We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more Ideology and Islam - Oxford Islamic Studies Online
Select Translation What is This? Selections include: The Koran Interpreted, a translation by A.J. Arberry, first published 1955; The Qur'an, translated by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, published 2004; or side-by-side comparison view
Chapter: verse lookup What is This? Select one or both translations, then enter a chapter and verse number in the boxes, and click "Go."
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result

Ideology and Islam

In Islam, as in other world religious traditions, there is a historical trend toward “objectification,” making religion into an entity alongside other aspects of social and personal life. As a result, religious beliefs and practices, once central to a coherent vision of the world and often taken for granted, emerge as merely one facet of a person 's life. Events such as the attack on the World Trade Center in New York and bombings elsewhere in subsequent years in Indonesia, Britain, Indonesia, Morocco, Spain, and Saudi Arabia have only intensified explicit debate among Muslims and non-Muslims alike about what it means to be Muslim in the world today. Even as most Muslims claim that “Islam is one” and that it offers a blueprint for all aspects of life, Islam increasingly occupies a special place and time in the school curriculum, and state authorities seek to guide what is said in mosques and on radio and television. Catechism-like pamphlets and essays, often in attractive question-and-answer formats and popular language, offer believers quick, encapsulated formulations of belief and practice. Religious activists sometimes belittle Muslims unable to explain why they pray and fast, not always recognizing that the ability to formulate such credos is an indication of the compartmentalization of Islam even as “being Muslim” is foregrounded in many contexts of modern political and social life. In some parts of the Middle East, as in Syria and on Al-Jazeera Satellite television, debates over Islam and secularism capture the imagination of large numbers of believers.

Both scholarly works and religious tracts illustrate how the notion of ideology in contemporary social and political contexts can substitute for that of Islam without loss of meaning where both terms mean little more than beliefs about the conduct of life or implicit understandings of the nature of the universe. In this respect, ideology inadvertently implies a system of illusory, consciously elaborated doctrines concerning the nature of the social, economic, or political world. Thus Islamists who hold that Islam should play a central role in the political arena argue that the religious principles elaborated in schools and government-controlled mosques in the conservative states of the Persian Gulf, Pakistan, Egypt, and elsewhere do not reflect “genuine” Islam but are principles propagated to secure the interests of a corrupt ruling class. During a June 1991 Friday sermon in Tehran, Ayatollah Muḥammad Yazdī, then head of the Iranian judiciary, warned his listeners of the danger of an “American-style Islam—that is, one that says that the government has nothing to do with Islam—is far greater than that of weapons.” Traditional Muslim conservatives argue in turn that Islamists have corrupted Islam by making religion a direct instrument of politics. Others, notably al-Qaʿida leaders such as Osama bin Laden and ʿAyman al-Zawahīrī, are heavily influenced by Salafī-jihādī notions of Islam, extremist doctrines held by radicals who claim to represent Islam 's original teachings, which they authorize themselves to spread by force. They argue for the overthrow of Muslim-majority states that they deem corrupt and for the elimination of kāfir (infidel) influence in Muslim countries, and support the creation of a new Islamic caliphate. Political activities are integral to their goals.

Carriers of modern religious traditions argue, of course, that they are not constructing new religious doctrines but are making them more accessible and easier to understand. But such organization implies a conscious systematization of doctrine and practice, so that large numbers of believers, not just specialist literati, can formulate such questions as: What is my religion? Why is it important to my life? How do my beliefs and practices guide my conduct? The ability of large numbers of Muslims to formulate such questions empowers them and creates new patterns of religious authority that is freed from reliance on a traditionally educated religious elite. Even as contemporary Muslims claim that they are only maintaining established traditions, the increasing objectification of these questions suggests an overall change in how religious belief and identity is expressed in the modern era.

Practical Ideologies and Islam.

