Challenges with Studying Islamist Groups in American Political Science
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Islamism, Democracy, Liberalism, Methodology
In this paper, I will explain why the lack of debate between political theory and comparative politics has led to an inadequate understanding of the politics of traditional Islamic scholars and Islamists in American political science. In the first section, I analyze the impact of the text-based approach of political theory; in the second, of the liberal frameworks of comparative politics; and in the third, a promising new development: the interdisciplinary field of Islamic legal studies, which has the potential to bridge the division between political science, law, and area studies approaches to the study of Muslim societies. I argue that the reliance of political theorists on seminal Islamist texts, rather than on the interpretations of texts during legal and political processes, limits their ability to represent the evolution of pragmatic Islamist theory in countries such as Pakistan. Moreover, whereas political theorists, such as Lucas Swaine, have demonstrated the futility of applying liberal assumptions to theocrats, comparativists continue to predominantly rely on liberal categories and frameworks, which produces a distorted view of Islamists. The division of labor between political theory and comparative politics, and the lack of conversation that results from it, makes it difficult—if not impossible—to fairly represent or analyze contemporary Islamist groups in American political science.
1 For instance, Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist
Subject (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005) was a seminal work that shifted
the study of Islam in anthropology. In political science, Steven Fish’s article, “Islam
and Authoritarianism” (World Politics 55, no. 1 (October 2002): 4-37), which contained
a statistical analysis of the link between Islam and democracy was heavily cited. His
book, Are Muslims Distinctive? A Look at the Evidence (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2011), continued this theme and was among Choice’s Top 25 Academic Titles
for 2012. Yet Fish didn’t cite, let alone incorporate, Mahmood’s analysis.
2 For an overview of this movement, which began with an anonymous email from
“Mr. Perestroika”, see Kristen Renwick Monroe, Perestroika!: The Raucous Rebellion in
Political Science (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005). For an early criticism of
the movement, see David D. Laitin, “The Perestroikan Challenge to Social Science.”
Politics & Society 31, no. 1 (March 2003): 163–84. Laitin focuses his criticism on the
arguments in Bent Flyvbjerg, Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails
and How It Can Succeed Again (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
For a retrospective review of the movement, see Timothy W. Luke and Patrick J.
McGovern, “The Rebels’ Yell: Mr. Perestroika and the Causes of This Rebellion in
Context,” PS: Political Science and Politics 43, no. 4 (2010): 729–31.
3 Lucas Swaine, The Liberal Conscience: Politics and Principle in a World of Religious
Pluralism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005). In political theory, see also
John Gray, The Two Faces of Liberalism (New York: New Press, 2000). The comparativist
Steven Fish cited neither theorist in his 2011 book, Are Muslims Distinctive?
A Look at the Evidence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
4 Jennifer Pitts, A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006). When I refer to the ulama, I am referring
primarily to the Deobandi ulama who influenced the struggle for an “Islamic constitution”
in Pakistan, and when I refer to Islamists, I am referring primarily to the
Jamaat-e-Islami that was allied with the ulama in this effort. I have analyzed their Urdu
writings at length in Tabinda M. Khan, “Institutions Not Intentions: Rethinking Islamist
Participation in Muslim Democracies,” PhD dissertation, Columbia University, 2015.
5 For an analysis of this process in Pakistan, see Tabinda M. Khan, “Women’s Rights
between Modernity and Tradition,” in Avishek Ray and Ishita Banerjee-Dube eds., Nation,
Nationalism and the Public Sphere: Religious Politics in India (New Delhi: Sage, 2020).
6 See Makau Mutua, “Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights,”
Harv. Int’l LJ 42 (2001): 201 for an analysis of this cultural phenomenon in the field
of international human rights, in general.
7 Scott Alan Kugle, “Framed, Blamed and Renamed: The Recasting of Islamic
Jurisprudence in Colonial South Asia,” Modern Asian Studies 35, no. 2 (May 2001):
8 See Roxanne L. Euben and Muhammad Qasim Zaman, Princeton Readings in Islamic
Thought: Texts and Context from al-Banna to Bin Laden (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 2009) and Andrew March, Islam and Liberal Citizenship: The Search
for an Overlapping Consensus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
9 Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, “Islamic Opposition to the Islamic State: The Jamaat-i Islami,
1977-88,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 25, no. 2 (May 1993): 261-283;
10 For instance, in considering why some “hacks” to Islamic law are accepted while
others are ignored, Rumee Ahmed writes: “The answer is simple: power. A hack is
adopted only when it advances the interests of the powerful”. See Rumee Ahmed,
Sharia Compliant: A User’s Guide to Hacking Islamic Law (Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press, 2018), 159.
11 Bernard S. Cohn, “Notes on the History of Indian Society and Culture,” in Structure
and Change in Indian Society, ed. Milton Singer and Bernard S. Cohn (Chicago:
Aldine, 1968), 8.
12 See John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993)
and John Rawls, “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” The University of Chicago
Law Review 64, no. 3 (1997): 765–807.
13 John Gray, The Two Faces of Liberalism (New York: New Press, 2000).
14 Michael Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1998), Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory
(Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007) and Elaine Hadley, Living
Liberalism: Practical Citizenship in Mid-Victorian Britain (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2010).
15 Saba Mahmood’s critique in “Feminism, Democracy, and Empire: Islam and the War
on Terror,” in Gendering Religion and Politics: Untangling Modernities, ed. Hanna
Herzog and Ann Braude (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). See also her book,
Politics of Piety.
16 Alfred Stepan, “Religion, Democracy, and the ‘Twin Tolerations,’” Journal of
Democracy 11, no. 4 (2000): 37-57, at 45; and in Alfred Stepan, Arguing Comparative
Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
17 Nathan Brown, Arguing Islam after the Revival of Arab Politics (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2017).
18 Lucas Swaine, The Liberal Conscience: Politics and Principle in a World of Religious
Pluralism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).
19 Roxanne Euben, Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern
Rationalism: A Work of Comparative Political Theory (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1999). See also Andrew March, “What Is Comparative Political Theory?,” The
Review of Politics 71 (2009): 531–65 and Fred Dallmayr, ed., Border Crossings: Toward
a Comparative Political Theory (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 1999).
20 Roxanne L. Euben and Muhammad Qasim Zaman, Princeton Readings in Islamic
Thought: Texts and Context from al-Banna to Bin Laden (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 2009), 82.
21 Reprinted from Sayyid Abul A‘la Maududi, The Islamic Law and Constitution, translated
and edited by Khurshid Ahmad, 2nd ed. (Lahore: Islamic Publications,1960).
22 For instance, in addition to Mawdudi’s text included in the Princeton volume cited
above, another text that receives a great deal of attention is Sayyid Qutb, Milestones
with a Foreword by Ahmad Zaki Hammad (Indianapolis: American Trust, 1990).
23 Khurshid Ahmad, “Introduction,” [dated 1960] in The Islamic Law and Constitution
(translated and edited by Khurshid Ahmad) (Lahore: Islamic Publications Ltd., 1980
[October 1955]), 28.
24 Ibid., 29-30.
25 Ibid., 27.
26 Leonard Binder, Religion and Politics in Pakistan (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1961), 105. Binder mentions that the idea for Islamic judicial review by the
Supreme Court had first appeared in an article by Muhammad Asad (Leopold Weiss),
who was the Director of Islamic Reconstruction in Punjab. This article was published
and analyzed in a Jamaat-e-Islami periodical in October 1948, which termed the
idea un-Islamic because it was against the practice of the rightly guided Caliphs.
27 Ibid., 302.
28 Report of the Court of Inquiry constituted under Punjab Act II of 1954 to enquire into
the Punjab Disturbances of 1953 (Lahore: Punjab Govt., 1954).
