Small Wars Journal

An Overview of Islamic Fundamentalism: A Primer for Understanding Extremist Islam

Mon, 03/18/2019 - 6:07am

An Overview of Islamic Fundamentalism: A Primer for Understanding Extremist Islam


David E. Williams, Jr.




The Islamist worldview is in direct opposition to contemporary Western ideas about government, society, and the role of religion in everyday life.  Despite this opposition, or possibly because of it, the Islamist movement is gaining popularity around the globe.  The apparent failure of Western ideologies, unequal distribution of wealth for natural resources exacerbated by globalization, and on-going conflict between Israelis and Palestinians have contributed to Muslim masses to seeking solutions from more traditionally-minded leaders who promise a return to Islamic Golden Ages via rejection of secularism in favor of Islamic fundamentalist ideologies.  This, however, sets many on a path of conflict with the West.  Examples of radical Islamist organizations abound: Al Qaeda, Afghan Taliban, ISIS, and Hezbollah.  Such organizations fill Western minds, as well as Middle Eastern governments, with great concern if not outright fear, but what exactly is an Islamist worldview?  Does it inherently include violence?  What are its origins and targets of critique?  How has it evolved in the twentieth century and why do its tenants appeal to so many in the Muslim world today?  This article will briefly look at each of these questions in order to provide a perspective on contemporary Islamism and facilitate a better understanding of the phenomenon as a whole, thus providing some insight into the recent wave of unrest across the Middle East.  Ultimately, Islamism is a unique and diverse collection of ideologies and doctrines that range from the progressive to the radical.  It is my assessment that one must not make the mistake of lumping all Islamist ideologies, movements, and organizations into a singularly narrow, one size fits all category, nor should one automatically consider Islamism a threat in the Muslim world or beyond.  Rather, Islamism is simply another ideological option that must be weighed in terms of its effectiveness and appeal, while recognizing that there is a potential for extremism similar to that manifested in other secular and sacred movements.  Because of this, it is imperative for Western nations to open lines of communication with leaders of the protest groups and insurgents in such places as Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain in order to develop an understanding of their motivations, ideologies, and their goals for the Middle East.




The first question that must be asked is what is the Islamist worldview?  According to Mohammed Hafez, Islamism is a “religion-based social movement that calls for the reassertion of Islamic values and laws in Muslim Societies.”[1]  Those who adopt such a worldview evaluate all information through the filter of Islam.  This includes politics, thus Mohammed Ayoob’s definition of political Islam: “a form of instrumentalization of Islam by individuals, groups, and organizations that pursue political objectives.”[2]  Since the goals of Islamists include political change, existing governments tend to see such movements as threats to their power and therefore will often work to marginalize, discredit, or eradicate them.[3]  Such has been consistent with the protest groups currently operating, especially after seeing their success in Egypt.


What are the origins of Islamism?  Religious fundamentalism as a whole has its origins in the Enlightenment.  Enlightenment thinkers were the first to advocate a separation between the natural world and the spiritual realm, thus creating the possibility for government, law, science, etc. without considerations of the divine.  Such ideas effectively relegated religion to a personal realm and brought human rationality to the forefront in solving social, legal, and scientific problems (this is generally known as secularism).  According to David Zeidan, fundamentalism itself is a “religious ideology that claims divinely revealed inerrant scripture as its ultimate authority.”[4]  Islamism is Islam’s answer to religious fundamentalism.  It specifically espouses the centrality of scripture in life, the absolute nature of truth as revealed by Allah (God), the need for religion to influence politics, the sovereignty of God (Hakimiyyat Allah), and the inherency of God’s word, thereby providing an alternative ideological orientation to secularism.[5]  For Islamists, God’s sovereignty is exclusive, therefore all mankind should obey God alone or (in the absence of direct revelation from God) rulers who reject secular ideologies in favor of obedience to God.  For Abul A’ala Mawdudi, these rulers are selected by the umma and rule according to shariah.  For Qutb, leaders who do not follow shariah are not legitimate authorities and should be resisted and replaced through jihad (jihad bid sayf if necessary).  This is important to the Islamist perspective because it calls into question the legitimacy of all social orders not based on Islamic tenants, thus legitimizing political and/or militant action to replace them with fundamentalist orders.  By accepting hakimiyyat Allah, Muslims begin the process of overcoming jahiliyyah, reject secularism, and move toward reassertion of God’s will for mankind, thus facilitating freedom from the oppressive lies that have steadily reduced the status of Muslims since the end of their last Golden Age.


