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Islamism - A False Call for a Return to the Past

Updated on May 14, 2012

Islamist activists of the twentieth century have routinely called for a return to Islamic law and the recreation of an authentically Islamic society, but how successful have they been? They have stated what they want and how it will be when the dust has cleared, but have they really done what they said they would? Have they really created a historically correct Islamic state?

The Golden Age Myth

The Golden Age is something that humans love to think about. It changes from person to person but is essentially "the good ole days" when everything was wonderful and all was right with the world. This started with Greek and Roman mythology but the ideal continued on through time - there are a plethora of examples from Queen Elizabeth I or Victoria in English history, the Tang and Song in Chinese history, the Genroku era of Japan, and many many more.

Islamists have a similar view of a Golden Age. What they want to do is to go back to the roots of Islam - to use only Islamic Law and processes to judge crimes and to remove the innovations and things that have been taken by the west that could be impure and detract from Islam.



Iran is a country that actually had a revolution to become an Islamic state. Or at least they claim they are, but how much of it actually worked? It has not been really successful in achieving many of the goals that were set forth for raising standards of living: ridding Iran of corruption, westernization and political oppression, protecting Sharia from innovation (as we can see from some of the laws that are in place today), as well as the government that is in place in Iran today.

Return to the Golden Age or Something Completely New?

However, an even deeper question is if the Islamists’ ideas actually represent a return to past social and legal models. The answer is no. Islamists are in a way modernists and are doing what they can to change something - though they claim that they are going back to the way it was, they are in fact not doing anything of the sort. Islamic law was never the only law used, for many reasons. Primarily it was because a lot of times there were other governments that were in control, but secondarily there was the problem of the Islamic law itself; the fact that Islamic law had a lot of gaps.

Scale and Gavel - Symbols of State Law
Scale and Gavel - Symbols of State Law

Sharia Law or Islamic Law Fallacies

In the beginning the law systems used a mix of primarily Islamic law, then secondarily State law, then the customary law was used to fill in gaps, or was just there because it had always been.

In the Ottoman empire there was a rise in state law taking priority in law, with customary law disappearing. Then in the latest period it was almost all state law with a throwback to Islamic law when needed for Muslim personal life. The want for a purely Islamic law is quite new, along with a few other innovations that have come about since the 'golden age' of Islam.

For instance, there were different kinds of law schools that one would go to for different judgements and cases. People would forum shop just to get the right ruling from a judge depending on the circumstances and what they needed. However, with the Ottoman empire, new courts were created by the state and then a codified law that just used one of the schools of law so that all the judgments would be equal and people wouldn’t forum shop.

The Rise of Ulama - Higher Than Before

Along with that the ulama were just learned ones that were respected in the community. The ulama were like judges, teachers, preachers, and were sometimes influential in politics - but they were never revolutionary or in control of making laws and government which is what they have turned into in Iran. Today, there is a council of ulama that took over the government under the leadership of Khomeini and is extremely important, with a lot of government control. This is very new and much different from how ulama would usually act, yet another innovation that was not in the past that has been called to be reclaimed.

Secularism vs Islamism - Different Paths to Modernity

Secularism - the opposite of Islamism (trying to partition church and state) - has taken off in some Muslim countries really well.They both share common goals and normal ideals, such as wanting to have less poverty, wanting to be united together with everyone, and not having oppression in politics or any by other means. The two sides are also both trying to be modern, even if the Islamist side doesn’t know it or admit it. They are reaching their modernity by very different means. So far, though, the Secularist side seems to be delivering more on what they are promising than the Islamist movement has been able to do yet.


Exploration of Secularist State: Turkey

The main differences in what the Islamists and Secularists believe is in the separation of church and state. The secularists in Turkey illustrated a reaching of goals through action. Some of the things that the Turkic government did was to get a civil code that dealt with changes to Islamic law: such as treatment of women, the rights and money that women were allowed, the abolishment of the religious court system, the use of religion in politics, and the removal of an article of government that said that the Turkish state was Islamic.

Increases in women's rights and equality is an important step to modernization and a great goal to reach, showing that Secularism can help the state without damaging faith.

Mosque on the Red Sea
Mosque on the Red Sea

To the Future

As the middle east continues to work on its solutions to religious issues, we will find out what is to become of the Islamist and Secularist movements that are still ongoing, and probably will continue for a while now. However, at the moment, all we know is that Islamists aren’t exactly matching their call to "return to Islam!" and "return to the way it used to be!" and are in fact twisting history to how they want it to be in order to innovate in a new direction, or in the direction their leaders want to go.


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    • Taalib Pugh1 profile image

      Theodore Pugh 

      6 years ago from Wilkes Barre Pa

      As for "Secularism" it may have changed these countries and their societies mainly economically, politically, socially, and adaptable to world changes mostly for the same reasons I stated. This is to just keep up and not fall behind everyone else. They wanted to continue to please their original occupiers who still occupy them with their implanted Gov'ts and rulers, that later turn into tyrants and dictators who can't stop loving their power and position. Then the same people who placed them there make or provoke "War" or Revolution against them, which I'm sure that would of course lead to more killings of Muslims killing eachother. Calling it gaining freedom in the name of "Democracy". Islam has no need for reform or to replace it with manmade laws, political governments, manmade ideals or philosophies that have nothing to do with ALLAAH (The One God) Islam is based on submittance to this Great and Majestic being that surpasses what mankind understand how we came to be and who has the true knowledge and keys to how we should live being that He gave us the life to live period...

