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.

Understanding Khaldunian Sociology (Part 2)

Understanding Khaldunian Sociology (Part 2)

Khaldunian theory and the Muslim political realm

The Caliphate (al-khilafa) designates the form of government that emerged in the Muslim world after the death of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)[1]) in 632 and lasted until the early part of the twentieth century. The four rulers (Abu-Bakr, Umar, Ali, and Uthman) that reigned over the nascent Muslim nation after his death came to be known as the Rightly Guided Caliphs in Muslim historiography (Najeebabadi et al. 2000: 257). Their era is particularly admired in Islamic theology as a period of extraordinary expansion during which the tradition of electing Caliphs was maintained and the need for a unified community (Muslim Ummah) was reiterated politically and socially. By the end of the year 661, Muslims ruled over Mesopotamia, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Persia, and parts of North Africa. It is during this period that the foundation for all future Muslim empires was established (Najeebabadi et al. 2000: 257). The Qur’an and the Sunnah (in the case of Sunni Islam) became the basis upon which was built not only the political legitimacy of Muslim rulers but also the socioeconomic management of Muslim societies.

The Umayyads who ruled the Muslim empire between 661-750 expanded what was primarily an Arab-Muslim empire into Spain, Central Asia, and India (Najeebabadi et al. 2000: 19). They successfully established an effective administration across a vast territory inhabited by multiple ethnic groups with a multitude of cultures and languages. The reign of the Umayyad put an end to the election of Caliphs and began the tradition of hereditary monarchy. In 750, the Abbasid dynasty overthrew the Umayyads and ruled the Muslim world until 1258 (Najeebabadi et al. 2000: 329). Much like their predecessors, they continued to expand Muslim rule into new lands and the city of Baghdad became the political capital of the Caliphate. Despite its eventual fragmentation, the Abbasid empire established Islam into a universal and multiethnic religion; a legacy that resonates with Muslims to this day. The schism between Sunni and Shia was particularly evident in the political realm where several Shi’ite dynasties ruled over various parts of the Muslim world (Najeebabadi et al. 2000: 329).

The Fatimid dynasty was the product of a revolution mounted by the Isma’ili movement against Abbasid rule. They officially established their Caliphate in 909 in North Africa. During their reign, Egypt became an important commercial and cultural center (Alatas, 2014:113). They also established major trade routes in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Their long political decline finally came to an end when in 1171 Salah al-Din ibn Ayyub (Saladin) took control of Egypt in the name of the Abbasid Caliph. Another Shiite dynasty that reigned over vast swaths of Muslim land was originally a Sunni Sufi order that turned to Shia Islam in the fifteenth century (Alatas, 2014:113). The Safavid empire at its peak ruled over Iran, parts of the Caucasus, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Afghanistan, and parts of Turkey, Syria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Both bureaucracy and the arts flourished under the Safavids. They established an efficient system of administration allowing for greater transparency in order to manage their vast and expansive realm (Alatas, 2014:113). Innovations in the artistic and cultural life were particularly encouraged by Safavid rulers, thus architecture and the fine arts grew exponentially under Safavid tutelage. A Sunni rebellion in 1722 eventually brought an end to their empire.

In the tenth century, Turcoman nomads from Outer Mongolia migrated to West Asia in order to avoid the impending Mongol invasion. Amongst these displaced populations were the Oghuz, a nomadic tribe of warriors known more widely today as the Seljuks. “By the eleventh century, when the Seljuk empire was centered at Isfahan, various Turcoman tribes, which were autonomous from the Seljuks, were trying to establish themselves in Anatolia” (Alatas, 2014:97). These tribes eventually formed their own principalities throughout the region. These groups possessed the ability to mobilize quickly “between a quarter and half a million cavalrymen” (Alatas, 2014: 97). Their ability to bring help and relief when needed to the centralized Seljuk state allowed the Turcoman principalities to grow in power and influence. In the fourteenth century, sixteen Turcoman principalities were established throughout Anatolia. The Seljuk empire disintegrated overtime and finally crumbled in the thirteenth century, giving way to the emergence of the Great Mongol empire. Much like the Seljuks, the Mongol empire eventually broke up into several parts as well. “One of these parts, constituting Iran, Iraq and Anatolia, became the Ilhan empire founded by Hulagu” (Alatas, 2014: 97).

Despite these changes, several Turcoman tribes succeeded in maintaining their independence from both the Seljuks and the Mongols. Amongst them was the Ottoman (Osmanli) principality founded by Osman of the Kayi Tribe. It is from this principality that emerged what later came to be known as the Ottoman empire (Alatas, 2014: 97). The Ottomans ruled most of the Muslim world for over six centuries, making this entity one of the most influential and prosperous empires in Muslim history. At the height of its power, the Ottoman territories incorporated most of Southeast Europe, Central and Eastern Europe, Western Asia, the Caucasus, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa.

The encroachment from increasingly powerful European nations on one hand and Tsarist Russia on the other throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century reduced greatly the vastness of Ottoman territory. Mounting economic and social problems further strained the resources of an already embattled empire. But it is the consequences of World War I that damaged irreparably the power and the authority of the Ottoman Caliph. “In March 3, 1924, the Grand National Assembly abolished the caliphate, thus ending the Ottoman dynasty and empire” and leading to the birth of the Turkish Republic (Shaw, 1977: 369). There are today more than fifty Muslim nation-states in the world spread over three continents and ascribing to a wide range of political, economic, and social ideologies ranging from theocratic governments, to secular republics, to monarchies, and democracies. These states started to emerge twenty-three years after the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate and represent a historical discontinuity. What had been the prevailing sociopolitical order in the Muslim world for thirteen centuries came to an end in the early twentieth century. The impact and legacy of Western colonialism is crucial in understanding the process of state formation leading to the emergence of Muslim nation-states after the second world war.

One of the prevailing Orientalist assumptions about the Ottoman empire is the view that it was already in decline by the eighteenth century. This idea finds its source in another Orientalist assumption which states that the Islamic civilization reached its peak during the early medieval period and that the Ottoman empire amounted to nothing more than a brief interruption in the long centuries of decline which followed (Ansary, 2010:220). This idea of a decaying empire by the late sixteenth century is reiterated by prominent Western historians such as Bernard Lewis. “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). According to him, by the time European powers started their incursions into Ottoman territory, the empire was but a shadow of its former self. However, many Muslim historians disagree with this narrative and maintain that despite the challenges facing it, the Ottoman empire was far from the decaying entity posited by Orientalists (Hanioglu, 2008:42).

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 simply go down in flames to conquering European armies. Despite an increasing European penetration and the growing military, economic, and administrative challenges facing it 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).

In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, Ibn Khaldun gained an important following amongst Ottoman scholars who used his ideas to address some of the pressing issues facing the Ottoman state. The prominent seventeenth century writer Katib Çelebi was one of the first Ottoman scholars to apply Ibn Khaldun’s ideas to analyze the empire’s financial woes. In his book The Mode of Procedure for Rectifying the Damage, the Khaldunian theory of cyclical rise and decline of states was applied for the first time to the Ottoman context. Another Ottoman historian who was greatly influenced by both Ibn Khaldun and Çelebi was Mustapha Naima. In his chronical Tarih-i Na’ima, he mentioned the Khaldunian cyclical theory to illustrate the contrast between nomadic and sedentary societies (Fleischer, 1983:200).

“By the eighteenth century, Ibn Khaldun was well established in Ottoman circles as having provided a framework that explained the decay of the Ottoman state. The Ottoman empire was said to be in Ibn Khaldun’s stage of stasis and decline” (Alatas, 2007:274).

The Ottoman scholars who studied Ibn Khaldun’s work started paying attention to the social, political, and economic organization of the empire trying to detect the signs of decline posited by Khaldunian theory. Scholars such as Çelebi and Naima were primarily preoccupied with elaborating institutional and administrative reforms susceptible of preventing a potential collapse. Their reading of Ibn Khaldun was therefore mainly normative and ideological (Alatas, 2007:275). His sociological arguments were used in the Ottoman context to not only champion reforms designed to strengthen the authority of the Caliph, but also to justify the holding of the Caliphate by an Ottoman dynasty.

To understand the prevailing political instability in the modern Muslim world, it is crucial to revisit the end of the Ottoman empire. However, in order to avoid falling into the usual pitfalls of Orientalism, a change of perspective is required. Khaldunian theory offers a framework and a methodology indigenous to the Muslim world. This theory was the primary tool used by Muslim scholars to study the patterns and rhythm of their own history. It was through Khaldunian concepts that they analyzed their political institutions and proposed the necessary reforms. The advent of colonialism led to the dismantlement of Muslim scholarship and halted any and all efforts to further develop Ibn Khaldun’s ilm al-‘umran al-bashari (science of human social organization).

