The Study of International Relations in Islam: An Islamic paradigm

By Abdul Wasay Ajmal

The study of International Relations has primarily been a Western discourse. All theoretical perspectives presented in order to explain relations between states; causes of conflict and the International system are predominantly western.


Understanding International Relations was to study western understandings and to draw conclusions based on a broad but generally a singular school of thought. Robert.W.Cox in his famous statement highlighted such a dilemma that “Theory is always for someone or some purpose” (Gebauer 2017). If one were to expand upon this quote, it can be argued that theories are impacted by the personal experiences of the theorists and by the historical circumstances he is surrounded by.

Prominent discourse such as that of Waltz and Morgenthau presents a singular approach to the understanding of state interactions that all states have personal vested interests and that all alliances and relationships between states are made with the sole purpose of achieving a state’s strategic objectives. (E-International Relations 2009). The study of this discipline, therefore, cannot simply be analyzed from a single discourse. The study of International relations, therefore, requires multiple discourses from various schools of thought in order to present a better picture of International Relations. One such school of thought which can shed light on the interaction and behavior of states is religion, in the case of this study, it will be Islam.

Role of religion in International Relations:

For long the role of religion in International relations had been deemed as oxymoronic. The reason it can be argued can be found through studying the history of International Relations. After the treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the concept of a “nation-state” was born whereby all interactions between states were to take place between sovereign nations (Cavendish 1998). Before the existence of a separate state system, religion played a dominant role in deciding state policy and action. The Catholic Church was a major player and stakeholder in the International arena as it sought to maintain its religious and political influence across Europe. It was due to this that it aligned Catholic dominant countries such as Spain with its political agendas in order to push for European dominance (E 2020). That however changed when after 150 years of bloody conflicts, European leaders decided to adopt a secular form of governance whereby each nation accepted the other’s sovereignty and right to express itself as a separate state. This action dissolved almost all influence of the Church as the charter of Westphalia no longer identified nations on the basis of their religious orientation and alliance.
The treaty of Westphalia ushered a new period in world relations. International Relations theorists usually begin their research starting from this era. IR has therefore been recognized as a truly “secular” discipline (Oriental Review.org 2017). Religion, however, has started to make inroads as a separate school of thought presenting an alternate form of understanding into the political dynamics of today’s social interactions in IR and state to state interactions. Religion as a separate field of study also came into light due to the rise of terrorism, mostly notably the attacks of 9/11 which brought back focus on religion. The need to understand religious motivations behind terrorist attacks made theorists study the political aspects of religion thereby enhancing the importance of religion as a means to understand International Relations.

International Relations from an Islamic perspective:


While all religions provide a picture of how social structures should be formed and maintained, Islam the second-largest religion in the world by population goes forward by explaining and highlighting the role of Muslims in maintaining and establishing ‘Islamic ideals’ around the world. It provides a systematic approach wherein it proposes many concepts that can be considered as theoretical frameworks for International Relations (Springer Link 2014). The concept of “Political Islam” is not a new phenomenon. Muslims conquests after the death of Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) saw a massive expansion campaign whereby Muslims from Arabia conquered many nations of the time and established an Islamic Empire (Oxford Reference 2012).

This empire was to last for a greater part of a thousand years and an Islamic form of governance took roots and interactions with the state was based on rules and regulation laid down by Islamic scriptures that are the Quran and the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (S.A.W). After the collapse of Muslim empires due to both external and internal factors, the overall body of nations under the Islamic flag disintegrated but systems proposed by this religion still retained their influence and shape and are even today practiced in Muslim countries.
The arrival of the 20th century saw a rise in Islamic based political organizations that sought to redefine the parameters of International Relations based on religious reasoning and logic. Organizations such as the Jammat-i-Islami in South Asia (Brookings 2017) and the Muslim Brotherhood (Al-Ikhwaan al-Muslimeen) (The Conversation 2020) all based their objective on re-establishing an Islamic Caliphate in the world and to restructure the political and International order of states in the light of Islamic thinking. This system was seen as a vehicle to re-impose shariah law. This narrative was to improve popular amongst common youth and this lead to major political upheavals in Muslim regions examples of which include the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Arab Spring lead by Islamic political parties seeking to destroy what they claimed was a “Western-styled” corrupt system of governance. This also led to a further rise of Islam as a means of understanding International Relations. Western Academics now sought to understand Islam as a means of understanding the religious as well as political motivations of large Islamic Organizations.

