Back to Main Page

Contact us


 Author:  John O. Voll

From Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion, ed. Robert Wuthnow. 2 vols.

(Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1998), 383-393.

Beginning as the faith of a small community of believers in Arabia in the seventh century, Islam rapidly became one of the major world religions. The core of this faith is the belief that Muhammad (c. 570-632), a respected businessman in Mecca, a commercial and religious center in western Arabia, received revelations from God that have been preserved in the Qur'an. The heart of this revealed message is the affirmation that "there is no god but Allah (The God), and Muhammad is the messenger of God." The term islam comes from the Arabic word-root s-l-m, which has a general reference to peace and submission. Specifically, Islam means submission to the will of God, and a Muslim is one who makes that submission.

This submission or act of Islam means living a life of faith and practice as defined in the Qur'an and participating in the life of the community of believers. The core of this Islamic life is usually said to be the Five Pillars of Islam: publicly bearing witness to the basic affirmation of faith; saying prescribed prayers five times a day; fasting during the month of Ramadan; giving a tithe or alms for support of the poor; and making a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during the believer's lifetime, if this is possible.

Muslims believe that Islam is the basic monotheistic faith proclaimed by prophets throughout history. The Qur'an is not seen as presenting a new revelation but rather as providing a complete, accurate, and therefore final record of the message that had already been given to Abraham, Jesus, and other earlier prophets. As the basis for a historical community and tradition of faith, however, Islam begins in Mecca with the life and work of Muhammad in the early seventh century.

The Early Community

Muhammad's life as a preacher and leader of a community of believers has two major phases. He proclaimed his message in a city in which the majority did not accept his teachings. Mecca was a major pilgrimage center and sanctuary in the existing polytheism of Arabia, and the proclamation of monotheism threatened this whole system. The message presented in the Meccan period emphasizes the general themes of affirmation of monotheism and warnings of the Day of Judgment. Muhammad did not set out to establish a separate political organization, but the nature of the message represented a major challenge to the basic power structures of Mecca.

The second phase of Muhammad's career and the early life of the Muslim community began when Muhammad accepted an invitation from the people in Yathrib, an oasis north of Mecca, to serve as their arbiter and judge. In 622 Muhammad and his followers moved to Yathrib, and this emigration, or hijrah, is of such significance that Muslims use this date as the beginning of the Islamic calendar. The oasis became known as the City of the Prophet, or simply al-Medina (the city).

In Muslim tradition the sociopolitical community that was created in Medina provides the model for what a truly Islamic state and society should be. In contrast to tribal groups, the new community, or ummah, was open to anyone who made the basic affirmation of faith, and loyalty to the ummah was to supersede any other loyalty, whether to clan, family, or commercial partnership. The political structure of the new community was informal. Although Muhammad had great authority as the messenger of God, he could not assume a position as a sovereign monarch because he was only human and only a messenger. The emphasis on the sole sovereignty of God provides an important foundation for Islamic political thinking throughout the centuries, challenging both theories of monarchy and absolutism, as well as later theories of popular sovereignty.

In this early era the characteristically Islamic sense of the ummah or the community of believers, rather than a concept of church or state, was firmly established as the central institutional identification for Muslims. In this way Islam is frequently described as a way of life rather than as a religion separate from politics or other dimensions of society. In Medina Muhammad provided leadership in all matters of life, but Muslims carefully distinguish the teachings that are the record of revelation and recorded in the Qur'an from the guidance Muhammad provided as a person. Because of his role as the messenger of God, Muhammad's own personal actions and words have special prestige. In addition to the Qur'an, the accounts of these, called hadith, provide the basis for a second source of guidance for believers, the Sunnah (customary practice) of the Prophet.

By the time of Muhammad's death in 632, the new Muslim community was successfully established. Mecca had been defeated and incorporated into the ummah in important ways. The Ka'ba, a shrine in Mecca that had been the center of the polytheistic pilgrimage, was recognized as an altar built by Abraham, and Mecca became both the center of pilgrimage for the new community and the place toward which Muslims faced when they performed their prayers.

Sunni and Shi'i

When Muhammad died, Muslims faced the challenge of creating institutions to preserve the community. Muslims believe that the revelation was completed with the work of Muhammad, who is described as the seal of the prophets. The leaders after Muhammad were described only as khalifahs (caliphs), or successors to the Prophet, and not as prophets themselves. The first four caliphs were companions of the Prophet and their period of rule (632-661) is described by the majority of Muslims as the age of the Rightly Guided Caliphate. This was an era of expansion during which Muslims conquered the Sasanid (Persian) Empire and took control of the North African and Syrian territories of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire. The Muslim community was transformed from a small city-state controlling much of the Arabian Peninsula into a major world empire extending from northwest Africa to central Asia.

This era ended with the first civil war (656-661), in which specific conflicts between particular interest groups provided the foundation for the broader political and theological divisions in the community and the Islamic tradition. The first two caliphs, Abu Bakr and Umar, had been successful in maintaining a sense of communal unity. But tensions within the community surfaced during the era of the third caliph, Uthman, who was from the Umayyad clan. Uthman was murdered in 656 by troops who mutinied over matters of pay and privileges, but the murder was the beginning of a major civil war.