    • Taalib Pugh1 profile image

      Theodore Pugh 

      6 years ago from Wilkes Barre Pa

      Interesting opinions and researched sources. Unfortunately I see that you seem to be leaning much to the side of secularism, you seem to be a bit biased to what I call an blind awaking of Muslims to Islam. Many Muslims have awaken especially after several callers have claimed that Islam has been forgotten and Muslims have been fooled especially when many of their lands were taken over by the Western powers(Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Russia) especially during and right after the World Wars. Their lands were divided up like children sharing candy, amongst these countries. They was forced to adopt any sort of government that theses occupiers decided for them they was also munipulated to think that they would remain a poor and starving country, they would be left behind while other countries especially the west would progress and advance in their economies, social order, etc. Secularism was of course the chosen norm. Example Turkey after the last of the Ottoman Empire was basically dismantled by the West mainly because they aligned themselves allies with Germany in the World War. This of course was a costly mistake. Later came a man who happen to be a turkish soldier by the name of Mustapha Kemal Ataturk the so-call father of the Turks. He made much effort to get control over turkey and reform it to a Secular State. Of course as history reports he removed the Islamic ruling laws from the country and any thing the promoted islam excluding the Masjids (Mosques). This was a victory for the secularist through throughout the west that they would not have to deal with the last Muslim Empire any more.

      So now th is the time of the awaken but of course as a person awakes their not quite concious and aware of their surroundings. So they have to gradually gain full conciousness and become fully aware and knowledgeable of what's going on around them and how they are going to proceed now that they are fully awaken.

    • Beata Stasak profile image

      Beata Stasak 

      6 years ago from Western Australia

      Well researched and well written contemporary piece on the most intriguing and the most critised religion of our time, well done:) B

    • shara63 profile image


      6 years ago from Delhi

      You are right Mr Prakash Dighe...its the fault of the practioners (the fanatics one) & not of Islam itself.....they manipulate things as per their interest without understanding the sense and the context in which things are referered in Quran!

      here i want to clear that there is a difference between radical or fundamentalist and Fanatics...

      as i know the meaning of fundamental is the basics (of central importance)of some theory or general principals of any subject, and Bieng a fundamentalist is practicing the theory perfectly with a core knowledge....but fanatics are those who are uncritically devouted, showing lack of or improper use of critical standards and procedures of the theory. and definitely that is harmful to the society & to the practitioners too!

    • Prakash Dighe profile image

      Prakash Dighe 

      6 years ago from Dallas, Texas, USA

      shara63, I have not read the Quran, but I'm sure that it does not preach what some of the radical followers practice. Unfortunately, the number of such followers seems to be rising, not dropping.

    • Danieljohnston profile imageAUTHOR

      Daniel Johnston 

      6 years ago from Portland, Oregon

      I am afraid it is the same in a lot of religions... you cannot find most of the things you find in the Catholic church in the bible, and they are hypocritical... The Pope on a golden throne, pretty much being worshiped when the goal was to share wealth and help the needy. I'm sure the Pope's gold could feed millions of people. If it was used ideals the religion espoused.

      If only true calls to return to the past happened in religions rather than radical diversions and "innovations". (I say "innovations" because usually it is not something good.)

      It is unfortunate how much Islam is being misused, misrepresented, and misunderstood.

    • shara63 profile image


      6 years ago from Delhi

      interesting hub..i agree with Uzma shaheen that unfortunately Islam has lost its original form bcoz of the so called Islamic practioners..they have corrupted the soul of Islam by mixing ...and now its the most misunderstood religion of the world.. the reason may be different from malpublicity to malpractice..depending on people and places..If anybody wants to test islam go by its law book that is Quran & Hadith and I can assure that there is not a single verse in Quran that is against humanity and speaks of the welfare of entire humanity and not of the muslims only!

    • uzma shaheen profile image

      Uzma Shaheen Bhatti 

      6 years ago from Lahore,Pakistan

      very interesting and informative hub. At the moment, there is not a single muslim country who is practicing islamic law in its true form,not even saudia arabia. every state is mixing it with other laws. great work.

    • Danieljohnston profile imageAUTHOR

      Daniel Johnston 

      6 years ago from Portland, Oregon

      Thank you so much! I look forward to looking at all the other Hubs this week.

    • ripplemaker profile image

      Michelle Simtoco 

      6 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Congratulations on your Hubnuggets nomination! To view your nomination, head this way by clicking on the link Enjoy the Hubnuggets as we continue to ponder the differences between Islamism and secularism.

    • profile image


      6 years ago from Mumbai India and often in USA

      Hi! Daniel and Prakash

      Thanks a lot. What I see is, there is a problem of quagmire in USA and that there is a need to look at reasons for it and try to get out of such situation.