29 Sayyid Abul A’la Mawdudi, “Comments on the Draft Constitution of 1956,” Appendix
III in The Islamic Law and Constitution (translated and edited by Khurshid Ahmad)
(Lahore: Islamic Publications Ltd., 1980 [October 1955]), 366.
30 Ibid., 367.
31 Ibid. 369-370.
32 Ibid., 372 and 374.
33 Mona El-Ghobashy, “The Metamorphosis of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers,”
International Journal of Middle East Studies 37, no. 3 (2005): 373–95. Chatterjee
discusses the colonial origins of this comparative practice in Partha Chatterjee,
Lineages of Political Society: Studies in Postcolonial Democracy (New York: Columbia
University Press, 2011).
34 Alfred Stepan, “Religion, Democracy, and the ‘Twin Tolerations,’” Journal of
Democracy 11, no. 4 (2000): 37-57.
35 Ibid., 45.
36 M. Sukru Hanioglu, “The Historical Roots of Kemalism,” in Democracy, Islam, and
Secularism in Turkey, ed. Ahmet T. Kuru and Alfred Stepan (New York: Columbia
University Press, 2012).
37 M. Hakan Yavuz, “Turkey: Islam without Shari’a?” in Shariʻa Politics: Islamic Law and
Society in the Modern World, ed. Robert Hefner (Bloomington: Indiana University
38 See Chapter 1, “Indonesian Democratization in Theoretical Perspective”, in Mirjam
Kunkler and Alfred Stepan eds., Democracy and Islam in Indonesia (New York:
Columbia University Press, 2013).
39 Mustafa Akyol, Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty (New York: W.W.
40 For a discussion of “reciprocal reasoning”, see Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson,
“The Moral Foundations of Truth Commissions,” in Truth v. Justice: The Morality
of Truth Commissions, ed. Robert I. Rotberg and Dennis Thompson (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 2000), 36.
41 I have analyzed this process in Khan, “Women’s Rights between Modernity and
42 Seyyed Vali Raza Nasr, “The Rise of ‘Muslim Democracy,’” Journal of Democracy 16,
no. 2 (April 2005), 13-27.
43 The National Assembly of Pakistan Debates, Official Report, Thursday, the 17th Sep.,
1998 (Volume IV: No. 15), 1552.
44 Mawlana Gauhar Khan, “Nifaz-e-Shariat aur 15 tarmeemi bill: Jamaat-e-Islami haqeeqi
iqdam tak tehreek jari rakhay gee,” Weekly Asia, 8th October 1998, p. 8. He also
warned workers that secular parties were criticizing the Shariat Bill because they
believed in parliamentary sovereignty and did not support the principle of court-interpreted
shariat as a check on parliament. So, he advised them to carefully frame
their criticism of Sharif’s Bill on grounds of its institutional design, and on how it
would not achieve the benefits of shariat, and to not inadvertently strengthen the
arguments of secular critics about the very idea of a Shariat amendment.
45 See Seyyed Abul A’la Mawdudi, “Comments on 1956 Constitution,” Appendix IV in
The Islamic Law and Constitution, translated and Edited by Khurshid Ahmad (Lahore:
Islamic Publications, 1960).
46 See Martin Lau, The Role of Islam in the Legal System of Pakistan (Boston: Leiden,
2006) and Karin Carmit Yefet, “The Constitution and Female-Initiated Divorce
in Pakistan: Western Liberalism in Islamic Garb,” Harvard Journal of Law and
Gender 34 (2011): 553-615. See also Paula R. Newberg, Judging the State: Courts and
Constitutional Politics in Pakistan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
47 Clark B. Lombardi, “Can Islamizing a Legal System Ever Help Promote Liberal
Democracy?: A View from Pakistan,” University of St. Thomas Law Journal 7, no. 3
48 For a review of classical and medieval Islamic political theory, see Peter Hardy, The
Muslims of British India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 23-26 and
107-114. See also Muzaffar Alam, Languages of Political Islam in India 1200-1800 (New
Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 2004) for the different understandings of sharia found in the
adab and akhlaq genres in Mughal India. The latter tradition, in Alam’s view, stretched
the meaning of sharia beyond a juristic understanding. Therefore, the juristic tradition
was not central to all genres of political theory found in Muslim empires.
