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The Political Language of Islam
Book Review
Madiha Tariq


Book Name:     The Political Language of Islam

Author:             Bernard Lewis

Publisher:        Oxford University Press

Year:                2002

The paradigm of international politics is heavily influenced, if not completely directed, by Western political thought. In accordance with the “might is right” syndrome, Western models of constitution, democracy and state-citizen relationships were brought to the rest of the world first through colonization, and later through indirect economic pressure. State-sponsored Communism has fallen to the side as a viable alternative, although for many, Marxist ideals still provide a reasonable alternative to capitalist doctrine. Within this paradigm the political ideology of Islam has also undergone a thorough change. While classical Islamic political thought has been infused with Western notions of governance and state relations, an Islamic mode of governance remains the only acceptable solution for most of the Muslims across the world. The emphasis on Islamic principles and the Holy Law has put Muslims on a direct collision course with the secular West.

It is in this backdrop that Bernard Lewis talks about the political language of Islam. What is most interesting is the way in which he analyses Muslim political development. Eschewing the need for unnecessary conclusions and predictions, Lewis begins with semantics and discusses how the differences in religion and early social and political development have produced two very separate political paradigms (West and Islam). Later on he moves through different facets of Islamic political ideology and identifies the changes that have taken place within each through the passage of time. In doing so Lewis draws comparisons with Western ideology time and time again. There is a certain inevitability of drawing parallels and tangents with Western political discourse, history and practice. For Lewis, and more importantly his Western audience, the comparison is important to explain the significant shifts of the Islamic political paradigm from Western political thought.

Chapter 1:  Metaphor and Allusion

Lewis begins with examining the differences between Western ideology and Islamic thought in understanding and using metaphors in social and political discourse. This first step is important as it builds the foundation of his argument that Islam and the West being fundamentally distinct in terms of political development. A close analysis of the political language also helps reveal not only how Islam characterizes politics but also the circumstances and social conditions within which Islamic political thought evolved.

Amongst the various differences in imagery and expression, the most important is how power relationships and shifts are seen. In the West, there is the metaphorical “ladder of success” and your “power” depends on how high or low you stand within the community. In opposition, Islam focuses on a horizontal, circular conception of power, with God and in essence the Holy Law at the center, and thus one’s power or status depends (at least in classical Islamic thought) on how near or far away one is from the centre (i.e. God and Islam).

Chapter 2: The Body Politic

Through the course of history, Muslims have given significant importance to politics as it is interpreted within the realm of Islam. In this chapter, Lewis introduces his Western audience to a few core principles of Islam: true sovereignty (the power lies with God, and the state/ruler is just a “facilitator”), the immutability of the divine law (and thus a state that serves to interpret and not create laws), and the restrictions placed on the state by the same divine law. Once this paradigm is established, Lewis proceeds to guide the reader through time, from the early political concepts of seventh century Arabs to the impact of different dynasties and later on, invading peoples and finally to modern day Islam, heavily influenced by Western notions of state, nation and medieval notions of heads of state.

Chapter 3: The Rulers and the Ruled

In a society bound by the interpretation of divine law, the relationship between the rulers and their subjects carries great importance; especially since there is often not much room for major differences in interpretation. From determining that the head of state is merely a vice-regent of the Prophet, to the different nuances that were hidden behind choices of titles by Muslim rulers from the seventh century to the nineteenth century, it was very important to define the role of the vice-regent in order to limit, or in certain cases increase, the ruler’s power.

Similarly, there has been a lot of concern regarding the status of the subjects. While Islamic usage rejects privilege and hierarchy, it admits, in certain situations it even imposes, inequality. Three types in particular were established and regulated by law and developed through centuries of usage: The unequal status of master and slave, of man and woman, and of Muslim and non-Muslim. In principle, equality of status, and with it the right to participate at whatever level in the exercise of power, belonged only  to those who were free, male, and Muslim, while those who lacked any of these qualifications, the slave, the woman, and the unbeliever, were excluded.1

The third main focus of this chapter is the duties and obligations of both the rulers and the ruled. Lewis compares this phenomenon of politics in Islam to be the modern Western notion of rights, and in many ways the comparison is justified. While ambiguous, there are specific guidelines for both the rulers and the subjects when it comes to their respective duties and the resulting expectations of the other side. Perhaps the most important facet of this issue is the ultimate duty of the individual to Islam, which supersedes obligations to any ruler, especially if that ruler has gone against God’s law.

