Political Islam or Islamism—that is Islam as a political ideology instead of a religion or theology—is a relatively contemporary phenomenon in the history of the Muslim World. Although Western Academia coined the term, the distinctive forms of Muslim politics that later came to define Islamism emerged in the nineteenth-century as European colonial incursions into Muslim territories increased. For many Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Political Islam represents what they fear most; a brand of aggressive, politicized Islam hell bent on bringing about autocratic theocracies. Of course this is nothing short of a cartoonish portrayal of a complex sociopolitical phenomenon, but nevertheless this caricaturization continues to plague any conversation pertaining to the role of Islam within politics. In an attempt to explain the ongoing political upheaval observed in many Muslim countries, some Muslim intellectuals, scholars, and politicians often resort to facile and simplistic explanations.

According to them, the proliferation  in the Muslim world of ideologies and movements that strive to establish some kind of an “Islamic order” is due primarily to an increasing religious illiteracy. This particular outlook on the ongoing anomie in the Muslim world is especially prized by contingents of the Muslim community who label themselves as progressives and/or moderates. In this narrative, proponents of political Islam are portrayed as ignorant, fundamentalist, regressive forces battling against the very idea of progress and development. Interestingly enough, this perspective is also one that authoritarian regimes are often quick to reiterate in an attempt to delegitimize any broad-based opposition to their rule. After all, both Muslim personalities in the West, and officials of authoritarian regimes in Muslim countries were quick to point out the glaring religious illiteracy of ISIS’s foot soldiers, while remaining mum on the political factors at play in the very emergence of ISIS.



Using the existing problem of religious illiteracy amongst Muslims to sweep under the carpet the very real political, economic, and social grievances of this Ummah is not only fallacious, it is down right disingenuous. At some point this community of ours will have to drop the groupie mentality and start holding folks accountable for their words and their actions. At some point this community of ours will have to take a long and hard look at people’s motivations and loyalties. Islam, is and always was, a complete way of life encompassing all aspects of human existence. Those who—in this dire moment in the history of our Ummah—are quick to preach that Muslims should turn away from politics and confine their practice of Islam to mere rituals are for all intent and purposes telling Muslims to not only accept their own oppression, but somehow find purpose and contentment in it.

Those who are window dressing the acceptance of our humiliation and oppression as a religious edict cannot (and should not) be allowed to hide behind the title of scholar (‘alim) to avoid the much deserved criticism levelled against them. No scholar is infallible, and no human being is above criticism. Yes Muslims suffer from religious illiteracy. However, to surreptitiously omit mentioning that this problem is a direct result of the Western colonial onslaught that destroyed and dismantled much of the Muslim world’s institutions is nothing short of historical revisionism. To somehow pretend that religious illiteracy is the primary reason we are observing an uptake in extreme forms of militancy in Muslims countries, and not the direct result of Western imperialism and its murderous forays into Muslim land is the epitome of hypocrisy.

Here is the thing: THE STATUS QUO IS NOT AN OPTION ANYMORE. There comes a moment where remaining silent, turning the other cheek, and hoping for the best won’t cut it anymore. When in the absence of viable options to address the very real grievances of our Ummah, some of our brothers and sisters turn to the only groups—albeit problematic, and often flawed in their approches and methods—that seem to be offering a semblance of resistance, a promise to change the tide and bring about change, why do we collectively clutch our proverbial pearls and pretend not to understand what compels them to do so? We—by our indifference to the plight of our Ummah, our cowardice that prevents us from speaking truth to power, our selfishness that makes us so enamoured with our own confort that we keep silent in the face of mounting injustices—create the very conditions that lead so many of our youth to embrace this path. Our disconnect from the political realm as a community has left a void that sadly has been filled by groups lashing out in anger and despair. It is so easy and oh! so convenient to look at them with disdain, point the finger at them, and label them the bane of our existence and the root of all our problems. It is easy to ascribe to them all the evils of the world in an attempt to wash away our own guilt. For we are guilty my brothers and sisters. Guilty of not living up to the true potential of Islam. Guilty of remain deaf, dumb, and mute to the cries for help emanating from the four corners of the Muslim world.

Silencing Islam in all matters other than rituals, repeatedly downplaying the political and social grievances of Muslims, while vehemently criticizing those who engage in political and social resistance has become a staple of an increasingly corporatized form of Da’wah. Many of these scholars have turned into media personalities with massive platforms and millions of followers. They repeatedly use their platforms to plead for the need to maintain the status quo, while demonizing those who criticize and question it. While being implacable critics of what is often dubbed in the West as “political Islam”, they have no qualms cozying up to the same forces that generate the existing political crisis of the Muslim world. While they have no problem becoming the “poster child” for a brand of state approved Islam getting the thumbs up from Washington to Dubai, empathizing with the pain of their fellow Muslims and standing in solidarity with them in their grievances is apparently where they draw the line. In Islam, scholars are said to be the inheritors of the Prophets. As the custodians of Islamic knowledge, they are supposed to be a source of guidance not only through their teachings but also through their actions. To see so many Ulama become deeply entrenched in corrupt power structures, and Da’wah turn into a increasingly lucrative industry should alarm us all.

