Sociology of Islam

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Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam is an Abrahamic religion based on prophecy, prophethood, and the revealed text. It began in sixth-century Arabia and spread rapidly to regions outside the Arabian peninsula. A hundred years after Mohammed had declared it a prophetic religion, Islam had spread to almost all the regions of the known civilized world. This early political success and the idea that the divine message for the proper ordering of society is complete and final account for the social pervasiveness of this religion. The first factor inhibits the handing over of spheres of life to nonreligious authority, and the second makes it difficult to offer rival versions of the blueprint. This social pervasiveness makes Islam especially interesting in the sociology of religion (Gellner 1983, p.2).

Islam is the second largest religion, with an estimated 1.2 billion adherents, constituting about 20 percent of the world population in 1998. Approximately 900 million Muslims live in forty-five Muslim-majority countries. Table 1 provides a sociodemographic profile of Muslim countries included in the World Development Report published annually by the World Bank. In terms of size, the Islamic world constitutes a significant part of humanity and therefore warrants a sociologically informed understanding and analysis of its religious, social, and political trends. The following topics will be covered in this article: social, ideological, and economic factors in the origins of Islam; Islam and the rise of the modern West; Islam, Muslim society, and social theory; Islam and fundamentalism; the Islamic state; gender issues in Muslim societies; and, Muslim minorities in the West.


Social science scholarship in the twentieth century has been influenced by three dominant intellectual traditions: Marxism, Weberian , and functionalism. Their influence has shaped the analytic approach to historical events, resulting in an increasing focus on the relationship between social and economic factors and historical events. The study of Islam and Muslim societies often reflects these influences.

One strand of scholarship has focused on the analysis of various factors in the origins and early development of Islam. A discussion of the economic and social aspects of the origins of Islam provides a test case for a closer investigation of the wider issues raised by the dominant paradigms in sociology. A number of historical studies have dealt with this issue primarily in terms of the diffusion of Jewish and Christian teaching in pre-Islamic Arabia that laid the foundation for the rise of Islam (Torrey 1933; Bell 1926; Kroeber 1948). The aim of these and similar studies has been to identify and understand how certain ideas and cultural elements utilized by Islam derived from preexisting religions or to point to the existence of elements analogous to Islam in other religious traditions in the same general area.

Another scholarly tradition has approached the analysis of the early development of Islam in terms of sociological and anthropological concepts and traces the origins of Islam primarily to the change in social organization in pre-Islamic Meccan society caused by the spread of trade. Wolf (1951) provides an overview of these studies and shows that the tendencies Mohammed brought to fruition were prominent in pre-Islamic Arabia. The spread of commerce and rapid urban development had caused the emergence of classlike groupings from the preceding network of kin relations. This also contributed to the emergence of a divine being specifically linked to the regulation of nonkin relations as the chief deity. These changes created a disjunction between the ideological basis of social organization and the functional social reality and thus spawned disruption and conflict. Islam arose as a moderating religious-ethical

Table 1
Sociodemographic Profile of Selected Muslim Countries
COUNTRYPopulation Millions (1997)Urban Population (% of total)GNP Per Capita 1997 $Life Expectancy (males and females)Adult Illiteracy Rate (15 years and (males and females)
source: World Bank: World Development Report 1998/99 and 1997. New York, Oxford University Press. UNDP, Human Development Report 1996. New York; Oxford University Press.
Saudi Arabia2084679066/7129/50
United Arab Emirates3851736074/7621/20

social movement under these social conditions. According to Wolf:

The religious revolution associated with the name of Mohammed permitted the establishment of an incipient state structure. It replaced allegiance to the kinship unit with allegiance to a state structure, an allegiance phrased in religious terms. It limited the disruptive exercise of kin-based mechanisms of blood feud. It put an end to the extension of ritual kin ties to serve as links between tribes. It based itself instead on the armed force of the faithful as the core of a social order which included both believers and unbelievers. It evolved a rudimentary judicial authority, patterned after the role of the pre-Islamic soothsayer, but possessed of new significance. The limitation of the blood feud permitted war to emerge as a special prerogative of the state power. The state taxed both Muslims and non-Muslims, in ways patterned after pre-Islamic models but to new ends. Finally, it located the center of the state in urban settlements, surrounding the town with a set of religious symbols that served functionally to increase its prestige and role. (1951, pp. 352–353)

In his historical studies of early Islam, Watt (1954, 1955, 1962a, 1962b) also analyzed the economic, social, and ideological aspects of the origins of Islam. His analysis of the economic situation in pre-Islamic Arabia shows that the economic transition from a nomadic to a mercantile economy had resulted in social upheaval and general malaise. He also found a close affinity between the ideology of Islam and the situation that prevailed in early seventh-century Mecca. However, his analysis led him to question the nature and direction of the relationship between Islamic doctrines and the social and economic conditions of pre-Islamic Meccan society. Are doctrines causally dependent on the social order in such a way that they can be deduced from it? Or is the ideology of Islam a creative factor that made a contribution to the course of events? Watt argues that there was nothing inevitable about the development of a world religion from the economic and social circumstances of early seventh-century Mecca. The malaise of the times might have been alleviated without achieving anything of more than transient and local importance. He argues that the formulation of Islamic ideology was a creative response to the situation, not an automatic result of interacting factors.

