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Analysis
Last Updated: 03/05/2010
The Dialectic of Islam: an historiographical interpretation of Islamist political violence
Mamed Askerov and Christopher Schwartz

This paper aims to analyze the debate over political violence in contemporary Islam from the viewpoint of its historical roots. At the heart of the matter are two currents that have existed in the Muslim community since its very beginning: a dialectic between the intellectual and the martial, and competing interpretations of an idyllic patristic era, with several practical and ideological consequences. This paper will demonstrate how today's debate can be framed within this vision of Islamic history.


In this paper we will be using “Islamism” and especially “revolutionary Islam” to signify the particular substratum within the Islamic community that employs political violence. We admit that the first term is controversial, on the one hand because of its originally neutral, academic origins in the nineteenth century, and on the other hand because it begs precise definition. However, our usage of it encapsulates the many other existing descriptives, including, “political Islam”, “radical Islam”, “theocratic Islam”, “Salafism”, and even to some extent the pejoratives “jihadist” and “Islamofascist”. We feel that each of these descriptives, even the latter two, more or less captures the many facets of the ongoing phenomenon of the use of Islamic traditions to frame, legitimize, and direct political violence. As we will explain below in this paper, we really prefer the term “revolutionary Islam” to “Islamism” precisely for its Marxist connotations, namely, the use of violence to achieve metaphysically political or politically metaphysical aims.

Next, we also admit that it is difficult to distinguish between contemporary revolutionary Islam and its predecessors, especially in the nineteenth century, e.g., the Mahdists of the Sudan, or even further back in time, perhaps all the way to the Kharaji of the classical era. As we will explain below in this paper, to some extent Islam has always been somewhat “revolutionary”, or more precisely, it has always had a revolutionary exploitability. It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine qualitatively if Islam is somehow more susceptible to such use than other faith traditions. Nevertheless, as we will demonstrate below, we do believe that Islam's conceptual infrastructure makes it compatible with (or vulnerable to) revolutionary agendas. We do not believe this is a controversial statement to make because, despite their remarkable malleability, religions nevertheless “bend” more easily in certain directions than in others. The conceptual infrastructures of, say, Christianity and Hinduism, makes these religious traditions more compatible with agendas that are no less revolutionary but frequently far less violent, e.g., Liberation Theology or satyagraha.

The suddenness of Islamism

Let's begin with a general overview of the contemporary state of affairs. The West's perception of Islam before 11 September, 2001 was more or less balanced. The Islamic Republic of Iran was under sanction and did not represent a threat to ordinary civilians, while Hezballah, Hamas, and other Islamist organizations of the Middle East were seen as effectively curtailed by the Israeli military. In general, radical Islamists were seen as localized, poor, and backward insurgents who did not represent a threat to global security. The salient exceptions, such as Dawson's Field hijackings by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) or the kidnapping and murder of Israeli sportsmen in Munich by the Black September organization were rapidly fading into the past. Meanwhile, within Islam itself there was a general sense, not exactly of stability, but of obscurity. Muslims felt overshadowed by larger historical dramas, in particular the Cold War, and other major developments, such as the rise of India and China. They perceived their problems as (unjustly) taking a backseat in global consciousness.

The tragic events in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, caused a major and profoundly negative revision of perceptions and attitudes toward Muslims worldwide. The shift was signalled in many ways. Some were negative, with vandalism and violent attacks upon mosques on the small scale and the international (mostly Western) invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq on the large scale. Many were also positive, in particular attempts at reconciliation and bridge-building both politically (the large-scale) and ecumenically (the small-scale). The crumbling of the Twin Towers also signalled the crumbling of consensus within Islam itself. Many Muslim communities split into two camps. On the one side were the radicals, who demanded revenge against the kafirs [unbelievers], and peace-makers, including liberal-progressives and conservative-traditionalists, who envisioned Islam as truly a religion of peace. Yet, history teaches that humanity has been in this situation before with Islam.

The dialectic of pen and sword

During the era of the Arab Caliphate, all adult Muslim men were classified either as arab al-qalam [bearers of the pen] or arab al-suyuf [bearers of sword]. This was more than a professional distinction, but also an existential determination, defining the purpose of each man's life and deciding his place in the social hierarchy of the time. There was also a pronounced sociological consequence: the union and opposition of these two elements – the intellectual and martial – permeated the economic, political, and social arrangements of the Caliphate. Indeed, the entire history of the Islamic world has been marked by this dialectic right up to the present day.

The origins of the Muslim dialectic are with the Prophet Muhammad himself, a figure who represented the two elements' perfection and union. It was the Prophet's ideas of fraternity, submission to the will of God, and, ultimately, mercy, that united the Arab tribes under the flag of a new comprehensive ideology. Yet, because these were militant tribes with very worldly aspirations, the implementation of the Prophet's message, not to mention its establishment as a universal system, necessitated the co-option of military violence not only institutionally, but also doctrinally.

