Photo: Iker Etxebarria Urkaregi on flickr

Clive Kessler charts the rise of political Islam and what it means today.

What is “Islamism”, and why it is an acceptable term, a proper idea?

Some people suggest it is not.

These days “Islamism” is a deeply contested term.

One frequently encounters and is reprimanded by Muslims, or political apologists for certain forms of Islam, for the use of that term. They rebuke others for naming and seeking to discuss what they themselves do: their project “ideologising” Islam, of transforming Islam from a traditional faith and long evolving faith-based civilisation into a modern, and very narrow, political cause.

Writing in The Australian (“Paris attacks: Muslims and non-Muslims must openly denounce Islamism”), Maajid Nawaz is right when he says that:

Islam is a religion, and like any other it is internally diverse. But Islamism is the desire to impose any version of Islam on society. Hence, Islamism is Muslim theocracy. And where jihad is a traditional Islamic idea of struggle, jihadism is the use of force to spread Islamism.

This is true but it is only part of the truth.

It is a clear statement of current political reality. But this practically useful identification fails to understand Islamism historically, to analyse its origins within the deeper context of the history of Islam.

Islamism is a shorthand term used to refer to modern and contemporary “political Islam”. The challenge is to see clearly where this modern ideologised and political form of Islam fits within the religious, and also the broader social and cultural history of Islam since the faith’s founding moment and early formative period.

What is known in our time as “political Islam” has arisen not from the simple and gratuitous provision of an additional adjective to highlight (as if that were necessary!) Islam’s inherent and characteristic – some would say “defining” – political dimension.

It arises from, and is the product of, the history, both specifically religious and more broadly civilisational, of Islam itself. It is the consequence of, and a reaction to, its “career in the world”: of the entanglement of Islam in world history.

It is what we may term historically as “third-phase Islam”.

The first phase in religious evolution is born of a specific moment, the formative moment of the faith and faith community.

It comes from that moment, first experienced in this “faith tradition” by Abraham and later re-experienced anew (and, for Muslims, in its ultimately definitive form) by Muhammad, though others prophets in between had also been struck by a similarly powerful intimation, of first sensing the compelling presence of the divine.

That formative moment is when an individual, a prophet, is seized by the sudden, absolute, and all-encompassing awareness – both intellectual and broadly existential and hence spiritual – of the “one-ness” of God. That awareness takes the form not simply of a weak realisation but of a powerful conviction. It is a total, and totalising, apprehension of the central reality of Tauhid (the Divine Unity).


The first phase of religious evolution is born of this revelatory moment and centres upon the implications of its prophetic experience, upon its humanly transformative impact: for the prophet and for those who, by following his insight and lead, seek to replicate in their own inner lives, if only in part, that same transformation.

In that first phase, religion itself, in this case Islam, is centred and focused upon that direct, immediate experience and conviction of Divine Unity. It is an awesome and awe-inspiring realisation.

It is what, in this faith tradition, religion is all about. What more, some wonder, might ever be needed?

From that point, religious evolution soon moves towards its second phase.

The first phase generally lasts for the lifetime of the founding or focal prophet himself. Whether it was Moses on the mountain or Muhammad in the cave, he (and he alone) has had the extraordinary experience, originating and defining, of the Divine Unity. He communicates that revelatory experience, others reach towards it and follow him.

A problem arises, however, with the death of the prophet. Others may succeed to his mundane role and assume some of his worldly responsibilities and functions. But their experience is not his, nor is it authoritative in the same way. Their experience may be derived from his, but only as a small and partial replication of his personal experience of revelation.

After his death, the community has to deal with the problem of the “absent lawgiver”, of the vacuum of legal and spiritual authority, of their faith community’s distancing or separation from the authoritative personal source of spiritual authenticity.

New problems arise, and people must wonder and will naturally ask themselves “What would the prophet himself have done?”

Differences of opinion arise. Conflicts occur. Different groups, to assert their own position and to justify their rejection of others, promote – in all sincerity – their own views not just of what the prophet meant and intended but also of what his entire life and prophetic career, as well as his spiritual understanding, were really about.

With that, the history of the faith community enters into its second phase.

This is the phase where the intellectual and also the emotional focus of the believers are in some way, if only in part, transferred from their original or primary object, from the defining apprehensions of the Divine Unity or “godhead”, and instead are attached in some measure to the now-absent founding prophet and to shared community memory of him.

This is generally done not as a diminution of their commitment to the Unity of God but as a reaffirmation of the community’s own human and historical connection through whom God, in his awesome and majestic unity, has become and been made known to them.

The sacred faith, as members of the faith community now understand and experience and live it, becomes to some extent “prophet-centric”.

Well-known to students of comparative religion and religious history, this same dynamic or pattern – this developmental trajectory – is also recognisably familiar in the case of Islam.

