The whole world has in recent years become more aware of a radical trend in Islam that is very demanding and sometimes threatening. Is this true Islam or a deviation from it? That is not for me to say. Islam and its obligations can be understood in many ways, and where there is divergence of interpretation it is up to Muslims themselves to declare what they consider authentic Islam or not. Even declarations by Muslims cannot be absolutized, because Islam does not have any magisterium (except Sh`ism when there is an imm). Muslims can only argue their case by appealing to the Qur'an and Hadith and other ancient texts, and usually they cannot settle on a definitive final position.

Radicalism is one of these positions. In tracing its historical origins I will also take note of other tendencies.

During the life of Muhammad (1)

From the beginning of his preaching a conflict arose between Muhammad and the leaders of Mecca. Muhammad condemned their traditional religion and asserted that those who followed it were destined to Hell. Once he was established in Medina, he led attacks against Meccan caravans, expelled two important clans of Jews and had 600 men of a third clan executed for alleged conspiracy. He sent out hit squads to assassinate poets who criticized him, attacked nomadic tribes and conquered the oasis of Khaybar. Finally he forced Mecca to surrender and brought the whole Arabian peninsula under his authority.

Is this a militant Islam? Yes; no one can deny the facts. Nevertheless all Muslim commentators insist that the people Muhammad attacked were guilty and deserved being attacked. The only difference in interpretation is that modern apologetic commentators say that these enemies opened hostilities and Muhammad was obliged to defend himself, while more radical commentators say that Muhammad himself on some occasions initiated the attack to eliminate fitna (scandal, a situation which threatens the faith of believers and impedes the free spread of Islam) and to establish the rule of God along the lines of Qur'anic law.

The first civil war (2)

Upon the death of Muhammad the bedouin Arabs wished to distinguish between Islam, which they claimed to hold onto, and loyalty to the new Muslim state, but the political situation would not allow a split among the Arabs at that time, and political unity had to be reimposed at all cost. A Muslim is not allowed to fight another Muslim because they are brothers (Q. 49:9-10). If fighting cannot be avoided it must be justified by showing that the enemy has lost the right to call himself a Muslim. He is an apostate, murtadd (the term used for Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses). The rebellion of the newly converted Arabs was called ridda (apostasy) to justify the force that Ab-Bakr had to use to put it down.

Khrijism (3)

`Al's coming to power by a coup in 656 provoked the second civil war among Muslims. Mu`wiya, the governor of Damascus and a relative of `Uthmn who was assassinated in the coup, refused to recognize the new regime. To put an end to the war, `Al accepted a proposal for a truce and negotiations, but many of his supporters accused him of thereby committing treason against God who had put him in power. These dissidents are called Khrijites. Without going into details of the etymology of this name, we can simply point out that in condemning both Mu`wiya and `Al, the Khrijites stood on the principle that obedience to the divine precepts contained in the Qur'an is part of faith, and whoever disobeys them is no longer a Muslim. He has become a kfir (unbeliever) and must be killed. And so they killed `Al and his son Husayn.

The Khrijite principle, which makes bad conduct (fisq) equivalent to unbelief (kufr), was at the bottom of some recent events such as the assassination of President Sadat of Egypt and the Maitatsine movement in Nigeria which erupted into violence in 1980, 1982 and 1984 against the Muslim authorities at that time.

Khrijism, in its true revolutionary spirit, never was a permanent movement, but it is an ever-recurring ideology, taking on different names, which appeals to Muslims who are marginalized and desperate in a Muslim society.


The Sh`ites, or supporters of `Al, also sometimes resorted to violent action. The history of Sh`ism is an alternation between pacifism and violence. The principle underlying these surprising changes of mood is that Sh`ites are supposed to follow the call of the imam (or his representative, who is often an indistinguishable icon of the real imam, as Khomeini), when he proclaims a jihad. When there is no recognized representative of the imam, who has been in hiding for centuries, Sh`ites are dispensed from the obligation of jihad and can practice taqiyya, a kind of pretense which allows them passively to accept the regime in power, even if it is not legitimate according to Sh`ite principles.

The martyrdom of `Al and of Husayn continues to inspire Sh`ites up to today. They are ready to sacrifice themselves willingly for the rights of God and the cause of Islam and when the imam awakens them. Such was the case when the Ayatollah (sign/miracle of God) Khomeini, with the authority of the hidden imam called on his people to fight Iraq or to assassinate Rushdie.

But Sh`ite militancy is like a storm which can shake the world for a time and then pass away when circumstances no longer favour a call for jihad.

Sufism (4)

The Muslim world has always known revolutions, such as the overthrow of the Umayyads by the `Abbasids, and putsches by opportunistic army officers or politicians against local regimes. These power grabbers always appeal to Islam to support their action. Any revolutionary must present himself as an Islamic reformer. In fact, however, governments faithful to the principles of Islamic justice have been the exception in the history of Islam.

