September 8, 2017 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1345

Towards A Definition Of Islam And Islamism

September 8, 2017 | By Tufail Ahmad*
Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1345

Muslims offer Eid Al-Adha prayers at Jama Masjid, New Delhi (image:


Throughout 1,400-plus years of Islam, numerous Islamic scholars, teachers, and others have attempted to comprehend Islam. Each of them makes their own assessment of what Islam is. Islamic scholars view Islam as a complete way of life – as a system of ideas governing all spheres of the individual lives and collective life of Muslims. Academics, journalists, and others comprehend Islam differently. Some view it as a religion, while others think Islam is also politics. In view of the jihadi killings in Islamic and non-Islamic countries, it is pertinent to arrive at a definition of Islam.

Insofar as ideas have consequences, an understanding of Islam must account for all myths, beliefs, ideas, and practices that impact the lives of Muslims, whether or not they are approved of by some analysts. If an idea is consequential, it cannot be excluded from an understanding of Islam. For example, the Pakistan-based jihadi organization Jaish-e-Muhammad quotes the Prophet Muhammad as saying: "Jihad is obligatory upon you under every emir [leader], whether he be pious or fasiq [sinner]."[1] Even if this quote were inauthentic, it still aids in terrorist training and is therefore consequential, especially in the anti-India jihadi war in Kashmir. My necessary argument is this: Any myth, belief, idea, or fact held in the name of Islam, even if false, has consequences.

Islam – A Movement Of Ideas

Consequentially, Islam is a corpus of all ideas held by Muslims. This corpus includes: the Quranic verses, the hadiths (sayings and deeds of Prophet Muhammad), different interpretations of the verses and the hadiths, the books of hadiths, works of Islamic jurisprudence, all practices enforced by Islamic clerics among the followers of different sects of Islam, a range of ideas held by each Muslim across the world, and all prevailing practices. A question can be raised: Why arrive at a whole view of Islam when its followers are different in their practices? An answer can be: All the followers hold a global view of Islam, considering themselves members of a single Muslim ummah (nation). Also, a focus on differences among Muslims does not explain why jihadi attacks take place from Sydney to Paris, or Mumbai to Mombasa.

Therefore, we arrive at a view of Islam as a movement of ideas, as a system of ideas, as a narrative in which Islam is both religion in its spiritual form and also a corpus of economics, politics, gender studies, or war. Just as the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 gave birth to a communist movement of ideas, radicalizing youths on university campuses across the world to take up arms and join guerrilla wars, the world today is experiencing Islam as a movement of ideas. The only difference is this: In present times, social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Telegram have replaced the university campuses – and complement mosques and madrassas (Islamic seminaries).

At a lecture delivered in the Indian city of Hyderabad in 2016, I explained: As a movement of ideas, Islam began in the seventh century in Mecca, as a consequence of which there are no Jews in Saudi Arabia today and no synagogues or churches.[2] Later, it travelled to Iran, as a result of which there are no Zoroastrians left, barring a few, in Iran. This movement of ideas arrived on the Indian Subcontinent in the eighth century, as a result of which there are no Hindus in Baluchistan, no Hindus in Afghanistan, and no Hindus in Pakistan – and no Sikhs in Lahore, originally a Sikh metropolis. In the 1990s, Hindus were expelled from Indian Kashmir.

Islamism – The Peaceful Methodology Of Islam

Once we have a view of Islam as a movement of ideas, the issue is the methodology by which it travels and impacts the life of Muslims and their relations with non-Muslims. I argued: "Islamism is the methodology by which Islam achieves its goals. And jihadism is the weaponized version of Islamism."[3] Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden once compared America to an octopus, saying that it has grabbed the world in its tentacles. So, let me first apologize to the inhabitants of the animal world and say that Islamism is an amoeba that reproduces itself by replicating itself.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines Islamism thus: "1. An Islamic revivalist movement, often characterized by moral conservatism, literalism, and the attempt to implement Islamic values in all spheres of life. 2. The religious faith, principles, or cause of Islam."[4] Merriam-Webster defines Islamism as: "1: the faith, doctrine, or cause of Islam. 2: a popular reform movement advocating the reordering of government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam."[5] As per these definitions, Islamism emerges as an "attempt" at "reordering" "all spheres" of societies to suit Islamic laws.

