Decolonizing Sociology: Is There Any Hope?

Decolonizing Sociology: Is There Any Hope?

The concept of social science is often seen as the product of specific conditions that occurred in a precise time and space in Western civilization. In fact, Immanuel Wallerstein stated that the social sciences are “an enterprise of the modern world. Its roots lie in the attempt, full-blown in the sixteenth century, and part and parcel of the construction of our modern world, to develop the systematic secular knowledge about reality that is somehow validated empirically” (Wallerstein, 1996:2). Therefore, analyzing, interpreting, and understanding the mentalities, attitudes, and realities of civilizations that share very little in common with Western societies has always been a difficult endeavor that too often leads to a prevailing Eurocentrism in the social sciences.

Studying all human civilizations from a Western perspective, in which all aspects of reality, whether historical or social are therefore organised and understood from said perspective, renders Western thinkers the sole architects of ideas and theories, while relegating non-Westerners and their entire body of knowledge to mere subjects of study. Once ripped from its own ontological and epistemological bases in order to be reinterpreted and contextualized according to a Western worldview, even the scientific knowledge produced by non-Westerners which had “a certain duty and function” in their civilizations loses both “its capability of explaining factual conditions and its virtue of being scientific” (Sunar and Yasliçimen, 2008: 411).

The idea of a “master explanation of everything Islamic” guaranteed the continued survival of the Orientalist Grand Narrative when it comes to the study of Islam within Western Academia. The resilience of this narrative is not due so much to the result of an inherent strength of Orientalist scholarship, but rather the weakness of the non-essentialist alternatives being offered (Volpi, 2010:33). While postmodern epistemologies provide interesting new avenues of research, they nonetheless do not offer a real and robust alternative (Turner, 1994:101). The bulk of the literature pertaining to the topic of Islam in sociology tends to emphasize the politicization of the religious (or Islamism) at the expense of all the other factors that are shaping the Muslim world as a whole; hence, the persistence of the prevailing reductionist and essentialist portrayal of Muslim societies.

The present instability plaguing the modern Muslim political realm is the subject of much interest and debate in Western academia. Unfortunately, what often transpires from such studies is a rather Manichean view of Muslim societies as inherently despotic entities beholden to oriental despotism and opposed to the very concepts of modernity and progress (Kalmar, 2012:1).Orientalist thought introduced the notion that a civilization based upon Islamic precepts can only inspire undemocratic governments. Western contemporary readings of Muslim societies, for the most part, approach the subject “through the lenses of western concepts and methodologies” and in doing so reiterate unfortunately Orientalist assumptions and arguments (Volpi, 2009:22).

Ibn Khaldun elaborated a social and political philosophy centered around the concept of change. To him, no social order is everlasting and natural but rather historical, hence the “fundamental law to keep in mind about socio-political systems is that they are not static” (Kayapinar, 2008: 377). Ibn Khaldun not only reiterated the importance of change but he also offered a comprehensive analysis of its trajectory. Since every epoch and society has its own peculiarities, rules, and logic, understanding any socio-political and economic event within a certain context and timeframe requires knowing those precise characteristics. “Ibn Khaldun reduced the general dynamic of change into one single notion: assabiya” (Kayapinar, 2008: 378). According to him, this concept plays an essential role in this progression leading to change. “He established asabiyya as the dynamic force in history and the development of any political system” (Mirawdeli, 2015:82). So, ‘Asabiyyah refers to the social bond that provides stability and strength to social groupings.

To understand the contemporary politics of the Muslim world, it is necessary to begin by analyzing the traditional model, social symbols, and ideologies which have informed every aspect of community life for centuries and have been brutally interrupted by the advent of colonialism. Such an analysis in a Khaldunian framework proceeds by examining the organic model at the heart of these societies and identifying the organic relationship between its different parts (politics, economics, social framework, religious ideology, etc.…). The current crisis in the modern Muslim political realm is accompanied by the relative absence of a “compelling and widely shared overall social purpose” (Moten, 1996: 38). According to Moten, this is a direct result of the colonial experience since “the major victim of the colonial domination was the Muslim’s self-image and cultural identity” (Moten, 1996: 10). The colonial policy of progress and enlightenment through a Westernized education system marked the beginning of a strategy seeking to replace the existing educational system, perceived as inferior and backward, with European learning. This attitude vis-à-vis Islamic knowledge is perfectly reflected in “Lord Macaulay’s insistence that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia” (Moten, 1996: 10). This educational policy’s main goal was to transmit European cultural values to the natives and to create “a class of clerks, collaborators and cronies to continue the cultural onslaught of the West” (Moten, 1996: 10).

However, its consequences were far more devastating and continue to impact Muslim societies to this day. Muslims educated in these Westernized educational systems became a strange mixture of the East and the West, “out of place everywhere and at home nowhere” (Moten, 1996:11). Al-Faruqi goes even further by saying that Muslims today are neither Islamic nor Western, but rather “a cultural monstrosity of modern times” (al Faruqi, 1982: 5). They’ve become a composite of diverging ideas and ideologies, alienated from their own past and yet never quite Western enough; incapable of mining their own sources and consulting the intellectual heritage of their civilization to generate sustainable responses to the social and political challenges they are facing. Even Muslim scholars educated in these Western-centric systems are often either unaware of their intellectual heritage or employ western perspectives to utilize this heritage (…) ignoring in the process “the unique idiosyncratic manners for explaining and settling social problems unique to their civilization” (Sunar and Yasliçimen, 2008: 408). Overlooking the existing differences between Muslim and Western civilization and applying a Western worldview to the problems of Muslim societies often leads to resounding failures and exacerbates the inability of achieving a consensus around a shared political and social purpose.

The majority of the work on Ibn Khaldun in sociology is comprised mainly of biographical studies pertaining to his life, discussions about his theory of state formation, and examinations of the methodological foundations of his work. However, the application of his theory to existing historical situations remains a rarity. The majority of the work dedicated to the thought of Ibn Khaldun vacillates between studies focusing on certain aspects of his theory/ methodology and studies trying to establish a parallel between his approach and that of Western thinkers. The latter especially often leads to anachronic readings of Ibn Khaldun. The principal difficulty seems to be the misinterpretation of his understanding of religion. Two dominant opinions about Ibn Khaldun’s approach to science and religion are found within Orientalist literature.

According to the first opinion, supported by Gibb and Richter, every social phenomenon discussed by Ibn Khaldun is connected “with the Holy Qur’an and consequently connected with the will of God” (Sunar and Yasliçimen, 2008: 415). But, according to the second opinion supported by Gumplovicz and Von Kremer, Ibn Khaldun “interpreted social phenomena in a realist way depending on reason and experiment” (Sunar and Yasliçimen, 2008: 415). If he used verses of the Qur’an it was only to escape bigoted reactions and possible accusations of blasphemy. For the most part however, Ibn Khaldun’s work is often relegated to an example of proto-sociology or the subject of investigation. His theories and concepts are described and analysed without ever being used as tools to interpret and understand history. Sociological studies pertaining to Muslim societies in Western academia remain mostly grounded in Orientalist analyses. The work of Ibn Khaldun offers an alternative to the Orientalist Grand Narrative and give us an opportunity to elaborate a neo-Khaldunian sociology beyond the confines of Eurocentrism.

Very few attempts have been made to incorporate Ibn Khaldun’s theory of state formation within the framework of modern sociology. Yet, he offers us a possibility of engaging in the study of Muslim societies without the preconceptions of Orientalism. Khaldunian theory represent a sociological framework indigenous to the Muslim world. In previous centuries, his work influenced Muslim and Western scholars alike, but it also served as a theoretical backdrop to the elaboration of political reforms in the Ottoman empire. A neo-Khaldunian perspective could provide a novel way of looking at the current state of Muslim polity. Through his writings, Ibn Khaldun achieved two important goals. On one hand, he elaborated a new approach to philosophical history, with a theoretical framework and a methodology reiterating the need to engage with the study of history critically. On the other hand, his Muqqadimah provides vital information on the religious, philosophical, and literary Muslim scholarship of the fourteenth century. What is lacking today is the integration of the Khaldunian theoretical framework into the corpus of modern sociology.



Isma’il Raji al-Faruqi, Islamization of knowledge: General Principles and Workplan (Maryland: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1982), p.5

Kalmar, Ivan (2012). Early Orientalism. Imagined Islam and the notion of sublime power. London; New York: Routledge.

Kayapinar, Akif M. (2008) Ibn Khaldun’s Concept of “Assabiyya”: An Alternative Tool for Understanding Long-Term Politics, Asian Journal of Social Science, 36(3-4): 375-407.

Mirawdeli, Kamal (2015). Asabiyyah and State: A Reconstruction of Ibn Khaldun’s Philosophy of History, Bloomington: AuthorHouse.

Moten, Abdul Rashid (1996). Political Science: An Islamic Perspective. London: MacMillan Press Ltd.

Sunar, Lutfi & Yasliçimen, Faruk (2008) The Possibilities of New Perspectives for Social Sciences: An Analysis Based on Ibn Khaldun’s Theory of “Umran”, Asian Journal of Social Science, 36(3-4): 408-433.

Turner, Bryan (1994). Orientalism, Postmodernism And Globalism. London: Routledge.

Volpi, Frederic (2009) Political Islam in the Mediterranean: the view from democratization studies. Democratization, 16(1): 20-38.

Volpi, Frederic. (2009). Political Islam in the Mediterranean: the view from democratization studies. Democratization, Vol. 16, No.1, pp.20-38

Wallerstein, Immanuel (ed). (1996) Open the Social Sciences: Report of the Gulbenkian Commission of the Social Sciences. California: Stanford University Press.

Chechnya: A History Of Resistance And Revival

Chechnya: A History Of Resistance And Revival

In the fall of 2018, a confrontation in the sport of Mix Martial Arts between a young man from Dagestan and his Irish rival thrusted the Caucasus into the limelight of world stage. However, the ensuing discussions and debates revealed very quickly the persistence of often erroneous and facile narratives pertaining to that region of the world and its inhabitants. For most Westerners, to whom Islam is primarily an Eastern religion practiced by hordes of brown and black people, the very idea of white Muslims who are not recent converts was a perplexing one. Everything about Caucasians, from their cultures, to their religion, to their history became a topic of conversation. In the midst of the slurs, braggadocios claims, and accusations of collaboration and betrayal, the Chechen war came up as a topic; a discussion that unfortunately led to the all too familiar territory of thinly veiled Islamophobia.


A brief history of the Chechen-Russian Conflict

Located in the North Caucasus, Chechnya (also called Ichkeria) is a “quadrilateral located in the north-eastern part of the Caucasus, demarcated by the Terek and Sunja rivers in the west and the north, the Andi range in the east which separates it from Dagestan, and the snow-covered twin range of the Caucasus in the south which separates it from Georgia” (Gammer, 2006:2). Rich in oil, natural gas, and minerals, this land is inhabited by the Nokhchi (meaning our people), better known under their Russian ethnonym (Chechen), and are closely related to the Ingush. Together, these two groups form the Vainakh who are the most ancient indigenous people of the region (Gammer, 2006:2).