The people are not taken in. Often, unable to take any political or military action, they turn to Sufism to experience a truer Islam. Sufism is first of all a spiritual movement seeking a deeper experience of God. At the beginning it may have undergone some Christian influences, but its later history is dominated by certain Muslim personalities who were reputed to have reached perfect holiness. Called "those drawn near" (muqarrabn) to God, they enjoyed an immense authority with the masses, in sharp contrast with the brutal force of the heads of state.

Since in Islam spiritual life and daily life are tied together, it is not rare for some famous sufis to rally the people to overthrow the government and install a reform government. That was the case at the beginning of the 19th century in the north of Nigeria, when `Uthmn Dan Fodio, who belonged to the Sufic Qdiriyya brotherhood, led a jihad and created the Fulani empire of Sokoto. (5)

More often the brotherhoods, which are not sects, but something like religious congregations in the Catholic Church, are not revolutionary, but assure an integral community life for its members in prayer, education, work, health care etc., in reaction to the state (Muslim or not) which often neglects these areas.

Hanbalism (6)

The religious teacher Ahmad ibn-Hanbal (d. 855) followed the thinking developed and popularized by ash-Shfi` (d. 820), which rejected any social system of laws apart from what is laid down in divine revelation, as contained in the Qur'an and Hadith. Hadith was taken as revelation because, according to ash-Shfi`, it is the record of what Muhammad did or said in his role as the ultimate prophet, who is infallible and impeccable, an example whom people of all time must imitate.

Ibn-Hanbal lived in Baghdad during the reign of the `Abbasid caliph al-Ma'mn (813-33), who founded the famous Bayt al-Hikma, a university and research centre where Greek philosophical works were translated into Arabic and this learning was developed by the best brains of the empire, whether Muslims, Christians or Jews. In this environment of free thought the new science of Kalm emerged, systematic theology which used philosophy in order to present the articles of faith in an organized and apologetic way. Among the schools of Kalm was Mu`tazilism, one of whose teachings was that the Qur'an was the created word of God. Al-Ma'mn compelled all theologians to subscribe to this teaching.

Ibn-Hanbal would not agree, because this teaching played down the authority of the Qur'an and, besides, was based on philosophical reasoning, which he would not allow to be placed alongside revelation. The Hanbalites echoed the Khrijites in their reverence for the Qur'an, and they insisted on its literal interpretation without any allegorical or philosophical speculation. For refusing to accept the official teaching on the Qur'an Ibn-Hanbal was kept in prison until the death of al-Ma'mn.

Ibn-Hanbal's strength was his influence on the masses, who looked on him as a holy martyr. At his prompting, they demonstrated in the streets of Baghdad against the intellectual liberalism of the regime. They even opposed the conservative theological school of Ash`arism because it dared to use philosophical reasoning in presenting matters of faith. At last in 847 the caliph al-Mutawakkil was forced all but to shut down the university Bayt al-Hikma and send away all the philosophers, Mu`tazilites and other dangerous thinkers.

Hanbalism was developed later on by Ibn-Taymiyya (d. 1328), who is very influential today especially for his ideas on Islamic society. (7) Ibn-Taymiyya's ideas were taken up by `Abdalwahhb in 18th century Arabia, and Hanbalite Wahhabism is the ideology of the present Saudi regime. Pilgrims pick it up and carry it throughout the world, especially to Africa, where their efforts are subsidized by grants from the Saudi government for the propagation of Islam.

Hanbalism also influenced the modern reform movement of al-Afghn (d. 1897), who was followed by Muhammad `Abduh (d. 1905) and Rashd Rid (d. 1935). (8) These had influence mostly in academic circles rather than on society at large. Abandoning the style of the decadent Ash`arite theology which prevailed in the schools, they tried to develop a modern apologetics based on concordism between the Qur'an and modern science. Taking the offensive, they asserted that Islam, and not Christianity, promoted women's liberation and religious tolerance. Jihad was only defensive, and Islamic government is democratic, based on shr (consultation, Q. 3:159).

The same line of thought was continued by the Pakistani writer Ab-l-`Al Maududi (d. 1979), who developed Islamic political theory along radical lines. (9) He is much read in Nigeria.

On the political front, from 1928 and more so after 1935, Hasan al-Bann set in motion in Egypt the Muslim Brothers, which established branches throughout the Middle East. Bann was a friend of Nasser and Sadat, but met his death in 1949 by assassination, probably by the police of King Faruk. Nevertheless, the brotherhood grew and helped Nasser in his 1952 revolution. Afterwards the Muslim Brothers broke with Nasser because he did not want to share power with them.

In this way Nasser lost the support of the most influential of the Muslim Brothers, Sayyid Qutb. (10) Put in prison for refusing to cooperate with Nasser, he wrote a commentary on the Qur'an which took up the ideas of Rashd Rid and Maududi, but went much further. Interpreting the Qur'an literally, he rejected the aggiornamento of Muhammad `Abduh and Rid, whom he accused of coming under the influence of Christian orientalists and Jews who distorted Islam with their critical and deviant interpretations.

