Political Islam and Intellectual Poverty

With their beliefs and methodologies, the political Islam groups have contributed to making Arab Muslim mentality closed to other civilizations, thus contradicting what the early Islamic Renaissance pioneers advocated, that is, benefiting from other nations' modernity and development.

by Dr. Saber Malwai Ahmad
  • Publisher – STRATEGIECS
  • Release Date – Jan 2, 2022

This paper is a part of the series: Political Islam in Focus.


Renaissance Pioneers and the Future Question

The early call for reform and renewal in the Islamic World started by the renaissance pioneers, starting from al-Tahtawi (1801-1973) Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897) al-Kawakibi (1845-1902) Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) amongst others.

Among the reasons which accelerated the call to reform is that unique meeting between Europe on a hand, and the Islamic World on another hand, caused to the French Campaign in Egypt (1798-1801) where such Campaign was the conjunction point between two civilizations none of them knew about the nature of transformations occurred on the other.

On a hand, the Islamic World, back then, was considering itself still having the ability to take an initiative in power arenas, deeming that Europe is in backwardness, disjoint, and distant from civil life as it was earlier. On the other hand, Europe experienced massive transformations since the 16th century. However, Europe was not quite aware about the status the Islamic World was experiencing due to the stereotype Europe has about the strong Islamic empire. Napoleon's campaign on Egypt was a great point of discovery and transformation in terms of how the Islamic World and Europe consider each other, as such considerations became realistic rather than being imaginative and perceived. The confrontation between the rifle and the sword was, basically, a confrontation between a rising civilization and a falling one. [1].

Among what the French campaign drew the attention to is the fact which the Islamic isolation was concealing for a long age, and the manifestations of such isolation in terms of the Arabs and Muslims dual backwardness; in terms of "their civilized referential past on a hand, and their current age and its new civility on another" [2]. Pioneers' questions, raised in the renaissance age, addressed the reasons of why the West is developed and the Arabs and Muslims are back-warded, and how can the process of civilization be joined?

Naturally, the approaches and answers of renaissance pioneers varied, but they were centered in calling for the call to a religious and a cultural reform for the purposes of dealing with the age requirements and the modern civility. Rafa'a al-Tahtawi was among the first in the Islamic world who developed an awareness towards the Western Civility and the necessity to benefit from it. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was no less significant from Tahtawi in the level of the methodological and intellectual levels, in terms of the necessity of political and religious reform, which the Islamic world should, back then, should go through if it wants to regain its prestige and civilizational role amongst nations. The same is true with other reformists; where none of them deemed the Western civilization to be an enemy, and none of them rejected it.


The Religious Discourse: Transformation from Civilizational into Political

The fall of the Ottoman "Caliphate" 1924, at the hands of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, was a prominent political event, besides being a point of discontinuity and a transformation in the Islamic political thought history, as the Caliphate in such thought has a symbolic nature which the Islamic World states meet. Such states suffered, at that time, from all forms of fatigue and disjoint due to the Ottoman State weakness. Back then, Mustafa Kamal came up with an ideology either than how the Islamic Caliphate was, replacing the Islamic systems, whether in governing or in life features, with Western European systems, based on his principles and culture he was brought up with, in addition to his focus on the Turkish race and culture, and disjoining Turkey from the Islamic World.

Such event created a vacuum on the political and psychological levels, and made a part of the Islamic World search for its being in the past, instead of creating and forming its being in to the course of future via an interaction between its past and future. The Islamic world favored to say "the most of the Islamic World's problem lies, first and foremost, in what is political". Hence, a main question appeared on how to commence a collective political idea that proves the political efficiency of Islam. [3]

Four years after the fall of the Caliphate, the Islamic organization of the Muslim Brotherhood appeared in 1928. The Muslim Brotherhood imprinted itself with a global character, where its thoughts and ideas spread out in most Islamic World areas in the form of organizations which had different names, all included with the description of an Islamic Movement. Muslim Brotherhood had one single goal, which is to restore the Islamic Caliphate model [4]. What made such feeling be stronger is the nature of the political weakness and disjoint the Islamic World experienced back then, along with the increase of the Western states' aspirations in the region. Sykes–Picot Agreement, signed in 1916, embodied the nature of such aspirations in sharing the Ottoman empire properties.