Chapter 4: War and Peace

Although Islam is sometimes denoted as a military religion, there is no word for war or holy war in classical Arabic usage. Instead, jihād literally means effort, or struggle. However, according to Islamic ideology there is a clear divide between dār-al-Islam (the land of peace) and dār al-harb (the land of war) – between the two there is a morally necessary, legally and religiously obligatory state of war, until the final and inevitable triumph of Islam over unbelief. It is through this conception that the majority of classical jurists have understood the obligation of jihād in a military sense.

The changing definition of jihād is also important. From being understood as an external, military struggle contemporary Islamic scholars have transformed the meaning of jihād to an internal, spiritual struggle with oneself. The constant struggle of Islam (and all Muslims) against the infidels – a theme that fits early Islamic history – has been converted to a more westernized concept of the separation of religion and state, thus making Islam the personal matter of the individual. Lewis’s argument about jihād having a decidedly military connotation in classical Islam leads to the controversial conclusion that the meaning of “inner struggle” ascribed to jihād within contemporary Islam is merely a way of appeasing Western sensibilities, and not the true interpretation of jihād.

Chapter 5: The Limits of Obedience

A critical issue facing early Muslim scholars was justifying the duty of obedience to the state in face of revolutions and power upheavals, since the state was legitimized by the qualifications of the ruler as well as his manner of accession. In earlier times the jurists insisted strongly on justice and legitimacy, but as Lewis points out, the definitions have subtly changed over the period of centuries to allow for historical events (such as the conquest of Muslim lands by non-Muslims). From an expanding empire to being conquered by Mongols and Turks, to the eventual colonization by Europe, Islamic ideology has adapted to the circumstances. This is characterized by the acceptance of “infidels” as rulers, provided they are just and allow the practice of major Muslim rituals. Indeed, eminent Muslim jurists including al-Mazāri used the justification of necessity, or darūrah, a principle often invoked by Muslim jurists to justify the acceptance of situations which are unacceptable in themselves. The principle was maintained that such a rule was inherently legitimate, and that it was the duty of Muslims to seek its repudiation when there was a reasonable prospect of success in the undertaking – but only then.

As Kramer points out, Lewis’ principle concern throughout this work has been to establish what political terms have meant to those who initially coined them, and to those who ended up using them at particular points in time. This has come with the realization that political language is integral to political change; upheavals such as wars and conquests tend to give more weight to some terms while debasing others, so that in the end, “no term has meaning above historical context”.2

Also interesting to note is the gap between Islamic political theory and Muslim political practice – “a gap that opened in Islam’s first century and eventually became a chasm”3. A significant portion of this work (indeed, the last 3 chapters) deals with the problems faced in this regard. A core issue is the autocratic exercise of political power, where the political language of Islam tended to under-state the actual powers of the Muslim ruler. A prominent example is the authority according to subsequent rulers who took on the titles of caliph and sultan, words whose historical origins in no way legitimize the breadth of powers enjoyed by them. To quote Kramer, Islamic political theory “enshrined an ideal balance of power hardly ever achieved in the history of Islam”.4

In the short space of just over a hundred pages, Bernard Lewis has clinically dissected and comprehensively covered all important aspects that shape Muslim political ideology. From semantics to historical cultural development to actual practices, Lewis shows quite clearly how the political language of Islam has evolved. Classical Islam has blended in, been fused with and come under heavy influence of many external sources, the most important being: early Muslim expansion, the rule of Mongols and Turks, and European conquests and control.

A persistent theme in Lewis’s work is how there is a sharp contrast between the prescribed and the practiced. Within Islamic political ideology this is especially relevant since the unity of religion and state in Islam means that to deviate from what is prescribed is a deviation from Islam itself. This deviation, resulting from both absorbing the culture of the conquered lands and being influenced by the conquerors, grows enough after the early Islamic era as to require being justified under the doctrine of necessity.

It is clear from the above discussion that historical development has significantly changed the political language of Islam. Today Islam is no longer the biggest power, and out of survival and necessity there comes a policy of appeasement, one that has constantly moulded Islamic politics for the last four centuries. Contemporary scholars have tried to show Islam as democratic, or as a peaceful religion, when it is neither. Islam accepts that there is a constant “jihād”, both internal and external. Islam, instead of accepting Western values, questions the legitimacy of the “might is right” principle, and chooses to adhere to divine instructions of law and justice.





1. Bernard Lewis, The Political Language of Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 64-65.

2. Martin Kramer, Review of The Political Language of Islam, by Bernard Lewis, in The Middle East Review, Spring 1989, 63-64.

3. 3. Ibid.

4. 4. Ibid.

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