Islamism has its origins in pre-Islamic Arabia.  This period is generally referred to as jahiliyyah (ignorance) and it refers to a time when Arabs lived in a socially unequal, polytheistic society marked by tribal conflict and infighting: a society Islamists consider very similar to contemporary social conditions.  Jahiliyyah was originally applied to current events by Taqi al-din ibn Taymiyyah in the thirteenth century.  From the Islamist perspective, the only way to improve the current state of affairs is to return to an uncorrupted form of Islam such as practiced by the Prophet, Al-Khulafa al-Rashidun (Righty Guided Companions), and the Caliphs who led Muslims into various previous Golden Ages.  Mawdudi suggested that contemporary Muslim rulers were exacerbating jahiliyyah by creating laws based on non-Islamic doctrines, thereby usurping God’s authority and brining about hardship for their Muslim people.  Sayyid Qutb used this term to describe Egypt’s political, social, economic, and moral decay, and to justify extremist action to overthrow apostate Muslim governments that exerted lordship over Muslims.  The message received from Allah by the Prophet Mohammad became the foundation of Islam and it quickly spread across the Middle East, Africa, and into both Asia and Europe.  This rapid expansion was viewed as a blessing from God for the faith of the Muslims and resulted in various Golden Ages where Islamic culture rivaled all other existing cultures (a situation Islamists promise will be repeated if Muslims will follow their prescription for living).  Islamic culture flourished until the Ottoman Empire began to decline and was eventually defeated and dismantled by Western powers following World War I.


Who are the main targets of critique for Islamists?  The main targets of Islamist critique are governments that claim to be Islamic, but do not operate in a manner consistent with the Islamist’s view of Islam (whom they refer to as “the near enemy”), as well as Western powers and ideologies that oppress or interfere with Muslim society (whom they refer to as “the far enemy”).[6]  Islamists seek to extend the tenants of Islam beyond the narrow confines that secular modernists (Arab or Western) attempt to place upon it.  They desire to see shariah (divine law) as the sole source of state legal code, while rejecting secularization and Westernization (but not necessarily modernity), as well as all modern ideologies which seek to serve as a substitute for religion-based values.  The Qur’an (recitation), however, does not rule out peaceful coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims even when living in the same state.  While some extremist variants of Islamism make enemies of all non-Muslims, there is a provision for Ahl al-Kitab (People of the Book) to accept Muslim rule and pay jizya (alms tax), thereby living in peace with Muslim rulers, or for anyone to convert to Islam and join the umma (community).  Ultimately, Islamists seek to diagnose the source of problems faced by Muslims, identify a cure for those problems, and propose a process for remedying those problems: while Islam is always their answer, the implementation varies.[7]


Contemporary Islamism


How has Islamism evolved in the twentieth century?  David Zeidan notes that “the resurgence of religions, especially in their fundamentalist forms, is a characteristic of the twentieth century and the turn of the twenty-first century:” this is especially true of Islam.[8]  Several key figures including Mawdudi, Hasan al-Banna, and Qutb have played a part in developing, refining, and redirecting Islamism throughout the twentieth century.  Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr has said that Mawdudi’s “interpretation of Islam has formed the foundation of contemporary Islamic revivalist thought.”[9]  He was a moderate who espoused gradual change and noted that “social change would result not from violent toppling of existing order,” but rather by “taking over the centers of political power and effecting large scale reforms from the top down.”[10]  He sought to gain influence through existing media and political channels in order to bring about an Islamic government that would create a social order in line with God’s will complete with an elected president, parliament, and a judiciary.[11]  The political party he founded in 1941, Jama’at-I Islami (Islamic Party), is still active in Pakistani politics today and were leading opposition figures against Pervez Musharraf’s government when he began to make reforms following his 1999 coup d’état.  Mawdudi’s greatest influence on contemporary Islamist discourse was his focus on the “administrative functioning and constitution of the Islamic state:” an element often overlooked by extremists who wish to topple governments, but have no plan managing the state afterward.[12]