This is how a concern with the prophet’s sunnah, or attested ways and habits, and the compilation and then the assessment of the hadith, or sayings attributed to him, took shape, becoming, after the Quran itself, the next most authoritative inferential basis for the determination and derivation of Islamic law.

This is how the great Sira, or authoritative biography, of Muhammad came to be compiled and take on its authority. This, too, is how the various madhab, or legal schools, including the four main Sunni madhab and the Shi’a legal tradition, emerged and developed.

That is a general process, common to all or most cases of religious evolution.

But in the case of Islam something more – something specific to Islamic civilisational history, to “the career of Islam in the world” – also happened which gave further impetus to this same development.

That extra dimension or impetus was the long period of civilisational rivalry between “Christendom”, or the culture and way of life built upon a foundation in Christianity, and “the world of Islam”. This was, and has in many ways remained, a rivalry that has laid down a large part of the contours of world history – for all of humankind, not only for Christians and Muslims but everybody else too. After all, that is what is meant by the term “world history”.

That is, the rivalry that was waged from the time that Islam crossed the Pyrenees into mainland Europe but was turned back by Charles Martel and the Christian forces at the battle of Tours and Poitiers in 732, through the entire period of the Crusades and the ensuing Christian “reconquest of Spain” (and the end of Islamic al-Andalus) in 1492, to Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in 1798, and which even continues, so some would say, until this present time.

In this sense, to some people the notion of a “clash of civilisations” may be politically unpalatable, but it is historically an accurate characterisation of much of our common past. Indeed, it is that history and those facts that now compellingly make the case against “the clash of civilisations”: a case not to deny that it has ever happened, but to find ways to ensure that it is stopped, that it does not continue to cast its shadow and disastrously shape our actions in the present and future.

What was involved here?

Beneath all the varied politics there lay, at the outset, a basic religious disagreement. The Christian world was based upon a commitment to the idea that Jesus was not simply a prophet but the definitive prophet. For Christians, more for his followers than for Jesus himself, Jesus was the saviour or “messiah”, the historical redeemer, that Judaism had envisaged, and hence the completion of Judaism itself. The Jews has forfeited divine favour and protection when they rejected Jesus, it was now held; in consequence, Christians had now become “the true Israel”.

Islam in turn emerged on the basis of the insistence that the revelations neither to Moses nor Jesus had been definitive, nor had they been perfectly transmitted; and that the Abrahamic revelation of true monotheism found its completion, and perfection as well as untainted transmission, in the prophetic career of Muhammad.

Christian Crusaders pay homage to Saldin. Photo: Wikimedia commons

Christian Crusaders pay homage to Saladin. Photo: Wikimedia commons

But the ensuing dispute between Christendom and Islam was not simply a doctrinal one between theologians. It was a basic rivalry of political regimes and civilisations that were based upon, and faced each other from, opposite sides of the Mediterranean.

Those in the West were not likely simply to agree to an abstract doctrinal proposition about religious truth and prophetic succession, and then capitulate politically. Instead, and predictably, they stood their ground politically, and accordingly chose not to accept Muhammad as their prophet, as a true prophet, the final prophet. And, in the characteristically “robust” way and terms of medieval religious disputation and political conflict, they expressed their rejection vehemently.

Today we are all cultural legatees and historical heirs – whether we can recognise it or not – of the great “polemic over Muhammad” and of Europe’s defining denial of him. Out of that historic refusal, “Europe” and “the West” were born. On both sides of that great historical schism, we are all today heirs and legatees of that fateful rejection.

Yet, all religious questions aside, in political terms and those of civilisational survival Europe had to do exactly that.

To have accepted its adversary’s claim, to acknowledge Muhammad not merely as a front-rank historical figure but as their own religious leader exactly as Muslims did, would have been not just to surrender religiously, to “submit” to God in a certain way. More, it would have been to capitulate politically and culturally to the world of Islam, to accept its civilisational ascendancy.

No political order or civilisation that maintains the strength of its own identity, and has a continuing capacity to do so, submits just like that.

Born of the era of the Crusades, the result was the long, often scurrilous, polemic of Christendom, and many formative Western thinkers, against Muhammad: from the early modern and very pejorative typification of “Mahound” to the critique of Thomas Carlyle, and even into our own time (again, some would say), of Salman Rushdie.

The response to this polemical “campaign” against Muhammad was equally strong. Islam as a civilisation came increasingly, in the context of this defining opposition and rivalry, to define itself and to “ground its case” in a defence of Muhammad: of his authenticity as a prophet, of his character and reputation, of his exemplary standing, both religious and historical.

“Be careful with Muhammad!” became the watchword. Do not trifle with his reputation!

In this way, the world of Islam came increasingly, as it looked outward beyond itself, to be based upon defending its prophet, upon affirming and upholding Muhammad’s dignity in the face of strenuous, often vicious, demonisation and denial, of calculated and wounding rejection.