Fanon analyzed in-depth how colonized societies become subjugated in all aspects. The rise of Orientalism as a form of scholarship dedicated to the study of the Orient and Islam is part of a broader pattern in which the production of knowledge is part and parcel of the grand colonial project. The colonial realm is a compartmentalized and Manichean world, where the “colonial subject is a man penned in: apartheid is but one method of compartmentalizing the colonial world” (Fanon, 1963:15). Through its policies and academics, the colonizer implants in the mind of the colonized that all essential values are Western values, and “remain eternal despite all errors attributable to man” (Fanon, 1963:15). The colonized becomes convinced of the pertinence and accuracy of these ideas; his very thought process has now fallen prey to the same colonial incursion ravaging his land. “The white colonists attack the traditions and myths—above all, their myths—of the racially colonized while clandestinely creating and perpetuating myths of their own concerning the racially colonized” (Rabaka, 2010:121).

These concocted myths and stereotypes not only become part and parcel of the colonial narrative, but they are also eventually internalized by the colonized. This leads to the emergence of many of the problems Fanon addresses throughout his corpus. Disrupting and shattering indigenous cultures triggers amongst all colonized peoples an inferiority complex. They position themselves in relation to the culture and the language of their colonizers. “The more the colonized has assimilated the cultural values of the metropolis, the more he will have escaped the bush” (Fanon, 1952:2). The psychological, social, emotional, economic, and political impact of this mythical portrait of the racialized subject entrenches even further the dichotomy between the colonizer and the colonized. Constantly attacking, challenging, and weakening severely any lingering inkling of autonomy or sovereignty from the pre-colonial era reiterates this binary power-dynamic between the colonialists and the colonial subjects.

“Colonization is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures and destroys it” (Fanon, 1963:170).

In order for the colonial project to reach its desired supremacy, the indigenous population must be convinced of the benefits of colonization. This can only happen once they are completely alienated from their own indigenous culture. The peoples of the colonies were reduced to entities with no history of their own, no art, no past, and certainly no future (Said, 1993:193). The inherently destructive nature of colonial domination was quick to disrupt in remarkable ways the cultural and intellectual life of the conquered.

The present instability plaguing the modern Muslim political realm is the subject of much interest and debate in Western academia. What often transpires from such studies is a rather Manichean view of Muslim societies as inherently despotic entities opposed to the very concepts of modernity and progress. “This idea has a pedigree of many centuries, and the classic term for what it refers to is oriental despotism” (Kalmar, 2012:1). Orientalist thought introduced the notion that a civilization based upon Islamic precepts can only inspire undemocratic governments, often using the current political situation in various Muslim countries as a compelling example. Western contemporary readings of politics in Muslim societies approach the subject “through the lenses of western concepts and methodologies” reiterating Orientalist assumptions and arguments (Volpi, 2009:22).

Khaldunian sociology is a historical sociology which can be applied to a wide range of societies where social bonds based on kinship played an important role in the formation of their states. Ibn Khaldun’s theoretical framework provides us with the ability to understand the dynamics leading not only to the rise of these states but also their potential decline, while keeping in mind the distinctive characteristics of each society. “The central concept of ‘asabiyyah is also sociological as it refers to a type of social cohesion founded on the knowledge of common kinship or descent” (Alatas, 2014:146). A Khaldunian framework offers us the possibility of analyzing the woes of the modern Muslim political realm from a new and fresh perspective, outside of the usual reductionist and essentialist portrayal of Islam as an entity possessing an anti-modern core.

[1]Peace be upon him



Alatas, Syed Farid (2014). Applying Ibn Khaldun: The Recovery of a Lost Tradition in Sociology. London; New York: Routledge.

Alatas, Syed Farid (2007) The Historical Sociology of Muslim Societies: Khaldunian Applications, International Sociology, 22(3):267-288.

Ansary, Tamim (2010). Destiny Disrupted. A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes. New York: Public Affairs.

Fanon, Frantz (1952) Le syndrome nord-africain, Esprit Nouvelle série, 187(2): 237-248.

Fanon, Frantz (1963). The wretched of the earth. New York: Grove Press.

Fleischer, Cornell (1983) Royal Authority, Dynastic Cyclism, and “Ibn Khaldunism” in Sixteenth-Century Ottoman Letters, Journal of Asian and African Studies, 18(3-4): 198-220.

Hanioglu, M. Sukru (2008). A Brief History of The Late Ottoman Empire. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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

Lewis, Bernard (1994). The Shaping of the Modern Middle East. New York: Oxford University Press.

Najeebabadi, Akbar Shah; Mubarakpuri, Safi-ur-Rahman; Abdullah, Abdul Rahman; Salafi, Muhammad Tahir (2000). The History of Islam, Houston, Tex: Darussalam.

Said, Edward (1993), Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books.

Shaw, Stanford (1977). History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Rabaka, Reiland (2010). Forms of Fanonism. Frantz Fanon’s Critical Theory and The Dialectic of Decolonization. New York: Lexington Books.

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

Understanding Khaldunian Sociology (Part 1)

Understanding Khaldunian Sociology (Part 1)

“The substantive interest of Ibn Khaldun in both the Muqaddimah and the Kitab al-‘Ibar, lies in the explanation of the formation and decline of Maghribian  and Arab states” (Alatas, 2014: 22). In his study of the rise and fall of north African states, Ibn Khaldun compared the social organization of pastoral nomadic societies to that of sedentary societies. He posited that the differences observed between these two types of societies are the result of inherent differences in their ‘asabiyyah; a concept often translated as group feeling or social cohesion. “Ibn Khaldun’s thesis was that groups with strong ‘asabiyyah could establish political rule over those with weak ‘asabiyyah” (Alatas, 2014:22). He saw the progression from nomadic civilization toward a sedentary one as a natural process where the advent of sedentary lifestyle is in fact the desired outcome of bedouin life. He postulated that all human societies evolve from a rather primitive lifestyle toward a far more complex one entailing grand cities, sophisticated cultures, and an opulent lifestyle.

According to him, the concept of ‘asabiyyah plays an essential role in this progression. “He establishes asabiyya as the dynamic force in history and the development of any political system” (Mirawdeli, 2015:82). ‘Asabiyyah refers to the social bond that provides stability and strength to social groupings. “This abstract concept conveys the idea of the bond that ensures the cohesion of a social group just as, analogously, the tendons ensure the cohesion of flesh to the bones” (Baali, 1988:44). Ibn Khaldun clarified that such a bond is not only born of consanguineal relations but is also social, psychological, physical, and political in nature. The superior ‘asabiyyah enjoyed by nomadic bedouins gave them a stronger social cohesion than the sedentary groups living in urban areas where they’ve established their dynasties. This strong social cohesion gave them both “the aggressive and defensive strength” necessary to eventually take over sedentary groups with a weakened ‘asabiyyah (Mirawdeli, 2015:84). A diminished social bond leaves settled groups at the mercy of nomadic/pre-urban bedouin tribes. These tribes often relied on the cities of the settled groups to acquire the basic necessities of life. This scarcity resulting from their precarious lifestyle promoted cooperation and mutual reliance amongst the members of the tribe which brought about a stronger and more vigorous ‘asabiyyah.

Ibn Khaldun assigned to religion an important role in the creation and the strengthening of ‘asabiyyah. He used as an example the advent of Islam in the Arab Peninsula where religion provided a spiritual bond between disparate Arab tribes and gave them a common cause for which to fight (Ibn Khaldun et al. 2005: 126). Islam served as a unifying force and created a strong social cohesion amongst the Arab tribes joining the nascent Muslim nation. This unification allowed the pre-urban tribes to establish royal authority and commence sedentary life. The strength of their bedouin ‘asabiyyah and the puissance of their religious mission allowed them to expand their territory and conquer previously settled groups (Ibn Khaldun et al. 2005: 91).

“The role of religious ideology, then, lies in its significance as necessary “additional power” that supports the struggle of a powerful asabiyyah, the Quraysh in the case of Islam, to overpower those groups that are equal or superior to it in strength(…) Furthermore, according to Ibn Khaldun, religious ideology can materialize only if it conforms with and responds to the material conditions and needs of the life of the society it addresses. Islam was successful not only because Muhammad belonged to a dominating “house” with a powerful asabiyya (…) but also because his teachings were congruent with the desert vision and material reality of the Arabs” (Mirawdeli, 2015:97).

The primitive culture of the tribes is one focused exclusively on satisfying the basic needs. It is a life of austerity and extreme precarity. In what Ibn Khaldun called the stage of badawa (pastoral nomadic) the tribes are mostly preoccupied with ensuring their survival. This made unity a crucial element to the existence of the group. In order to bring this about, they needed to create a “dominating element” (Mirawdeli, 2015:84). ‘Asabiyyah allows an individual within the group to acquire a legitimate power that gives him “Mulk” a royal authority. “Hence, asabiyya expresses itself in the form of legitimatising the restraining power of a person among the group, giving him mulk, royal authority” (Mirawdeli, 2015:84). The group willingly submits to his authority which only further strengthens their cohesion as a group. Once the ruler achieves his hegemony over his own group, he is now poised to extend it to neighbouring tribes. Eventually, consanguineal relations lose their importance as the primary source of ‘asabiyyah to be replaced by a far more abstract understanding of power. The chieftain that previously held royal authority over the group is replaced by a state based on a “single great ‘asabiyyah” (Mirawdeli, 2015:85).

