Political Islam and the ‘authority deficit’

Abdulla Mohammed is a second year History student at King’s. He is currently the Chair of KCSU and co-director of Communications for King’s Politics. When not spamming everyone’s Facebook newsfeed, he avidly follows cricket and postcolonial politics. His dissertation studies the changes that traditional forms of Islamic authority underwent during the postcolonial period. Below, he argues against the perception of political Islam as the self-confident, assertive image it is given by certain media outlets. While making no comment on its validity, he hopes that contextualizing political Islam would help understand its objectives.

Politicization of Islam has been an undeniable reality of the 21st Century. For many postcolonial and anti-colonial thinkers, Islam was more of an ideology than a religion. They expanded from Islam’s core set of beliefs to address questions posed by modernity. But despite their common source, these versions of ‘political Islam’ hold clear nuances from each other. Some intend to cooperate with the party-political structure held by most countries, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan. Others intend to advocate the return of the caliphate by peaceful means such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir.

Labels like political Islam and Islamism (an equally reductive term) omit these nuances, particularly in modern discourse.  Due to outbreaks of movements such as Al Qaeda and ISIS, other forms of political Islam have been painted with the same brush. Political Islam is therefore posited in a ‘clash of civilizations’ framework, where an inherently aggressive and expansionist Islam is inevitably expected to come into conflict with Western civilization (another dangerous monolith). The expansion of Islam into the political spheres of both the East and West have also contributed to this concern.

Yet this article is not concerned with defending political Islam from these allegations; instead, it hopes to contextualize political Islam as a modern development and one that has been shaped by an ‘authority deficit’. The gradual decline of Islam’s political agency and the end of the Ottoman empire have left behind a vacuum of authority of which political Islam has been focused on filling. This deficit has been the trigger for all the new forms of Islamic authority envisioned by the theorists of political Islam. Hence the forces behind the formation of political Islam tell us more of the power balance in postcolonial landscape than it does of Islam’s inherent nature.

Before the outbreak of political Islam, there was a gradual secularization of Muslim communities in the 19th and 20th Century. Imperialism in North Africa and South Asia brought forth a new set of challenges that were in many ways unprecedented. Western powers did have a part to play in contributing to their decline. British authorities curbed the influence of Islam in the courts, as Sharia law was no longer applied in Criminal courts after the creation of the Penal code in the British Raj in 1862.  British authorities acted similarly during the occupation of Egypt in 1882, where criminal law was again removed out of the remit of the Sharia courts. Instead, it only covered family law.

But it also must be recognized that the secularization of the Egypt’s courts preceded British occupation. In 1875, Egypt’s growing debt to European powers set the foundations for the establishment of autonomous European courts for European citizens and businesses. The alterations to the courts were one aspect of a changing order in which Islam was increasingly becoming excluded from: the dissolution of the Ottoman caliphate was another. In 1924, Atatürk dissolved the Ottoman caliphate and secularized the state.

Turkey’s rejection of the caliphate meant that there was no recognizable Islamic power left. The last form of defense against the encroaching secularism in Muslim societies had broken away.

Eventually, Muslim societies would go on to achieve independence from imperialist powers. However, the problem of secularism and the absence of a recognizable Islamic state would continue. Anti-colonial leaders continued the secular agenda of the colonial authorities. In Egypt, Nasser of Egypt abolished the Mixed Courts in 1955, removing any space for Sharia law. Additionally, no postcolonial state could replace the Ottoman caliphate. The last Sultan had left behind what can be termed as an authority deficit, in which existing institutions do not carry the same weight as previous institutions they intended to replace. After Atatürk’s announcement, the Sharif of Mecca, Husayn Bin Ali, attempted to capitalize by announcing his own claim as the Caliph of the Muslims. Yet his claim was largely rejected by prominent Islamic authorities and figures, including the roaming Islamic jurist Rashid Rida.

Since then, no state has achieved a monopoly of Islamic authority. Saudi Arabia’s oil embargo in 1973 and its support of resistance against the Communist regimes in Afghanistan were acts taken expressly in the interest of the wider ummah. But even Saudi shuns away from the position of Islamic leadership. Despite its religious overtones, the Saudi head of state is given the secular title of ‘king’. Furthermore, religious authority is largely restricted to domestic issues. It has no sway over the formation of foreign policy, which is instead is carried under the discretion of Saudi’s secular leaders. It is still a state that is defined by national and territorial, rather than Islamic, terms.

It is within this context of the authority deficit that the phenomenon (or, perhaps, phenomena) of political Islam appeared. In response to the changing moral landscape of the Ummah and the absence of any leading Islamic power, outfits such as the Muslim Brotherhood were initially conceived to protect Muslim communities from the aggressive expansion of western values. Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, mentions in his memoirs that a ‘tide of atheism and lewdness’ swept Egypt in the aftermath of the Frist World War.

Almost attached to this fear was the perception that there was no recognizable authority to counter Western influence. The failure of the Ottoman caliphate and the willingness of institutions such as Al Azhar to cooperate with colonial authorities brought forth an era wherein traditional forms of religious authority were now tainted in the eyes of many. Hence it is important to note that in its early stages, meetings of the Muslim Brotherhood would take place in coffee houses rather than in the mosque. It was a conscious decision to emphasis that Islam can be understood and learnt outside the confines of traditional authority.

Beyond Hassan Al Banna and the Muslim Brotherhood, there was much a wider trend of political Islam in the post-Ottoman period. Thinkers began to conceive of modern forms of Islamic authority to deal with the new world order. Another such example was in the last few years of the First World War with the Khilafat movement in India. Campaigning for the preservation of the Ottoman Caliphate, the movement came to its own end with the Empire’s demise. As such, the idea of Pakistan proliferated among many thinkers as the best alternative to solve the authority deficit.

The more radical operate in the terms of the authority deficit. Sayyid Qutb is one the most important sources in understanding modern conceptions of Jihad. He grounds his interpretation in being surrounded by Jahiliyya (unbelief) and in the necessity of an Islamic state. His disciple Muḥammad ʻAbd al-Salām Faraj would go on to set the foundations of contemporary Jihadi groups with his most famous work, The Neglected Duty. In it, he outlines the framework which speaks of a “far enemy” (referring to Western powers like America) and of a “near enemy” (referring to the authoritarian states of the Arab world). Like Qutb, Faraj bases ‘near enemies’ as the states that refuse to implement the Sharia. As such, he declares them to be a state of Jahiliyya and worthy of committing Jihad against.


The same narrative does not necessarily apply to Shia forms of political Islam. Iran has established itself as the political leader for Shiism, in a way that bears no equivalent among Sunni states.  This discrepancy can be explained by the hierarchy of Shiism, in which the internal structure gives greater standing to religious jurists than Sunnism.

But it can also be explained away by the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in April 1979. The new state had solved the authority deficit crisis as religious jurists now that held greater levels of political capitals than secular politicians. In fact, the Juxtaposition of Islamism in Iran and Islamism in the rest of the world would provoke a stronger Islamist response in the 1980s and 90s. Almost directly after the Iranian revolution, Saudi Arabia witnessed the siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in November 1979 by Juhayman Al-Oteibi and his 400 armed followers. The execution of the siege was itself a strong statement. For the first time in centuries, gunshots were fired and 100,000 pilgrims were kept hostage in the holy mosque against Saudi’s security forces in the name of Islam. The movement was eventually crushed by French and Pakistani military assistance but it was nonetheless a loud wakeup call.

Al-Oteibi believed that the Al Saud family had transgressed from the true path of Islam and that Saudi Arabia was a pseudo-Islamic country, even after the movement’s demise. It would leave a mark in the incoming Sahwa movement, which took place only 6 years after in 1985. Sahwa translates as ‘awakening’ and, as indicated by its name, the movement campaign to further Islamize Saudi. The movement did not call for the overthrow of the Al Sauds, as Al-Oteibi had done, but rather it called for political reform. Despite the different natures of the Sahwa and the siege of Mecca, the small chronological difference suggests a link between the two.

The Sahwa also operate under the assumption that Saudi Arabia still insufficiently Islamic as a country.  Many of its central figures, such as Sheikh Al-Hawali and Al-Awda, were imprisoned in 1994 after criticizing the royal family too openly. Their critique remains to this day. It is thrown by groups like ISIS, that condemn Saudi’s inability to transform itself as an Islamic state. Al Baghdadi has referred to the Al Saud family as Al Salul, which references a figure from the seventh century that conspired against the Prophet while outwardly embracing Islam.

However, it was not by accident that these criticisms appeared in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution. Movements such as the siege of Mecca and the Sahwa are more suggestive of anxieties of the lack of success in Sunni Islam, particularly in relation to the success of Islamist groups within Shia Iran. The stark difference of fortunes has only sought to perpetuate the authority deficit problem within Sunni communities.


Political Islam is not necessarily the assertive force that it is portrayed to be. While certain Islamist groups can be aggressive and expansionist, political Islam not inherently so. Instead, it is insecure. Its preoccupation with an Islamic state and its frustration over the encroaching secularism in Muslim societies are its fundamental characteristics. Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood or Hizb-ut-Tahrir are more concerned with establishing a recognizable Sunni political power than expanding into other regions such as the West.

This is not to say that Islamist groups cannot pose a threat to Western nations: Jihadi outfits such as Al Qaeda and ISIS clearly do. Instead, it is to re-state that it was more concerned with establishing a new form of Islamic authority. Hence it is for this reason that ISIS and its leader Al-Baghdadi utilize the language of the caliphate rather than one of world conquest.

Any serious analysis of political Islam needs to consider the implications of the authority deficit. Otherwise it risks mischaracterizing the modern phenomenon of political Islam and confusing its political objectives.



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