Throughout the twentieth century, and especially since the late 1960s, Islam has undergone a 'resurgence' or 'revival' which has seen greater apparent devotion in Muslim countries and Islam entering into the political sphere anew. Islam has of course always been central to the worldview of its believers and has influenced their ideas and actions, but the resurgence is marked by a growing belief that there is a disparity between what Islam prescribes and what is practiced in Muslim countries and by their governments. This has led to the rise of new ideas and movements which seek to remedy this disparity with new prescriptions which can broadly be fit under the heading of 'traditionalism'. Traditionalism is distinct from traditions, which change constantly throughout history, in that it is an autocratic political programme which seeks to take control of the power of the state and impose a static state consistent with those of a past time and place.

The time and place invoked by the theorists of the Islamic resurgence is the ummah under the Prophet and his immediate successors, either the four 'rightly guided' caliphs for Sunnis or a number of Shiite Imams depending on the precise sect. This programme is historically rooted in the experience of the Muslim world in recent centuries and the perception that the decline of Islam has been responsible for the decline of the Muslim world’s fortunes vis-à-vis the West. It has been aggravated by socio-economic change caused by the West and by the onset of modernity, as well as a new level of communication infrastructure and political development that is the baggage of modernity.

The West

Of the initial responses to Western imperialism in the Muslim world, one was a belief that the apparent weakness of Muslim civilisation could be remedied by the adoption of Western models and ideas. There was a generation of intellectuals who argued that Muslim society should be reorganised along more 'rational' lines so that the development gap between East and West could be bridged. Leaders such as Mustafa Kemal of Turkey and Nasser of Egypt were seen as trying to modernise Islam and bring their countries onto the world stage on the West's terms. These ideas and leaders represent an attempt at a revival of Muslim peoples, but it was the forces that emerged partly in opposition to them which make up the Islamic revival.

They took on special force after World War II, when Western civilisation seemed once again to self-destruct; if Nagasaki and Hiroshima were the end of Westernisation, it was best not to bother. Ideologues of the Islamic resurgence deplore the adoption of Western models and institutions, arguing instead that only truly Islamic practice can extricate the Muslim nations from the situation they find themselves in. Sayyid Qutb has labelled contemporary Muslim societies jahilliyah, a term used to describe the 'age of ignorance' in the Arabian Peninsula prior to Muhammad. Their jahilliyah is taken to be even more sinful because it is not based on ignorance, but a deviation from the revealed path. The way to remedy this situation is to cease using Western models in the organisation of society, and to return to the ordering of society in the immediate aftermath of Muhammad's revelation.

Such a radical break with the West appeals for many reasons. For one, the direct impact of Western colonialism in the Middle East has led to many deaths and much hardship. Especially in the post-war period, America has taken most of the flak as it has replaced Britain as the dominant power in the region. Western impact on the Middle East has taken many forms, from economic and cultural penetration to military intervention. Although the Islamic resurgence cannot be seen as entirely a reaction against this Western influence, it does most of all constitute a reaction against the ideas of the West, especially ideas about how countries should be governed. In this regard, the most salient turning point was the Six Day War in 1967, when Nasser's bubble was burst and it appeared to many Muslims that Arab nationalism and socialism were failures. The psychological impact of the loss of Jerusalem, the third holiest city in Islam, was bound to take on religious overtones.

The perception grew that it was the fault of Westernised leaders who had strayed from the Islamic path that had brought about the catastrophe, and a sense of civilisational failure looked for civilisational solutions. Westernised rulers were doubly at fault – they were un-Islamic and they were directly influenced by the West, even the atheistic Soviet Union. This led to their unjust practices. The leader of President Sadat's assassins declared, several moments after his death, 'I have killed Pharaoh. I do not fear death.' These words do not seem appropriate if the reason for the assassination was the peace treaty with Israel; they do if we remember that Pharaoh in the Bible is a tyrant who oppresses God's chosen people.

Having rejected Western models of structuring society, one natural place to look for an alternative was in Islam's past. The organisation of the ummah in the 'golden age' of the Caliphate, when Muslim peoples were not split into various nation-states, provided a model that was tried and tested. The West's attempts to universalise its institutions in the post-war period seemed to be an assault on Muslim autonomy and identity, and it was these two things which could be the source of new strength for Muslim peoples.

When Khomeini calls America the 'Great Satan', it must be remembered that the Satan of the Qu’ran is a seducer. The materialism of the West seems seductive to Muslim peoples, but the penetration of Western goods as well as Western practices was seen to have a deleterious effect on their morals. Qutb preaches a complete isolation from Western goods as well as ideas when it is possible, with the ummah self-sufficient in all matters and hence untarnished by contact with jahili societies. It was believed this would lead to a halt in the perceived decline of moral values and the rootlessness of those who feel they have lost their Muslim identity. Maududi, the founder of Jamaat-i-Islami in India, had a specific practical plan to bring down jahili societies and replace them with Islamic ones, and the Jamaat acted as a model for many other organisations.