The mutinous troops and others in Medina declared the new caliph to be Ali, a cousin of Muhammad who was an early convert and also the husband of Muhammad's daughter Fatimah (and, therefore, the father of Muhammad's only grandsons, Hasan and Husayn). According to Shi'i Muslim tradition, there were many people who believed that Muhammad had designated Ali as his successor. An Arabic term for faction or party is shi'ah, and the party or shi'ah of Ali emerged clearly during this first civil war. Ali's leadership was first challenged by a group including Aisha, the Prophet's most prominent wife and a daughter of the first caliph, Abu Bakr. Although Ali defeated this group militarily, it represented the tradition that became part of the mainstream majority, or Sunni, tradition in Islam, recognizing that all four of the first four caliphs were rightly guided and legitimate.

Ali faced a major military threat from the Umayyad clan, who demanded revenge for the murder of their kinsman, Uthman. The leader of the Umayyads was Muawiya, the governor of Syria. In a battle between the Umayyad army and the forces of Ali at Siffin in 657, Ali agreed to arbitration. As a result, a group of anti-Umayyad extremists withdrew from Ali's forces and became known as the Kharijites, or seceders, who demanded sinlessness as a quality of their leader and would recognize any pious Muslim as eligible to be the caliph. When Ali was murdered by a Kharijite in 661, most Muslims accepted Muawiya as caliph as a way of bringing an end to the intracommunal violence.

Many later divisions within the Muslim community were to be expressed in terms first articulated during this civil war. The mainstream, or Sunni, tradition reflects a combination of an emphasis on the consensus and piety of the community of the Prophet's companions, as reflected in the views of Aisha and her supporters, and the pragmatism of the Umayyad imperial administrators. The Sunni tradition always reflects the tension between the needs of state stability and the aspirations of a more egalitarian and pietistic religious vision. Shi'i Islam has its beginnings in the party of Ali and the argument that God always provides a special guide, or imam, for humans and that this guide has special characteristics, including being a descendant of the Prophet and having special divine guidance. Leadership and authority rest with this imamate and are not subject to human consensus or pragmatic reasons of state.

The Kharijites represent an extreme pietism that expects sinlessness from its leaders and asserts the right of the pious believer to declare others to be unbelievers. Over the centuries, explicitly Kharijite movements have declined in importance within the Muslim world, and by the late twentieth century were represented by small communities in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. The spirit of puritanical anarchism, however, although always a minority position within the Muslim community, has continued to provide a marginal but significant critique of existing conditions. Activist, sometimes militant, movements of puritanical renewal that exist throughout Islamic history are sometimes accused of being Kharijite in method if not in theology.

Another major period of civil conflict followed the death in 680 of the first Umayyad caliph, Muawiya. The Umayyad victory by 692 affirmed the pragmatic, consensus-oriented approach of the rising Sunni mainstream. Umayyad military power and the emerging pious elite's fear of anarchy resulted in the majoritarian compromise that is fundamental to Sunni views of society, community, and state. There is a tension between the pragmatic needs of soldiers and politicians and the moral aspirations of religious teachers. The Sunni majority usually accepted the necessary compromises, legitimized by the authority of the consensus of the community.

The main opposition to the structures of the new imperial community came from developing Shi'i traditions. Husayn, Ali's son, and a small group of his supporters were killed by an Umayyad army at Karbala in 680, and Husayn became a symbol of pious martyrdom in the path of God.

When the Umayyads were overthrown in the civil war of 744-750, the core of the revolutionary movement was Shi'ah. Piety-minded scholars, who were increasingly opposed to the worldly materialism of the Umayyads, joined the opposition. The organizers of the revolution were supporters of the Abbasids, the family of Abbas, an uncle of the Prophet, and when an Abbasid was proclaimed caliph following the defeat of the Umayyads, the supporters of the line of Ali remained in opposition. The new Abbasid caliphs reestablished the pragmatic compromise with the pious mainstream, and the Abbasid state succeeded as the new version of the Sunni caliphate.

Caliphs, Sultans, and the New Community

The world of Islam continued to expand, even during periods of civil war. By the mid-eighth century, Muslim conquests extended from the Iberian Peninsula to the inner Asian frontiers of China. The new Muslim state was, in many ways, the successor to the imperial systems of Persia and Rome, but the caliphates were clearly identified with Islam. The boundaries of the state and the Muslim community were basically the same, and the rulers, even when they were not known for piety, were still viewed by the majority as the successors to the Prophet.

It was the people of knowledge, or ulama, of the mainstream and not the caliphs who defined Islamic doctrine. Although there were state-appointed judges, Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) was defined by independent ulama. The Sunni majority came to accept four schools of legal thought--the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i, and Hanbali--as legitimate. By the eleventh century the ulama had also compiled authoritative collections of hadith, providing a standard for understanding the Sunnah of the Prophet. In this way, the Sunni tradition developed within the caliphal state but was not identical to it.