During the Prophet's lifetime, the dialectic was applied only within the scope of the Arabian Peninsula and upon the Arabs themselves. With his successors the Rashidun, however, it came to be applied to vast swath of human terrain. After all, everywhere the Arab tribes went, they inevitably met local resistance. The strategy used to quell these problems and entice kafirs to convert reflected the dialectic, with “soft” (intellectual) enticements on the one hand, such as remission of taxes, better living conditions, social privileges, etc., and “hard” (martial) repercussions on the other. The principle of mercy was used to justify both sets of tactics to the Muslims themselves, as well as frame propaganda and apologetics.[1]

None of the above should be taken as a strictly negative criticism of the Muslim dialectic. To the contrary, humanity should be thankful for its historical existence. The Arab Caliphate that resulted from it was a major step toward globalization – perhaps even humanity's first. The arts and sciences made inestimably important developments, directly contributing to the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution in Europe as well as statecraft throughout Asia. If nothing else, Muslim civilization provided a continuity of relative stability and prosperity in an era otherwise marked by upheaval.

Yet, for the very same reasons, we can also immediately see why the dialectic was also a serious problem then and now. For those outside of the Muslim community, especially in Christian Europe, the mixture of the intellectual with the martial was sometimes terrifying and sometimes admirable, but always difficult to understand. Then as now, the questions of “Islam's intentions” (not to mention its very authenticity as a faith tradition) and whether it was compatible with other systems were raised. Similar to today, it was believed that armed intervention into Islamic lands was necessary to secure Christianity.

Meanwhile, within the Muslim community, where it was believed that Islam had superseded the older monotheistic religions, there was a parallel debate over the status of non-Muslims both within and without Islamic borders: were they to be tolerated, even trusted, exploited or treated as equals? The debate was particularly heated about non-Muslims from non-Abrahamic traditions, such as Hindus, but Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians proved to be problematic in their own ways. The debate, still going on today, repeatedly impacted upon the shape of Islamic societies, not to mention the conduct of Islamic minority subcultures in non-Muslim countries.

The ghost of a Golden Age

Related to the dialectic of pen and sword are the ghosts of the salaf [ancestor, predecessor, or fundamental]. From the very beginning of Islam there has also always been a “fundamentalist instinct”. By this we mean an argument over authenticity and indigenousness intricately linked in Islam and expressed via the framework of the dialectic: are the intellectuals “more Muslim” than the warriors? Among the intellectuals, are those who embrace non-Arab concepts “less Muslim” than those who rely entirely upon classical Arabism? Among the warriors, are those who fight professionally on behalf of an urban bureaucracy “less Muslim” than those who constantly resist all authority as the nomads of old did?

The problem has been formulated and reformulated several ways. During the height of the Arab empire in the medieval era, it was formulated among the intellectuals as the debate over falsafa [philosophy] versus wahy [revelation] and among the soldiers as the debate over the institution of the Caliphate itself. Then as now, both sides appealed to the fundamentals of Islam, always by way of reference to the patristic era as a lost “Golden Age”. Originally,

“[t]his term [was] coined with reference to Christianity, [but] encompasses in Islam a broad spectrum of widely diverging currents that are also called revivalist as well as Salafi – the latter a much more fitting and authentic term to denote this phenomenon. The main idea of the Salafis, that is to say, Islamic fundamentalists, is that throughout the ages Islam has been distorted, and inadmissible innovations have been incorporated into it.”[2]

With each subsequent generation and each subsequent interpretation and reformulation this sense of a lost Arcadia has increased, variously timed with the Prophet himself, the Rashidun, up to the end of Muslim Spain, and even right up until European imperialism.

Nothing here should be construed as a strictly negative consideration of fundamentalism in Islam. Muslims are not the only society to conceptualize their tradition in terms of a Golden Age, lost or otherwise, and besides, the phrase “fundamentalism” is intended here to be neutral and literal. For this reason, it should be uncontroversial to say that many major developments in Islamic history have their roots in fundamentalism, including the Sunni-Shia divide, the rise as well as the fall of the Caliphate, the guerrilla ideology of al-Qaeda today as well as the peace-making reactions against it.

Revolutionary Islam

What is interesting (and alarming) about al-Qaeda is that this organization has reformulated the old debates in such a way as to reconcile the two elements of the dialectic: they place the pen in service to the sword. Furthermore, the martial is construed in a way that is consistent with yet also a substantial radicalization of the nomadic threads within traditional theories of jihad [holy war]. Additionally, their goal is fundamentalist: to re-establish the Caliphate, perhaps globally – not create a new institution. This is an important distinction because, although al-Qaeda is often described with the phrase “Islamism”, considering the structure of its ideology, it is more accurate to call it “revolutionary Islam”: they want to totally reconfigure Islamic society, but whereas in the French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions the reconfiguration was oriented toward achieving a glorious future, for al-Qaeda it is oriented toward resurrecting a glorious past.

