Islamic Studies Political Islam
by
John O. Voll, Tamara Sonn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0063

Introduction

The term Political Islam refers generally to any interpretation of Islam that serves as a basis for political identity and action. More specifically, it refers to the movements representing modern political mobilization in the name of Islam, a trend that emerged in the late 20th century. Political Islam is a distinctive aspect of a broader 20th-century development that is often called Islamic Resurgence, in which Muslims worldwide seek to strengthen their understanding of and commitment to their religion. Not all Islamic Resurgence movements can be characterized as Political Islam, however. The Tablighi Jamaʿat, for example, has expanded greatly since its beginnings in northern India in the 1920s. The movement resolutely avoids political activism, however, and many Sufi brotherhoods displayed renewed dynamism in the final decades of the 20th century without advocating programs of Political Islam. Similarly, Muslims engage in many different types of political activities that are not included in discussions of Political Islam. Thus, the term is usually used to identify a specific kind of political program and is not just a generic label for any political activity in the Muslim world.

Introductory Works

An early analysis of the modern significance of what would come to be called Political Islam was presented by Arthur Jeffery in 1942. Scholarly recognition of organized movements of Political Islam came later, however. The organized political manifestations of Islamic Resurgence arose in the context of the failure of secular nationalist movements throughout much of the Muslim world in the mid-20th century. The enthusiasm and energy created by the charismatic leadership and nationalist programs of the 1960s faded with economic stagnation and political setbacks, most notably the defeat of Arab forces in the 1967 Six-Day War. New groups with more explicitly Islamic identifications began to replace the radical leftists as the voices of political opposition. By the end of the 1970s, scholars were beginning to recognize new modes of Islamic expression and association that were nontraditional and based in the political arena. Terminology for the phenomena characterized as Political Islam varies among scholars. The first scholar to introduce the term Political Islam was Martin Kramer in 1980. Some scholars use the term Islamism for the same set of phenomena, or use the two terms interchangeably. Dekmejian 1980 was among the first to place the politicization of Islam in the context of the failures of secular governments, although he uses the terms Islamism and fundamentalism (rather than Political Islam) interchangeably. Dekmejian 1995, still using fundamentalism and Islamism, is an influential treatment of Political Islam as increasingly mainstream and moderate. Some scholars, using descriptive terms such as conservative, progressive, militant, radical, or jihadist, distinguish among ideological strains of Political Islam.

  • Dekmejian, R. Hrair. “The Anatomy of Islamic Revival: Legitimacy Crisis, Ethnic Conflict and the Search for Islamic Alternatives.” The Middle East Journal 34, no. 1 (1980): 1–12.

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    Written in the immediate aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, this is among the first analyses to place the politicization of Islam in the context of the failures of secular governments. Uses the terms Islamism and fundamentalism (rather than Political Islam) interchangeably.

  • Dekmejian, R. Hrair. Islam in Revolution: Fundamentalism in the Arab World. 2d ed. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1995.

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    Among the first major treatments by a political scientist to recognize politicized Islam as increasingly both mainstream and moderate.

  • Jeffery, Arthur. “The Political Importance of Islam.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 1, no. 4 (1942): 383–396.

    DOI: 10.1086/370655E-mail Citation »

    The earliest analysis of the modern political significance of Islam in general, this lecture provides both historical background and prescient predictions about politicized Islam.

  • Jansen, Godfrey H. Militant Islam. New York: Harper and Row, 1979.

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    An early discussion identifying what was to be called Political Islam as a major emerging phenomenon in world affairs. Provides an example of varying terminology used by scholars for the phenomena associated with Political Islam. Jansen uses the terms militant Islam and Islamism interchangeably.

  • Krämer, Gudrun. “Political Islam.” In Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World. Vol. 6. Edited by Richard C. Martin, 536–540. New York: Macmillan, 2004.

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    A useful, though brief, introduction, showing the state of analysis of Political Islam at the beginning of the 21st century.

  • Kramer, Martin. Political Islam. The Washington Papers VIII, 73. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1980.

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    One of the first studies explicitly to use the term Political Islam.

  • Lewis, Bernard. “The Return of Islam.” Commentary 61, no. 1 (1976): 39–49.

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    Seminal article recognized as among the earliest identifications of late 20th-century Islamic Resurgence in the political sphere.

  • Rubin, Barry. Political Islam: Critical Concepts in Islamic Studies. London: Routledge, 2007.

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    This three-volume anthology provides the most thorough recent overview of Political Islam.

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