5 Jan 2021

The tragedy of political Islam: From hyperbole to the epistemic dilemma

Dr. Mohamed Bouchikhi

Political Islam movements have developed an ideological vision that reflects their approach to addressing state and society issues. This vision stems from the reality of the Muslim world surrounding us. It treats religious texts, especially Hadith (documented traditions and practices of Prophet Mohammed), have been interpreted based on a majority view and circumstances. It is built on a totalitarian concept of religion expressed by the phrase “There is no God but Allah: A faith, a law and a way of life.” This was also the title of an important book by Muhammad Qutb, Sayyid Qutb’s brother and successor as Qutbism leader.

Political Islam movements thrived amid an intense ideological conflict between the East and the West, whose ripple effects had spread across the Arab and Muslim worlds. Consequently, intellectual and political streams emerged, some of them with leftist, socialist, and communist leanings and others with rightist liberalist tendencies.

The idea of nationalism also emerged as a supposedly local, intellectual idea combining tradition and modernity and raising liberation slogans. Nationalism fueled sentiments and led to calls for an end to Arab countries’ occupation, regaining national sovereignty, and reviving Arab glory. However, nationalist regimes’ military defeats severely affected their widespread reach and the educated elites’ confidence.

Nationalism’s steady decline, in its versions of Nasserism and Baathism in the Arab world since the late 1960s, has bolstered political Islam’s discourse, which views the setbacks of the Umma (nation or community) as a divine punishment for its deviation from the “path of virtue.” People have been urged to rally behind and revive the role of religion[1] and usher in hope as Prophet Mohammed liberated his people from the injustice of religions to Islam’s justice. This call had to be based on guiding literature that would connect thought with reality and provide an ideological rationale for religion’s political and social framing role.

Drawing on this religious revival movement, Islamists developed their literature and articulated a pragmatic vision guided by the narratives of traditional jurisprudence and western methodological tools. This explains their confusion in comprehending modern political culture concepts, such as civil state, civil society, women’s issues, citizenship, etc., and their associated requirements for the management of society and good governance.

Political Islam, which started with the conciliatory jurisprudential ideas of Shaikh Rashid Rida (1865-1935), got interspersed with political and cultural reality not to remedy its failures but to Islamize it and clean it from what it considered its vices and deviations. Hence, it placed “Islamization” at the top of its agenda but soon departed from its original purposes by making it a criterion for embracing religion and not a means to correct faith practices.

Its most prominent leaders after Rashid Rida were Abul A’la Al-Mawdudi (1903-1979) and Hassan Al-Banna (1906-1949), who sought to build his identity on religion in theory and practice and thus veered toward more extremism and myopia. It produced an ideological discourse that runs counter to reality and rejects it at political and epistemic levels. The ideology intended to rule in politics as in epistemology has resulted in political hyperbole and an epistemic dilemma.

The ‘Caliphate’ model’s failure

Political Islam’s emergence coincided with the Islamic caliphate’s downfall in 1924 and the Muslim countries’ submission to western power dominance. The religious establishment retreated from its role of developing a modern religious discourse, accommodating the exceptional turn of historical events, and presenting workable initiatives to pull itself out of its labyrinth. This dragged the pioneers of political Islam toward a distinct political entity with its objectives and ways of conceiving the power and how to exercise it.

Because of the establishment of a political entity, Islamism’s concept moved from being an amorphous intellectual stream to an institutional structure with specific terms of reference, with defined tools and objectives. In 1928, it manifested itself organizationally in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood. Established by Hassan Al-Banna, Rashid Rida’s student, Al-Banna also took charge of the Al-Manar magazine after him. However, Al-Banna’s political Islam was different from his teacher Rashid Rida if one looks at the degree and type of political activism involvement.

Al-Banna’s participation in partisan politics directly resulted from his narrow epistemological horizon, compared to Rida. Political activism became the main, if not the sole, driver of political Islam’s ideological project and the tool for generating ideas. In contrast, politics for Rida was a catalyst for thinking within a wider epistemological field encompassing the entire affairs of the nation, with its material and spiritual needs, and expressing a holistic concept of the relationship between the ruler and the ruled in the context of pan-Islamism as advocated by Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani and Muhammad Abdu before him.

The growing awareness of the Muslim world’s civilizational retreat in the face of the West, the prevalence of the European methods of administrative organization in Muslim countries, and its influence on local Arab-Muslim culture led to a rejection of everything related to western civilization. The civilizational failure was blamed on the political problem, and resistance against the West’s dominance became the political problem’s focus caused the dilemma, not a manifestation of it.