Another moderate who espoused gradual change was al-Banna.  His political career began around 1919 when he participated in anti-British demonstrations and lasted until his assassination in 1949.[13]  He, like preceding Muslim reformers, saw the current state of Muslims (militarily, politically, and economically subservient to Western powers) as a direct result of their “deviation from ‘true’ Islam.”[14]  His vision for change included a bottom-up approach to Islamization which relied on a network of personal relationships, community outreach, and social services that would result in a return to traditional Islamic values, thus facilitating a better, more equitable social order in line with God’s will.  For him, teaching Muslim children during the day and preaching at night were the best ways to inspire a transformative socio-religious movement that would lift Muslims from their deteriorated position.[15]  The organization he founded, the Muslim Brotherhood, worked to “end foreign domination of Egyptian politics, economy, and culture and the creation of an Islamic order (al-nizam al-islami)” founded upon shariah by reaching out to Muslim masses through the media and social programs intended to inspire a reawakening of Islam.[16]  This organization actively worked to “dissuade Muslims from violence, channeling them into politics and charity.”[17]  His interpretation of an Islamic government was less structured than Mawdudi’s, but it contained three general principles: (1) the ruler is responsible to Allah and the people, (2) the state must act in a unified manner, and (3) the people have the right to monitor and advise their ruler, as well as to ensure their will is respected.[18]


Representing radical Islamist ideology is Qutb.  Qutb was originally a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but grew dissatisfied with the gradual changes sought by other Islamists and began to contemplate a more radical doctrine.  His doctrine included takfir (labeling another Muslim a kafir or infidel), nizam al-jahili (a Muslim who accepts a non-Islamic government is not a true Muslim), the introduction of vanguards (true believers who will educate and lead others), and jihad (to strive, exert oneself, or take extraordinary pains) against governments that were not true to Islam [particularly jihad bid sayf (jihad by the sword)].[19]    The concept of takfir has its origins in medieval times with the Kharijites (those who succeeded), but was elevated to a new level of importance by Qutb.  From Qutb’s perspective, takfir was a justification of Muslim-on-Muslim violence otherwise outside the mainstream of Islamic thought.  Its significance to Islamism lies in its justification of jihad bid sayf against Muslims who do not accept the revolutionary ideologies espoused by Islamic extremists.  For Qutb, a person who professed to be a Muslim, but did not live in complete submission to God (i.e. according to Islamic principles) was not a true Muslim and therefore subject to retribution from the forces of true Islam (punishment for jahili).  Further, any Muslim who accepts a non-Islamic system of government was also not a true Muslim: by accepting a secular authority, one rejects the sovereignty of God and is therefore not a true Muslim.


Much of his dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the gradualist approach likely stems from his time in Egyptian prisons following Nasser’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.  Qutb noted in Milestones that “those who have usurped the authority of God and are oppressing God’s creatures are not going to give up their power merely through preaching,” thereby implying that a more revolutionary approach to social change is necessary.[20]  His work was influential on many Islamist thinkers and continues to be a source of inspiration for extremists today primarily for his justification of violence in order to overcome jahili (ignorant or apostate) regimes.[21]  While Qutb’s doctrines do support an association between Islamism and violence, one cannot disregard the teachings of Mawdudi and al-Banna: Qutb likely represents a reaction to harsh treatment of Islamist ideologies by a Westernized Middle East government (Egypt).  From this, one can postulate two things.  First, there are two general tracts in Islamist ideologies: one potentially revolutionary (as manifested by groups such as Al Qaeda) and one gradual that is willing to work within the system to promote positive, gradual change (as manifested by the Muslim Brotherhood).  Second, the way governments react to Islamist organizations can influence the degree of militancy they choose to employ in pursuit of their objectives.[22]


What makes Islamism resonate in the Muslim world today?  Several factors make the Islamist option appealing to Muslim masses.  First, it is a natural reaction to the perceived failures of Western ideologies to bring about political, social, and economic change in the Muslim world.  Muslim society has been in steady decline since the Industrial Revolution with colonialism and imperialism taking a toll on their ability to control their futures.  The reach and influence of Western powers has increased exponentially over the past two hundred years stripping away self-determination in Muslim lands and leaving them to live at a standard far below that of previous Islamic Golden Ages the Islamists offer a promise of return to.


Second, most Muslims have experienced an unequal distribution of wealth since the discovery of oil and other natural resources in the Middle East.  The abundance of fossil fuels in Muslim lands has been critical for the engines of commerce and modernization that have swept the globe, yet most of the region’s population lives in abject poverty.  Many are forced to watch as the wealth generated by their land is siphoned off by opportunistic foreign powers seeking their own comfort and progress, while dictatorial and apostate regimes propped up by these same powers oppress their Muslim brothers.  Globalization has left many of these people behind in terms of economic development and improvement of their daily lives.  Their governments have adopted Western secular notions or have readily accepted money from Western powers in order to bolster oppressive security apparatuses, that keep their people under their thumb: a situation the Islamists promise to relieve if the masses will live within their interpretation of Islam.


