Islam, Islamism, Jihadism

Are Islam and Jihadism related? At the moment, there is an intense debate going on about this exact question. Depending on their respective political position, different political actors would answer this question differently. Instead of trying to answer this question, this brief article will provide an overview over the most important contents and characteristics of these concepts.


Islam, as should be universally recognised, is a religion just as Christianity or Judaism. All of these religions are based in different sacred texts: Tora, Bible, and Qur’an. Very briefly, the main content of Sunni Islam are five pillars to be followed by all believers in order to obtain personal salvation. These are faith (Shahada), prayer (Salat), charity (Zakat), fasting (Sawm), and the pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj). These may differ slightly among the various branches of Islam, such as Sunni, Shiite, and Kharijite Islam.

These various branches have been existent since the period following the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632. After the prophet’s death, the tribes that had converted to Islam would have turned away if there were no proper successor to Muhammad. There were intense disputes about the successor and one particular party of Muslims (Ali’s party or Shi’atu Ali) demanded that Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib, be made the prophet’s successor. However, the first successor as rightly-guided caliph was Muhammad’s father-in-law, Abu Bakr, who was succeeded by Umar ibn al-Khattab, and Uthman ibn Affan. Shiites, however, do not recognise the status of the other caliphs as “rightly-guided”.

After Uthman had been assassinated, Ali eventually became the fourth rightly-guided caliph. Nevertheless, the question of succession was still highly politicised and Ali was eventually assassinated. This led to the Islamic schism in which the Shiites split from the umma and Ali became the first Shiite imam. In Sunni Islam, the dynasty of the Umayyads seized power and established their caliphate. In Shiism, eleven imams succeeded Ali. However, there were further disputes about the succession of the “right” imam, leading to further splits in the Shiite community.

The caliphate, therefore, is a political system that was formed as the consequence of historical developments. It, in fact, has no basis in religious texts or was considered the “right” political system. It is, of course, connected to Islam as the caliph was both the political leader of the umma as well as the successor of the prophet. However, Islam should primarily be considered a religion with a specific promise of personal salvation that coincided with the emergence of a political system.


While Islam, as described above, is to be considered a religion, i.e. a moral code and a path to personal spiritual salvation, Islamism is something profoundly different. The main characteristic of Islamism is that it is an ideology that is based on Islam. That is, Islam should not only inform the personal lives of worshippers but it should form the basis of statehood. Islam is supposed to be the basis of the state. This has never been the original intention of the founders of Islam. Therefore, Islamism has to be considered a “modern” phenomenon first emerging in the 20th century.

Indeed, the emergence of Islamism coincided with the end of the Ottoman empire after WWI and the beginning of the colonisation period. Islamism, therefore, is to be seen as an “answer” to colonialism and as a political idea. The rejection of European colonialism and of “imported ideologies”, such as Marxism or Liberalism, led to the emergence of a “genuine Middle Eastern” ideology, i.e. Islamism. This can be shown by researching the history of the first Islamist organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, that was founded by schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna in Ismailia, Egypt, in 1928.

The Muslim Brotherhood, despite demanding the recreation of the caliphate and the “Islamisation” of the society, never managed to develop a realistic political programme or a design for their “Islamic society”. Instead, they tried to employ a bottom-up approach. The Egyptian society should be transformed via social policy such as educational programmes that established schools, and hospitals. This led to the situation that the Muslim Brotherhood maintained some essential aspects of the welfare state Cairo did not provide for. Many Islamist organisations and groups maintain a distinct profile in terms of welfare programmes. In the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, this was one of the reasons for its election victory in 2012.


As the terms Islamism and Jihadism seem to be used interchangeably, it is necessary to clarify the main distinctions between these two ideologies. Jihadism is undoubtedly an ideology, too, but it is based on another concept of Islam, the principle of jihad (struggle). This principle might appear ambiguous at first sight. This is due to the fact that there are two “kinds” of jihad: greater jihad and lesser jihad. While greater jihad is a personal struggle in terms of morale and personal integrity, lesser jihad is to be considered much more physical or “real”. The jihadist ideology transfers this concept into the sphere of the political. Such a “jihad” might be fought against alleged oppressors such as the USA.

The fight against the USA is an interesting aspect of Jihadism as the target of jihadist groups shifted. In the 1980s and 1990s, various jihadist groups concentrated on the near enemy, which are the Arab dictators such as Husni Mubarak. Their belief system implied that they needed to transform the local societies and defeat the local oppressors in order to reinstate the caliphate. In the late 1990s and 2000s, with the tragic example of 9/11, jihadist groups such as al-Qaida shifted their focus to the far enemy. With the emergence of ISIS, jihadist groups, once again, started to concentrate on the near enemy such as Kurds, Shiites, and Christians.

Talking about Jihadism is useful as various jihadist groups may have different Islamisms upon which their ideology is based. There is, for instance, a profound difference between Salafists, which may even be quietist and would never do anything political, and the crude and brutal ideology of groups such as ISIS. Jihadism was common among Caucasian groups during the Chechen wars. Some would include the Lebanese Hezbollah in their listings of jihadist groups, others would argue that these are “just” (Shiite) Islamists.

In conclusion, both Islamism and Jihadism are ideologies that are based on the belief that the religion of Islam should form the foundation of politics and society. As such, they are related to Islam but Islam is not the main reason for their emergence, on the contrary. Of course, Islamism and Jihadism are rather similar and should not be looked upon as completely separate ideologies. Instead, they are ideologically and theoretically connected. Nevertheless, Islamism as such is, by far, not as aggressive as Jihadism is.

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