The Use of the Past in Political Islam


What I Learned from My Past Life Regression - Conscious Living TV

By Yasser Harrak

In shaping the Islamist ideology, the past plays the kernel role. Saying this leads us to ask: which past plays such a role? How examplary was this past?
Looking at the way past Muslim scholars (Ulema or Fuqaha) collaborated with rulers that were far from being devoutly religious ,due to their open consumption of alcohol, cruelty and corruption, we can say that the separation of the temporal (state) and religion started developing very early in Islam. Not only that, but as Mohammed  Ayoud explains, the authority of the state superceded that of religion throughout the formation of Islam. He wrote: "the temporal authority’s de facto primacy over the religious establishment continued throughout the reign of the three great Sunni dynasties— the Umayyad, the Abbasid, and the Ottoman" (Ayoub 2007, 3). This is not particularly the past  that Islamists use to construct their ideology. They needed to revive a past that is not controversial among Muslims and have picked the "gold age" or the era of the prophet and the rightly guided Caliphs. Perhaps one of the greatest characterizations of the "gold age" is that of Patricia Crone. According to her, the golden age is central to Islamist thinking as a primitivist utopia, both in the sense that it presented the earliest times as the best and in the sense that it deemed a simple society to be the most virtuous (Ibid). The past builds a simple model for Islamists to capture the emotion and support of average believers who dream of a past society they believe was peaceful and just. Although some Shiites, mainly the Khomeinists, seem, to a certain degree, to relate to the idea of  the "gold age" due to the inherited influence the Muslim brotherhood has on the Khomeinism, the theory to build a Caliphate à la "gold age" remains largely a Sunni phenomenon.

The existence of a "gold age" is hard to argue. Unless other political factors played in favor of Islamism, this notion could have never taken off even among average Muslims. We saw previously the colonialism and the cold war (Afghan Jihad) factors pushing forward Islamist ideas. Today history is somehow repeating itself in places like Syria and Yemen. Islamists will make the past glitter even more for their strive to power. 
In the end, let us remember that the in the "gold age" Muhammad is taught to have been poisoned by his wife - daughter of the 1st Caliph-  in the Shiite tradition. The 1st Caliph was the first to burn people alive, the 2nd Caliph, the 3rd and the 4th were all murdered due the post-Muhammad Fitna. Academic work on this particular past is prohibited in most Arab and Muslim countries which makes their regimes, willingly or unwillingly,  a factor playing in favor of Islamism.


  • Ayoob, Mohammed. 2007.  Defining Concepts, Demolishing Myths. In Many Faces of Political Islam : Religion and Politics in the Muslim World. University of Michigan Press.

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