Look, the very first act undertaken by the Muslim Ummah in the moment of its birth was of two fold; religious and political. When Muslims gave their Bay’ah (oath of allegiance) to our beloved Rasulullah (saw), they recognized him as both their spiritual leader and their political leader. He became their Imam and their Amir. To pretend today that somehow Islam has nothing to say on political matters, or solutions to offer to the political problems plaguing the Muslim world is nothing short of delusional. Asking Muslims to prove that they are peaceful moderate people by endorsing their own oppression is a sacrifice one only asks of subjugated people. When the very forces occupying and exploiting much of the Muslim world are also the one’s fabricating the labels that exalt or demonize us, we should realize that utilizing them only furthers their interests. Ignoring politics only services the forces that are seeking to subjugate, oppress, and exploit our Ummah.




19 thoughts on “Political Islam And The Pearl Clutching Of Moderate Muslims

  1. Islam’s utility in the political arena shows why Hassan al-Banna and the Muslim Brotherhood viewed it as the “complete package”.

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  2. Great piece, as usual. I liked this quote particularly: “To somehow pretend that religious illiteracy is the primary reason we are observing an uptake in extreme forms of militancy in Muslims countries, and not the direct result of Western imperialism and its murderous forays into Muslim land is the epitome of hypocrisy.” I am however not familiar with any U.S.-based Muslim scholars that take the approach that Muslims should stay out of politics though. Maybe it’s because of my process of discerning who it is I read/like. I am curious to know your thoughts on how Muslims can get involved though. In the U.S. for example, more Muslims are running for political office – at least locally and state-wide. But as a Canadian living in the United States, who is somewhat skeptical of just how effective government really is, I doubt this will be enough. Are you thinking of something more?

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment Rafia. I always enjoy reading your thoughts on these subjects. So, the call to stay away from politics and to engage in political quietism started gaining traction in the Muslim world as autocratic regimes came to power. For some, it was a way of avoiding unnecessary chaos that could erupt from social unrest and revolutions. For others however, this was a way of ensuring the longevity of these regimes by delegitimizing any form of dissent. Now, in the case of Muslim communities living in the West, there is often 2 things that happen. The more traditional/orthodox scholars tend for the most part to not even bring up politics (national or international). They might make a comment on certain issues here and there, but they never talk about what politics means in Islam, never inform their congregations on what Islamic political thought actually entails, what are some of the solutions that Islam offers to deal with political problems, and how to implement these solutions. Any teachings about the sociopolitical management of society under Islamic law is completely erased from the conversation. The vast majority of the very popular and influential platforms/institutes dedicated to Islamic teachings (al-Maghrib, Al-Kawthar, Bayyinah, Zaytuna, etc….) completely eschew Islamic knowledge pertaining to politics. They might talk about certain rulers and the decisions they’ve made to illustrate a point, but there is no formal lectures on what politics are in Islam and what political rule entails. None whatsoever. While most of the scholars in the West understand that it would be bad form today to outright say to folks to stay out of politics all together, their silence on the subject speaks volumes and reiterates their stand.

      The problem I often see with Muslim scholarship in the West is that it has turned into a massive industry. They travel around the world and have a worldwide audience. A lot of these scholars do not wish to ruffle the wrong feathers and so they stay quiet about the glaring political problems of the Muslim world. While he is certainly not the only one to do it, but for someone as influential as Hamza Yusuf, to say that religious illiteracy is the root of the upheaval in Muslim countries, while being super chummy with Muslim rulers who are for all intent and purposes corrupt is a massive problem. At some point, it becomes obvious that these scholars by the proximity to corrupt power structures have become highly compromised.

      As for the political involvement of Muslims in the West, I gotta be honest I don’t think that will do us any good. The problems we encounter as Muslims in the West is a blowback of international politics. We are for all intent and purposes squatting white supremacy’s backward, so really whatever options we have are rather limited, if we are honest with ourselves. However, having a politically aware and informed communities will makes us less vulnerable (we could organize better at a communal level, make better choices, use our resources more efficiently, protect ourselves better). The sad truth though is that as long as the Muslim world remains unstabilized, we will continue to suffer from this blowback.