49 Lucas Swaine, The Liberal Conscience: Politics and Principle in a World of Religious
Pluralism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).
50 For a discussion of the importance of “authentic deliberation” in deeply divided societies,
see Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, “The Moral Foundations of Truth
Commissions,” in Truth v. Justice: The Morality of Truth Commissions, ed. Robert I.
Rotberg and Dennis Thompson (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2000).
51 Mawlana Mufti Rafi Usmani, “Deeni Siyasi JamatoN ki Khidmat main,” Al-Balagh
31, no. 4 (September 1996): 3-18, at 9; and Mawlana Samiul Haq (Speech), “Nifaz-eqawaneen
maiN Shia Sunni tafreeq tabah kun hai: qazi adaltoN ko kitab o sunnat
ka paband karana ho ga,” Al-Haqq 18 (February 1983): 5-11, at 6.
52 This toleration breaks down when it comes to groups not recognized as Muslim sects
by the broader Muslim community, such as Ahmadis. See Jeremy Menchik, Islam
and Democracy in Indonesia: Tolerance without Liberalism (New York: Cambridge
University Press, 2016) for an analysis of this problem in Indonesia.
53 See Asifa Quraishi-Landes, “Islamic Constitutionalism: Not Secular, Not Theocratic,
Not Impossible,” Rutgers Journal of Law and Religion 16 (2014): 553; Intisar A. Rabb,
“We the Jurists: Islamic Constitutionalism in Iraq,” U. Pa. J. Const. L. 10 (2007): 527;
Clark Lombardi, State Law as Islamic Law in Modern Egypt: The Incorporation of the
Sharīʿa into Egyptian Constitutional Law (Leiden: Brill, 2006); Noah Feldman and
Roman Martinez, “Constitutional Politics and Text in the New Iraq: An Experiment
in Islamic Democracy,” Fordham Law Review 75 (2006): 883.
54 For instance, on 24-25 March 2017, a conference on “Religion and the State” was held
in Tunis that was co-sponsored by the Arab Association of Constitutional Law, the
Tunisian Association of Constitutional Law, and Harvard Law School’s Islamic Legal
Studies Program. This conference brought together political scientists, scholars of
Islam and Islamic law, and lawyers from universities in the U.S. and U.K. as well as
from Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and South Asia.
55 Andrew March, Islam and Liberal Citizenship: The Search for an Overlapping
Consensus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) and Intisar A. Rabb. “‘We the
Jurists’: Islamic Constitutionalism in Iraq,” University of Pennsylvania Journal of
Constitutional Law 10, no. 3 (2008): 527-579.
56 Intisar Rabb, “We the Jurists”, 531.
57 Ibid., 555. See also Intisar Rabb, “The Least Religious Branch? Judicial Review and
the New Islamic Constitutionalism,” UCLA Journal of International Law and Foreign
Affairs 17, no. 1/2 (2013): 75–132.
58 Rabb, “The Least Religious Branch?”, 85.
59 Ran Hirschl, “Constitutionalism in a Theocratic World” in The Limits of Constitutional
Democracy, ed. Jeffrey K. Tulis and Stephen Macedo (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 2010), 256-279, at 259.
60 Nathan Brown, Arguing Islam after the Revival of Arab Politics (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2017); Tamir Moustafa, Constituting Religion: Islam, Liberal Rights,
and the Malaysian State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).
61 Clark B Lombardi, “Can Islamizing a Legal System Ever Help Promote Liberal
Democracy: A View from Pakistan,” U. St. Thomas LJ 7 (2009): 649.
62 Ibid., 656.
63 Ibid., 668.
64 Ibid., 667.
65 Ibid., 681-82.
66 For a more recent essay by Lombardi, see Michael W. Dowdle and Michael A.
Wilkinson, eds., Constitutionalism beyond Liberalism (Cambridge University Press,