Islamist Critiques of Liberalism: ‘Abduh, Quṭb, al-Ṣadr, and Khomeini

  • Filippo Dionigi
Part of the Middle East Today book series (MIET)


Liberalism has been subject to much criticism also in political theory debates outside the Western political context. Among the various instances of non-Western criticism, there is the case of Islamist political theory on which this study focuses. This is unsurprising; the processes of colonization, Westernization, and modernization to which Muslim majority societies in the Middle East have been subjected have facilitated the diffusion or imposition of liberal norms and institutions within this context. If liberalism has provoked critical reactions in the Western sociopolitical context (as seen in the previous chapter), it is then understandable that similar and even harsher reactions emerged in the intellectual field of Islamic thinking in the Middle East.


Middle East Political Theory Muslim Community Muslim Brotherhood Islamic State 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Roxanne Euben’s Enemy in the mirror is particularly relevant for this analysis. Euben consistently shows how Quṭb’s view of modernity and liberalism is similar to the communitarian discourse of thinkers such as Taylor, MacIntyre, Robert Bellah, and Daniel Bell among others. Roxanne Leslie Euben, Enemy in the mirror: Islamic fundamentalism and the limits of modern rationalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), pp. 133–50. See also Jörg Friedrichs, “Global Islamism and world society,” Telos 2013, no. 163 (2013) and Filippo Dionigi, “Islamism as communitarianism: person, community and the problem of international norms in non-liberal theories,” Journal of International Political Theory 8, no. 1–2 (2012). Leonard Binder in Islamic Liberalism has made the opposite claim that Islamist theory has the potential of becoming a form of liberalism rather than communitarianism.Google Scholar
  2. Leonard Binder, Islamic liberalism: a critique of development ideologies (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 1988). Also scholars such as Gilles Kepel and Emmanuel Sivan have been active in this comparative field of research. See in particularGoogle Scholar
  3. Gilles Kepel, The revenge of God: the resurgence of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in the modern world (Cambridge: Polity, 1994);Google Scholar
  4. Emmanuel Sivan, Radical Islam: medieval theology and modern politics, Enl. ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).Google Scholar
  5. 2.
    Fred Halliday, Islam and the myth of confrontation: religion and politics in the Middle East, New ed. (London; New York: I.B. Tauris; In U.S. and Canada distributed by Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 15.Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    Notice that the Ottoman Empire was already implementing modernizing reforms that included several elements of modernization inspired by the Western rise of liberalism. The case of the Tanzimat is only one of many examples. For an account, see for example Antony Black, The history of Islamic political thought: from the prophet to the present (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001), pp. 281–99.Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    A particularly helpful account of this process is given by Talal Asad. Talal Asad, Formations of the secular: Christianity, Islam, modernity, Cultural memory in the present (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), pp. 205–56.Google Scholar
  8. 7.
    ‘Abduh was friend with Wilfrid Blunt, an official of the UK Foreign Office. See Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, Secret history of the English occupation of Egypt: being a personal narrative of events (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1907), pp. 105–7. ‘Abduh also spent time in Paris where he attended the lectures of positivist philosophers such as Auguste Comte.Google Scholar
  9. 8.
    Malcolm H. Kerr, Islamic reform: the political and legal theories of Muhammad ‘Abduh and Rashīd Riḍā (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), p. 146.Google Scholar
  10. 9.
    Albert Hourani, Arabic thought in the liberal age 1798–1939 (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 136.Google Scholar
  11. 14.
    Muhammad ‘Abduh, “The necessity of religious reform,” in Modernist and fundamentalist debates in Islam: a reader, ed. Mansoor Moaddel and Kamran Talattof (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), p. 45.Google Scholar
  12. 17.
    Samira Haj, Reconfiguring Islamic tradition: reform, rationality, and modernity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), pp. 77–86.Google Scholar
  13. 25.
    Leonard Binder, The ideological revolution in the Middle East (New York: Wiley, 1964), p. 99.Google Scholar
  14. 30.
    For a thorough discussion of how the concept of shūrā is still present in the contemporary Islamist discourse and influences its views on democracy, see: Abdelilah Belkeziz, The state in contemporary Islamic thought a historical survey of the major Muslim political thinkers of the modern era, Contemporary Arab scholarship in the social sciences v 3 (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009), pp. 171–94.Google Scholar
  15. 35.
    Charles C. Adams, Islam and modernism in Egypt; a study of the modern reform movement inaugurated by Muhammad Abduh (New York: Russell & Russell, 1968), p. 172.Google Scholar
  16. 37.
    Sa’ad Zaghlūl, prominent member and founder of the Wafd, was himself a student of both ‘Abduh and Afghani even though he successively embraced liberal and secularist views. See Francesco Gabrieli, The Arab revival (New York: Random House, 1961), p. 77.Google Scholar
  17. 41.