Hence, the role of the political Islam's role appeared, which was basically represented in distancing from the core of reform idea and the renaissance pioneers' aspirations. Such role tended to summarize the role of the Islamic World to be only in the political side when regarding the fall of the caliphate, without exerting any cognitive or intellectual effort regarding the cultural reasons and causes which led to such fall. This question is still unfavored by the political Islam.

There is another basic factor contributed to a great extent in making the idea of reform superficial, this factor related to the growth of the extremist fundamentalism. Also, this factor did not consider reminding itself with the intentions and purposes of understanding the religious text or understanding people's situations. What is more treacherous was that the spread of the extremist discourse all over the Islamic World had participated in spreading the culture of underestimating philosophy and other human sciences, and contributed in spreading the culture of extremism and the single opinion, Where Sayed Qutb and others' writings turned to be the ideological discourse that enhanced the isolation and alienation from the zeitgeist, and the one-sided interpretation for the Islamic history's and what it experienced. Many youths restricted themselves to the past hoping to restore the glories of the 7th century, with the goal of creating a unique generation similar to the one in the first era of Islam, without paying attention to the nature of the current social, economic, and cultural circumstances.

The fact is that he who considers extremism focal in the Islamic World during the last three decades of the 20th century, would clearly see the nature of how blocks between the political Islam, the extremist fundamentalism, and others, in spite of their divergence in many principles. This is because the nature of the visions such blocks had are separated from ration and rationalism, whether the they are intrinsic rationalism in the Islamic culture, like the thought of Avicenna, Ibn Rushd, Ibn Khaldun, and others, or a contemporary rationalism which may benefit from the result of contemporary philosophy and Western thought.

Political Islam and the Question about the Past

The experience of the political Islam and the Islamic World was summarized to be a political problem, which is the fall down of the "caliphate" that can only be solved through what political Islam may visualize, as we earlier said. Hence, the Islamists looked to all experiences of governing with an eye of hostility, and they antagonized it in many states, for such experiences, to the Islamists, are not based on the request of restoring the caliphate and applying the Sharia of Allah. The Islamists even showed a sort on sympathy with Iran and Taliban in Afghanistan.

Within this context, the Islamists raised the Hakemyya (religious rule) slogan, which Abul A'la Maududi was the first to call for "Divine Hakemyya" [5] making it a base for change and for establishing an Islamic society in the modern age. Maududi deems that "the Hakemyya in Islam is purely dedicated for Allah only, where the Quran explains the doctrine of monotheism manifesting that Allah has no partner, not only in the religious sense, but also in the political and legal sense as well. The Islamic doctrine point of sees is: Almighty God is by himself and originally the ruler, and that the rule of the otherwise is awarded and given" [6]. Sayyid Qutb to Hakemyya idea from Abul A'la Maududi and adopted it as a referential frame for a huge part of his ideas.

As for the cultural and social levels, as well as others, the Islamists summarized all Islamic World's problems in the question of identity, making themselves the Guardians of the Sharia, where the goal of the West -to them- is to ruin the Muslims' Islam, therefore, most of the ideas which can be benefited from the West are but a side of the intellectual invasion, and that the Muslims should stick to their doctrines or, rather, their customs. In such understanding, the question is no longer "how can we develop" like how the aspirations of the reformists previously were, the question, then, became "how can we maintain our identity"? [7]

Ensuing to such understanding, the discussions between many strata in the society declined to a narrow Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence) debate, which goes around rectifying the doctrine of the individual and the group, which doctrine is right, and what are the Islamic sects which was right in terms of its doctrine. Therefore, the Islamists had a basic role, in a manner of populism, to engage intense debates inside and outside Egypt against the opinions and points of view, like what happened with Taha Husain; Ahmad Khalafallah; Faraj Fuda; and Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid. This Islamists' vision contributed in creating a kind of hidden anger and mania under the name of religion amongst many groups in the society.