According to Watt, the creative response of Islamic ideology is reflected in key foundational Koranic ideas such as Ummah and Rasul. Like other Koranic ideas, these ideas can be connected to earlier Jewish and Christian conceptions as well as to pre-Islamic Arabian ideas, but the Koranic conceptions had a unique new and creative dimension that made them especially relevant to the contemporary Arabian situation. Mere repetitions of current ideas in the Koran would have rendered those ideas devoid of creative novelty, whereas sheer novelty would have made them unintelligible. What the Koran does is take the familiar conceptions and transmute them into something new and original (Watt 1954, p. 172). In this synthesis, the old images are to some extent transformed but retain their power to release the energy of the human psyche. From this perspective, the Koranic conceptions and images of Ummah and Rasul took on new meanings that were a combination of the old conceptions and additional meanings conferred by the Koran, which was thus able to release the energies of the older images and inaugurate a vigorous new religion. This energy was directed, among other things, toward the establishment of the Islamic state and the unification of Arabia (Watt 1954, pp. 173–4).

Debate about the social factors in the origins of Islam continues (Engineer 1990; Crone 1996). However, it is evident that under the influence of dominant theoretical paradigms in sociology, this debate has provided new insights into the role of social, economic, and cultural factors in shaping the ideology of Islam and the early development of Islamic social formations.


Another recent development has been a revival of interest in the "social project" of Islam. The most significant contributions have come from the work of Rahman (1982, 1989), who claims, "A central aim of the Koran is to establish a viable social order on earth that will be just and ethically based" (1989, p. 37). This aim was declared against the backdrop of an Arabian society characterized by polytheism, exploitation of the poor, general neglect of social responsibility, degradation of morals, injustice toward women and the less powerful, and tribalism. The Koran and the genesis of the Muslim community occurred in the light of history and against the social historical background. The Koranic response to specific conditions is the product of a "coherent philosophy" and "attitude toward life" that Rahman calls "the intellectual tradition" of Islam. This tradition was subverted and undermined by an emphasis on literalist interpretations of the Koran by Ulema Islamic scholars. The Islamic scholarship molded by Ulema came to emphasize "minimal Islam", focusing on the "five pillars," and negative and punitive Islam. Islamic scholarship thus became rigid, fossilized, and largely removed from the intellectual tradition of the Koran. Rahman argues that the intellectual tradition of the Koran requires that Koranic thought be dependent on a factual and proper study of social conditions in order to develop Islamic social norms for reforming society (Rahman 1982).


An important strand of historical scholarship has focused on the relationship between Islam and the rise of the modern West. This question was the focus of Mohammed and Charlemagne (Pirenne 1939). According to Pirenne, for centuries after the political collapse of the Roman Empire, the economic and social life of western Europe continued to move exclusively to the rhythm of the ancient world. The civilization of Romania had long outlived the Roman Empire in the West. It survived because the economic life based on the Mediterranean had continued to thrive. It was only after the Arab-Muslim conquests of the eastern and southern Mediterranean in the seventh century a.d. that this Mediterranean-wide economy was disrupted by the Islamic conquest. The Arab-Muslim war fleets closed the Mediterranean to shipping in the later seventh century.

Deprived of its Mediterranean-wide horizons, civilized western Europe closed in on itself, and the under-Romanized world of northern Gaul and Germany gained prominence. The Mediterranean Roman Empire in the West was replaced by a western Europe dominated by a northern Frankish aristocracy that gave rise to a society in which wealth was restricted to land. Its rulers, deprived of the wealth generated by trade, had to reward their followers with grants of land, and thus feudalism was born. The empire of Charlemagne, a northern Germanic empire inconceivable in any previous century, marked the beginning of the Middle Ages. Pirenne shows that by breaking the unity of the Mediterranean, the conquest made by the Arab-Muslim war fleets ruptured Romano-Byzantine economic and cultural domination over western Europe, which was forced to rely on its own material and cultural resources. From this analysis Pirenne draws his famous observation: "It is therefore strictly correct to say that without Mohammed Charlemagne would have been inconceivable" (Pirenne 1939, p. 234).

The Pirenne thesis linked great historical events that have occupied the attention of historians for a long time: the demise of the classical world centered on the Mediterranean and the rise of the empire of Charlemagne. Pirenne demonstrated that these two events, which are central to the rise of the modern West, are linked to the rise of Islam and its expansion to the Mediterranean. Pirenne's well-documented generalizations have attracted praise as well as criticism from historians who are often wary of broad generalizations (see Hodges and Whitehouse 1983).

While Pirenne's thesis attempts to link the rise and development of Islam to the rise of the modern West, paradoxically, equally influential hypothesis postulates instead a "clash of civilizations." This hypothesis, advanced by Samuel Huntington (1993), holds that whereas in the pre–Cold War era military and political conflicts occurred within the Western civilizations, after the end of the Cold War the conflict moved out of its Western phase and its centerpiece became the interaction between the West and non-Western civilizations and among non-Western civilizations. According to Huntington, future conflicts will occur along the fault lines that separate those civilizations. Globalization tends to heighten civilizational identity, and as a result, civilizational differences are difficult to reconcile and override political and economic factors.

Huntington (1993) postulates that the greatest threat of conflict for the West comes from religious fundamentalism, especially Islamic fundamentalism. He sees Islamic fundamentalism as arising from the failures of Muslim countries to achieve political and economic development of their masses. This failure is exacerbated by the demographic structure of the Muslim world, especially the large bulge in the middle of the age pyramid (the youth). Huntington suggests that Muslim countries have a historical propensity toward violence. The domination and hegemony of the West, he claims, will force an alliance between the Confucianist and Islamic civilizations, and that alliance will challenge Western interests, values, and power, resulting in a civilizational clash. Huntington postulates that civilizational conflict will replace ideological and other forms of conflicts in the future. The outcome of this change is that civilizational conflicts will become more intense, violent, and sustained. This thesis was criticized as a new form of Orientalism. Other criticisms have centered on Huntington's assumption of civilizational unity as well as his assumptions about the basis of alliances between Confucianist and Islamic civilizations (Ajami 1993; Ahluwalia and Mayer 1994).