“Thus, Asabiyya gives a group the superiority without which royal authority cannot be achieved. At the same time, by making social organization possible, it establishes the first condition of umran. And historical evolution, the transition from Badawa to sedentary culture, is concurrent with the transformation of royal authority into a fully developed state. In this sense, civilization is no more than the manifestation of the function and reality of the State” (Mirawdeli, 2015:85).

Sedentary life on the contrary is one predicated on conveniences and luxury. With a large number of individuals living in close proximity to one another in cities they’ve settled, the production of goods increased, and a large quantity of surplus labour became available for the manufacturing of luxuries (Ibn Khaldun et al. 2005: 94). But, according to Ibn Khaldun the development of all these superfluities is what eventually triggered the degeneration of the group and led to the decline of its power and strength (Ibn Khaldun et al. 2005: 94). The simplicity, the roughness, and the simple devotion and allegiance found in the original group eroded with increasing wealth and power. The comforts of sedentary life are not however the only thing that precipitated the decline of the group. When the ruler gained absolute power and started excluding his people from the royal authority he enjoyed due to their voluntary submission to his dominance, he started to sow the seeds of discord and weakened the very ‘asabiyyah to which he owed his authority (Ibn Khaldun et al. 2005: 95).

Ibn Khaldun postulated in his theory of state formation that all human societies are caught in this cyclical process; from humble and simple beginnings, to opulent cultures and lifestyle, followed by erosion and decline. In his theory he identified four stages progressing from badawa (desert life) to hadara (civilization). The first stage is the period of establishment, where group solidarity is primarily based on familial ties and religious kinship. Life at this stage is one of great precarity and the survival of the group is what matters most. The rulers at this stage are chieftains who endeavour to “perfect themselves by exhibiting admirable qualities demonstrating, among other things, their capacity for administrating God’s law” (Dale, 2015: 187). In the second stage, the ruler succeeds in monopolizing the royal authority and acquires absolute power. This hegemony by the ruler coincides with the erosion of the ‘asabiyyah that began on the basis of familial group solidarity. The ruler can now build a proper state with features such as a complex administrative bureaucracy, a paid army, and advisors to counsel him.

The third stage is characterized by the abundance of luxury and the increasing importance of leisure as a defining aspect of sedentary life. “Monarchs now found it increasingly necessary to increase taxes to support their extravagant lives and were initially able to do so because their cowed subjects did not resist” (Dale, 2015:192). The ruler uses his authority to satisfy his personal needs. He then spends exorbitant amounts on public works and on the beautification of his cities. The state enjoys economic prosperity, and high culture is developed through the crafts, fine arts, and the sciences. Cultural pursuits gain avid supporters amongst the ruling class and the upper strata of society. Leisure and self-indulgence become important aspects of life.

In the fourth stage luxury and comfort are now defining features of society. Life is centered around the search for contentment and satiation. Complacency, corruption, and decadence take hold in the once morally upright group. The ruler indulges in depraved behavior while neglecting the state. “The nobility, superior ‘asabiyyah, and other personal traits that characterized chiefs three generations earlier had, by the fourth generation, entirely dissipated” (Dale, 2015: 192). At this point, the state is starting to decline and to disintegrate. The vital forces of solidarity and religion that once provided the group with the means to their unity and success are now all but destroyed. To ensure support for his rule and to maintain the luxuries acquired, he once again resorts to raising the taxes. As the income of the state declines, it ultimately becomes impossible for the ruler to maintain his authority.


Ibn Khaldun’s cyclical view of history

A linear view of history first emerged in the work of St. Augustine (354-430 CE) who described history as the unfolding of God’s plan. He believed that this process which started with the creation of the world would come to an end with the Final Judgement. The growth of knowledge and the recording of past events contributed greatly to the rise of the concept of linear history (Barnes, 1948: 171). Voltaire in the eighteenth century also ascribed to a similar view, albeit more secular. He divided the evolution of history into four great ages eventually culminating in the scientific enlightenment of Man. However, the idea that history repeats itself through the rise and fall of civilizations was not completely unheard of before Ibn Khaldun’s ilm al-ijtima al-insani( science of human society).

Throughout the centuries, many historians and philosophers, such as Machiavelli (1469-1527) and Montaigne (1532-1592) held a cyclical view of history. In the modern age, both Arnold Toynbee (1884-1975) and Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) adhered to a cyclical view of history in which civilizations continuously rise and fall. In fact, Toynbee posited that the cyclical nature of history emerged as the predominant view when ancient civilizations like the Babylonians made discoveries in the field of astronomy (Bailey, 1958: 93). As they observed recurrent cosmic events (lunar month, solar year, night and day cycle), the repetitive nature of life shaped their view of history. This cyclical conceptualization is also found “in the mentality of the old Hindu civilization as well as in the rhythm of the Yin and Yang of ancient China” (Bailey, 1958: 94). In fact, the notion of world-cycles was also central to the ancient Greeks’ understanding of cosmic time. This idea was later inherited by Stoics such as Marcus Aurelius who strongly believed in the uniformity of the world.

“The idea was adopted by the Stoics and championed by Marcus Aurelius who was convinced that the world is so uniform that a man of forty has seen all that past generations saw or that future generations may see” (Bailey, 1958: 94).  

The Italian philosopher Giovanni Battista Vico elaborated in the early 1700s what he called the theory of historical returns (ricorsi). His cyclical understanding of history was mainly based on his anti-Cartesian view of humanity and his rejection of Man’s supposed rationality. Vico dismissed the natural sciences capacity to explain human phenomena, and much like Ibn Khaldun in the fourteenth century, he set out to create a “new science which could shed light on the developments in collective life” (Bailey, 1958: 94). His investigation into the human past led him to identify three stages in the life cycles of nations. These cycles followed a single constant pattern that he dubbed the storia eterna ideale. According to Vico, the progression of each nation through these stages (the eras of gods, of heroes, and of men) was preordained by Divine Providence. As a devout Christian he regarded “the old Testament’s story, until the end of the Flood, as an accurate narrative”, and in doing so played an important role in the preservation of Christian historiography.

“He believed that each nation passed through identical stages from ‘barbarism of the senses’ to true civilization and then into decadence resulting from overintellectualism, the ‘barbarism of reflection’. Here the cycle begins all over again” (Bailey, 1958: 94). 

There is an obvious difference between Ibn Khaldun’s style of investigation of history and the method used by previous philosophers and historians (Korkut, 2008: 548). Having developed a theory explaining the structure of social events, he proceeded to elaborate an investigative method to analyze them. He propounded that all social events are unique and warned against the all too common mistake of “applying a solution to a certain social problem as remedy for another (…)” (Korkut, 2008: 548). He described social phenomena as dynamic and prone to changes as opposed to being static. Hence, a solution devised for a certain social event becomes inapplicable to another. “In tandem, each social event is circumscribed by the moral, psychological, and physical atmosphere of the society from which it spurts; indeed, the relevant causes of each society are distinctive” (Korkut, 2008: 548).



Alatas, Syed Farid (2014). Applying Ibn Khaldun: The Recovery of a Lost Tradition in Sociology. London; New York: Routledge.

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

Baali, Fuad (1988). Society, State, and Urbanism: Ibn Khaldun’s Sociological Thought, Albany: State University of New York Press

Ibn Khaldun; Rosenthal, Frantz; Dawood, N.J; Lawrence, Bruce B (2005). The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

Dale, Stephen Frederic (2015). The Orange Trees of Marrakesh: Ibn Khaldun and the Science of Man. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Barnes, Harry Elmer (1948). Historical Sociology: Its Origins and Development, New York: Philosophical Library.

Bailey, Robert Benjamin (1958). Sociology Faces Pessimism: A Study of European Sociological Thought Amidst a Fading Optimism, The Hague: Nijhoff.

Korkut, Senol (2008) Ibn Khaldun’s Critique of the Theory of “al-Siyasah al-Madaniyyah”, Asian Journal of Social Science, 36(3-4): 547-570.

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).





Ibn Khaldun: A Sociology Beyond Eurocentrism

Ibn Khaldun: A Sociology Beyond Eurocentrism

While the critique pertaining to the various aspects of the impact of Orientalism on the social sciences has been growing since the early part of the twentieth century, very little has been said about the persistent disregard of non-Western thinkers as a source of “theoretical authority” (Alatas, 2014: 1). The theories and concepts found in their extensive body of work are very rarely applied to produce key historical and empirical information. This is particularly the case in the fields of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, where the prevailing theoretical expertise is still firmly grounded in Western Academia. Studying the work of influential non-Western thinkers as substitutes to Orientalist constructions remains for the most part a rare endeavour.

 The prevailing Eurocentrism in the social sciences often manifests itself in the study of all human civilizations from a European perspective. Western thinkers become in this dynamic the sole architects of ideas, the originators of theories and concepts through which the world is assessed and interpreted, while non-Westerners are relegated to mere subjects of study and purveyors of data. The modern social sciences are heavily influenced by European philosophical traditions in their approaches and discourses. “The empirical field of investigation is selected according to European (for European read also American) criteria of relevance” (Alatas, 2007: 271). All aspects of reality, whether historical or social, are therefore organized and understood from a Western perspective.