By the middle of the tenth century, the effective political and military power of the Abbasid caliphs had been greatly reduced. Power shifted to the military commanders who frequently took the title of sultan, meaning authority or power. The Abbasid caliphs continued to reside in Baghdad and provided formal recognition to sultans. Increasingly, military leadership was Turkish. Turks had come to the Middle East from Central Asia as slaves and mercenaries, but by the eleventh century there was a significant migration of Turkish peoples into the region. In 1055 Turks, under the leadership of the Seljuqs, took control of Baghdad and established a major sultanate in cooperation with the Abbasid caliphs. The new Seljuq sultanate represented a reorganization of Muslim institutions with great patronage for the ulama and establishment of the sultanate as the legitimate political system. This caliph-based sultanate system came to an end when the Mongols invaded the Middle East and conquered Baghdad in 1258.

In the era of the decline of the Sunni caliphate, Shi'i influence increased. During the eighth century Ja'far al-Sadiq, the sixth imam in the line of succession from Ali, provided the first fully comprehensive statement of Shi'i beliefs that became the basis for subsequent Shi'i mainstream groups. He provided opposition-ideology to the Sunni definition of the community but did not advocate revolution or virulent opposition to the Abbasids. The role of the imam was emphasized, and by the middle of the tenth century the moderate Shi'i mainstream accepted the imamate as spiritual and eschatological guide. This view defined a succession of twelve imams, the last of whom would enter a state of occultation and return as a messiah, or mahdi, in the future. The willingness to postpone expectations of a truly Islamic society until that return is an important part of Twelve-Imam (ithna ashari) Shi'ism. A minority maintained a more radical opposition, calling for messianic revolt, and identified with Ismail, a son of Sadiq who was not recognized by the Shi'i majority as being in the succession of imams. Ismaili Shi'ism provided the basis for the Fatimid movement in North Africa, which conquered Egypt in the tenth century and established a powerful Shi'i caliphate that lasted for more than two hundred years.

The fall of Baghdad to the Mongols did not mean the end of the sultanates. The military commanders continued to rule as sultans, even in the absence of caliphs, working with ulama and popular societal associations. This system of rule by military commanders without caliphs but identified as defenders and supporters of Islam became common in many parts of the Muslim world. The Mongol advance had been stopped by the Mamluk commanders of Egypt. Mamluks were legally slaves, and in the crisis of the thirteenth century, the commanders simply took control of the state and created a distinctive, self-perpetuating slave elite that ruled Egypt and much of Syria until the early sixteenth century.

In northern India Turkish slave-soldiers established the Delhi Sultanate, and in Anatolia remnants of the Seljuq state provided a basis for a number of Turkish military states, including the Ottomans, who gradually came to dominate the region. Even the Mongol commanders in the Middle East and Central Asia, often with the title of khan rather than sultan, converted to Islam and ruled sultanate-style states. In North Africa caliphal authority had been supplanted in the eleventh and twelfth centuries by first the Almoravids (Murabitun) and then the Almohads (Muwahhidun). Successor states in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia were more in the sultanate model.

Although the Muslim world was no longer politically unified, the era of the sultanates was a time of creativity and dynamism when the classical formulations of many aspects of Islamic faith and community were fully articulated. The schools of Islamic law were consolidated and supported by the rulers, and standard texts came to be used throughout the Muslim world.

The traditions of mystic piety, called Sufism in the Islamic world, were formulated in works of people like Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111), who promoted acceptance of inner spirituality as an important part of Islamic life, and Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240), who extended Sufism with a more pantheistic outlook that became the heart of subsequent presentations of Muslim mysticism. More puritanical renewalism received a classic articulation in the works of Ahmad Ibn Taimiyya (1263-1328), who argued that rulers who did not strictly rule in accord with Islamic law should be considered infidels and opposed by jihad if necessary. He defined this position in opposition to the newly converted Mongol rulers of the early fourteenth century, but his works have been an inspiration to many later activist movements.

Spread of Islam

From the end of the effective power of the caliphs in the tenth century to the beginning of the sixteenth, the size of the Muslim world almost doubled. The vehicles for expansion were not conquering armies so much as traveling merchants and itinerant teachers. In Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa, in Central Asia, and in the many different societies in the Indian Ocean basin, a growing number of people came to be included within the world community of Islam.

Islamization usually involved an increasing familiarity with the basic texts and teachings of Islam and an awareness of being part of a larger community of believers. In contrast to early expansion in the Middle East, where monotheistic faiths like Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism were well established, much of this later growth was in areas where faith traditions were polytheistic or naturalistic. As Muslim teachers and merchants interacted with local rulers, they helped transform political systems that had been based on divine rule or rulers with special naturalistic powers and obligations. In the courts of Java and West Africa, as well as among the shamans of Central Asia, the coming of Islam changed both political structures and popular faith. Often this involved incorporating local beliefs and customs that created distinctive local Muslim communities within the intercontinental community of believers.

