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William E. Shepard, FranÇois Burgat, Armando Salvatore
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


    [This entry contains three subentries:

    Concepts and Debates

    The term “Islamism/Islamist” has come into increasing use in recent years to denote the views of those Muslims who claim that Islam, or more specifically, the Islamic sharīʿah, provides guidance for all areas of human life, individual and social, and who therefore call for an “Islamic State” or an “Islamic Order.” Islamists focus primarily on political matters, but they are also concerned with economic, social, and moral issues. The term “Islamicist” is sometimes used instead of “Islamist,” but is less common and can lead to confusion because “Islamicist” also refers to those who study Islam academically. The term “Islamist” is generally applied to the more radical movements connected with the Islamic resurgence, which began about 1970.

    In earlier times the term “Islamism” was sometimes used as a synonym of “Islam.” From the 1950s to the 1970s, one finds it used to denote late-Ottoman and more recent movements in Turkey. Its current use, however, mainly dates from the late-1980s, when some scholars began to use it as one of the alternatives to “fundamentalism.” This term [had] became popular among Western scholars and journalists since the Iranian Revolution, but many had reservations about it. Current usage of “Islamism” may have been inspired by the French terms “islamisme/islamiste,” which were already in use by French scholars and are said to have been coined by French-speaking Muslims around 1970. In English the use of the term has gradually increased since 1990, first among scholars and then among journalists. Today it is one of the recognized alternatives to “fundamentalist,” along with “political Islam” in particular.

    The term “Islamism” may be qualified in various ways, so that one may speak of “moderate Islamism,” “radical Islamism,” “militant Islamism,” etc. Usually the qualifiers refer to the means used by the Islamists, so that a moderate Islamist is one who does not use violence but works within the existing political system. Radical or militant Islamists are those who engage in terrorism or other forms of violence. “Moderate” or “radical” may also refer to the degree of proclaimed anti-Western or anti-American sentiment or to the degree to which the society desired is to be distinctively and uncompromisingly Islamic. It is increasingly common for writers to use “Islamist” where “radical Islamist” or “militant Islamist” is meant.

    Islamism is consciously opposed to secularism (called “laicism” in Turkey), which may be understood as the system that bases most or all of social life on Western-derived ideas and institutions rather than the sharīʿah. In practice this has involved not separation of religion from the state but the subordination of religious institutions to the state. An intermediate position is Islamic modernism or reformism, which generally accepts Western-derived ideas and institutions but gives them an Islamic justification and coloration. This is close to moderate Islamism in one of its meanings. Radical Islamists reject this in principle but in fact do accept some Western-derived institutions. They call for an “Islamic State,” but the state in its present form is Western-derived. They accept modern, Western-derived technology with little reservation.

    Islamism is therefore a very modern phenomenon. This distinguishes it from traditionalism, which is more strictly conservative. Also, Islamism is usually salafī, i.e., dedicated to following the model of the earliest Muslim community and eliminating the “innovations” and “corruptions” that have come in since. Traditionalists, by contrast, adhere to these “innovations” and “corruptions.”