We can see the dialectic and the Golden Age also at work in the system of a key thinker in the background of al-Qaeda. This thinker's name, by now well-known, was Said Qutb, an Egyptian author, educator, poet, and one of the original Islamist theorists. He redefined jihad as revolutionary instead of the traditional theories' imperialist formulation.[3] He also redefined the jahilliyah [the chaotic pre-Islamic era in the Arabian Peninsula] as a state of affairs or collective state of mind inside the Islamic community instead of the historical era of tradition. According to Qutb, the rejuvenation of Islam can only be achieved by violently casting off the jahilliyah and returning to the ways of the salaf.[4]

Prospects for the future

Having demonstrated the usefulness of the “dialectic-nostalgic” historiographical interpretation of political violence in contemporary Islam, we now turn to the question of what lies ahead for Westerners and Muslims. To begin with, we must repeat that none of my analysis above should be taken as a condemnation of either the dialectic or the Islamic Golden Age. In fact, these elements are just as useful in the hands of Muslims intent upon peace-making as in the hands of the Islamists. Furthermore, it was these elements which established Islamic civilization as the prototypical globalized society: today's flood of new technology and ideas and exposure to foreign cultures may be startlingly new for many societies, but it is an old hat for Muslims.[5]

Whether this interpretation is deterministic is an important question. We are perhaps guilty as charged because we see tolerance and multiculturalism as being just as logical and inevitable an expression of the conceptual structure within Islam as intolerance and political violence.

“In Arab countries generally, the ultra-radical fringe has seemed to be shrinking. Most Arab governments have long since recognized the threat it poses. Concerted and often brutal policing has decapitated most of the extreme groups… To most Muslims, the contention of Osama bin Laden and his followers that God has ordered Muslims to kill Americans is not only silly, but presumption bordering on heresy.”[6]

So, to conclude, although this interpretation may be useful, it would be wise to keep in mind that it applies only to the phenomenology of being Muslim, and not to the human reality that ultimately underlies all religious believers:

“Regardless of our religious traditions or ethnic backgrounds, at the end of the day we are all human beings. And if they are Christians, and, or Jewish or Muslims, we all come from Adam and Eve, our father and mother. And not only Islam, but the other traditions teach us that. So we need to – especially the young men and women at the school level – they need to really realise, not only realise, to know seriously, to go and find seriously about the others, to go and study about other cultures…”[7]

Post-script: America and Islamist salvific history

Just as historians and philosophers during the days of the Caliphate rationalized jihad with teleological interpretations of historical events, an important ideological aspect of al-Qaeda and other organizations participating in revolutionary Islam has been the development of a salvific historiography. Roughly-speaking, it begins with Qutb's execution by the government of Egypt in 1996,

“[which] symbolized the rift that had occurred between the then-dominant Arab nationalists, as personified by President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and contemporary radical Islamists. By the end of the next decade, the balance of power between these two competing bodies had shifted, and the Islamists movement had become a potent mobilizing force in Egypt and elsewhere.”[8]

The failed wars against Israel by the Arab states and the Egyptian-Israeli peace accords of 1979 were seen as divine wrath upon a wayward Islamic community. Sadat in particular was seen as a “betrayer”, upon whom divine wrath was meted out in the form of his assassination in 1981 by al-Jihad, another Islamist organization. Meanwhile, the successful Islamist revolution in Iran that same year, in which velayat-e faqih [guardianship of jurists, i.e., theocracy] was established for the first time in the contemporary period, was a sign of divine favour. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a few years later was seen as a particularly great divine test of Muslims, one which they passed (the assistance of the kafir United States notwithstanding).

The story Islamists tell is an impressively epic one, but it overlooks an important and undeniable historical fact: the West's material contributions to revolutionary jihad. Revolutionary Islam was originally seen by the Americans as useful in the Cold War:

“The notion of jihad ... had almost ceased to exist in the Muslim world after the tenth century until it was revived, with American encouragement, to fire an international pan-Islamic movement after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. For the next ten years, the CIA and Saudi intelligence together pumped in billions of dollars’ worth of arms and ammunition through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) to the many mujahideen [holy warriors] groups fighting in Afghanistan. … For the past ten years that deadly brew has spread its ill-effects widely. Pakistan has suffered terrible destabilization. But the Afghanis, the name given to the young Muslim men who fought the infidel in Afghanistan, have carried their jihad far beyond: to the corrupt kingdoms of the Gulf, to the repressive states of the southern Mediterranean, and now, perhaps, to New York and Washington DC.”[9]

What's interesting is that we see the two sides mirror each other; in a way, it's the story of two jihads. On the one hand, both sides generally paper over the Western contribution to revolutionary Islam by playing it down. On the other hand, on the rare occasions that the subject is brought up, Western governments typically rationalize their material support of revolutionary Islam as having been a necessary evil in the fight against Communism – America's own holy struggle at the time – while the Islamists rationalize it as either having been nothing more than pragmatism on their part, or, in a Marxist-like twist, as the kafirs simply supplying the means for their own destruction.

Post-script #2: the inner structure of jihad

We admit the obvious: in both the traditional theories and Qutb's reformulation, “defense” of the Islamic community is shared as the purported aim. However, clearly something subtle is happening in Qutb's conception: he situates the space of jihad within the Islamic community itself, rather than outside of it among the kafirs, as it was in traditional conceptions. On the one hand, this internalization is a Wahabi turn, if not a Sufistic one, and is clearly intended to contest the psychic affects of Western colonialism. On the other hand, Qutb is also restructuring the process of jihad itself. Previously, following the model of the Prophet’s own hijra [exodus] to Medina and his subsequent conquest of Mecca, jihad was conceived as requiring an act of separation that establishes an independent community or redoubt away from the unbelievers. With Qutb, however, the separation now occurs within Islamic community itself, among Muslims, who are in turn split between nominal versus true or pure believers. Incidentally, al-Qaeda represents a radicalization of Qutb's already radical position in that they do away with the notion of nominality: any Muslim who does not conform to al-Qaeda's revolutionary program is no Muslim at all.

We should note that the extent to which Qutb actually invented or imported from another tradition his intracommunal separatist conception of jihad is debatable. Perhaps his verion of jihad was inevitable theoretically, and indeed, it has precursors in the anarchism of the Kharaji and the dissimulation of the Hashishin; given Qutb's Egyptian milieu, a Shi'i genealogy, however tenuous, seems plausible to us. However, we feel it's more likely that Qutb owes something to Marxist ideas of the Revolution. Logically speaking, the Muslim Brotherhood's alliance with the Free Young Officers may have allowed for some intellectual osmosis. Yet, sniffing for a definite Marxist connection at this stage in the theoretical development of revolutionary Islam may lead us down an empty fox hole; we would do better to wait until the rise of the Palestinian and Iranian Islamist movements of a generation later.

Whatever its providence, certainly Qutb's conception of jihad rests upon shaky grounds in terms of Sunni orthodoxy. In a sense, it reformulates another Muslim dialectic, this time a miniature one within jihad, namely, the interpolarity of Mecca and Medina. It's an ethical question with ramifications beyond the Islamic tradition, for jihad essentially asks: what do we do when we find ourselves in a social milieu antithetical to our most cherished beliefs, values, and practices? Of course, jihad phrases the question in terms of paganism and virtue, unbelief and faith, but despite its employment of such absolutisms, the subjectivity of its underlying question persists: by what measure do we determine acceptability and response? With Qutb the subjectivity takes on dangerously Cartesian tones, striving for a firm foundation but in reality achieving relativism; it reaches a violently solipsistic crescendo with al-Qaeda. The question the world struggles with today is whether separation and war between Mecca and Medina is forever – or whether peace and reconciliation can be found.


[1] For example, consider the Qur'anic suras 2:16-18 and 60:8.

[2] Vitaly V. Naumkin, Radical Islam in Central Asia: Between Pen and Rifle, Rowman&Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Oxford, 2005, p. 1.

[3] Actually, in both the traditional theories and Qutb's reformulation, “defense” of the Islamic community is the purported aim, although clearly the traditional conceptions are too extroverted and the Qutbian conception too introverted for this to be taken at face value. Instead, defense of the Islamic community by perceived enemies inside and outside the religion, like universalism and mercy during the earliest days of Islam, are useful to legitimize violence.

[4] It's no surprise that the title of Qutb's book is Ma'alim fi'l-Tariq [Milestones in History].

[5] I would like to add a personal note in light of the recent tragedy in Haiti: CNN reported that American Muslims raised up to $800,000 in charity aid. What else could this be but an indication of obedience to the message of the Prophet?

[6]Noorani, Islam and Jihad: Prejudice versus Reality, Zed Books, London and New York, 2002, p. 13

[7] Mohammed Abdalla, “Making Multicultural Australia Project”, retrieved January 19 2010, <http://www.multiculturalaustralia.edu.au/library/media/Video/id/824.Mosque-attack-September-2001>.

[8] Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trial of Political Islam, Harvard University Press, second printing, 2002, p.23

[9]Noorani, Islam and Jihad: Prejudice versus Reality, Zed Books, London and New York, 2002, p. 12


Mamed Askerov, Master's of Arts in Inernational Peace Studies University for Peace, 2010. Christopher Schwartz, Master's of Arts in History, La Salle University, 2008; Master's of Arts in Philosophy Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, 2010.
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