Sociology is yet another example of a field in the social sciences where the important role of non-Western social thinkers in the development of the discipline got little to no attention. The works of seminal Western sociologists such as Durkheim, Weber, and Marx not only played a central role in the evolution and growth of sociology in Europe, but their theories and models were also applied to non-Western societies sometimes sharing very little in common with their European counterparts. Non-Western social theorists, on the other hand, were vastly excluded from the elaboration of social theory. A compelling example of this phenomenon is the treatment of Ibn Khaldun in the modern social sciences. The majority of the work on Ibn Khaldun comprises 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 in the analysis of existing historical situations remains sparse. For the most part, Ibn Khaldun’s work is often relegated to the margins of modern sociology either as 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. Very few sociologists in Western academia have went beyond simply citing him as a pioneer or a founder of their discipline.

“There has always been little interest in developing his ideas, combining them with concepts derived from modern sociology and applying theoretical frameworks derived from his though to historical and empirical realities. While there are certainly exceptions that is, attempts to apply a Khaldunian theory or model to social reality, these are few and marginal to mainstream social science teaching and research” (Alatas, 2007: 271).

Modern social theory rests vastly on the ongoing overlooking of “alternative perceptions of reality” grounded in traditions other than the prevailing Western epistemology (Sunar and Yasliçimen, 2008: 412). The political, economic, social and cultural hegemony of the Western world enables the current dominance of Western though. According to Aijaz Ahmed the supremacy enjoyed by Western epistemology “represents a politically disabling contentious shift of attention from the facts of current neo-colonialism” toward less controversial areas of research (Moore-Gilbert, 1997:19). While the criticism of Orientalism and Eurocentrism in academia is well-known, the calls for the elaboration of alternative discourses remain essentially unanswered. Much like in mainstream Western academia “the prescription for autonomous social sciences are rarely put into practice even in the South” (Alatas, 2014: 9).

Very few attempts have been made to incorporate Ibn Khaldun’s theory of state formation within the framework of modern sociology. His study pertaining to the rise and fall of states, the nature of dynastic succession, as well as the role of religion as an “extra-historical unifying cohering force” (Mirawdeli, 2015:97) while often mentioned and analysed is seldom applied. His extensive work on the history of Muslim societies in North Africa and the Middle East, considered by many to be the genesis of sociological analysis, “has rarely been seriously considered as a basis for a modern Khaldunian sociology” (Alatas, 2014: 2). The persistent marginalization of Ibn Khaldun in the discipline of sociology is due to the lack of a neo-Khaldunian iteration of his theory. The primary aim of this thesis is to move beyond descriptive accounts of his work in order to demonstrate how Khaldunian theory can be applied to historical and empirical realities. The current underdevelopment of his theory finds its source in the lack of work applying his “theoretical framework to historical and contemporary data” (Alatas, 2014: 53). In order to remedy to this oversight and reiterate the place of Khaldunian theory in modern sociology, our study will revolve around the practical application of Khaldunian framework in the analysis of a critical period in Muslim history; that of the fall of the Ottoman empire and the subsequent emergence of modern states in the Muslim world.

Wali al-Din ‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn Muhammad Ibn Khaldun al-Tunisi al-Hadrami, known as Ibn Khaldun, was born in Tunis in 1332. His family, like many of their co-religionaries, fled Spain in the aftermath of the Reconquista and settled in Tunis in the 13thcentury.  As a young man ‘Abd al-Rahman received an education encompassing both religious instruction and worldly knowledgein the form of traditional sciences. Ibn Khaldun lived in a time of great tumult where the Arab Muslim world entered a period of political disintegration and cultural decay. Greatly influenced by the ongoing upheaval around him, he sought to understand and explain the “patterns of human action in history” capable of altering the world so fundamentally (Çaksu, 2017: 41). Inspired by the works of previous Muslim historians like Ma’sudi, he wanted to chronicle the transformations taking place in his own period by detailing the “newly emerging conditions” (Dale, 2015: 1).

While remaining firmly grounded in the traditional approach to historical writing of his predecessors, he nonetheless sought to transcend what he saw as shortcomings in their method. He exhorted historians to abandon the writing of narratives focusing solely on “transient political and military events” (Dale, 2015: 2). He advocated instead for a transformation of history into an integral part of the staple Aristotelian sciences such as physics, mathematics, and astronomy. History according to him should become both a subject and a method entailing a radical new approach to historical research.

“A beneficiary of the same Greek intellectual bequest that subsequently influenced the social and political thought of Montesquieu, Hume, Smith, and Durkheim, he argued that history ought to be practiced as a science, a philosophical discipline.” (Dale, 2015: 2). 

In 1378, he completed his Kitab al-‘Ibar, a historical study on the Arabs and Berbers. This book contained his famous Muqaddimah, a prolegomena in which he introduced what he believed to be a new science. He called it ‘ilm al-‘umran al-bashari(science of human social organization) or ‘ilm al-ijtima al-insani(science of human society). “The basis of Ibn Khaldun’s new science of society was his critique of the state of historiography among the historians of the Arab East and West up to his time” (Alatas, 2014: 13). According to him, in the study of history ascertaining the probability and possibility of events is the only way to distinguish the true from the false, and this can only be achieved through the investigation of human society. Relying solely on the authenticity of chains of transmissions, as was the method of choice in historical investigation amongst Muslim scholars, was a process Ibn Khaldun found to be inadequate when bereft of an investigative approach.

“While there were outstanding historians among the Muslims of the past, later historians introduced untruths and even gossip which were passed on to succeeding generations of historians. The false and the nonsensical in history were not rejected as historians tended not to look into the causes and origins of events and conditions” (Alatas, 2014: 14).   

Ibn Khaldun’s main concern was what he perceived as a lack of critical perspective in the study of history. He worried that this oversight would allow mistakes and weak suppositions to permeate historical records and taint the veracity of the recorded information. He posited that history became over time a discipline where the surface occurrences of history were hardly distinguished from “its inner meaning” (Alatas, 2014: 14). Historians simply relied on the work of earlier scholars without investigating the origins of the events in question and trying to discern the truth from false reports. They were instead preoccupied primarily with the preservation of historical information as it had been recorded by prior generations. For Ibn Khaldun however, “the discipline of history requires not only a sound command of numerous sources but also a good speculative mind”, since historical information cannot simply be trusted without proper scrutiny (Alatas, 2014: 14). Relying solely on the reported information, no matter how reliable the source, was in his opinion insufficient as a method. He proposed instead an autonomous science with “human social organization and society” as its main object and tasked with establishing the veracity of historical events and ascertaining their probability (Alatas, 2014: 21). This new science was to become a prerequisite for the study of history. He saw them as complementary since his science of human society endeavored to uncover the inner meaning of history. Ibn Khaldun distinguished the outer forms of history that he called zahirfrom its inner meaning which he referred to as batin. The outer forms referred to facts and reports while the inner meaning alluded instead to accounts of cause and effect. He was very much aware that his science of human society was in fact unique in both its scope and objective. While it bore a passing resemblance to rhetoric, politics, and other existing fields it nonetheless brought forth a singular contribution and a unique approach to history.

“Such is the purpose of this first book of our work. (The subject) is in a way an independent science. (This science) has its own peculiar object—that is, human civilization and social organization. It also has its own peculiar problems, that is, explaining the conditions that attach themselves to the essence of civilization, one after the other, Thus, the situation is the same with the science as it is with any other science, whether it be a conventional or an intellectual one, It should be known that the discussion of this topic is something new, extraordinary, and highly useful. Penetrating research has shown the way to it.” (Ibn Khaldun, Rosenthal, Dawood, Lawrence, 2005: 38).

He was particularly concerned with the rise and decline of states and societies and was trying to offer an explanation to this phenomenon. He quickly realized that he needed to first understand the nature of certain key elements such as the connection between the state and society, the nature of human organization, and the role of group solidarity and feeling in the evolution of human society. To comprehend the nature of human organization, he looked closely at factors that he believed triggered social change like urban institutions, the economic life, the organizational ability of the state, and existing solidarity/group feelings (Mahdi, 1957:235).

“Ibn Khaldun conceived of this new science of human society as consisting a number of sub-areas as follows: (1) society (‘umran) in general and its divisions; (2) Bedouin society (al-‘umran al-badawi), tribal societies (qaba’il), and primitive peoples (al-wahshiyyah); (3) the state (al-dawlah), royal (mulk) and caliphate (khilafah) authority; (4) sedentary society (al-‘umran al-hadari), cities; and (5) the crafts, way of making a living occupations. These areas can be seen to cover what in modern terms would encompass human or social ecology, rural sociology, political sociology, urban sociology, and the sociology of work” (Alatas, 2014:21).

Ibn Khaldun’s first mention in European sources can be traced back to the seventeenth century when a biography detailing his life appeared in d’Herbelot’s Bibliotheque Orientale. It was only a century later, at the height of Western colonialism, that prominent Orientalists like Silvestre de Sacy, Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, and William MacGuckin de Slane provided the first translations of Ibn Khaldun’s work in French and German. These were based on extracts of hisMuqaddimahand only offered a quick and incomplete overview of his overall body of work. A more serious study of Ibn Khaldun was undertaken in the nineteenth century in mainstream sociology with several Western scholars recognizing him as the founder of sociology.