    Those who prefer “Islamism” to “fundamentalism” argue, in the first place, that it is more accurate. “Fundamentalism” had originally been used for a radically conservative Protestant movement in America that focused on the inerrancy of scripture, among other things, and has often been apolitical. Virtually all Muslims, however, accept the inerrancy of their scripture and thus rarely debate it, while Muslim “fundamentalism” is highly political. The term “Islamism” lacks this Protestant baggage and may avoid the misconceptions it can cause. Secondly, “fundamentalism” in the Christian context is highly pejorative for most people and this may carry over unfairly to the Muslim phenomena. In the 1980s “Islamism” was not pejorative, though, in view of the violence since 2001, it has become pejorative for many, though probably still less so than “fundamentalism.” Thirdly, there has been a tendency to treat all Muslims as “fundamentalists”, something about which Muslims often complain. It seems easier to keep “Islamism” separate from “Islam” and “Muslim.” The “-ism” ending suggests an ideology, and most observers agree that the movements involved represent ideological forms of Islam. Also, the term Islamists corresponds fairly closely to the Arabic term often used for them, islāmīyūn. Neologisms have been coined for “fundamentalism” in Arabic (uṣūlīyah) and other Muslim languages. An advantage of “fundamentalism” is that it can be used cross culturally, so that one may speak of “Hindu fundamentalism” and “Jewish fundamentalism.” While not everyone likes this usage, no term has replaced it for this purpose, and this alone would guarantee its continued use. Probably more than “Islamism,” “fundamentalism” suggests the salafī dimension and may be used for such groups as the Tablīghī Jamāʿat that are not political. Some use it for certain premodern movements and individuals and those who do may use the term “neo-fundamentalism” for the modern phenomena. See FUNDAMENTALISM.

    Both “Islamism” and “fundamentalism” share the field with a number of other terms, such as “political Islam,” “militant Islam,” “Islamic radicalism,” “revivalism,” “Islamic extremism,” “Islamic activism,” and others. Little consistent distinction among these terms appears to be made in actual use and one can find several of them used interchangeably in the same book or article. “Islamism,” however, is probably used with somewhat more precision than the others. This terminology undoubtedly reflects both the complexity of the situation in the Muslim world and Western confusion concerning it.


    • Habeck, Mary. Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006. Example of a recent book that uses the term “Islamism/Islamist” consistently.
    • “Shades of Islamism.”ISIM (International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World) Review18 (Autumn 2006): 6–21. Seven short articles by John Esposito and others dealing with aspects of Islamism. Illustrates varied views about Islamism and various uses (and non-uses) of the term.
    • Shepard, William. “The Diversity of Islamic Thought: Towards a Typology.” In Islamic Thought in the Twentieth Century, edited by Suha Taji-Farouki and Basheer Nafi. London: I. B. Tauris, 2004. Chapter 3 in particular discusses Islamism in comparison to secularism, traditionalism, etc.
    • Shepard, William. “Fundamentalistic Phenomena: Christian and Muslim,”Historical Reflections/Reflexions Historiques30, no. 3 (Fall 2004): 363–384. Discusses Christian fundamentalism and Islamism.

    William E. Shepard


    There is no consensus on the distinction between the terms “Islamism” and “Islam.” This uncertainty expresses the diverse perceptions of changing dynamics inside Muslim countries, as well as inside Western societies and in the interaction between “Islam and the West” in the global arena. When the French philosopher Ernest Renan gave his famous lecture on “Islamism and science” in 1883, the label “Islamism” was equivalent to “Islam” as a whole. Current terminology usually distinguishes between “Islam,” a rather neutral marker for the religion revealed to the Prophet Muḥammad, and “Islamism,” referring to the ideology of those who tend to signal openly, in politics, their Muslim religion. Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution and especially since the 9/11 attacks, the term has often acquired a quasi-criminal connotation close to that of political extremism, religious sectarianism, or bigotry. In Western mainstream media, “Islamists” are those who want to establish, preferably through violent means, an “Islamic state” or impose sharīʿah (Islamic religious law)—goals that are often perceived merely as a series of violations of human rights or the rights of women. In the Muslim world, insiders use the term as a positive reference. In the academic sphere, although it is still debated, the term designates a more complex phenomenon. However, the functionality of the distinction between a positive “Islam” and a possibly sectarian “Islamism” is limited, since the border between the two is not clearly defined.

