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Political Islam in the Middle East




Admission requirements

  • Classes of 2013-2016: similarly-tagged 200/300-level courses or permission from the instructor.

Course description

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 the role of Islamism in the Arab Awakening and the possible future directions of Muslim politics in the region.

Learning objectives

The module is aims to provide a critical examination of the politics of Islam in the Middle East. By the end of the course, students will be able to:

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

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

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

  • Demonstrate understanding of the ways in which the goals and strategies of Muslim political movements are shaped by their political and socio-economic contexts.

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

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

  • Communicate their arguments effectively, orally and in writing.

Compulsory textbook

We will draw extensively on Peter Mandaville’s Islam and Politics (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014) and Mohammed Ayoob, The Many Faces of Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Muslim World (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008). It is recommended that you buy these books. Other course readings will be distributed before the seminar.

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

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).

The module requires no prior knowledge of the Muslim-majority world, but students who have not studied it before may find it helpful to do some background reading on Islam. Montgomery Watt’s Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961) is the standard biography. On Islamic belief and practice, Roger Du Pasquier’s Unveiling Islam (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1992) and John Esposito’s Islam: The Straight Path, 2nd edn. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991) are especially good. Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples (London: Faber and Faber, 1991) and John O. Voll’s Islam: Continuity and Change in the Modern World (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994) provide some historical background.

Contact information

Dr. Edmund Frettingham |