Essential Readings on Political Islam

Posted on February 27, 2018 by Tadween Editors | 0 comments

Essential Readings on Political Islam

by Peter Mandaville

[The Essential Readings series is sponsored by the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI) team at the Arab Studies Institute. MESPI invites scholars to contribute to our Essential Readings Modules by submitting or suggesting an “Essential Readings” topic pertinent to the Middle East. Articles such as this will appear permanently on both www.MESPI.org and www.Jadaliyya.com. Email us at info@MESPI.org]

As befits a topic that is global in scope, increasingly controversial in nature, and the focus of academic inquiry for more than half a century, the literature on political Islam is voluminous. The readings presented here represent some of the most important efforts to study contemporary Islamism using the tools, methodologies, and academic rigor associated with the humanities and social sciences. Though hardly exhaustive, this list will provide the reader with a sense of how the study of political Islam—in major publications either written or available in English—as an object of academic inquiry has evolved over the years.


Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993; orig. 1969).

Mitchell’s 1969 account of the Muslim Brotherhood up to the time of Nasser is noteworthy both as the first in-depth account of modern Islamism’s most important movement and as a text that remains relevant even today given its descriptions of the Brotherhood’s early years, organizational structure, and social impact.

While the Islamic Revolution of 1979 prompted a flurry of studies of political Islam focused on Iran (see Roy Mottahedeh’s 1985 The Mantle and the Prophet for one of the best examples of this genre), it wasn’t until the 1990s that social scientists began to systematically explore points of similarity and contrast between Islamist movements in different countries.


Nazih Ayubi, Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Arab World (London: Routledge, 1991).

Joel Beinin and Joe Stork, Political Islam: Essays from Middle East Report (Berkley: University of California Press, 1996). 

Olivier Roy, The Failure of Political Islam (London: I.B. Tauris, 1994; reissued 1998 by Harvard University Press).

Dale F. Eickelman & James Piscatori, Muslim Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

The aftermath of the Algerian election of 1991 and growing awareness of the “Islamic revival” prompted a bourgeoning academic literature on the topic. These four volumes, which examine political Islam in multiple contexts across the Middle East, represent important contributions to an emerging trend that emphasized the idea that manifestations of political Islam—even those arising from similar ideological roots—can different considerably from setting to setting due to variations in social, political, and economic context. In Muslim Politics, Eickelman and Piscatori go even further by urging a focus on the varied invocation of religious symbols by Muslim political actors as distinct from Islamism as a distinct ideological current. While it’s title may appear to suggest something more polemical, Roy’s Failure of Political Islam is a nuanced study of the evolving sociology of modern Islamist movements in the context of post-colonial activism in the Muslim world. All four merit ongoing consultation.


Quintan Wiktorowicz (ed.), Islamic Activism: A Social Movement Theory Approach (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2003).

Jillian Schwedler, Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

Peter Mandaville, Islam and Politics (New York & London: Routledge, 2007; 2nd edition, 2014).

One trend detectable from the early 2000s was an effort to bring greater theoretical rigor to the study of political Islam. More specifically, and as part of an effort to counteract an emerging sense of Islamic exceptionalism, several scholars produced work showing that Islamist movements and political parties are amenable to analysis using frameworks and theoretical tools for studying social mobilization and political behavior more broadly. Wiktorowicz’s edited volume demonstrates the utility of social movement theory for understanding aspects of Islamist mobilization, while Schwedler’s monograph on the inclusion-moderation hypothesis looks at the impact of formal political participation and institutional factors on Islamist behavior. Mandaville’s Islam and Politics explains political Islam as a function of Islam’s positionality in state-society relations while also functioning as a broad descriptive overview of the phenomenon in comparative context.


Oliver Roy, Globalized Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).

Asef Bayat, Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2007) & Asef Bayat, Post-Islamism: The Changing Face of Political Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

The mid-2000s inaugurated a new debate on “post-Islamism,” with Asef Bayat and Olivier Roy offering contrasting accounts of Islamism’s decline in the face of a generational shift towards more progressive politics or in the face of a growing emphasis on individual piety (vs. collective political mobilization) in the context of globalization, respectively…

Richard C. Martin and Abbas Barzegar (eds.), Islamism: Contested Perspectives on Political Islam (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2009).

Frédéric Volpi, Political Islam Observed (London: Hurst, 2010).

…while other scholars debated the very utility of Islamism and political Islam as concepts in the social sciences.


The Arab Uprisings of 2010-11 and the subsequent political success of Islamist parties in several countries occasioned a renewed consideration of the status and evolution of Islamist political strategy. Among the noteworthy works to emerge here:

Nathan Brown, When Victory is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012) to be read alongside his subsequent Arguing Islam After the Revival of Arab Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Shadi Hamid, Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).


Two leading scholars of the Muslim Brotherhood also produced new studies of that movement noteworthy for their astute analysis of generational differences within the movement and detailed fieldwork:

Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).

Khalil Al-Anani, Inside the Muslim Brotherhood: Religion, Identity & Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).


Most recently, scholarship on political Islam has analyzed how these movements and parties have responded to rapidly evolving political environments in the Middle East and elsewhere… 

Shadi Hamid and William McCants (eds.), Rethinking Political Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).


…amidst ongoing debate about the relationship between political Islam and Islamic tradition:

Jocelyne Cesari, What is Political Islam? (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2017).


For many years, the flagship scholarly series focused on political Islam has been Princeton Studies in Muslim Politics from Princeton University Press. Avi Spiegel’s Young Islam: The New Politics of Religion in Morocco and the Arab World is a fine recent example of this series’ powerful combination of primary fieldwork data and theoretical rigor.

The Project on Middle East Politics’ (POMEPS) Islam Initiative, based at George Washington University, has been a consistent source of high quality political science research and commentary on political Islam in recent years. 


For readers interested in reading the ideas of prominent modern Islamist thinkers, several collections offer annotated excerpts of key primary texts:

Roxanne L. Euben and Muhammad Qasim Zaman (eds.), Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009). 

Mansoor Moaddel and Kamran Talatoff (eds.), Modernist and Fundamentalist Debates in Islam: A Reader (New York: Palgrave, 2003).


Peter Mandaville is Professor of International Affairs in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. He is the author of the books Islam and Politics and Transnational Muslim Politics: Reimagining the Umma, and editor or co-editor of several volumes such as Politics from Afar: Transnational Networks and Diasporas. He has advised widely for governments, international organizations, and the media on political Islam.


[This article was originally published on www.Jadaliyya.com]

Previous Next



Leave a reply

This blog is moderated, your comment will need to be approved before it is shown.

Scroll to top