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The Many Faces of Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Muslim World

MOHAMMED AYOOB is University Distinguished Professor of International Relations with a joint appointment in James Madison College and the Department of Political Science at Michigan State University. He is also Coordinator of the Muslim Studies Program at Michigan State University.

NUS Press and University of Michigan Press (2008)
232 pages including Bibliography and Index


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Mohammed Ayoob’s The Many Faces of Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Muslim World thoroughly describes the myriad manifestations of this rising ideology and analyzes its impact on global relations. Analysts and pundits from across the American political spectrum describe Islamic fundamentalism as one of the greatest threats to modern, Western-style democracy. Yet very few non-Muslims would be able to venture an accurate definition of political Islam.

The main thrust of the book and of this paper is to challenge several assumptions commonly prevalent in much of the analysis of political Islam. These include the following: (a) There is something unique in Islam that precludes separation between religion and state, and that religion dictates political action in Muslim countries. (b) Political Islam like Islam itself is a monolithic phenomenon and, therefore, by definition a universal or transnational occurrence largely independent of particular social and political contexts in which Islamist groups and parties operate. (c) Islamists are single-minded fanatics who are obsessed with implementing the sharia and enforcing God’s sovereignty and are, therefore, incapable of making political compromises or building coalitions with other political forces/parties. (d) Islamist political formations are by definition anti-democratic because belief in God’s sovereignty precludes accepting the notion of popular sovereignty; at best they are likely to use democracy in an instrumentalist fashion to come to power, but once in power they are likely to jettison the democratic system in order to perpetuate their rule thus proving true the dictum that Islamists are committed to “one person, one vote, one time”. (e) Political Islam is inherently violent or, at the very least, predisposes its followers to undertake unconstitutional and extra-legal activity to achieve their “divinely sanctioned” objectives.

While these assumptions can be treated distinctly in analytical terms, they are closely related to each other and form a part of a highly negative overall perception of the phenomenon we call “political Islam”. In The Many Faces of Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Muslim World, the author did so at length with illustrations from both the history of Muslim societies and the contemporary situation in various Muslim countries.

Ayoob argued that the Islamists of today are engaging in revisionist history in claiming that there is no distinction between religion and politics, noting that the political and religious spheres have always been very distinct in Islamic tradition. Ayoob stated that the ulema, or religious scholars, in fact, advocated quietism, favouring political stability over anarchy and chaos. It was not until the advent of European colonialism in the 19th century and the post-colonial era of the 20th century, that politics and religion began to influence each other. It was then that age-old concepts such as jihad were reinterpreted to become an anti-colonial and anti-domination movement, and new ideas such as the territorial nation-state led to distinctly nationalized versions of Islam. Ayoob cited such movements as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, as examples of this shift. He also took issue with the idea of a singular conception of the Islamic State, arguing that the two such existing states—Saudi Arabia and Iran—are markedly different in their structure and interpretation of Islam.

Heydemann acclaimed Ayoob’s book, calling it a wonderful exercise in “complexification” and elucidation of a very important yet misunderstood issue. He praised Ayoob’s ability to avoid generalization and engage in scholarly analysis of political Islam, while still making these complexities accessible to the wider public—though he cautioned against what he viewed as a sometimes “overzealous” attempt to gloss over the more unsavoury aspects of Islamism. Heydemann argued, for instance, that Ayoob oversells the idea that political Islam is not violent, noting that while still the minority, there nevertheless exist several Islamist organizations committed to violence. He also suggested that the image of Islam as a monolith is not just the fault of American policymakers, but also a result of the efforts of Islamist groups to frame themselves as the unified representative of their faith.


1. Defining Concepts, Demolishing Myths
2. Islam’s Multiple Voices
3. Self-Proclaimed Islamic States
4. Between Ideology and Pragmatism
5. Muslim Democracies
6. Islamist National Resistance
7. Transnational Islam
8. The Many Faces of Political Islam

Glossary of Terms

Weight0.34 kg
Dimensions22916.3 × 16.3 × 0.7 cm





Year Published

  1. Kawah Buku (store manager)

    “In this beautifully crafted and utterly compelling book Mohammed Ayoob accomplishes admirably the difficult task of offering a readily accessible yet nuanced and comprehensive analysis of an issue of enormous political importance. Both students and specialists will learn a great deal from this absolutely first-rate book.” — Peter J. Katzenstein, Walter S. Carpenter, Jr. Professor of International Studies and Stephen Weiss Presidential Teaching Fellow, Cornell University