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      1. Hmmm, that’s interesting. That makes sense about autocratic regimes wanting to stifle political involvement on the behalf of their “subjects.” Are we talking 20th century nationalist regimes or even earlier? Unfortunately, most of us – Muslims included – are woefully unaware of the “middle history” of Islam, between the Abassids and the Wahabbi movement, which is actually a couple of centuries (if not more) and is not really “middle” as the word would suggest. There’s focus, perhaps a lot of fetishization, of the Ottomans sometimes, but that’s about it. Hmmm, that’s interesting about the scholars of the West. I feel like it’s the elephant in the room for many political elites, Muslim or not, to kinda take the status quo as unchangeable and be friendly with a lot of corrupt Muslim leaders. I myself don’t know what the solution is.

        As to your last point, I’m particularly interested in how you envision Muslims in the West should communally organize. As an editor of the Journal of Muslim Philanthropy & Civil Society, it might be a research project to pursue??

        Thank you, Geeky, for not letting me end my education! 🙂

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      2. Islamic scholarship took a rather big hit with the advent of colonialism in the 18th and 19th century. Scholars were often instrumental in encouraging and even leading resistance against Western imperialism. So, dismantling the native institutions (political, economic, educational) of these countries became an important aspect of the colonial project. Later on in the 20th century, with the advent of nation states in the Muslim world, a weakened Islamic scholarship couldn’t really resist to the onslaught of autocratic regimes often joining either the capitalist or the communist/socialist bloc. These regimes did not simply inherit the political philosophies/structures/policies of their colonizers, they also inherited a narrative defining Islam as something backward that needed to be transcended. The response of Islamic scholarship to this new reality was either resistance (often resulting in prison sentences, exile, assassinations, and outright bans), or cooperation (which meant justifying the legitimacy of these regimes). In many ways our current scholarship is the byproduct of what happened in the 20th century.

        As for the long and rich history of the Muslim world, you are absolutely right we barely know it. We tend to focus on the early history of Islam (the Prophet (saw) and the Sahabas) and the Ottoman period because it alludes to the end of the Caliphate. But everything else in between is very rarely talked about. There is also the fact that the Muslim world is geographically rather vast. We often focus on what happened in the middle east, but completely forget that Islam was also thriving in Africa and Asia. All this rich and complex history is barely known by Muslims. How many non-Indian/Pakistani Muslims know anything about the Mughals? How many non-West African Muslims know anything about the Mali Empire? How many non-Indonesian Muslim know how Islam spread in that region? Our history is so vast, so complex, and so rich, that it would take a tremendous amount of work to actually bring it to Muslim audiences in a comprehensive manner. This is where I’m afraid Muslim historians (and to a certain degree social scientists) fail the community.

        I would say that in respect to organizing, we have to set our priorities straight. We are fighting amongst ourselves over petty stuff, that are often due to ignorance and ethnocentric nonsense. While all of these conversations are important, we must understand that we have bigger fishes to fry right now. Hence why narratives and leadership matter. Most of us take their cues from scholars and institutions, but most of our institutions are managed on ethnic or class based logic, and not on merit (education, character, experience). So, we can’t on one hand lament about the lack of unity, and on the other hand organize on the basis of the very things that are making unity impossible. Right now however, especially amongst the most vocal segments of our community, there is a tendency to try and duplicate conversations going on in the broader mainstream society. I’m not saying there is no need to address some of these issues amongst Muslims, but one has to realize that these discussions have become a sort of distraction. Our priority in the current climate shouldn’t’ be on how to save the fine china, but rather how to save the house from burning down all together. We need to prioritize better.

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      3. Lool, I posted before I could finish my thought….Technology 🙂 . To continue on the subject of organizing at a communal level, by prioritizing I mean doing things like: Increasing the political literacy of the community, moving as one on supporting/combatting policies that could be beneficial/detrimental to our community, having better spokespersons, setting a base position on both national and international politics, empowering the community with things like self-defence classes for the sisters (we all know the hijab makes us a prime target for jerks), and better security for our institutions (masjids, schools, etc…), we must learn from what happened in Quebec. Basically, we need to organize on the basis of survival and security, and leave the non-urgent stuff for later.

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  3. A very interesting read. I agree wholeheartedly, that what differentiates Islam in comparison to other faiths, especially the other Abrahamic religions, is the quest for a political-religious doctrine to be inscribed in every cornerstone of life, from social institutions to other public spheres. This stranglehold in itself operates as a way of conditioning the agency of the individual, to delimiting the thought and consciousness of the Muslim mind.Need there be another revolution in separating the mosque, the mullahs from state intervention. Currently, that looks like a bleak vision.
    Love the posts.Keep it up. And please follow another sociologist (me) on the quest for the truth.

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    1. Thanks for taking the time to read my post. “what differentiates Islam in comparison to other faiths, especially the other Abrahamic religions, is the quest for a political-religious doctrine to be inscribed in every cornerstone of life, from social institutions to other public spheres.” Couldn’t have said it better myself. I’ll definitely follow you. I’m looking forward to reading your posts as well.

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