Devotional teachers were also important in the world of the sultanates. The spiritual life associated with Sufism came to be institutionalized in organizations identified by the devotional paths, or tariqahs, of famous Sufis. One of the earliest of these was the Qadiriyya Tariqah, tracing itself back to Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani in twelfth-century Baghdad. Because they were tied to popular piety, tariqahs often served to meld local practices with Islamic ideas, and the brotherhoods were a major force in the gradual Islamization of many societies.

By the end of the fifteenth century the Muslim world was very different from what it had been at the height of Abbasid power. No single state could be identified, even in theory, with the whole community of believers. Although the society and culture of the early caliphates were primarily Middle Eastern, the Islamic world of the fifteenth century brought together peoples from different civilizations and nonurban societies. Islam was no longer a faith identified with a particular world region; it had become more universal and cosmopolitan in its articulation and in the nature of the community of believers.

Early Modern Expansion and Transformation

The Muslim world continued to expand in the early modern era. A broad belt of societies undergoing Islamization stretched across the Eastern Hemisphere. More than seven centuries of Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula came to an end in 1492 with the completion of the Spanish Christian reconquest. Elsewhere, however, new states and social institutions consolidated the gains of previous centuries and initiated a new wave of growth. Eventually, interaction with the rising states of Europe brought conflict on a global scale, with European military victory but continued conversion of peoples and societies to Islam.

A number of major Islamic states emerged during the sixteenth century. The largest was the Ottoman Empire, which had been expanding from its original base as a Turkish warrior state in western Anatolia. Ottoman forces conquered Constantinople in 1453 and Syria and Egypt in 1516-1517. Under the rule of Sultan Sulayman the Magnificent, virtually all of the Balkan Peninsula became part of the empire in the sixteenth century. In South Asia, Babur, a Central Asian military adventurer, used gunpowder to defeat the Delhi Sultanate and establish the foundations for the Mughal empire. By the end of the reign of Babur's grandson, Akbar, in 1605, the Mughals ruled virtually all of India.

Small military states in Iran were conquered by a new movement, the Safavids. Under Ismail al-Safavi, who proclaimed himself Shah in 1501, the movement was transformed from a Sufi-style organization to a dynastic state. Twelver Shi'ism was proclaimed the official religion and, although most Iranians had been Sunni, Shi'ism soon became the religion of the general population as well.

The empires of Mali and Songhay in West Africa, the merchant city-states of East Africa, the expansion of the Uzbek state under Shaybanid leadership, and the sultanates of the peninsulas and islands of Southeast Asia all reflect the political and social influence of Islamization by the sixteenth century.

By the seventeenth century this picture started to change as empires began to weaken in the face of war and internal strife. Ottoman expansion ceased in the seventeenth century, and the empire lost wars and territories to expanding European states. The Safavids' empire came to an end when Nadir, a military commander, assumed the title of shah. Nadir Shah was militarily successful, but his state collapsed after his death in 1747. The Mughals faced similar internal conflicts, revolts by non-Muslims, and ultimately, conquest by the British. Elsewhere, smaller Muslim states also suffered from civil wars and conquests by outside forces.

During the next two centuries, most of the Muslim world came under direct or indirect European control, and cultural life was increasingly shaped by European influences, although there were important movements of Islamic renewal that also had long-term significance.

European expansion in Muslim areas was relatively limited during the eighteenth century. The Ottoman Empire lost territories, but the continued existence of the empire itself was never in question. In the Indian Ocean basin Islamization continued alongside European expansion. The rise of the Muslim states in Southeast Asia had stopped Portuguese expansion. The Dutch and British often worked with local rulers, and the network of Malay sultanates was preserved by imperial rule. Mughal sultans still ruled even as they lost much effective power to local princes and the British East India Company. Muslim societies in Central Asia were gradually being conquered by the neighboring Russian and Chinese empires in a sequence completed by the end of the nineteenth century. Large Muslim states in West Africa collapsed primarily as a result of internal developments.

Movements of self-conscious reform developed during this transition. Within the Ottoman Empire, leaders like the grand viziers from the Kuprulu family tried to restore administrative and military effectiveness through reform. Some local Ottoman governors also worked to create more efficient and relatively autonomous administrations. In these efforts Islam provided only the background for the political system as a whole. But throughout the Muslim world, there were also movements of reform with explicitly Islamic programs of renewal.

Movements of renewal have been a long-standing part of Islamic history. By the eighteenth century there was a broad repertoire of traditions that Islamically based reform efforts could draw on. In some areas, as Islamization continued, syncretist adaptations would be rejected as non-Islamic by scholars more familiar with the more universal forms of Islam. Scholars who had been on pilgrimage often would oppose local customs on their return. Sometimes this would lead to open conflict with authorities whose position reflected the syncretism of earlier stages of Islamization.

In West Africa a tradition of renewalist jihad developed during the eighteenth century, reaching a climax with the efforts of Uthman Dan Fodio (1754-1817), whose holy war of reform resulted in the establishment of the caliphate of Sokoto in northern Nigeria and a network of related renewalist principalities. One of the last of these jihads was proclaimed by al-Hajj Umar in 1852. Although it began as a more traditional renewalist movement, it soon became a part of the new, nineteenth-century pattern of conflict with European imperialism. Similar movements of reformist jihad, often associated with tariqahs, were established in western China and Southeast Asia.

