– Is Classical Sunni Islam a “Political Ideology”?

(© Zubair Qamar 2013)

Sebastian Gorka of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies says,

“One of the greatest — self-induced — obstacles we have to understanding our enemy is mirror imaging, seeing Islam as just one more religion like the religions we are most familiar with — Christianity and Judaism. However, if one understands that Islam, not just in its extreme forms, but in its mainstream version, sees politics, economics, law and faith as integral to each other and as part of “shari’a” — the way of life, then one understands that even the phrase ‘political Islam’ is a case of the West using its terminology for something that does not reflect Western concepts and categories. It is pointless therefore to use the phrase ‘political Islam’; Islam is political” (p.188 – Fighting the Ideological War).

Gorka oddly describes mainstream Islam as political Islam and understands Islam as a political ideology. Gorka’s lack of understanding of the history of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism will be discussed in a separate post.

However, while Gorka sees mainstream Sunni Islam as a political ideology, his view is more similar to the minority of Islamists than to the majority of Muslims who do not share this view.

Religion and terrorism expert, Mark Juergensmyer, says,

“The assumption of those who hold this ‘Islam is the problem’ position is that the Muslim relationship to politics is peculiar. But this is not true. Most traditional societies have had a close tie between political leadership and religious authority, and religion often plays a role in undergirding the moral authority of public life.”[[1]]

Furthermore, there is no equivalent word for “ideology” in classical Arabic, Persian, or other languages, which proves that classical Muslims never saw their religion as an ideology. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, scholar and professor at George Washington University, says,

“The case of ‘ideology’ is very telling as far as the adaptation of modern notions in the name of religion is concerned. Nearly every Muslim language now uses this term, and many Muslims in fact insist that Islam is an ideology. If this is so, then why was there no word to express it in classical Arabic, Persian, and other languages of the Islamic peoples?”[[2]]

“Traditional Islam,”Nasr says, “refuses ever to accept Islam as an ideology, and it is only when the traditional order succumbs to the modern world that the understanding of religion as ideology comes to the fore […].”[[3]]

Describing Islam as an ideology, whether by Gorka or by Islamists, is a modern notion – not a classical one. While Islam has a political dimension, Hamza Yusuf, author and Sunni scholar at Zaytuna College, says,

“…the focus of Islam has never been on rectifying the state, but rather on rectifying the state of the souls that make up the state.”

Yusuf then says,

“We need an Islamic state of mind more than an Islamic state.”[[4]]

Another author and Sunni scholar, Zaid Shakir, says, that

“…doctrine issuing from a particular ideology is marshaled based on its efficacy in advancing the cause, not on the basis of any preexisting moral or ethical standard. Such a formulation is at complete odds with Islam and, thus, largely alien to its classical tradition.”[[5]]

Islamic knowledge of creed and jurisprudence in almost all of Islamic history had not been the prerogative of politicians, but of religious scholars who taught the masses, and distanced themselves from rulers while largely retaining their independent roles as spiritual guides. When examining the Islamic sources, reference to political authority is scarce, while references to spirituality and belief are abundant. That is why Prophet Muhammad is known as a religious prophet, and not a politician, and Islam is understood to be a religion, and not a political movement by most people.

Moreover, political ideology is not one of the five pillars of Islam or the six Sunni articles of faith. The uncertainty of Muslims on the issue of leadership following Prophet Muhammad’s death illustrates that political leadership was not a high priority to Islam’s Prophet. Otherwise, Muhammad  would have made matters of political leadership clear to his followers as he did many matters before his demise.

While political leadership took on an important role in classical Sunni Islam, it was subservient to and confined within the limits of spirituality. Today, Islamist groups prioritize politics and make spirituality subservient to it.  People who conflate the two misrepresent both and confuse more than clarify.

It is for this reason why many caliphs throughout Islam’s history were not necessarily supported by the masses, but tolerated, even when certain caliphs displayed unIslamic qualities and used religion for political expediency and domination. But anarchy was believed to be worse than poor leadership as it brought more harm than good to society. Therefore, all actions of caliphs over 1,000-plus years should not be seen as representative of Islam’s teachings, and Muslims who lived under their rule should not be described as their wholesale supporters. To do so is to misunderstand and mischaracterize social-power dynamics in those times and to misrepresent Muslims and Islam today.

It is recommended that Gorka and others who hold similar views describe mainstream Islam as most Muslims describe Islam — as a religion and not a political movement or ideology.


[[1]] Mark, Juergensmeyer, “Does Religion Cause Terrorism?” National Policy Forum on Terrorism Security and America’s Purpose, September 6-7, 2005, accessed May 25, 2013, http://demcoalition.org/pdf/Does_Relig_Cause_Terr.pdf

[[2]] Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Islam in the Modern world: Challenged by the West, Threatened by Fundamentalism, Keeping Faith with Tradition. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010. p.12.

[[3]] S. Hussein Nasr, op. cit.,p.12.

[[4]] Hamza Yusuf, March 26, 2010, “The Importance of Being Ambiguous Or the Sin Tax of Ignoring Syntax,” Sandala Blog, May 24, 2013, http://sandala.org/blog/2011/03/26/the-importance-of-being-ambiguous-or-the-sin-tax-of-ignoring-syntax/

[[5]] Zaid Shakir, “Islam: Religion or Ideology?” New Islamic Directions, accessed May 27, 2013,http://www.newislamicdirections.com/articles/islam_religion_or_ideology/