Islam made its first inroads into the Caucasus in the 8th century. Two centuries later, it became the dominant religion in the southern coastal plain south of Derbent; an important economic centre located in present-day Dagestan. In the 11th and 12th century, most of the Darghin and Lakh people of central Dagestan converted massively to Islam. The arrival of the Nogai Horde, a Turkic tribe, in the region during the 14th century contributed greatly to the spread of Islam amongst the Cherkess, the Kabardins, and the Chechens. A century later, the Lakh of central Dagestan abandoned any remainder of their previous belief systems in order to practice Islam exclusively. As fervent Muslims, they dedicated themselves to the spread of their religion in Dagestan and the lands beyond; bringing Islam to the Chechens and the Kumiks. Over the coming centuries several ethnic groups such as the Avar, Chechen, Ingush, Adyghe, Cherkess, and Kabardins converted massively to Islam; making the Northern Caucasus a solid Muslim Bastion. Today, Islam is an important component of Vainakh culture as both the Chechen and the Ingush belong to the Hanafi School of Sunni Islam jurisprudence.

“In 1556, when Tsar Ivan the Terrible succeeded in conquering the khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan and thus entering into the Caspian orbit, the North Caucasus region (…) became the object of a competition involving Muscovy, the Ottoman Empire, Iran, the Crimean Khanate, and other lesser powers” (Dunlop, 1998:4). Confronted to a stiff resistance from the native populations of the Caucasus, Tsarist Russia did not hesitate to unleash its might in successive military campaigns resulting in horrific acts of violence. In the 19th century, General Aleksey Petrovich Yermolov began a military campaign to secure Russia’s hold over the Caucasus. In order to subdue the Chechens, who were fiercely opposed to the Russian invasion, Yermolov adopted a strategy of collective punishment in which Chechen villages where systematically targeted and destroyed. The campaign was of such cruelty and violence that many believe it contributed directly to the protracted and bloody Murid War (1829-1859). His campaign of expulsions, massacres, and widespread torture not only  “fuelled the Chechens’ hatred of Russians” but also inspired a profound desire “for freedom and their willingness to fight and die for it.” (Hertog, 2001: 29).

In more ways than one, the Russian invasion became the source of social and political turmoil in the Caucasus. Not only did the Chechens lose their sovereignty, they also found their cultural and religious identity endangered. Tsarist Russia’s anti-Islamic policies, its promotion of Russian culture at the detriment of their native traditions, and the spread of behaviours and attitudes anathema to their cultural and religious ethos created a “fertile ground for the ideas of the Naqshbandiya” (Hertog, 2001:29). It is from this Sufi order that key figures such as the famed Imam Shamil emerged during the Caucasian wars that lasted until 1856. He successfully united warring Caucasian tribes under a common Pan-Caucasian and Islamic banner; creating a united front against the Russian expansion into Chechnya and Dagestan. In 1864, after 142 years of a bitter struggle for freedom the Chechens finally surrendered to Tsarist Russia; but this was by no means the end of Chechen resistance (Dunlop, 1998:12). In 1877, they rose up in arms again defying Russian rule and rejecting their inclusion into the Tsarist Empire. This new rebellion ended with the slaughter of more than 60% of the Chechen population (Dunlop, 1998:32).

The February Revolution of 1917 was, at first, welcomed by the Chechens who saw in it a chance to break away from Tsarist rule and regain the control of their land. The Bolshevik slogans promoting freedom, equality, and the right for self-determination resonated with them. But soon after, they realised that the real politics of the Bolsheviks were far from what their slogans promised. Instead of the awaited freedom and independence, they were once again under the yoke of a regime alien to their traditions and values (Dunlop, 1998:16). This new Bolshevik rule promoted atheism and ignored completely the traditions, religion, and customs of the Chechen people. All of this contributed to the uprising against the Bolshevik rule in the 1920’s which lead to renewed hostilities between Moscow and the Chechens. Later on, as the totalitarian regime of Stalin gained in strength, the need to subdue and disarm the autonomous region of Chechnya became a priority.

In 1925, a campaign aimed at “political banditry” was launched in Chechnya, implementing a policy of mass arrests and repression. However, the darkest chapter in the tumultuous history of Chechnya remains without a doubt the deportation of the Chechen people and their kin the Ingush to central Asia in 1944 (Dunlop, 1998:17). Almost 500,000 Vainakh were forcefully put into cattle trucks and deported to Central Asia. The Stalinist regime tried to legitimize this treatment by levelling accusations of Nazis collaboration during World War II against the Chechens, although the Germans  never reached Chechnya during their incursion into Soviet territory. For Stalin, this was an opportunity to get rid of a rebellious nation permanently. “Their name was effaced, their cultural symbols were destroyed and history was rewritten as if the Chechens had never existed.” (Hertog, 2005:243). During the long and perilous journey to Central Asia, close to 78,000 died succumbing to the lack of food, sanitary facilities, and the cramped conditions on the trains (Lieven 1998: 319). The surviving population was further decimated when they arrived in Kazakhstan due to the harsh living conditions. According to official Soviet statistics, an estimated 25% of the exiled died within the first five years of their arrival (Evangelista 2002: 14). Between 30% to 50% of Chechens and Ingush are estimated to have perished during those years of exile, many dying due to the cold and the lack of food. 

In 1957, Krushchev who came to power after Stalin’s death ordered the return of the Vainakh from exile, thus restoring the Chechen republic and its people. However, this return was by no means the end of their suffering. They became once more the focus of Soviet propaganda since their resistance to atheism was perceived as a possible risk for renewed insurgency against the Soviet State. “A special ‘army of atheistic experts’ flooded the inhabitants of Grozny with antireligious lectures.” (Hertog, 2005:244). Many religious figures were hunted down and arrested while Soviet press and media routinely reiterated anti-Islamic narratives and attitudes; all in an effort to discourage the Chechen population from practicing Islam. However, this renewed hostility toward their religion only deepened the Chechens’ desire to maintain their distinctive religious and cultural ethos.

While these anti-Islamic campaigns succeeded in destroying “the material and structural basis” of Islamic leadership in Chechnya, they failed at eradicating Islamic beliefs and practice. “On the contrary, the deformalised but still vibrant faith of the Chechen people was absorbed into the informal networks of the brotherhoods.” (Hertog, 2005:244). The Sufi brotherhoods played an important role in preserving a common Chechen identity during the long years of exile. “As cultural and educational activity came to a halt, and as there were no newspapers or books in the native language, ‘what after all, could the people turn to, if not religion?’ (Henze, 1995: 24). The brotherhoods soon built extensive networks incorporated into the social structure of the Chechen people where now “each individual had not only family and clan loyalties, but also a Sufi brotherhood loyalty.” (Zelkina, 1993: 120). Faced with the openly hostile attitude of the Soviet regime toward Islam upon their returned from exile, the brotherhoods reprised their role as guardians of the Chechen identity by ensuring “the survival of Islamic belief and practice amidst constant atheistic militancy.” (Hertog, 2005: 244).

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, secession emerged as a major political issue in the Post-Cold War era. Many states from East Europe, Central Asia, and the Caucasus  either broke up into a multitude of states or became sovereign nations in their own right. Secessionist endeavours usually provoke mixed feelings and reactions. On the one hand, there is a natural inclination to support minority communities struggling for national liberation. On the other hand, there is a fear of the possible consequences of secession because too often conflict and war are a more typical outcome. In the Balkans, the collapse of Communism led to a genocidal war which effectively split Yugoslavia into 7 countries: Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia and Montenegro. For Russia, secession in the strategically important region of the Caucasus posed a particular challenge. In the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, there was civil war in Georgia, conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the republic of Chechnya was actively working on obtaining its independence. Moscow’s resolve to maintain its control over the region led to two terrible and bloody wars with the small  Chechen republic. 

Both, the first (1994-1996) and second Chechen War (1999-2009) can be described as the latest chapters in the Chechens’ ongoing conflict with Russia that started in the 16th century. The first war started in 1991 when Chechnya under the leadership of Djokhar Dudayev declared its sovereignty vis-a-vis Russia. Attempts by the Yeltsin regime to maintain the republic within the Federation were unsuccessful as Chechens rejected the proposed autonomy for complete sovereignty. Finally on December 1994, “the Russian Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior units entered Chechnya” and full-fledge war began (Dunlop, 1998:209). Referred to as the First Chechen war, this conflict lasted for three years and killed 100,000 Chechens out of a population of 1,000,000. It eventually ended with the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechen territory in 1996. However Chechen sovereignty was short lived. In 1999 President Putin declared the Chechen parliament illegal and ordered the invasion of the country by Russian troops. Chechens under the leadership of president Aslan Maskhadov took up arms to defend their country against this new Russian invasion. Although large scale military incursions ended officially in 2000, the conflict soon entered its insurgency phase opposing Russian forces and Chechen paramilitary to Chechen separatists.

Learning from their previous disastrous and costly incursions into Chechnya, the Russian authorities opted for a policy of “Chechenization” as a counterinsurgency strategy during the second war (Lyall; 2010: 3). By granting political power to ambitious Chechen officials susceptible of supporting the Kremlin’s desire to maintain Chechnya within Russia, they effectively created a split in the Chechen front. Akhmed Kadyrov, a mufti once loyal to the Chechen opposition, was nominated in 2003 as the head of the Chechen Republic by the Kremlin; only to be assassinated by the rebels seven months later. In 2007, Putin signed a decree nominating Ramzan Kadyrov, son of the late Akhmed Kadyrov, as the president of Chechnya. One of the main pillars of the Chechenization policy was the formation of combat units consisting of Chechens-only to conduct sweep operations.

Until early 2003, the counterinsurgency campaign was primarily ran by Russian units. However, this soon changed with the creation of joint patrols with Chechen police units. In an effort to further put a Chechen face to the counterinsurgency effort, Chechen-only Ministry of Defense units (Special Battalions Vostok and Zapad) were trained and equipped to assume sweep operations (Lyall; 2010: 3). The Kadyrovs also took advantage of this policy by creating their own paramilitary forces, known as the Kadyrovtsy, to participate in sweep operations targeting the rebels and their supporters. “In total, about 20,000 Chechens had joined Vostok, Zapad, or a Kadyrov affiliated organization by the end of 2005, when large-scale sweep operations were phased out as Ramzan Kadyrov consolidated power.” (Lyall; 2010: 3). Since his nomination as president, Kadyrov has maintained a climate of fear through selective disappearances, targeted assassination of regime critics, and the nighttime burning of suspected insurgents’ homes in a bid to pacify Chechnya.  

In October 31, 2007, “the then leader of the Chechen separatists, Dokku Umarov, announced the creation of the Caucasus Emirate—an Islamic theocracy based on Sharia rule, which spread across the territory of the autonomous North Caucasus territories of the Russian Federation” (Souleimanov, 2011:161). The insurgency which was previously confined to Chechnya eventually spread to five other republics (Dagestan, Ingushetia, the Nogay Steppe, North Ossetia and Kabardino-Balkaria-Karachay) with members loyal to the Caucasus Emirate becoming active throughout the region. While today the insurgency has entered its dormant phase, the Chechen desire for independence is far from extinguished. Both Chechens in the diaspora and at home still dream of one day seeing a free and sovereign Ichkeria.

Figure A: Map of the Caucasus



Clash of Civilizations or colliding hegemonic projects

Both Samuel Huntington and S.N Eisenstadt propose mechanisms of conflict embedded within civilizational entities and triggered by precise dynamics. Each one suggests specific scenarios that are crucial to the understanding of conflict from a civilizational dimension. Huntington in his clash of civilization theory highlights colliding religious and cultural values as another trigger of his civilizational conflict mechanism. According to him, the general tendency throughout history has been to think in terms of two worlds. “People are always tempted to divide people into us and them, the in-group and the other, our civilization and those barbarians” (Huntington, 1996:32). Even scholars are constantly trying to categorize the world into two distinctive groups in their analysis, whether they phrase it as the Orient and the Occident, the North and the South, or the centre and the periphery (Huntington, 1996:32).