Both Ludwig Gumplowicz (1838-1909) and Franz Oppenheimer (1864-1943) saw themselves as students of Ibn Khaldun. Oppeinhemer was often referred to as the “reviver of Ibn Khaldun”, while Gumplowicz dedicated an entire chapter to the scholar where he spoke highly of his work and called him “an Arab sociologist of the fourteenth century” (Alatas, 2014:44). Ibn Khaldun was recognized as the founder of sociology by many notable Western sociologists in the nineteenth century. Howard S. Becker and Harry Elmer Barnes, in their book Social Thought from Lore to Sciencededicated to the history of sociology, credited him with being the “first to apply modern-like ideas in historical sociology” (Alatas, 2014: 145). They were particularly admirative of his contribution to conflict theory. Unlike many other Western scholars, they recognized the uniqueness of Ibn Khaldun’s historical, political, cultural, and social context. They were conscious of the fact that he lived and wrote in a context quite different from that of nineteenth century Europe. They were able to detect those elements in his work that resonated with their own era, and in doing so restated the ageless and universal features of Khaldunian theory.

“Becker and Barnes themselves, in their chapter titled “Struggle over The Struggle for existence”, recognized him as an early conflict theorist and one emphasized causal principles in history at a time when ‘providential’ viewpoints everywhere held sway” (Alatas, 2014:44).

In his methodology, they saw a direct critique of documentary history, especially his elaboration of laws relating to society and social change. According to them, his greatest contribution as a social thinker was his treatment of historical material. “Much like Durkheim, Weber and others he was a human mind trying to comprehend rather than catalogue the specifically social factors in man’s living and doing” Alatas, 2014:44). Another example of European-led revival of Ibn Khaldun can be found in Jose Ortega y Gasset’s article titled Ibn Khaldun reveals the secrets to us: thoughts on North Africa. He tried to integrate Khaldunian concepts into mainstream social sciences. Ortega however betrayed his Orientalist perspective of Islam and Muslim societies when he described native Africans as “generally not thinkers” and declared Ibn Khaldun to be “an eminent exception, who has a clear and insightful mind in the way of the Greeks” (Alatas, 2014:44).

In Muslim readings of Ibn Khaldun, his work was not reduced to a mere object of study but was rather considered as genuine tool in the analysis of “historical and contemporary development of states” (Alatas, 2007:272). Long before Western scholars became aware of Ibn Khaldun, his contemporaries in the Muslim world were already applying his writing and producing a body of work inspired by Khaldunian theory. Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad bin al-Azraq al-Andalusi (1428-1491) was one of his fervent disciples who not only produced a comprehensive synopsis of the Muqaddimahbut also wrote about the connection between ethics and royal authority from a Khaldunian perspective. Another influential historian inspired by Ibn Khaldun was the Egyptian al-Maqrizi who even went to his lectures in Cairo. He dedicated a detailed entry to him in hisDurar al-‘Uquda biographical dictionary in which he showered the scholar with high praises. He described theMuqaddimahas a perfect example of Ibn Khaldun’s unparalleled mastery of historiography. “It reveals the truth of things, events and news; it explains the state of the universe and reveals the origins of all beings in an admirable plain style” (Rabbat, 2000:24).

In the twentieth century a few Muslim and Western scholars attempted to use Ibn Khaldun to study “the contemporary realities of their societies” (Alatas, 2007:272). While in the context of Western academia figures such as Ernst Gellner and Yves Lacoste led the effort to apply Khaldunian theory, their counterparts in the Muslim world were also undertaking “important theoretical appraisals of his work” (Alatas, 2007:273). Ibn Khaldun’s influence could be felt amongst key Muslim reformers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century including Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad ‘Abduh, and Rashid Rida, all of whom pioneered Islamic modernism. Much later, philosophers such as ‘Abid al-Jabir (1971) and Ali Oumlil (1979) continued to strive for the understanding of Khaldunian thought outside of the prevailing Orientalism and Eurocentrism in the modern social sciences. For the most part however, Ibn Khaldun has been reduced to an object of study as the more practical aspects of his work fell into disuse. While Khaldunian theory faded from memory, Orientalist thought gained in prominence amongst many sociologists as the primary framework for the production of knowledge about Islam, the Orient, and Muslims.

Sociological studies pertaining to Muslim societies in Western academia remain mostly beholden to reductionist and essentialist analyses. The Orientalist Grand Narrative’s assumption that Muslim societies are inherently chaotic and violent and are antithetical to good governance persists and is even enjoying somewhat of a rebirth in the current political climate. Yet, the work of ‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun offers the possibility of not only elaborating a modern sociology (neo-Khaldunian sociology) but also studying Muslim societies beyond the confines of Orientalism and Eurocentrism.


Postcolonialism And Sociology

Postcolonialism And Sociology

Although sociology came late to the study of empire, it would be erroneous to think that sociologists have made no significant contribution to discussions pertaining to imperialism or colonialism. Close to a half of the sociologists working in Britain, France, and their numerous colonies during the 1950s were directly involved in some kind of colonial research or another (Steinmetz, 2014:78). They played an important role in the research on development and under-development that emerged at the height of the decolonization period. They were also among the first to produce comparative historical research on colonies. For those sociologists interested particularly in historical and transnational analyses, empires represented an interesting subject that could not be avoided or ignored. This explains the emergence of a “self-described postcolonial sociology” focused primarily on the topic of colonialism and empire (Steinmetz, 2014:78).

Unlike anthropology that engaged in an assessment of its participation in the Western colonial project, “sociologists’ amnesia about their discipline’s engagement in the colonial empires set in almost immediately at the end of the colonial era (…)” (Steinmetz, 2014:78). Any sociological analysis pertaining to colonialism focused almost exclusively on the economic aspects of imperialism. Sociology’s own involvement in the colonial project was, for the most part, completely overlooked. Lately however, an impressive body of work on postcolonialism is starting to emerge in the discipline. Breaking away from traditional anthropological approaches, sociology focuses instead on the study of colonies as historical formations (Steinmetz, 2014:77). Sociologists insist on examining the interactions between colonizers and colonized in order to understand how both parties are being transformed by this encounter. Recent discussions of postcolonial sociology “question the applicability of Western social scientific concepts and theories to the global South and ask how sociology itself has been shaped by empire” (Steinmetz, 2014:77). It is becoming quite an effervescent subfield that cooperates closely with many other disciplines. It continually generates an impressive array of new theoretical, empirical, and methodological insights. Some of the emerging topics in this research domain include: interactions among different European empires, imperial urbanism, gender and familial relations and ideologies in imperial settings, postcolonial culture and literature, imperial violence, and new technologies of geopolitical domination (Steinmetz, 2014:93).

Postcolonial theory has been gaining ground in sociology since the early 1990s. While initially postcolonialism was incorporated into existing sociological endeavors—such as the study of migration and multiculturalism—four distinct postcolonial approaches have since gained traction in sociology. The first one examines how European ethnography, racism, social ontologies, and other aspects of culture have shaped colonial empires. The different imperial strategies used to shape these empires resulted in hybrid political formations. Sociologists study the transition from one imperial configuration to another in order to disclose the process through which the political landscape is rearranged and reorganized to fit the newly established imperial pattern (Steinmetz, 2014:82).

“An example of predominantly colonial strategies evolving into more imperialist approaches is the nineteenth-century British shift to an imperialism of free trade. The 1880s then saw a movement back to formal colonialism by Britain and other European powers. Another imperial pattern involves chartered companies. Such companies were created by investors for trade, exploration, and exploitation throughout the medieval and modern eras” (Steinmetz, 2014:82).

The colonial state is organized like a field. Its internal dynamics ensure the production of a constant stream of ethnographic representations and projects meant to facilitate and regulate native governance. These idées–forces define, according to Bourdieu, “the performative ideas that both represent and divide the social world” (Steinmetz, 2008:607). The modern colonial state becomes the sphere of production of a new kind of “noblesse de robe” (Bourdieu, 1996:377). This new nobility however finds its legitimacy in scholarly titles rather than “pedigrees of noble birth” (Steinmetz, 2008:607). The state helps to validate this new nobility by acknowledging its credentials and endorsing its claims to dominate the state.

The second approach explores the ambivalence inherent to the colonizer-colonized relationship and the forms of colonial hybridity that emanate from this rapport. In contemporary usage, the concept of colonialism refers to the conquest of a foreign territory and its native population, subsequently controlled and ruled over by members of the “conquering polity” (Steinmetz, 2014:79). The varying degrees of indirectness and informality, of said foreign rule, regulates the ramifications of the loss of sovereignty experienced by the indigenous population. An important characteristic of colonialism is the subservient position the natives are confined into. The conquered population is constituted as legally, administratively, socially, culturally, and biologically inferior to their occupiers. “All colonial states divide their subjects into different tribal or racial groups in an effort to enhance control, but at the same time the colonized are subsumed by the colonial state under a single, overarching category” (Steinmetz, 2014:80). All Western colonies practiced this rule of difference to maintain the status quo and prevent the colonized from ever attaining the same legal rights as their rulers. While some colonies haves shown a certain degree of flexibility in respect to the rule of difference, this tenet was generally more stringent during the nineteenth century than in previous eras.