    A survey of Islamic activists throughout the Muslim world shows that they in fact share little more than a common Islamic lexicon. Moreover, this “Muslim speak” does not strictly determine their behavior, in either the political or the social sphere. Islamism expresses less a specific political ideology than a process of reconnection between Muslim culture and the general landscape productive of almost all political ideologies. Its adepts use Islamic terminology to implement countless “programs” using practically all the registers of political action: some are indeed revolutionaries who espouse armed struggle; they may be radical, conservative, or even Marxist. But they can also be legalists, reformists, and modernists. From the indiscriminate repudiation of Western democratic “technology,” according to the literalist interpretation that states that “divine sovereignty contradicts that of the people,” to the over-hyped reappropriation of Islamic terms (e.g., the argument that the Islamic notion of shūrā, or consultation,“preceded” Western democracy), a whole spectrum of attitudes and conduct, both in oppositional postures and in the practices of “Islamic” regimes in power, may be observed.

    Addressing the issue of Islamism should therefore allow one to distinguish two processes and thus two levels of analysis: on the one hand, the essentially identity-centered reasons that have motivated a generation of political actors to employ, preferentially and at times ostentatiously, a lexicon or vocabulary derived from Muslim culture; on the other hand, the diversified uses that such actors may make of this lexicon, at home or in the North-South arena. The identity-centeredness that characterizes the development of Islamism can be presented as a reaffirmation of the universal ambition of those preeminently committed to an Islamic cultural frame of reference. Such a hope for the return to grace of the “inherited” Muslim culture appears to be a corollary, in the cultural and symbolic field, of the long-term dynamics of repositioning toward the Western colonizer. During the colonial expansion of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, with the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 by Ḥasan al-Bannā, then in the context of the rise of the postcolonial nationalist elites and, finally, of the American imperial incursions of the 1990s, the process can be ascribed to the will of three or four generations of political actors to restore the visibility and centrality of their inherited Muslim cultural codes.

    Conversely, it is far harder to gauge the impact the use of this Islamic set of referents has had on the behavior patterns of the “Islamists” in society or politics, within their national community or on the international scene. Highlighting the identity matrix of Islamism does not automatically give us the means to understand the “political” reasons behind Islamism. From the vocabulary of the actors, one cannot infer the complex and changing modalities—simultaneously multiple, banal, and profane—according to which they behave in their environment, whether social or political, local or international, facing the ethical, social, or political challenges of their time.

    Structural factors are nonetheless thought by some observers to account for the rise of Islamism. Several argue that there is a linkage with economic status but disagree as to whether poverty or wealth is the cause. Islamists may well exploit the sense of deprivation that poverty and underdevelopment breed and thus recruit new active members or at least sympathetic fellow travellers. But it is also the case that sociological profiles of the most committed Islamists reveal that many of them are solidly middle class and well educated, usually to university level. The privileged background of the September 11th hijackers has been offered as evidence that, if there is any correlation at all, it may be wealth, rather than poverty, that helps to generate Islamism. Others point to authoritarianism as a source of Islamism. The general political frustration and lack of opportunities for expression in many Muslim societies are typically assumed to generate political discontent, which can easily take the form of Islamic-oriented protest. In this view, the mosque, relatively unfettered by direct government intervention, becomes a natural site for oppositional sermons and organization.

    Underlying these structural factors, according to some observers, are continuing illiteracy on the one hand, and the rise of literacy more generally, on the other hand. Continuing illiteracy may, in this view, ensure that religious leaders, including Islamist ones, can manipulate the uneducated or under-educated. But others would argue that, as more and more people acquire direct access to scriptural and other Islamic texts as a by-product of the modern educational system, they question the monopoly of the ʿulamāʿ class to interpret Islamic doctrine. They may particularly oppose a religious establishment that works in tandem with the political establishment. In this argument, Islamist leaders overlap, to a considerable extent, with these self-appointed arbiters of “Islamic” values.

    Explaining the Islamist phenomenon as identity-affirmation should not be based too directly on such factors as classical educational or socioeconomic conditions, however. As a mobilization for identity, Islamism cannot be limited to a defined socioeconomic terrain, but rather transcends such divisions. It is for example hazardous to correlate its main theoreticians and the greatest number of its actors with the deficiencies of a system of education or the failures of economy.