In the 14thcentury already, Muslim scholars divided the world into Dar al-Islam (the abode of peace) and Dar al-Harb (the abode of war). “Depending upon how the parts are defined, a two-part world picture may in some measure correspond with reality” (Huntington, 1996:32). Identities are drawn along the lines of these distinctions and specific groupings coalesce around a shared sense of cultural and religious values stemming from a sense of belonging. The cultural bifurcation at the heart of this great divide tends to create a polarization into two opposing camps “where the emphasis is less on differences in economic well-being and more on differences in underlying philosophy, values and ways of life” (Huntington, 1996:32).  Huntington reiterates that the world is far too complex to be simply “divided economically between North and South or culturally between East and West” (Huntington, 1996:33). He promotes instead a vision of a multicivilizational and multipolar world where contacts between different civilizations lead to conflicts.

The secession of the Chechen republic from the Russian federation and the ensuing war could be interpreted, from a Huntingtonian perspective, as the result of a confrontation between two sets of distinctive cultural and religious values. For the Chechens, promoting the rebirth of Chechen-Muslim values necessitated a free and sovereign territory where this project could blossom. However, for the proponents of a unified Russia this was seen as a rejection of the Slav and Orthodox values which constitute the core of Russian identity. As the conflict intensified so did the confrontation between these opposing values. The resurgence of a Chechen culture and an increasingly vibrant Islamic revival led to the rebirth of a Chechen national identity. Breaking away from Russia was not only politically motivated but was also an attempt to consolidate this nascent sense of nationhood. The turmoil of the post Soviet Union climate provided them with an opportunity to reclaim their territory. By changing the name of their country from the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic to the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, they were in fact reiterating their distinctive cultural, historical, and religious identity. The secession of Chechnya from the greater Russian Federation was not merely a political act but rather an attempt to create the necessary climate for a cultural rebirth of the Chechen nation.

Conflicts appearing in regions where contacts between civilizational entities occur are called fault line wars by Huntington. These conflicts can occur between states, between non-governmental groups, or between states and non-governmental groups. However, whether these conflicts involve clans, tribes, ethnic groups, religious communities, or nations their rational “is always rooted in the identities of people” (Huntington, 1996:252). Fault lines wars can manifest themselves as a struggle for the control of people or the control of territory. “The goal of at least one of the participants is to conquer territory and free it of other people by expelling them, killing them, or doing both, that is, by ethnic cleansing” (Huntington, 1996:252). This explains the extremely violent nature of such confrontations leading often to the usage of indiscriminate massacres, rape, terrorism, and torture. “The territory at stake often is for one or both sides a highly charged symbol of their history and identity, sacred land to which they have an inviolable right: the West Bank, Kashmir, Nagorno-Karabakh, the Drina Valley or Kosovo” (Huntington, 1996:252). Fault line wars can be notoriously instable and can “flame up into massive violence and then sputter down into low intensity warfare or sullen hostility only to fame up once again” (Huntington, 1996:253).

The Chechen struggle for sovereignty resonated with many other ethnic groups living in the Caucasus and facing the same Russian hegemony. From a Huntingtonian perspective, one could say that the expansion of the conflict outside of Chechnya’s borders is due to  the rise of a civilization consciousness built around the concept of Caucasian and Muslim identity. The struggle is no longer just one for Chechen freedom but rather one for a broader Caucasian rebirth. The implication in the insurgency of Kin countries such as Ingushetia, Dagestan, and Kabardino-Balkaria-Karachay as well as a very active Chechen Diaspora has not only created a broader Caucasian and Muslim solidarity, but has also intensified the conflict. In that context, one can no longer simply speak of a Chechen war but rather a conflict opposing a core Slavic/Orthodox state (Russia) to weaker peripheral Muslim republics located in the Caucasus (Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, etc…)

A rather different perspective of civilizations and their influence in world politics was elaborated by S.N Eisenstadt. Instead of  the concept of civilizational clash promoted by Huntington, he elaborated on the concept of axial civilizations. These civilizational entities not only attempt to reconstruct the world in accordance to their ontological and cosmological vision but they also express a certain proclivity toward expansion. They mobilize pre-existing political ideologies, religious impulses, and to some extent economic structures in order to nourish this endeavour. They adopt a “distinctive ideological and reflexive mode of expansion with potentially strong semi-missionary orientations” (Eisenstadt 2003:41). This pattern of expansion creates a better awareness of civilizational frameworks encompassing different societies made up of a multitude of political and ethnic groups. According to Eisenstadt’s theory it is not so much civilizations that are at odds but rather hegemonic projects embedded in civilizational frameworks.


Civilizational conflict mechanism according to Eisenstadt:

Components of civilizational conflict              Triggers in the Chechen conflict
Ontological/cosmological vision


·      Basic ideological premises (the Dominion of Mother Russia vs. Ichkeria/free Chechnya)


·      Core Symbols (The Russian Bear vs. The Chechen  Lone Wolf)


·      Construction of collective identities


Distinctive ideological and reflexive modes of expansion            (3 key periods)


1)Tsarist Russia vs. Ottoman Empire


2) USSR vs. Chechnya


3) Russian Federation vs. the Caucasus Emirate


Internal civilizational dynamics ·      Religious, ideological, political and economic impulses


·      Center vs. Periphery (Russian Federation vs. Peripheral republics)


The development and institutionalization of specific ontological and cosmological visions and new modes of consciousness within Axial civilizations is connected very closely to the emergence of a “new social element, of a new type of elite, of carriers of models of cultural and social order” (Eisenstadt, 2003:38). The tendency to reconstruct the world according to specific symbolic, ideological and institutional precepts, and to partake in continual expansion has been a common feature of Axial civilizations. The multitude of existent civilizations and their diversity is the work of different patterns through which these elements are being implemented. All these civilizations try to “reconstruct the world in their own mode, according to basic premises, and either to absorb the others or consciously to segregate itself from them” (Eisenstadt, 2003:42). Two elements are crucial in the shaping of the different modes of institutionalization and civilizational expansion. “One such set consists of variations of differences in the basic cultural orientations. The other is the concrete structure of the social arenas in which these institutional tendencies can be played out” (Eisenstadt, 2003:43).

In the case of the Chechen conflict, there are two distinctive ontological and cosmological visions at odds. A vision of a unified Russia is colliding with that of a free and sovereign Ichkeria (Chechnya). During this conflict, symbolic, ideological and institutional precepts have been utilized in order to justify the ongoing hostilities. For the proponents of the Federation, the dominion of Mother Russia already weakened by the crumbling of the Soviet Union needs to be protected from further balkanization. The integrity of the territory must be preserved in order to safeguard the status and the weight of Russia in the international arena. The military incursions in the Chechen territory were framed as a legitimate attempt to protect the nation from peril, and the victory of the Russian army as the proof of the strength of “the Russian bear” representing the Russian strength of character.

On the other hand, the proponents of secession in Chechnya framed their struggle around the question of national freedom. Chechnya, they claimed was never a willing member of the Federation but rather an occupied territory demanding to be released. For them, the conflict was not so much one of self-determination as much as an attempt to put an end to Russian colonialism. Ichkeria was a sovereign nation before the Russian penetration into the Caucasus and will be once again free from oppression. Largely surpassed by the Russian military in terms of resources, the Chechen victory during the first war against a vastly superior military machine was framed as the victory of the “lone wolf against the Russian bear”. This image evokes a struggle similar to that of David vs. Goliath, and in doing so reiterates the perseverance and the courage of Chechens against an enemy far superior to them in numbers and in resources. The continuation of the conflict has in fact institutionalized the ontological and cosmological visions supporting the political agendas of both sides while impacting on the construction of collective identities.

In order to reconstruct a social order according to any given ontological and cosmological vision, it is crucial to develop a strong “tendency to define certain collectivities and institutional arenas as most appropriate for the implementation of their respective transcendental visions” (Eisenstadt, 2003:38). This tendency creates new types of collectivities and groups harboring a special meaning derived from those distinctive transcendental visions. These groups help to institutionalize a “new type of intersocietal and intercivilizational world history” which justifies the proclivity of civilizations for expansion (Eisenstadt, 2003:41). Ideological, religious, as well as political and economic impulses are then mobilized in order to trigger distinctive ideological and reflexive modes of expansion. These expansions could be geographical in nature, religious or cultural; however, it is important to reiterate that these processes are not necessarily linked. Depending on the realities at hand, the civilizational frameworks of these expansions can change as different internal civilizational dynamics come into play.

The Caucasus, as the crossroad between different ethnic, religious, and political entities has been the theatre of many expansionist endeavours. There are key moments in the history of the region which reflect distinctive ideological and reflexive modes of expansion. In the eighteenth century, the Caucasus became the frontline of a war opposing Tsarist Russia to the Ottoman Empire. Since neither of these empires are indigenous to the region, they both mobilized different impulses in order to justify their expansion, while trying to render their rival’s position illegitimate. While the Ottoman Empire utilized religion in order to establish alliances with local ethnic groups sharing the same religious beliefs, Tsarist Russia utilized instead cultural arguments pertaining to the superiority of Russians to the barbarians and savages of the Caucasus. During the twentieth century, the USSR utilized political and ideological arguments to justify their presence in the region. The Chechens on the other hand framed their struggle around the question of cultural identity and national autonomy.



  1. Gammer, Moshe. (2006). The Lone Wolf and the Bear. Three Centuries of Chechen Defiance of Russian Rule. London: Hurst and Company.
  2. Huntington, Samuel.P (1996). The Clash of Civilizations. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  3. Huntington, S.P. 1993b. ‘If Not Civilizations, What? Paradigms of the Post-Cold War.’ Foreign Affairs 72(5): 186–94.
  4. Eisenstadt, S.N. (2003). Comparative civilizations and multiple modernities (volume 1). Boston: Library of Congress.
  5. Souleimanov, Emil. (2011). The Caucasus Emirate: Genealogy of an Islamist Insurgency. Middle East Policy 18 (4).155-168.
  6. Lyall, Jason. (2010). Are Coethnics More Effective Counterinsurgents? Evidence from the Second Chechen War, American Political Science Review, 104(1), 1-20.
  7. Henze, P. B. (1995) Islam in the North Caucasus: The Example of Chechnya (Santa Monica, RAND).

  8. Evangelista, M. (2002). The Chechen wars: Will Russia go the way of the Soviet Union? Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

  9. Hertog, K. (2005). A Self-fulfilling Prophecy: The Seeds of Islamic Radicalisation in Chechnya, Religion, State and Society, 33(3), 239-252.

  10. Lieven, Anatol. 1998. Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian power. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

  11. Dunlop, John B. 1998. Russia confronts Chechnya: Roots of a separatist conflict. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

  12. Hertog, K. (2001) The Role of Religion in the Conflict in Chechnya and Daghestan: Part of the Problem—Part of the Solution? (unpublished MA thesis, Bradford University).





Political Islam and social movements

Political Islam and social movements

The prevailing image of Islam in Western media and intellectual circles is one that reiterates the political nature of this religion. Islam is said to embody an authoritarian polity in which concepts such as freedom, democracy, and openness, have very little place (Bayat, 2007:4). Political Islam especially is perceived as the main vehicle of this brand of politics predicated on a revival of an authentic Islamic political tradition. This sociopolitical phenomenon embodies for many Westerners what they fear most about Islam.

By the early twentieth century, the autonomy of Muslim societies was greatly diminished due to the consolidation of colonial power in the Muslim world. Strong central governments, answerable to foreign imperial regimes, had replaced the old political system. In this new reality, “the traditional forms of Muslim religious organization were often suppressed” (Lapidus, 1988:7). Massive economic changes, unprecedented migration to the cities, and the emergence of new social strata accompanied the collapse of the old sociopolitical system. “The new era was marked by efforts to define new modes of political action as well as new modes of Islamic religious belief” (Lapidus, 1988:7).

