• Sohail Ahmed

What is Islamism? A Quick Glance at its Modern History.

Updated: Mar 12

There are a number of definitions when it comes to the term 'Islamism'. In this article and more widely on this site, we will be referring to Islamism as:


A form of Islam that seeks to re-establish the pan-Islamic state whose aim will be to enforce a particular, often narrow, interpretation of Islamic law.


The Islamist ideology is also expansionist in nature, which seeks to expand its borders and thereby increase its subjects by the use of offensive violent Jihad and the annexation of territories.


Modern 20th and 21st-century history of Islamism


Whilst Islamist ideology draws on classical Islam, in its modern permutation, it started with the establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the year 1928 by its founder Hassan Al-Banna. The Muslim Brotherhood sought and seeks to bring about the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate through democratic means, using the system of governance already in place.


The next step in the evolution of the Islamist ideology was the establishment of the organisation Hizb-ut-Tahrir in East Jerusalem (1953). Hizb-ut-Tahrir was formed of individuals disillusioned by the perceived failures of the Muslim Brotherhood, and sought to establish a Caliphate through the use and instigation of political and military coups in Muslim-majority countries. A number of attempted coups led by Hiz-ut-Tahrir have been foiled to date, including in Jordan, Syria, and Pakistan.


Osama bin Laden and a number of associates, disgruntled by the ineffectiveness of Hizb-ut-Tahrir tactics, founded the terror group Al-Qaeda in Pakistan (1988). Al-Qaeda was different from preceding Islamist organisations in that it saw violent Jihad as a means to bring about its aims. Hence we have the countless acts of violence carried out by the organisation in the Islamic world from the 90s to the present day, the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing, the 1998 US embassy bombings which killed over 200, as well as the September 11 attacks, the most deadly set of terror attacks in history.


The Islamic State, initially known as Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq invasion but eventually broke away to become a rival group. More extreme than Al-Qaeda, the group particularly targetted other Muslims, especially Shi'ites. It was founded by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian Jihadist in Iraq. The group declared a pan-Islamic Caliphate in the year 2014. This was the first time a terror organisation had taken control of territory and declared a (proto-)state.


As such, the intellectual heritage of the Islamic State can be traced through Al-Qaeda and Hizb-ut-Tahrir back to the Muslim Brotherhood. There is much else that can be said on this topic, but as this article is simply an introductory treatment of the history of modern Islamism, more will be mentioned in future articles.


Sohail Ahmed is a former Islamist and of British Pakistani extraction. He is director of Athena Research and Education. He studies Mathematics and Statistics and loves reading.

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