that tribal power structure. This is the source from where Islamists get the argument to justify amalgamation of power politics and Islam. Contrary to that, generally the subject of the Quran is not state or politics at all. Character building of individuals is the main topic of the Quran. It provides moral values for how humans should behave in family as well as in society.

In Islam, the idea of blending politics with religion was initiated during the first Muslim dynasty. Although Muslim monarchs of 7th and 8th centuries were not considered as spiritual or religious leaders, with the help of early Muslim clergy they systematically narrowed down the concept of Jihad into holy war. That was the time when under the influence of monarchs, Muslim clerics produced tons of literature that provided religious cover up for rulers to invade foreign lands as part of Jihad. Although those hostile Jihadi ideas never went without criticism and disagreement, the opposing voices suffered persecutions and had a hard time reaching the masses compared to the voices from the courtyards. Some opposing intellectuals argued on the bases of rationality and some tried to use mystic routes to highlight the tolerant and human side of Islam. After establishing the empire, those Muslims dynasties maintained certain distance between state matters and religion, but from time to time they used Islam for their political purpose as well.

However, in the beginning of the twentieth century, the concepts of modern state changed rapidly; capitalist democracies and socialist states became a reality. In reaction to this, some of the Muslim world authors like Syed Qutab of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syed Maududi of Jamat Islami in Pakistan went in search of a modern Islamic theocratic state. These authors not only produced the literature, but they also launched political movements to achieve the dream of an Islamic state.  During the Cold War era, USA and other capitalist powers recognized these relatively unpopular Islamist movements as useful barricades against the spread of communist political movements in the Muslim world. They supported and invested heavily on these Islamist authors and their movements to suppress liberal and socialists Muslim thoughts. Afghan Jihad of 80s was the climax of that unholy marriage between capitalists and Islamists. After the climax of an unnatural friendship, in the start of new millennium, they become each other’s rivals.

Establishment of an Islamic theocratic state to implement Sharia (figh) law is the main objective of Islamists. However, they have no direct support from the Quran to aspire this utopia. Other than a few general guidelines, the Quran is silent on politics and statecraft. It provides some fundamentals on which society may be built, with the assurance of equality and social justice. It does not however endorse or sanction any particular form of government, including theocracy and neither does it demand to create an Islamic state. Contrary to that, it encourages individuals to follow the morals and values mentioned in the book. Islamists endorse Shariah law as divine and insist all Muslims to oppose manmade laws and struggle to enforce this law. This is nevertheless fraudulent claim, as Shariah laws are also manmade and developed by Muslim jurists (Imams) gradually (in their personal capacity) in the centuries after the Prophet’s time. These laws are somewhat based on oral traditions of the Prophet’s time. These traditions (hadith) were documented from verbal history after two to three centuries of the Prophet’s death. In these compilations, not only is the margins of error high, but also most of them are 1400 year old tribal customs of that time, instead of divine laws. These laws are not written in the Quran. Most interesting is the fact that there are dozens of versions of these Shariah laws. Some versions of these laws were adapted by Muslim rulers, and some were practiced by individuals in their personal lives, while some just stay in the books. This is the prevalent problem with Islamists; they greet the personal opinions of 8th and 9th centuries Imams as a divine and integral part of Islam, while completely ignoring the realities and needs of the different time and space that makes these manmade Shariah laws irrelevant to the present time.

The author is founding member of RSOP / social activist and information management professional, he can be reached via

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