The Islamists view to the Islamic heritage, it is a summarizing view; they would recall from the heritage what serves their narrow Fiqh view, like: the hardliner; Ibn Taymiyyah, not the image of the rationalist Ibn Taymiyyah. They recall Abu Hamid al-Ghazali the preacher, not Abu Hamed al-Ghazali; the figure of dispute and reconsideration.

Thus, the Islamists would never talk about the Islamic philosophy, rationalism, or science in the Islamic civilization; everything should be as per a narrow measure which the one the organization has, which sees itself to be on the path of the straight Islam. The result was that the Islamists turned into an iron fence that does not allow any attempt for renewal or reform.

Despite the Islamists adopted a discourse that promises with renewal, but their efforts to apply such discourse were not serious and never came up with any new thing, for they behold the present through the perspective of the past, the matter which made them take a negative stance against all arts and literatures. For instance: it we look at the Islamists' visions to the political thought, we would see that they did not at all come up with a novelty that may distinguish them in terms of the political theories, this is because that, in spite the Islamists are interested in politics, but they are alienated from the political knowledge just like how the ancients were. In the same time, the Islamists are alienated from the contemporary political thinking, the matter which made all their efforts be limited to the domain of protests and reactions.

For example: when September 11 attacks took place, the Islamists were not amongst the first to condemn such attacks, rather; they were the first to congratulate Taliban to retake the rule of Afghanistan. This is only a part of the cognitive background which frames their perception to the past and present, or the self and the other.


Accordingly, deeming the west to be the enemy, and the negative view to modernity being a pure Western product, can never be a solution for the Islamic World problems, even when modernity is facing dangerous moral problems and voids that led to the proliferation of destructive wars, arms race, environment pollution, famines, families disjoining, the expansion of exploiting the Southern states for the interest of the Northern states, in addition to many dilemmas caused by the Western centralism through the world, but that does not mean that modernity is pure evil that should be rejected altogether, rather, this shows the challenge by criticizing modernity and the work to rationalize it, involve in cultural thinking, and contribute in the global dialogue regarding the humanity and the common factors of it. This is a matter which can only be achieved by adopting the contemporary mechanisms of knowledge in different human and universal fields. Such adoption should be aware, with critic and analytic nature, along with observing the ethical and cultural specialties of the Muslim mentality.

However, the Islamists' summarized and superficial view had, unfortunately, led to them hunt for all the writings which criticize modernity, moving modernity out from the sphere of intellectual criticism to the sphere of the negative stand against it, the matter which sometimes led to reject modernity.

What was Changed for the Islamists after the Experience of Authority in Some States?

No doubt that the so-called "Arab Spring" is a sudden event, which the Islamists dealt with it in a kind of opportunism. The result was a success in Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco, while some implications was the deterioration by violence in Libya and Syria, in addition to the rise of ISIS [8] (which declared "the Caliphate" (2014-2017) in Iraq and the Levant.

This was a chance for the return of the Islamic Caliphate idea, indirectly with the Islamists who reached the office via ballots, where they faced a main question by the society: are you supporting the religious or the civil state?

While the Islamists of Egypt sought to approach Iran, with no clear separation between the state's higher interests and the visions of their parties, the Islamists of Tunisia and Morocco tried to adapt with the current regional and international situation, clearly separating the state interests from the visions of their parties, but without making radical changes to their ideological line.

In fact, the Islamists' experience in power revealed, for the citizens in general, that they don’t have realistic solutions, and that their "ethical" claims (i.e. the ethics created outside the system of value, based on the ideas and cultures related to a certain group) and not the ethical solutions based on-for example- that Islam is the solution, cannot be applied to reality the way they thought.

On another hand, it became clear that the Islamic factions are not different in managing the public affairs but in form. In addition; the Islamic ideology leads to an inner division for the peoples, just like it happened with the Sudanese people, where a result of the Islamists' rule was that Sudan people were divided between a southern and a northern state, the matter which led the citizens to abandon the Islamists for they did not see a true solution for their daily problems when the Islamists were in office.

