A Critique of Islamism

In reference to Salman Sayyid’s Theorization

Islamism, in current contexts, connotes a political order based on and around Islam. However, these connotations are primarily negative, ranging from a vile and violent overthrow of the modern political system to a petty abuse hurled at Muslims. [1] Professor Salman Sayyid appears to have taken cue from this, and attempts to displace the negative connotations that the term possesses by presenting Islamism in a different light. Although it is a hopeful exercise, exercises like this are susceptible to failure, and at times even dangerous. In this article, I argue against Sayyid’s attempt, elucidating the negative consequences that result from and further the overall employment of Islamism as concept and term.

Sayyid argues that “one of the most significant attempts at understanding the meaning of Islam [is to be] described as Islamism.” [2] However, an attempt to understand presumes a methodology, and the methodology of Islamism remains undefined, since the people who are labelled Islamists consider it a slur and avoid association with the term. [3] Although Sayyid could argue that it is primarily an analytical category, an analytical category ought to be empty and is to be filled by the synthetic, in this case the loaded connotations of the term. Furthermore, Sayyid argues that if “Islam can be understood as the name by which a set of narratives and practices, heritages and futures are marshalled, then…Islamism seeks to establish a political order centered [around] the name of Islam.” [2] He then adds that the “relationship between Islam and Islamism, however, is not one of derivation or distortion or ideologization. Islamism is neither derived from Islam, nor is it a transformation of Islam from religion to ideology.”[2] 

Nevertheless, in the liberal discourse — the dominant force of our times — Islamism is precisely an attempt to turn Islam into political ideology and is therefore an ideologization of religion. [5][6] An ideology consists of beliefs, which hold sentiments that are not open for scrutiny and are judgmental in nature, making it a rational comprehensive doctrine, hence against the political liberalism theorized by Rawls. Therefore, the discourse of “Islamism” would have trouble legitimizing itself, and the time it would take to do so would be excruciating for the Muslims who would, until then, be a soft target in the wake of growing Islamophobia. 

Additionally, if the term is not derived from Islam as Sayyid claims, why should Muslims accept Islamism instead of categories from other discourses such as socialism or postmodernism? Sayyid writes, “Islamism is not a replacement of Islam akin to the way it could be argued that communism and fascism are secularized substitutes for Christianity. Nor is … Islamism is a falsification of Islam.” [2] Sayyid has defended this idea well against Bassam Tibi, who analogizes Islamism with totalitarianism, by arguing that it is, on the contrary, against the violent universalist notions. [6][7]

It can also be alleged that the term Islamism is a subversion of the meaning of Islam, given that the exercise of [neo]colonial power in the Muslim world has created, redirected and subverted meanings of the existing words. [8] Of note, on a slightly different plain, Humeira Iqtidār insists that Islamists are furthering secularization, calling into question Sayyid’s claim (as a proponent of Islamism) that “Islamism is a constellation of political projects that seek to position Islam in the center of any social order.” [9] Islamism also creates a sort of extravagance around the political nature of Islam, forming a binary between the [political] act — Islamism — and the object — Islam. Thus, as is evident, Islamism is more about politics or order of the state and sidelines other equally important parts of Islam such as spirituality and devotion. [6]

Returning to the negative perception of Islamism discussed previously, the acceptance of such a perception harms the self-recognition of the victims, resulting in either non-religiosity out of the fear of being labelled Islamist or becoming the prototype of “militant Islamist” via the Nietzschean logic of “abyss gazing back.” In addition, it results in the objectification of Islam and Muslims by shifting focus to Islamism and Islamists. [10]

It is important to underscore that the concept of Islamism only exists in Western languages; and if accepted, it is destined to be the hegemonic/dominant language of Islam’s political nature due to an asymmetry of power. Firstly, coupled with the limits that languages have, it will either displace the various conceptions/conceptualizations of Islam and its politics across the globe in different sociocultural contexts, or will render them redundant in the face of power. Secondly, it can transform into an elitist phenomenon where Muslims who know English, French, German and other Western languages will decide for others who do not know those languages. By fixating upon the political-ness of Islam, Islamism, both as concept and word, obscures its liveliness and dynamism, causing it to function as an academic discourse subject to intellectual debate and subsequently determined solely by those intellectuals. [11]


