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Eleanor Abdella Doumato, Byron D. Cannon
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


Frequently, and particularly as it appears in general literature familiar to non-Muslim readers, the term Jāhilīyah refers to the period of time and the condition of society in Arabia before the advent of Islam. Often translated as “the Age of Ignorance,” Jāhilīyah connotes a time of paganism before men and women recognized the oneness of God or knew God 's sacred law. If used in the narrower sense of pagan practices among the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula prior to the Islamic prophesy, focal points for denunciation during the “Age of Ignorance” could include secular concerns ranging as widely as undue individual or group arrogance, inter-clan violence, and many aspects of gender relationships in marriage and inheritance procedures.

Instances of the term “Jāhilīyah” or other derivatives of the Arabic tri-consonantal root j-h-l in the Qurʿān help elucidate how the concept of ignorance may have been interpreted in various ways in different historical settings, from early Islamic times to the present. The term “Jāhilīyah” itself, as it appears in sūrah5, can refer either to the an “age” or “time” of ignorance or to a state of ignorance affecting human behavior. Sūrahs 33 and 48 use the term in the latter sense, without any specific localization in time or space. A number of Qurʿānic references, therefore, have to do with the state of humanity as a whole prior to Islam or at the point when humans are called upon to heed the message of the Prophet—not necessarily referring to the historical situation of the tribes of Arabia. Readers of the Qurʿān, therefore, have been able to extend what is assumed to be the intended meaning of the Revelation to cover groups or individuals in any time period, including present circumstances in the world.

One can also hold that groups or individuals, or their active or passive states of mind, fall under the rubrics contained in the Qurʿān, which uses different grammatical forms derived from the j-h-l root, particularly active and passive participles—implying “those who have become ignorant,” as in sections of sūrah6, or those “practicing ignorance,” as in sūrah2.

Such broad interpretive boundaries attracted activist reinterpretation of Jāhilīyah and invited the development, by well-known Islamic reformers in the twentieth century, of the concept of a “new Jāhilīyah” to refer to conditions more than a millennium removed from the original era of Revelation.

Since the twentieth century various movements, some with quite clear political agendas, have used the concept of Jāhilīyah to refer to what they deem to be an un-Islamic state of affairs affecting both private and public life in the Muslim world generally. The term “modern Jāhilīyah” was first formulated by the Indian scholar Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī in 1939. For Mawdūdī, modernity was “the new barbarity,” incorporating values, lifestyles, political theories, and systems of government that were, in his view, fundamentally incompatible with Islam. Whether this was his own original intention or not, criticism of such phenomena inevitably became part of a growing anticolonial denunciation of the Western world. Mawdūdī 's ideas became known in the Arab world through the translation of his most important works from Urdu into Arabic in the early 1950s. They attained wide popularity through the work of his student, Abulḥasan ʿAlī Nadvī, whose 1950 work “What Did the World Lose Due to the Decline of Islam?” expounded on Mawdūdī 's theory of “modern Jāhilīyah,” which held Muslims accountable for the sorry state they were in, because they were implementing alien, un-Islamic institutions in their countries.

In Egypt, the modern Jāhilīyah theory was initially developed in the mid-1950s by Sayyid Quṭb, a university-educated literary critic who became active in the Muslim Brotherhood after returning from a visit to the United States in 1950. Although Quṭb published, in 1953, a generally moderate work titled “Social Justice in Islam” (sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies), his views took on a totally different tone when he became more deeply involved in the cause of the Muslim Brotherhood. Quṭb 's developing ideas on Jāhilīyah would serve as a model for those anxious to apply the concept for more active political purposes after his death. In 1953, influenced not only by the Islamic zeal of Ḥasan al-Bannāʿ—Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood—but also by the work of Nadvī and Mawdūdī, Quṭb wrote a treatise, Fī ẓilāl al-Qurʿān (In the Shadow of the Qurʿān), containing his views on the concept of Jāhilīyah. For Quṭb, Jāhilīyah was a state in which the domination of man over man, rather than the submission of mankind to God, becomes a paramount driving force. Jāhilīyah, he believed, can occur in any government system based on man-made values and institutions, whether it be democracy, monarchy, or dictatorship. Jāhilīyah is also, in his view, at the base of materialism, communism, or any other philosophical system in which the power of God is either disregarded or openly denied.

