Islamism (Islam+-ism; Arabic: الاسلاميةal-'islāmiyya) also Arabic: إسلام سياسيal-Islām al-Siyāsiyy, lit., "Political Islam" is a set of ideologies holding that Islam is not only a religion but also a political system; that modern Muslims must return to the roots of their religion, and unite politically.

Islamism is a controversial term and definitions of it sometimes vary. Leading Islamist thinkers emphasized the enforcement of sharia (Islamic law) on Muslims; of pan-Islamic political unity; and of the elimination of non-Muslim, particularly western military, economic, political, social, or cultural influences in the Muslim world, which they believe to be incompatible with Islam.[1]

Some observers suggest Islamism's tenets are less strict and can be defined as a form of identity politics or "support for [Muslim] identity, authenticity, broader regionalism, revivalism, [and] revitalization of the community".[2] Still others define it as "an Islamic militant, anti-democratic movement, bearing a holistic vision of Islam whose final aim is the restoration of the caliphate".[3]

Many of those described as "Islamists" oppose the use of the term, and claim that their political beliefs and goals are simply an expression of Islamic religious belief. Similarly, some scholars favour the term "activist Islam" [4][5] or "political Islam" instead.[6]

Central figures of modern Islamism include Abul Ala Maududi,[7] Sayyid Qutb, Hasan al-Banna, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.[8]


Islamism has been defined as:

  • “Islam as a modern ideology and a political program”,[8]
  • “the belief that Islam should guide social and political as well as personal life”,[9]
  • “the ideology that guides society as a whole and that law must be in conformity with the Islamic sharia”,[10]
  • “a movement that seeks cultural differentiation from the West and reconnection with the pre-colonial symbolic universe”,[11]
  • "the organised political trend, owing its modern origin to the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928, that seeks to solve modern political problems by reference to Muslim texts",[12]
  • “the whole body of thought which seeks to invest society with Islam which may be integrationist, but may also be traditionalist, reform-minded or even revolutionary”,[12]
  • “the active assertion and promotion of beliefs, prescriptions, laws or policies that are held to be Islamic in character,”[4]
  • a movement of "Muslims who draw upon the belief, symbols, and language of Islam to inspire, shape, and animate political activity;" which may contain moderate, tolerant, peaceful activists, and/or those who "preach intolerance and espouse violence."[13]

Islamism takes different forms and spans a wide range of strategies and tactics, and thus is not a united movement.

Moderate reformists who accept and work within the democratic process include the Justice and Development Party of Turkey, Tunisian author and reformer Rashid Al-Ghannouchi and Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. The Islamist group Hezbollah in Lebanon participates in both elections and armed attacks, seeking to abolish the state of Israel.

Groups such as the Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan and the Sudanese Brotherhood favored a top-down road to power by military coup d'état.[14] The radical Islamists al-Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad reject entirely democracy and self-proclaimed Muslims they find overly moderate, and preach violent jihad, urging and conducting attacks on a religious basis.

Another major division within Islamism is between the fundamentalist "guardians of the tradition" of the Salafism or Wahhabi movement, and the "vanguard of change" centered on the Muslim Brotherhood.[15] Olivier Roy argues that "Sunni pan-Islamism underwent a remarkable shift in the second half of the 20th century" when the Muslim Brotherhood movement and focus on Islamistation of pan-Arabism was eclipsed by the Salafi movement with its emphasis on "sharia rather than the building of Islamic institutions," and rejection of Shia Islam.[16] Different Islamist groups have come to blows in places such as present day Iraq.

History of usage

The term Islamism was coined in eighteenth-century France as a way of referring to Islam. Earliest known use of the term identified by the Oxford English Dictionary is 1747.[17] By the turn of the twentieth century it had begun to be displaced by the shorter and purely Arabic term Islam and by 1938, when Orientalist scholars completed The Encyclopaedia of Islam, seems to have virtually disappeared from the English language.[8]

The term Islamism is considered to have first begun to acquire its contemporary connotations in French academia between the late 1970s and late 1980s. From French, it began to migrate to the English language in the mid-1980s, and in recent years has largely displaced the term Islamic fundamentalism in academic circles.[8]

The use of the term Islamism was at first "a marker for scholars more likely to sympathize" with new Islamic movements; however, as the term gained popularity it became more specifically associated with political groups such as the Taliban or the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, as well as with highly publicized acts of violence.[8]

A 2003 article in Middle East Quarterly states:

"In summation, the term Islamism enjoyed its first run, lasting from Voltaire to the First World War, as a synonym for Islam. Enlightened scholars and writers generally preferred it to Mohammedanism. Eventually both terms yielded to Islam, the Arabic name of the faith, and a word free of either pejorative or comparative associations. There was no need for any other term, until the rise of an ideological and political interpretation of Islam challenged scholars and commentators to come up with an alternative, to distinguish Islam as modern ideology from Islam as a faith."[8]

Relation with Islam

The concept Islamism is controversial, not just because it posits a political role for Islam, but also because its supporters believe their views merely reflect Islam, while the contrary idea that Islam is, or can be, apolitical is an error. Scholars and observers who do not believe that Islam is a political ideology include Fred Halliday, John Esposito and some Muslim intellectuals like Javed Ahmad Ghamidi.

Islamists have asked the question, "If Islam is a way of life, how can we say that those who want to live by its principles in legal, social, political, economic, and political spheres of life are not Muslims, but Islamists and believe in Islamism, not [just] Islam?"[18] A writer for the International Crisis Group maintains that "the conception of 'political Islam' ... is unhistorical as well as self-serving," a creation of Americans to explain the Iranian Islamic Revolution. In reality, apolitical Islam was an historical fluke of the "shortlived heyday of secular Arab nationalism between 1945 and 1970," and it is it, not Islamism, that requires explanation.[19]

On the other hand, Muslim-owned and run media have used the terms "Islamist" and "Islamism" — as distinguished from Muslim and Islam — to distinguish groups such as the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria[20] or Jamaa Islamiya in Egypt,[21] which actively seek to implement Islamic law, from mainstream Muslim groups.

Another source distinguishes Islamist from Islamic "by the fact that the latter refers to a religion and culture in existence over a millennium, whereas the first is a political/religious phenomenon linked to the great events of the 20th century". Islamists have, at least at times, defined themselves as "Islamiyyoun/Islamists" to differentiate themselves from "Muslimun/Muslims".[22]

According to historian Bernard Lewis, Islamism, (or as he terms it "activist" Islam), along with "quietism," form two "particular ... political traditions" in Islam.

The arguments in favor of both are based, as are most early Islamic arguments, on the Holy Book and on the actions and sayings of the Prophet.

The quietist tradition obviously rests on the Prophet as sovereign, as judge and statesman. But before the Prophet became a head of state, he was a rebel. Before he travelled from Mecca to Medina, where he became sovereign, he was an opponent of the existing order. He led an opposition against the pagan oligarchy of Mecca and at a certain point went into exile and formed what in modern language might be called a "government in exile," with which finally he was able to return in triumph to his birthplace and establish the Islamic state in Mecca.


The Prophet as rebel has provided a sort of paradigm of revolution—opposition and rejection, withdrawal and departure, exile and return. Time and time again movements of opposition in Islamic history tried to repeat this pattern, a few of them successfully.

—Bernard Lewis