Finally, the Arab-Israeli conflict has served as a rallying point for the Islamist cause.  Israel, often considered the last colonial state on earth, remains the strongest military force indigenous to the Middle East.  From the viewpoint of the Muslim masses, it is also a tyrannical and terrorist entity that stole Muslim lands following World War II and continues to oppress Muslims (specifically Palestinians) today.  Western support for Israel and the inability or unwillingness of other Muslim states to eliminate, control, or otherwise reign in Israel’s anti-Palestinian actions reinforce Islamist justifications for jihad against Israel, the West, and Muslims regimes across the Middle East.




In this article, I have reviewed the origins and history of Islamism and argued this it is not always a threat to Western states or pro-Western Middle East governments; rather it is an alternative ideological perspective that may provide solutions for those who are dissatisfied with current governments.  Additionally, there appears to be a high, positive correlation between the level of militancy pursued by Islamists and the degree of repression employed by the state: the development of Qutb’s ideology serves as an example of this point.  The appeal of Islamism lies in its promise to return Muslims to a previous Golden Age in which their culture thrived and spread through commerce and conquest: a promise left utterly unfulfilled by post-colonial, Western-style governments across the Middle East today.  While the Islamist spectrum includes extremists, it also includes those seeking gradual change supported by popular mass movements; therefore, all Islamists should not be lumped into a singular category.  Like most social, cultural, and political ideologies, Islamism defies a one size fits all approach and demands a case by case assessment of the effectiveness and appeal of the individual organization.  With the current state of unrest sweeping through many Muslim countries, it is important for Western powers to gain a greater understanding of Islamist ideologies in general and work toward better insight into the minds of the protestors taking to the streets today in particular.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Air Force, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.


End Notes


[1] Mohammed Hafez, Class Lecture, NS 4320: Islamic Fundamentalism (Naval Postgraduate School, 2009).

[2] Mohammed Ayoob, The Many Faces of Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Middle East (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008), 2.

[3] For example, Nasser v. the Muslim Brotherhood.  Barbara Zollner, “Prison Talk: The Muslim Brotherhood’s Internal Struggle During Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Persecution, 1954 to 1971,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies Vol. 39, No. 3 (August 2007), 411-433.

[4] David Zeidan, “A Comparative Study of Selected Themes in Christian and Islamic Fundamentalism Discourses,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies Vol. 30, No. 1 (2003), 51.

[5] Hafez, NS 4320: Islamic Fundamentalism.

[6] Ayoob, The Many Faces of Political Islam, 152.

[7] Emmanuel Siva, “Sunni Radicalism in the Middle East and the Iranian Revolution,” International Journal of Middle East Studies Vol. 21, No. 1 (February 1989), 2.

[8] Zeidan, “Christian and Islamic Fundamentalism Discourses,” 43.

[9] Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, “Mawdudi and the Jama’at-i Islami: The Origins, Theory and Practice of Islamic Revivalism,” Pioneers of Islamic Revival, Ali Rahnema, ed. (Atlantic Highlands: Zed Books, 1994), 98.

[10] Ibid., 108.

[11] Nasr, “Mawdudi and the Jama’at-i Islami,” 107.

[12] Ibid., 106.

[13] David Commins, “Hasan al-Banna,” Pioneers of Islamic Revival, Ali Rahnema, ed. (Atlantic Highlands: Zed Books, 1994), 126.

[14] Ibid., 133.

[15] Ibid., 131.

[16] Carrie Wickham, Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism, and Political Change in Egypt (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 113.

[17] Robert Leiken and Steven Brooks, “The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood,” Foreign Affairs Vol. 86, No. 2 (March/April 2007), 113.

[18] Commins, “Hasan al-Banna,” 135.

[19] Hafez, NS 4320: Islamic Fundamentalism; and Assaf Moghadam, The Globalization of Martyrdom: Al Qaeda, Salafi Jihad, and the Diffusion of Suicide Attacks (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 108.

[20] Sayyid Qutb, Milestones (Chicago: Kazi Publications, 1993), 45.

[21] Moghadam, The Globalization of Martyrdom, 106-109.

[22] There are many factors that may influence the state v. Islamist dyadic: Hafez, NS 4320: Islamic Fundamentalism.

Categories: Islamism - Islamist

About the Author(s)

Colonel David E. Williams, Jr., USAF, is currently the Mission Assurance Division Chief at US Strategic Command. He was commissioned through ROTC at the University of Memphis in 1995. Col Williams earned a BA in Psychology from the University of Memphis in 1995, an MA in Counseling from Liberty University in 2006, and an MA in Homeland Security from the Naval Postgraduate School in 2009. Prior to his current assignment, Col Williams served as the 39th Mission Support Group Commander, Incirlik AB Turkey.