Scholars interpreted the message of Islamic reform in ways significant even through the twentieth century. In the Arabian Peninsula Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703- 1792) presented an absolutist vision of reform based on a strict interpretation of the Qur'an in the tradition of Ibn Taimiyya. He was supported by a local prince, Muhammad Ibn Saud, laying the foundations for the Saudi state in Arabia and the Wahhabi style of reformism. In south Asia Shah Wali Allah of Delhi attempted a broad synthesis of traditional Muslim legal thought and hadith scholarship. His vision of socio-moral reconstruction inspired generations of south Asia scholars, and his influence is still visible in twentieth- century Muslim intellectual movements. Ahmad Ibn Idris (d.1837), a North African scholar in Mecca, emphasized the importance of Sufi spiritual piety and organization. His students established a number of tariqahs, like the Sanusiyyah and the Khatmiyyah, that gave birth to organizations of social cohesion, resistance to European imperial expansion, and twentieth-century political parties.

Imperialism and Reform

During the nineteenth century European expansion became an increasingly important force in Muslim societies. Many observers identify the ease with which Napoleon conquered Egypt in 1798 as a symbol of the new era. The major states that remained independent undertook a wide range of reforms, although these were not generally defined in explicitly Islamic terms. Ottoman state reforms began with attempts by Selim III to institute a Nizam-i cedid, or "New System," of military and bureaucratic organization. Although he was overthrown in 1807, his successor, Mahmud II, significantly changed both military and administrative institutions. At his death in 1839 Mahmud's successor Abdall-Majid issued an imperial proclamation that enhanced the secular and more liberal aspects of reform as a part of the Tanzimat (reorganization), which led to promulgation of the Ottoman Constitution of 1876. Although advocates of these reforms at times tried to show that they were not contrary to Islam, the programs were not presented as Islamic reform.

In Egypt, Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman governor after French withdrawal, initiated similar reforms, and by the second half of the century, Egypt was virtually independent and undergoing major sociopolitical transformations. Iran was reunified by the conquests of the Qajar dynasty in the 1790s. Qajar Iran remained independent, but the leadership did not initiate significant systematic reforms. Reform did not prevent continued military losses to European powers. Britain occupied Egypt in 1882, the Ottomans lost other territories in the Balkans and North Africa, and Iran was politically and economically dominated by European powers by the end of the century.

The most effective direct resistance to European expansion came from Islamic organizations, although they were also unsuccessful. In West Africa the jihad tradition became an important part of resistance to European expansion, as can be seen in the wars of al-Hajj Umar and his Tijaniyyah forces. In Algeria it was the Amir Abd al-Qadir, with his Qadiriyya organization, that led the strongest opposition to the French invasion in 1830.

In the Caucasus opposition to Russian expansion was strongest from the Naqshbandiyyah, led by the imam Shamil, and at the end of the century, the most visible war against imperialists was the jihad of Muhammad ibn Abdallah in Somalia. The Mahdi in Sudan led a holy war that successfully drove out the modernized Egyptian army, defeated British-led forces, and established a state that lasted from 1884 to 1898, when it was reconquered by Anglo-Egyptian forces. This tradition of resistance continued into the twentieth century, when the Sanusiyyah provided the only effective resistance to the Italian invasion of Libya.

The old-style resistance of the brotherhoods did not create an effective alternative to European expansion in either military or intellectual terms. Intellectual and ideological responses developed during the second half of the nineteenth century. Some of these were Western in style and represented the beginnings of nationalism, but others were more explicitly Islamic. The ideal of pan-Islamic unity was expressed by a number of people, most importantly in the work of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838 or 1839-1897) and, in official terms, by the policies of the Ottoman sultan at the end of the century, Abd al-Hamid II.

The major new development was the emergence of Islamic modernism, in which people in a number of areas worked to create an effective synthesis of Islam and modernity. Muhammad Abduh in Egypt argued that faith and reason were compatible and that Islam was a reason-based faith. He and his student, Rashid Rida, published al-Manar, a journal that helped to inspire modernist groups from Morocco to Indonesia. In India Sayyid Ahmad Khan led another major modernist trend, which emphasized the compatibility of scientific understandings of nature with Islam and established a college in Aligarh which combined Islamic and modern Western studies.

The Jadid movement developed in the Russian Empire under the inspiration of Ismail Gasprinskii, whose periodical Tarjuman was widely read. The Jadid curriculum for schools combined Russian and Muslim traditions. Islamic modernists tended to accept the realities of European military domination, working to reform Muslim societies from within and create a synthesis that could be both effectively modern and authentically Islamic.

Muslims in the Twentieth Century

World War I was the beginning of a new era in the history of Islam. The last of the older Muslim political systems came to an end in the aftermath of the war. The Ottoman Empire, which had been allied with Germany, was defeated and occupied, and the sultanate was formally abolished as a part of the reforms of the new Turkish nationalism led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The Qajar dynasty in Iran was overthrown and, although the monarchy was retained, Reza Shah, the new leader, worked to create a new state system.