Doctrinally, of course, nothing in Islam was changed by this. Islam remained Islam. But for its loyal and committed adherents a “phenomenological” shift had taken place. Islam was still the perfected faith of Tauhid, but in a significant way its “phenomenological” focus had moved.

In notable part, the experiential focus of mundane religious experience and allegiance had now moved towards Muhammad. Islam, by the opposition that it encountered from outside, had objectively become a matter of loyalty to Muhammad, of an unyielding protectiveness and solicitousness towards his historic reputation. Upholding Islam was now, in the first instance, defending its prophet from his detractors.

There was no notion that Muhammad was now to be given some semi-divine status, and any such suggestion was to be rejected and ridiculed. Yet grappling with this shift and its implications did provoke misunderstanding and controversy, even anger.

“The polemic over Muhammad” has been the crucial defining issue, the original source of antagonism. It had been one of the key defining axes of world history for centuries. The world had endured a millennium of contention between Christians (and their successors) and Muslims, between Christianity and Islam, that had originally been focused – and which thereafter long turned – upon the issue of the acceptance or rejection of Muhammad, of the authenticity of his prophethood. Upon its continuing, long-term implications.

Christendom, and then Europe and then the West –– after all, what is Europe, and what now is “the West”, other than “post-Christian Christendom”? –– rejected him, they denied his followers’ claims vehemently. While for Christian Europe the question had been about whether Muhammad was to be accepted or not, for the world of Islam the challenge was what to do about Christian rejection, and often scandalising repudiation.

In response, Muslims, and the world of Islam, rallied to the defence of Muhammad, of his prophetic authenticity and his human and historical reputation.

On both sides, it had all been at its core about Muhammad. On both sides, that was the issue on which doctrinally everything turned. Here lay the division between two developed, mature civilisations. Until the modern era. Then new issues and dimensions to their longstanding civilisational rivalry were added.

By the middle of the 20th century, a new era had begun to take shape. After two world wars, the place of the West had changed. It was uncertain, probably diminished. And the place of Islam, of “the world of Islam”, as an evolved and still evolving human community, in that post-war world was also changing. The new stirrings were already evident.

Now, with the dawn of the new age of decolonisation and likely Western retreat, contemporary Islam was entering a new phase of its long civilisational rivalry with Christendom and its post-Christian successor, “the West”. This was now an early moment of “the new Islamic reassertion”. It was the dawn, one might say, of a new Islamic political and historical consciousness with which the world – the rest of the world – would have to come to terms. And that is what we have been doing, or not doing, ever since.

In the midst of a dramatic post-war “resetting” of the global historical and civilisational configuration, the world of Islam was making its decisive move beyond its second stage. This shift signalled the arrival of “third-stage Islam”. A stage in which Muslims increasingly asserted that, long supine, they were now again standing up on the stage of world history to reclaim and reassert their dignity. A phase in which Islam itself, as an idea and a historical entity or fact, would become the primary focus of the emotional loyalty, and the religious attachment of many Muslims.

A shift in Muslim historical consciousness was occurring. A deep change from the defence of the faith and its prophet to the defence and positive, active promotion of “Islam itself”, as a whole, as an entire “way of life”: as a form of shared public, historical existence, or din, that was followed by the entire historic community of the faith’s believers and followers – or which at least, so its champions maintained, ought to be.

This shift signalled the arrival of “third-stage Islam”. In it, they were now redirecting their forces, moral as much as military (and often with far greater success at the former than the latter!), to recapture the ability to write, and then to live out, their own history according to their own historical and civilisational “script”.

Their own script and agenda, not that which – ever since Napoleon had arrived in Egypt in 1798, and throughout the ensuing period of imperial and colonial domination – had humiliatingly been imposed upon them.

Anti-democracy campaign in the Maldives. Photo: Wikimedia commons

Anti-democracy campaign in the Maldives. Photo: Wikimedia commons

Instead, Muslims were now to become again the subjects and authors of their own history, not the subordinated objects of a different civilisational history – with its own, but alien, moral order as well as political framework – in which, as Muslims, they had lost, or been made to forfeit, their sovereignty, independence and collective autonomy.

With this reassertion of historical autonomy, the desire for it, the determination to retrieve it, and the uncompromising and unconditional assertion of the independent and absolute right of modern Muslims to pursue it, “political Islam” in all its varied forms, including militant Islamism, was born.

We need not trouble ourselves here to recount all the notable moments in this historic journey of self-redefinition and rediscovery, nor to review once more the works of the key thinkers who catalysed this historical transformation of Muslim religious, political and historical consciousness. All that is well known and frequently retold.

What these historic developments gave rise to, and yielded, was not simply a movement but a broad, diverse and complex new historical reality composed and comprised of many different, and at times mutually antagonistic and contradictory, parts.