Ibn Khaldun and the political sociology of Muslim society. The sociology of Islam primarily refers to the empirical study of Muslim societies. In this respect, it has occupied an important place in the theoretical discourse of a number of theorists from Ibn Khaldun and Weber to Gellner. It is beyond the scope of this article to provide an exhaustive overview of how Muslim society and Islam have been treated in social theory (for studies of the Islamic revolution in Iran, see Shariati 1979; Fischer 1980; Arjonaud 1988). This section will provide a general overview of the subject in the works of four social theorists: Ibn Khaldun, Weber, Gellner, and Geertz.

Ibn Khaldun, an Arab historian and sociologist (1332–1406), is perhaps the most notable theorist of Muslim society. In the prolegomena (introduction) to his monumental work on universal history, he conceived and formulated the most comprehensive synthesis in the human sciences ever achieved by a Muslim thinker. In the prolegomena, among other topics, he probably provided the first modern outline of sociological principles. He defined sociology as "the study of human society in its different forms, the nature and characteristics of each of these forms, and the laws governing its development" (Khaldun 1992, p. 7). The basic sociological principles he enunciates are as follows:

  1. Social phenomena seem to obey laws that while not as absolute as those governing natural phenomena, are sufficiently constant to cause social events to follow regular, well-defined patterns and sequences.
  2. These laws operate on masses and cannot be influenced significantly by isolated individuals.
  3. Sociological laws can be discovered only by gathering many facts and observing circumstances and sequences through historical records and the observation of present events.
  4. Societies are not static. Social forms change and evolve as a result of contact and interaction between different people and classes, population changes, and economic inequality.
  5. Sociological laws are not a reflection only of biological impulses or physical factors but also of social forces.

He then applied these principles to the analysis of Muslim societies (Khaldun 1992, p. 8–9).

The core of Ibn Khaldun's sociology is his concept of Asabiyya (social solidarity). For Khaldun, society is natural and necessary, since isolated individuals can neither defend themselves against powerful enemies nor satisfy their economic wants. However, individual aggressiveness would make social life impossible unless it was curbed by some sanction. This sanction may be provided by a powerful individual imposing his will on the rest or by social solidarity. The need for a common authority generates the state, which is to society as form is to matter and is inseparable from it. Ibn Khaldun traces the origin of social solidarity to blood and kinship ties. Nevertheless, social solidarity is shaped by the nature and character of social organization. In this lies the genius of his theory of Muslim social formations and circulation of the elite.

The nature of tribal life generates the strongest form of social solidarity and social cohesion, producing social, political, and civic virtues that characterize tribespeople. For Khaldun, leadership exists only through superiority, and superiority only through group feeling. Domination and authority are the rewards for social cohesion. Only those with superior social cohesion succeed in becoming rulers, but a civilization (state-society) consists of tribes and cities. The division of labor is the essence of urban life. It is the key to cities' capacity to supply economic and cultural services that tribespeople are unable to provide for themselves because the tribal ethos spurns specialization. Civilization needs cities to provide economic wealth, which is achieved through specialization and a complex division of labor. Specialization, however, is inherently incompatible with social cohesion and the martial spirit. There emerges a need to provide a new basis for social bonds, and religion becomes the most powerful force in holding together a sedentary people. Scripturalistic and puritanical religion has as a natural affinity with urban life. The combination of religious and tribal solidarity is formidable, and to it Ibn Khaldun attributes the rapid and sweeping conquests of the Muslim Arabs in the seventh century.

The dialectic between the tribe and the city forms the basis of the model of circulation of the elite in society. The Khaldunian model rests on the distinction and contrast between the tribe and the city. Zubiada (1995) has provided a succinct summary of this model:

Dynasties which have conquered the city and its wealth do so with the militant vigor of their nomadic stock, and the solidarity (asabiyya) of their kinship bonds. In time, the rulers become settled and accustomed to the comforts and luxuries of the city, the branches of their kin develop factional interests and competition over wealth and power which saps solidarity. The cost of their expanding retinue and luxury spending leads to an intensification of the taxation burden on the urban populations and their growing discontent. The growing weakness of the rulers encourages aspiring tribal dynasties, lusting for the city, to organize military campaigns which ultimately topple the rulers and replace them, only to repeat the cycle. (1995, p. 154; see also Turner 1999)

Ibn Khaldun's sociological generalizations about the Muslim social formations of his time can be summarized in the following statements:

  1. Nomadic tribes conquer sedentary societies because of their greater cohesiveness.
  2. The combination of tribal solidarity and a puritanical scripturalistic urban religion is overwhelming.
  3. Conquest tends to be followed by luxury and softening, which lead to decay and annihilation of the ruling dynasty.

These three statements describe the rise and fall of many historical Muslim social formations in the Middle East and North Africa.

Weber, Islam, and Capitalism. Weber's theoretical interest in and interpretation of Islam is related to his exploration of the affinity of faith and modern socioeconomic organizations. Through a comparative study of world religions, Weber formulated The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism (Weber 1958). In his analysis, Weber demonstrated an elective affinity between certain types of religious ideas and particular types of economic activity. He hypothesized a nexus between Protestant religious beliefs and the development of modern capitalism and used his study of comparative religion to show why modern capitalism could not have emerged in other societies, including Islamic society. Weber saw Islam as a prophetic, this-worldly, salvationist religion with strong connections with other Abrahamic religions and regarded it as a useful test case of his thesis.

Weber argued that rational formal law, autonomous cities, an independent bourgeois class, and political stability were totally absent in Islamic society because of prebendal feudalism and the domination of patrimonial bureaucracy. He also argued that a hedonistic spirit and an accommodating Koranic ethic could not produce salvation anxiety and that asceticism was blocked by two important social groups: the warrior group that was the social carrier of Islam and the Sufi brotherhoods that developed mystical religiosity.

