The British government funded thinktank Policy Exchange describe Islam as "a religion practised by Muslims" whilst Civitas describes Islam as "the Arabic word denoting submission or self-surrender to Allah" and Islamism as "radical, militantly ideological versions of Islam, as interpreted by the practitioners and in which violent actions such as terrorism, suicide bombings or revolutions are explicitly advocated, practised and justified using religious terminology".
Some have argued the contemporary form of "Islam the religion" was a product of colonialisation, the period of British rule in India for instance seeing a reformulation of a pervasive Islamic way of life into a hardened and sharpened set of rules and laws.
It thus begs the question, what is the nature of Islam.
The Philosopher and Anthropologist Ernest Gellner once commented
"I think it is fair to say that no secularisation has taken place in the world of Islam: that the hold of Islam over its believers is strong and in some ways stronger than it was 100 years ago. Somehow or other Islam is secularisation-resistant and the striking thing is that this remains true under a whole range of political regimes."
The terms faith and religion are commonly used to denote belief systems like Christianity and Judaism, which following secularisation have become overly focused on ritual and dogma. Ideology is often used for political or economic systems including Liberalism, Democracy, Capitalism and Communism. Both terms fail to capture the essence of what Islam is.
Thinkers like Horii, Arni and Mcutheon et al raise more fundamental concerns in relation to terms like religion, arguing
"Any analytical concept should be strategically replaced or abandoned when it consequently serves the hegemonic power which was supposed to be critiqued in the first place. In the case of 'religion', the term and its pro-claimed separation from the secular "constitute a fundamental constituent of modernity" (Fitzgerald 2011: 5). On this basis, my own position concerning the analytical term 'religion' is that it should be avoided at all or, if necessary, replaced with a more specific category. This article suggests therefore that rather than study religion as such as if it were an observable phenomenon, sociologists should investigate the classificatory practice which employs the generic category 'religion' within a specific social context." (Hornii, 2015)
Muslims have traditionally used the term "deen" which does not immediately translate to any of these terms, "way of life" or "lifeway" often used by translators. These terms when used by Muslims have resulted in some confusion, both in terms of their definition and more importantly, as statements of fact about Islam.
There is no agreed definition of the term ideology, only a set of rival definitions. "Ideology is the most elusive concept in the whole of the social sciences."(David McLellan, 1995). As Andrew Heywood explains in his primer, "Political Ideologies", this has been partially due to the contentious link between theory and reality and partially due to the use of the term as a political device to condemn and criticise rival belief systems.
The term ideology has been defined as:
The term ideology can be said to denote fundamental ideas that provide belief systems for individuals/groups. The term has frequent usage in relation to secular or materialistic systems but is not limited by this usage nor does it pose any contextual problems when transferring its use to the Islamic context. Classical literature reveals a spiritual creed (aqeeda/iman), a set of fundamental and decisive concepts, providing guidance through values and ideas enforceable and regulated via political authority. These ideas include both natural matters (morality, ethics, socio-political, law etc) as well super-natural matters (meta-physics, the hereafter etc).
Labelling Islam as an ideology importantly results in no loss of any aspect of the subject matter nor does it introduce anything unwarranted, adhering to accepted notions of typology (jami' wa mani'). Those who deem ideologies are limited to a political realm ignore their comprehensive nature. Some instances of ideologies have Machiavellian tendencies however this is a characteristic of an instance and not a necessary aspect of an ideology's definition.
Al-Nabhani, the Jordanian jurist and founder of Hizb ut-Tahrir, defines ideology (mabda') as:
"...a rational doctrine from which a system emanates. The aqeedah (doctrine) is a comprehensive idea about man, life and the universe... As for the system that emanates from this doctrine, it is the solutions for man's problems, the method for implementing those solutions, preserving the doctrine and conveying the ideology to others."
These systems manage three relationships, individual (morality), creator (worships) and social (systems of life). Activists like Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, wrote:
"We believe Islam is an all-embracing concept which regulates every aspect of life, adjudicating on every one of its concerns and prescribing for it a solid and rigorous order."
Some argue that the term ideology does not appear in the Qur'an/Sunnah or that its modern day Arabic equivalent, ideoligiyya, indicates that the notion has not been addressed by revelation. (It ignores commenting on the Arabic equivalent mabda'). However this argument is fundamentally flawed. Many well known terms were never seen or used in the sources - e.g., asbab al-nuzul (causes of revelation), maqasid (objectives of revelation), mushaf (copy of Qur'an) or aqeedah (Islamic creed). Technical terms are regularly coined for conceptual analysis and ease of discussion - labelling an underlying reality.
The American scholar Zaid Shakir's unsuccessful attempt at distinguishing religion from ideology fails by assuming a political doctrine cannot be spiritual, and Islam appears to seek personal salvation, where the personal is not situated in the social:
"[an ideology is] any systematic and all-embracing political doctrine, which claims to give a complete and universally applicable theory of man and society and to derive there from a programme of political action... This limitation to the political realm marks where Islam parts with ideology. Islam is not simply concerned with man's political condition; it is also concerned with his spiritual condition and at the heart of the Islamic call is a normative program for spiritual salvation... Moreover, ideologies are also utilitarian in that the doctrines they espouse are informed as much by their effectiveness as they are by any overarching principles. Few ideologies would deviate far from the Machiavellian maxim that "the ends justify the means"."
In conclusion, the definition and the use of the term ideology in both cases is acceptable and to assert Islam is an ideology is valid. Restricting it to a political ideology is no doubt controversial, and objectionable, however it is an irrelevant debate as Islamists do not argue such.
Religion and Faith
The term religion has been defined and used as:
And faith has been defined and used as:
The term religion emphasises belief and reverence of a supernatural power and the system that regulates that relationship (e.g., the church in Christianity). The term faith focuses on the belief of a God or associated doctrines. Either term is acceptable in Christianity, which displays a clear dichotomy between God and Caesar due to its early political formative experiences - something absent in the Muslim historical experience. As such, neither of these two terms have the propensity to provide a sufficiently comprehensive definition that includes the socio-political dimensions that are present in Islam. As such, it is inaccurate to label Islam a religion or faith, despite the fact it exhibits aspects or components that may be loosely termed religion or faith (e.g., tawhid, worships, morality etc).
Islam is neither a secular faith nor political system - it is and has historically been seen as a fusion of the two, meeting the needs of individuals and society according to divine premises without contradiction.
Whilst none of the terms in the question adequately or fully describes Islam nor are fully accurate translations of the term deen; between them they cover its main elements, but in isolation they can be distortative. Islam is and always has been a deen, a way of life or as the anthropologist Talal Assad put it, a discursive tradition.
Mitsutoshi Horii, (2015) Critical Reflections on the Category of Religion in Contemporary Sociological Discourse, Nordic Journal of Religion and Society (2015), 28 (1): 21–36
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