That is the situation, and that – following the long historical gestation of this new Islamic historical awareness, or sensibility, and its ever-continuing stirring – is the Islamic world of today.

That is the world of politically reawakened Islam, or in short “political Islam”. Its era is that of “third-phase Islam”.

This means and includes political Islam in all its forms and varieties: from the activist to the more reflective, philosophical or scholarly, along one key axis, in one significant dimension; and from the democratically inclined or liberal to the exclusionary, authoritarian and illiberal, along another important axis, in another major dimension.

Political Islam can take, has taken and as we encounter it today continues to take all these forms. All are part of the one overall phenomenon or tendency. But – since the movement or tendency is at its heart re-assertive, reactive, restorative and even retributive, an attempt to “set things right again”, and, for some, to strike back and “get even at last” – the forms in which it generally occurs and appears have inclined overwhelmingly towards the activist and illiberal end of the continuum along those two decisive axes.

In Southeast Asia and beyond, this fact presents complications, and a major challenge, to those who hope and seek to promote Islamic reaffirmation and “political Islam” in its potentially more democratic, liberal, “gentle” and inclusive forms.

But the general point remains indisputable. When rallying to the cause of “Islam itself, as a historical construct and way of life” became central; when it became the focus (for many Muslims) of their identity and sensibilities and actions; and when that attitude and stance became elaborated in new historical doctrines and then powerfully “ideologised”, at that historical moment and from that point we may speak of the emergence of “political Islam”.

To say this, to put the matter in this way, is not “Orientalism” or “essentialism”. It is not to indulge in adverse, worn-out, pejorative stereotyping.

Why not?

Because this is exactly what the Islamist activists and their own scholarly legions themselves say, if at times in their own way and distinctive intellectual dialects. This is how they themselves describe the origins and nature of their movement and organisations, of their “historic moment”.

To understand what “third-phase Islam” is about, its inner character, we need to focus not upon the events that produced this new historical reality but upon the inner transformation, or shift, of Muslim consciousness that it entailed and promoted.

Its emergence has given birth to a new attitude, a new form or style of Islamic historical consciousness, with an accompanying new repertoire of religious sentiments and political sensibilities.

It has established – one might say, metaphorically – a new “qiblah”: here understood not in the traditional sense as an orienting point or direction of prayer, of mindful worship, but a new historical outlook and political mindset.

Islamic State; the worst face of contemporary of political Islam?

Islamic State; the worst face of contemporary political Islam?

It is in that shift, and in that newly reoriented consciousness, that the distinctive nature of “political Islam” in its many forms, and the key to understanding the world of Islam today, lie.

“First-phase Islam”, or Islam of the historically originating and formative era, had its own distinctive form of religious consciousness, its own defining focus and “phenomenological orientation” we might say. It centred upon the primal awareness and overpowering conviction, based upon Muhammad’s own experiences of revelation, of the unity of God, and of God’s entire creation, including both the natural world and humankind, under his exclusive divine sovereignty.

In the wake of the Crusades and the long “polemic over Muhammad” that they generated, “second-phase Islam” was preoccupied with, and came to be defined in its external outlook by, the imperative need and obligation to uphold Islam by defending Muhammad, his honour and dignity and prophetic authenticity.

In Islam’s new “third phase”, a further shift now occurred. Identification with Islam and its cause has continued and has been renewed. But it is now – at the level of historical consciousness (not religious doctrine!) – an identification “with Islam itself”, as a historic entity, as a complex and historically evolved “way of life” or din: that of the entire ummah, past and present, who live by that way of life – or who at least, according to the theorists of the new Islamic reassertion, ought to do so.

It is Islam in this new sense that, in the “third phase”, has become the primary focus of widespread Muslim historical identification or point of moral attachment. It is Islam in this sense that has become the phenomenological “qiblah”, we might even say, to speak metaphorically, of the new Islamic consciousness.

The religiously-based historical consciousness of many Muslims has, over the centuries, undergone this gradual and subtle shift of orienting or phenomenological focus. A complex “line of succession” leads from a form of consciousness resting on the centrality of “Allah awareness”, to one revolving around an obligatory solicitousness for the reputation of Muhammad as central to the defence of his true and completed faith, to one driven by the historical impulse to reaffirm and redeem Islam “as a way of life” and as the way to re-empower the community of true believers, the ummah.

To understand this fact and its implications is to begin to understand what “political Islam” or “Islamism” is, means and represents in our time and historical age. And if you do not understand it, you simply cannot. You may think you do, but you don’t and can’t.

Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology & Anthropology at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. Some of the ideas and arguments in this analysis have appeared previously in various columns in The Malaysian Insider.

Read an earlier essay on the history and relationship of Islam, violence and Southeast Asia by Clive Kessler, “A rage against history”, here.