• Follow us on
  • twitter
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Google Plus

Book of the month

The Many Faces of Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Muslim World

By Mohammed Ayoob

Book review by Robert D. Lee

Robert Lee is Professor of Political Science at Colorado College and author of the forthcoming Religion and Politics in the Middle East (Westview.)

Buy this book >

Since the Iranian revolution and especially since September 11, 2001, scholars have been seeking to explain the relationship between that tiny fraction of the world's Muslim population that engages in politically-motivated violence and the much larger part of that population that does not. In the eyes of many Westerners, it is a matter of distinguishing "bad" Muslims from "good."

In a concise and precise little book, Professor Mohammed Ayoob has contributed to that project. He starts by clarifying commonplace distinctions, such as between ordinary Muslims and Islamists, and between Sunni and Shi'i, and then moves beyond these categorizations to argue that ideas, organizations, and states that appear similar are actually quite different from one another.

Professor Ayoob begins with a distinction that has become fundamental and common: the distinction between Islamists and ordinary Muslims. He defines political Islam "as a form of instrumentalization of Islam by individuals, groups, and organizations that pursue political objectives." Islamists are those who advocate or practice "political Islam," and they constitute some significant minority of all Muslims.

Then, still following convention, Ayoob makes a general distinction between the Sunni world, where Islamists have by and large opposed official religious establishments (the ulema), and the Shi'i dominated countries, such as Iran and Iraq, where a part of the clerical class has promoted politicization of religion and taken on leadership roles in movements and governments. He notes that most Islamists, whether Sunni or Shi'i, eschew violence as a means of influencing politics.

Ayoob moves from these standard distinctions to some that are less commonly made, and he does so with a series of comparisons between: 1) Iran and Saudi Arabia, two states that consider themselves "Islamic"; 2) Islamist movements in Pakistan and Egypt, the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood respectively; 3) two states, Turkey and Indonesia, that might be considered "Muslim democracies"; 4) Islamist organizations, Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine, which oscillate between constructive political action and violence; and 4) three versions of transnational Islamism — Tablighi Jamaat, Hizb al-Tahrir, and al-Qaeda.

Most Islamist organizations proclaim a desire to establish an Islamic state. They speak as if there were a single model. Yet two self-proclaimed Islamic states, Iran and Saudi Arabia, differ from each other in important ways. Saudi Arabia is a monarchy, in which a religious establishment of sectarian origins has allied itself with Saud family rule on the condition that all actions flow from the Sharia, a concept of law developed by Muslim legal scholars on the basis of the Qur'an and the wisdom and practice of the Prophet. As holders of military power, the Saud family is the dominant partner in that relationship.

In contrast, the leader of the 1979 revolution in Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini, denounced monarchy and proposed an unprecedented theory, vilayat-i faqih, the governance of the supreme jurisprudent. As Ayoob observes, the regime has established institutions to assure the compliance of all legislation with Islamic legality, even though there is no precedent in Islamic law for the Iranian constitution, which combines elements of the Western parliamentary system with Khomeini's theory of vilayat-i faqih.

Ayoob concludes his analysis of these countries:

The two cases of state formation and centralization of authority in self-proclaimed Islamic states demonstrate clearly that Islam is filtered through a number of variables that mediate and, in the process, modify Islamic norms and values. (p. 48)

He notes that relations between these two "Islamic states" have often been rocky.

In relatively few pages, Ayoob lays out the basic ideas of three important Sunni ideologues: Abul Ala Mawdudi, founder of the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) in Pakistan; Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt; and Sayyid Qutb, who, after the assassination of al-Banna, became the Brotherhood's leading thinker. Martyred by Gamal Abdel al-Nasser in 1966, Qutb's thought became the theoretical foundation for some of the radical spin-offs of the Brotherhood, one of which was responsible for assassinating Anwar Sadat. Other spin-off groups spread havoc in Egypt in the 1990s.

After tracing similarities between the thinkers and between the movements, Professor Ayoob returns to making distinctions. Both the JI and the MB evolved into political parties of the "vanguard type" first projected by Lenin. That they diverged in strategy is to be explained by the different political structures of Pakistan and Egypt. For example, the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood accepted liberation from prison after Anwar al-Sadat took power in Egypt in 1970 in return for a promise the MB would work within the political system. Never officially legalized or recognized as a political party, the MB has nonetheless become the principal opposition to, and at the same time a prop for, the Egyptian regime. It enjoys support within the official religious establishment. Ayoob says the comparison shows "how much context matters in Islamist politics" (p. 89).