Weber's characterization of Islam has been criticized as "factually wrong" (Turner 1974b, p. 238). Gellner (1983) describes Weber's notion about the affinity between the bourgeoise style of life and religious sobriety and asceticism as "a piece of Judaeo-Protestant ethnocentricism" (Gellner 1983, p. 78). Gellner also challenges Weber's contention that the institutional preconditions of modern capitalism were not restricted to the West but that it was the ideological element (i.e., the Protestant ethic) that provides the crucial differentia, the extra spark that, in conjunction with the required structural preconditions, explains the miracle. According to Gellner, "the differentiae of Islam seem institutional rather than ideological. Ideological parallels to Christianity can be found, but they operate in a contrasted institutional melieu" (1983, p. 6).

Gellner's Theory of Muslim Society. Gellner made some of the most significant contributions to the sociology of Islam over the past three decades. Building on David Hume, Ibn Khaldun, Marshal Hodgson, and others, he provides a model of Muslim society that aspires to a general interpretation of all past and present Muslim societies. In Muslim Society (1983) and other writings (Gellner 1969, 1992, 1994), Gellner identifies unvarying features of Muslim societies that make them susceptible to sociological analysis. Building on the work of Ibn Khaldun, he postulates a dialectic between city and tribe, each with its own form of religion. The central and perhaps most important feature of Islam, according to Gellner, is that it was internally divided into the high Islam of scholars and the folk (low) Islam of the people. High Islam is primarily urban, and folk Islam is primarily tribal and rural. Although the boundaries between the two were not sharp but gradual and ambiguous, they nevertheless projected a distinctive tradition.

High Islam is carried by urban scholars recruited largely from the trading bourgeois classes and reflecting the natural tastes and values of urban middle classes. Those values include order, rule observance, sobriety, and learning, along with an aversion to superstition, hysteria, and emotional excess. High Islam stresses the severely monotheistic and nomocractic nature of Islam, is mindful of the prohibition of claims of mediation between God and the individual, and generally is oriented toward puritanism and scripturalism. Folk Islam is superstitious and mediationist. It stresses magic more than learning and ecstasy more than rule observance. Rustics encounter writing mainly in the form of amulets and manipulative magic. Far from avoiding mediation, folk Islam is centered on it. Its most characteristic institution is the saint cult, in which the saint is more often living rather than dead. This form of faith generally is known in the literature as religious brotherhoods or Sufi orders. Urban religion is Weberian (textual and puritanical), and rural and tribal religion is Durkheimian.

Each religious tradition has a place in the social structure. Saint cults are prominent in the tribal or rural countryside and provide invaluable services in rural conditions: mediating between groups, facilitating trade and exchanges, and providing symbolism that allows illiterate rustics believers to identify enthusiastically with a scriptural religion. The folk Islamic tradition, through its ecstatic rituals, provides the poor with an escape from their miserable conditions. High Islam provides the urban population, and to some extent the whole society, with its charter and constitution entrenched by the sacred texts, which can mobilize resistance against an unjust state. The two systems often coexisted in an amiable symbiosis, but a tension remained that would surface from time to time in the form of a puritan revivalist movement to transform folk Islam in the image of high Islam. Gellner argues that in the traditional order Islam may be described as a permanent or recurrent, but ever-reversed, Reformation. In each cycle, the revivalist puritan impulse would in the end yield to the contrary social requirements (Gellner 1994).

Under modern conditions, the pattern of interaction between the two religious traditions has been transformed. The centralization of political power and the ability of the state to rule effectively with modern technology and control over the military and the economy have undermined the social basis of folk Islam. Puritanism and scripturalism have become symbols of urban sophistication and modernity. According to Gellner, this constitutes the basic mechanism of the massive transfer of loyalty from folk Islam to a scripturalist, fundamentalist variant of Islam: "This is the essence of the cultural history of Islam of the last hundred years. What had once been a minority accomplishment or privilege, a form of the faith practised by a cultural elite, has come to define society as a whole" (Gellner 1994, p. 22).

In short, conditions of modernity (mass literacy, urbanization, modern education, and technology) have reinforced the power of scripturalist, puritanical urban Islam and its challenge to secular power; this explains the current rise of Islamic revivalist and fundamentalist movements. The validity of Gellner's model of Muslim society has been challenged in the historical and the modern contexts. It has been criticized for ignoring the different meanings and roles of concepts and entities such as Ulema in different historical contexts and in different societies and instead treating them as sociological or political constants. Modern Islamism, critics argue, is a political ideology and is distinct from anything in Muslim history, which in recent years has become a dominant idiom for the expression of various and sometimes contradictory interests, aspirations, and frustrations (Zubiada 1995). However, even his critics agree that Gellner's model of Muslim society is the most ambitious attempt in modern sociology to identify the internal religious dynamics that play a significant and in certain conditions, critical role in determining the political character and socioreligious trajectories of Muslim societies.

Geertz and the Islamization process. Like Gellner, Geertz has made significant contributions to the sociology of Islam through his anthropological studies, in this case of religious life in Indonesia and Morocco. His work illustrates the modes of incorporation of Islam into already existing and well-developed cultures and shows how those incorporations manifest themselves in the different Islamic traditions that over time come to characterize them. Geertz shows that in the sociocultural and ecological setting of Morocco, the "cultural center" of Islam was developed not in the great cities but in the mobile, aggressive, fluid, and fragmented world of tribes on the periphery. It was out of the tribes that the forming impulses of Islamic civilization in Morocco came and stamped their mentality on future developments. "Islam in Barbary was—and, to a fair extent still is, basically the Islam of saint worship and moral severity, magical power and aggressive piety, and this for all practical purposes is as true in the alleys of Fez and Marrackech as in the expanses of the Atlas or the Sahara" (Geertz 1968, p. 9).

