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Political Islam in the Middle East


Admission requirements

Recommended course:

  • Introduction to Globalization & Transnational Politics


The past three decades has seen a surge in the public visibility of religion around the world, challenging longstanding assumptions that societies would become more secular as they modernised. Political Islam has been at the forefront of this development, with Islamic political parties organising within states and militant transnational networks mounting a more radical and violent challenge to the established political order. But how can we make sense of this complex and diverse phenomenon? Which are the most important of the many competing voices and movements that now claim to speak and act on behalf of Islam? How do they understand politics, the nation-state and democracy? What, if anything, is new about contemporary political Islam? How do groups promoting jihad relate to those pursuing more mainstream and democratic political agendas?

This course examines these questions in the context of the Middle East. It aims to enable students to understand major strands of contemporary political Islam, their historical background, similarities and differences, present significance at the regional, national and subnational levels, and likely future directions. The course begins with a discussion of conceptual and theoretical issues in the study of political Islam, before briefly examining the history of Muslim politics up to the nineteenth century and the rise of modern Islamism. More recent versions of Islamism are approached through country-based case studies organized into three broad types: Islamists competing for power through democratic and pseudo-democratic mobilization; Islamism in self-proclaimed ‘Islamic states’; and Islamic national liberation movements in weak and quasi-states. We then move away from country-based case studies to focus on the transnational jihadist movement, before concluding with discussion of possible future directions Muslim politics in the region might take.

Through this course, students will encounter some of the more common approaches to the analysis of religious politics, and gain a base of empirical knowledge about the politics of one religious tradition. It is therefore a good preparation for those intending to take the 300-level course Religion in World Politics.

Course Objectives


  • Understand the most common analytical approaches to the study of political Islam.

  • Understand the historical trajectory of political Islam in the twentieth century.

  • Identify the distinctive goals and strategies of key contemporary Islamic political movements.

  • Distinguish the diverse positions taken by proponents of political Islam on issues of authority, the state, democracy, and violence.

  • Understand the most important socio-economic forces shaping the goals and strategies of Muslim political movements.


  • Relate empirical cases to broader thematic and conceptual discussions of political Islam.

  • Think critically about existing theories and narratives of political Islam.

  • Communicate arguments effectively, orally and in writing.


Timetables for courses offered at Leiden University College in 2022-2023 will be published on this page of the e-Prospectus.

Mode of instruction

The course is taught through two-hour seminars per week. Students will be expected to participate in both large and small group discussions; present and defend their ideas within an academic setting; and take part in group projects. The instructor will facilitate and ensure the efficient running of the discussion, but students are responsible for shaping its direction.

Assessment Method

  • Seminar participation: 15%

  • Group presentations: 15%

  • Briefing paper: 30%

  • Final Essay: 40%

Reading list

We will draw extensively on Peter Mandaville’s Islam and Politics (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014). It is recommended that you buy this book. Other course readings will be distributed before the seminar.

There are a number of useful general works covering political Islam:

  • Ayoob, Mohammed, The Many Faces of Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Muslim World (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008).

  • Burgat, Francois, Face to Face with Political Islam (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2003).

  • Eickelman, Dale F. and James Piscatori (2004), Muslim Politics 2nd edn (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).

  • Esposito, John L., Islam and Politics, 4th edn (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998).

  • Hroub, Khaled (ed.), Political Islam: Context versus Ideology (London: Saqi, 2010).

  • Kepel, Gilles, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, rev. ed. (London: IB Tauris, 2004).

  • Milton-Edwards, Beverley, Islam and Politics in the Contemporary World (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004).

  • Roy, Olivier, The Failure of Political Islam (London: IB Tauris, 1994).

  • Volpi, Frédéric (ed.), Political Islam: A Critical Reader (London: Routledge, 2011).


Courses offered at Leiden University College (LUC) are usually only open to LUC students and LUC exchange students. Leiden University students who participate in one of the university’s Honours tracks or programmes may register for one LUC course, if availability permits. Registration is coordinated by the Education Coordinator,


Dr. Edmund Frettingham,