Although there is a general consensus in Western academia that the historical roots and the development of this Islamic revival should be studied, the overwhelming majority of these studies tend to focus only on certain aspects of it, at the detriment of all others (Burke, 1988: 18). While the diverse political projects of Islamist groups is often discussed at length, almost nothing is said about their underlining social agendas. The capacity of these groups to mobilize consensus by addressing social grievances, while redefining the political spectrum, makes them at once political and social reform movements.

“As one engages this issue, one notes important differences over even so basic a matter as the definition of the subject. Is it Islamicpolitical movements? Or socialmovements in Islamic societies? These contracting questions frame a basic difference in the field” (Burke, 1988: 18).

The emergence, development, and diversification of Islamism correspond to the trajectories of state formation and socio-economic development in the Middle East. The popularity of modernization theory, and class analysis in the 1960s and 1970s, eclipsed any possible focus on Islamism in the political analyses of the Middle East and other Muslim majority countries. “When it was considered, it tended to be dismissed as rear-guard battle from traditional social forces heading for the dustbin of history” (Volpi and Stein, 2015: 278). In the wake of the Iranian revolution, Islamism was defined primarily as a political phenomenon concerned mainly with “the establishment of an Islamic state” (Volpi and Stein, 2015: 278). Often compared to movements from the left and the right, it was described as a nationalist and revolutionary movement implementing a top-down approach to seize the institutions of the state in order to establish a new social order (Volpi and Stein, 2015: 278).

Statist Islamism and political activism

“In its high degree of generality, Islamism emerged as the language of self-assertion to mobilize those (…) who felt marginalized by the dominant economic, political, and cultural processes in their societies (…)” (Bayat, 2007:6). For these individuals neither capitalist modernity, nor socialist utopia offered concrete answers to the political and economic woes of their nations. It was not however the working class that brought Islamism to the center-stage of Muslim politics; it was rather the Muslim middle-class that sought to find within Islamist discourse a viable dissident narrative. It was a way for them of rejecting the increasingly rigid control of the elite, while proposing an alternative to their western-centric political, economic, and social project. “In a quest to operate within an authentic nativist ideology, Islamists tried to articulate a version of Islam that could respond to their political, economic, and cultural deficit” (Bayat, 2007:7). Therefore, Islamism was conceptualized as a system with a distinctive political project, a religiously inspired cultural code, and a strong populist language.

“Two simultaneous but contradictory processes pushed Islamism toward its hegemonic position: opportunity and suppression” (Bayat, 2007:7). In the 1950s and 1960s throughout the Muslim world massive educational growth, economic expansion, increase in wealth, and social mobility co-existed with “continuous political repression, marginalization, a sense of humiliation, and growing inequality” (Bayat, 2007:7). The members of this highly educated middle-class increasingly became aware of their marginalization in their societies where a small but affluent elite held all the political and economic power. Often allied with Western powers, these elites enjoyed the protection and the support of these nations. Political repression and social control were widely used by these regimes in order to quell any attempt at political dissidence. Political Islam became widely popular amongst those searching for an alternative to what they perceived as the rapid decay of their societies. Through its populist rhetoric and religious sociopolitical project Islamism quickly gained traction.

The term statist Islamism refers to the brand of Islamism that implies an “institutionalized participation in the politics of the nation state” (Volpi and Stein, 2015: 281). In this category, one can find groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood who seek to reconcile Islamic doctrine with liberal forms of democracy. Their variant of Islamism evolved over time to become a reformist discourse. It appealed equally to members of the middle class and the working class eager to find a “broader popular constituency” to challenge the assertions of the more affluent, more secularized establishment claiming to speak for the nation (Volpi and Stein, 2015: 281). The model of political action and the ideological program detailed by the Muslim Brotherhood served as an example to follow for a wide range of organizations throughout the Muslim world. Groups such as Ennahda in Tunisia, the Salwa movement of Saudi Arabia, and Islah in Yemen, have “Brotherhood roots or links” (Volpi and Stein, 2015: 281). Socially, these movements have often emerged within the middle class and are fundamentally linked to the spread of education and urbanization in their respective societies.

Statist Islamism sought to improve rather than destroy the existing system. Their narrative was not so much predicated on challenging social hierarchies and the economic model, but rather on attacking corruption and moral laxity seen as the very cause of the socio-economic ills plaguing the community. “The economic problems were to be solved not by a drastically new system of governance or redistribution of wealth but by elites recognizing and acting upon their obligations to Islam and sharia” (Volpi and Stein, 2015: 281). What explains the resilience of statist Islamism is its capacity to adapt its aim and strategies to the shifts in models of governance and forms of social activism.

Non-statist Islamism and grassroots activism

The major models theorizing collective action never really focus on how collective action can transform into a revolution. They mainly explain the causes of social discontent without however pondering on how these same causes trigger revolutionary crises. James Davies claims that when prolonged periods of economic and social development are followed by a period of sharp decline, revolutions are more likely to occur (Bayat, 2007:18). According to Ted Gurr’s relative deprivation thesis “what seems to mediate between these objective processes and the occurrence of revolution is the psychological mood of the people, their expectations, and frustrations” (Bayat, 2007:18). Resource mobilization theorists have stressed out however that the people’s mood and their frustrations may not be enough to trigger action “unless they are able to mobilize the necessary resources by creating appropriate opportunities” (Bayat, 2007:18).

Popular frustration can give rise to two types of mobilization. One type seeks to dismantle the existing order and replace it with an alternative structure. This was the case in Iran where shortly after the revolution a process of massive Islamization of the nation was undertaken. Through a top-down process driven by the state a concerted effort was made to “Islamize the nation, state apparatus, public space, and individual behavior” (Bayat, 2007:50). The second type of mobilization seeks to revamp and amend the dominant order through the action of social movements. These movements are attempting to create “alternative institutions and value systems before a total change” (Bayat, 2007:18). Whereas in Iran Islamization spread through a top-down process, in Egypt the Islamic revival was born of a bottom-up social movement that first appeared in the 1920s (Bayat, 2007:33).

The economic restructuring of the 1970s diminished tremendously the state’s capacity to care for the marginalized and vulnerable groups within many Muslim societies. To compensate for this exclusion at the state level, vast sections of these societies relied increasingly on “self-help strategies, kinship networks, and other informal mechanisms” (Volpi and Stein, 2015: 283). This created an environment conducive to the rise of a type of Islamism rejecting any institutionalized participation in politics in favor of changes in lifestyles and individual behaviours.“Non-statist Islamismis not so much apolitical as it is infra political: local-level organizational, preaching and charitable activity” (Volpi and Stein, 2015: 282). Grassroots activism is central to their brand of Islamism. While groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have also centered their activism on charity work and preaching, non-statist grassroots Islamism tends toward a more conservative interpretation of the Islamic doctrine. Salafism, which over the past decades became the most popular movement in the grassroots Islamist phenomenon, encourages its adherents to focus on the community rather than the state. “Salafis tend to promote an ascetic lifestyle and consider consumerism to be a distraction from religious duties” (Volpi and Stein, 2015:283).

The Salafi’s eschewing of all forms of political engagement has worked in their favor at the grassroots level. Unlike statist Islamists and Jihadists who often attract the ire of the state, Salafis are generally tolerated by these regimes. The post 9/11 crackdowns on Islamic organizations in the Middle East were mainly targeted toward politicized, and armed Islamists. “In allowing or facilitating the expansion of Islamist grassroots infrastructure, regimes signalled their limited capacity to govern peripheral, rural or informal urban areas” (Volpi and Stein, 2015: 283). This has allowed Salafis to have a greater control over the social field. Governments have actively encouraged members of politically active Islamists groups to join instead the less overtly militant Salafi movement. The contemporary Salafi movement arose from the student movements of the 1970s in Egypt. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Salafism was often promoted as the safer alternative to the more militant Islamist movements. “Yet, even if many grassroots activist, for principled or pragmatic reasons, eschew politics, their activism has played a role as part of a broader Islamist movement in building constituencies for Islamist parties” (Volpi and Stein, 2015: 283).

Jihadi movements differ form both statist Islamists and non-statist groups like the Salafis by their endorsement of violence as a mean of establishing an Islamic state. Some of these groups call for violent tactics in their attempt to further the cause of an idealized form of Islamic community. Many more however are not motivated by a desire to promote armed struggle as a meaningful strategy, but are rather forced to adopt violent actions as a response to state repression; as it was the case in the Algerian civil conflict of the 1990s (Volpi and Stein, 2015: 284). These types of movements tend to find a fertile ground in areas where the state power is greatly diminished, and communities are marginalized. They usually emerge in places where the legitimacy of the state is widely contested, and its presence is all but absent or greatly undermined (Volpi and Stein, 2015:284).




One of the greatest blessings Allah ‘aza wajal bestowed upon our Ummah is our scholars. Muslim scholars dedicated their entire lives mastering several fields of knowledge and advancing those disciplines to new heights. Contrary to many nations whose history was primarily written by Westerners, the history of Islam (and Muslims by extension) was already written centuries ago by our very own scholars: Urwah ibn Zubayr, Ali ibn al-Madini,Muhammad al-Bukhari,Ibn Wahshiyya, Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī, Ibn Khaldun,Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, etc…)

The problem however is the existing divide between the contemporary Muslim populations and the vast and rich historiography left by these scholars. For a multitude of reasons (Westernized education systems, language barriers, illiteracy, political agendas) most Muslims know either very little or nothing at all about their own history. This of course leaves them vulnerable to just about any attempt made to re-write Muslim history by folks whose sole desire is to tarnish and destroy the legacy of previous Muslim generations.

One such attempt was spearheaded by a notorious Egyptian “Academic” called Youssef Zeidan who specializes on Arabic and Islamic studies. He stirred controversy when he called one of the most beloved historical figure of Islam, Salahadin Ayyubi, “one of the most despicable figures in human history.” His statements ignited a heated debate on social media and in Egyptian newspapers.

We live in times of confusion, manipulation, and propaganda. Knowledge is the best possible protection against this. Get to know your history folks, read the multitude of books left behind as a legacy by the scholars of Islam. The best remedy against lies is the truth. Let us not become people who simply fall for the latest trend, let us instead be people of substance with a firm Iman.

May Allah ‘aza wajal rescue us from the perdition of ignorance.

Orientalist Discoure and the Concept of Islamism (Part 2)

Orientalist Discoure and the Concept of Islamism (Part 2)


The second category of writers dominating the Orientalist landscape is comprised of Neo-Orientalists “whose writings clearly post-date the linguistic turn and the beginnings of the critique of orientalist methodology” (Volpi, 2010:30). Many of these Neo-Orientalists are former students of prominent traditional Orientalists such as Bernard Lewis and Elie Kedourie. Neo-Orientalism, much like its predecessor, takes as self-evident Muslim societies’ resistance to democratization. They claim that through idiosyncratic cultural factors proper to Islam, its incompatibility with Democracy can not only be uncovered but also explained. This reinforces the idea that two incompatible ethics and perspectives are colliding in the Muslim world: the anarchical ethos of a social organization based on religious kinship, and the universalism of democratic and liberal values. “The legitimacy of the politics of the nation-state is hence understood as too particularistic for loyalty to the divine, and, alternatively, seen as undermined by the particularism of kinship-based ideological localism” (Tuastad, 2003, 594). This depiction of Muslim societies as either too weak or too unruly, and Muslims as too particularistic on one hand, and on the other hand not particularistic enough, “represents a continuity from Orientalist to Neo-Orientalist thought” (Tuastad, 2003, 594).