Carrying forward the views of Mawdūdī and Nadvī, Quṭb called for a total rejection of Western values to combat the new Jāhilīyah. While the Indian theorists had directed their concerns primarily against the external or imported challenges of modernity coming from Western colonial powers, Quṭb focused on the challenges coming from within Egypt, especially from the secularist military regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser (whose courts condemned him to death by execution in 1966). This new Jāhilīyah was not only something outside the Islamic world, to be kept at bay; it could be seen festering within Muslim society. In his most famous work, Maʿālim fī al-ṭarīq (Milestones, 1964), which became a clarion for extreme fundamentalists by the last quarter of the twentieth century, he wrote that Muslim society was infected with a “cultural poisoning” coming from the West. Western manners and morals, art, literature, and laws permeate Islamic society, but owing to a “state” of ignorance, Muslims remain unaware of the extent of the danger. In the face of the new Jāhilīyah, humankind is confronted with a moral choice—to observe God 's laws in their entirety, or to observe laws made by humans. The choice was absolute according to Quṭb: either Islam or Jāhilīyah. For Quṭb, emulating the West is the Jāhilī option: conditions in Europe and America, he says, are parallel with those in Arabia before Islam, in that humans are under the domination of humans rather than of God. As a result the West has become the locus of unbridled individualism and moral depravity.

The solution to the modern Jāhilīyah, in Quṭb 's view and that of those who carried his message forward, is that society must change. True Muslims must embrace jihād as a religious duty and wage it against forces of repression and injustice within the Muslim community. It is a duty to be carried out against Westernizers and against other Muslims who foster modernity, so that the values of the sharīʿah can come to prevail and alone guide the actions of Muslim believers.

In his bid to free Muslim society from the negative influence of the West, Quṭb did not reject science and technology, which can be acceptable and even desirable as long as they do not conflict with religious law. In the ideal society, the power to judge (ḥakīmīyah) belongs to God alone, whose guidance can lead to the kingdom of God on Earth. Quṭb, however, would not have approved of passing the reins of power to men of religion. Rather, the goal in eradicating the new Jāhilīyah was that the sharīʿah should reign as an all-embracing way of life—an inspired realization shared by all Muslims by dint of their knowledge of the true meaning of the Revelation.

Following his execution in 1966, Quṭb 's ideas were translated into action by several Islamist groups that take them quite literally. For these groups—including Takfīr wa-al Hijrah (Denouncing Unbelievers and Carrying out Emigration, or Flight) and al-Jihād al-Islāmī (Islamic Jihad)—the Muslim world is in a state of apostasy of which it is unconscious. For true Muslims who find themselves surrounded by apostasy, hijrah (literally, “emigration,” involving physical and psychological “removal” from the surrounding environment of Jāhilīyah) and jihād are both a defensive reaction and a moral imperative. Jihād, however, can take on different forms. Some groups, including a more moderate remaining branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the pre-1992 Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, sought to combat the new Jāhilīyah by working within the existing system, by standing for election, and by creating social reform through charitable, religious, and educational organizations. On the other hand (and after seeing what is assumed to be the futility of working within the system), radical fundamentalist groups have been tempted to present the need for jihād against the modern Jāhilīyah as a justification for militant violent action against secular regimes throughout the Islamic world as well as targets abroad.

After the al-Qaʿida leader Osama bin Laden and the Egyptian Islamic Jihād leader Ayman al-Ẓawāhirī (calling themselves the “World Islamic Front for Combat against Jews and Crusaders”) issued a fatwā against Americans in 1998, one might have presumed that al-Qaʿida 's program would integrate elements relating to Jāhilīyah. However, al-Qaʿida 's developing propaganda efforts repeatedly suggest that—whatever Islamic religious cause it supports—this form of activism is rooted in anti-Westernism, and specifically anti-Americanism.



  • Demant, Peter R.Islam vs. Islamism: The Dilemma of the Muslim World. Westport, Conn., 2006.
  • Esposito, John L.Islam and Politics. 4th ed.Syracuse, N.Y., 1998.
  • Mawdūdī, Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā. The Islamic Way of Life. Translated and edited by Khurshid Ahmad and Khurram Murad. Leicester, U.K., 1986.
  • Quṭb, Sayyid. Milestones. Beirut, Lebanon, 1978.
  • Shepard, William. “The Development of the Thought of Sayyid Qutb as Reflected in Early and Later Editions of ‘ Social Justice in Islam. ’ ”Die Welt des Islams3, no. 2 (1992): 196–236.
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