No doubt that the Islamists exhausted all their energy after the experience of being in power, they are still loyal to their conventional ideological discourse, besides that their leaderships and prominent members are still the same, the matter which confirms the impotency of the intellectual and visionary substitutes they have for understanding the present and the current moment. Perhaps the contexts they are thinking through are incapable to crystallize new vision either than the ones they have, the matter which make the time and society pass them out. We say this, while aware that the political Islam experienced many intellectual and visionary reviews since it began, and that it is diverse now, not in a single type. But in general, it did not intellectually sever the ties with its old concepts.



[1]  See: Ahmed Muhammad Salem, The Reformist Discourse of Refaa Al-Tahtawi, an article in the Journal of Tolerance No. 10

[2] Abdelilah Belkeziz, From Renaissance to Modernity, Center for Arab Unity Studies, 1st Edition, 2009, p. 39

[3]  See: al-Tasamoh Magazine, No.25 article entitled: Contemporary Islamic Political Jurisprudence: Its Trends, Issues, Problems, by Hassan Abdullah

[4]  Imam Hasan al-Banna (1906 – 1949) (founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, in the message of the Fifth Conference (1938) said "The Brotherhood believes that the caliphate is a symbol of Islamic unity and a manifestation of the connection between the nations of Islam, and that it is an Islamic ritual that Muslims must think and caring about, and the Caliph is the focus of many rulings in the religion of God... For this reason, the Muslim Brotherhood makes the idea of the Caliphate and working to restore it at the top of their curriculum, and with this they believe that this requires a lot of inevitable preparations, and that the direct step to restore the Caliphate must be preceded by steps " Hassan al-Banna, Cannon of the Martyr Imam Messages, Alexandria, Dar Al Dawa, 1992, p. 144." the Imam Hassan al - Banna put his approach in the political education of five stages, which can be reached thereafter to the Islamic caliphate, this begins making the individual Muslim, then the Muslim House, then the Muslim people, then the Muslim government, then the great Islamic caliphate that brings together what was torn apart by colonialism" Hassan Al-Banna) Letter to the Youth. ibid, p. 177.

[5] See in this regard the study presented by Dr. Mohamed Amara " to the problem of a symposium of contemporary Islamic thought, organized by the Center of Islamic World Studies, Tripoli, April 1991.

[6]  Abul A'la Maududi, The Islamic Government, pp. 116, 81, 82, translated by Ahmad Idris, Cairo edition, 1977, quoting from Muhammad Imara, Theory of Divine Governance in the Thought of Abul A'la Maududi, a study presented to the Symposium on the Problem of Contemporary Islamic Thought, organized by the Islamic world Studies Center, Tripoli, April 1991.

[7]  Radwan Sayed; Arab Heritage in the Present: Publishing, Reading and Conflict; Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority; National Book House, vol.1; 2014; P. 21

[8]  ISIS emerged from al-Qaeda, and set goals for itself instead of those of al-Qaeda. The latter, i.e. al-Qaeda, was formed on the land of Afghanistan in the 1980s of the twentieth century under the name of the Afghan Jihad, supported by the forces of the Western camp led by America against the former Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Multiple nationalities of Arab Muslims were brought in for this task, and throughout the 1980s, Afghanistan turned into an arena to celebrate death instead of life, and the war ended with the withdrawal of the former Soviet Union from Afghanistan in 1989, after which the Afghan factions entered into civil wars, the leading elements of al-Qaeda (such as Osama Bin Laden, of the Saudi nationality) and (Ayman al-Zawahiri, of the Egyptian nationality) played a key role in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, which we should note here that the extremist fundamentalist organizations have exploited the historical wound of the Islamic world, a wound related to foreign interference and occupation among the issues of concern. Today the fact that "ISIS" worked between 2014 to 2017 on the dissemination of extremist perceptions, through its educational system, which included children and young people as well as the recruitment online, which made efforts to combat fundamentalism and extremism be more difficult.



The opinions expressed in this study are those of the author. In no way does Strategiecs take responsibility for the views and positions of its author on security, economic, political, social, and other issues, and such views and/or positions do not reflect those of Strategiecs.

Dr. Saber Malwai Ahmad

Moroccan writer and researcher specialized in intellectual and Quranic studies.