Daniel Pipes—one of the main advocates of Neo-Orientalism—despite his modest visibility in the academic field remains popular in the policy-making community through his ties to the Republican Party, as well as his work for the US State Department. Inspired greatly by Bernard Lewis, he defines and distinguishes Islam from Christianity by putting the emphasis on the politicized nature of Islam as predicated in traditional Orientalist thought. Islam unlike Christianity, which concerns itself solely with matters of grand moral instructions, offers a “script for political action” (Pipes, 1983:11).

“Along with faith in Allah comes a sacred law to guide Muslims in all times and places. That law, called the Shari’a, establishes the context for Islam as a political force. However diverse Muslim public life may be, it always takes places in the framework of Shari’a ideals. Adjusting realities to the Shari’a is the key to Islam’s role in human relations. Hence, this analysis emphasizes the role of sacred law, the mother force of Islam in politics” (Pipes, 1983:11).

As a chief proponent of the war on terrorism, Pipes traces back what he qualifies of Islam’s hostility toward the West to ‘premodern Muslims’ disdain toward Europeans’. “The Qur’an predisposed Muslims to pay scant attention to Christians; then the actual behavior of West Europeans repulsed the umma even further” (Pipes, 1983:78). Much like Lewis, he believes that Islamism represents the latest expression of Islam’s inherent and customary antagonism toward Western civilization. In the advent of Europe’s success as a civilization imbued with military power, Islam’s resentment toward the West grew. Today, it mostly “represents a backward, aggressive, and violent force” (Pipes, 2015: 181). He states that contrary to the “politically correct narrative” that emerged in the post 9/11 context, asserting that militant Islamic violence is a fringe phenomenon rejected by the vast majority of Muslims, the masses in the Muslim world are in fact supportive of the Islamists’ cause. According to Pipes, the Western World’s greatest nemesis in the person of Osama bin Laden, enjoyed wide and deep support in Muslim countries. “With the exception of one government staged anti-bin Laden demonstration in Pakistan and very few prominent Islamic scholars, hardly anyone publicly denounces him” (Pipes, 2004:58). While Pipes rejects as fallacious any criticism highlighting the essentialist nature of his analysis, he remains nonetheless committed to depicting Islam as profoundly antithetical to democracy and modernity.

Traditional Orientalism speculated that Islamic orthodoxy and weak Muslim societies tend to promote political quietism. “Islamic submission favored fatalism, a lack of critique, and despotism” (Tuastad, 2003, 594). This would explain why Muslim communities—unlike their Western counterparts—did not develop the kind of civil societies conducive to sound politics, progress, and modernity. However, the Iranian revolution of 1979, which led to the birth of an Islamic State, shattered these Orientalist assertions pertaining to the supposed weakness of Muslim societies. “The revolution in Iran has brought a moribund Islam back to political center-stage after a lengthy absence” (Kramer, 1980:13). It became imperative to provide a renewed and reformed explanation of how societies previously thought to be weak could generate a revolution capable of defeating state power. “An influential thesis was delivered by Patricia Crone, who has been described as the most persuasive and rigorous of the neo-Orientalists” (Tuastad, 2003, 594). According to Crone, Islamic civilization was unique in the way that it refused to legitimize political authority.

“The ulema defined God’s law as haqq al-‘arab, the law of the Arabs, just as they identified his language as the lisan al-‘arab, the normative language of the Bedouins, the consensus being that where God had not explicitly modified tribal law, he had endorsed it. This resulted in a tribal vision of sacred politics where kings were rejected and God’s community was envisaged as an egalitarian one unencumbered by profane or religious structures of power below the caliph, who was himself assigned the duty of minimal government” (Crone, 1980:62).

This argument implies that the Iranian revolution, which triggered the sociopolitical phenomenon known as Political Islam in the 20th century, was not the result of an organized civil society expressing its political will through revolutionary means, but rather the inevitable outcome of Muslim societies’ inherent instability. The political norms of Islam as established by Sharia law produce an environment in which it is virtually impossible for any government to survive (Tuastad, 2003, 595). Sooner or later every regime comes to be seen as illegitimate in the eyes of the Muslim masses. Islamism simply provided an outlet through which they could strip all legitimacy from existing political authorities, while simultaneously calling for the restoration of an “all-encompassing Islamic law, based upon the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (…)” (Kramer, 1996:147).

This generates a setting where the elaboration of a contract between state and society becomes all but impossible. “That society withholds its support from political authority not only makes the state unstable but also obstructs the development of a true civil society, as no ‘organic state’ has been able to emerge in the Arab world” (Tuastad, 2003, 595). By reiterating the idea of a lack of basis for constitutional and representative government in Muslim societies, scholars such as Crone and Kramer are demonstrating the undeniable continuity between Neo-Orientalism and traditional Orientalism.

Crone’s allegation that Islam is devoid of the fundamentals of constitutional and representative governance crucial to societal development echoes back to Kedourie’s claim that the precepts of democracy are essentially alien to Muslim political traditions. In the Neo-Orientalist paradigm, Islamism is essentially the result of weak democratic traditions in the Muslim world. Kramer argues that in its discourse on democracy, authenticity, women, minorities, and pluralism, Political Islam is essentially “a remake of nationalism as Islamic ideology” (Kramer, 1997:163). Its advent is reminiscent of the surge of ultra-nationalist movements throughout East Europe in the wake of the Soviet bloc’s breakup. “By any reading, this discourse evokes not Havel or Walela, but Le Pen and Zhirinovsky” (Kramer, 1997:163).

Islamic movements are, in Kramer’s critique of Political Islam, more about national liberation and power, than individual liberties and politics (Kramer, 1997:163). Islamism’s contention is that Islam offers a system of belief that could do what no foreign/alien doctrine ever could; mobilize the believers, inculcate discipline into their ranks, and inspire them to make the necessary changes and sacrifices (Ajami, 1992:62). He draws an even closer link between Islamism and the national right in Europe, by indicating that they both use populism in the form of mass mobilizations generated by anger and despair, in order to drive their respective movements to the forefront of the political landscape.

“It is generally agreed that Islamism arose from the failure of Arab (and Iranian and Turkish) nationalism. Not only is this obvious, one might go further: Islamism represents a remake of nationalism as Islamic ideology. Nationalism, leavened by religion, thus becomes a hyper-nationalism” (Kramer, 1997:163).

Both traditional Orientalism and Neo Orientalism ignore largely the influence of colonialism and imperialism on Muslim societies. Instead what is put forward is a reductionist and essentialist portrayal of Islam as an entity possessing an “anti-modern core (….) that doomed any further political development of the world’s fastest growing religion” (Tuastad, 2003, 595). Neo-Orientalism’s penchant for explaining polity and political phenomena through cultural binaries resonates quite well with the current political atmosphere. The assumption that certain cultures are inherently chaotic and violent is an integral part of the Neo-Orientalist exceptionalist thesis proclaiming Islam to be the antithesis of Western civilization, and a potential civilizational threat.

“The intrusion of political Islam into Europe is contributing to turning it into a battlefield between the secular and the divine in the course of the return of the sacred. It is perplexing to watch the contradictory reality of Europeans abandoning their faith while the global religionization of politics and conflict enters Europe under conditions of Islamic immigration”(Tibi, 2014:153).


III) Critical Neo-Orientalism

Unlike Neo-Orientalists who simply reject the criticism leveled against their field of study, critical Neo-Orientalists recognize the legitimacy of such criticism, while still remaining convinced that Orientalism is by far the best possible approach to the study of the Orient and Islam. Critical Neo-Orientalism is based on the idea of undertaking a constructive engagement with Orientalism through a reform of the problematization of Islam as it was traditionally conceptualized in Orientalist thought. This approach represents an effort to try and distance the field of Islamic studies from rigid analytical frameworks, and Orientalism’s natural penchant toward “textual and historical over-determination” (Volpi, 2010:42). “The exegesis of the Quran (…) thus often replaces socio-economic and socio-historical investigation” (Burgat, 2003:6). Instead it is the “hermeneutic character of the Islamic tradition” that is being highlighted, which according to critical Neo-Orientalists allows for the flexibility and the openness of current politico-theological discussions (Volpi, 2010:42).

The proponents of this new form of Orientalism wish to reiterate the complexity and diversity of the socio-historical contexts of Muslim societies. The obsession with uncovering a model Islamic society imbued with a Muslim Mind has rendered Orientalism blind to the non-textual traditions influencing and shaping contemporary Islamism. It is this oversight that critical Neo-Orientalism hopes to address through new interpretive efforts attempting to make sense of the present in the light of the past, without however becoming obsessively beholden to the past.

“Disoriented by this experience, Western intellectuals have tended to take refuge behind a kind of Maginot Line of enlightened rationalism. From these entrenched positions they excoriate ‘fanaticism’, ‘backwardness, and ‘Muslim fundamentalism’. The West, they seem to be saying has gone beyond all that: let it now go its own way and let Islam—irretrievably alien, intellectually inaccessible, and repugnant—wallow in its barbarism” (Kepel, 2005:19).

While   traditional Orientalism emphasized the impact of Oriental despotism on Islamic polity, with a powerful state and unorganized society, Ernest Gellner adheres instead to a different notion of Islamic polity. Much like the Neo-Orientalist Patricia Crone, Gellner “present the opposite picture of a weak state, short on legitimacy and vulnerable to internal threats from a solidary community under ulama[1] leadership and to external threats of the tribes” (Zubaida, 1995: 153). Ernest Gellner—renowned philosopher, social theorist, and anthropologist—was probably the most famous and articulated proponent of critical Neo-Orientalism. In an attempt to provide a comprehensive understanding of Muslim politics, he developed a coherent model of Muslim society. Eager to avoid any ethnocentric bias susceptible of influencing his endeavor, he built his model “against a wide canvas of philosophical, theoretical, and cross-historical references (…)” (Zubaida, 1995: 152). Gellner’s model is not only historical in nature; it also has the advantage of being sociological. The historical component of his model draws a great deal from the work of Ibn Khaldun, the fourteenth-century Arab historian.

Following in his footsteps, he constructed a dialectic between city and tribe “each with its own peculiar form of religion, and the dominance within the urban form of ulama leading a solidary community based on scripture and Divine Law” (Zubaida, 1995: 155). Gellner’s Muslim society is characterized by a weak state and a strong culture. The state is simultaneously threatened by the intractability of the tribes (pastoral nomadic/Bedouin society), and the ability of the urban and sedentary society to “withhold the symbols of legitimacy” (Gellner, 1983:55). Culture however is strong since it is entrenched in urban society where it is instrumental in forging “the bonds of community based on the Law and on the authority and leadership of the ulama” (Gellner, 1983:55).

He analyzes Political Islam through a similar historical perspective, and formulates a more nuanced analysis—than the Neo-Orientalists—attentive to the complexity of this phenomenon and the challenges it poses (Gellner, 1983:55). Militant Islam according to him possesses a “historical undercurrent, which lately acquired special significance to the Muslim masses because of the frustration of religio-nationalist hopes (…)” (Abun Nasr, 1985:73). The Islamists’ project is to reject the political authority of the nationalist elites, while calling for the production of a new kind of orthodoxy. These same militants are also rejecting the traditional religious authority of the ulama criticizing them vehemently for their willingness to serve the same national structures “which curtail the application of the prescription of the shari’a to acts of devotion and norms of family life” (Abun Nasr, 1985:85).

