What Is The Failure of Political Islam?

17 January, 2017
Q I was just wondering if there was anyone who has read The Failure of Political Islam by Olivier Roy. And if they would possibly take the time to explain it to me because I do not understand it.


Salam (Peace) Lindsey,

Thank you for contacting About Islam with you question.

You should also try to read Roy’s latest book, Globalized Islam: the Search for a New Ummah, published in 2004, which is an extension to his views in his first book. 

I will answer your question by basically re-explaining Roy’s views in non-technical language and perhaps making some brief comments, rather than making a detailed analysis of the books themselves. 

The interesting point in Roy’s books is that the theory of the “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West is not accurate and is not likely to happen.

The reason, in Roy’s view, is the fact that the West and Muslims are very diverse entities and have too many differences over issues and stands.

For example, he wrote in his Failure of Political Islam that the battle is not between Islam and the West, but “among Muslims themselves, between the secular and the fundamentalist, the modern and the conservative”. 

Roy then differentiated between two streams in the current Islamic political sphere: what he labeled the Islamist stream and what he labeled the neo-fundamentalist stream.

He mentioned that Islamists seek to revive the Islamic state, inspired by the history of Islam. Hence, “Islam for Islamists is a political ideology, which should be integrated into all aspects of society”.

He gave examples for those he called Islamists, such as Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan, Ayatollahs and their followers in Iran, and The Muslim Brothers (Al-Ikhwan) in Egypt. 

Roy’s criticism of the “paradox of the Islamists” and his belief in “The Failure of Political Islam,” as the title of his book goes, is based on his view that Islamists are too occupied with their particular national issues and have lost focus of the scope of the whole Ummah (Muslim nation).

He mentioned how during the Gulf War of 1991, local groups of the Muslim Brothers in various countries took different stands based on local considerations.

For example, the Kuwaiti group approved US military intervention, while the Jordanian group opposed it. Therefore, Roy argues, Islamists are shaped by their local nations, not the other way around. 

Moreover, Roy wrote that:

The poverty of Islamist thought on political institutions, and the Islamists impossible quest for a virtue that can never be attained. Because their political model is attainable only in man, not in institutions, therefore, the creation of an Islamist polity is almost impossible.”

He further claimed that “the Islamic revolution, the Islamic state, and the Islamic economy are but myths”. 

Roy differentiated between Islamism and neo-fundamentalism, the latter only seeking to create an Islamic society merely through the implementation of Shari`ah in the legal system rather than any other political or military means.

According to Roy’s classification, neo-fundamentalists—such as the Saudi-sponsored version of Islam—do not have an economic or social agenda, except through the implementation of Shari`ah

Roy also pointed out that neo-fundamentalists, unlike Islamists, do not pay attention to local issues and crises, but rather call for a new brand of supranational ideology that is more a product of modernization and globalization than of the Islamic past.

He tried to prove his point by mentioning how neo-fundamentalists translate their literature to various languages and publish them on the World Wide Web for audiences around the world rather than in one specific country. 

In summary, Roy is saying that Islamism has failed, while the apparently weaker and milder version, which is neo-fundamentalism, is meeting more success.

He proposed that even if an Islamist group is to rule over a Muslim country, it “will neither unify the Muslim world nor change the balance of power in the Middle East,” but rather succeed only in making superficial changes in customs and laws. 

Hoping this answer is helpful and informative. 

Thank you and please keep in touch. 

Walaikum Asalam.

Please continue feeding your curiosity, and find more info in the following links:

Terminological Chaos: Political Islam and Islamism

Shariah: Bringing Value to Our Lives (Series)

What Is the Shariah?

About Dr. Jasser Auda
Jasser Auda is a Professor and Al-Shatibi Chair of Maqasid Studies at the International Peace College South Africa, the Executive Director of the Maqasid Institute, a global think tank based in London, and a Visiting Professor of Islamic Law at Carleton University in Canada. He is a Founding and Board Member of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, Member of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, Fellow of the Islamic Fiqh Academy of India, and General Secretary of Yaqazat Feker, a popular youth organization in Egypt. He has a PhD in the philosophy of Islamic law from University of Wales in the UK, and a PhD in systems analysis from University of Waterloo in Canada. Early in his life, he memorized the Quran and studied Fiqh, Usul and Hadith in the halaqas of Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo. He previously worked as: Founding Director of the Maqasid Center in the Philosophy of Islamic Law in London; Founding Deputy Director of the Center for Islamic Ethics in Doha; professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada, Alexandria University in Egypt, Islamic University of Novi Pazar in Sanjaq, Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies, and the American University of Sharjah. He lectured and trained on Islam, its law, spirituality and ethics in dozens of other universities and organizations around the world. He wrote 25 books in Arabic and English, some of which were translated to 25 languages.