      USA still has a lot of potential and capacity to contribute a lot towards better life not only for its own citizens but for whole world and I look forward to that (I feel the same also for my first country India).

      I put corruption as one of the main reasons, there may surely are other reasons too as Prakash says, some issues in foreign policies, some economic issues in USA it self.

      Like one of them is

      " The share of total income going to the top 1 percent of earners, which stood at 8.9 percent in 1976, rose to 23.5 percent by 2007, but during the same period, the average inflation-adjusted hourly wage declined by more than 7 percent. "

      Rising average age is another issue which seems to bring in changes.

      But none of them are of the form which can not be controlled. For example compared to corruption in India (which also can be controlled) USA has a tiny fraction of it (mainly because despite all problems still a minimal level life is there for most).

      I put corruption as foremost as one sees that a lot of actions by its policymakers do not add up at all to what they should be doing and the capacity they have. So corruption is one one possible explanation for such a state of affairs which can not be explained easily. One can see also that it is there. But one has to analyse much more to see exact details.

      What seems to be missing is will to look at problems properly and try to change the situation, which was very visible a few years ago (i have been coming to USA since early 70's and it has passed through many times crisis but never I have seen this kind of helplessness and raising hands in average population. Good part is that it is not hopelessness). Today it seems to be more discussions on very peripheral issues.

    • Danieljohnston profile imageAUTHOR

      Daniel Johnston 

      6 years ago from Portland, Oregon

      Thank you Prakash. Though I don't agree completely with Soumyasrajan either, it always makes it interesting to have conflicting views and can lead to a great discussion. :)

    • Prakash Dighe profile image

      Prakash Dighe 

      6 years ago from Dallas, Texas, USA

      Hi Daniel,

      You've studied this subject in detail and it is good to see that you have put these facts together for our benefit. This subject attracts much of the world's attention due to the actions of a few who believe they would like to return to the "Golden age". It is encouraging to see secularism flourish in Turkey - and Mali of which I was not aware - while democracy is taking roots in Malaysia and Indonesia, to the best of my knowledge. I am not sure whether I agree with soumyasrajsn's view that corruption is a reason for the quagmire that the USA finds itself in some situations - it has more to do with their foreign policies. Your hub has some very useful info.

    • profile image


      6 years ago from Mumbai India and often in USA

      Hi! Daniel

      Interesting article and interesting observations. Many of the facts you describe are true and are indeed very worrying. I actually wrote several articles about similar problems and insecurity it is generating in whole world. Two of them are

      Over all I feel if one tries to see this as a social and cultural problem only, one gets a very incomplete picture. Danger is that main reason for this sorry state of affairs may be not at all caught in that analysis.

      Social problems created out of this going back are indeed very worrying. But they are result of mainly political problems.

      In most of these countries rulers are army or dictators (who are either from army or feudal lords) and they are using this Islamic call etc. as a tool to keep their rule intact and also to be powerful in world politics. Current democratic uprising are very peripheral movements. The rule by feudal lords and army or similar forces is going to remain intact and they are going to use such Islamic calls as a tool for keeping it intact.

      Problem has become much more severe quite a bit because of quagmire in which USA has got it self in these countries. For example it finances these feudal rulers and thus indirectly finances terror machinery created in these countries. There is enough information available now for several years now, which show that such terror machinery creation is being done by support of such rulers. At the same time USA sends its soldiers to fight the same terrorist who are created by such financing etc.

      Americans should indeed assess properly what are the reasons that they are in such quagmire situations in several areas. One most likely reason I feel may be corruption in USA. Otherwise it is difficult to explain such a situation and so inept handling.

      Not that other countries of Europe or countries like India have done any better. But american decline in such a manner affects much more.

    • Danieljohnston profile imageAUTHOR

      Daniel Johnston 

      6 years ago from Portland, Oregon

      No offense taken at all. I was taking a class called Islam and Modernity where it explored how Islamic states struggled with the concept of modernity because they disliked western ideals and westernization, and that is where this came from.

      When I refer to Islamists here, it is used more for the activists - people are now trying to use terms like "activist Islam", "militant Islam", and "political Islam" instead so there is no confusion.

    • bushraismail profile image


      6 years ago from ASIA

      Hello Daniel what inspired you to write this hub?? I am just curious. Your not a Muslim right? no offense.

      Not all Islamist are like what you say but only those who dupe themselves as Islamist and no nothing about what Islam is. well written.

      I dont mean to be rude but if my writing states so..i am sorry.

    • Danieljohnston profile imageAUTHOR

      Daniel Johnston 

      6 years ago from Portland, Oregon

      Thank you very much.

    • Rodric29 profile image

      Rodric Anthony Johnson 

      6 years ago from Peoria, Arizona

      I find it interesting that I have never paid attention to the fact that countries like Turkey and the Republic or Mali are religiously neutral states with large Islamists populations. I enjoyed this article and look forward to reading you other writings.

      I gave it a thumbs up because in my estimation it humanizes the plight of our Islamist brethern and gives us the common cause to stand for. We need not think that separation of church and state is a bad idea when we can see the the integration of state sponsored religion can corrupt the purveyors of truth.


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