Political Islam in a Nutshell through a Historical Excursus

Clive Kessler, courtesy of The Weekend Australian, 5 December 2015, where the title is “Islamism: third phase seeks Islam as a way of life” … with emphases added by the Editor Thuppahi

  • Political Islam today is in its third phase and driven by the historical impulse to reaffirm and redeem Islam as a way of life” — Kessler
  • “jihadism is the use of force tos pread Islamism” — Maajid Nawaz 

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: ideologising Islam, transforming it from a traditional religion and faith-based civilisation into a modern, and very narrow, political cause. Britain’s Maajid Nawaz, writing in Inquirer after the Paris attacks (“Muslims and non-Muslims must openly denounce Islamism”), is right when he says: “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 it fails to understand Islamism historically. Islamism is a shorthand term used to refer to contemporary political Islam. The challenge is to see where this modern ideologised and political form of Islam fits within the religious and cultural history of the faith since its founding moment. What is known in our time as political Islam has arisen not from the 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 the history of Islam. It is what we may term third-phase Islam.


Storm clouds hover over Bosphorous Bridge  linking Asia and Europe -capturing the ethos  around Kessler’s essay – Pic by Michael Roberts

The first phase in religious evolution is born of a specific moment, the formative moment of the faith and faith community — the moment first experienced in this faith tradition by Abraham and later re-experienced anew (and for Muslims in its ultimately definitive form) by Mohammed. 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. In that first phase, religion, in this case Islam, is centred and focused on that direct, immediate experience and conviction of divine unity. It is an awesome and awe-inspiring realization. The first phase generally lasts for the lifetime of the founding prophet. Whether it was Moses on the mountain or Mohammed in the cave, he (and he alone) has had the extraordinary experience 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. The community has to deal with the problem of the absent lawgiver, the vacuum of legal and spiritual authority. New problems arise, and people must wonder and will naturally ask themselves: “What would the prophet himself have done?”

Conflicts occur. Different groups, to assert their own position and to justify their rejection of others, promote their own views, not just of what the prophet meant and intended but also of what his entire life and 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, the godhead, and instead are attached 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 human and historical connection — their sacred faith.

Well-known to students of religious history, this same dynamic or pattern — this developmental trajectory — is 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 Koran itself, the next most authoritative inferential basis for the determination and derivation of Islamic law. This is how the great Sira, or authoritative biography, Mohammed 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 Shia 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 — also happened that gave further impetus to this development.

This was the long period of civilisational rivalry between Christendom and the world of Islam. This rivalry 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.

What was involved here? Beneath all the varied politics there lay, at the outset, a basic religious disagreement. The Christian world was based on a commitment to the idea that Jesus was not simply a prophet but the definitive prophet. (For Christians, Jesus was the saviour or Messiah, the historical redeemer, that Judaism had envisaged, and hence the completion of Judaism itself. The Jews forfeited divine favour and protection when they rejected Jesus, it was held; in consequence, Christians had become “the true Israel”.)

Islam, in turn, emerged on the basis of the insistence that the revelations to Moses and Jesus had not been definitive, nor had they been perfectly transmitted; and that the Abrahamic revelation of true monotheism found its completion in Mohammed.

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 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, then capitulate politically. Instead, predictably, they stood their ground politically, and accordingly chose not to accept Mohammed 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 — whether we can recognise it or not — of the great polemic over Mohammed 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 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 Mohammed 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. 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 many formative Western thinkers against Mohammed: from the early modern and 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 campaign against Mohammed was equally strong. Islam as a civilisation came increasingly to define itself and to ground its case in a defence of Mohammed: of his authenticity as a prophet, of his character and reputation, of his exemplary standing, religious and historical. “Be careful with Mohammed!” became the watchword. Do not trifle with his reputation.

In this way, the world of Islam became increasingly based on affirming Mohammed’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 Islam had become a matter of loyalty to Mohammed, of an unyielding protectiveness and solicitousness towards his historic reputation. The polemic over Mohammed 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. Christendom, 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 Mohammed was to be accepted, for the world of Islam the challenge was that of what to do about Christian rejection, and often scandalising repudiation.

In response, Muslims, and the world of Islam, rallied to the defence of Mohammed, of his prophetic authenticity and his human and historical reputation. Here lay the division between two developed, mature civilisations — until the modern era, at which time new issues and dimensions to the 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, as an evolved and still evolving human community in that postwar world, was also changing. The new stirrings were 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 postwar 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 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 positive, active promotion of Islam itself, as a whole, as an entire way of life.

In third-stage Islam, adherents were now redirecting their forces, moral as much as military (and often with far greater success with the former) to recapture the ability to write, and then to live out, their own history according to their civilisational script — as opposed to the script that, through imperial and colonial domination, had humiliatingly been imposed on them. No longer were they the subordinated objects of a different civilisational history, with its alien moral order as well as political framework.

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.

This is the world of politically reawakened Islam, or in short, political Islam.

It is 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; and from the democratically inclined or liberal to the exclusionary, authoritarian and illiberal, along another important axis.

Political Islam 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 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 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 as a historical way of life became central, when it became the focus for many Muslims of their identity and actions, and when that attitude became elaborated in new historical doctrines and then powerfully ideologised, precisely at that historical moment we saw 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 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 on the events that produced this new historical reality but on the inner transformation, or shift, of Muslim consciousness that it entailed. 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 but a new historical outlook and political mindset.

In Islam’s third phase there is 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 has become the primary focus of widespread Muslim identification and moral attachment.

A complex line of succession leads from the centrality of “Allah awareness” (first-phase Islam), to one revolving around an obligatory solicitousness for the reputation of Mohammed as central to the defence of his true and completed faith (second phase), to one driven by the historical impulse to reaffirm and redeem Islam as a way of life (third phase).

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

Clive Kessler is emeritus professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of NSW, Sydney. This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on the New Mandala website hosted by the ANU Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala



Bridge over Bosphorous linking Asia and Europe — Pic by Michael Roberts

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