The influence of what came to be dubbed the French School (Roy, Kepel, Burgat, etc.…) is also quite noticeable in critical Neo-Orientalism. They are mostly known for their body of work dedicated to examining the failure of nationalism in the Muslim world and the rise of Political Islam. As an alternative to traditional Orientalist approaches, they chose to explain the strength and resilience of Islamism through the “mechanism of path-dependency” (Volpi, 2010:42). What characterizes their approach “is a progression of the theorizing of the emergence of Islamism from the local to the global” (Volpi, 2010:42). Each one focuses on a specific region—Roy (Afghanistan), Kepel (Egypt)—and develops his expertise on that basis (Volpi, 2010:42). In order to avoid falling into the predictable essentialist construction of Islam so prevalent in Orientalism, they presented instead new and refined narratives attempting to explain the multiple processes through which Islamism is socially constructed.

“To measure its full impact we need to identify its many dimensions and investigate the different periods of gestation, the networks, the line of communication (…) and ideas that composed it (…)” (Kepel, 2002:62).

In his argument against modern versions of Orientalism—such as Neo-Orientalism—Roy states, “historical and cultural paradigms are misleading to the extent that they do not help us to understand what is new” (Roy, 2004:15). However, there are important downsides to path-dependency approaches since they also exhibit some of the same flaws plaguing previous Orientalist narratives. If the central thesis of his famous book The failure of Political Islam (1994) was indeed to demonstrate the collapse of the Islamist project, then one cannot ignore Roy’s complete disregard of the many other forms of Islamism not linked to the rather violent brand of this phenomenon.

Many other strands of Islamism blossomed in the twentieth century, rejecting completely armed militancy. Movements focusing on “Wahhabi rigourism, Tablighi pietism, and Salafi puritanism grew in strength quite independently from these militant political movements” (Volpi, 2010:43). What Roy has effectively showcased is not the failure of Islamism as a whole, but rather a particular strand of Political Islam predicated on violent militancy. By making the militant and revolutionist branch of Islamism the central component of his analysis—at the detriment of all the other developments of Political Islam in the twentieth century—Roy recreated the same grand narrative he was attempting to transcend.

“The ultimate experience is of course jihad, which for the Islamists, means armed battle against communists (Afghanistan), or Zionists (Palestine), or for the radicals, against renegades and the impious” (Roy, 1994:15).

What ensures the perennity of Orientalism in the study of Islam is the reciprocal relationship that exists between this field of expertise and a theoretical main interpretation of the Islamic tradition (Volpi, 2010:43). It cements the notion that through historical and textual readings of Islam, contextualized by Western intellectuals, every trend, event, and development in the Muslim world will be understood. It reinforces the reliance on a Muslim Mind—as theorized by traditional Orientalism—to be uncovered through “an appreciation of history and the Scriptures” (Volpi, 2010:43). The assertion that Orientalism is a cordoned off tradition that not only relies on self-validation, but is also resistant to any sort of criticism (internal or external) remains very apropos (Turner, 1994:31). The continued reliance on rehashed Orientalist clichés ensures the semantic and historical continuity between critical Neo-Orientalism and the previous forms of Orientalism.


[1] Arabic word meaning scholars. This term is mostly used for scholars specialized in Islamic theology.


Understanding Orientalism Series:

Understanding Orientalism and its Genesis: Read here

Orientalist Discourse and the Concept of Islamism (part 1): Read here



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Orientalist Discoure and the Concept of Islamism (Part 1)

Orientalist Discoure and the Concept of Islamism (Part 1)

According to Olivier Roy—the renowned political scientist—the study of Islam has always represented a substantial challenge for Western academia. One aspect however that always lent itself readily to analysis was the political dimension of Islam. The political element of this phenomenon offered a component susceptible of “being analyzed separately from the other processes” (Volpi, 2010: 1). This focus on the politicized nature of Islam gained traction in Western academia, and Islam came to be described “as a political religion, a religion in which politics and religion are difficult to separate” (Mutman, 2014:1). This exclusion of all the other features in favor of its political characteristics led to the prevalence of Political Islam as a favorite topic in the study of Islam within Western academia.

“It is commonplace, particularly in Western analysis, to associate the emergence of Islamism with an “Islamic revival” that began to gather force in the 1970s, reaching its zenith with the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.” (Mandaville, 2007:58). Western literature devoted to Political Islam or Islamism often reiterates three major assumptions. “These are, first, that the intermingling of religion and politics is unique to Islam; second, that political Islam, much like Islam itself, is monolithic; and third, that political Islam or Islamism is inherently violent” (Ayoob, 2008:1). Western thinkers writing on the subject have frequently been accused by their critics of reducing Political Islam to a “despotic oriental foil” to Western liberal democracies, as well as modernity itself.

One of the main reproaches leveled against this body of knowledge is its reliance on an Orientalist Grand Narrative. An essential Orientalist bias central to these contemporary readings of political Islam is the “binary opposition between Islam and the West” (Volpi, 2010:32). In this rather Manichaean worldview, the West represents modernity, secularism and democracy, while the Muslim world embodies stagnation, orthodoxy, and despotism. This idea of a cleavage between a Christian West and a Muslim East is not only one that defines Orientalism, it also introduced amongst Western notions about Islam the idea that an Islamic civilization can only inspire undemocratic governments. “This idea has a pedigree of many centuries, and the classic term for what it refers to is oriental despotism” (Kalmar, 2012:1). It is said that Western contemporary readings on political Islam approach the subject of politics in Islam from an Orientalist perspective in which they try to build a comprehensive and systematic picture of what constitutes an Islamic civilization, while at the same time analyzing and explaining it “through the lenses of western concepts and methodologies” (Volpi, 2009:22).

In the following essay, we will explore the challenges faced historically when discussing religion and politics in the context of Islam within Western academia, and particularly the historical advent of Orientalism. By taking a closer look at some of the major works often used as a reference in the study of political Islam, we will examine how Orientalist discourse influenced and shaped current Western literature on Islamism. We will analyze the three main tendencies found in contemporary readings of political Islam—traditional Orientalism, Neo-Orientalism, critical Neo-Orientalism—in an attempt to understand how each one attempts to provide a unique analytical perspective, while struggling with serious epistemological obstacles.

What is Islamism?

The term islamisme first appeared in the French language in the mid-eighteenth century. It was used at first as a synonym to mahométisme, which referred to the “religion professed and taught by the Prophet Muhammad” (Kramer, 2003:65). The usage of mahométisme became pervasive across Europe in the early seventeenth century. While the term reflected a desire to recognize Islam as a religious system akin to Christianity, it nonetheless rested “upon the erroneous presumption that Muhammad stood in relation to Islam as Christ stood in relation to Christianity” (Kramer, 2003:65). In 1734, George Sale wrote in his English translation of the Qur’an: “It is certainly one of the most convincing proofs that Mohammedism was no other than a human invention, that it owed its progress and establishment almost entirely to the sword” (Daniel, 1960:300).

According to Martin Kramer, by the eighteenth century attitudes toward Islam had shifted drastically. The term Mahommedism was rapidly falling out of favor as more scholars in Europe sought to use the term utilized by native Muslims when referring to their religion. “Western study of Islam made enormous strides, and polemical denigration no longer informed every Western pronouncement” (Kramer, 2003:66). The thinkers of the enlightenment wanted to devise a term susceptible of classifying Islam as “a religion appreciated in its own terms” (Kramer, 2003:66). Voltaire who had a lifelong interest in Islam found a solution to this issue by coining the term islamisme. He rectified the previous understanding of Prophet Muhammad’s role in Islam by stating: “this religion is called islamisme” (Versaille, 1994). Throughout the nineteenth century, this new term gained in popularity. While islamisme did not completely displace the usage of the term mahométisme in scholarly writings, it nonetheless established Islam as being the religious system to which Muslims adhere. In fact, both Alexis de Tocqueville and Ernest Renan chose to use islamisme in their works pertaining to Islam. “But Islamism also began to disappear from the lexicon from about the turn of the twentieth century” (Kramer, 2003:67). Islam steadily started to replace islamisme as many scholars showed a preference for this “shorter and purely Arabic term” (Kramer, 2003:67).

“In 1946, the British Orientalist H.A.R. Gibb wrote an introduction to Islam in the same series that had included Margoliouth’s Mohammedanism thirty-five years earlier. The publisher wished to keep the same title. Gibb assented, but he was quick to disavow the title on the very first page (…) In the text that followed, Gibb referred to the believers as Muslims and to the faith as Islam” (Kramer, 2003:67)

Much like its initial birth, the resurrection of the concept of islamisme in the late 1970s occurred in France. While its nineteenth century iteration did not refer to the political utilization of Islam, it was now in the twentieth century being used primarily as a way of addressing the emergence of an Islamic political program. Grappling with the advent of Islamic movements throughout the Muslim World, French scholars found in this term not only a concept possessing “a venerable French pedigree going back to Voltaire” (Kramer, 2003:71), but also one that could be retrieved and deployed to describe these newly emerging movements.

Maxime Rodinson was one of the few French scholars who criticized the rehashing of the term islamisme. According to him, if one chooses this term, the reader may become confused between a fanatic who wishes to kill everyone and a rational person who believes in God in the Muslim manner (Burgat, 1988:14). Instead, he favored the term intégrisme, which offered a greater nuance in its distinction between Islam and a more fundamentalist fringe of extremist religious fervor. By the late 1980s, islamisme came to be understood as only one thing: “Islam as a modern ideology and a political program” (Kramer, 2003:71). It even gained traction in the English language where it gained popularity at the expanse of the previously used Islamic fundamentalism.

“In the foreign affairs community, we often use the term “Political Islam” to refer to the movements and groups within the broader fundamentalist revival with a specific political agenda. “Islamists” are Muslims with political goals. We view these terms as analytical, not normative. They do not refer to phenomena that are necessarily sinister: there are many legitimate, socially responsible Muslim groups with political goals. However, there are also Islamists who operate outside the law. Groups or individuals who operate outside the law— who espouse violence to achieve their aims—are properly called extremists” (Pelletreau, 1994:2).

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. These encounters with “European domination” sparked fierce reactions amongst Muslim populations toward what they perceived as “subjugation by infidel powers” (Ayoob, 2008:9). “It is no wonder, then, that political Islam speaks the language of resistance to foreign domination not only in the political but in the cultural and economic spheres as well” (Ayoob, 2008:9).

Broadly speaking Political Islam refers to “those ideologies and movements that strive to establish some kind of an “Islamic order”—a religious state, shari‘a law, and moral codes in Muslim societies and communities” (Bayat, 2013:4). For those movements who adopt an Islamist agenda, religion is regarded as “a holistic, totalizing system whose prescriptions permeate every aspect of daily life” (Mandaville, 2007:57). However, despite having a common goal these groups often differ in their strategies. While some prefer to adopt a gradual approach toward their primary goal, others tend to be more revolutionary.

“Islamism covers a broad spectrum of convictions. At one extreme are those who would merely like to see Islam accorded proper recognition in national life in terms of national symbols. At the other extreme are those who want to see the radical transformation of society and politics, by whatever means, into an absolute theocracy” (Barton, 2005:28).

Political Islam could also be described as an instrumentalization of religion by certain individuals and groups pursuing specific political aims. In this perspective, Islamism seeks to provide “political responses to today’s societal challenges by imagining a future, the foundations for which rest on reappropriated, reinvented concepts borrowed from the Islamic tradition” (Denoeux, 2002:61). The intense focus of Islamist groups on concepts such as the Islamic state arose from a need to provide a response to the proliferation of autocratic regimes in the Muslim World.

