Home News Terminological chaos: Political Islam and Islamism​

Terminological chaos: Political Islam and Islamism​


Although it sounds too intellectual and theoretical to a lot of people, the way things are defined directly impacts the actions taken in their regards. News readers, for example, might miss the difference between “atrocities,” “violence,” “crimes,” and “massacre” when they read about Syria, yet based on the impression they take out of the news piece their action/inaction will be determined. If it was a civil war, then “why not let them figure it out themselves,” one reader might think; yet if it was defined as a massacre against civilians then the same reader might think of helping.


Same applies  yet in a deeper way, to understanding the Islamic movements and their ideologies and actions especially in the Arab World. Why are they so insistent on mixing religion with politics? Did not they learn from the painful European experience? Are all of them dazzled with the luster of power? …Very legitimate and logical questions indeed; yet, to be able to address them one has to take it one step back.

Identity Crisis

Civilizations that were on top in any given time in history are the ones that set the intellectual discourse for most of the world. It is taken for granted, though might be changing soon, that the Western civilization knows better. Consciously or unconsciously, big number of Arabs and Muslims, especially intellectuals, are milked from Western academia and culture, some filter what they receive and most do not. Ibn Khaldun explains this in his Muqaddimah; “The vanquished always want to imitate the victor in his distinctive mark(s) […] it erroneously assumes that its own subservience to him is not due to the nature of defeat but to the perfection of the victor.”[i]

Most universities in Egypt, for example, give birth to political scientists who have been chewing on the theories of Locke, Rousseau, and the like for so long that they might barely have the intellectual courage to think of Ibn Khaldun as an equal, save for being far ahead. Such identity crisis is the one that makes Arab and Muslim scholars think about themselves through the eyes of the other. Their intellect is crushed under civilizational servility and deformed identities, which created a huge gap between themselves and the realities around them in the Arab World.

A sharp-eyed Muslim scholar who is consistent with his identity, which stems from his civilizational and religious heritage, would experience a hard time in ignoring the terminological and intellectual chaos that is present in most of the literature trying to explain the behavior of the Islamic movements nowadays. Terms like “Political Islam” and “Islamism” should make the reader stop for a while and ponder about their accuracy: Is there a political version of Islam that is different from Islam itself? Are those “Islamists” doing something that would necessitate a special term for them other than Muslims?

Is Islam a Religion?

A Western scholar, confined and limited to his/her own identity and civilization would answer yes. In fact, the majority of Western writers and scholars argue that those Muslims mixing religion with politics should be given a special name of Islamists, and that what they practice should be labeled as Political Islam.

On the other hand, the Islamic history has been witnessing a lot of ups and downs in terms of political engagement and activism, yet the termIslamiyyun (Arabic word for Islamists) was never found in its literature until very recently. Quran uses the terms Muslimun (Muslims) andMu’minun (believers) but never Islamiyyun(Islamists), “same tradition is observed and followed in modern times among Muslim authors of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.”[ii]

The main problem most Western scholars cannot get past is in their understanding of the word religion and the false presumption that it is a transcultural definition. “There cannot be a universal definition of religion, not only because its constituent elements and relationships are historical specific, but because that definition is itself the historical product of discursive processes,” Talal Asad argues.[iii]

The understanding of such Western scholars of religion is based on their experience with Christianity as a strictly spiritual religion. Muslims call Islam a “deen,” which is the Arab world meaning a way of life. This fact about Islam is proven all over the Quran; two verses in Surah al-Ana’am read:

Say: “Truly, my prayer and my service of sacrifice, my life and my death are (all) for Allah, the Cherisher of the Worlds: (162) No partner hath He: this am I commanded, and I am the first of those who bow to His Will. (163)

Other verses label those who do not rule with what Allah revealed to his Prophet Mohamed (peace and blessings be upon him) as disbelievers, wrong-doers, and evil-livers.[iv] The Sunnah and the actions of the Rightly Guided Caliphs all stand as proofs that practicing politics in accordance with the Qur’an and the Sunnah is not optional, according to the Shari`ah scholars. Actually, whoever is in a position to practice politics and does not do it in accordance to Islamic law the Qur’an labels him/her as a disbeliever, wrong-doer, and evil-liver.

Understanding the Arab World

Although practicing Muslims may differ on what is the “correct” way to practice politics in an Islamic way, they necessary agree that Islam is a comprehensive way of life, a deen, that extends past the private sphere and goes into politics, economics, culture, and all fields of the public sphere. Hence, “Political Islam” and “Islamism” are terms that indicate the ignorance about the nature of Islam and the way its believers understand it.

“The wide majority of those terms and categories, Arab and foreign, suffer a fundamental weakness point that limits their ability to explain clearly the Islamic phenomenon with all of its diversity and components, this weakness point is that most of them originate from foreign epistemological basis,” Diaa Rashwan, director of al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, mentions in his book Guide to Islamic Movements in the World.[v]

Not all political scientists can tackle what is now sweeping the Arab World as an increasingly influential player, the Islamic movements. A Western scholar must leave his comforting cultural chair and look into the roots of the thought he is analyzing objectively to be able to analyze and understand the actions of the associated groups; only then the world can come to the realization that identity is in fact on the stage, and shape actions accordingly.

[i] Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. Princeton University Press, 1969. P. 116.

[ii] Mozaffari, Mehdi. “What is Islamism? History and Definition of a Concept.” Totalitarian Movements and Political 8.1 (2007): 19.

[iii] Sayyid, Bobby S. A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism. London: Zed Books, 2003. P. 15.

[iv] Surah al-Maeda: 44, 45, 47



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here