Islam vs. Islamism: The Dilemma of the Muslim World

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Therefore, his declarations and decisions were beyond reproach. Following his death, that certainty evaporated. Muslims who would later be known as Sunnis argued that Muhammad had not named a successor, and that, therefore, the community was free to choose the most suitable ruler. This dispute about leadership of the community had ramifications far beyond which man was in charge. If the Sunnis were correct, and rule was nonhereditary, then the leader was essentially the best among equals.

Similar to the divine right of kings in Medieval Europe, the reasoning in the latter case suggests that God would not choose someone who would lead them astray. The Sunnis have an equally complicated political history.

They are by far the largest sect. Thus, they have ruled in most places and at most times in Islamic history. Beginning in the late 7 th century CE, political leadership of the Sunni community became dynastic. Thus, the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad remained the sole sources of religious legitimacy. Thus, in practice, a separation between religious and political authority emerged.

In theory, no such separation should have existed in Sunni Islam, and Sunni sources were reluctant to acknowledge its presence. Many of the debates about politics within the Islamic tradition can be linked with corollary debates about Islamic texts. One of the most politically consequential verses of the Quran is Believers should obey God and the Prophet Muhammad. Who are those who possess authority? The earliest Sunni interpretations of the Quran gave several possibilities. First, some Sunnis thought the verse referred to a temporal or military leader.

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As dynastic rule set in, Sunni Muslims increasingly attributed the authority referenced in the Quran to kings, sultans, emirs, and other political leaders. The major Sunni scholars of the Middle Ages, such as al-Mawardi d. These factors led to quietism among Sunni scholars which, despite a few notable exceptions like Ibn Taymiyah in the 14 th century or Muhammad ibn abd al-Wahhab in the 18 th century, remained an important predisposition toward politics in pre-modern Sunni Islam.

"Islamist" or "Islamic"? The Difference is Huge.

In some cases, such quietism manifested in radical ways. For example, in Central Asia, some Islamic scholars from the Muslim communities within the Russian Empire argued that it was sufficient for the ruler to permit Muslims to practice their religion.

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Thus the ruler himself did not need to be Muslim, and Christian Russia could be considered an Islamic state. It should be noted, however, that theories of Islam and politics were discussed among scholars and elites. It is unclear to what extent the masses were party to or understood any of these discussions. Like other pre-modern communities, 90 percent of people in the Islamic world were illiterate.

There is good evidence to suggest that they did not understand or even know about the high Islam that was debated in seminaries and royal courts. The modern period in the Middle East really starts in the 19 th century and it is during this period that transformations in the relationship between Islam and politics begin to occur.

Modernity brought a politics of the masses to the Middle East. Regimes that had ruled in the name of a dynastic family came under pressure to rule in the name of the people. The question was, who were the people? And, what made a people a people? In Egypt, where modern Islamism had its beginning, the early 20 th century saw intense debates over political identity.

Proponents of Egyptian nationalism competed with pan-Arab nationalists and with socialists whose political consciousness was rooted in their class. The Islamists argued that they were Muslims before anything else, and that their Islamic identity should form the foundation of the political order. With this focus on Islam came inclinations toward piety and religious fundamentalism. Banna and his Islamist followers spoke of a golden age of Islam, which they sought to restore.

Islamists such as Banna insisted that because the Prophet Muhammad was a political leader, who had established a state on the basis of Islam, their religion was inherently political. Thus, they insisted that while separating politics from religion was permissible in Christianity, it was forbidden in Islam. Therefore, those Muslims who promoted such ideas were, in fact, adopting the Christian secularism of their colonial masters and that this was at odds with the essence of Islam. Accordingly, Banna and his followers felt that restoring Islam to its proper place in society would require combating not only colonialism but also liberalism and secularism.

In doing so, they made claims about the illiberal nature of Islamic politics. Not all Muslims agreed with Islamist claims about the nature of their religion. Some Muslim scholars made explicit arguments about the compatibility and, in rare cases, even the necessity of secular liberalism in the practice of Islam.

