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Lesson Plan: Introduction to Islamic Nationalism

Farish A. Noor
Senior Research Fellow
Nanyang Technological University Singapore (NTU)

Course: Political Science, Islamic Studies, History of the Middle East
Syllabus Section: Islamic Nationalism


With the assistance of this lesson plan, the student will:

  1. 1. Understand the foundational concepts that formed the basis of Islamic Nationalism
  2. 2. Identify the key thinkers and proponents of the concept of Islamic Nationalism
  3. 3. Interpret the spread of Islamic Nationalism and how it came to be a global phenomenon
  4. 4. Understand that Islamic Nationalism was not a homogenous phenomenon but a complex one that evolved in different ways in different parts of the Muslim world

Islamic Nationalism: Antecedents and Foundational Concepts

Some understanding of the basic political concepts and values in existence in Muslim society prior to the era of Western colonialism and the arrival of the modern nation-state is necessary, and it would be useful to begin by explaining the meaning of the concept of the Muslim ummah in the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World.

Nationalism as Applied Ummah

  • The evolution of Islamic nationalism proceeded from the premise of Muslim theology, but was later developed into a form of political praxis thanks to the role played by early Muslim political leaders and thinkers. This group included men such as Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī, among the first to compare the relative political weakness and backwardness of Muslim societies with the Western world; Muḥammad ʿAbduh, who called for the modernization of Muslim thought; and Rashīd Riḋā, who further developed the ideas of Abduh and made them known to a wider public through the use of media in the vernacular such as journals and magazines.
  • Though much of this development took place in Egypt and in the centers of learning in the Arab world, the ideas of men like Abduh and Rida were eventually shared by other Muslim thinkers in South and Southeast Asia. Muhammad Iqbal —who later came to be regarded as the "philosophical father" of Pakistan—called upon the Muslims of South Asia to renew their commitment to nationalism and work towards their independence from British rule. By the late twentieth century Muslim intellectuals from Morocco to Indonesia were developing their own understanding of what a modern Muslim political system would look like, and among their main concerns was how to modernize Muslim society so that it would be able to stand on its own and shake off the yoke of Western colonial domination.

It should be emphasized that Islamic Nationalism was the result of the engagement, by Muslims, with the realities of colonial rule, and it took place at a time when modern colonies and states were in existence.

Questions for Discussion

  1. 1. In what sense can we say that Islamic Nationalism was a modern development in the Muslim world?
  2. 2. How was the concept of Islamic Nationalism spread beyond the Arab world and what form/s did it assume in other parts of the world such as South and Southeast Asia?
  3. 3. If Islamic Nationalism emerged during the modern era, can it, and should it be regarded as part of Modernity?

Developments in the Twentieth Century

Against the backdrop of colonial rule and the struggle against colonial domination, the course may highlight the first attempts by Muslims to work towards political independence and to develop their own nationalist ideologies. Examine the attempts to gain political power and control of their own countries. For more, see "European Colonialism and the Emergence of Modern Muslim States" in The Oxford History of Islam.

  • A good starting point would be a discussion on Arab Nationalism and how it developed during the inter-war years, leading up to the formation of the first independent Arab states and the Arab-Israeli war. Students should examine the biographies of important Muslim nationalist leaders and military heroes, such as Gamal Abdel Nasser and Mu'ammar al-Qaddafi. They could also be compared to their Asian counterparts such as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan and Sukarno of Indonesia, who also incorporated Islam and the concept of Muslim solidarity in their respective political campaigns.
  • From there students should look at the rise of Muslim Nationalism in South Asia and how it contributed to the independence movement in India, Pakistan, and, later, Bangladesh. The ideas of key thinkers such as Sayyid Abū al-Alʿā Mawdūdi should be discussed.
  • Here the instructor may also want to draw attention to the formation of some of the Islamist parties of South Asia, including the Jamāʿat-i Islāmī and the Jamʿīyatul ʿulama'-i Hind.
  • After South Asia, the lecturer should focus also on the development of Muslim Nationalism in Southeast Asia, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia. In Malaysia, the lecturer should discuss the role played by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), and in Indonesia, the Masjumi party, the Nahdatul Ulama (NU), and the Muhammadiyah.

After Colonial Rule

The latter part of the class should address questions related to what has been achieved by the Muslim nationalists after colonialism, and the issues and challenges that have been the concern of Muslim nationalists the world over. This would include discussing the role of Islam in politics, and touching upon the debate over the Islamic state in many Muslim-majority countries.

Some time should also be spent on discussing contemporary variants of the Islamic state, such as the concept of the Islamic welfare state that has been forged by Islamist parties in countries such as Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Also to be examined is how Islamist parties and ideologues have responded to the challenges in and around the Muslim world, and how many of these Islamist parties have been engaged in global debates that exceed the boundaries of their own countries; an example includes the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has precipitated the rise of non-state actors and liberation movements such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

Questions for Discussion

  1. 1. What is "Islamic" about Islamic Nationalism, and how much of Islamic Nationalism was directly shaped by theology, rather than politics?
  2. 2. In what ways did Arab Nationalism and Islamic Nationalism converge, and diverge?
  3. 3. In the wake of events such as the "Arab Spring" of 2011, has Islamic Nationalism failed to secure for ordinary Muslims their basic political, economic and social rights and well-being?
  4. 4. If Islamist intellectuals today continue to tinker with the notion of the modern nation-state and develop new models such as the Islamic Welfare State, does this mean that Islamic Nationalism is, and always was, a "modern" phenomenon?

Further Reading to Support Lesson Plan

  • Che Man, W. K., Muslim Separatism: The Moros of Southern Philippines and the Malays of Southern Thailand. Manila: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1990.
  • Halliday, Fred, "The Politics of Islamic Fundamentalism: Iran, Tunisia and the Challenge of the Secular State." In Islam, Globalisation and Postmodernity, eds. Akbar S. Ahmed and Hastings Donnan. London: Routledge, 1994.
  • Hefner, Robert and Horvatich, Patricia, eds., Islam in an Era of Nation-States. Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.
  • Hefner, Robert, Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.
  • Hiro, Dilip, Islamic Fundamentalism. London: Pelican Press, 1988.
  • Esposito, John, ed., The Iranian Revolution: Its Global Impact. Miami: Florida International University Press, 1990.
  • Nasr, Seyyed Vali Reza, The Vanguard of the Islamic Revolution: The Jamaʿat-i Islami of Pakistan. London: I. B. Tauris, 1994.
  • Noor, Farish A, Islam Embedded: The Historical Development of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party PAS 1951–2003. Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Sociological Research Institute MSRI, 2004.
  • Sachedina, Abdulaziz, The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Siddiqui, Kalim, Stages of Islamic Revolution. London: The Open Press, 1996.

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