Both Kemal Ataturk and Reza Shah were secularists who worked to limit the influence of Islamic institutions. In most of the rest of the Muslim world, similar Westernizing reform and the development of more secularist nationalism dominated. In this, Islam was not rejected but it did not define the central concerns of emerging Arab nationalism in the Fertile Crescent or of Egyptian nationalism under Sa'd Zaghloul.

In the period between the two world wars, some explicitly Islamic movements emerged, but they usually developed in the context of more secular radicalism or nationalism. Islamic perspectives ranged from those of the Communist intellectual, Mir Said Sultangaliev, whose efforts to create a national communism for Muslims within the revolutionary movement ended when he was purged by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, to the Manar-influenced Association of Algerian Ulama, which protested the growth of a French-inspired intellectual elite in North Africa and sought to affirm the Islamic base of Algerian culture.

Indian Muslims began to define their communal identity in terms of Indian nationalism. Some like Abu al-Kalam Azad worked closely with the Indian National Congress Party and advocated Hindu-Muslim nationalist cooperation. At the end of World War I Azad and others mobilized Muslim opinion through the Khalifat movement supporting the preservation of the Ottoman caliphate and working with the National Congress in opposition to British imperial policy. Other Indian Muslims began to define themselves as a separate community, which ultimately led to the partition of India when it achieved independence in 1947 and the creation of the Muslim state of Pakistan. A leader in this movement was Muhammad Iqbal, who was also important in the continuing development of Islamic modernist thought, further synthesizing Western philosophy and Islamic thought.

In a few isolated areas states maintained older Islamic traditions of rule in the 1920s-1930s. In southern Arabia Zaydi Shi'i imams ruled with the support of conservative mountain peoples in Yemen, and the Kharijite state of the sultans of Oman continued. In central Arabia the Wahhabi religious and political tradition was revived under the leadership of Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud (c. 1888-1953), whose conquests in the first three decades of the century created the basis for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Neither nationalist nor modernist, the new Saudi state was a distinctive attempt to carry out a strict interpretation of traditional Islamic law.

New movements advocating a more direct adoption of Islam in modern society also developed. Their followers came from the modern educated elements in society, and their leadership was not explicitly ulama in background. Among the most important of these movements were the Muslim Brotherhood, established in Egypt in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949), and the Jama'at-i Islami (Islamic Society), founded in India in 1941 under the leadership of Mawlana Abu al-Ala Mawdudi (1903-1979). These groups, and others like them, opposed the more traditional, popular Islamic practices and conservative ulama, as well as criticized the secularism of the Westernizers. They argued that Islam defined a whole way of life and should be applied in economics and politics as well as in individual religious life.

In the second half of the twentieth century Muslim societies became politically independent as the era of European imperialism came to an end. A final step in this process was the end of the Soviet Union and the emergence of new states in Muslim-majority areas of the old Russian Empire in the 1990s. Nationalism and the rise of Western-style radicalism were the most visible political dynamics in the first three decades after World War II as states in the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia gained their independence. In the already independent states of Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, political patterns established in the interwar era continued, with Turkey committed to upholding a democratic Kemalism, Iran to continuing Reza Shah's Westernizing reforms under the leadership of his son, Muhammad Reza Shah, and Saudi Arabia to maintaining its strict Islamist approach in the new context of great wealth from the sale of oil.

In some of the newly independent states, socially conservative interpretations of Islam legitimized monarchies. In Morocco, Jordan, Oman, and Malaysia, these monarchies continued through the end of the century, although monarchies were overthrown by more secular and radical movements in Egypt (1952), Tunisia (1957), Iraq (1958), Yemen (1962), and Afghanistan (1973). In Iran the monarchy was overthrown in 1979 by an Islamic revolution, a major indication of the resurgence of political Islam in the late twentieth century. In other areas older elites were also overthrown or displaced by newer and frequently more ideologically radical groups. By the 1960s Western-style radicalism was the most dynamic element in the politics of the newly independent Muslim world. The most visible leaders were people like Sekou Toure in Guinea, Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, and Sukarno in Indonesia and parties like the National Liberation Front, which spearheaded the war for Algerian independence, and the Ba'th (Arab Socialist) Party in Syria and Iraq.

This new radicalism did not directly reject Islam. It often attempted to include Islamic images in its platforms, sometimes talking about Islamic socialism, but the creation of Islamic societies or implementation of Qur'anic rules was not a prominent feature of ideologies or programs.

Rise of Islamist Movements

Movements with primarily Islamic identification existed, but with less political influence. Pakistan, as an explicitly Islamic state, was unable to develop a clear constitutional self-definition. Internal divisions led to a civil war in 1971 and the secession of Bengal as independent Bangladesh. The Jama'at-i Islami continued to advocate its Islamist program and was respected but had limited political influence.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt cooperated briefly with the new military revolutionaries led by Nasser, but they were suppressed in 1954. In the 1960s the Brotherhood message was reshaped into more radical terms by Sayyid Qutb, who condemned Westernized societies as being ruled by sinful ignorance (jahiliyyah) and called for jihad against existing states in Muslim societies. Qutb was executed in 1966, but his writings laid the foundation for a new generation of underground Muslim revolutionaries. During the 1970s movements like Islamic Jihad and Takfir wal-Hijrah in Egypt may have differed in doctrinal specifics from Qutb, but they followed his mode of analysis. In many areas of the Muslim world, Qutb helped to define Islamic revolution.

