Islamism, sometimes loosely referred to as Islamic ‘fundamentalism’, is a broad and contested term. It is typically seen as comprising a number of political movements in the Islamic world, which strive to recapture the putatively original, uncorrupted and undiluted reality of Islam through the establishment of an Islamic state based on the divine law (shari‘a). A useful distinction can be drawn between three stages of this modern phenomenon. The first stage revolves around a series of revivalist efforts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the most notable of which is the Wahhabi movement of central Arabia, inspired by the thirteenth/fourteenth-century Hanbalite thinker Ibn Taymiyya and founded by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. This early stage of Islamism is characterized by an attempt to return to the original form of Islam, purifying it of pagan customs, innovative traditions and foreign accretions. It generally calls for the exercise of independent judgement rather than blind obedience, the withdrawal or migration from areas dominated by unbelievers, the declaration of jihad or holy struggle (in the lesser, political sense) against the enemies of Islam, and the yearning for a single leader with the ability to renew the spirit of Islam (e.g. the Mahdi). This nascent, pre-colonial form of Islamism tends to involve little engagement with external systems of thought; it is mostly an internal dialogue of Muslims with themselves.
   The second, ‘reformist’ stage revolves initially around a number of nineteenth- and twentieth-century public intellectuals such as al-Afghani, Muhammad ‘Abduh and Rashid Rida who also descried both the internal corruptions of Islam and the destructive external effects of western secularism and colonialism upon the Islamic world. The early reformists, however, had a more rationalist bent. They were engaged in an open dialogue with European culture and science and sought to establish the relevance of Islam to modernity even as they strove to establish an autonomous Islamic polity. Their ideas gave rise to influential organizations such as the Salafis and Hasan al-Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood (al-ikhwan almuslimun). The Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood in particular became a powerful international mass movement which, along with the emergence of sovereign nation-states in the Islamic world, gave rise to a more radical form of Islamism. Two of the chief architects of radical Islamism, the Indian/Pakistani thinker Abu al-A’la al-Mawdudi and the Egyptian intellectual Sayyid Qutb, passed through the ranks of theMuslim Brotherhood before splintering off to espouse their own, more exclusivist agendas. Its third great theoretician was the Iranian Shi‘ite philosopher-scholar Ayatollah Ruhollah Khumayni (Khomeini), who led the Iranian revolution. These three influential thinkers formulated a thorough-going critique of western modernism, i.e. the secular division between religion and state, democracy, nationalism, socialism, relativism, atheism, and the rationalist confidence in the capacity of science and technology to solve all of humanity’s problems – all of which Qutb characterizes as pagan ignorance (jahiliyya). Human nature is taken to have remained the same for all time, so the divine revelation of the Qur’an remains relevant throughout history and the novelties and innovations of modernity are irrelevant to the fundamental, timeless truths disclosed by Islam. Finally, faith in the unity of God requires the reestablishment of a pan-Islamic polity in which all aspects of life are based purely on religious law. It is important to note that this theocratic state is more of a contemporary political ideology rather than an historical actuality in Islam. The Islamist ‘return’ to ostensibly pure origins involves a great deal of creative interpretation and indeed is unthinkable without its radical confrontation with modernity. For this reason, it is not strictly speaking a form of traditionalism, despite its historical roots in that phenomenon and its virulent opposition to rationalism.
   See ‘Abduh, Muhammad; al-Afghani; Hanbalites; Ibn Taymiyya; political philosophy; traditionalism; Wali Allah, Shah; Zahirites
   Further reading: Choueiri 1990/97; Esposito and Voll 2001; Euben 1999; al-Khumayni 1981; al-Mawdudi 1932/80; Qutb 1990

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.


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