    The influence of Quṭb’s life and thought on this movement is explained in several publications. See Fawaz A. Gerges, The far enemy: why Jihad went global (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 43–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Gilles Kepel, Jihad: the trail of political Islam, 4th ed. (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006);Google Scholar
  19. John Calvert, Sayyid Qutb and the origins of radical Islamism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), p. 292.Google Scholar
  20. 44.
    Sayyid Qutb, A child from the village, trans. John Calvert and William E. Shepard, 1st ed., Middle East literature in translation (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2004).Google Scholar
  21. 45.
    Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi’, Intellectual origins of Islamic resurgence in the modern Arab world, SUNY series in Near Eastern studies (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), pp. 92–3.Google Scholar
  22. 46.
    Adnan Musallam gives a biographical overview of the events and the correspondence from the United States in Adnan Musallam, From secularism to Jihad: Sayyid Qutb and the foundations of radical Islamism (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005), pp. 111–36.Google Scholar
  23. 48.
    Sayyid Quṭb and William E. Shepard, Sayyid Qutb and Islamic activism: a translation and critical analysis of Social justice in Islam, Social, economic, and political studies of the Middle East and Asia (Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill, 1996).Google Scholar
  24. 50.
    Sayyid Qutb, Social justice in Islam, trans. John B. Hardie, Near Eastern Translation Program (Washington: American Council of Learned Societies, 1953), p. 17.Google Scholar
  25. 67.
    Sayyid Quṭb, Milestones, trans. M. M. Siddiqui (Indianapolis: American Trust, 1990), p. 40.Google Scholar
  26. 71.
    William E. Shepard, “Sayyid Qutb Doctrine of Jahiliyya,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 35, no. 04 (2003): pp. 522–4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 74.
    As Yvonne Haddad observes this is the part of Qutb’s theory that may have the major influence on groups such as al-Takfīr wa al-Hijra (literally, “excommunicate and migrate”) which later in the history of Egypt represented the most radical and violent forms of Islamism. Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, “The Qur’anic Justification for an Islamic Revolution: The View of Sayyid Quṭb,” Middle East Journal 37, no. 1 (1983): p. 18.Google Scholar
  28. 78.
    For a discussion of the debate on ḥākimiya, see for example: Sayed Khatab, The power of sovereignty: the political and ideological philosophy of Sayyid Qutb, Routledge studies in political Islam (London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 7–46.Google Scholar
  29. 85.
    Faleh A. Jabar, The Shi’ite movement in Iraq (London: Saqi, 2003), p. 81.Google Scholar
  30. 90.
    For a detailed discussion of the emergence of the society and al-Ṣadr’s role in this process, see Jabar, Shi’ite movement: pp. 114–9; T. M. Aziz, “The Role of Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr in Shii Political Activism in Iraq from 1958 to 1980,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 25, no. 2 (1993): pp. 207–22. The foundation of the society is primarily explained as a reaction to the diffusion of communist materialist ideology in Iraq after the fall of the monarchy.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. 91.
    Aziz, “The Role of Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr,” p. 210. Amatzia Baram, “Sadr the Father, Sadrthe Son, the ‘Revolution in Shi’ism’ andthe struggle for Power in the Hawzah of Najaf,” in Iraq between occupations: perspectives from 1920 to the present, ed. Amatzia Baram, Achim Rohde, and Ronen Zeidel (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 143.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. 95.
    Chibli Mallat, The renewal of Islamic law : Muhammad Baqer as-Sadr, Najaf, and the Shi’i International, Cambridge Middle East library (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 145.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. 115.
    H. E. Chehabi, “Religion and Politics in Iran: How Theocratic Is the Islamic Republic?,” Daedalus 120, no. 3 (1991): p. 72.Google Scholar
  34. 116.
    Hamid Dabashi, Theology of discontent: the ideological foundation of the Islamic Revolution in Iran (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2006), p. 437.Google Scholar
  35. 117.
    It shall be clarified that, although Khomeini was critical of Westernized constitutionalism, his views and those of many other members of the Shi’i clergy were more nuanced with regard to the 1905–11 Constitutional Movement of Iran. I am grateful to Malihe Maghazei for pointing out this aspect. See also Malihe Maghazei ,”Introduction,” in ‘Alī Akbar Mahdī (ed.), Teen Life in the Middle East (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003), pp. 12–32.Google Scholar
  36. 119.
    Ruhollah Khomeini, Islam and revolution: writings and declarations of Imam Khomeini, trans. Hamid Algar (Berkeley, CA: Mizan Press, 1981), p. 35.Google Scholar
  37. 126.
    Vanessa Martin, Creating an Islamic state: Khomeini and the making of a new Iran, Library of modern Middle East studies (London: I.B.Tauris, 2000),pp.l03–12.Google Scholar
  38. 137.
    Fawaz A. Gerges, Journey of the jihadist: inside Muslim militancy, 1st ed. (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2006), p. 83.Google Scholar
  39. 143.
    Fawaz A. Gerges, America and political Islam: clash of cultures or clash of interests? (Cambridge, UK ; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Filippo Dionigi 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Filippo Dionigi

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations