– Islamism and Classical Sunni Islam: Are They the Same?


(© Zubair Qamar 2013)

This section explains how specific aspects of classical Islam have been altered by Islamist movements. Islamism is primarily a product of modernity, and not of classical Islam, which partially explains the similarities between Islamist movements and twentieth century European ideologies. While authors are quick to point to similarities between them, they seem less convinced of the modernity-Islamism connection. They somehow lend more credibility to the classical Sunni Islam-and-Islamism connection, which is incorrect.

Without modernity there would be no Islamism. Author and scholar, Bruce Lawrence, says,

“Without modernity there are no fundamentalists, just as there are no modernists. The identity of fundamentalism, both as a psychological mindset and a as a historical movement, is shaped by the modern world.”[[i]]

Ghazi ibn Muhammad says,

“The rise of secularism has paradoxically contributed, by way of militant and ignorant reaction, to the rise of fundamentalism.”[[ii]]

How did modern Islamists arise? Key factors led to the rise of Islamists include the altering of the religious scholar-and-caliph arrangement that had existed for over 1,000 years in classical Sunni tradition; the weakening of the Ottoman Empire and desires for independence and autonomy by the Arabs; European colonial and imperial subjugation of the masses and its associated effects; imposition of rulers on the ‘independent’ Arab peoples by colonialists; domestic factors (tyrants, corruption, etc.); and US foreign policy.

Sovereign states originated in early modern Europe and were later adopted by Muslim countries following decolonization. Like other postcolonial societies, “Muslim” state elites also attempted to instill nationalism among their populations, which was often a mix of ethnic and religious identities.[[iii]]

In the modern milieu, Islamists opposed colonial subjugation while imitating their methods. While demonstrating their opposition, Islamists accepted the new political unit of the nation-state. They did not denounce democracy but eventually advocated it. They participated in elections, while certain Islamist groups were forbidden to participate until recently.

In spite of their seeming rigidity, Islamists’ statements resemble the words of liberation and human rights groups, including inter alia their claimed support for women rights. Moreover, their attire is usually Western and they are willing to cooperate and collaborate with non-Muslim governments to promote themselves. Aid from the US and other countries, for example, supports this view, as well as their position on maintaining peace agreements with Israel.

Islamists do not adhere to Islamic tradition, but rather reformulate their understanding of the Qur’an and Sunnah to justify their current efforts and forms of government rooted in modernity. Islamists, unlike the Muslim majority in the age of classical and contemporary Islam, have not propagated any of the four Sunni schools of law (Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanbali).

Rather, Islamists have prioritized politics over religion. Making religion subservient to politics is a priority that contradicts the views of the Muslim majority, and contradicts classical Sunni tradition. The sections below explain the matter in more detail.

For more than 1,000 years, classical Sunni Islam demonstrated a general separation of religion and state. Religious scholars guided the masses and served to keep the caliph in check, while the caliph was responsible for political and administrative functions, and ensuring the security of the territory. In other words, religion took precedence over politics. Islamists reversed classical Sunni priorities. To them, politics takes precedence over religion.

The upsetting of the religious scholar-and-ruler arrangement due to various internal and external factors occurred in the second half of the 1800s, which had profound and unprecedented effects on the political and religious landscapes. In particular, the Ottoman reform to codify the Shari’ah

“sought to transform Shariah from a body of doctrines and principles to be discovered by the human efforts of the scholars into a set of rules that could be looked up in a book.”[[iv]]

The codified law replaced the religious scholars and, according to Harvard scholar, Noah Feldman,

“took from the scholars their all-important claim to have the final say over the content of the law” and “transferred that power to the state.”[[v]]

While in the classical arrangement religious scholars generally had full religious authority, codification of the law took their long-held authority away, and restricted them to “family-law matters.”

The creation of a legislature in 1876 by the Ottoman Constitution – the “first democratic institution in the Muslim world” – that could have replaced the scholars as the “institutional balance to the executive,” was soon suspended (as was the Constitution later) by Sultan Abdulhamid II. With no scholars or legislature to keep the executive in check, “the sultan found himself in the position of near-absolute ruler,” which “set the pattern for government in the Muslim world after the Ottoman empire fell.” This paved the way for “dictatorship and other forms of executive dominance – the state of affairs confronted by the Islamists who seek to restore Shariah”[[vi]] (italics added).

However, seeking to restore the Shari’ah did not mean bringing the religious scholars back. Had Islamists wished to restore the classical Sunni arrangement, they would have done so, but did not. Religious scholars were marginalized or became coopted by governments, thus becoming “government scholars,” and, to a high degree, mouthpieces of the governments they worked in.

The long-held role of religious scholars throughout classical Sunni tradition changed profoundly. They were no longer as powerful as they had been, and no longer in charge of Shari’ah. The call for Shari’ah without religious scholars by Islamists took effect – an arrangement completely alien to classical Sunni tradition. The classical Sunni fabric of Shari’ah was altered.

The geo-political situation of the time brought major changes to traditional Sunni society. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed and World War-I ended, the Muslim world was under European imperial control, which brought further changes to the traditional makeup of Arab-Islamic society. In the words of Graham Fuller,

“Imperial rule quickly distorted the natural development of the Muslim world, dismantling traditional structures of leadership and governance, destroying traditional institutions, and upsetting cultural patterns, while failing to encourage organic development of native alternatives. Imperialism represented the wholesale export of foreign cultural instruments and structures to be imposed upon the East.”[[vii]]

Under the yoke of European colonialism and their puppet regimes, Arab populations continued to be controlled. Ethnic nationalism was at its peak in the Arab world under Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s as a reaction and resistance to European neo-imperialism.

When Arab nationalism was seen as a failing effort, especially after the Arab defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, “Islamic identity” replaced Arab nationalism from the 1970s onward. Ethnicity and religion, the two most common characteristics of the Arabs, were therefore used by Arabs as means to attain freedom and human rights.

In the view of the author, the shift from nationalistic to “Islamic” slogans did not represent a shift to a more religious, ideological society. Rather, religion was used as a means to achieve the same aims. That is why Islamist movements are better described as political rather than religious. Had religion been the primary interest of Islamists, as stated, they would have prioritized and re-established the power of the religious jurists. This did not happen. No Ayatollahs or Azharites are being called to run a government, and any role they may have is limited. Rather, independent theologians have continued to be marginalized, which is a trajectory away from Sunni Islam’s classical tradition, not towards it.

[[i]] Bruce B. Lawrence. Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989. p.6.

[[ii]] Ghazi bin Muhammad. The Sacred Origin and Nature of Sports and Culture. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 1998. p.36

[[iii]] M. Ayoob, op. cit.,pg. 15.

[[iv]] Noah Feldman, “Why Shariah?,” The New York Times, March 16, 2008, accessed May 22, 2013,


[[v]] Ibid.

[[vi]] Ibid.

[[vii]] Graham E. Fuller. A World Without Islam. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2010. p. 249.