The term “ideology” often suggests consciously elaborated and maintained systems of belief, especially in the political domain, but it can also suggest implicit, shared notions of the social order so taken for granted that they are not codified or presented in an explicit manner. This second usage is called a practical ideology, which, in the case of Islam, means incompletely systematized but nonetheless pervasive notions of Muslim practice. Paradoxically, it is those beliefs and practices that are firmly integrated with local understandings of Islam and everyday life, suggesting a unity of belief and social practice—that Muslim reformists and Islamists find reprehensible.

Many North Africans, especially in Morocco, visit the shrines of marabouts, or saints, called al-ṣaliḥūn (pious ones), often leaving substantial gifts or sacrifices. They do not ordinarily articulate their beliefs, in part because many religious scholars and members of the educated elite disdain such practices or consider them un-Islamic. Many North Africans, however, regard such practices as an integral element of Islam and necessary to their well-being. Learned persons claim that al-ṣaliḥūn are mistaken by the ignorant as having a special relationship with God that enables them to act as intermediaries in securing collective or personal interests. At the same time, those who reject the practice of regarding the “pious ones” as miracle-working intermediaries may respect them for their piety and spiritual accomplishments, especially poetry in praise of the Prophet (al-ṣaliḥū al-nabawīyah). Such poetry continues to be recited at religious gatherings. In this context, their emotive role as spiritual tutors offers a powerful complement to the more ritualized collective Friday prayers. Ṣūfī rituals and the equivalent of “pious ones” elsewhere in the Muslim world play a similar role.

There is often a dynamic and uneasy tension between practical ideologies and formal declarations of belief and doctrine, which emphasize the equality of all persons before God, sustained by an educated and largely urban elite. In religion—as in notions of family, sexuality, gender, and honor—practical ideologies often are at odds with formal doctrines and constrain the extent to which formal doctrines are accepted as authoritative.

There are distinct gendered roles in such practices, as in visits to shrines in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkey and in the zār, or spirit possession, cults of Sudan and East Africa. Educated outsiders see women as primarily responsible for these practices, not recognizing that women act on behalf of the household, extended family, or tribal group. Men 's and women's activities must in fact be seen as complementary. Moreover, both North African maraboutic practices and zār cults can be seen as means of imagining alternative social and moral universes. Although not formally systematized, the practical ideologies implied by such practices point to a powerful set of beliefs and values closely tied to perceived social realities—more so than is the case for many explicit statements about the nature of Islamic belief and practice.

These practical ideologies form the backdrop against which successes and limitations of the Salafīyah (reformist) movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries can be understood. Salafīyah suggests a return to the Islamic practice of venerable forebears. In the Muslim world it is common for both modernists and conservatives to justify their ideological position by emphasizing that it is not innovative. Thus in the early twentieth century, most Algerian Muslims thought of maraboutism and belief in the “pious ones” as an integral element of Islamic practice, and most men belonged to ṭarīqahs (religious orders). The only alternative to maraboutism in the early twentieth century was a clergy, subsidized by the French, officially authorized to conduct Friday mosque prayers.

The popular impact of the reformist movement in North Africa accelerated after World War I, with the return of Algerians who had fought with the French and were unwilling to resume a subservient status. Despite linguistic and regional differences, Algerians from all parts of the country began to recognize their common oppressed situation. Distant problems became more familiar, and Algerians began to think actively in terms of a national community. “Young Algerian” began to be used as a conscious parallel to “Young Turk” for the Ottoman province of Anatolia. A small Algerian cadre of French-trained schoolteachers, doctors, journalists, and attorneys formed the vanguard of this movement, but their direct influence on other Algerians was limited by an inability to communicate effectively with the vast majority of Algerians. Because marabouts and the official clergy supported the French against the Ottoman Empire (allied with the Germans) during the war, many Algerians became disillusioned with traditional religious leaders, whom they associated with the French.