The resistance received a boost due to the 1979 victory of Khomeini’s revolution in Iran, which raised the slogan of supporting the “oppressed and downtrodden” and fighting the “oppressors and arrogant powers,” especially the “Great Satan.” That victory reinforced the Sunni political Islam project and widened its political presence.

All this made the caliphate model an active and influential paradigm in political Islam’s concept of power. The Brotherhood was a practical response to the caliphate’s collapse in Istanbul in 1924. As stated in Shaikh Ali Abdul Raziq’s book, Islam and the Fundamentals of Governance, published in 1925, the Brotherhood opposed any initiative to develop a modern political jurisprudence that would put a political entity and its organizational imperatives in its right place as a human construct that could be criticized and even rejected. The same argument did not apply to a religious fundamental related to the truthfulness of faith and purity of creed.

The position of political Islamist movements on the caliphate also defines its views on the governance requirements such as pledging of allegiance (Bai’a), accountability (Hisba), and consultation (Shoura), by pragmatically re-reading them to keep pace with the challenges of the time. Political Islam interprets the pledge of allegiance as the Islamic version of elections and accountability. Simultaneously, the consultation is the characteristic of democracy or the equivalent of an assembly or parliament in the modern state.

At the theoretical activism level, political Islam has moved from the domain of the “imagined” caliphate to an “existing” organization, which with political structure bestowed on it. Hence, the movement’s leader is called the Imam, as he is appointed the same way as the caliph. The Imam receives an oath of allegiance from organization members who obey him and become like the caliphate’s subjects. They do not oppose his views, fearing a split in the group’s ranks.

The idea of the inspired leader is ingrained in Islamists’ popular imagination. The leader’s sanctity and position as a follower of the Prophet give him legislative, executive, and judicial powers. However, the followers’ consciousness becomes distorted with their sense of belonging to the organization and allegiance to its leader at the homeland’s expense.

The political Islam crisis has arisen from the modern adaptation and legitimacy of “caliphate” or, more precisely, “imamate” (leadership) in contradiction with the established Islamic scholastic theology, which doesn’t consider jurisprudence fundamental to religion. Theologian Adud Al-Din Al-‘Iji describes imamate “a non-fundamental aspect of religion but scholastic theology in emulation of those before us.”[2]

Political Islam movements have made the imamate a fundamental of religion where any disagreement means a departure from religion. According to Hassan Al-Banna, “the kind of Islam in which the Muslim Brotherhood believes makes government one of its cornerstones” and “in our jurisprudential books, governance is among the fundamentals, not the branch aspects, of religion.”[3] Sayyid Qutb followed the same path when he theorized for the concepts of Jahiliyya (ignorance), Hakimiyya (divine domination), Mufasala (separation), and takfir (apostasy).

These movements have complicated matters by borrowing the concepts of the “rules of the abodes” (Ahkam Al-Diyar) from classical jurisprudence to articulate their contemporary reality views. They show no regard for the changing rules of arbitration in international relations and the controls set by international norms and conventions.

It has divided the world into Dar Al-Silm (abode of peace) and Dar Al-Harb (abode of war), thereby opening new problems redefining itself and its enemy. It has ended up proposing jihad not only as a tool of liberation dictated by circumstances but as an “obligation” and a duty without which Islam is incomplete. Hence, a political challenge such as the caliphate’s revival became the source from which political Islam branched out. This reflects the centrality of political presence in the evolution of its social projects and the value system it seeks to establish.

It was evident that political Islam would produce more radical and violent forms of itself. Subsequently, outfits such as Al-Takfir Wal-Hijra (ex-communication and exodus), Islamic Jihad, and Al-Jama’a Al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Group) have come into existence. The emergence of the Jihadist Salafism – with organizations such as Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Ansar Al-Sharia as torchbearers of the modern form of Islamism – confrontation has replaced politics.

Epistemic dilemma: The utopia of global leadership

Political Islam emerged as a puritanical movement primarily promoting an ethical and spiritual discourse targeting the individual as a building block and a first step that would pave the way to addressing society and the state. This was before some followers of the faith had organized itself into an ideological entity embracing a holistic approach to Islam.

From this holistic ideological view, political Islam has also delved into science issues by calling for the “Islamization of knowledge.” It has made the Islamization of knowledge “a principal aspect in the conceptualization of thought, perception, and human value system and how to build it and construct its relations with the soul, mind, and conscience.”[4] An elite group of Islamists rallied around its project, the most prominent being Isma’il Al-Faruqi, Taha Jabir Al-Alwani, Muhammad Qutb, Abdul Wahhab Al-Maseeri, Muhammad Amara, Imad Al-Din Khalil, Irfan Abdul Hameed Fattah, and many others.

The call for Islamization of knowledge has been based on revising scientific methods[5] and criticizing western education models. It reviewed the Islamic educational institutions’ curricula and compared them to “authentic” Islamic experience in sciences and developing new cognitive mechanisms to indigenize western sciences in the Islamic culture.

It isn’t easy to pinpoint the exact date when the Islamization of knowledge, whose promoters consider it a cultural reform project, first emerged.[6] Some records date back to 1981, with the establishment of the International Institute of Islamic Thought [7] whose director Isma’il Raji Al-Faruqi laid down general principles for the project. He presented the work plan in two research papers at an Islamabad forum in January 1982 at the institute where he was the director.

In 1983, he also published a book titled Islamization of Knowledge: General Principles and Work Plan. Al-Faruqi described the book as “the best gift that can be presented to all Muslim scholars around the world in this first decade of the 15th century A.H.”[8] He said that the study contained in the book “strongly suggests that the Umma suffers from a serious deviation” and that “the book seeks to provide a remedy to the Umma that would restore its health and motivate it to play the role it is destined for; to take responsibility of leading the world.”[9]

Has political Islam succeeded in presenting a vision that would extricate the Umma from its crises and enable it to lead the world? This question has been around for nearly four decades despite the many publications supporting or criticizing the idea of “Islamization.”

Political Islam has developed concepts to theorize the “Islamization of knowledge” to serve its dream of propelling the Umma to the “world leadership” position. Perhaps the most salient of these concepts is the concept of “bias,” which has been used to unmask the objectivity of knowledge, its falsity, and its connection with western culture.

Abdul Wahhab Al-Maseeri [10] explains that the most important and ubiquitous bias in the world is “the bias in favor of the modern western civilizational and epistemological model and the biases springing up from it.”[11]

This implies that the material and methods used or taught by Muslim researchers at the educational institutions in Muslim countries would subconsciously “have a bad influence hostile to Islam.”[12] The Islamization of knowledge in its opponents’ eyes has remained only a tool for ideologization in line with Islamism’s holistic vision. This is due to the universal, abstract nature of knowledge, which cannot be attributed to a specific religion or culture.

The ideological rivalry has played an important role in shaping the “Islamization of Knowledge” project’s ideological premises. These premises have been emotive in dealing with a science question and dominated by a “largely biased” approach of “criticism and negation” at the expense of “comprehension and absorption.”[13] Psychologically, the ideological rivalry has been reinforced by the feeling of alienation that has taken a grip of a significant part of the educated elite in the Muslim world. This sense of deprivation has resulted in the call for a commitment to cultural specificity and respect for the historical identity components due to the failure of modernization policies and pressure from globalization in a world governed by military and scientific power.[14]

It can be argued that the “Islamization of knowledge” is part of the Islamism’s holistic vision and its view of the liberal West, which assumes world’s leadership and seeks to generalize its civilizational and epistemic paradigm worldwide. Opponents of political Islam see its view of the West as an “ideological discourse based on simplification and reductionism of the realm of thought and meaning,”[15] according to the Lebanese thinker Ali Harb.

Arguably, “Islamization of knowledge” has been a form of ideological expression that cannot be linked to religious truth, and calling for it has become like a “religious innovation” as “we do not find any classification of science made by ancient Muslims on a religious basis.”[16] In Islam’s perception, science is thought in itself regardless of its producer as long as it “meets the standards of accuracy and precision,”[17] as stated by the hadith “seek knowledge even as far as China,” attributed to the Prophet Mohammed. Thus, the call for the Islamization of knowledge is nothing more than “a kind of ideological thuggery” aiming to circumvent “facts and steal knowledge.”[18]

Criticism of the Islamization of knowledge has attracted its advocates, like Taha Jabir Al-Alwani, former president of the International Institute of Islamic Thought. Alwani attributed the “lack of sufficient attention to the issue of thought paradigm and the Islamization of knowledge” to “hostile ideologies monopolizing the thought,”[19] accusing his opponents of “failure to differentiate between science and its principles, goals, values, and wisdom.” According to him, all this is due to “the illusion created by the internationality of knowledge and implanted by cultural alienation of our Muslim Umma.”[20]

However, the calls against the Islamization of knowledge project did not come only from modernist or progressive thought such as liberalism and socialism. Scholars specializing in Sharia sciences and influential in the traditional religious establishment, such as Muhammad Saeed Ramadan Al-Bouti, said “Islam does not require more than the knowledge that is correct, free of impurities, and not biased to any party that might drive it away from its neutral scientific attributes.”[21]

Today, nearly four decades after the launch of the “Islamization of Knowledge” project, its momentum has declined. The dream of establishing a realistic epistemic Islamic model has collapsed, let alone the ambition to compete with “western centralism” in world leadership. This happened particularly after the death of most of its champions, who held the banner of scientific revival based on ideological narratives rather than universal facts.