Since the twentieth century, Political Islam has mainly been characterized by the quest for an “Islamic public normativity within the context of modern nation-states” (Mandaville, 2007:58). As such, it can be argued that the advent of nation-states in Muslim lands triggered the rise of Islamism in the Muslim political landscape (Mandaville, 2007:58). The emphasis of contemporary Islamism on the significance of the state as “the instrument of God’s (and the Islamists’) will sets the Islamists apart from Muslim traditionalists, who are usually wary of too much state interference in matters of religion” (Ayoob, 2008:10).

The Orientalist narrative in contemporary readings of Political Islam 

The goal of Orientalist accounts pertaining to Muslims and Islam is to provide a comprehensive and systematic picture of Muslim societies’ historical evolution “in relation to a relatively unchanging Islamic theological core” (Volpi, 2010:26). Islamology endeavors to provide a reliable hermeneutic link between past and present Islamic tradition. “As Mahmood Mamdani put it succinctly, orientalist scholars assume that every culture has a tangible essence which defines it, and then explain politics as a consequence of that essence” (Volpi, 2010:26). Despite the diversity intrinsic to Islam, Orientalists seek to uncover the “one Muslim mind, always lurking in the background and shaping the evolution of Muslim societies” (Volpi, 2010:25).

In order to unearth the inner workings of this Muslim mind, Orientalist scholars use Islamic history to interpret Islamic theology. This approach reiterates the idea that one can consistently attribute specific features of Muslim societies—in different historical contexts—to existing quintessential characteristics of Islam. “This argument, it seems has littled evolved despite an increasing sophistication between the time when Ernest Renan wrote his essay on ‘Islam and Science’ and the present-day views detailed in Bernard Lewis’ What Went Wrong” (Volpi, 2010:25). The end of the cold war revitalized Orientalist scholarship particularly in the political field. Three main tendencies dominate today the Orientalist landscape: traditional Orientalism, neo-Orientalism, and critical neo-Orientalism. The first and oldest of the three is comprised of traditional Orientalists.

“The most emblematic figure in the field today is probably Bernard Lewis, who began to write on this topic in the 1950s and who has hardly deviated from his initial political analysis of a civilizational struggle ever since” (Volpi, 2010:29).

I) Traditional Orientalism

In the early days of social science research of the Middle East, it is undeniable that traditional Orientalists possessed a vast and “sophisticated knowledge of many aspects of the fields they studied” (Volpi, 2009:22). This rendered difficult any attempt made to move beyond Orientalism. The breakdown of the Grand Narrative—a distinctive feature of postmodern approaches—sweeping through Western academia from the 1980s onwards, triggered amongst Orientalists in the field of Islamic studies a fierce resistance to the demise of the Orientalist Grand Narrative (Volpi, 2010:30). Traditional Orientalists such as Bernard Lewis and Elie Kedourie have largely contributed to the survival of this narrative. Lewis particularly has been instrumental in repositioning Orientalist assertions about Islam “at the forefront of the intellectual debate due to the propitious circumstances created for them by 9/11” (Volpi, 2010:32). As historians, Lewis and Kedourie have used their knowledge of Islamic history to reiterate the cultural paradigms of the Orientalist Grand Narrative, especially the binary opposition between Islam and the West.

Lewis specialized in Islam and the history of the Ottoman Empire. By the 1960s, he emerged as an authority on the issues of the modern Middle East. In his analysis of contemporary political issues pertaining to the region, he remained faithful to the traditional Orientalist narrative when describing Muslims and Muslim civilization. Much like Hegel, he attributed the West’s rise to hard work, while ascribing the decline of Muslim civilization to the lack of similar dedication and labor. “For many centuries, while Europe was rising to greater and greater heights of achievements, the East was sinking in the comfortable torpor of decay (…)” (Lewis, 1994:42). Lewis maintained that by the nineteenth century, any illusions of superiority and sovereignty fostered by Muslim societies were shattered by Western colonial incursions threatening “their countries, their resources, their civilizations, their very souls (…)” (Lewis, 1994:42).

Therefore, the previously dazzling Muslim civilization was now being subjugated by a rich and powerful Europe that had successfully developed a Weltgeist through the intense work undertaken since the middle ages in order to form a European political and cultural consciousness. According to Lewis, even Muslim resistance to Western domination was shaped by “the lessons of liberty and human self-respect that the West had taught” (Lewis, 1994:43). Lewis created a problematic West vs. Islam dichotomy in practically every aspects of his historical analysis. When explaining the success of Western incursions into Muslim territories, he often mentioned the weakness of the Ottoman military when confronted with the advances of Europeans in matters of warfare, without however specifying what these advances were, or what prevented the Ottomans from adjusting to these changes.

“At about that time, we have an Ottoman document (…) in which Muslim and Christian methods of warfare are compared, to the advantage of the latter, and the previously unthinkable suggestion is advanced that the true believers should follow the infidels in military organization and the conduct of warfare.” (Lewis, 2003:20).

Yet, contrary to Lewis’ assumption of innate European military superiority, comparative historians have long stated that Western Europe’s innovations in warfare technology during this period was due to the constant warring between small states vying for power and influence within Europe, while the Ottomans remained more complacent because they faced fewer powerful challenges susceptible of triggering an arms race in the region (Ansary, 2010:220). The European penetration of Muslim lands was a slow and complex process, and not so much the ferocious military onslaught Lewis presented in his analysis. “The process was so slow, however, and so pervasive and so complex that it was hard for anyone going through the history of it all day by day to make a connection between the European encroachment and the burgeoning decay” (Ansary, 2010:220).

The Ottoman Empire did not go down in flames to conquering European armies. Despite an increasing European penetration and the growing military, economic, and administrative challenges facing them by the end of the eighteenth century, the Ottoman Empire remained a military and political giant (Hanioglu, 2008:42). In fact, “long after the empire was totally moribund, long after it was little more than a virtual carcass for vultures to pick over, the Ottomans could still muster damaging military strength” (Ansary, 2010:221).

When it comes to Political Islam, Bernard Lewis stated that it owes much of its success and perseverance to the long tradition of undemocratic governments in Muslim societies. “In the struggle between democracy and fundamentalism for power in Muslim lands, the democrats suffer from a very serious disadvantage” (Lewis, 2011:13). Since islamists dispose of a vast political vocabulary that is both familiar and intelligible to Muslim populations who are—according to Lewis—still unaccustomed to the precepts of democracy, it is not surprising that they are more likely to heed a message calling for a return to the original, authentic way of Islam, than the programs proposed by the “exponents of democracy” (Lewis, 2011:10). An Arabic loanword like dimuqratiyya (democracy) will always lack the resonance of something far more familiar like shari’a” (Lewis, 2011:11).

For Lewis, Islamism is simply the latest phase in an ongoing clash between the West and Islam. From the moment of its birth the latter adopted a belligerent attitude toward Christendom, seizing vast lands from Christian nations and integrating them into Dar-al Islam (the realm of Islam) (Lewis, 2011:13). Therefore, the crusades and even the Reconquista became in Lewis’ historical analysis reactions to Muslim belligerence and their continuous encroachment into Christian lands. “After several centuries, Christianity—a religion with a pacifist core—at last reacted with a jihad of its own, variously known as the Reconquest and the Crusades” (Lewis, 2011:13). He posited that contemporary “Muslim triumphalism and militancy” could trigger a new reaction from not only Christianity but also other religions (Lewis, 2011:12). “A triumph of Islamic fundamentalism would have far reaching consequences outside as well as inside the region and would evoke sharp responses from other religions” (Lewis, 2011:12).

Lewis views Christendom and Islam as civilizations that have been in perpetual collision ever since the advent of Islam in the 7th century. Ignoring the often long and rich history of peaceful contacts between Europe and the Muslim World, he reduced Muslim sentiment toward the West to an attitude marred with hostility and hatred. “But most of all, the wave of hostility was due to the crisis of a civilization reacting at last against the impact of alien forces that had dominated, dislocated, and transformed it” (Lewis, 2003:20). In his essay The Roots of Muslim Rage (1990), he argued that this perpetual struggle between the West and Islam was gaining in strength. It was in that essay that he coined the phrase “clash of civilizations”, which later inspired Samuel Huntington.

Elie Kedourie—much like Lewis—specialized in the history of the Middle East, and took on an Orientalist posture to study the region. When speaking about political culture in the Middle East, he stated that the very idea of constitutional and representative government is anathema to the political traditions of the Arab and Muslim World. “What is remarkable about it is that there is nothing in the political traditions of the Arab world—which are the political traditions of Islam—which might make familiar, or indeed intelligible, the organizing ideas of constitutional and representative government” (Kedourie, 1994:5). In a nutshell, the precepts of democracy are in essence “profoundly alien to the Muslim political tradition” (Kedourie, 1994:6). Remaining faithful to the traditional Orientalist Grand Narrative that deems despotism to be the default setting of the Orient in matters of politics and governance, Kedourie posited that the “ancient traditions of Oriental despotism (…) served immeasurably to magnify the position of the Muslim ruler (…)” (Kedourie, 1994:7). Much like Aristotle who claimed that surrender to the tyrant is a deeply ingrained custom amongst Orientals, Kedourie postulated that passive obedience to the ruler is akin to religious duty amongst Muslims who fear anarchy more than tyranny.

“In the political theory of Islam, as it has remained to the present day, the caliph is the sole political and military authority within the umma, and all civil officials and military officers are his servants and derive their powers solely from this, the highest public office in Islam. The reason for such an injunction is that anarchy is to be feared above all else, since anarchy makes impossible the pursuit of a godly life, and thus endangers eternal salvation which is the ultimate goal of all human endeavor” (Kedourie, 1994:7).

Traditional Orientalists remain firmly rooted in classical Orientalism, which attributes the troubles of Muslim societies to Orthodox Islam’s natural penchant for political quietism. In other words, by promoting the abandonment of one’s own will as a form of religious edict, and encouraging the submission of Muslim masses to the will of the ruler, Islam favors fatalism, lack of critique, and most of all despotism. This argument is often the cornerstone of traditional Orientalists’ claims pertaining not only to Islam’s inability to foster the development of vibrant civil societies and sound political traditions, but also its supposed incompatibility with modernity. The influence of Lewis and Kedourie was instrumental in propagating these Orientalist assertions about Islam beyond the field of Islamic studies, and can be felt today in the work of authors such as Huntington and Barber.

Samuel Huntington is amongst the scholars who in the 1990s “sought to propose new over-arching paradigms and who found comfort in the stability that orientalists proposed in their cultural paradigms” (Volpi, 2010:31). In fact, his notion of clash of civilization is connected to and inspired by Lewis’ earlier argument pertaining to the ongoing struggle between The West and Islam. Huntington suggests, that when cultural groups are thriving they almost always try to use their power to “extend their values, practices, and institutions to other societies” (Huntington, 1996:91). During the nineteenth century, the blossoming of European culture and economy led to European colonialism and the consolidation of Western hegemony politically, culturally, economically, and militarily. However, in a post-Cold War world where non-Western societies are emerging as economic and political rivals, there is an increasing movement in their part to generate “the revival of non-Western cultures throughout the world” (Huntington, 1996:91).

What Huntington refers to as the indigenization effect is a desire on the part of non-Western societies to revert back to “their ancestral cultures, and in the process at times changed identities, names, dress, and beliefs” (Huntington, 1996:93). He postulates that indigenization has been increasingly taking place all over the world since the 1980s and 1990s, and has since increased in its intensity and scope. In the Muslim World, the resurgence of Islam often based on the question of the re-Islamisation of Muslim societies has been “the prevailing trend in the rejection of Western forms and values” (Huntington, 1996:94). Indigenization and the resurgence of religion throughout the world are the leading causes of the civilizational dynamics at play since the last quarter of the twentieth century. Asia and Islam (the Muslim World) represent in Huntington’s view two cases of strong cultural assertiveness and challenge toward Western civilization. “The Islamic challenge is manifest in the pervasive cultural, social, and political resurgence of Islam in the Muslim world and the accompanying rejection of Western values and institution” (Huntington, 1996:102). The advent of Islamism, via the appearance of transnational Islamic networks and political parties validated, in Huntington’s eyes, the existence of an Islamic challenge to the very ideals of Western civilization.