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  2. Kawah Buku (store manager)

    “Dr. Ayoob addresses the nuances and complexities of political Islam—be it mainstream, radical, or militant—and offers a road map of the pivotal players and issues that define the movement. There is no one as qualified as Mohammed Ayoob to write a synthesis of various manifestations of political Islam. His complex narrative highlights the changes and shifts that have taken place within the Islamist universe and their implications for internal Muslim politics and relations between the world of Islam and the Christian world.” — Fawaz A. Gerges, Carnegie Scholar, and holds the Christian A. Johnson Chair in International Affairs and Middle Eastern Studies, Sarah Lawrence College

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  3. Kawah Buku (store manager)

    “This is a wonderful concise book by an accomplished and sophisticated political scientist who nonetheless manages to convey his interpretation of complex issues and movements to even those who have little background on the subject. It is impressive in its clarity, providing a badly needed text on political Islam that’s accessible to college students and the general public alike.” — Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, University of Maryland, and Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution

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  4. Kawah Buku (store manager)

    “Let’s hope that many readers—not only academics but policy-makers as well—will use this invaluable book.” — François Burgat, Director, French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the Institute for Research and Study on the Arab and Muslim World (IREMAM), Aix-en-Provence, France

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  5. Kawah Buku (store manager)

    “Although explicitly aimed at students in introductory courses and at nonspecialist readers, this is no dumbed-down textbook. Its argumentation is sophisticated, convincing, supported with ample empirical detail and presented in crisp, clear prose. While it does indeed fill the gap of a suitable introductory text to the subject, it will also be of value to specialists because of its intellectual merits and the wide scope of its coverage. Those familiar with the author’s previous works on the subject will find here a useful crystallization of his ideas on the topic, combined with an expanded empirical universe that stretches from Morocco to Indonesia…The next time I teach a course on this subject, this is the book I shall use and strongly recommend that others do as well. It not only debunks pernicious myths, but it puts a clear case that is far more right than wrong and serves as an excellent thesis against which various antithetical ideas can be articulated and discussed.” — Robert Springborg, Director of the London Middle East Institute, Middle East Policy Review

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  6. Kawah Buku (store manager)

    “Mohammed Ayoob’s The Many Faces of Political Islam makes a fine contribution toward remedying this problem, offering a sophisticated and sweeping analysis that will be welcomed by multiple audiences. Written explicitly for advanced undergraduates and general readers, the book will also appeal to scholarly non-specialists looking for a wide-ranging, theoretically informed synthesis of the best work available. No existing book combines such comprehensiveness with clarity, confidence, and authority…Remarkable in scope, the book’s major contribution is its successful marriage of a compelling, theoretically sound general argument with a wide array of specific cases synthesizing the best work by specialists. Rather than offering a string of discrete, disconnected summaries of Islamist activity in various far-flung places, the book makes an exceptionally well-integrated argument about the national origins of Islamism. Its clever comparisons are designed to advance the larger claim while shedding light on the particular cases.” — Andrew Flibbert, Perspectives on Politics

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  7. Kawah Buku (store manager)

    “How refreshing it is to have a book on this subject that gets around to discussing al Qaeda only in the last pages of the penultimate chapter. In the early pages of this accessible short study, Ayoob lays to rest the ‘myth of the Islamic monolith’ and restores Islam and politics to history. Which means, as with other world religions, a complexity of continuity and change.” — L. Carl Brown, Foreign Affairs

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  8. Kawah Buku (store manager)

    “Lucidly written with a minimum of Arabic phrases, this book will interest non-Muslims and Muslims alike. Highly recommended.” — R. G. Mainuddin, North Carolina Central University, Choice

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  9. Kawah Buku (store manager)

    “[I]n this thought-provoking and important book Ayoob dispels a number of widely held misconceptions about Islam. The book is extremely well written, lucid and carefully balanced. He does not rant or resort to rhetoric. His nuanced interpretations of the many forms and expressions of political Islam around the world fully justify his claim that he has destroyed ‘the myth of the Islamic monolith.” — International Journal of Asia-Pacific Studies, Professor Carole Hillenbrand, University of Edinburgh

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