Religious and Political Islam

This paper utilizes the work of Bassam Tibi and others to distinguish religious from political Islam. It identifies these as competing for influence within the Muslim world. In the post colonial and post-Cold War contexts, political Islam offers itself as the solution to the problems of Muslim majority states instead of capitalism or communism, regarding these as bankrupt. Religious Islam embraces secular democracy, separation of religion and state and sees Islam as an ethic alongside other ethics in a pluralistic world. Political Islam is totalitarian, intolerant of diversity and of dissent. The paper argues that political Islam is a modern construct that does not represent the original Islam of the seventh century. It describes political Islam as a danger to world order. Religious Islam, which embraces pluralism, is the option that ought to be strengthened and encouraged. Easily rejected as a “Europeanized” version of Islam religious Islam is weaker than political Islam, which  attracts support from Muslims who, suspicious of Western motives and solutions, see this option as more legitimately Islamic, which Tibi challenges.

 Analysts suggest that two options face the contemporary Muslim world. Supporters of the first, religious Islam, regard Islam as an ethic and a religious faith, not as a comprehensive legal and political system. Supporters of the second, political Islam, see Islam as a total way of life embracing politics and law as well as spirituality and devotional acts.  Turkey, a secular state founded in 1922, may be identified as an example of a context where religious Islam dominates. “Political Islam”, also referred to as “Islamism” and as “fundamentalist Islam, dates from at least 1928, when the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt. Earlier discourse in the colonial space saw some Muslims advocate separation of religion and state or their unity but it was the end of the Cold War that revived this debate while it was the Iranian Revolution (1979) that arguably established the first “Islamist state” giving substance to Islamist ideas. Tibi, a German citizen originally from Syria, represents a strong voice for religious Islam. His The Challenge of Fundamentalism: political Islam and the New World Disorder (1988) was partly a response to Samuel P Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996). The book critiques the phenomena, claims, goals and practices of Islamists throughout the Muslim world. Huntington suggested that, in the new world order after the Cold War, rivalry between civilizations rather than ideologies might create conflict. A clash between the Western and Muslim worlds was highly likely (Huntington 34). Muslims, said Huntington, are prone to violence. Cultural differences between the Western and Muslim spheres and the latter’s perception that the former plan to subjugate them will lead to conflict.

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Tibi agrees that a clash between the non-Muslim and Muslim worlds is possible. In his view “political Islam creates disorder” but he argues that “Islam as a religion is definitely not a threat” (Tibi 41). Behind the possibility of a clash lies the fact that the West and Islamists both want hegemony and that Islam may be the only challenge to Western dominance (Tibi 15). Tibi sets out to undermine the legitimacy of the Islamists’ claim to represent real, traditional, authentic Islam. He regards “political Islam” as a construct, an a-historical abstraction invented in the modern period (the twentieth century) to serve the interests of those who demand what they call the unity of din (religion) with dunya (state), hence the expression din wa dawla, unity of religion and state. While this is a “cardinal principle of fundamentalist or political Islam” it is, he says, is a “fiction.” He points out that such phrases as din wa dawla and nizam Islami (or Nizam siyasi/political system) do not exist in the Qur’an or Sunnah (saying of the Prophet) (Tibi 61). Zakaria’s The Struggle within Islam: The conflict between religion and politics  (1988) offers a similar argument. Mernissi also rejects the fundamentalists’ claim that an Islam separate from the state would decline. Under a secular system, Islam would “not only survive but thrive” (Mernissi 65). Mernissi agrees with Tibi that political Islam is a construct. Claiming to revive original or pure Islam of the seventh century, Islamists deny the reality of Islamic history (Mernissi 24). Advocates of political Islam have no interest in history because, if the earliest Muslim community under Muhammad was perfect, history has no lessons to teach. Thus, Islam’s essential timelessness “leaves no room for historical investigation” (Tibi 102). Tibi points out similarity between Islam as depicted by Western Orientalists as unchanging and singular and the ideals of political Islam, giving us homo islamicus, the same everywhere and at all times. In this view, Islam is incapable of change or reform because it is already perfect, the same everywhere and always.

Tibi challenges the idea that Islam exists as a comprehensive social, legal and political system, regarding this claim as a “mobilization of religion for political ends.” The typical Islamist is a homo politicus not a homo religiosus (Tibi 37). This turns what was intended as ethical guidance and spiritual nourishment into a political-legal system. Central to the Islamist agenda is the demand to impose Shari’ah law. In their view, any Muslim state that does not impose Shari’ah is illegitimate, while any state that does impose Shari’ah becomes, by definition, a bone fide Islamic state. Issues related to how such a state would be governed, says Tibi, are subverted by the insistence that all answers to every problem will be solved once Shari’ah is established. Yet, says Tibi, there really is no such ready-made body of law. Those who demand its imposition would find, “should they seize power” no “coherent legal system at hand that they can apply to situations, conditions and events overnight – as events will demand” (Tibi 168). As traditionally understood, Shari’ah “rested not with the state … but rather with religious societal communities” (Tibi 214). Throughout, Tibi insists that Islamists mistake human interpretation of the Qur’an for God’s eternal word. Only the second can claim infallibility. Tibi says that a state’s constitution can be based on Islamic principles as long as this is understood as a human construct (Tibi 58). He argues that the combination of religion and state under Muhammad was a response to circumstances, that unity of religion and politics is not a “constitutive part of Islamic beliefs” (Tibi 58). He and other advocates of a secular state are denounced as infidels. One reason for this is the widespread belief, across the Muslim world, that secular nationalism is anti-religious. He traces this idea to the fact that many early advocates of secularism in the Muslim world in the early twentieth century were perceived to be irreligious. Trying to impose secularism “from the top” they were accused of wanting to “put Islam aside” (Tibi 97). Tibi responds by arguing that the secular does not have to be profane, that in any democratic society with a Muslim majority, Islamic ethics and principles would inevitably and properly inform legislation (Tibi 75). Islamists denounce secular nationalism as a Western ploy to destroy Islam by promoting a political ideology that stresses a national rather than Islamic identity. Others dismiss the “nation state” as a Western imposition after World War I or the end of colonial rule, arguing that a single, trans-national Islamic caliphate must be revived. Secularism has suffered from the fact that many post-colonial states were corrupt, with little genuine democracy.  Western support for these states tainted “Western democracy” as well as “secularism.” Until 1991, some looked to the Soviets for help. Others claimed Islamic solutions, not capitalist or communist, must be applied.

In many Muslim countries, supporters of religious Islam vie with supporters of political Islam for influence and power. In Iraq, secular Muslims want a democratically elected parliament, with the law of the land informed by Islamic principles. Certain Qur’anic regulations, such as those concerning marriage, divorce and inheritance would apply. However, just as the legal system of Egypt is based on the Napoleonic code, Iraqi law would draw on non-Muslim codes. Islamists would impose their version of Shari’ah as a supposedly fixed, complete code. Any elected body’s task would be to interpret and apply the Shari’ah, not to legislate. In this view, God makes law not people. As in Iran, only those considered pious and skilled at fiqh (jurisprudence) would be allowed to occupy high office. Tibi sees political Islam as a totalitarian, intolerant system at odds with life in a pluralist world, dangerous for anyone who dissents. Tibi wants Muslims to support religious Islam, which is tolerant of diversity, so that they can work with others toward a global moral consensus, peace and justice. This option, however, needs to be seen as more authentically Islamic, not as a “Europeanized” version of Islam. Islamism attracts support from Muslims who do not really want an Islamist state but who suspect Western motives and solutions.


Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations and the remaking of World Order. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Mernissi, Fatima. Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World. Cambridge, MA: Perseous, 1992.

Tibi, Bassam. The Challenge of Fundamentalism Political Islam and the New World Disorder. Comparative studies in religion and society, 9. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Zakaria, Rafiq. The Struggle within Islam: The Conflict Between Religion and Politics. NY: Penguin, 1988

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