    Yet, making sense of the different specific expressions of this trans-social affirmation of identity in the political field—notably as protest—does require a consideration of socioeconomic or educational variants. It is thus conceivable that illiteracy favors sectarian expressions, or that Islamists become more easily radicalized in reaction to a denial of representation, as engendered by economic or political ostracism (through unemployment or repression, for example).

    The dynamics of “re-Islamization,” and thus all adepts of “Muslim speak,” are often considered to be indiscriminate adversaries of the dynamic of political liberalization and social modernization. However, it has been widely documented that in such mainstream political trends as those that carried Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdoğan to power in 2003, or even Hamās in Palestine in 2006—and that might very well produce political majorities in a majority of Arab countries in the future—the complex dynamics that use symbolic resources drawn from the “Islamic” culture retain their functionality.



    • Abu- Rabiʿ, Ibrahim M.Intellectual Origins of Islamic Resurgence in the Modern Arab World. Albany, N.Y., 1996.
    • Baker, Raymond William. Islam without Fear: Egypt and the New Islamists. Cambridge, Mass., 2003.
    • Brown, Nathan, Amr Hamzawy, and Marina Ottaway. Islamist Movements and the Democratic Process in the Arab World: Exploring the Gray Zones. Carnegie Paper 67. Washington, D.C., 2006. Available online at www.carnegieendowment.org.
    • Burgat, François. Face to Face with Political Islam. London and New York, 2003.
    • Burgat, François. Islamism in the Shadow of al-Qaeda. Austin, Tex., 2008.
    • Eickelman, Dale F., and James Piscatori.Muslim Politics. Princeton, N.J., 1996.
    • Pipes, Daniel. “God and Mammon: Does Poverty Cause Militant Islam?”National Interest (Winter2001/2002): 14–21.
    • Roy, Olivier.Globalized Islam: The Search for a NewUmmah. New York, 2004.

    FranÇois Burgat Updated by James Piscatori

    Nature of Islamist Movements

    Islamist movements have been variously characterized by scholars as political or socioreligious movements, as religiously fundamentalist and politically radical, and as oriented to a politics of piety. The label “Islamist” seems to reflect divergent classifications and so can be applied to a wide variety of movements that have a common basis in their normative appeal to Islam. Yet this normative orientation is possible only through a drastic ideological condensation of Islam 's complex message and heritage—as a religion, a civilization, and a way of life. These movements purport to provide a kind of civilizational alternative to Western-style sociopolitical movements. At the same time, they challenge secular regimes and liberal ideologies, and they articulate a counter-hegemonic program that opposes the political status quo through religiously grounded notions of social justice, welfare, and participation.

    A common feature of the more popular Islamist movements is a sustained engagement with everyday practice, particularly the mutual support of their adherents. This trait is supported by a quite traditional approach to social relations more than by a militant or Jacobin-style orientation to politics aiming to rebuild society on entirely new moral bases. On the other hand, Islamist movements often develop a modernist aspiration to political power. The historical prototype of Islamist movements is the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928 by Ḥasan al-Bannā. This movement provided a social basis for the earlier, more elitist iṣlāḥ (reform) movement. The idea of iṣlāḥ, which has remained a fundamental concept for Islamist movements, is the restoration of the pristine purity of the ummah at the time of Muḥammad and his companions. Islamist movements thus draw inspiration from a reading of Islamic sources (Qurʿān and sunnah) with the aim of remodeling contemporary Muslim majority societies according to scriptural norms. They envisage a virtuous political community based on the observance of the sharʿah—a purified ummah to be built up through proselytizing activities (daʿwah), charitable practices, and principled policies.

