It is true that Islam is too big to be damaged by the attacks that have recently been launched against it and which in reality are more the concern of those who instigated them than the world’s more than 1 billion Muslims. At the same time, however, much of these attacks have come from inside the House of Islam itself; so we would do well—especially in the interests of safeguarding impartiality and nonpartisanship—if we examined them further.
One of these attacks against Islam has come from what is known as “Islamism,” or “political Islam.” This movement has now succeeded in tarnishing the image around the globe of a more than 1,400-year-old religion, also spreading false messages and mangled religious interpretations throughout the Muslim world, especially to the youth, who perhaps more than anyone in society are vulnerable to such ideas, seeking as they are to define their identity and individuality.
Islamism has chosen to eschew the true symbolic currency of Islam, instead concocting erroneous and perverse interpretations of the religion that deviate egregiously from its true core. Moreover, Islamism co-opts Islam for purely political goals, playing on the strong religious feelings in the Muslim world to garner popular support for its cause.
As such we see how Islamism has damaged the image of Islam, distorting its rational spirit while at the same veiling its true form. This is the greatest danger which Islamism poses to Islam.
So that we are not throwing out random and unfocused accusations here, let us focus on some of the ideas espoused by arguably the most paradigmatic Islamist group out there, the Muslim Brotherhood. Those ideas were later adopted by more extreme Islamist groups with more overt political aims—such as establishing by force a so-called “Islamic state” or caliphate.
The Brotherhood’s ideology is based on a small cluster of core principles, the most important of which concern who has the right to lead the Islamic world and the concept of the “modern jahiliya,” a proposed modern counterpart to the jahiliya, or “age of ignorance,” under which the Arabs in the Arabian Peninsula lived prior to their embracing Islam. A third principle, and perhaps the most important, is the Brotherhood’s conception of the religion itself, as a “total Islam”—that is, one that isn’t just focused on spiritual or moral concerns, but is wide, or “total,” enough to encompass all matters of life and society.
As far as the first issue of the leadership of the Islamic world is concerned, this is primarily revealed through the religious curriculum which the organization adopts for its members—and more openly perhaps in the infamous oft-repeated Brotherhood motto, “The Qur’an is our constitution and the Prophet is our guide.” This revivalist curriculum basically cancels the Islamic concept of ijtihad, the use of reason in providing interpretations of religious scripture.
As far as the Brotherhood is concerned, political authority in Islam is, as defined by the organization’s founder Hassan Al-Banna, the “complete submission to the authority of God and his Shari’a in every facet of life.” This understanding of the concept of authority and its subsequent explanations and interpretations leads us directly to the concept of the “totality” of Islam which the Brotherhood and other Islamists so vociferously embrace. This concept of “total Islam,” whose adherents insist is entirely different from all other understandings of the religion, was made clearest, again, in one of Banna’s own writings, the Epistle on the Teachings. In that publication Banna asks his readers to view Islam through the prism of 20 basic principles—considered “the main intellectual–religious base which members of the Brotherhood throughout the world operate from.”
The first two of these principles are particularly illuminating. The first states that Islam is a total and complete way of life embracing all aspects of society relating to both the individual and the collective, including state, nation, government, or community. The second states simply that the Qur’an and the Sunnah (the collected sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad) are the Muslim’s sole guides for deriving Islam’s tenets and laws.
In addition to the concept of authority in Islam and the religion’s all-pervasive “totality,” we identified a third Brotherhood idea paradigmatic of the Islamist outlook in general: the modern jahiliya. It is this idea that allows us most accurately to place the contours of the relationship between Islamists and the problems and turmoil we see in the Middle East and beyond today, as well as how Islamist groups deal with the concept of the “other.”
To understand this idea we can go no wrong if we quote the words of Mohamed Qutb, the younger brother of the Brotherhood’s main ideologue after Banna, Sayyid Qutb. He writes in his book, Jahiliya in the 20th Century, that jahiliya is not as many contend “a historical period that has passed and will not return. Instead, it is a distinctive quiddity which can take a variety of forms depending on its environment, locale, and circumstances.”
He continues: “It is not either the equivalent of what is commonly known as knowledge or civilization, or secularism, or progress, or materialism; neither does it equate to intellectual, social, political, or human values . . . Jahiliya is instead a psychological state characterized by the refusal to follow the guidance of God and [a desire to] establish a political structure squarely at odds with God’s law.” On this understanding, all the societies of the globe “who do not follow divine guidance” are in effect in a state of jahiliya: “the jahiliya of science and research and learning and theorizing. A jahiliya of narcissistic progress and materialism, in love with its own power and the success it has achieved. It is a jahiliya that seduces people using progress and civilization and secularism.”
We can therefore see from the centrality of this concept of jahiliya in Brotherhood thinking the original impetus behind its distinctive and idiosyncratic definition of the concept: you are either part of Islam, or part of jahiliya; there is no middle ground. And from here the core principle and motto of the Brotherhood emerges: “Islam is the solution”—and by “Islam” here they of course mean a sole, “total Islam.”
These ideas have now spread throughout the Arab and Islamic world to infect every iteration of Islamist extremism out there. Such ideas not only form the core of Brotherhood and Islamist thought, but also give those who espouse them a kind of “religious license” to stop engaging with modernity, obsess over the past, and fight the “other”—that is, anyone, Muslim or otherwise, who doesn’t agree with this outlook; they are, after all, citizens of Jahiliya.
Following the Arab Spring, the Brotherhood and its various incarnations decided to alter the way they engaged with the public in order to make themselves more palatable to a suspicious electorate. The Brotherhood’s successors, however, have not been so diplomatic: the numerous violent radical Islamist groups that sprung up on the back of the Brotherhood’s ideology have not at all minced their words in this department, and have used the core of the Brotherhood’s intellectual bequest to guide their takfirist agenda.
And so we see now the harm Islamism has done to Islam, harm which at first impacted only intellectual ideas, but whose reach now spreads much further.