Any study of Islamism, recounting its tragedies, and examining its progress, requires questioning its ability to regenerate itself and march ahead, given its inherent political swell and the epistemological dilemma it has ended up in. Political Islam’s dilemma explains one aspect of the Islamist parties’ failure and organizations running the government apparatus in several Arab countries. It was practically responsible for the unrest that shook these countries’ security and stability following the so-called “Arab Spring.”

Given its history, transformations, and an obsessive fear of extinction, political Islam will find itself forced to review its ideological constants to renovate its political tools and epistemic mechanisms. It may find in the methodological approaches of Taha Abdul Rahman’s philosophy,[22] which is immersed in mysticism and gnosis, some help to re-establish its ideological foundation and legal justification for its utopian project.

[1] Based on the Hadith “At the beginning of every century Allah will send to this ummah someone who will renew its religious understanding,” Shaikh Yousuf Al-Qaradawi differed with other interpreters who say the word “who” refers to a single person arguing that “it can refer to both singular and plural. In fact, it refers to plural in this Hadith as the renewer should not necessarily be one person but could be a group with a unified entity.”


[2] Abd Al-Rahman ibn Ahmad Al-Iji, “Principles of Islamic Scholastic Theology,” (Beirut: Aalam Al-Kutub, n.d.), p. 395.

[3] Hassan Al-Banna, “Message of the Imam Hassan Al-Banna,” (Cairo: Dar Altawziee Walnshr Alslamya, 2nd edition, n.d.), p. 355.

[4] Taha Jabir Al-Alwani, “The Reform of Islamic Thought: An Introduction to the Structures of Discourse in Modern Islamic Thought,” 5th edition (Virginia: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2009), p. 188.

[5] Isma’il Al-Faruqi calls for reformulation of Western arts, human and social sciences so that they fall into harmony with the concept of the universality of Islam, Isma’il Raji Al-Faruqi, “Islamization of Knowledge: General Principles and Work Plan,” translated by Abdul Warith Saeed (Kuwait: Scientific Research House, 1983), p. 69.

[6] Taha Jabir Al-Alwani, “The Reform of Islamic Thought: An Introduction to the Structures of Discourse in Modern Islamic Thought,” op. cit., p. 91.

[7] Al-Faruqi says that “Until the International Institute of Islamic Thought was established, not one educational institution in the Muslim world had planned to tackle the issue of the Islamization of knowledge, to produce Islamic textbooks for college use in the disciplines or to provide the tools of research necessary for writing those textbooks. On the official level, where the power to make decisions lies, one finds little more than lip service, which addresses men’s emotions without having any essence or relation to practical execution and application in the classrooms.” See: Isma’il Raji Al-Faruqi, “Islamization of Knowledge: General principles and Work Plan,” op. cit., p. 31.

[8] Ibid. p. 2.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Abdul Wahhab Al-Maseeri, “The Jurisprudence of Bias”, in: “The Question of Bias: An Epistemological Vision and a Call for Ijtihad,” volume I, 2nd edition (Virginia: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1996), pp. 5-6.

[11] Ibid., p. 70.

[12] Isma’il Raji Al-Faruqi, “Islamization of Knowledge: General principles and Work Plan.” op. cit., pp. 19020.

[13] Bilal Al-Taleedi, “Have the Islamists Succeeded in the Islamization of Knowledge? A Look into the Track Record,” April 21, 2020, arabi21 website [in Arabic]. https://bit.ly/2UEFojw

[14] Zouaoui Beghoura, “L’islamisation de la connaissance. Entre savoir et pouvoir,” Le Télémaque,

 novembre 2008, n° 34, p 138.

[15] Ali Harb, “The Lower Human Being: The Diseases of Religion and Disruptions of Modernity,” 2nd edition (Beirut: Arab Institute for Research & Publishing, 2010), p. 170.

[16] Ibid., p. 161.

[17] Ibid., pp. 161-162.

[18] Ibid., p. 170.

[19] Taha Jabir Al-Alwani, “The Reform of Islamic Thought: An Introduction to the Structures of Discourse in Modern Islamic Thought,” op. cit., p.79.

[20] Ibid., pp. 80-81.

[21] A group of authors, “Islamic methodology and behavioral and Educational Sciences,” 2nd edition (Virginia: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1994), p. 94

[22] We recommend this course of action, in light of the convergence we have seen from a wide circle of Islamist elites toward Taha Abdul Rahman and their interest in his thought and publications which share with their Islamism the criticism against Western centralism and glorification of the Islamic identity.

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