The career of ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd ibn Bādīs (1889–1940), a leading reformer from a family of urban notables in Constantine, suggests how the practical ideologies of religious beliefs shaped the expression and appeal of reformist doctrine. The elite status of Ibn Bādīs and other reformers meant that the French dealt circumspectly with them. They began to visit mosques throughout Algeria, emphasizing in their preachings the unity of Islam, charity, worship, and mutual assistance. Avoiding direct confrontation with marabouts, who were often strongly embedded in local political networks, they challenged maraboutic claims of communication with the Prophet, intercession, miraculous healing, and magic, and sought to convince Algerians that these notions were not part of good Islamic doctrine. The formal ideologies of reformist doctrine offered interpretations of Islam that appealed primarily to a modern, educated elite. Without intending to do so, the carriers of reformist Islam objectified Islam by formalizing it as a doctrine and practice set apart from other aspects of life.

Maraboutism was the backdrop against which reformist ideologies in Algeria were forged and elaborated, and these notions continue to play a role in popular thought. In the late 1980s, for example, the backbone of resistance to the arbitrary exercise of authority by the secular Algerian state was networks of supporters of local “pious ones,” a framework for collective action that many observers thought had atrophied during the colonial period.

Islam as Ideology: Precursor Movements.

Distinctions among fundamentalists, traditionalists, modernists, and Islamists are misleading if they ignore the common ground of practical ideologies on which they all stand. No Muslim has remained unaffected by the normative and technological changes that have swept the world, and the spread and elaboration of all doctrines are conditioned by pervasive differences in education and social position. The Pan-Islamic movement that began in the 1880s was largely an elite phenomenon, elaborated in writings, speeches, and congresses of Muslims who emphasized the importance of Muslim political and communal unity and sought ways and means to achieve it. The movement bore structural parallels with the Pan-Hellenic and Pan-German movements that preceded it and thus can be seen as a reaction to European hegemony in the late nineteenth century. Pan-Islam first crystallized as an imperial ideology during the reign of the Ottoman sultan, Abdülhamid II (r. 1876–1909), who supported it openly and through secret funding as a means of enhancing his role as head of an empire and leader of the Muslim community. Support for the movement declined with the rise of the nationalist Young Turk movement after 1908.

A more enduring example of the objectification of Islamic belief and practice is Egypt 's al-Ikhwān al-Muslimūn (Muslim Brotherhood), founded in 1927 or 1928. It grew rapidly, in part by offering an alternative that seemed more directly related to modern conditions than the religious authority and discourse of traditionally educated men of learning. Subsequent movements elsewhere followed the Egyptian model. Unlike competing religious organizations, members swore complete obedience to the movement, and there were punishments for negligent members. The Muslim Brotherhood became the first mass political movement built on the tenets of renewed unity and personal reform as a prelude to the realization of the Muslim community 's full potential in the modern world. It did not exclude Western influences and institutions harnessed to the service of Islam.

Such ideological notions coincide in principle with the political goals of other states, and for that reason the Muslim Brotherhood has at times received tacit state support. Thus the Saudis sustained the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s, in part as a counter to the Pan-Arabism of Egypt 's Gamal Abdel Nasser and the secular Baʿth parties of Syria and Iraq. Jordan also tolerated the movement so long as it avoided direct criticism of the monarchy. Even Israel encouraged the movement in its occupied territories during the 1970s as an alternative to the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The Contemporary Radicalization of Islamic Ideology.

The vigorous repression of Egypt 's Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s and the destruction of its leadership by Nasser 's government laid the ground for more radical religious interpretations that appealed to a younger generation of radicalized militants unwilling to compromise with state authorities. These militants sought an alternative to secular ideologies and political movements with a vocabulary and ideas that seemed alien to Islam. The prisons and prison camps of Nasser 's Egypt became vivid metaphors for the moral bankruptcy of government and incubators for radical religious thought. Jāhil is a Qurʿānic term evoking the state of ignorance, violence, and self-interest that existed prior to the revelation of the Qurʿān, which, for radicals, hampers the full realization of Islamic community. Islamic militants and many other Muslims consider existing state organizations jāhilī (“ignorant” of Islam), because they do not govern in accordance with Islamic principles as they understand them.

An ideologue often invoked by religious radicals is Sayyid Quṭb (1906–1966), born in a village near Asyut in upper Egypt and educated at a teacher 's college. He taught and contributed to various newspapers, went to the United States for further training in education, and joined the Muslim Brotherhood on his return to Egypt in 1951. Like Ḥasan al-Bannāʿ (1906–1949), the founder of Egypt 's Muslim Brotherhood, he could not claim the credentials of a traditional man of learning. From 1954 until his execution in 1966, he spent all but eight months (1964–1965) in prison.

Quṭb 's writings attracted a large audience among professionals, white-collar workers, and students. For many Muslims, his writings offer Islamic explanations for contemporary political and economic developments and for the perceived injustices of existing regimes. Prior to the 1950s, the Muslim Brotherhood never attacked the Egyptian or other Arab Muslim governments as un-Islamic. After Quṭb 's death, radical elements of the Muslim Brotherhood regularly identified the rulers of Egypt and many other Arab states with the pharaohs, known for religious persecution. Vigorous attacks by government spokespersons only heightened the appeal of Quṭb 's ideas.

Ironically, his ideas engendered widespread debate and popular support only since the 1970s, when the infiṭāḥ (political liberalization) that accompanied the rule of Anwar el-Sadat (r. 1970–1981) allowed religious militants to add organizational muscle to radical ideas. One such group, known to its adherents as the Jamāʿat al-Muslimīn (Society of Muslims) and to government prosecutors as Jamāʿat al-Takfīr wa-al-Hijrah (The Society of Repentance and Emigration), assassinated Sadat in 1981. The group 's name made the government uneasy, although it correctly indicated members ’ belief that those not adhering to its principles were infidels. They sought to separate from ordinary society by living together, often in so-called safe houses located in the lower-class, peripheral quarters of Cairo and elsewhere.

The appeal of such groups was heightened by a conjuncture of events: Sadat 's bold visit to Jerusalem in 1977, a dismal economic situation, and political unrest in many Muslim states following the 1978–1979 Iranian Revolution. Such short-term factors are undoubtedly important, although other, long-term ones merit equal consideration. Foremost among these is the change in religious and political sensibilities engendered by the growth in mass higher education. The 1970s saw the coming of age of the first generation of postrevolutionary Egyptians to complete the entire mass educational cycle from the primary to the postsecondary level. Most participants in radical groups of the 1970s were in their twenties and thirties, the first beneficiaries of the revolution 's commitment to mass education. One long-term effect of modern mass education was to inculcate the principle of individual authority based on books, pamphlets, and the word of popular thinkers, rather than reliance on the authority of traditionally trained religious scholars. The tactics of Sadat 's assassins, who justified themselves by asserting the jāhil nature of Sadat 's rule, profoundly shocked most Egyptians, but the radicals ’ goal of stripping the state of claims to religious legitimacy found widespread support. The message of al-Qaʿida, initially shared in the 1990s primarily by text messages and subsequently by audio- and videocassettes and readily available on Internet, depends on the rising educational standards to share its message, which often emulates the production values of CNN, Al-Jazeera, and other conventional video news sources.The ideas of many radical Islamists mirror the secular ideologies with which they compete. Morocco 's ʿAbd al-Salām Yasīn, whose own movement combines many structural elements of a Sūfī brotherhood with high-technology means of Internet dissemination, argues that there have been no Islamic governments since the time of Prophet Muḥammad and his first successors. Although his movement is noviolent, like other radicals Yasīn believes contemporary Muslim societies have been de-Islamized by imported ideologies and values. These cause social and moral disorder, and Muslim peoples are further subjected to injustice and repression by elites whose ideas and conduct derive more from the West than from Islam. Yet the content of Yasīn 's talks and writings suggests that his principal audience is young, educated, and already familiar with the secular, imported ideologies against which he argues. His key terms, derived from Qurʿānic and Arabic phrases, are more evocative for his intended audience than the language and arguments of both the secular political parties and the traditionally educated religious scholars. His daughter Nadia, a leading spokesperson for the movement, drives home this notion even more by writing and speaking primarily in French—and by breaking the gender stereotypes associated with many Islamic movements.In spite of claims to authenticity and uniqueness, contemporary Islamic ideologies, both conventional and radical, have much in common with their secular and non-Islamic counterparts and, like them, must be seen in the rapidly shifting economic and political contexts in which their advocates and carriers operate. In recent years in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, for example, radical Salafī-jihādī militants combine their ideological commitments with a strong sense of power realities and since the 1990s have eclipsed the authority of the secular leadership that has failed to realize its goal of a Palestinian state. These militants find no difficulty in forging alliances with their Shiʿī counterparts and see their goals as global rather than national.

The contemporary dilemma of Islamic ideologies and their adherents is exemplified by the Iranian constitution, which displays the coexistence of two contrasting notions of sovereignty. Some principles of the 1979 constitution affirm the traditional concept of the absolute sovereignty of Allāh, while others accommodate the idea of popular sovereignty in conceding the people 's right to determine their own destiny, allowing for occasional referenda and a popularly elected assembly. As Islamic doctrine and practice become increasingly objectified and formalized, such contradictions inevitably develop, perhaps as an indication of the continued debate and reinvention of religious thought in the modern age. Some liberal Muslim thinkers, as in Turkey, are strongly inspired by Islam to support a secular state compatible with what they see as Islamic values of tolerance. Others such as the Salafī-jihādīs, of the Palestinian camps or their counterparts elsewhere, are intolerant of compromise with their beliefs and are intolerant in practice. These debates over principles and practice are now global, and as likely to occur in Europe or North America as in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, or Southeast Asia.



  • Berque, Jacques. French North Africa: The Maghreb between Two World Wars. Translated by Jean Stewart. London: Faber and Faber, 1967. Remains the most sensitive and colorful evocation of struggles among religious reformers, traditionalists, nationalists, and the colonial French.
  • Eickelman, Dale F.Knowledge and Power in Morocco: The Education of a Twentieth-Century Notable. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985. Discusses the creative tension in doctrine and practice between veneration of “pious ones” and Salafī Islam.
  • Eickelman, Dale F., and Jon W. Anderson, eds.New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere, 2nd ed.Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003. The editorial introduction and the contributors assess the impact of the new media on doctrine and practice from Indonesia to Morocco.
  • Eickelman, Dale F., and James Piscatori. Muslim Politics, 2nd edition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003. Discusses the historically changing links between notions of doctrine and practice.
  • Hroub, Khaled, ed. Political Islam: Context Versus Ideology. Saqi Books, 2011.
  • Kepel, Gilles. Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and Pharaoh. Translated by Jon Rothschild. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. First published in French in 1984, this book, with new material added for U.S. publication, remains the best introduction to Islamic radicalism in Egypt.
  • Kurzman, Charles, ed.Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. A useful collection of original texts that offers a strong perspective on contemporary Islamic discussion and debate.
  • Lauzière, Henri. “Post-Islamism and the Religious Discourse of ʿAbd al-Salam Yasin.”International Journal of Middle East Studies37.2 (May 2005): 241–61. An insightful case study of how the language and practice of Sufism maintains its contemporary relevance.
  • Marsden, Magnus. Living Islam: Muslim Religious Experience in Pakistan 's North-West Frontier. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. An outstanding and readable ethnography on the popular interplay between Sufi ideas of divine love and austere Salafi practice in a volatile region neighboring Afghanistan.
  • Mitchell, Richard P.The Society of the Muslim Brothers. London: Oxford University Press, 1969; reprinted 1993. Classic study of this group 's ideology and organization.
  • Rahman, Fazlur. Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. Brilliant work by an Islamic modernist on the challenges of reform.
  • Rouadjia, Ahmed. Les frères et la mosquée: Enquête sur le mouvement islamiste en Algérie (The Brothers and the Mosque: Inquiry into the Islamist Movement in Algeria). Paris: Editions Karthala, 1990. A thoughtful account on why large numbers of Algerians became supporters of the Islamists by the late 1980s, even when they were not persuaded by their doctrine.
  • Rougier, Bernard. Everyday Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam among Palestinians in Lebanon, translated by Pascale Ghazaleh. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007.
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2019. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice