The Ideology of Radical Islam

The Ideology of Radical Islam



This article is based in part on Alex Alexiev, Radical Islam and its Threat to the West and the Muslim World, Hudson Institute, Washington D.C., 2011.


Islamists fervently believe that the radical interpretation of the Islamic religion they profess is the only possible true inter-pretention of Islam and have sought precedents in the long history of the religion to prove their point. There have indeed been such precedents on several occasions in the past, but on the whole, modern Islamism is unmistakably a modern totalitarian doctrine that is much closer to its totalitarian brethren Nazism and communism than to Muhammad’s teachings. This becomes very clear by an examination of the key doctrinal precepts of Islamism as developed by its intellectual progenitors and even more by the incontestible evidence that Islamism’s signature depredations did not begin to be manifested in earnest until the second half of the 20th century.


Early Antecedents of Radical Thought


In late 19th century and early in the 20th as colonialism had triumphed over large parts of what was later to be called the Third World, a number of Muslim intellectuals began questioning the dependent status of the Muslims around the world and trying to come to terms with the reasons for it.  These included prominent thinkers in Egypt and elsewhere such as Jamaluddin Afghani, Rashid Rida, Muhammad Abdah and others. Although there were some efforts to organize a coherent Islamist movement at that time, little of real impact happened until Mustafa Kemal Ataturk outlawed the caliphate in 1926.


Even though the caliphate had existed in name only without any real significance throughout the long centuries of the Ottoman Empire, its termination did result in the first significant effort to organize an Islamic ideological movement in Egypt in 1928 that came to be known as the Muslim Brotherhood. Organized by a school teacher named Hassan al Banna, it played an important role in Egyptian politics and especially outside of it as an ideological beacon of radical Islamic thought and a key role in the efforts by the Islamists to seize power in Egypt in the so called Arab Spring after 2011. Although it still exists, albeit of diminished consequence after being suppressed by the Egyptian military, it continues to play an outsize role in the West where it is a key factor in the Islamization in the Muslim diaspora since the 1950s. This key phenomenon will be examined in an additional article in these series.


Perhaps the greatest contribution of the Muslim Brotherhood lies in providing the key ideologue of radical Islam, Sayyid Qutb to the movement. [1] Apart from Qutb, the only other Islamist who could be judged of nearly equal influence is the Pakistani Abul ala Mawdudi. Mawdudi predated Qutb by a decade or so, beginning to develop Islamist concepts in the late 1930s. His signal contribution to Islamism before Qutb was to develop the novel idea of Western modernity as ‘jahiliya’ or the pre-Islamic state of ignorance or paganism said to characterize the Arabs before Muhammad according to the Quran.


The intellectual fathers of radical Islam sought to achieve religious legitimacy by incorporating two key aspects of modern Islamist ideology that had not been present in Muslim theology and exegesis before them – the concepts of the external and internal enemy, and the more modern totalitarian concept of the Islamic vanguard. A fourth key precept and a novel element in Islamic exegeses was the elevation of anti-Semitism and the Jew as the ‘eternal enemy’ of Islam, as the sine qua non of Islamism’s belief system.


The External Enemy


The stark division of humanity into Muslim believers vs. infidels is a fundamental belief of the Muslim faith and something every Muslim intuitively understands. For the devout it is an article of faith. This us-versus-them concept is a metaphor for the good vs. evil and darkness vs. light construct of political Manicheanism that became the sine qua non of twentieth-century totalitarianism, as exemplified, for instance, in the Nazis’ “pure Aryan race” concept, juxtaposed to the supposedly “miscegenated Jews,” “subhuman Slavs,” and assorted other untermenschen, and the communists’ mantra of the virtuous proletariat versus the bourgeois class enemy.


Much like their erstwhile totalitarian confrères, modern-day Islamists use this dichotomy to paint an elaborate image of an implacably hostile external enemy that is both the cause of Muslim backwardness and an existential threat to the very survival of Islam. That enemy is the West and its allies, especially Israel after 1948, who jointly are the imagined cause of Muslim backwardness through imperialist and colonialist policies. Moreover, it’s not just a generic West that is the enemy, but a specific race – the white man. Says Qutb: “The white man, whether European or American, is out first enemy, ” as is “the tyranny of the white man, his civilization, and his animal hunger.” And everything involved in this bogus civilization, according to Qutb, from “feminine sexuality that subverts Islam” to jazz, described as the music of “savage bushmen” serves the same purpose.


Secondly, the West threatens Islamic norms because democracy and popular sovereignty leave no room for the sovereignty of God and therefore push Islam out of its rightful place at the center of man’s universe.


What was new in the Islamists’ articulation of the enemy image was the vehement  denial of any legitimacy to the West and its civilization and the framing of Islam’s inevitable conflict with it in apocalyptic, Manichean terms. The result was a strident demonization of the West as essentially a subhuman civilization that must be destroyed if Islam is to survive and triumph as ordained by sharia.


The concept used to dehumanize the Western enemy in Islamic terms was “new jahiliyya,” first developed by Mawdudi and turned into a key part of Islamist ideology by Sayyid Qutb.  Jahiliyya, of course, is the well-known term denoting the period of pre-Islamic ignorance and paganism said to have characterized the desert Arabs before Muhammad, according to the Quran. It had occasionally been used in later periods by exponents of Islamic orthodoxy, such as the thirteenth-century scholar Ibn Taymiyya, to defame assorted enemies, but in general, jahiliyya was considered an unfortunate period in Arab history that had long been overcome by the advent of Islam. As mentioned above, jahiliya  was first given a radically different meaning by Abul Ala Mawdudi in 1939, who introduced the concept of “modern jahiliyya” as a state of affairs, rather than a historical period, and as a “sweeping condemnation of Western modernity and its incompatibility with Islam.” To Mawdudi, new jahiliyya was nothing less than a new barbarism that had taken over the West and presented a mortal danger to Islam. In Qutb’s stark definition, only a society where “sovereignty belongs to God alone, expressed in its obedience to the Divine Law qualifies as a human civilization.[2]



It was unquestionably the ideologue of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb, who fully developed the concept of the West and modernity as the modern epitome of jahiliyya and made it a fundamental postulate of Islamist ideology. For him, as for Mawdudi, modernity, as the key motivating force behind Western jahiliyya, was the sworn enemy of Islam because it did not allow any place for God’s haqimiyya (sovereignty) in a man-centered modern society and thus condemned Islam to oblivion if embraced by the Muslims. The choice for the believers was stark: either jahiliyya or Islam. This led Qutb to posit that the very survival of Islam depended on fighting the West and modernity by all means available, including violent jihad, because “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.”


Not only did Qutb urge a total confrontation with the West as a way to re-energize Islam and reassert its supremacy, but he was also the first major Islamic thinker to argue confidently that the West could be defeated, a belief that remains an article of faith for today’s Islamists. In Qutb’s view, this was possible because Western civilization had lost its élan vital and found itself in a state of accelerating moral depravity and social decline. The ultimate victory of what some have called Qutb’s “Islamic liberation theology” was also preordained, in his view, because unlike “jahili societies” which, “in all their various forms, are backward societies,”

Islamic society is, “by its very nature, the only civilized society.” The Islamic order and sharia law, furthermore, are not valid just for Muslims, but are part of “that universal law which governs the entire universe, including the physical and biological aspects of man.”


However exotic and improbable such beliefs may appear to a Western reader, there is little doubt that they continue to dominate Islamist ideology more than half a century after they were first articulated.


The Internal Enemy


Another closely related doctrinal innovation of the ideologues of radical Islam in the twentieth century was the idea that the West’s pernicious cultural influence had already subverted Muslim society to the point of transforming it also into a state of jahiliyya.. This internal jahiliyya, argued Sayyid Qutb, was “the most dangerous jahiliyya which has ever menaced our faith” in that it attacked Islam from within the ummah. And it followed logically that the supporters and promoters of jahiliyya in majority Muslim societies, including all Muslim governments not ruling according to sharia, had become apostates and deserved to be treated accordingly. The idea of conducting violent jihad against self-professed Muslims, of course, ran afoul of key Quranic injunctions and had been practiced on any scale in the past only by radical sectarians, such as the seventh-century Kharijites and the followers of Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792), the founder of the violent Wahhabi creed, in the eighteenth century.


Indeed, this novel interpretation stood on their head long-established Islamic norms that urged the believers to accept and obey their rulers even if they were unjust, because even unjust rule was preferable to internecine violence and anarchy (fitna) in the ummah. This principle was particularly entrenched in Sunni political practice, which denied Muslims the right to revolt against a Muslim ruler and urged them to “obey the Caliph even if he is a black slave.”


It is this doctrine established through the centuries that Sayyid Qutb sought to overturn by seeking to “legitimize revolt in terms of mainstream Sunni thought.” This he did by advancing the theory that the real proof of the Muslim state and whether or not a ruler is a Muslim is the imposition of sharia law in the state. If sharia is not the law of the land, than neither the state nor its rulers could be considered real Muslims, and it was therefore the duty of the believers to fight them.  This “powerful argument for revolution in Sunni terms,” may be Qutb’s major and lasting contribution to Islamist doctrine, in the words of the scholar Emmanuel Sivan.


Qutb’s radical doctrinal innovations to traditional Islamic teaching had far-reaching impact on the emerging Islamic movement and continue to provide legitimacy to the use of violence against the West and Muslim regimes by extremist groups. Qutb’s thought could be said to have ushered in a radicalization that ultimately spawned openly terrorist organizations in Egypt and outside it and resulted in a number of celebrated terrorist incidents and assassinations, such as that of President Anwar Sadat in 1981, and set the stage for the Islamic terrorism phenomenon of the past three decades.


Anti-Semitism as the Sine Qua Non of Islamism


This is another major ideological innovation by Sayyid Qutb who was the first Muslim thinker to declare the Jews ‘the eternal enemies of Islam’ in his treatise “Our Struggle Against the Jews” published in 1950. This novel concept is both ahistoric and stands on its head key postulates in the Quran, where Jews and Christians are traditionally referred to as ‘people of the book.’ i.e. those that worship one God and are therefore ecclesiastically close to the Muslims. Numerous prominent experts on Islam, such as Bernard Lewis and Bassam Tibi, have testified that the Quran contains numerous instances of Judeophobia, but anti-Semitism as an ideology in the sense of advocating the elimination of the Jews as a race had never been part of Islam until Qutb.  Indeed, it is historically without a doubt that until the end of the inquisition, Christianity has been a larger tormentor of the Jews than Islam.  In that way, just a few years after the end of Nazism, Qutb terminated ideologically the centuries old tolerance of Islam for the Jews and made Islamism indistinguishable from Nazism. For Islamists. who are much better acquainted with the theories of Qutb than with the Quran, this continues to be the case even today.


The Islamic Vanguard


The concept of an Islamic vanguard, though almost certainly borrowed from the identical Leninist construct of the communist party as the vanguard of the revolution, is not only another key doctrinal contribution to Islamist ideology credited to Sayyid Qutb, but also one that proves beyond doubt the modern totalitarian roots of Islamism. Despite paying homage to the potential of the ummah to restore Islam to its rightful place, Qutb, like Lenin, who believed that the proletariat could not be trusted to carry out the revolution by itself because it was possessed of a “false consciousness,” the Muslim Brotherhood ideologue did not appear confident that the Muslims would rise on their own. Both ideologues thus argued that the enemy could be defeated only if the revolution was headed by a vanguard, a small dedicated group of ideologically committed, trained and organized revolutionaries.


This vanguard was to act as the cutting edge of the Islamic revolutionary movement and lead the Muslims in the struggle against jahiliyya and toward the ultimate goal of reviving Islam. And in order to do that, argued Qutb, “it is necessary that this vanguard should know the landmarks and the milestones of the road toward this goal…” Qutb added rather prophetically that he had written his main oeuvre, Milestones, “for this vanguard which I consider to be a waiting reality about to be materialized.”


The vanguard concept, though seldom elaborated at great length by the Islamists themselves, has since then become a guiding force of the Islamist movement. It would be a mistake, however, to confuse it with terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda. While it does not at all reject violence as one of the instruments at its disposal, it is primarily involved in spreading the ideology of radical Islam, carrying out proselytism, forming Muslim public opinion and organizing Islamist networks in both Muslim countries and the West.


Today’s leading Islamist activist and scholar, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, defines the Islamic vanguard as the first and most important task for the “revival of the Islamic movement” in his influential work Priorities of the Islamic Movement in the Coming Phase, under the heading “Methodology of the Revival:”

“Firstly, [what is needed is] the formulation of an Islamic vanguard which is capable of leading the contemporary society of Islam without isolation or leniency, and curing the diseases of the Muslims with medicines that have been prescribed by Islam alone.” [3] 


Al-Qaradawi then proceeds to list seven fields of work for the Islamist cause in which this vanguard must be active, most of which deal with indoctrination, proselytism, propaganda work, and introducing Islamic standards in economics, education, and politics. Jihad is only one of these fields of pursuit.


Not openly stated in the various Islamist treatises on the vanguard subject, but always implicit, is the understanding that this leading group of Islamic revolutionaries is expected to operate in a more or less conspiratorial, clandestine manner in building the networks necessary to prepare the ground for the eventual Islamist takeover. This is a strategy that is almost never discussed in publications on the war on terror since it is not considered directly related to it. Yet, should such tactics succeed in establishing a fifth-column extremist presence in Western societies, its subversive potential is likely to be vastly greater than individual terrorist incidents.


By Alex Alexiev

[1] For the ideological evolution of the Muslim Brotherhood, see Richard P. Mitchell’s classic study, The Society of the Muslim Brothers, Oxford University Press, 1993.

[2] Sayyid Qutb, Milestones, Dar al-Ilm, Damascus, p. 94. The best analysis of both Qutb and Mawdudi’s thought is in Emmanuel Sivan, Radical Islam: Medieval Theology and Modern Politics, Yale University Press, 1985.

[3] Al-Qaradawi, Priorities of the Islamic Movement in the Coming Phase, Awakening Publications, Swansea, UK, 2000, p. 31.

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