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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. As this trend intensifies, it becomes hard to separate religious doctrines from ideologies-a manner or content of thinking considered characteristic of an individual, class, or political party. 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 states seek to guide what is said in mosques. Catechism-like pamphlets and essays, often in attractive, question-andanswer 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.


Many recent writings on Islam, 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, 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 Muhammad Yazdi, head of the Iranian judiciary, warned his listeners of the danger of an “American-style Islamthat 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. 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 true Muslim practice. Paradoxically, it is those beliefs and practices that are firmly integrated with local understandings of Islam and everyday lifesuggesting a unity of belief and social practice-that Muslim reformists and Islamists find most reprehensible.

Many North Africans, especially in Morocco, visit the shrines of marabouts or saints, often called al-salihun (“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 the “pious ones” are mistaken by the ignorant as having a special relationship with God which enables them to act as intermediaries in securing collective or personal interests.

Nonetheless, there is often a dynamic 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.

Women often play a leading role in such practices, as in visits to shrines in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkey and in the zdr 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 zar 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 Salafiyah (reformist) movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries can be understood. Salafiyah 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 tariqahs (religious orders). The only alternative to marabouts was a clergy, subsidized by the French, that was officially authorized to conduct Friday prayers in the mosques.

The popular impact of the reformist movement 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 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.

The career of `Abd al-Hamid ibn Badis (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 Badis 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 [See the biography of Ibn Badis.]

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. The formal ideologies of reformist doctrine offered interpretations of Islam that appealed primarily to a modern, educated elite. Consciously or not, urban values complemented the religious conceptions of the reformist movement and paved the way for rationalist understandings of Islam. 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.

Islam as Ideology: Precursor Movements. Muslim doctrines and practices are conditioned by the modern world, and 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 very real 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 Abdulhamid 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 19o8. [See PanIslam; Young Turks.]

A more successful and pervasive example of the objectification of Islamic belief and practice is Egypt’s alIkhwan al-Muslimun (Muslim Brotherhood), founded in 192’7 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 had to swear 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 Bath 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. [See Muslim Brotherhood, overview article.]

Radicalization of Islamic Ideology. The vigorous repression of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s and the destruction of its leadership laid the ground for more radical religious interpretations. They 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. jahil is a Qur’anic term evoking the state of ignorance, violence, and self-interest that existed prior to the revelation of the Qur’an, which, for radicals, hampers the full realization of Islamic community. Islamic militants and many other Muslims consider existing state organizations jahili (“barbaric”), because they do not govern in accordance with Islamic principles as they understand them.

A representative radical ideologue is Sayyid Qutb (19o6-1966). He was 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 Hasan al-Banna’ (1906-1949), 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.

Sayyid Qutb’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 Qutb’s death, radical elements of the Muslim Brotherhood regularly identified the rulers of Egypt and many other Arab states with the pharaohs of the Qur’an. Vigorous attacks by government spokespersons only heightened the appeal of Qutb’s ideas. [See the biography of Qutb.]

Ironically, his ideas engendered widespread debate and popular support only in the 1970s, when the infitah (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 Jama’at alMuslimin (“Society of Muslims”) and to government prosecutors as Jama`at al-Takfir 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 in so-called safe houses located in the lowerclass, peripheral quarters of Cairo and elsewhere. [See Takfir wa al-Hijrah, Jama’at al-.]

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 jahili nature of his rule, profoundly shocked most Egyptians, but the radicals’ goal of stripping the state of claims to religious legitimacy found widespread support.

The ideas of many radical Islamists mirror the secular ideologies with which they compete. Morocco’s `Abd alSalam Yasin argues that there have been no Islamic governments since the time of the prophet Muhammad and his first successors. Contemporary Muslim societies have been deislamized by imported ideologies and values, the cause of social and moral disorder, and Muslim peoples are subjected to injustice and repression by elites whose ideas and conduct derive more from the East and West than from Islam. Yet the content of Yasin’s sermons 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 Qur’anic 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. 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 economic and political contexts in which their advocates and carriers operate.

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 Allah, while others accommodate the contradictory 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.

[See also Fundamentalism; Modernism; Secularism.]


Berque, Jacques. French North Africa: The Maghreb between Two World Wars. Translated by Jean Stewart. New York, 1967. Sensitive and colorful evocation of struggles among religious reformers, traditionalists, nationalists, and the French.

Donohue, John J., and John L. Esposito, eds. Islam in Transition: Muslim Perspectives. New York, 1982. Reader offering historical and contemporary examples of Muslim ideological thought. Eickelman, Dale F. Moroccan Islam: Tradition and Society in a Pilgrimage Center. Austin, 1976. Chapter 6 explains the implicit ideology of maraboutism.

Eickelman, Dale F. “National Identity and Religious Discourse in Contemporary Oman.” International journal of Islamic and Arabic Studies 6.1 (1989): 1-2o. Provides an example of the “objectification” of Islamic doctrine.

Hamidullah, Muhammad. Introduction to Islam. Exp. ed. Paris, 1959 A book intended as a handbook on Islam, responding to a demand to make doctrine accessible to nonspecialists.

Hefner, Robert W. “The Political Economy of Islamic Conversion in Modern East Java.” In Islam and the Political Economy of Meaning, edited by William R. Roff, pp. 53-78. Berkeley, 1987. Explores the shift from local understandings of religion to Islamic reformist ones from the nineteenth century to the present.

Kepel, Gilles. Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and Pharaoh. Translated by Jon Rothschild. Berkeley, 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.

Mitchell, Richard P. The Society of the Muslim Brothers. London, 1969. Classic study of this group’s ideology and organization. Piscatori, J. P., ed. Islam in the Political Process. Cambridge, 1983. Remains the best collection of essays on ideology and religious politics in the Muslim world.

Piscatori, J. P. Islam in a World of Nation-States. Cambridge, 1986. Thoughtful essay on competing ideologies of Islam in international and transnational politics.

Rahman, Fazlur. Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition. Chicago, 1982. Brilliant work by an Islamic modernist on the challenges of reform.

Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. The Meaning and End of Religion. New York, 1963. Discusses the compartmentalization of religious traditions in the modern world. Especially interesting for its discussion of Islam.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/ideology-and-islam/

  • writerPosted On: April 16, 2014
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