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Most Muslims seem to have paid little attention to such debates. Like people all over the world, they were concerned with making a living, providing for their families, and, when possible, they occupied themselves with various leisure activities. They continued to believe in and practice their own understanding of Islam, but they felt free to adopt wide-ranging political identities.

Most famously, Sayyid Qutb argued that non-Islamist political systems, such as monarchy, democracy, and dictatorship, were inherently un-Islamic. His arguments were rooted in classical Islamic debates, but they were often selective in their reading of texts. As we have seen, this interpretation had a precedent in early Islam, but only as one of a plethora of possibilities. Esteemed Sunni Islamic scholars in the medieval period often rejected that interpretation in favor of seeing the rulers as possessors of authority.

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Thus, Qutb contradicted authoritative medieval arguments in favor of an interpretation of the verse that undermined the trend toward political quietism in Sunni Islam. Some groups took them in radical directions, claiming that Muslims who did not rebel against, or separate themselves from, un-Islamic political systems were not really Muslims — they were apostates and their blood was licit. Thus, Muslim civilians became legitimate targets in the minds of some Islamist terrorists.

Eventually, Sunni Islamists fractured into groups with political ideologies ranging from the democratically elected Islamist party which currently rules the NATO member state of Turkey, to the extremists in the Islamic State and al-Qaida. The most significant thinker in that regard was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who in led the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Consequently, Khomeini, like his Sunni counterparts, linked Islamic belief with opposition to secularism and liberalism that he felt were byproducts of Western imperialism.

Islamists often refer to themselves simply as Muslims and they claim that those who oppose their ideas also necessarily oppose Islam. They root their ideas in a particular reading of history. If Muhammad combined political and religious authority, then how could Muslims disavow the role of politics in Islam? This is a powerful argument. Yet, the Islamist reading of the past has been selective. No consensus has ever existed on what Islam is, let alone on its relationship to politics.

Beyond liberal Islam

As we have seen, Islamism had its genesis in modern debates about political identity. And despite the fact that Islamists have used classical Islamic texts to make arguments, their ideas sometimes had no precedent in Islamic history. This does not imply that Islamists are wrong or that their logic is invalid. If it is difficult to know what Islam is, it is also hard to determine what it is not.

Thus, Islamist claims about Islam are just as legitimate as any other. Nevertheless, it should be recognized that, despite Islamist assertions, no consensus among those who identify as Muslims exists with regard to the relationship between Islam and politics.

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Nor is it possible to read the classical Islamic texts and come away with an unambiguous understanding of Islamic politics. As such, Islamists remain a subset of the larger Islamic community. How large a subset is not easy to determine.

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Partly, this is due to the difficulty in demarcating the lines between Islam and Islamism. Islamists claim that they are simply Muslims who recognize the essential role of politics in their religion. Yet, there are other Muslims who also recognize a role for politics in their religion and sometimes even reject the separation between the two, but they do not consider themselves to be Islamists. Thus, very few Arab Muslims claim to be secular.

Islam vs. Islamism: The Dilemma of the Muslim World Islam vs. Islamism: The Dilemma of the Muslim World
Islam vs. Islamism: The Dilemma of the Muslim World Islam vs. Islamism: The Dilemma of the Muslim World
Islam vs. Islamism: The Dilemma of the Muslim World Islam vs. Islamism: The Dilemma of the Muslim World
Islam vs. Islamism: The Dilemma of the Muslim World Islam vs. Islamism: The Dilemma of the Muslim World
Islam vs. Islamism: The Dilemma of the Muslim World Islam vs. Islamism: The Dilemma of the Muslim World
Islam vs. Islamism: The Dilemma of the Muslim World Islam vs. Islamism: The Dilemma of the Muslim World
Islam vs. Islamism: The Dilemma of the Muslim World Islam vs. Islamism: The Dilemma of the Muslim World

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