“Even the supposedly assimilationist French Empire placed limits on genuine assimilation. In a historical study of the training of Algerian teachers in French Algeria inspired by Bourdieu’s sociology of education, Colonna (1975, pp.168-69) showed that the colonial power placed a specific limit on the path to acculturation one that defined the quality of scholarly excellence as being neither too close to the culture of origin nor too close to the culture of the West” (Steinmetz, 2014:80).

The third strand of postcolonial analysis in sociology criticizes Western knowledge as being inadequate for the task of understanding post-colonized non-Western cultures. Some even accuse Western thought of being antagonistic to the very existence of the non-Western world. This argument goes back to the German Romanticism of the eighteenth century, and was reclaimed a century later by certain schools in Central European anthropology (Steinmetz, 2014:93). “This critique of universal categories reached an apotheosis with interwar German neohistoricist sociologists (Steinmetz 2010), some of whom argued that all social scientific categories had to be unique to a single time and place (Freyer, 1926)” (Steinmetz, 2014:93). For some, this is the very reason why a Southern sociology focused on non-Western cultures is necessary. Others however, reject this line of thinking by arguing that a phenomenon like capitalism is “universalized and can be analyzed using the same concepts in the global South and the global North” (Steinmetz, 2014:93).

The fourth strand of postcolonial sociology focuses on the issue of imperial blowback, and Fanon’s observation pertaining to the reciprocal relationship between Europe and the Third World.  Eric de Dampierre (1968) argues for treating “the European, even metropolitan context, in counterpoint with the African context” (Steinmetz, 2014:94). This idea of cultural reciprocity between colony and metropole is a critical element in Said’s study of postcolonial methodology. While historians focused mainly on the impact of imperialism on the configuration of domestic cultures and politics, postcolonial critics such as Spivak, Said, and Gilroy concentrated instead on “metropolitan high culture” (Steinmetz, 2014:94). Sociologists on the other hand, choose to examine both the back flow of colonial culture in the metropoles, as well as the aftermath of colonialism in postcolonial societies.

An increasing number of sociologists are willing to engage in a self-critique of sociology as both a product of empire and an enabler of the colonial project. In fact, Alatas, Berque, Bourdieu, and Stavenhagen are amongst those who openly called for a decolonization of the discipline itself. Steinmetz however calls for caution against false generalizations and states that more empirical research is needed to truly ascertain and understand the role of sociologists in colonial empires. After all, many sociologists were ardent opponents of colonialism and were involved in the Anti-Imperialist League, which is often described as the precursor of the American Sociological Society.

“Bourdieu’s work on the relative autonomy of cultural field, which is inspiring some of the most interesting research in sociology today, is a key resource for preventing postcolonial sociology from failing back into reflectionist or one-sidedly ‘short circuit’ externalist approaches to the sociology of knowledge” (Steinmetz, 2014:94).


  • Steinmetz, George (2008). The Colonial State as a Social Field: Ethnographic Capital and Native Policy in the German Overseas Empire before 1914, Sociological Review, Vol.73, No.4, pp. 589-612.
  • Steinmetz, George (2014). The Sociology of Empires, Colonies, and Postcolonialism, Sociological Review, Vol.40, pp. 77-103.


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



  • Abun Nasr, Jamil M. (1985). Militant Islam: A Historical Perspective. In Ernest Gellner (ed.), Islamic Dilemmas: Reformers, Nationalists and Industrialization, pp. 73-93. Berlin: Mouton Publishers.
  • Ajami, Fouad (1992). The Arab Predicament. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Burgat, Francois (2003). Face to face with Political Islam. London: IB Tauris.
  • Gellner, Ernest (1983). Muslim Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kepel, Gilles (2005). The Roots of Political Islam. London: Saqi.
  • Kepel, Gilles; Roberts Anthony, F (2002). The Trail of Political Islam. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  • Kramer, Martin (1980). Political Islam. London; Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.
  • Kramer, Martin (1996). Arab Awakenings and Islamic Revival: the politics of ideas in the Middle East. New Brunswick; London: Transaction Publishers.
  • Kramer, Martin (1997). The Mismeasure of Political Islam. In Martin Kramer (ed.), The Islamism Debate, pp. 161-173. Tel Aviv; The Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv.
  • Kramer, Martin (2003). Coming to terms: Fundamentalists or Islamists? Middle East Quarterly, Vol. X, No. 2, pp.65-77.
  • Pipes, Daniel (1983). In the Path of God. Islam and Political Power. New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers.
  • Pipes, Daniel (2004). Miniatures. Views of Islamic and Middle Eastern Politics. New Brunswick; London: Transaction Publishers.
  • Pipes, Daniel (2015). Nothing Abides. Perspectives On The Middle East And Islam. New Brunswick; London: Transaction Publishers.
  • Roy, Olivier (1994). The failure of Political Islam. London: L.B. Tauris & Co Ltd.
  • Roy, Olivier (2004). Globalized Islam. The Search for a New Ummah. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Tibi, Bassam (2014). Political Islam, World Politics and Europe. From Jihadist to Institutional Islamism. London; New York: Routledge.
  • Tuastad, Dag (2003). Neo-Orientalism and the new barbarism thesis: Aspects of symbolic violence in the Middle East Conflict(s). Third World Quarterly, Vol.24, No.4, pp. 591-599.
  • Turner, Bryan (1994). Orientalism, Postmodernism And Globalism. London: Routledge.
  • Volpi, Frederic (2010). Political Islam observed: disciplinary perspectives. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Zubaida, Sami (1995). Is there a Muslim society? Ernest Gellner’s sociology of Islam. Economy and Society, Vol.24, No.2, pp.151-188.

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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  • Ahmed, Leila (2012). A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, From The Middle East To America. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Ansary, Tamim (2010). Destiny Disrupted. A History Of The World Through Islamic Eyes. New York: Public Affairs.
  • Ayoob, Mohammed (2008). The Many Faces of Political Islam. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Bayat, Asef (2013). Post-Islamism: the changing faces of political Islam. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Barber, Benjamin R. (1996). Jihad vs McWorld. New York: Ballantine Books.
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  • Curtis, Michael (2009). Orientalism and Islam. European Thinkers on Oriental Despotism in the Middle East and India. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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  • Denoeux, Guilain (2002). The Forgotten Swamp: Navigating Political Islam. Middle East Policy, Vol. 9, No.2, pp.56-81.
  • Fernando, Mayanthi L. (2010). Reconfiguring Freedom: Muslim piety and the limits of secular law and public discourse in France. American Ethnologist, Vol.37, No.1, pp. 19-35.
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  • Huntington, Samuel P. (1996). The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order. New York: Touchstone.
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  • Lewis, Bernard (1994). The Shaping of the Modern Middle East. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Lewis, Bernard. (2003). What went wrong? The clash between Islam and modernity in the Middle East. New York: Perennial.
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Understanding Orientalism and its genesis

Understanding Orientalism and its genesis

The Orient occupies a singular place in the “European Western experience” (Said, 1979:1). It is a place that intrigues as much as it frightens. The Orient is not only a cryptic neighbor perceived as alien to Europe, it is also the location of Europe’s oldest colonies, “the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other” (Said, 1979:1). In many ways, Europe defined itself in direct contrast to the Orient. Orientalist thought emerged primarily as a discourse seeking to describe this imagined Orient through a unique set of vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, and doctrine.

Although, it was readily accepted at one point as an academic designation for those who researched, taught, or wrote about the Orient, “it is true that the term Orientalism is less preferred by specialists today (…)” (Said, 1979:2). For some the term is too vague, while for others it is too closely linked to “the high-handed executive attitude of nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century European colonialism” (Said, 1979:2). This by no means should be taken as an indication that Orientalism is no longer relevant in academia. In fact, it continues to produce an impressive body of knowledge focusing on the Orient under newer academic designations such as Oriental studies, Middle Eastern studies, or Islamic studies. “The point is that even if it does not survive as it once did, Orientalism lives on academically through its doctrines and theses about the Orient and the Oriental” (Said, 1979:2).

According to Edward Said, Orientalist thought introduced an ontological and epistemological distinction between the Orient and the Occident (Said, 1979:2). This premise has served as a starting point for “elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, “mind”, destiny, and so on” (Said, 1979:2). By the eighteenth century, what is known today as Orientalism had become an intricate part of the European colonial project. By describing and teaching about the Orient, it provided ways of settling it and ruling over it. Through its expertise it produced methods to facilitate the domination, restructuring, and overall control of the Orient (Said, 1979:3).

Said suggested that in order to fully understand Orientalism’s impact, one has to examine it first and foremost as a discourse which played an important part in the colonization and subsequent management of the Orient as a colonized and subjugated body. The Orient was no longer “a free object of thought or action” (Said, 1979:3), but rather an imagined entity produced politically, sociologically, ideologically, scientifically, and militarily to be managed by European culture.

“The Orient was Orientalized not only because it was discovered to the be “Oriental” in all those ways considered commonplace by an average nineteenth-century European, but also because it could be—that is, submitted to being—made Oriental” (Said, 1979:6).

