Islam and Politics Today The Reasons of the Rise of Jihadism

Author: Hasan Yücel Başdemir*


Today, political unrest and violence is dominant in the Islamic World. Almost in every corner of the Middle East, bad governments are in power that do not give the right to live to those who are in peaceful opposition. Search for a life of peace are destroyed either by bombs, unknown assassins and military coups, or by jihadist (Islamic militant) groups, and the destructive and aggressive attitudes of Islamophobic secularists. Certain terrorist groups consider this as an opportunity and are trying to realise their political objectives under the name “Islamic State” justified by “Sharia” (Islamic ecclesiastical law) and using violence as a tool. Outside the Islamic world, some Muslims are integrated within the society in which they live; however, the majority of them are experiencing problems of integration. In short, Muslims are facing serious social problems all over the world.

Of course, there is no single reasons for these problems. The world conjuncture, the global economic situation, local factors, struggles between religious sects and the fact that so many Muslim nations have access to oil, all cause their problems. However, perhaps the over-riding problem is that Muslim people cannot produce a way of living on which they can fully agree. The intelligentsia and academics cannot analyse properly what is going on or foresee the future because the problems are so intricate. There is no consensus around the meaning of Islamic political concepts.

There is, of course, much debate around “sharia”. This concept has bad connotations in the Western world and also among secular Muslims. Though religious people praise sharia, its meanings are different to different people. Most Muslims see sharia as the dynamic reflection of Islam on everyday life that can change according to new situations. Jihadist groups, on the other hand, interpret sharia as the unchangeable and unfailing laws of Allah on Earth. Uncertainty and violence provides propaganda for the radical and Jihadist groups, and, for this reason, their supporters are increasing.

The adaptation of Muslim people to the world in which they live and also the promotion of peace in the Muslim world depend on the ability of Muslim people to agree to respect differences peacefully. Unfortunately, Islamic communities are unsuccessful in forming a conventional and agreeable political culture. Today, these problems are being discussed in every corner of the Islamic world.

In this chapter we will examine the modern political dispositions in the Muslim world in the context of the increasing power of Jihadist movements which have now become a major threat for the whole world. Whether Muslim or not, people who are under the pressure of violence and terror are curious about this: from where does the Islamic understanding of the Jihadists stem? Jihadists claim that their beliefs are based on the sharia, and this sharia includes the facts that were stated by the Prophet Muhammad. They claim that there is only one single interpretation of the religion. This interpretation is for everyone.

The political uncertainties in the Islamic world have given rise to an increase in support for Jihadists. From where do they obtain their support? Is it the message of Muhammad, or is it the sociological experiences people have undergone? To answer this question, it is necessary to glimpse into the history of the political experiences of the Muslim people.

We can divide this history into two different historical periods. The first is the political experience that starts with the holy voyage of the Prophet Muhammad to Medina (Yathrib) in the year 622 AD and continues until the early 19th century. The second period starts with colonisation in the 19th century and includes the political Islamic discourses produced against the secular dictatorships. Modern political attitudes have been born in this second period. These attitudes were moderate and agreeable in the beginning; however, they became controversial and exclusionist later on. Today, this exclusionist attitude has become a danger, both for the Muslim people and for the world.


Before the Prophet Muhammad brought his Islamic message, the Arabs in the area called Hijaz lived in small city-states, and did not have political unity. This region was surrounded by Byzantium to the north, Persia to the east, Abyssinia to the west, and Yemen kingdom to the South. The Arabs were worried about attacks by these strong states and were afraid of losing the wealth that they had earned by commerce. In an era when the Arabs were in search of political unity, the Prophet Muhammad (571-632) brought the first revelations in 610. This new religion spread among the Arabian tribes within a very short time (around 20 years). As Islam was spreading among the Arabs, a political unity was being formed as well.

With the Hegira, the holy journey of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina (Yathrib), occurred in the year 622, and the Muslim people started to form a state model. This process started with the Hegira and gained speed with the conquest of Mecca in 630. As the message of Islam was spreading, a strong state was also emerging. After the year 630, Islam started to spread out of Hijaz as well, and the borders of the state were expanding. Actually, the Prophet Muhammad did not claim any political leadership: he was a Prophet. However, the fact that there was not a strong state in Hijaz, and the expectations of the Arabs for political unity made Muhammad a natural political leader. The political success of the Prophet Muhammad came before the religious successes. Before the Islamic message was completed, Muhammad proclaimed his political victory and established a strong state that could beat the Byzantium Empire and Persia in a very short time.

Muhammad did not promise a state to the Muslim people, and did not pose a state model. He found himself as the political leader of the Muslims spontaneously while he was spreading his message. The religious and worldly authority was merged in the personality of Muhammad. The merger of these two authorities was not experienced before in the traditions of Abraham on whom Muhammad based his message. A similar situation was partly observed in the time of David and Suleiman; however, the political power of Muhammad went far beyond theirs. Before the revelations ended, Muhammad took the authority of the state in his hands, and this authority was a good tool for spreading the divine message. Actually, he did not have a political purpose; his sole aim was to convey the divine message to the whole of humanity. Muhammad, therefore, did not face an authority that prevented him from inviting people to Islam and this situation gave rise to a rapid spread of Islam. As the Islamic world was expanding, the practices of Muhammad became a political model for future rulers. This political model did not depend on the separation of the religion and politics. In the world of 7th Century AD, there was not a civil state in today’s sense, and nor was there such an expectation.

Muhammad took political decisions because he was also the head of the state. What kind of a route did he follow while he was taking these decisions? The word ‘state’ did not exist in the divine message, and an original state model or a political organisational form was not suggested. Muhammad made use of the general principles set forth by the divine message about the social life. However, for most of the time, he did not find it unfavourable to take many practices that existed in the traditions of idolater Arabs so long they were not contrary to the divine message.[1]

The death of Muhammad started the political debates that later gave rise to two big religious sects (Shiite and Ahl Al-Sunnah). The followers of these debates took the political practices of Muhammad as the starting point. However, they did not accept his practices as unchangeable and added many new practices to them. The first political practice after the death of Muhammad is the Caliphate. The Caliphate involves somebody taking leadership of Muslims in the name of the Prophet to run religious and worldly affairs[2]: this person is called the ‘Caliph’. Muhammad did not propose such an institution and did not appoint a caliph. After his death, Abu Bakr became the Caliph after the elections. Before he died, Abu Bakr appointed Omar as the next Caliph. Omar gave the right of electing the Caliph after him to a strategic commission consisting of six people. This commission determined the Caliphate of Osman with an election process. Ali then became Caliph elected by the majority of Muslims like the first Caliph Abu Bakr. After Ali, the Caliphate was transferred to the Umayyad dynasty. With the Umayyads, the Caliphate was merged with the sultanate, and was transferred down the family line from father to son. After one century, Abbasids followed the Umayyads. The Caliphate was a rational institution that emerged as a result of the needs of the Muslim people for earthly leadership and was not proposed by the Prophet.

The political structures that started with the Prophet Muhammad and continued with the ‘Era of Four Caliphs’ continued with the sultanates of Umayyads and Abbasids. However, this system took different forms according to the needs of the Islamic world throughout history. For example, the Ottoman Sultans established a religious authority called “Sheik-al Islam” to make decisions (fatwa) on religious issues. The development of this state model continued until the 17th Century when the Ottoman state started to decline. The model was not a religious necessity; it developed as a result of human necessities.

Louise Massignon defined the Muslim state that emerged over this period as a “secular and egalitarian theocracy”.[3] This definition shows that it is not possible to understand the political experience of Muslim people using the terminology of modern politics. When viewed from today’s perspective, the Muslim state is theocratic in some ways and secular in other ways.


Mawardi (974-1058), in his book Ahkamu’s-Sultaniyya, describes the characteristics of the state model that tended to govern Muslim peoples. Mawardi claims that the Caliphs did not take their political power from Allah, and that they are elected or appointed. He makes a list of the duties of a Caliph. These duties are: protecting the religion; protecting the lives and property of the people; adjudicating disputes; setting penalties and applying them for the purpose of protecting the rights of the peoples; applying the orders and prohibitions set by Allah; and conducting the necessary work to prove that Islam is superior to other religions. In addition, the Caliph is responsible for preparing for battle against those who want to harm the Muslim people.

In Mawardi’s books, we can find the characteristics of the early period state model. Acting in accordance with the Muslim religion, spreading and protecting it are the duties of the state. There has not been a distinction between the religion and politics in the historical and political experience of Muslims. The heads of states represented the highest religious and worldly authority with the title Caliph.[4] For this reason, Muslim state was not a secular state. However, it is also hard to claim that it was a full theocracy, because the Caliph, although he was the worldly and religious leader, was not a person who had spiritual properties. His decisions were not binding in terms of religion: they were only examples. The heads of states did not have spiritual superiority over other Muslims, and did not rule the country in the name of Allah. Moreover, the Caliph had the authority to make the laws of the country only as long as they were not contrary to the laws and orders of Allah.

Also important were the ‘dhimmis’. Dhimmis were people who were not Muslims but who accepted Muslim political authority. They were restricted by various laws and, unlike Muslims, paid an extra tax called “poll tax” (jizya). In return, they were exempt from military service and some other responsibilities. The state ensured the safety of their properties and their lives. This practice was based on the verses of the Quran: “Allah does not prohibit you from making good deeds and behaving in justice to those who do not make war with you”;[5] and on the agreements of the Prophet Muhammad with the Jews and Christians in Medina. The dhimmis and Muslims had equal commercial rights. They were allowed to establish a worldly and religious authority that regulated their internal and external affairs in the society in which they lived. Based on these practices, we can conclude that multiple legal systems were allowed in Muslim countries. The dhimmis were tried according to their own legal systems if they demanded it.[6]

The existence of multiple legal systems was an important part of Muslim political life. This was apparent from the time of the Prophet Muhammad’s until the collapse of the Ottoman State. In addition, the legal system of the Muslim people was divided into two sub-classes: ecclesiastical law and customary law. The ecclesiastical law consisted of laws based on interpretations of the Quran and Sunnah. The customary law consisted of the laws that were needed and made by the rulers. The Ottoman State developed this double-system and made it more systematic.


The development of the historical Muslim state model did not ensure that politics and ethics were developed independently from religion. Books written on ethics and politics were not favoured by society or its rulers. For this reason, topics such as government and law in Islam were considered under the title of disciplines such as Fıqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and Kalam (Islamic theology) in classical sources. As a result of this, the political terms and approaches that emerged were accepted as part of the Islamic belief.

Islamic belief is traditionally divided into four sections.

  • Belief: this includes the belief principles such as believing in Allah, the Prophets, Holy Books, and the hereafter.
  • Worshipping, including prayers, fasting, zakat (Islamic charity).
  • “Muamelat” (relations/proceedings) which relates to commerce, inheritance, marriage, divorce and other similar legal issues. The issues about governing the state are also part of this area.
  • Punishments or penalties (Ukubat) which refer to the legal system of punishment.

These four elements are expressed in the word ‘Sharia’. The word Sharia means road, method and custom. When the word Sharia is mentioned, usually, the Islamic state order is understood. But, the state order constitutes a very small part of Sharia. Sharia is a set of rules that is intended to organise the individual, social, religious and worldly lives and affairs of Muslims. These rules are based on the Quran and Sunnah that are accepted as the main sources of Islam. The Quran is the holy book of Allah revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. Sunnah is the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad. Sunnah is the way the Quran is applied in practice by the Prophet Muhammad.

The Quran and Sunnah are the basic sources of Islam. The authority of these cannot be questioned. However, they are open to interpretation and adaptation to new conditions. As the founder of the Religious Sect of Hanafî, Abu Hanîfa (699-767) said: “Interpreting the events does not make a man go astray unless the revelations from Allah are denied”. The interpretations of the Quran and Sunnah that are designed to make the main sources of the religion understood and adaptable to new conditions constitute the Sharia. The religion is not questioned and is stable; however, the Sharia is dynamic and changeable. Indeed, different interpretations constitute the bases of the various religious sects. For this reason, there is not a single code of Sharia on which all Muslims fully agree. However, except for some disagreements in Shiite and Al-Sunnah religious sects, the many different rules of Sharia are not in conflict with each other: they are adapted to different times, places and cultures.

The belief and worshipping parts in Sharia are similar in different religious sects. However, there are many differences in Muamelat. The reason for this is relations and proceedings are the part of Sharia in which interpretations are most needed. These interpretations are no mere opinion, however. There are certain methods by which they are derived, for example analogy, agreement of the Islamic society (icma), the stating of judicial opinion (ictihad) and personal interpretation. Agreement of the Islamic society (icma) and the stating of judicial opinion (ictihad) are the most used methods in the area of relations. However, there are ‘free legal areas’ (ibaha) in classical which allows the taking of decisions without referring to the basic sources of the religion. The majority of the Sharia and politics is considered to be in the ibaha area.

There are many approaches to understanding Sharia, its nature and application. Shatibi from Andalucía (1320-1388) claims that Sharia is organised for the good of human beings both in the world and in the life in hereafter. According to him, Sharia exists to protect innate rights. This is the purpose of Allah in sending the religion. In Shatibi’s opinion, the real purpose of Sharia is protecting the five basic rights:

  • Protecting the religion (freedom of religion).
  • Protecting the human soul (human life or right to life).
  • Protecting the generations (Shatibi means, providing continuance of genus by protecting the family life. (It is possible to say “protecting the family life for the sake of the continuity of human generation” in this article).
  • Protecting property. (property right)
  • Protecting the thoughts.[7]This matches up to “freedom of opinion and conscience, but Shatibi and other Islamic scholars didn’t use the term, freedom (hurriyya). If there is a semantic shift, editor can appreciate the proper term, for example “freedom of thought”.

These are called as “the purposes of Sharia”, in Arabic “Makasidu’s-Sharia”.

In the traditional Al-Sunnah belief system, there are two points of views about Sharia. Ahl al-Ray (the Exegetes) and Ahl al-Hadith (the Scripturists). Ahl-al Ray accepts the realm of legal freedom in a broad sense and claim that the Holy Scriptures can be continually interpreted according to new conditions. As Shatibi said, the orders that are sent by Allah and mental and scientific truths are never in conflict. If there appears to be such a conflict, it is necessary that it is removed through interpretation. The widest religious sects of the Islamic world, Hanafi, Maturidi, Mu’tazili and Maliki take this approach. Ahl al-Hadith (the Scripturists) on the other hand, deny the possibility of interpretation of the holy books and the legal freedom when it comes to the Sharia. According to them, everything that is needed is in the Holy Scriptures. Even if it is in conflict with science and mental truths, everything written in the fundamental scriptures are literally true and are not open to interpretation. This attitude is generally called “Salafiyya” and is mostly observed in the Hanbali religious sect. However, whether people adopt this position does not necessarily depend on whether they are members of a particular sect; such religious attitudes usually stem from personal preferences.

Modern jihadist movements find supporters from all religious sects and adopt the attitude of Ahl al-Hadith regarding the holy books. Ahl al-Hadith considers the religion and Sharia identical, and, for this reason, considers Sharia as a set of unchanging rules.


Political experience in the last two centuries has gone through severalperiods throughmoderate political attitudes towards radical and violence ones.This chapter is interested in the first onewhich I called the period of colonization and hadcontinued until 1940s and 1950s.This period caused two perspectives emerge, Islamists and reformists whichboth have accommodatedmodernist,moderate political attitudes,as well as thoseagainst the West.Nevertheless the approach of mainlyIslamists has defended to look back to essencevia ignoring traditional Islamic values,with an exception of  the Quran and Sunnah and rejecting Muslims’ historical experience. Reformists have defended to install the western values to Muslim world as they are in the West. Both have avoided extremism.However,Reformists didn’t defendto go “back to essence” but Islamists defended strongly. Islamists mostly defended to link the Quran to political sphere, not for violent discourse, but for pluralism, democracy and other modern western values. Some Islamists even claimed that secular political processes are acceptable if not all. However, reformists reject going “back to essence”, linking the Quran to political sphere. They remain secular in the field of politics, economics etc. They defended to take western valuesas they are. We can attribute “modernism”to both, but not reformism. Latter can only be recalled with reformism.

Thissectionexplains the transformation process of the intellectual approaches to pro-violence groups in the Muslim world in the last two centuries. In this article, two reasons are mentioned as follows: (a) Secular dictatorships who restrict the human rights. (b) Events whichare mentioned in the last paragraph. There is an important point: Thse events didn’t increase the will of violence, but increased the social base of pro-violence groups. Thisbasicly made those territories become unbearable. Although jihadism takes the approach of Ahl al-Hadith in terms of its belief system, it is a modern phenomenon. It was the political experience of Muslims in the last two centuries that made jihadism emerge. (This statement can be more favorable as follows. It is the result of the political experience of Muslims in the last two centuries). Islamic movements in the colonisation period were generally moderate. However, after the replacement of colonisation by secular dictatorships, firstthe fundamentalist, then the jihadist movements gained power. Having said that, it is still a fact that the historical conditions which helped laying down the ground for jihadism started via the colonisation of the Muslim world by European states.

The traditional state model of Muslims was based on a strong leader who held religious and worldly authority. Through colonisation, Muslims lost the political power they had been holding for centuries and the traditional state model became inoperative.

In fact, it was notthe political power in terms of knowledge and technical power that was lost. This situation left most of the Muslim peoples behind the Europeans who were skilful in terms of political organisation. Colonisation gave rise to great political and attitudinal changes in the Muslim world. In the period that started in 622 AD, with the holy voyage of the Prophet Muhammad and his friends from Mecca to Medina, and continued until the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon in 1798, Muslims often held economic, scientific and political superiority over other religions and nations. When Egypt was invaded and the British East India Company started to govern India these were the first indicators of the superiority of the Western world over Muslims. This superiority was then converted into colonisation and caused great disappointment. This disappointment urged Muslim scholars to set off on new quests.

Since the problem was political, it was political interpretations of Islam that came to the forefront. A political science that was independent from religion did not develop and the new ideas that developed were religion-centered. At first, the problem was stated along the following lines: “Muslims have lagged behind. The reason for this is that they misinterpreted the religion and strayed away from the true religion. If we understand the religion truly, and apply it in our lives, we will be saved from disgrace and from being exploited.” In this context, the first political Islamic interpretations showed “back to the essence” and “reform” characteristics.

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897)from India was the founder of the “back to the essence” theology. He was followed by Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), Namık Kemal (1840-1888), Rashid Rıda (1865-1935), Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) and Musa Carullah Bigiev (1875-1945) who were all Islamic modernists.

The ideas of ‘revival’ (ihya) and ‘renewal’ (tecdid) lie at the heart of the “back to the essence” concept. According to these ideas, the reason for the then-current situation of Muslims was that they believed that Islamic thought was fixed. Afghani stated in his book al-Urvetu’l-Vuska (The Great Struggle for Salvation), which was an inspiration for the Islamic movements, that Muslims were left behind and exploited because they had moved away from the Quran and the Sunnah.[8]

Iqbal took a different view. According to him, the problem was the transition of the Islamic thought into a “hereafterism” and towards irrationality after the fifth century.[9] This meant that the revival of Islamic thought should be based on leaving the traditional Quran and Sunnah interpretations, and re-interpreting the main sources.

This first political movement, pioneered ideologically by Afghani, is known as Pan-Islamism. Pan-Islamism is not a jihadist movement contrary to broadly perceived; it is an intellectual and tolerant movement. It is intellectual, because Pan-Islamists believe that salvation does not come from giving battle, but from knowledge. It is tolerant because Pan-Islamists claim that western values should be adapted to the Islamic world after they are checked and verified by the Quran. A hostile attitude towards the western World is not observed in Islamist thought. Their motto is this: “Take the science and technique of the West, but do not take its religion and culture”. So, it is faithful to the sacred texts in relation to their role in religion and culture. The biggest political aim of Afghani and his followers has been the establishment of an Islamic Union and Consultancy institution (I mean that Afghani was trying to establish Islamic Union and a decision maker for it (similar to European Council) so that all Islamic states can make co-decision for their political affairs. It is called in Arabic language, “Shura” and I think “Islamic Council” can be a more appropriate usage) among Islamic countries. The Ottoman State adopted Pan-Islamism as the state policy between the years 1876-1923 when it was about to collapse.

Pan-Islamists were moderate towards secular values such as democracy and human rights. The Consultancy institution was used as the counterpart of the term democracy in the Muslim world by modernists such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh. Pan-Islamists always claimed values that came from the tradition of European Liberal Politics. Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949) who founded the Muslim Brotherhood organisation in Egypt, Rashid Ghannushi (1941-) who was the leader of the An-Nahda in Tunisia, the Nationalistic Vision Movement led by Necmettin Erbakan (1926-2011) in Turkey based their political views on a democratic discourse. Pan-Islamists never saw the armed struggle and violence as a method for seeking rights.

The general attitude of the Pan-Islamists has been that Muslims must overcome their problems with knowledge, working, sincerity and good moral values. However, some Pan-Islamists deny the religion-state separation, and defend a democracy the basic principles of which are defined according to the main Islamic sources. Other modern Pan-Islamists, on the other hand, strongly defend political secularism. Although Erbakan and Ghannushi opposed a form of secularism held religious people away from the politic life, they did consider the idea of separating politics from religion and ideology, thus secularising the state.

Another important political movement in the colonisation period was that of reformism. The emergence of reformism dates from around the same time as the emergence of Pan-Islamism. Reformism tries to make Islamic values and practices of modern life conform to each other and it proclaims democracy and political secularism. Reformists claim that religion and politics should be separated completely from each other and suggest that Muslims should take the political values and the science of the west as they are. According to reformists, the Quran and Sunnah do not include judgments about politics: they should be left to the prudent judgements of human persons. The pioneer of this approach is Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan from India.

Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) claimed that the current interpretation of Islam was against the development of science and art and that this was the reason for the Muslim world being left behind. He tried to adapt the natural religious approaches in the western world (in age of enlightenment) to Islam. Ahmad Khan, influenced Ali Abdel Razıq (1888-1969) in Egypt. Abdel Razıq, in his book called al-Islam ve’l Usulu’l-Hukm states that Islamic Sharia is only spiritual and does not have laws and regulations for politics and for worldly matters. He argues that these issues are left to human judgement. According to Abdel Razıq, Islam has left the worldly and political problems to the initiative of believers. The regulations about social life change in every period, and it is wrong to consider the practices in particular periods as the basis of Islam.[10]

There has been lively discussion of the relationship between Islam and politics since the 19th Century as a result of the trauma of colonisation. The religious-centered political discourses that started with Islamists as “back to the essence, “renewal” and “revival” theologies turned into the resistance theology which was pitted against the secular dictatorships after the second half of the 20th Century.

From Pan-Islamism to Jihadism

The jihadist movements became political actors in the Muslim world in the mid-twentieth century, originating from Pan-Islamic movements. However, there are many differences between Pan-Islamists and jihadists in terms of political attitudes and their views about religion and life.

Since the 1940s, there emerged revolutionary movements that favoured violence. Two factors gave rise to these movements. The first was dictators obtaining power and torturing their peoples. The second was the wars in the Muslim world. The Arab-Israeli war that started after 1948, the Israel’s policies in relation to Palestine, the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in 1979, the Bosnian War (1992-1995) and the war in Chechenia (1994-1996). All of these gave rise to the strengthening of Jihadist movements.


There has been a constant debate about how to describe the irreconcilable religious and political attitudes that have favoured violence in the Muslim world. They are given names such as ‘radical Islamists’, ‘salafiyya’, ‘fundamentalists’[11], etc. However, jihadists describe themselves as “mujahidin”: those who gave a holy battle against people who do not believe in Islam. Jihadism, in this sense, corresponds to “Islamic fundamentalism” within the political sphere.

Jihad, as a word, means working and struggling. In the religious literature, jihad means that persons should work with all their strength, life, property, language/tongue and other organs to make the name of Allah praised. Jihadism, on the other hand, has come to be the name of the attitude that emerged in mid-twentieth century in the Muslim world as a violent political struggle. Jihad, in the classical Islamic literature, is the struggle of a person to live the religion, and to make it widespread. The self-struggle of a Muslim for being a helpful man of good moral values is also accepted as jihad: the Prophet Muhammad called this as the “Great Jihad”. Jihadists are people who believe that they are already good people, and define jihad as giving battle against the non-believers in the name of Allah. They claim that they base their violent struggles on the principles of Islam and, for this reason, they emphasise certain concepts in the traditional religious understanding, and form a political discourse based on active struggle.

The jihadists give special meanings to religious concepts that are in accordance with their purposes and attitudes. For them, they interpret the words in a way that allows them to give a religious justification for violence. Sharia and jihad are the most common words in this sense. These are followed by Caliph, dhimmi, Home of Islam (Daru’l-Islam), Home of War (Daru’l-Harp).

Sharia, as stated above, is the side of the religion that is adjusted to the practical life. However, the jihadists interpret Sharia as a destructive Islamic ideology that shows hostile attitudes towards different lifestyles. It should be noted that this is not an interpretation that is common in the Muslim world, but it is becoming more widespread both among Muslims who live in Western countries and amongst those who live in the Muslim world. Muslims who adopt the jihadist Islamic interpretation stay away from the society they live in and close channels of communication. They form religious safehouses and alternative lifestyles in the areas in which they live. They explain this lifestyle using the Jahiliyya (ignorance) principle, arguing that those who do not live the religion as they do are either secular Muslims or non-believers and that they are ‘ignorant’ people who do not accept the sovereignty of Allah. In turn, they argue that they should stay away from others to protect ourselves from this jahiliyya”.

According to the jihadists, Muslim people need political unity and achieving it is a religious duty. For this, the caliphate must be revived. Jihadists claim that everybody except the dhimmis who beg pardon must be killed. They base their beliefs on the verse of the Quran in the Tawbah Surah: “Kill the non-believers where you find them”.[12] However, these verses were revealed in wartime conditions. There are many verses in the Quran stating that Muslim people must act in a good way towards those who are not Muslims; they must act in justice even towards those towards whom they feel anger.[13] Jihadists respond by claiming that the advice to behave in a good way towards non-believers in these verses are ‘demolished’ (naskh). [Naskh,according to jihadists, means one verse which abrogates the earlier verse). “Kill the non-believers where you find them” verse overrides verses such as “Muslim people must act in a good way towards those who are not Muslims”. They interprete (exegesis) Quranic verses permanent state of war against to non-Muslims.Because of that, I think “demolish” verb is not a proper choice for this meaning. It would be more proper as follows: “… are abrogated with latter verse”. Jihadists exploited Naskh, a methodology of interpretation to legitimize their violence.

The jihadists have three political principles:

  1. Allah is the sole authority that can judge on any subject. Judgement belongs solely to Allah (La hukme illa lillah).
  2. Those who commit great sins are banished from the religion, and those who are banished from the religion should be killed.
  3. War and riots against a cruel head of state are religious duties.

In fact, these three principles were defended by the ‘Outers’ who declared that the caliph, Ali, was a heretic because he made an agreement with Muawiyah, the governor of Damascus, and killed him. Jihadists adopt the religious-political attitude of this first, uncompromising pro-violence group in Islamic history.

It is possible to divide jihadists into two groups which could be described as ‘theoretical’ and ‘practical’. Jihadism first emerged as a theoretical movement in 1950s. Although there was resistance, revolution and violence in the discourse, in practice, violent actions were few and far between. However, the problem of Palestine, and the wars in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechenia gave rise to the jihadists who had the ability and willingness to act. The mujahidin who gave battle against the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan began to fight in Bosnia after the war in Afghanistan was over. They then joined the Chechen war after the Bosnian war. Thus, there emerged a group who considered themselves as holy warriors in the Muslim world, and who adopted war as their principal occupation. However, the jihadists did not only wage war in the frontiers, but also started to act violently against innocent civilians. The assault of Al-Qaida on the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001; the three bombings in İstanbul in 2003; the terrorist attacks in Madrid in 2004 and in London in 2005 showed that the practical jihadism was more than just a theoretical concept.

Jihadists came to believe that anywhere not ruled by the laws of Allah was a ‘home of war’ and that giving battle in such places is a religious duty.


The emergence of this form of jihadism dates back to the mid-twentieth century when colonisation was replaced by dictatorships. The first jihadist discourses that emerged as opposition to the bad practices of dictators were in the form of political opposition. However, when such political opposition was faced with government power using violence and murder, the Back-to-Essence and Renewal beliefs were replaced by the idea of Resistance. The basic thesis of the jihadists was that dictators proclaimed their own sovereignty after they ended the sovereignty of Allah. By doing so, they made the people their servants rather than the servants of Allah. The reason for the bad things that were happening to the people under these regimes was that the people were obeying these ‘pharaohs’ and tyrants.

Thus, they likened the dictators to the pharaohs who tortured the prophet Moses and Joseph, son of Jacob, in Egypt. It was argued that, when these pharaohs lost their political power, the sovereignty of Allah would be re-established and Muslims would be freed. Abul-A’la Mawdudî (1903-1979) and Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) became the most important intellectual pioneers of jihadism. According to Mawdudî and Qutb, secularism and democracy were “the tools for intellectual colonisation that was imposed after the actual colonisation by the West in the Islamic world”[14] They opposed the political values such as democracy, pluralism, religious tolerance, protection of peace, freedom of expression and the separate of religion and the state because they had adopted western norms. Mawdudî and Qutb regarded these secular dictators as Trojan Horses sent to the Muslim World. The sole political sovereignty belongs to Allah.[15] They worried about almost every thought that came from the outer world, and claimed that the Muslims did not need anything from the “heretic-westerners”. For this reason, jihadism was based on protecting society, having society become more turned in upon itself and struggle.

The concept of “the sovereignty of Allah” forms the basis of the political project of Mawdudî. This has many implications: only Allah manages human persons: He is the superior lawmaker; man cannot make laws; we can neither make decisions about ourselves, nor can anybody else make decisions about us; nobody can force anyone else to obey them; rule and authority belong solely to Allah; the sole ruler on earth is Allah; the body that directs the sovereignty of Allah on earth is the Islamic Council; even the Islamic Council that is formed of Muslim scholars cannot make laws – it only applies the Sharia.[16]

Mawdudî saw the holy battle, the jihad, as a revolutionary struggle for the good of all humanity. He argued that, just as the Prophet Muhammad struggled with the jahiliyya, today, Muslims should struggle with the jahiliyya (the ignorance) both in their societies and in the West.

Mawdudî became a great source of inspiration for the fundamentalists in the Islamic world. His book Four Terms according to the Quran came to be described as the “handbook of the resistance”. Sayyid Qutb, who was a socialist in his youth, was influenced by Mawdudî. He was imprisoned because of his beliefs and witnessed the violence applied to the Islamists by the Nasser regime in the prisons of Egypt. These wounded his spirit deeply, and he defended ideas that were more radical than Mawdudî. The books of Mawdudî and Sayyid Qutb became major works that formed a resistance theology based on the Quran in the Islamic world. For this reason, Mawdudî and Qutb, may be regarded as the founders of Jihadism with their resistance discourses.[17]


Jihadism emerged as a reaction against the social and political problems in the Muslim world in the last two centuries, and became stronger with the various wars and civil unrests. The religious-political discourses that started during the period of colonisation were converted into a resistance theology against secular dictatorships from the second half of the 20th Century. At the beginning, jihadism was an opposition discourse. However, later, it was converted into actions that included violence.

Jihadists put sharia at the central point of their political discourses, and consider the sharia, politics and the state as a whole that cannot be separated. They regard living the religion in a civil state order as blasphemy (kufr) and ignorance (jahiliyya). They believe it is necessary to abolish the ‘blasphemy state’ and establish the sovereignty of Allah under which they should live the religion. However, in the traditional Islamic state model, and in both the Shiite and AI-Sunnah traditions, there has not been an identity established between the legal system and the state.The historical state experience of the Muslim people allowed multiple legal systems. Also, the Muslim intelligentsia came to understand that traditional political experiences and Islamic sciences such as Fıqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and Kalam (Islamic theology) cannot find solutions for today’s problems. For these reasons, sanctifying the historical experiences, carrying them up to today’s world, and accepting them as unchangeable and unfailing, is futile.

Jihadist actions and discourses are not based on the main sources (the Quran and Sunnah) as jihadists claim. On the contrary, Jihadism is a phenomenon that emerged in the last few centuries and is an attitude held by people who cannot adapt themselves to the world they live in. The fact that Muslim people who emigrate to Western countries adopt a religious form that is introverted isolated from their neighbours are indicators of this. Many Muslim peoples in the Muslim world, however, accept living under a state order that is civil and just and does not discriminate. Such Muslim peoples watch the pessimistic, uncompromising and violent actions of the jihadists in astonishment. The actions of ISIS are perceived in a similar way by an Anglican from England as by a Sunni Muslim in Turkey.

Muslim people should stop searching for solutions to the political and social problems of the past, and stop asking the question. They should solve their problems from an Islamic perspective that is appropriate for the realities of the world they live in. Muslim people must answer this question clearly: in what kind of a society do Muslim people want to live? Do they want to live in an Islamic state in which religious sects and different religious lifestyles are in conflict, or in a civil state in which the state is just and does not discriminate based on people’s beliefs? Currently, there are no peace and stability in states that claim to be Islamic. And Muslim people are not free at all.

The best choice before Muslims is to live their religious beliefs freely in a civil state. Muslim people are suspicious of the civil state since it does not have a place in the historical experience of Islam: but, neither does an Islamic state.

The fact that the military coup in Egypt on July 3rd 2013 was realised with the support of secularists and jihadists has shaken the beliefs of mild and optimistic religious people in democratic values. But, there is not a realistic option other than democracy. Muslim people need a society in which they can live freely not bound by the pessimistic, exclusionist and violent attitudes of jihadism. Neither discourses that bind Islam to violence, nor Islamophobia or military coups will prevent Muslim people from addressing their problems in a wise manner. The values of an open society await Muslim people.

(*) Prof. Hasan Yücel Başdemir is Faculty member at Yıldırım Beyazıt University of Islamic Sciences. Basdemir is graduated from Ankara University Divinity Faculty, did his graduate thesis on Understanding of John Stuart Mill on Liberty, and completed his PhD on the Moral Foundations of Liberalism. Apart from his PhD title he has published collections of essays on The Problem of Knowledge in Contemporary Epistemology, Religious Freedom and Secularism in Turkey (all in Turkish). He is the Board Member of Quarterly Journal of Liberal Thought and the editor of Liberte Publications.


[1] Fazlurrahman (1995),” İslam ve Siyasi Aksiyon: Siyaset Dinin Hizmetinde”, İslam’da Siyaset Düşüncesi, trans.: Kazım Güleçyüz, İstanbul: İnsan Yayınları, p. 9.

[2] Ebu’l Hasan el-Maverdi (1994), el-Ahkamu’s-Sultaniyye (Rules of the Governance), trans.: Ali Şafak, Bedir Yayınevi, p. 29.

[3] Louis Gardet (1977), Les Hommes de l’Islam: Approche des Mentalités, Librairie Hachette, p. 74.

[4] See for wide knowledge: M. Qasim Zaman (1997), Religion and Politics under the Early Abbasids: The Emergence of the Proto-Sunni Elite, New York: Brill, p. 208.

[5] Quran, al-Mumtahanah 60/9.

[6] Ibn Qayyim al-Cavziyya, Ahkamu Ahli’d-Dhimme (The Law of Dhimmes).

[7] Şatibi (1990), el-Muvafakat fi Usuli’ş-Şeria, vol.: II, trans.: Mehmet Erdoğan, İz Yayıncılık: İstanbul, pp. 9, 24, 46.

[8] Tarık Ramazan (2005), İslamî Yenilenmenin Kökenleri: Afgani’den el-Benna’ya Kadar İslam Islahatçılığı, trans.: Ayşe Meral, İstanbul: Anka Yayınları, p. 70.

[9] Muhammad Iqbal (2013), İslam’da Dini Düşüncenin Yeniden İnşası (The Restoration of Religious Thought in Islam), trans.: Rahim Acar, İstanbul: Timaş Yayınları, p. 215.

[10] Ali Abdurrazık (1995), İslam’da İktidarın Temelleri (Bases of Government in Islam, al-Islam vel Usulu’l-Hukm), translated by: Ömer Rıza Doğrul, İstanbul: Birleşik Yayınları, p. 42.

[11] Editorial note: The most commonly used phrase in the UK, certainly amongst government ministers, seems to be ‘extremist’. This description is about as unhelpful as it gets. A group can take an extreme position on tolerance in relation to social issues (for example, the Prime Minister himself); one could be extreme when it came to pacifism; there are many religious adherents (Mormons, Catholics, Strict Baptists, and, I am sure, many Muslims) who are extreme in their devotion, but they are in no sense violent or apologists for violence.

[12] Quran, at-Tawbah 9/4-5.

[13] Quran, al-Maidah 5/8; al-Mumtahanah 60/9; ‘Ali ‘Imran 3/113.

[14] Sayyid Qutb (1990), Ma’raka al-Islam wa al-Ra’smaliyya, Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, p. 114.

[15] Seyyid Kutup (1997), Yoldaki İşaretler (Signposts on the Road), trans.:Salih Karataş, İstanbul: Dünya Yayınları.

[16] Beverley Milton-Edwards (2005), Islamic Fundamentalism: Since 1945, London: Routledge Press, p. 26.

[17] Karen Armstrong (2000), The Battle for God, New York: Knopf Press, p. 262.