In the tropical heartland of Indonesia, with its productive peasant society and Indic cultural heritage, once Islam was incorporated, it found a distinctive cultural and religious expression. In Indonesia, Islam did not construct a civilization but appropriated it. The Javanese social structure was shaped by a centralized state and a productive and industrious peasantry. The social structure was highly differentiated and developed, and when Islam came, its expression was influenced profoundly by the context. The Indonesian Islamic tradition was malleable, tentative, syncretic, and multivocal. In Morocco and other Middle Eastern societies, Islam was a powerful force for cultural homogeneity, moral consensus and standardization of fundamental beliefs and values. In Indonesia, Islam was a powerful force for cultural diversification and sharply variant and even incompatible worldviews and values.

The gentry, which was acculturated to Indic ritualism and pantheism, developed a subjectivist and illuminationist approach to Islam. The peasantry absorbed Islamic concepts and practices into its folk religion and developed a distinctive contemplative tradition. The trading classes were exposed to Arabian Islam and, because of their greater exposure to the Meccan pilgrimage, cultivated a doctrinal religious tradition. Islam in Indonesia therefore developed as a syncretic and multivocal religious tradition whose expression differed from one sector of the society to another (Geertz 1960, 1968).

Geertz's work, like Gellner's, provides a framework for explaining the diversity of religious traditions in Muslim societies and indeed the existence of religious diversity in all religions. As Geertz observes, "Religious faith, even when it is fed from a common source, is as much a particularising force as a generalizing one, and indeed whatever universality a given religious tradition manages to attain arises from its ability to engage a widening set of individual, even idiosyncratic, conceptions of life and yet somehow sustain and elaborate them all" (Geertz 1968, p. 14). The purpose of this account is to illustrate that Islam occupies an important place in theoretical discourse on modern sociology. As empirical and comparative study of Muslim societies develops, it will provide more opportunities to test and refine some of the existing theoretical propositions as well as develop new ones (see Arjomand 1988; Fischer 1980; Beyer 1994; Irfani 1983).

Islam and Fundamentalism. Fundamentalism emerged in all the major world religions in the last quarter of the twentieth century and gained prominence and influence in the 1990s (Marty and Appleby 1991, 1992, 1993). It is defined as "a distinctive tendency—a habit of mind and a pattern of behaviour—found within modern religious communities and embodied in certain representative individuals and movements. Fundamentalism is, in other words, a religious way of being that manifests itself as a strategy by which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their distinctive identity as a people or group" (Martin and Appleby 1992, p. 34). Feeling that this identity is at risk, fundamentalists try to fortify it by means of a selective retrieval of doctrines, beliefs, and practices from a sacred past as well as modern times. This renewed religious identity becomes the exclusive and absolute basis for a re-created political and social order. While there are differences between fundamentalist movements in general, their endeavor to establish a "new" political and social order always relies on charismatic and authoritarian leadership. These movements also feature a disciplined inner core of elites and organizations as well as a large population of sympathizers who may be called on in times of need. Fundamentalists often follow a rigorous sociomoral code and have clear strategies to achieve their goals.

Religious fundamentalism is a growing and important part of social change in Muslim countries. Its main goal is to establish the Sharia (Islamic law) as the explicit, comprehensive, and exclusive legal basis of society (Marty and Appleby 1991, 1992; Beinin and Stork 1997; Esposito 1983). Hardly a day passes without a reference to Islamic fundamentalism in the international media. All Muslim societies are affected by it, although there are large differences among them in terms of its presence and power. Is Islamic fundamentalism the inevitable destiny of all Muslim countries, or is it only a part of larger process of social change? Are there certain social, economic, historical, and other preconditions that predispose some Muslim countries more than others to Islamic fundamentalism? Are there different types of Islamic fundamentalism? These and related questions have been posed and explored by several contributors to the Fundamentalism Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Marty and Appleby 1991). There are three competing theories of Islamic fundamentalism: Watt's (1988) "crisis of self-image," Gellner's (1983) "pattern of distribution of dominant religious traditions," and the "modernization and religious purification" theory advanced by a number of social scientists (Tamney 1980; Hassan 1985; Yap 1980; Rahman 1982).

Crisis of Self-Image. Distilling insights from his works on the history and sociology of Islam, Watt (1988) has proposed that the principal root of Islamic fundamentalism is the domination of the traditional "Islamic world view" and the corresponding "self-image of Islam" in the thinking of Islamic intellectuals and great masses of ordinary Muslims. According to Watt,

the important distinction is between those Muslims who fully accept the traditional world view and want to maintain it intact and those who see that it needs to be corrected in some respects. The former group are fundamentalists . . . while the latter group will be referred to as Liberals. (1988, p. 2)

Among both groups, many different political movements and attitudes can be found. The Ulema (religious scholars), who are the primary bearers and transmitters of the traditional worldview, are mostly reactionary in the sense that they tend to oppose reforms. Other Islamic intellectuals subscribe to a variety of reformist elements and sometimes are very critical of the Ulema, but the reforms they are interested in are mostly social and political and leave the traditional worldview of Islam unchanged. Watt then identifies important aspects of the traditional worldview: (1) the unchanging static world that is predicated on the complete absence of the idea of development, (2) the finality of Islam, (3) the self-sufficiency of Islam (Watt sees this reflected in the Muslim's conception of knowledge; when a Muslim thinks of knowledge, it is primarily "knowledge for living," whereas when a Westerner thinks of knowledge, it is mainly "knowledge for power"), (4) Islam in history (the widespread belief that Islam will ultimately be triumphant in changing the whole world into daral-Islam (the sphere of Islam), and (5) the idealization of Muhammed and early Islam, which renders critical and historically objective scholarship highly problematic in the Muslim consciousness and deviation from (1988) idealized and romanticized notions as a heresy and "unthinkable." According to Watt "These features of the Islamic worldview and the corresponding self-image are the basis of Islamic fundamentalism. The support for fundamentalism is embedded in the consciousness, which fully accepts the traditional worldview and wants to maintain it intact."