Denys Hay reiterated the hegemonic aspect of Orientalism by correlating it with the very idea of Europe. The notion of “us” Europeans against all “those” non-Europeans is an important element of European culture that made it a hegemonic entity both inside and outside its own borders (Said, 1979:7). The success of the European colonial project did not only reiterate the idea of European superiority, it also cemented the hegemony of European ideas about the Orient. Thus, the contrast between a supposed European superiority and “Oriental backwardness|” became the main dichotomy on which the entire relationship between West and East is predicated.

“Under the general heading of knowledge of the Orient, and within the umbrella of Western hegemony over the Orient during the period from the end of the eighteenth century, there emerged a complex Orient suitable for study in the academy, for display in the museum, for reconstruction in the colonial office, for theoretical illustration in anthropological, biological, linguistic, racial, and historical theses about mankind and the universe, for instances of economic and sociological theories of development, revolution, cultural personality, national or religious character.” (Said, 1979:7).

The idea of an Orient imagined as Muslim and a West imagined as Christian emerged from the cleavage between East and West introduced by Orientalist thought. Although, the epistemological and ontological distinction between the two entities started emerging only after the late fourteen century—and was later exacerbated by the colonial expansion of Europe toward the Orient—it is nevertheless undeniable that a certain proto-Orientalism existed beforehand, and can be traced back to the very beginnings of Western civilization.

In more ways than one, the vocabulary of Renaissance Orientalism is inherited from the proto-Orientalism of the ancient Greeks which left an indelible impression on the European mind through the classic texts that later became indispensable in European Christian education (Kalmar, 2012:30). In the medieval proto-Orientalism that emerged afterwards, the Europeans of the Middle Ages could only picture the Orient in eschatological terms as a mystical location and the theatre of the most wondrous biblical events (Kalmar, 2012:30). These depictions of the Orient continue to influence the very discourses that shape the relationship between East and West to this day.


I) Ancient Greek proto-Orientalism

Antique Greek pottery depicting a Greek soldier fighting a Persian warrior.

 The oldest roots of Orientalism can be traced back to the image of the Persian Empire common amongst ancient Greeks. The Persian invasions of Greece in 490 and 480-479 BCE were traumatic events leading to the exacerbation of long held fears and mistrust toward Persians (Kalmar, 2012:30). In the ancient Greeks imaginary, the Persian enemy became the “bearer of an alien, barbarian civilization, characterized above all by its soulless subservience to a divinized emperor” (Kalmar, 2012:30). This depiction of Persians was later extended to all the peoples of Asia, and the East was declared the land of tyranny and slavery. The idea of Asia as an entirely different entity from Greece became a staple in Greek literature and political thought. The contrast between the two was said to be the difference between a country with a responsible government under the leadership of free men and “the land of god-like despots served by an undifferentiated mass of slaves” (Kalmar, 2012:31).

While Plato was more subtle than Aristotle in his comparison between Greece and its neighbors to the East, the same kind of dichotomy was nonetheless present in his political thought. “When Plato opposed monarchy to democracy, he suggested that the Persian government was an extreme form of monarchy, just as the government of Athens was the extreme form of democracy” (Kalmar, 2012:31). Aristotle on the other hand was far less sympathetic toward the Persian enemy. Although he recognized that tyranny could also be found in Greece, he nevertheless believed that “the ideal freedom of Man was far less corrupted in the Greeks than in the barbarians” (Kalmar, 2012:31). In other words, the Greeks natural state was one of freedom, while the barbarians could never really escape the pull of slavery. The difference between Greeks and barbarians resided, according to Aristotle, in the expression of their respective characters as natural masters and natural slaves. “Aristotle thought that in a more perfect society, men’s nature to be free would make tyranny impossible. In order to assert their nature, men would eventually rebel against it” (Kalmar, 2012:31). While the barbarians’ natural corruption made them inclined to servitude, amongst the Greeks such tyranny would never be tolerated and would eventually be overthrown.

Aristotle posited that in the despotic states of the East, to be treated like slaves is in perfect concordance with the barbarians’ natural inclinations, and their accepted traditions. “In essence, the tyrant respects their most deeply ingrained customs: the unconditional surrender of the slave to his master” (Kalmar, 2012:32). This outlook on the East in which the barbarian is naturally inferior to the Greek justified as “natural” the idea of a Greek rule over Asian peoples and lands. After all, “ they, who naturally desire to be slaves, will be better governed when they get as their Master one who was meant by Nature to govern, rather than serve” (Kalmar, 2012:32).

Although one can notice certain similarities in the comparison between Greeks and barbarians in Aristotelian thought, and the comparison between Europeans and non-Europeans in modern Orientalist thought, they are nevertheless profoundly different. While this notion of “the barbarian of the East” endured and was later inherited by political philosophers like Machiavelli and Montesquieu, Greek proto-Orientalism was bereft of “the fundamental quasi-geographic foundation of real Orientalism” (Kalmar, 2012:32). The perceived civilizational clash in the eyes of the ancient Greeks was not between Europeans and barbarians, but rather between Greeks and barbarians.

“To the Greeks, the East may have appeared as an inferior Other, but it is not very likely that the collective Self facing this other was imagined as a “West” rather than just Greece” (Kalmar, 2012:32).


II) Renaissance Orientalism

The famous Orloj of Prague dating back to the fifteenth century. The figurines of the “Turks” was a synonym for “Muslims”. These figurines are meant to symbolize the futility of science without faith, since the Muslim scholars despite their knowledge remained outside of the real of Christianity.

During the Middle Ages, the medieval Christian West did not perceive the Orient as an alien civilization as did the Ancient Greeks. In fact one could say that their imaginative space “owed more to the Romans than to the Greeks” (Kalmar, 2012:34). Whereas the Greeks deemed the East to be the land of barbarians, the Romans considered the Hellenistic space created in the East by Alexander the Great’s conquests, as well as Greece itself, to be their East (Kalmar, 2012:34). They regarded this Hellenized East—including Greece—not as an inferior entity but rather as a “kind of classic model of their own civilization” (Kalmar, 2012:34). This view of the Orient is what medieval Europe inherited.

The rise of Islam in the seventh century CE did not immediately trigger a cleavage of the world into a Christian West and a Muslim East. Although each religion was primarily associated with “a separate, loosely organized yet real network of political, economic, and military relations, and regarded the other with considerable mistrust” (Kalmar, 2012:33), the two shared nevertheless a relationship mostly based on trade, cultural exchanges, and even at times political alliances that defied religious divides. The contrast between Christianity and Islam in Renaissance Orientalism was still far from the one found within Modern Orientalist discourse. Neither religion had yet carved for itself any specific parts of the known world as its own exclusive realm. Despite the fact that both religions competed on every level, neither had developed at that point a concrete geographic presence. “There were Christian states in Asia as there were Muslim realms in Europe (and Africa)” (Kalmar, 2012:33).

When in 634 Jerusalem fell into Muslim hands, for many Christians the very status of Christianity as the “universal religion of a universal empire” (Kalmar, 2012:36) was being challenged by the newly expanded Muslim Caliphate. While Edward Said argued that the European encounter with the Orient resulted in the depiction of Islam as the ultimate outsider in the Western world’s collective imaginary (Said, 1979:70), Ivan Kalmar posits instead that when Islam was born, “Prophet Muhammad was widely regarded not as an alien but as and “impostor”, a heretical Christian with pretensions of being a new Christ” (Kalmar, 2012:38). Hence, the advent of Islam was not interpreted as a schism between Europe and “its outsiders; but rather as a crack within a single, Christian-Muslim edifice” (Kalmar, 2012:39).

            The previous status quo changed drastically when the Ottoman Empire won the battle of Kosovo and gained an important foothold in Europe by 1388 (Kalmar, 2012:40).

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 exacerbated existing tensions and irrevocably altered the previous relationship between Islam and Christianity. The capture of Constantinople by Muslims marked the beginning of Europe’s creation “as a continent with a distinctive religious and cultural tradition” (Kalmar, 2012:41). To ensure the integrity of what was now seen as a purely Christian realm, the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella launched the Reconquista and expulsed Muslims and Jews from Spain and Portugal. The conquest of Constantinople and the Reconquista allocated to each religion a solid geographic presence. In the Christian West’s Weltanschauung, Christianity found its abode in the West, while the Orient became irretrievably Muslim.

“It was the absolute precondition for orientalism as the mental division of the world into East and West conceived of as civilizational opposites, with Africa and newly discovered America relegated to an imagined state of nature beyond civilization” (Kalmar, 2012:41).


III) Enlightenment Orientalism

Francois Gabriel Guillaume Lepaulle (French artist, 1804-1886) The Pasha and His Harem
Francois Gabriel Guillaume Lepaulle (French artist, 1804-1886) The Pasha and his Harem.

While Ottoman power weakened in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, Europe was in its ascendancy. Britain, the Netherlands, and France had steadily replaced Spain and Portugal as “the economic engine of Europe” (Kalmar, 2012:69). Russia also became a major imperial power increasing its Asian possessions at the detriment of the Ottomans. Each imperialist power proclaimed to act on behalf of “Christendom and civilization, convinced that it had a singular role in shouldering what Kipling would later call the white man’s burden” (Kalmar, 2012:69).