International Relations in the light of Quran and Sunnah:

International Relations does find its roots in Islam. The most basic and commonly used word attributed to the concept of a nation-state is the word “Ummah”. It is an Arabic word that translates to nation however it is not simply a word used to define a nation-state with a shared common ancestry rather it implies much more. The root of the Arabic word Ummah is “Amma” which translates to “go and see”. Imama another similar word means to lead. Ummah is defined as a community of believers bound by a common purpose to worship the one true God and to further the cause of Islam in the world (THE CONCEPT OF UMMAH IN ISLAM 2018). In the Holy Quran the mention of Ummah comes repeatedly for example: “And verily this Ummah of yours is one Ummah and I am your Lord and Cherisher, therefore fear Me and no other.” (Quran 23:52). In this verse, Ummah is used to not simply for Muslims but for a set of people sharing similar beliefs. Other verses such as “Humankind was one single Ummah. And God sent messengers with glad tidings and warnings; and with them He sent the Scriptures in truth, to judge between people in matters wherein they differed…” (Quran 2:213). It also highlights how previous nations were combined as one single nation and that Prophets were sent to convey the message of Allah Almighty.
For specifically the Muslims an important verse of the Quran which highlights the concept of a single nation of Muslims, enjoined with the joint task of preaching and spreading the word of Islam to the world is the following verse, “You are the best community (Ummah) raised up for (the benefit of) humanity; enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong and believing in God…” (Quran 3:110). This verse signifies the importance that Islam has placed in the concept of the nation-state and the process to establish Allah’s will on earth. One of the basic concepts of International Relations is the interaction between states in order to pursue specific goals, in this context, therefore; the formation of relations with other nations in order to succeed in forming a true Muslim global society is seen as the perspective of IR in Islam.
In Islam, the most important scripture after that of the Quran is the Hadiths or commonly known as the sayings of the Prophet (S.A.W). These form the primary bedrock of Muslim belief as Muhammad (S.A.W) is regarded as the beacon of hope of mankind. There are ample Hadiths which explain the importance and concept of a nation-state. In one famous saying the Prophet (S.A.W) was regarded as saying “The example of the believers in their love, mercy and sympathy for one another can be compared to one body; when any part of the body aches the whole body responds with sleeplessness and fever.” (Al-Islam.org 2020) Such sayings further provide evidence to the argument that the concept of a nation-state, the interactions between other states, and the pursuit of common goals is an essential part of Islam and that the study of International Relations holds great importance in this religion.
Western critique on a religious paradigm of International Relations:
Many scholars of International Relations have dismissed the role of religion in understanding the subject. IR has been seen as a truly secular discipline, adopting a secular approach in order to understand international politics. Religion was seen as many IR scholars as ‘vague’, ‘confusing’, and juxtaposing different concepts (E-International Relations 2011). This Eurocentric approach to the subject reduced representation from other streams of thought and allowed a mainstream view of the subject to flourish. While International Relations has been founded on various different theories and traditions, the subject still consists of a predominant western discourse aimed at providing a world view to the understanding of global politics. It is often implied that the subject of IR is a subject of the “West” with little to no representation from other streams such as that of religion, Asian schools of thought etc.
As presented earlier the study of International in the eyes of scholars and academics starts from the study of Westphalia which saw the origination of a nation-state. Religion was disregarded altogether as a means of communication due to the idea that application of religion in understanding strictly ‘secular’ phenomenon such as state to state interactions, studying the International order and attempting to understand the behavior of states was not only impractical but also jeopardized well-established theories based on reasoning and logic. Religion was seen as devoid of both, therefore, was disregarded as a means to understand IR.

Western critique on Islam:

Western critique on Islam is broad-based however one of the primary causes of criticism is due to the alienation of Islamic culture and traditions and a general lack of understanding towards Islamic societal and political structure. Western concepts and ideas revolve around the fundamental principles of secularism whereby concepts such as democracy, civil rights, and the right to free speech are established. Islam on the other is seen by many western academics as a counter to their beliefs. As a religion emphasizing the importance of worshipping one God and establishing religious values in society, its conceptions on various topics such as global politics, state interactions, and roles of government are often misunderstood and misquoted. While Islam offers a totalized world view encompassing all spheres of human life such as political, social, and economic the West adopts a more individual approach to such concepts hence further adding to the rifts present between them (O kennedy Center 2002).
Understanding International Relations requires a holistic approach, the key to which is understanding various meta-narratives from different streams of thought. The Islamic political structure is based on the underlying principles of the Quran and Sunnah, one which is often the source of main western criticism because of the lack of understanding and the various interpretations of religion which promote great debate and even conflict. Western critique can also be analyzed from a different perspective. Historical evidence suggests that a lack of cultural understanding and conflicts based on fundamental cultural differences resulted in major conflicts between Muslims and other religions. Christianity during the time of Islam was the dominant region which had established a well-connected political and social structure based on strict Catholic principles. This domination of religion also provided the narrative through which political objectives could be gained. As Islam spread, it provided an alternating political and social structure radically different to what the Catholic Church had presented. It, therefore, created tensions between the two religious faiths leading to wars and conflicts. The wars between Muslims and Christians offer us an insight into how two different religions, having different cultural makeup lead to war and conflict.
Western criticism of Islam and its role in understanding International Relations is not new. More often than not it can be attributed to pre-conceived notions regarding Islam as a religion in general. Western form of governance entails following the principles of democracy and upholding all the secular values which are important for a state to flourish. The Islamic system of governance is based solely on the principles of flowing religious teachings and to establish a society in which all religious obligations are fulfilled. This in the eyes of Western academics is seen to be “dogmatic” and uncivilized as religion is seen as an obstruction to governance and that their teachings are incoherent.

Islam an alternate discourse to IR?

The study of IR has throughout the subject’s history been modified and changed in order to have a better understanding of global politics and state interactions. While the positivist school of thought has dominated the arena of IR, it, however, presents great epistemic gaps that create further complications in our understanding of IR. Over the years critical voices against a positivist school of thought, which combined with the growing complexity of world events has intensified the need for adopting a different approach to the understanding of IR. Islam in this context offers a viewpoint on how to understand global events. Islamic conceptions on war, society, justice, law, and order provide an insight into the social configuring of states. While positivists argue the lack of logic and reasoning behind the teaching of political Islam, Western scholars have now begun to give importance to the study of the Islamic paradigm on International Relations.

Possible answers to Western criticism:

While the subject of religion as means to understand International Relations has become sidelined due to Western approach to the subject, it, however, cannot be ruled out that religious teachings do share common ontological and epistemological grounds with traditional theories of IR. Islamic political thought produces three distinct theoretical perspectives on IR. One is the Traditional school which shares ontological similarities with classical realist concepts such as power, war, and the international system is an anarchic one. The other is a reformist or non-traditional school which provides a more modern approach to the study of international politics. There is also a more radical group called the Salafi school of thought which promotes a more radical approach of spreading Islamic teachings to the world, they promote and propagate violence against what they term as “Non-Muslims”. All Islamic theoretical concepts, however, share the same epistemic background and that is the Quran and Sunnah. Islamic theoretical world view consists of an external/internal view that is that all nations who share the same religion (Islam) and have the same Islamic ideology fall under the category of Dar-ul-Islam. Those nations which are non-Muslim and do not share the same ideological perspectives are categorized into Dar-ul-Harb. While there is ample debate as to what forms the inner boundary of Islamic nations and how they engage with foreign nations, it is known however that the distinction lies in the states being Islamic and non-Islamic.
Political Islamic theories adopt a Non-Westphalian approach to understanding International Relations. Despite having a different methodological approach to the study of IR, using holy texts to understand International politics, it cannot be ruled out that Islamic theoretical conceptions regarding politics sharing a striking resemblance with traditional theories of IR such Hobbesian theory of Classical Realism and a constructivist approach to the working of International order. Islam, therefore, cannot be disregarded simply for adopting a different methodological approach to the understanding of International Relations rather it should be further studied as a separate paradigm in order to provide an alternate viewpoint to the study of an international phenomenon. A brief insight into each of these major Islamic theories is therefore considered important in order to highlight this importance.

The Traditionalist approach:

Classical realism revolves around the concept of insecurity. It suggests that there is a condition of anarchy that results due to a persistent existential struggle which can only bring temporal security by the state, as one of the key objectives of the state in order to ensure its sovereignty and security is to maximize its power and to have domination/influence over the other. Cooperation of the Lochean variety is not possible as other actors are perceived to have their own interests at stake and therefore cannot be in any way be trusted. Traditionalists arrive at rather similar conclusions, for them however the driving force behind such decision making is not simply an animalistic existential struggle for survival in an insecure and competitive world but also a messianic mission to spread the doctrine of the Islamic ideology. There is a strong element of the Hegelian notion of history as an end which can be achieved in the traditionalists thinking. The utopia will emerge when the world has submitted to the Islamic Faith. This type of messianic universalism leaves little room for compromise and then challenges Western concepts of sovereignty and security (SAGE Journal 2018).
The Non-Traditionalist approach:
The Non-Traditionalist approach was a newer addition to Islamic political thinking and adopted a revisionist approach to the mainstream Islamic approach to International Relations. Non-Traditionalist movements have continued to evolve over the years and have formed of what is now called the third debate. They seek to make sense of the world by adopting a modernist approach to International Relations. Major proponents of this school of thought include Jamal-u-din-al-Afghani, who offered a more mediated approach to the study of world order remaining with the parameters of Islamic teachings. While the former school adopted a more revisionist approach to the study of world politics, disregarding Western style of teaching and understandings on world-issues, this school offered a different approach by bridging some of the gaps that were present between both western and Islamic methodologies of understanding IR.
For Non-Traditionalists, the concept of Ummah goes beyond the simple conception of a physical nation-state; it is rather a metaphysical concept in which states control civilizations. Despite adopting a modernist view on the study of international politics and state to state interactions it does not forgo the important principals of the Islamic form of state. Non-traditionalist also differs from Traditionalists in their epistemological approach. While both schools of thought agree about the source of knowledge in Islam which is the Quran and Sunnah the Non-traditionalists also support the concept of ijtihad, or the need to have a different form of interpretation in order to solve modern-day issues. Non-Traditionalists adopt an impartial approach when studying religious scriptures and aim to find the best possible solution for the issues that are being faced by Muslim society.

The Salafi-Jihadi school:

A new form of Islamic thinking also grew during the late 20th century; this Islamic thinking gave birth to political parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat-i-Islami. This school sought the complete rejection of all forms of Western thinking and the restructuring of the global world order. It is to be noted that the Salfi School finds its roots less in the intellectual spheres but rather in global affairs and politics. This band of religious zealots aiming at radically changing the world order and establishing the rule of Islam in the world through all means necessary even the use of force, first rose to prominence during the September 11 attacks where terrorist organizations such Al-Qaeda gave their philosophy for International Relations.
The term Salafism comes from the Arabic word Salaf meaning “righteous predecessors”. It is like many other Islamic revivalist concepts, seeks to form what it claims is an idealized Islamic world where the model for the contemporary world should be that of the time of our Holy Prophet (S.A.W) and seeking out an authentic version of Islam by analyzing the only true sources of knowledge, the Quran and Sunnah. Salafis contend that Islam was a perfect religion in its origins, however, it has been over a period of time through various external influences that have been corrupted over the centuries. It, therefore, seeks to rediscover the original version of Islam through the Holy texts. They argue that discourse amongst Islamic scholars and academics to develop Islamic theology was the sole cause of the corruption of the faith that was in all its aspects and it provided a complete political, social, economic, and foreign affairs doctrine (RSIS 2016).
The study of International Relations has over the years has seen extensive transitions, these transitions were based on the idea of producing new theoretical frameworks in order to understand the international phenomenon. The dawn of the 21st century has seen a rise in criticism on the traditional schools of thought of International Relations. These are seen to be inadequate in order to provide answers and to present solutions to increasingly complex problems in IR. Theories such as post-positivism, reflectivism have surfaced which argue in favor of re-structuring theoretical concepts in IR and providing a new methodological approach to the study of the subject. This change has also been influenced by major changes in the world and the rise of new issues such as a climate, human rights violations and non-state actors. While the subject still has a pre-dominantly Positivist approach, the consistent rise in critiques on well-established traditions shows the rise in alternate voices and the need to shift away from traditional theoretical frameworks.

Future of religion in International Relations:

The debate about religion playing a dominant role in the field of international politics is not a new one. All forms of knowledge provide a way of learning a means to arrive at the truth. Religion as a way of knowing, as a means to understand not on the spiritual but also the physical is something that has been done for a much longer period of time. Religion offers a different construct in order to explain and analyze societal issues and provide a model for both domestic and international structures of governance. All major religions in the world have explained and provided their own theoretical frameworks in order to understand and form societal structures aimed at creating harmony between societies and nations. While all religions offered a different means to understand International Relations, all based their knowledge from their religious texts which were considered an irrational approach to the study of secular subjects such as International Relations.

Religion, however, is making a comeback as it offers a different methodological approach to the study of International Relations. Since the study of International Relations consists of western discourses it, therefore, becomes important to incorporate other streams of thought in order to enhance our scope and knowledge about the understanding of inter-state interactions and global politics.

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