Like Pakistan and Egypt, Indonesia and Turkey have struggled for decades over the place of Islam in their political systems. Both have experienced authoritarianism with secular proclivities for significant portions of their recent history. Mainstream, non-violent Islamist movements have played influential roles in both countries, and, by virtue of their political success, have effectively marginalized violent fringe groups. In each country there seems to be increased popular comfort with Islamism as a force in democratic politics. Yet, with Turkey seeking admittance to the European Union, the countries remain so different in aspiration that it is difficult to extract a single model of "Muslim Democracy" from their experiences.

Ayoob sees Hizbullah and Hamas as products of the failure of Arab nationalism, dramatized by Israel's defeat of three Arab states in the Six Day War of June 1967. These organizations fashioned religious-nationalist appeals; they combined efforts to provide social services to their respective constituencies with a willingness to resort to violence. Today Hizbullah plays a key role in the Lebanese parliament even as it declines to disband its militia, which fought Israel as recently as the summer of 2006. Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections but continues to insist on the need for military victory over Israel. The similarities are striking, but Ayoob observes: "Hamas remains as much a Palestinian phenomenon as Hizbullah is a Lebanese phenomenon" (p. 101). Hamas' path is closely linked to Israeli policy and actions, just as the nature and behavior of Hizbullah reflects the ongoing struggle for control of Lebanon between pro- and anti-Syrian forces.

As if these distinctions were not sufficient to show why similar things prove on close inspection to be quite different, Ayoob turns to transnational Islam, which has become most closely identified with terrorism. Here he compares and contrasts the Tablighi Jamaat, a venerable organization of Indian origin that carries out a worldwide mission that is "more spiritual than political" with Hizb al-Tahrir and al-Qaeda (p. 137).

Transnational Islam is not necessarily jihadist. Hizb al-Tahrir seeks to create a "caliphate" for the Muslim world as a whole. While its aim might seem consistent with the objectives of al-Qaeda, in fact Hizb al-Tahrir is content to wait for the caliphate to materialize, while al-Qaeda, frustrated in its efforts to undermine governments in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, seeks to destabilize the world as a whole by attacking the United States. (Ayoob wonders whether al-Qaeda deserves to be called 'a network, a franchise, or something more nebulous.' ) (p. 149)

Ayoob argues persuasively that Islamism must be understood primarily as a "national phenomenon." National governments have created space for Islamism by suppressing secular opposition. Islamists have internalized the importance of the nation-state. Transnational Islamism is the exception to the rule, but even transnational Islam can be understood as an offshoot of nationalist politics in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, and elsewhere.

I would argue, in addition, that Islamism is a national phenomenon because Muslim states have sought to tame Islam for their particular purposes. They have shaped Islamic establishments to support national identities and ideologies, and in doing so they have provoked Islamist opposition and/or collaboration. In this sense, Islam itself (and not just Islamism) has become increasingly a "national phenomenon".

In a concluding chapter, Ayoob argues for a recalibration of American policy toward the Muslim world in the light of the distinctions he has made. Each country and each movement deserves individual consideration. Islamists are not all alike and certainly not all "bad" — or all "good" for that matter.

Professor Ayoob has written carefully and wisely. The book is not likely to make the bestseller lists but it deserves wide use in the classroom. The writing, accurate and clear though not elegant, should be readily accessible to undergraduates as well as to policy makers and that limited American public that is attuned to the subtleties of foreign affairs.

Back to the top.



Turkey under Erdoğan: Is it Still a Model of “Islamic Democracy”?

Report of the Panel organized by the New York University Center for Dialogues

Download the PDF


The Growing Divide between the Sunni and Shia Worlds

Report of the Conference organized by the New York University Center for Dialogues

Download the PDF


The University And The Nation

Report of the conference

Download the PDF in English

Download the PDF in French


The “Arab Spring”: Does Academic Freedom Matter?

Report of the Panel Discussion Organized By The new York University Center For Dialogues: Islamic World — U.S. — The West And The Scholars At Risk Network

Download the PDF>


The Future of U.S. Policy Toward Iran: Reimagining the Relationship

Report of the panel dsicussion.

Download the PDF


“Tunisia: The Last Hope of the ‘Arab Spring’? ”

Report of the panel dsicussion.

Download the PDF


Courage to Think: Intellectual Freedom in Tunisia and the Arab Spring

Report of the panel discussion

Read the report online here >

Download the PDF >


Miral: A Palestinian/Israeli Dialogue On and Off Screen

Report of the panel discussion.

Read the report online here >

Download the PDF >


“Arab Spring” or “Arab Winter”? — An Update on the Arab Revolutions

Report of the panel discussion.

Read the report online here >

Download the PDF

© 2014, The Center for Dialogues: Islamic World - U.S. - The West

Site by Bianchi