Islamism, therefore, should neither be employed as a term nor concept as it negatively connotes the political aspect of Islam. The terminology has little native methodology, and its conception is mostly defined by the Western[ized] media and the writers who, as Varisco says, have denigrated Islam. [14] In the words of Varisco, “the devil here is in the linguistic detail, demonizing the Muslim other through a halfway ism house of language.” [14] The derivation of terminology through Western logic of “ism” also raises important questions of [neo]colonialism. In being synonymous in many Western traditions to Islam, Islamism invariably alters the focus from other equally important aspects of Islam, such as ethics, morals and devotion. [14]

There are those who argue that by accepting this concept/term, its negativity can be flipped on its head, similar to the Whigs in 1820s with the pejorative concept/term “liberal.”[15] Nevertheless, the flipping exercise does not seem promising given the imbalanced power relations. Concerningly, instead of reclaiming Islamism, this exercise would instead substitute Kemalism with Islam, objectifying the political in Islam and fixating it to the private, obscuring the essential and dynamic nature of Islam.

Works Cited:

[1] Rauf, F., 2010. Why Islamism should be renamed, in Martin, R.C and Barzegar, A, Islamism: Contested Perspectives on Political Islam. Stanford: Stanford University Press
[2] Sayyid, S., 2014. Recalling the Caliphate: Decolonization and World Order. London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd:8.
[3] Heywood, A., 2017. Political Ideologies, 6th Edition. London: Palgrave
[4] Asad, T., 2018. Secular translations. New York: Columbia University Press
[5] Demant, P., 2006. Islam vs. Islamism: the dilemma of the Muslim world. USA: Praeger Publishers
[6] Tibi, B., 2012. Islamism and Islam. London: Yale University Press
[7] Sayyid, S., 2014. Recalling the Caliphate: Decolonization and World Order. London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd:8. pp. 48-61.
[9] Asad, T., 1993. Genealogies of religion. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press
[10] Taylor, C., 1989. Sources of Self Making. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
[11] Bergson, H., 2001. Time and Free Will. New York: Dover Publications
[12] Hamid, S., 2016., Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle over Islam is reshaping the world. New York: St Martin’s Press
[13] Fradkin, H., 2010. Academic word game, in Martin, R.C and Barzegar, A, Islamism: Contested Perspectives on Political Islam. Stanford: Stanford University Press
[14] Varisco, D., 2010. Inventing Islamism: The Violence of rhetoric, in Martin, R.C and Barzegar, A, Islamism: Contested Perspectives on Political Islam. Stanford: Stanford University Press 
[15] Bell, D., 2014. What Is Liberalism?. Political Theory, [online] 42(6):693. Available at: <http://www.jstor.com/stable/24571524&gt;

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Shahzar Raza Khan

Shahzar Raza Khan is Nietzsche’s Ubermensch and Iqbal’s Shaheen trapped in academics.

One thought on “A Critique of Islamism

  1. The author misses the overall point of why the term “islamism” exists, why it is used, and why it is certainly a valid, and applicable, term that should be used.
    As Muhammad defined, practiced, and established it, Islam is definitely a spiritual, physical, martial, and political religion. To deny the political vein in Islam is to deny Muhammad’s Islam and commit shirk.
    Throughout the Islamic world many variations of Islam exist just as Muslims throughout the world practice Islam in a wide variety of ways. “Islamism” refers to the Islam and Muhammad and the early Muslims practiced Islam and this Islam is well documented in the foundational texts of Islam: the Quran, Hadith, and Sira, and structured by the great Islamic scholars in books of law and jurisprudence, (e.g. “The Reliance of the Traveller.”) Of course there exist minor variations in this general category but as a whole they most closely reflect Muhammad’ Islam.
    Today there are Muslims who drink alcohol, eat pork, have sex outside of marriage, and even engage in homosexual acts. They argue that all of these should be accepted by Islam. But that is not the Islam Muhammad and the early Muslims practiced.
    Therefore, for both Muslims and non-Muslims, the term “Islamism” describes the real and original Islam that Muhammad taught and established, and it can be contrasted with the more “liberal” forms of Islam found throughout the world today, (e.g. the liberal Islam practiced in Kosovo).

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