Patterns of Distribution of Dominant Religious Tradition. Building on the sociological and historical analyses of Muslim society of Ibn Khaldun (1958), Weber (1964), Hume (1976), Hodgson (1975), and others, Gellner has advanced a theory of Muslim social formation that is based on his conceptualization of "two strands of Islam." One strand is characterized by "scripturalist puritanism" and represented by the Ulema. This is the Islam of the "fundamentalists." The other strand is characterized by a "hierarchical ecstatic mediationist style and is represented by the 'Saints." These two strands have evolved historically as representing two major social structural features of Muslim society: the city and the countryside. Gellner combines these strands of Islam with the political orientation of the elites and proposes a model of Muslim social formations. If one contrasts fundamentalism with laxity along one dimension and social radicalism with traditionalism along another, according to Gellner, one gets four types of Muslim societies or social formations.

The old-style puritanism prevails in areas where a traditional elite survives but is still fairly close to its origin in an Ibn-Khaldunian swing of the pendulum that brought it to power in a fusion of religious enthusiasm and tribal aggression. The new-style puritanism with its elective affinity for social radicalism prevails in areas where colonialism destroyed old elites and a new one elite came from below rather than from the outer wilderness (Gellner 1983, p. 89). An elaboration of Gellner's typology of Islamic social formations is shown in Figure 1.

Modernization and Religious Purification. This theory holds that religious fundamentalism is one of the consequences of the modernization process. Building on studies by Mol (1972) and Folliet (1955), Tamney (1980) proposed that one way in which modern people are different from traditional people is that they practice purer religious styles. The relationship between modernization and religious purity can take two forms. In its general sense, purification is the opposite of syncretism: It is the elimination of religious elements originating in a traditional religion. Purification means the differentiation of religious traditions at the personality level, so that the individual's religious lifestyle reflects one style of tradition. If being modern means that people are more conscious about the history and the internal structures of various religions, modern people can realize the inconsistencies in a syncretic lifestyle, feel uneasy or even insincere, and seek to purify their lives by deliberately eliminating elements from religious traditions other than their own. Using this conceptualization, Tamney hypothesizes that modernization is associated with religious purification. His empirical examination of this hypothesis in Indonesia tends to support his theory. Studies by Hassan (1984, 1985a, 1985b) and Irfani (1983) provide some support for this theory.

Islamic Militancy: A New Paradigm? Using the current religious, social, and political conditions of Muslim countries as a kind of "natural experiment," the author is conducting a multicountry study to examine the three competing theories of Islamic fundamentalism outlined in the preceding section. Over 4,400 mostly highly educated Muslim respondents have been surveyed. The empirical evidence shows that the heartlands of the Islamic world, from Indonesia to Egypt, are undergoing a religious renaissance. A large majority of the respondents were devoutly religious. If the term "fundamentalism" is defined to mean a high degree of devotional religiosity, these heartlands are becoming fundamentalist (Hassan 1999d). What are the implications of this for Islamic radicalism? Does this mean increasing support for the militant Islamic movements that are agitating to establish their versions of the Islamic state? Would this increase militancy against the groups or countries they regard as enemies of Islam?

Religious devotion appears to be associated with a decline in the support for militant Islamic movements. A large majority of Muslims do not belong to radical Islamic group. In fact, most of the respondents approved of moderate political leaders who are leading political and social movements for democratic and tolerant societies and political cultures. The declining support for radical and militant movements is paradoxically further radicalizing these movements and transforming them into more violent and secretive organizations. The nature and ruthlessness of violence reflect their desire to gain public attention and are symptomatic of their desperation.

The new form of violence is different from the earlier form that was carried out by organizations often with tacit support from political structures. The new militancy appears to be fueled by a sense of desperation and humiliation caused by globalization and the increasing economic, cultural, technological, and military hegemony of the West. This pattern represents a kind of paradigm shift in the nature, causes, and targets of terrorism carried out by the new militant groups. The old form of militancy attempted to establish the legitimacy of political goals; the new form is guided by religious fanaticism, destruction, and revenge. The old form of militancy identified enemies. The new enemies are ephemeral global conspiracies.

A majority of the respondents regard major Western countries as anti-Islamic. The primary reason for this attitude is not religion, but the perceived indifference and inaction of Western countries toward protecting the Muslim populations of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Palestine, and Chechnya destruction. These views are widely held among the elites. The study provides new insights into the dynamics of the new Islamic militancy. It shows that contrary to the general belief, increasing religiosity in Muslim countries is associated with political liberalization and diminishing support for militant Islamic groups. The impact of these developments is making the militant movements highly secretive and more violent.

The globalization process is creating a social and cultural hiatus that is affecting the nature and organization of Islamic militancy. The new militancy is not motivated by attitudes toward colonialism and struggles to win the hearts and minds of Muslim populations. Instead, it is fueled by a sense of powerlessness, revenge, and religious fanaticism. The enemy is ephemeral global conspiracies. How Muslim countries and the international community respond to these new developments will have a profound impact on the nature and activities of the new militancy. The solution would require more open and stronger political structures in Muslim countries to legally and politically pursue solutions to the problems posed by the new militancy. It also will require a change in the attitude that increasing religiosity increases support for militancy, when it actually diminishes support for it.