“Benjamin R. Barber’s explanatory scheme in Jihad vs. MacWorld is also organized on some grand binary division of tradition and modernity” (Volpi, 2010:31). Much like Kedourie, he adheres to an exceptionalist thesis in which Islam is incapable of fostering the “values, culture, and institutions that make up liberal society” (Barber, 1996:206). Since Islam rests on a worldview where the Islamic faith and the Islamic state it inspires are deemed sacred and indivisible, it leaves very little space for secular ideals to emerge. This, according to Barber, creates in predominantly Muslim societies an environment detrimental to the advent of democracy and human rights. While he recognizes that fundamentalist tendencies can be found in every major world religion, he nevertheless believes that “in Islam such tendencies have played a leading political role since the eighteenth century” (Barber, 1996:206). After all, nothing proves more the lack of affinity between Islam and democracy than the repeated failed attempts throughout the Muslim World at creating democratic regimes (Barber, 1996:207). Much like Lewis and Kedourie, Barber reiterates the notion of Oriental despotism by asserting that Islam creates a unique environment in which democracy, liberal values, as well as the very idea of enlightenment are all but impossible.

Feminist scholarship was another field throughout the 1990s that surprisingly embraced the Orientalist Grand Narrative when tackling issues pertaining to Islam and gender (Volpi, 2010:32). The very first Western representations of the Muslim experience came primarily from travelers, adventurers, and crusaders whose depictions of the Muslim world formed the bedrock of Western ideas about Muslims and Islam (Curtis, 2009: 15). These representations often reiterated the strangeness of these far away lands, their cultures, and peoples. It is not surprising that the colonial narrative borrowed—and based—much of its depiction of Islam as the “ultimate inferior other” from these pre-existing impressions. In the colonial context, feminism was frequently used to illustrate the specific inferiority of colonized cultures. In the case of the Muslim world “the thesis of the new colonial discourse of Islam centered on women” (Ahmed, 1992:151). This new centrality given to the issue of women was yet another way of showcasing the innate and immutable nature of Islam as an oppressive force to women. The veil and the segregation of the sexes particularly were cited as examples epitomizing this oppression.

In the 1990s Western feminism recreated these artificial clashes between the oppressed women and the oppressive tradition by focusing on practices inherent to Islam but deemed detrimental to women’s rights by feminist standards (Volpi, 2010:32). Blanketed statements about Islam being unfavorable to the emancipation of women became pervasive both in feminist literature and the policy-making community. Despite the rise of intersectional feminism, the idea that certain customs are the primary reason for the “backwardness of Muslim societies” continued to endure in feminist thought. After all, “the peculiar practices of Islam with respect to women had always formed part of the Western narrative of the quintessential otherness and inferiority of Islam” (Ahmed, 1992:149).

It was not only the Orient or the Muslim World that were deemed problematic, but also Muslim communities in the West who were often seen as an extension of the Orient itself. The veil or Hijab, seen as a primary marker of Muslim identity and values, has often been the object of feminist ire as the supposed symbol of female oppression. “In the late 1980s, for example, a sharp public controversy erupted in France about whether Magrebin girls could attend school wearing the traditional Muslim head scarves regarded as proper attire for post pubescent young women” (Okin, 1999:9). The same debate re-emerged again in 2003 and eventually culminated in the enactment of a law officially banning the hijab (and other conspicuous religious signs) in public schools (Fernando, 2010:19).

The Burkini debacle of 2016 in France is a prime example of the persistence of this narrative affirming the veil to be a symbol of Islam’s inherent oppression and degradation of women. A central Orientalist prejudice found in many of the debates amongst feminist scholars is often rooted in the binary dichotomy between Islam and the West. The latter is said to be progressive and represents an advanced stage of women emancipation, while the Muslim World is essentially seen as hostile to women’s advancements. Muslim women particularly are depicted “as passive agents and victims of socio-political transformations and not as productive agents of change” (Volpi, 2010:32).

“While virtually all of the world’s cultures have distinctly patriarchal pasts, some—mostly, though by no means exclusively, Western liberal cultures—have departed far further from them than others” (Okin, 1999:16).

Although the origins of the narrative pertaining to the supposed primitive treatment of women in Islam can be traced back to the colonial context of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it has experienced somewhat of a rebirth in the context of the war on terror. This new framework rests on the Manichean representation of the Muslim world as a barbaric and misogynistic entity that must be civilized by a liberal and enlightened West. Feminist discourse played a major role in the appropriation of women’s rights in the service of Liberal imperialism. The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was widely framed as a righteous war to liberate Afghan women from oppression (Ahmed, 2012).


Understanding Orientalism Series

Understanding Orientalism and its genesis: Read here



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The Pursuit Of Knowledge In The Islamic Ethos

The Pursuit Of Knowledge In The Islamic Ethos


“Recite: In the name of thy Lord who created man from a clot. Recite: And thy Lord is the Most Generous who taught by the pen, taught man that which he knew not.” (Quran, 96:1-5).

The first verse that descended on Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was Iqra, meaning, “read”. Through this command the Qur’an urges mankind to think, ponder, reflect and acquire knowledge that not only liberates the soul from the servility of disbelief and superstition, but also brings it closer to God and his creation. It was narrated that Anas bin Mâlik said: The Messenger of Allah said, “Seeking knowledge is a duty upon every Muslim”. Rasulullah (SAW) commanded knowledge upon all Muslims, and urged them to not only seek it as far as they could reach, but to also seek it at all times. This great impetus in Islam for the human pursuit of knowledge shaped in more ways than one the Muslim Ummah and its civilization.

From the moment of its inception, the entire Muslim civilization revolved around the idea of knowledge as an objective to attain and a tool to use to further its interests. “To be a Muslim is to be deeply entrenched in the generation, production, processing and dissemination of knowledge. Moreover, the concept of ilm is not a limiting or elitist notion. Ilm is distributive knowledge: it is not a monopoly of individuals, class, group or sex: it is not an obligation only for a few, absolving the vast majority of society; it is not limited to a particular field of inquiry or discipline but covers all dimensions of human awareness and the entire spectrum of natural phenomena.”[1] In the Islamic Ethos, knowledge—much like justice—is one that is distributive in nature. According to Islamic  worldview, a just and equitable world cannot be achieved without ensuring first that knowledge is broadly and easily accessible to all segments of society.


Muslims created great libraries, supported the development of every department of science and literature, and laid the foundations of modern astronomy, chemistry, and physics. They named the stars and built astronomical observatories. They invented algebra, introduced Arabic numeral and arithmetic, improved geometry and trigonometry, and collected and translated old Greek mathematical and astronomical works. They established many universities and organized a public-school system. Thus, the production, advancement, and dissemination of knowledge became an essential aspect of Muslim life both at a collective and individual level.

Under the Abbasids, Muslims formed the vanguard of civilization. The Muslim world became the unrivalled intellectual centre for science, philosophy, medicine, and education. It is during this period that Darul Hukama (House of wisdom) was established in Bagdad. Founded by Harun-ar-Rashid, it was not only dedicated to the production and preservation of knowledge, but also to its dissemination throughout the Muslim World. Darul Hukama was divided into two main sections; one focusing on research and the translating of the various works, and another section related to the collection and housing of books in a sort of grand, centralized library.

Libraries particularly, gained a special place in Muslim societies who saw them as public goods. “Central libraries were completely at the disposal of the public; as such they were truly public libraries, open to individuals from all backgrounds and classes who were invited to use them, to read and freely copy any manuscript they liked.”[2] While not open to the general public, private individual libraries were however available to scientists, philosophers, researchers and writers (Ma’rouf, 1968). As such, libraries became an integral part of this project of public enlightenment central to the national character of the Ummah.

“There was no city of importance without at least one of these treasure houses of literature. Their shelves were open to every applicant. Catalogues facilitated the examination of the collections and the classification of the various subjects. Many of the volumes were enriched with illuminations of wonderful beauty; the more precious were bound in the embossed leather and fragrant woods; some were inlaid with gold and silver. Here were to be found all the learning of the past and all the discoveries of the present age, the philosophy of Athens, the astronomy of Babylon, the science of Alexandria, the results of prolonged observation and experiment on the towers and in the laboratories of Cordoba and Seville.”[3]


Throughout the Muslim world, several “Houses of Knowledge” (Darul Al-Ilm) were established in the 9th and 10th centuries in cities such as Mosul, Basra, Shiraz and Rayy to resemble that of Darul Hukama in Baghdad. Later, successive higher learning institutions were established throughout the Muslim world. Universities such as Al-Azhar in Egypt (the oldest university in History), the University of Karaouine in Morocco (the world oldest degree-granting university), as well as the University of Timbuktu in Mali produced a whole new slew of scientists and thinkers who elevated human knowledge to unparalleled heights.

The great intellectuals who came out of this Muslim scientific and intellectual effervescence included Ibn Rushd (Avicenna) the encyclopedist, great polymaths such as Ibn Sinna, Al Khwarizmi, Al Biruni, Ibn al-Haytham, and Ibn Sahl. Giants in theology and philosophy such as Ibn Ghazali, Ibn Miskawayah the historian- philosopher, Ibn khaldun (the founder of what is known today as sociology), and of course Ibn Naubakht and Ibn Ishaq, the renowned translators, who were also entrusted with the organization and maintenance of libraries.

“By the 10th century, Cordoba alone had 70 libraries, the largest of which had 600,000 books, while as many as 60,000 treatises, poems, polemics and compilations were published each year in Al-Andalus.”[4] The library of Cairo housed more than 100,000 books, while the library of Tripoli is said to have contained as many as three million books, before its destruction during the crusades.[5] The production of knowledge was such, that even with the ransacking and destruction of the Library of Bagdad by the Mongols, and the destruction of Tripoli’s library by the Crusaders, “the number of important and original works on science by Muslim scientists and thinkers that have survived is much larger than the combined total of Greek and Latin works on science.”[6]

“Islam’s deep urge for knowledge and its elevation of scholars and writer to exalted positions brought about the sophisticated book industry and libraries that flourished in the Muslim world within two centuries after the death of the Prophet (PBUH). The libraries were to be found in almost every corner of the Muslim world. Indeed, the whole of Muslim civilization revolved around the book. Libraries (royal, public, specialized, private) had become common and bookmen (authors, translators, copiers, illuminators, librarians, booksellers’ collectors) from all classes and sections of society, of all nationalities and ethnic backgrounds, vied with each other in the production and distribution of books.”[7]

 The collection and dissemination of knowledge to enlighten the minds and souls of mankind is one of the greatest gifts Islam bequeathed to all future generations. While sound politics and economy are often mentioned as indispensable to the proper development of any nation, the Islamic ethos reminds us that the production of knowledge and its proper use is just as vital to societal growth.

Published in:

[1] Sardar, Ziauddin (ed) (1991). How We Know: Ilm and the Revival of Knowledge. Grey Seals Books.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Scott, S.P. (1904). History of Moorish Empire in Europe. (3: 522) Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Draper, John William. (1877). History of Conflict between Religion and Science. (p. 138,148) New York: D. Appleton & co.

[6] Sardar, Ziauddin (ed) (1991). How We Know: Ilm and the Revival of Knowledge. Grey Seals Books.