For Qutb, Muslims should not try to confirm the Qur'an by modern science or try to adapt it to modern thought. Rather science and history must give in to the supreme truths of the Qur'an. Besides, reason as distinguished from revelation can say nothing about morality and social life. So, for Qutb, one must adhere to all the Qur'anic provisions concerning the non-exposure of women, polygamy, divorce and inequality in inheritance and witnessing in court. Christians and Jews have no right to the tolerance given to them by the early verses of the Qur'an. Having gone back to polytheism and broken their pact with God, they are unbelievers (kfirn). Therefore they should be attacked, according to the provisions of Qur'an 9:1-35; and this is what the followers of Qutb do up to today. Qutb did not limit jihad to defensive war, but made it an obligation of every individual, who must constantly fight for the establishment of Shar`a law, first in traditionally Islamic societies, and then in the whole world.

Qutb's refusal to accept any modification of the Qur'anic condemnation of usury or interest gave rise to a movement to set up an Islamic banking system based on sharing in risk and profit, a kind of cooperative without any fixed interest.

Qutb looked forward to the revival of an Islamic state with an imam or caliph really devoted to Shar`a. This would be the kingdom of God on earth and real Utopia. Although executed in prison in 1966, Qutb's influence has continued to grow. In Egypt his thought was taken up by the still more radical movement, al-Jihd. Its founder, Muhammad `Abdassalm al-Far, author of The Missing Obligation, insisted on the obligation of each individual Muslim to fight for the establishment of an Islamic state. His followers assassinated President Sadat for not fully implementing Shar`a.


Radical Hanbalism continues to spread among Sunnite Muslims throughout the world. In Nigeria we have seen the Maitatsine movement, which is a self-made Khrijism with Mahdist historical influence, but is akin to Hanbalism.

Recently Sh`ism has been introduced to Nigeria by students returning form Iran and helped by the Iranian embassy. They have organized some demonstrations in the North to demand a more Islamic government.

Hanbalism, with the stamp of Saudi Wahhabism and Sayyid Qutb, is represented by Abubakr Gumi, patron of the Jam`at izlat al-bid`a wa-iqmat as-sunna (Society for the removal of heresy and the establishment of Sunna), commonly known as Izala. This organization not only fights Christians in demanding an Islamic state, but also the Sufic brotherhoods and any Muslims who promote modernization or a revival of traditional African culture. So we see not only the burning of churches, but also fights among Muslims in the mosques.

What will be the outcome of this struggle? Christians give no sign of collapsing before the threat of radical Islam. Muslims attached to Sufic or African tradition have the psychological and social bulwark of African culture to tame the tide of radical Islam. (11) Apart from some further possible flare-ups, one might expect an eventual accommodation once Muslims realize that radical Islam, no more than any other movement, cannot deliver a Utopia.


1. On the life of Muhammad, the basic work is Ibn-Hishm (d. 833), As-Sra an-nabawiyya, 2 vols. (Cairo: al-Halabi, 1955). See the translation by A. Guillaume, The life of Muhammad, a translation of Ibn-Ishq, Sra Rasl Allh (Oxford: Clarendon, 1955) and W.M. Watt, Muhammad at Mecca (Oxford: Clarendon, 1953) and Muhammad at Medina (Oxford: Clarendon, 1956).

2. On the events after the death of Muhammad, see L.V. Vaglieri, "The Patriarchal and Umayyad caliphates", in The Cambridge History of Islam (Cambridge U.P., 1970), vol. 1, pp. 57-103.

3. Cf. Vaglieri, op. cit. and W.M. Watt, The majesty that was Islam (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1974) and The formative period of Islamic thought (Edinburgh U.P., 1973).

4. Cf. G. Anawati & L. Gardet, La mystique musulmane (Paris: Vrin, 1968) and R. Caspar, Cours de mystique musulmane (Rome: P.I.S.A.I.l, 1968).

5. Cf. Murray Last, The Sokoto caliphate (London: Longman, 1967).

6. Cf. W.M. Watt, The formative period, passim.

7. Cf. Henri Laoust, Le traité de droit public d'Ibn Taimiyya (Beirut: Institut français de Damas, 1948), and Les schismes dans l'Islam, introduction à une étude de la religion musulmane (Paris: Payot, 1965).

8. Cf. Jacques Jomier, Le commentaire coranique du Manr (Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 1954), and Introduction à l'Islam actuel (Paris: Cerf, 1964).

9. Cf. Ab-l-`Al Maududi, Fundamental principles of Islamic political theory (Lahore, 1952), Islamic law and constitution (Lahore, 1960), Political theory of Islam (Lahore, 1965) & Towards understanding Islam (Lahore, 1974, 14th ed.).

10. Cf. Olivier Carré, Mystique et politique, Lecture révolutionnaire du Coran par Sayyid Qutb, Frère musulman radical (Paris: Cerf, 1984).

11. For a similar view of Islam in other parts of West Africa, see Luc Moreau, Les africains musulmans (Paris: Présence africaine, 1982).