A disputed term, widely used in the US and to a lesser extent in Britain
to denote any movement to favour strict observance of the teachings of the
Qur'an and the Shari'a (Islamic Law). On the continent, as well as in
Britain and amongst many scholars of Islam and the Middle East, there is a
preference for terms such as ‘Islamism’, ‘Islamicism’, ‘Islamists’, or
‘Islamicists’ in referring to the current activist political trend. Islamism
emerges out of the reform (islah) project of the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries that was launched by Jamal al Din al-Afghani (1837-97),
Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), and Rashid Rida (1865-1935). The reform
envisaged was broadly defined to incorporate a revitalization of culture,
society, and religion utilizing European science and techniques coupled with
the requirement of drawing on the moral and cultural tradition of early
Islam, of the pious forefathers (al-salaf,
ad 610-855). Thereafter, the
revitalization of Islam and Islamic society, and hence its defence, came to
dominate this trend as the fate of the Islamic world was increasingly seen
as being in the grip of European power to do with as it would.
Reform (islah) was comprehensive in addressing the causes of backwardness. In their efforts against the conservative and traditionalist religious forces hostile to reform, Abduh and Rida focused on the salaf and condemned all innovations (bida) introduced into Islam after their time, including the law schools (madhhabs). They called for a return to the independent interpretation of the sacred sources (ijtihad), of the Qur'an and Sunna of the Prophet and consensus of his Companions which was said to have ended during the tenth to eleventh centuries. This would allow those in authority to pursue what was in the best interests of the Community in the secular sphere though it was never to be in conflict with the Qur'an and Sunna. This type of argument contributed to the emergence of a modern tendency to focus on the practices of the early years of Islam (salafiyya) which remains influential until the present time. All innovations in Islam that had occurred throughout its history after the salaf which were regarded as having caused schisms and accepted local customs which led Muslims away from the straight path were condemned. By returning to the pure practice of the Prophet and his Companions, the traditional structures of Muslim society including the secular domain could more easily be exposed to new cultural and social dynamisms leading to reform.
In 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimun) was founded in opposition to these movements to renew the focus on the approach of the salafiyya (sometimes referred to as neo-salafiyya to distinguish it from the approach taken by Abduh and Rida), this time to bring its ideas to the ‘man in the street’ and to exclude the colonial society by recovering dominance of the public discourse, and to oppose Western imperialism and secularization. They would look deep into the roots of Islam in order to purify and renew it by focusing on the principles of the earliest generations of Islam, the salaf. In effect, they rejected the integrationist approach of the earlier reform movement as cooptation.
A further intensification of Islamic concern and activity can be discerned from the end of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war in which the Arab forces suffered a crushing and humiliating defeat. This sounded the death knell of Arab nationalism as a viable alternative strategy and ideology. Added to this was the successful Iranian revolution toward the end of the 1970s, the disorienting effects upon the region of the long-running Iraq-Iran War (1980-8), the Gulf War (1990-1) which led to Western militaries being invited into Saudi Arabia, the proclaimed protector of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and the attacks in the US on 11 September 2001 which brought a return of Western militaries this time to Afghanistan. Events on both these last two occasions had transpired to bring almost all Arab governments to join in alliance with the West, some, in the first instance, sending forces to Saudi Arabia alongside those from the West to attack an Arab state. In the case of Afghanistan, no Arab military participated. The Iraq-Kuwait war is an indication of the degree of irrelevance to which Arab nationalism had fallen; Afghanistan indicated the degree of Arab governments' sensitivity to their populations' resistence to their governments' cooperation with US Middle East policy.
The Muslim Brothers themselves reinvigorated the position of moderate reform (though without abandoning the salafiyya approach) which at their founding had been condemned. Other groups, regarding this as cooptation, developed more militant and in some cases jihadist approaches, the most extreme example being al-Qaida.
Thus, Islamism expanded into the gaping vacuum of a dying nationalism and, by focusing on domestic issues, for a time, continued to particularize national identities, sometimes encouraged by governments. For example, President Anwar al Sadat of Egypt on attaining leadership 1970 clothed his rhetoric in Islamic symbolism, invited Islamist activists in exile to return as a counterforce to an organized political left in Egypt, and reintroduced aspects of Shari'a Law into the legal system. This Islamist response with its neo-salafiyya tendency led to a proliferation of new-style voluntary benevolent associations (jama'iyya) whose registered numbers in Egypt alone in the early 1990s were over 12,800, all concerned with social services, together with an unknown number of unregistered associations. In this way, Islamist spokesmen emerged in many Arab and Muslim non-Arab countries with political agendas designed to relate Islam to state power, either openly, by stealth, or by violence.