There were other Muslim movements of revolutionary opposition to the establishment of the nationalist and sometimes socialist states. The Darul Islam movement in Indonesia fought a jihad against the new state from 1948 until its founder's execution in 1962. In Iran the Fida'iyan-i Islam was created in 1945, advocating a strict application of Islamic law and engaging in a series of terrorist assassinations. The organization ended with the execution of its founder in 1956, but former members were a part of later militant antigovernment groups.

Other Islamic organizations opposed to the increasing secularism and Westernization of Muslim societies adopted methods of education and mission to transform and Islamize societies. One of the largest Muslim associations in the world is the Tablighi Jama'at (in Urdu, "Party which Propagates"), which began as a devotional and educational organization in northern India in the 1920s. After World War II the movement spread rapidly throughout the world among Muslims in Western Europe and North America, as well as in Muslim societies. Many of the established Sufi orders have also adapted themselves to the conditions of modern society and quietly grew to be large devotional associations in virtually every Muslim community. In the United States a major movement developed among African Americans that was self-identified as Muslim, but this Nation of Islam association created by Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975) was not recognized as Islamic by most Muslims because of its distinctive doctrines of black separatism. But Malcolm X, a major figure in the movement, broke with its leaders in the mid-1960s and espoused a more mainstream Islamic perspective. When Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, he was succeeded by his son, Imam Warith Deen Muhammad, who transformed the movement into a clearly Sunni Muslim one. A smaller organization led by Louis Farrakhan continued to advocate the older black nationalist and separatist beliefs.

The Islamic Resurgence

A new Islamic spirit of renewal gained increasing visibility in the final quarter of the twentieth century. The most dramatic manifestation of this was the Islamic revolution in Iran. Secular and Islamic opposition to the autocratic rule of the shah increased in intensity during the 1970s. Leftist definitions of resistance had little appeal, and opponents increasingly mobilized around Islamic aspirations. Ali Shariati, who died under suspicious circumstances in 1977, presented a call for a rejection of state Shi'ism, advocating an egalitarian program of social justice that some saw as an Islamic form of Marxism.

The central figure of the revolution and the republic it created was Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini. He declared the possibility of an authentically Islamic state, even in the absence of the imam, if it represented the rule of the Islamic legal scholars (wilayat al-faqih). The constitution of the new republic created a system that survived a series of major political crises, including a long and costly war with Iraq in the 1980s and the death of Khomeini in 1989. Political life was strictly controlled, and minorities and opposition groups were suppressed. But within the limitations of the constitution, there was a remarkable degree of debate and disagreement over policy, which was confirmed in the presidential elections of 1997, when an advocate of a more open but still Islamically committed line of policy decisively defeated a more hard-line candidate supported by the more conservative clergy.

As leftist ideologies and nationalist state policies proved ineffective in coping with the social, economic, and political transformations of the late twentieth century, there was a significant shift to more Islamically oriented approaches throughout the Muslim world. This frequently was centered in movements of modern-educated professionals and students that neither advocated Qutb-style jihad nor accepted conservative ulama leadership. They viewed Islam as providing a comprehensive program for society but generally worked for the gradual Islamization of state and society rather than a revolutionary overthrow of existing institutions.

A variety of Islamic groups developed in Egypt that were separate from the Muslim Brotherhood although similar in aspirations. Former student militants became leaders of professional syndicates in the mid-1980s and helped to direct official policy and general public opinion in a more openly Islamic direction. In Malaysia the Islamic student movement ABIM was an important force on campuses, and in the 1980s its leader, Anwar Ibrahim, became a major political figure in the leading political coalition. The Islamic Tendency Movement in Tunisia gained political influence during the 1980s under the leadership of Rashid al-Ghanoushi. Although it was suppressed and its leadership jailed or exiled, in its reorganized form as the Nahda Party in the late 1980s and 1990s, al-Ghanoushi and most of the movement continued to advocate democratic participation rather than violent revolution.

In Algeria the emergence of political Islam as a major force took place quite rapidly when the National Liberation Front, facing demands for greater political participation, agreed to hold competitive elections. The Islamic Salvation Front won municipal elections in 1990 and was on the verge of gaining control of the national parliament when a military coup suspended the election in 1992. Throughout the 1990s open conflict between government and Islamist forces caused more than sixty thousand deaths.

Among Palestinian activists an Islamist movement, Hamas, developed alongside the long-established Palestine Liberation Organization led by Yasir Arafat (1929- ) and won significant support among those who mistrusted Arafat for his willingness to negotiate with Israel. Even in Turkey, where religion-based political parties are illegal, the Welfare Party, which advocated a greater formal Islamization of Turkish life, won more than 20 percent of the vote in national elections in 1996, and, in a highly divided electorate, its leader, Nejmettim Erbakan, served as prime minister in a coalition government until pressure from the Kemalist Turkish military forced him to resign in 1997.