In such a conception of Islam and Islamism, every act performed by Muslims is consequential. Such acts could include: praying five times a day; marking festivals like Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha; celebrating the birthday of the Prophet, known as Eid Milad; fasting all day during Ramadan; visiting shrines and mosques; performing the Hajj; mourning the killing of the Prophet's grandson Imam Hussein at Karbala; marrying a non-Muslim after they convert to Islam; attending the three- to 40-day training tours of Tablighi Jamaat; the holding of numerous seminars by Islamic organizations; and the like. Such actions – all of which are essentially peaceful – constitute the methodology of Islam. This peaceful version of Islam's methodology is Islamism.

The view that such acts performed by Muslims constitute the methodology of Islam is advocated by Muslims themselves. For example, the Mumbai-based daily Roznama Urdu Times wrote an editorial on the significance of Eid Al-Adha (the three-day Feast of Sacrifice): "Beware, any festival of Islam is not merely a festival like other religions have festivals. A festival means fun, spectacles, and pastimes. If you see it, Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha, which we mostly view as festivals, are in fact tenets, the tenets of Islam – not festivals. These are the tenets that come once a year for our training."[6] On the subject of the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the Pakistani daily Roznama Dunya published an article arguing that Hajj is "the means for the training of the Muslim ummah."[7]

Jihadism – The Violent Form Of Islamism

Then, if Islamism is the peaceful methodology, jihadism is the weaponized version of Islamism, the difference being only in the voluntary versus the forcible implementation of Islam. According to a report in the Urdu daily Roznama Siasat, Muhammad Masood Khan and Farooq Haider Khan, respectively the president and the prime minister of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, expressed the view that the jihadi war in Kashmir is the sunnah (tradition) of the Prophet Abraham.[8] Their view was included in a message on Eid Al-Adha, which marks Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son in the fulfilment of God's will. As per the report, the two leaders said: "Kashmiris are offering incomparable sacrifices by following the sunnah of Abraham."[9]

While Islamism can be called the enforcement of Islam by voluntary and non-violent means, jihadism is centered on the forcible implementation. To illustrate the point, take the example of the single belief concerning blasphemy. In order to implement this one belief, Shi'ite cleric Imam Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran called for the beheading of Salman Rushdie; Said and Cherif Kouachi of Al-Qaeda shot dead the editors of Charlie Hebdo magazine; Muslims in the Indian state of Kerala chopped off the hand of a professor over an exam question deemed to blaspheme against the Prophet Muhammad; and so on. These violent enforcements of Islam are approved by all sects of Islam – Shi'ites or Sunnis, or the Sufi-Barelvis and Deobandis among the Sunnis.[10]

Violent attempts at the enforcement of Islam at the level of geopolitics – as illustrated by the jihadi attacks in cities across the world – are rooted in the idea of the global unity of Muslims. Quran verse 3:110 states: "You are the best nation produced (as an example) for mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and believe in Allah."[11] How should the members of this nation enforce Islam? The Prophet Muhammad said: "Whoever amongst you sees an evil, he must change it with his hand; if he is unable to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is unable to do so, then with his heart; and that is the weakest form of Faith."[12] Islamic clerics routinely explain this hadith of the Prophet – as recorded by an Indian mufti (one who is qualified to issue fatwas, or decrees) – in such words:

"1. If you [are] capable, then stop the evil with your hand. Use your power, influence, status, or force to stop bad things from happening. 2. If you are incapable of stopping evil with your hand, then at least speak out against it. 3. Even if that is not possible for you to do, then at least detest it in your heart, telling yourself that such an evil is happening in front of my eyes and I am not able to do anything to stop it. Feeling bad at heart is the weakest form of Faith. Those who do not have this 'weakest form of Faith' – that is, those who are not at all bothered about the evil happening – do not have Faith in the true sense."[13] This explanation of the hadith means that those who use force – such as jihadis who use weapons – have the strongest form of faith. So, jihadism is the preferred version of Islam's methodology, while Islamism is the least preferred version of the methodology.


* Tufail Ahmad is Senior Fellow for the MEMRI Islamism and Counter-Radicalization Initiative.


[2], August 22, 2016.

[3] See preceding endnote.

[4], accessed September 3, 2017.

[5], accessed September 3, 2017.

[6] Roznama Urdu Times (India), September 2, 2017.

[7] Roznama Dunya (Pakistan), August 31, 2017.

[8] Roznama Siasat (Pakistan), September 1, 2017.

[9] Roznama Siasat (Pakistan), September 1, 2017.

[10] For a discussion of how all sects of Islam are willing to behead anyone for blasphemy, please see MEMRI Daily Brief No. 86, Pakistan's Execution Of Malik Mumtaz Qadri – The Ideology Of Blasphemy In Islam, March 31, 2016.

[11], accessed September 3, 2017.

[12], accessed September 3, 2017.

[13], accessed September 3, 2017.

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