The relationship between politics and religion in Muslim societies has been a focus of debate among scholars of Islam for most of this century. A commonly stated view of many Western and Muslim scholars is that Islam is not only a religion but also a blueprint for social order and therefore encompasses all domains of life, including law and the state (Maududi 1960, Lewis 1993; Huntington 1993; Rahman 1982; Watt 1988; Pipes 1981; Esposito 1995; Weber 1978; Turner 1974a; Gellner 1983). This view is reinforced by the fact that Islam does not have a church institution, although it does have the institutions of the Ulema, who act as the guardians of the interpretations of the sacred tests, and the Iman Masjid (leaders of the mosques), who lead the mandatory daily prayers in mosques. It is further argued that this characterization sets Islamic societies apart from Western societies built on the separation of state and religious institutions.

After reviewing the evidence on the separation of state and religion in Islamic history, Lapidus (1996) concludes that the history of the Muslim world reveals two main institutional configurations. The undifferentiated state–religion configuration characterized a small number of Middle Eastern societies. This configuration was characteristic of lineage or tribal societies. The historical norm for agrourban Islamic societies was an institutional configuration that recognized the division between the state and religious spheres:

Despite the common statement (and the Muslim ideal) that the institutions of state and religion are unified, and that Islam is a total way of life which defines political as well as social and family matters, most Muslim societies did not conform to this ideal, but were built around separate institutions of state and religion. (Lapidus 1996, p. 24)

Keddie (1994, p. 463) has described the supposed near identity of religion and the state in Islam more as a "pious myth than reality for most of Islamic history." Similar views of Islamic history have been advanced by others (Zubiada 1989; Sadowski 1997; Ayubi 1991; Sivan 1985).

Historical scholarship indicates that the institutional configurations of Islamic societies can be classified into two types: (1) "differentiated social formations" (societies in which religion and the state occupy different spaces) and (2) "undifferentiated social formations" (societies in which religion and the state are integrated). While a majority of Islamic societies have been and are differentiated social formations, a small but significant number have been and are societies that can be classified as undifferentiated social formations. A common label used in contemporary discourse to refer to undifferentiated Muslim social formations is "the Islamic state."

The empirical evidence shows that religious institutions and religious elites tend to enjoy greater public trust and legitimacy in differentiated compared to undifferentiated Muslim societies. The underlying dynamics that appear to produce this pattern are related to the functional and performance roles of religious institutions (Luhmann 1982; Beyer 1994) and the ability of religious institutions to mobilize public resistance against an authoritarian state that has a deficit of legitimacy in the public mind (Hassan 1999a and 1999b).


For many Islamic and Western scholars of Islam, the status, role and position of women are important distinguishing features of Muslim societies that, set them apart from their Western counterparts. Many people in the West regard the status of women in Muslim society as symptomatic of their oppression in Islam (Esposito, 1995, p. 5). It is further argued that gender relations in Islam have been shaped primarily by their Arabian origins. While Islam has borne the marks of its Arabian origin throughout its history, in regard to the position held by women in his community, Mohammed was able to introduce profound changes (Levy 1972; Rahman 1966; Ali 1970).

Islam was instrumental in introducing wide-ranging legal-religious enactments to improve the status and position of women in Arabian society and protect them from male excesses. There are numerous Koranic injunctions to give effect to these changes (Ali 1970, pp. 55–59). These injunctions brought about significant improvements in the status of women in a wide range of public and private spheres, but most important, they gave women a full-fledged personality (Rahman 1966).

However, selective literal, noncontextual, and ahistorical interpretations of sacred texts by Islamic scholars over time have shaped the average Muslim's conservative views and attitudes toward women. One of the major dilemmas faced by the nationalist leaders who spearheaded independence movements from Indonesia to Pakistan and Egypt was "woman issue." Their problem was how to respond to the questions raised by women about their role, status, and function in the new independent states. This generated highly emotional and divisive debates between the Islamic scholars and the nationalist leaders that centered on the issues of marriage and family law and the role and status of women in a modern independent Muslim state (see Esposito 1982; Haddad and Esposito 1998).

Notwithstanding strong resistance from Islamicists in several countries, the new nationalist leaders were able to overcome centuries of resistance and introduce modest changes in family and marriage laws. Those changes were introduced within an Islamic framework that did not expressly violate the appropriate Koranic injunctions and Sunnah (Anderson 1976). Those reforms have been criticized and opposed by a majority of Islamic Ulema and their followers, who regard them as violations of Islamic law and commandments as codified in classical Islamic legal texts as well as thinly veiled attempts to find an Islamic justification for an essentially Western approach to issues of interpersonal relations (Haeri 1993; Esposito 1982). This debate between nationalists and Islamicists continues and according to some evidence is becoming an important part of the political agenda of Islamic fundamentalists (Hardacre 1993; Haeri 1993).

Attitudes toward Veiling and Patriarchy: Veiling and seclusion of women and patriarchy have been important features of Islamic societies. In recent years they have attracted much criticism from Muslim and Western feminist scholars. The tradition and custom of veiling in Islam can be attributed to Islamic history, Islamic texts, and the privileged position of males and their control and dominance of positions of power and authority in Muslim society. Veiling and seclusion of women and their role and function in society also are intertwined with the management of sexuality in Islam (Levy 1972).

Islam recognizes sexual desire as a natural endowment of the human body and enjoins its followers to satisfy and even enjoy sexual needs, providing a framework for doing so enunciated in the sacred texts. Unlike Christianity, Islam does not sanction or idealize celibacy. Over the centuries, the interpretations of sacred texts by the Ulema have led to the development of an institutional framework for the management and satisfaction of human sexuality through the imposition of control over women. As women are seen not only as sexual beings but also as the embodiment of sex, the social framework that has evolved has come to view the woman's body as pudendal. This conceptualization has led to the development and observance of strict dress codes for women, including veiling and seclusion, to prevent them from displaying their bodily charm and beauty (Haeri 1993; Hardacre 1993; Levy 1972).