However, it is in Britain that capitalist economy and imperial power were at their height. The British Empire’s ability to compete with fellow European countries, and increase its colonial realm by winning and conserving colonies, confirmed its status as a major imperial power. It became customary in the eighteenth century for young Britons to travel throughout the continent and sometimes to “Turkish-ruled Greece, to Jerusalem, and even Egypt” (Kalmar, 2012:69). These grand tours were meant to display British intellectual and cultural hegemony, whilst at the same time “asserting a proto-colonial hegemony stemming from the possession of biblical and ancient oriental knowledge” (Kalmar, 2012:70).

Hegel, the philosopher of the late enlightenment compared the Oriental Empire of Islam to the Germanic World in his lectures on the Philosophy of History. It may seem at first glance that he intended to highlight the splendor of the Muslim Empire in contrast to the brutish character of the Germanic World. However, what Hegel was in fact arguing was that this contrast between a seemingly civilized Muslim World and a barbarous medieval Europe “should not be misread as a permanent defect” (Kalmar, 2012:82). The Muslim civilization, despite its phenomenal rise, was fundamentally based according to him on “shoddy workmanship” and would not last (Kalmar, 2012:82). In his analysis, he sought to underline the long-term process through which Europe was to develop distinct national spirits. He perceived the brutish medieval period in Europe as a simple “phase of germination” in the long process that would inevitably lead to an authentic form of true human freedom (Hegel, 1956:355).

“The killing, raping, and pillaging of the medieval Germans was, it turns out only the superficial manifestation of a deeper process whereby the hard-working spirit would become concrete at long last, in Hegel’s nineteenth century.” (Kalmar, 2012:82).

Hegel sought to create a link between the idea of Germanness and hard work. He posited that contrary to the unostentatious but conscientious Germans, the fickle and extravagant Orientals “took the easy path and created a brilliant empire almost instantaneously” (Kalmar, 2012:82). Therefore, as splendid as the Muslim civilization was, it still remained the product of a hasty and shoddy work destined to crumble. From a Hegelian perspective, the Orient was devoid of Volkgeist or specific ethnic and national spirits (Hegel, 1956:355). To Hegel, Islam was essentially a reaction to the medieval West’s progression toward a Weltgeist or “world spirit” (Hegel, 1956:355). It is the intense work undertaken in Medieval Europe to form a European world, in which each nation developed a distinct national spirit, that precipitated Islam’s spectacular, albeit hasty rise.

Different Oriental peoples had a somewhat different understanding of Geist, it is true, but none of them saw it differentiated into particular ethnic-national varieties (Kalmar, 2012:82).


IV) Modern Orientalism

Orientalism in the colonial era

According to Said, modern Orientalism is the product of the main currents that shaped eighteenth century Western thought: expansion, historical confrontation, sympathy, and classification (Said, 1979:120). These elements had the merit of liberating the study of the Orient in general—and Islam in particular—from the confines of the religious Christian scrutiny previously so pervasive in the field. In contrast to earlier manifestations of Orientalism, its modern iteration found its inspiration in the secularizing elements of eighteenth-century European culture (Said, 1979:120). By expanding the very idea of the Orient beyond the near East and toward China, India, and Japan, the established biblical framework—with Christianity and Judaism as main references—was transcended.

Another important transformation ushering in modern Orientalism was taking place in the field of history. By dealing with non-Europeans and non-Judeo-Christian cultures “history itself was conceived of more radically than before (…)” (Said, 1979:120). The previous belief centered on the idea of Europe as the abode of “embattled believers facing hordes of barbarians” (Said, 1979:120) was rapidly being abandoned for broader notions of humanity and human experience. Race, origin, color, and temperament replaced, and in many ways surpassed, the usual distinction between Christians and everyone else. Newer classifications of mankind were being devised and used “beyond the categories of what Vico called gentile and sacred nations (…)” (Said, 1979:120).

However, these tendencies toward secularization didn’t completely destroy the previous religious models of human history and destiny. On the contrary: they were simply “reconstructed, redeployed and redistributed” in these new secular frameworks (Said, 1979:121). By the end of the eighteenth century, Orientalism sought to supply the vocabulary, the concepts, and the techniques to study and examine the Orient and the Oriental. Still, despite its tendency toward the broader waves of secularization in Europe, Orientalism retained a certain “reconstructed religious impulse, a naturalized supernaturalism” (Said, 1979:121). Those who dedicated themselves to the study of the Orient were to do so in keeping with these revised frameworks constantly vacillating between a new secular mindset and the traditional paradigms of Christianity.

The new era of modernization with its new scientific and advanced techniques reshaped disciplines such as philology and anthropology. Orientalism, as well as the Orient itself, were brought into the fold and modernized. The ideas, works, and discourse that later came to define Orientalism originated from this attempt to transport and transplant the Orient firmly into modernity. Henceforth, the modern Orientalist’s mission was to save the Orient from obscurity by shattering the strangeness that alienated it from civilization. Silvestre de Sacy, Ernest Renan, and Edward William Lane became the progenitors and builders of this new field. By creating a unique and specific set of vocabulary and ideas, they rooted Orientalism in a scientific and rational premise that “put into cultural circulation a form of discursive currency by whose presence the Orient henceforth would be spoken for (…)” (Said, 1979:122). As European colonialism encroached further into the Orient, Orientalism’s popularity grew and gained in influence. Its transformation however was not merely intellectual and theoretical; it was also one that greatly altered its intent. By losing its previous precolonial consciousness, it gained—through its effectiveness, usefulness, and the authority it conferred—a place of choice in the European colonial project.

“To reconstruct a dead or lost Oriental language meant ultimately to reconstruct a dead or neglected Orient; it also meant that reconstructive precision, science, even imagination could prepare the way for what armies, administrations, and bureaucracies would later do on the ground, in the Orient” (Said, 1979:123).


V) Islamic Orientalism

Orientalist ideas and depictions of Islam in the media

Until the end of the seventeenth century, the Ottoman peril represented in the European imaginary the constant danger threatening to overtake all of Christian civilization. The idea of Islam as an existential threat, a source of terror and devastation, became an important component of European lore. This perception of Islam as an enemy and a threat to the very existence of Christian Western civilization continues to shape the relationship between the West and the Muslim World. Although Orientalism sought to encompass the Orient as a whole in its scope of study, it is undeniable that a specific form of Orientalism focusing on Islam emerged by the nineteenth century (Said, 1979:160).

Throughout the nineteenth century, feelings of antipathy toward Islam as well as a growing sentiment of European superiority became pervasive in Orientalism. Islam was seen as a “degraded (and usually, a virulently dangerous) representative” of the Orient’s inherent backwardness (Said, 1979:260). Said stated that despite the wave of secularization of the late eighteenth century, European scholars continued analyzing the Near Orient through a religious perspective often reiterating the biblical references used in previous centuries.

“Given its special relationship to both Christianity and Judaism, Islam remained forever the Orientalist’s idea (or type) of original cultural effrontery, aggravated naturally by the fear that Islamic civilization originally (as well as contemporaneously) continued to stand somehow opposed to the Christian West” (Said, 1979:260).

Islamic Orientalism gained in popularity between the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century. More than any other branch of Orientalism, it encompasses a rather hostile vision of Islam (Said, 1979:209). It embodies to this day a “peculiarly polemical religious attitude” (Said, 1979:260) that shapes the methodological perspective in which it remains rooted. According to Islamic Orientalists, the problems plaguing mankind are to be divided into two distinct categories called Oriental and Occidental. In such a perspective, what characterizes Islam and differentiates it from the Occident is its resistance to change. The entire Muslim civilization is said to be opposed to changes—such as the transition of men and women out of archaic institutions, modernity and secularization—that have come to define the modern Western World (Said, 1979:263). This narrative however is not unusual in its rather negative outlook on Muslims. It adopts the broader description of non-Western people in colonial discourse as being “fundamentally hostile to modernity and incompatible with modernization” (Mirsepassi, 2000:2).

Islamic Orientalism remained for the most part impervious to any theoretical or historical revisions susceptible of challenging the broad assumptions it often makes about Islam and/or Islamic civilization (Said, 1979:263). Its primary discourse incorporated the Muslim World into a modern system based on highly supremacist relations. It reiterated a “hierarchical taxonomy of civilizations, religions, and cultures” (Samman and Al-Zo’by, 2008: 3) in which the Western World’s religion, race, and culture are believed to possess some unique traits that produced superior features. The Renaissance, the Reformation, the Industrial, Political, and Scientific Revolutions were not only cited as evidence of the West’s inherent superiority, but also as an indication of the Muslim World’s intrinsic cultural and political backwardness (Samman and Al-Zo’by, 2008: 3). Political Islam particularly, is often used by Islamic Orientalists to illustrate features that they deem inherent to Islam such as: Oriental despotism, aversion to modernity, and misogyny. More than other iteration of this phenomenon, Islamic Orientalism is the one that feeds the present-day Islamophobic narrative championed by the likes of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Bill Maher.



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