    Behind the necessary ideological simplification of their message, Islamist movements are complex and internally differentiated. The connection between material factors and cultural orientations in the long-term development of Islamism is of critical importance but also difficult to interpret. Yet the fundamental activism of Islamist movements, which gives concrete shape to their normative orientation, lies in their capacity to provide services and benefits to their constituencies, such as housing, education, child care, and health services. In doing so, these movements provide venues for public interaction that circumvent the institutions of the nation-state. Though many Islamist groups vie for institutional power by participating in parliamentary and municipal elections, they also aim to redefine in Islamic terms the relationship between the role and legitimacy of those institutions and the interests of grassroots communities. Such activities are effectively carried out in spite of the frequent authoritarianism of the regimes in their countries. The restrictions on formal political participation encourage people to resort to informal Islamic venues, starting with the privileged use of the mosque and its networks (including Islamic bookshops) for the distribution of print and electronic material.

    In such a framework, the model of activism and the alignment between leadership, cadres, and sympathizers can vary considerably among the movements and also through various stages of their development. Their leadership faces the difficult task of providing ideological cohesion to fragmented perceptions, discourses, and practices. Moreover, their constituencies usually are drawn from various parts of the lower and middle classes, with a substantial proportion of university students and graduates, especially of technical and scientific faculties.

    The category of “Islamist movements,” therefore, should comprise not only formal political organizations or parties—such as those represented in the parliamentary institutions of Morocco, Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan, and elsewhere—but also a wide variety of sociopolitical movements with complex operational structures and composite ideologies. The latter include organizations like Ḥamās in Palestine and Ḥizbullāh in Lebanon, which have seats in representative assemblies but use a variety of methods of mobilization and instruments of political struggle, including the organized use of violence, especially when the opposition to military occupation ranks high on their political agendas. Islamist movements are thus broadly engaged in struggles over the definition of norms of public life through the articulation of scripturally based claims to justice. Such activities shape a “public Islam” more than a “political Islam.” They challenge the discourse of secular elites and the official, largely authoritarian, frames of legitimacy as well as the regulatory and repressive apparatus of state authorities, whose ideologies oscillate between a “weak secularism” and a selective and often instrumental incorporation of Islamic norms and symbols.

    Egalitarian and voluntaristic modes of interaction make Islamist movements effective and sometimes dominant within local communities. At the same time, their strategies are woven into larger national and international networks. Islamist groups frequently receive major material resources from the larger Muslim world. Their relation to nationalism and the related balance between radicalism and pragmatism, or between an “isolationist” and an “integrationist” approach towards their national societies, can depend on context, political opportunities, and strategy, but also on the different cultural understandings of key norms and symbols. These may be affected by broader political and cultural transformations like those caused by globalization and related changes in lifestyles, which, in turn, often cause intergenerational conflicts. The attractiveness of Islamist movements to the younger generations is explained also by the fact that the societies in which these movements operate often suffer from severe limits on generational change at the highest echelons of leadership. This phenomenon is reinforced by the Islamist movements ’ emphasis on young people (al-shubbān) as incarnating an uncompromising stance against the stagnation of Islamic thought and practice and the alleged moral and political corruption of their societies. In a related development, the growing importance of women in the new generation of cadres challenges the resilience of patriarchal structures in Muslim systems of thought and law. The controversy over fundamental Islamic norms and symbols becomes increasingly significant also within such movements.


    • Bayat, Asef. Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn. Standford University Press, 2007.
    • Eickelman, Dale F., and James Piscatori. Muslim Politics. 2d ed.Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.
    • Esposito, John, ed.Political Islam: Revolution, Radicalism, or Reform?Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1997.
    • Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.
    • Salvatore, Armando, and Mark LeVine, eds.Religion, Social Practice, and Contested Hegemonies: Reconstructing the Public Sphere in Muslim Majority Societies. New York and Houndsmill, Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
    • Schulze, Reinhard. A Modern History of the Islamic World. New York: New York University Press, 2000.
    • Wickham, Carrie Rosefsky. Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism, and Political Change in Egypt. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
    • Wiktorowicz, Quintan, ed.Islamic Activism: A Social Movement Theory Approach. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.

    Armando Salvatore

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