Other features of the institutional framework arose out of the fact that women were made the principal actors responsible for preserving the sanctity of the family and reproduction. This led to strict injunctions on the types of roles they could play in the public sphere. Strong social and cultural traditions evolved that placed serious obstacles in the way of women seeking to succeed in public roles. Men, in contrast, were assigned all the public roles as providers, protectors, and arbiters, and this reinforced their power in the domestic domain as well. Patriarchal family structures thus became more functionally suitable to the perpetuation of the institutional framework for the satisfaction and management of the family.

That institutional framework and its accompanying normative requirements as they apply to gender roles, dress codes, veiling and seclusion, and patriarchy are by and large universally accepted in Muslim societies, although their observance varies with economic conditions. For most ordinary Muslims, this practice is in keeping with the supremacy of the male over female postulated by the Koran. However, the vagueness of these edicts has given the Ulema greater authority to interpret them as local custom demands. Some Ulema even appear to have invented tradition to bolster their interpretations which may in fact conflict with Koranic statements (Levy 1972; Rahman 1982; Mernissi 1989; Rugh 1984).

As a result of internal and external pressures, the governments of most Islamic countries have initiated reforms to improve the quality of citizenship accorded to Muslim women. These reforms have sought to remove some of the obstacles that have prevented gender equality. While varying in scope and intensity from country to country, these reforms have been initiated in most Muslim countries. Some of the reforms have been successful, and, in some countries, such as Iran and Pakistan, the pendulum has swung to more traditionalist views that have gained favor with the current ruling elites. In general, the reforms are having a positive effect, although obstacles still exist. Those obstacles will continue until the rigid attitudes of the Ulema change or lose significance for the general body of Muslims as a result of the decline of their religious authority.

The empirical evidence about attitudes toward veiling, seclusion, and patriarchy indicates that those attitudes are an outcome of complex processes, including the prevalent social, economic, and political conditions in the country that mediate between the traditional Islamic norms and their practice in the local milieu. The material conditions of the country influence the shaping of attitudes toward these issues more strongly than does traditional Islamic ideology. The empirical evidence also indicates that in Muslim societies where men have experienced greater status loss relative to women as a result of public policies aimed at improving the quality of female citizenship, they appear to have compensated for that loss by developing more conservative attitudes toward women, including veiling, seclusion of women, and patriarchy. The evidence also suggests that paradoxically, Muslim societies, that are more successful in providing women with institutional equality may be more successful in generating more positive attitudes toward traditional Islamic values of patriarchy, veiling, and segregation among women (Hassan 1999c).


The London-based Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs estimates that about three hundred million Muslims live in one hundred forty-nine non-Muslim states. The institute publishes a biannual journal devoted to studies of Muslim minorities in different countries. With over 100 million Muslims, India is the home of the largest Muslim minority. Over the past fifty years, international labor migration and political upheavals have resulted in increasing Muslim settlement in Europe, Australia, and North America. It is estimated that about 20 million Muslims now reside in Europe. Most of them arrived as immigrants to meet the labor needs of booming west European economies, and their numbers are likely to increase in the future. (Nielsen 1995; Castles 1989).

The Muslim presence in west European countries has raised challenges to both Muslim and European traditions. The evidence shows that on the whole, Muslim communities in European countries are making cultural, social, and religious adjustments to secure their position in society. The host societies are responding by promoting cultural pluralism and containing racism and xenophobic attitudes among some segments of their populations. The cultural interactions between European and Muslim communities is shaping a distinctive European Muslim identity among second-generation Muslims (Nielsen 1995; Gerholm and Lithman 1988).

The Muslim presence in North America, especially in the United States, has been increasing gradually. While there are no reliable statistics on the exact size of the Muslim population in the United States, it is estimated to range from 2 million to 6 million. The American Muslim Council estimates the figure to be around 5.2 million (Duran 1997). Whatever the size, it is a well-established fact that Islam is an important feature of the American religious milieu. Its adherents include American Muslims, who are predominantly of African origin, and more recent immigrants from all over the Muslim world. The most widely known American Muslim group is the Nation of Islam (Gardell 1994). Most of the immigrant Muslims come from south Asian and Middle Eastern countries. They have arrived as skilled and unskilled laborers, students, and refugees from political developments in Muslim countries. The largest concentrations of Muslims are in the metropolitan areas of Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago. Recent sociological studies have focused on acculturation and the tensions Muslim communities experience in adjusting to life in America and how those communities are responding to the competing demands of belonging to a universal Islamic community (Ummah) and maintaining their ethnic or national identity. The evidence shows that the majority of American Muslims are not active participants in the organized religious life of mosque or Islamic center, but continue to identify themselves as Muslims in a social setting characterized by prejudice and misunderstanding (Haddad and Smith 1994; Haddad and Lummis 1987). Similar findings have been reported in studies of Muslim communities in Australia (Hassan 1991; Bouma 1994).

The social pervasiveness of Islam in the modern world and the sociopolitical and religious trajectories of contemporary Muslim societies raise important sociological questions. This article has identified some of the questions and issues that make the sociology of Islam a challenging field of social inquiry. Empirical studies of Muslim societies can be a rich source for evaluating the validity of some of the major propositions of social theory that have been formulated in the context of increasingly secular social settings of modern European and North American countries. Through systematic and comparative studies of Muslim societies, modern sociological scholarship can lay the foundations for a more informed understanding of the social reality of the Muslim world.


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