The only country outside of Iran in which an Islamist movement came to power was Sudan. The Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood had been organized in the early 1950s and had participated actively in the politics of the parliamentary periods in 1956-1958 and 1964-1969 but had never had much electoral success. As an active political party in the third era of multiparty politics (1985-1989), the Brotherhood, reorganized as the National Islamic Front, was an important but minority force, winning about 20 percent of the votes. The military coup in 1989 was led by Islamically oriented officers who soon became closely identified with the front and its leader, Hasan al-Turabi. Turabi had an international reputation as an imaginative advocate of renewal and rethinking the foundations of Islamic law. He helped the regime establish a system of elective consultative councils and application of Islamic law, but the suppression of minorities and opposition in a brutal civil war raised doubts about the long-term Islamic significance of the Sudanese experience.

The New Islamists

In the 1980s and 1990s, the position of Islamic activist movements and advocates of greater Islamization of public and private life changed dramatically. In the heyday of radical socialism in the 1960s, such groups were marginal. In the 1970s they came to be viewed in many areas as a dangerous militant minority that could disrupt society through terrorism. But by the 1980s, political Islam had become an important part of the mainstream of politics in the Muslim world. The threat of groups like Nahda in Tunisia and the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria was that they might be able, through democratic processes, to win the support of a majority and gain control of governments.

At the end of the twentieth century the Muslim world continued to change under the influence of a new generation of Islamically active intellectuals. In the new thinking there was still an emphasis on the importance of the Islamic message for all aspects of life, but this did not mean an adherence to older, comprehensive political programs or a demand for uniformity in acceptance of Islamic ideals. Muslim intellectuals accepted pluralism in a global context, not just as a practical necessity but as a positive aspect of life, and were open to historical, critical analysis of the foundations of the faith and the Islamic tradition.

In Iran Abd al-Karim Soroush, who supported the Islamic revolution and republic, argued that Islam should provide values and norms for all of life but should not be turned into a political ideology. A Syrian intellectual, Shahrur, wrote a widely read and influential analysis of the sources of Islamic law in terms of their historical context and evolution. Some older scholars whose work received little attention became more visible. Mohammed Arkoun, an Algerian living in Paris, criticized both the tyranny of old-style reason and the rigidity of religious fundamentalism. Egyptian philosopher Hasan Hanafi had been working since the 1960s to define an Islamic theology of liberation, and his critical methodological approach received increasing attention by the 1990s. Sudanese thinker Mahmoud Muhammad Taha presented a dramatic reinterpretation of the Islamic experience, distinguishing between the general principles presented in the revelation, which are universally applicable, and the specific rules that in his view were meant to be applied only in particular circumstances. After his execution for apostasy by Jafar Numayri in 1985, a growing number of Muslims have been influenced by at least some aspects of his thought.

Some of the new thinkers come from Muslim minority communities whose works can now be read by Muslims throughout the world. For example, the writings of Farid Esack, a South African Muslim who was active in the African National Congress's struggle against apartheid, are gaining visibility.

The Islamic experience over the centuries provides a rich repertoire out of which social institutions and political systems can be created, and Muslim societies in the modern era vary in their interpretations of that repertoire. Even specific movements like Islamist renewals are not monolithic or identical. But despite these differences, all Muslims continued to affirm the basic core of the faith in monotheism as defined by the revelation to Muhammad and preserved in the Qur'an.

See also al-Afghani, Jamal al-Din; Ahmad Khan, Sir Sayyid; Algeria; Ataturk, Kemal; Banna, Hasan al-; Crusades; Egypt; Ibn Taimiyya; India; Indonesia; Iqbal, Muhammad; Iran; Jihad; Khomeini, Ruholla Musavi; Mahdi; Malaysia; Mawdudi; Mecca; Morocco; Muhammad; Muslim encounters with the West; Nasser, Gamal Abdel; Nation of Islam; Pakistan; Qutb, Sayyid; Sudan; Sufism; Sukarno, Achmad; Syria; Turkey.


Abu-Rabi, Ibrahim M. Intellectual Origins of Islamic Resurgence in the Modern Arab World. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.
Ahmed, Akbar S. Discovering Islam: Making Sense of Muslim History and Society. London: Routledge, 1988.
Esposito, John L. Islam, The Straight Path. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Hodgson, Marshall G.lS. The Venture of Islam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.
Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Keddie, Nikki R. Roots of Revolution: An Interpretive History of Modern Iran. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.
Lapidus, Ira. A History of Islamic Societies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Lee, Robert D. Overcoming Tradition and Modernity: The Search for Islamic Authenticity. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1997.
Lewis, Bernard. Islam and the West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Rahnema, Ali, ed. Pioneers of Islamic Revival. London: Zed, 1994.
Voll, John Obert. Islam, Continuity, and Change in the Modern World. 2d ed. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1994.



Back to Comments On Dr. Soroush