The conditions

What distinguishes the Islamic resurgence of the twentieth century from earlier movements of Muslim revival is that it harnesses the tools of modernity. Taking the example of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Nazi Party of Germany, Maududi aimed to create a core of dedicated Islamic 'cadres' who would be professional revolutionaries, working to seize political power. Like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, he worked to create an organisation which could garner enough support among the masses to be a significant political force. To do this the Jamaat and organisations like it worked in healthcare, social services and education to assure the loyalty of people who did not receive these services from their governments.

The success of such organisations showed the power of Islam in motivating people for political action, which forced the governments of Muslim countries to make increasing reference to religion, hence spurring the revival on. In countries where the religious opposition was crushed, this only increased the un-Islamic character of the government in the eyes of the growing number of dedicated Muslims. The activist nature of the new organisations, pro-actively going out to get recruits and seeking change, differentiated them from the conservative ulema who shared many of their views. They hence motivated new support and persuaded the disaffected to engage in positive action.

It must be understood why, apart from antipathy for the West, so many Muslims looked favourably upon these new organisations. The socio-economic change which Muslim countries were undergoing at this time offers much of the explanation. The movement from countryside to overcrowded towns and the alienation that accompanies it has been blamed for radical political activity all over the world. In this respect, the Islamic resurgence can be seen as an example of an indigenous culture reasserting itself while under attack from a new, cosmopolitan and alien culture. Islam gives a strong sense of belonging because of its stress on community and its universality, and it provides a clear moral guide in what may be a confusing time.

The unemployed and underfed endure hardship when the rate of migration to towns takes place faster than jobs are created, and they may turn to religion to ameliorate this hardship. This is especially the case when the only social services they can get in towns are provided by religious institutions. Meanwhile, the middle-classes may feel torn between traditionalism and modernity. They are certainly not a product of traditional society, yet they are not quite modern. Western culture and products predominate in the cities, yet the new education and assertiveness of the educated middle-class leads them to be proud of their own tradition and identity. They want to construct a new, Islamic society that has its own future independent of the West.

The various latent motivations of different socio-economic groups can be turned into an active reality by the technology and possibilities of modernity. Radios, televisions and cassette recorders help to spread the message of particular preachers and authors, and the centrality of mosques to worship means they can act as distribution points. Modern communications makes it possible for ideas and messages to be spread across borders in very little time, especially in the age of the internet. The fact that the Islamic resurgence harnesses modernity is very important to its success – its spread is greatly helped by mass organisations and modern communications. Similarly, the growth of cities created new possibilities for many people to be reached at once, an especially useful capability when many of these people feel alienated from their surroundings. Political Islam promises to provide solutions to real socio-economic problems that people are enduring, and to do so in a way that can make them proud of their past and hopeful for their future.

Conclusion: a broad perspective

Although there have been many Muslim revivalist movements in pre-modern history – such as the 'Assassins' or the initial localised activities of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab – the Islamic resurgence of the twentieth century is unique. Although often seen as a reaction against modernity, it is in many ways fundamentally modern itself. The specific historical experiences of the ummah in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have made the feeling more pervasive than ever before that Muslim society is failing, as signified in Qutb's innovation of labelling Muslim societies themselves as jahili. The feeling is now equally widespread that Western models and ideas have completely failed, and so Islam is the last recourse to try and save Muslim societies from their weakness vis-à-vis the West.

The experience of an amount of economic development and education at a time when the West seems to morally be in decline (with Muslim intellectuals pointing to Europe's declining birth rates especially as evidence of this) encourages a new cultural assertiveness and a sense of pride in Islamic norms and practices. This sense of both shame and pride, of both a fear and aggressiveness towards the West is rooted in the belief that the West does not hold the monopoly on paths to modernity. The Islamic resurgence is led by people attempting to fashion a unique path for the ummah, and supported by people to whom this new religiosity seems to provide a way out of their poor economic condition and the sense of shame at their nation's weakness.


Nikki R. Keddie, 'The revolt of Islam, 1700 - 1933: comparative conditions and relations to imperialism' in Iran and the Muslim World: resistance and revolution
John Esposito (ed.), Voices of resurgent Islam
James P. Piscatori, Islam in a world of nation-states
Mansoor Moaddel and Kamran Talattof, Modernist and Fundamentalist Debates in Islam: a Reader
John Esposito, Unholy War: Terror in the name of Islam
Nilufer Gole, 'Snapshots of Islamic Modernities', Daedalus, 2000
Emmanuel Sivan, Radical Islam: medieval theology and modern politics
Ziauddin Sardar, Islam, Postmodernism, and Other Futures: a Ziauddin Sardar Reader
Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror

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