Contemporary Islamist Perspectives on International Relations

Mainstream Voices from the Sunni and Shii Arab World

by Sami Baroudi (Author)
©2022 Monographs XII, 304 Pages


This book lies at the intersection of two important and expanding fields of study: Political Islam and International Relations (IR). It contributes to both fields by analyzing the discourses of six moderate-reformist (mainstream) scholar sheikhs from the Sunni and Shii Arab World of the 20th and early 21st centuries. Four of the scholar sheikhs are Sunni Egyptians who received their education at al-Azhar and/or maintained a long-term affiliation with the institution. They are Mahmoud Shaltut (1893-1963), Muhammad Abu Zahra (1897-1974), Muhammad al-Bahi (1905-1982), and Yusuf al-Qaradawi (1926- ). The fifth is the Sunni Syrian Sheikh Wahbah al-Zuhaili (1932-2015). Finally, there is Sayyid Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah (1935-2010), a renowned Lebanese Shia cleric, who received his religious training at al-Hawza in Najaf, Iraq, the Shia equivalent of al-Azhar.
The aims of the book are three: (1) to demonstrate the presence of a moderate-reformist (mainstream) strand within political Islam that advocates a different perspective on international relations from that of the radical Islamists; (2) to identify and scrutinize the principal elements of this mainstream perspective, while underscoring the variations with it; and (3) to situate the international relations’ discourses of the examined mainstream Islamist scholar sheikhs within their proper historic and ideational contexts.
The book appeals to a wide and diverse readership that is not restricted to specialists. While academics and graduate students working on political Islam and/or the Middle East are its primary audience, the work is written in an accessible style, that is kept free of academic jargon, that any reader who is proficient in English and interested in political Islam and/or theories of international relations can enjoy reading and engage with the main arguments.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • 1 Introduction: The Moderate-Reformist (Mainstream) Strand of Political Islam
  • 2 The Founding Generation: Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad ‘Abduh, and Rashid Rida
  • 3 The Second Generation: Mahmoud Shaltut and Muhammad Abu Zahra
  • 4 The Second Generation: Sheikh Muhammad al-Bahi
  • 5 The Third Generation: Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi
  • 6 The Third Generation: Sheikh Wahbah al-Zuhaili
  • 7 The Third Generation: Sayyid Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah
  • 8 Conclusion: The Mainstream Islamists Within Their Ideational and Historical Milieus
  • Bibliography
  • Index


This book has been in the works for several years. Many hurdles had to be overcome before the writing process could be brought to a fruitful conclusion. Although I have published scholarly articles on most of the scholar sheikhs examined here, for this work I decided to analyze afresh the works by each scholar sheikh; instead of going back and reworking (or rehashing) my own past writings on the subject. The reading of the international relations discourses of the six turbaned scholars examined here represents my own comprehension of their thought and is not necessarily in line with how other researchers understood their views. Despite the relatively narrow focus of this book—being primarily concerned with perspectives on international relations—I had to immerse myself in the totality of the oeuvres of the selected authors in order to comprehend their worldviews which undoubtedly shaped their analyses of international relations. A principal challenge throughout has been to maintain a middle of the way (or wasati) approach to the views of the surveyed authors; avoiding both extremes of identifying with these views and assailing them. Thus, while I consistently strove to identify the tensions, and indeed internal contradictions, in the international relations discourse of each examined scholar sheikh, I never intended this work to be a critique of their views, or indeed of political Islam. My approach to political Islam, within whose broad parameters this study lies, is to treat it ←ix | x→as a powerful, albeit not hegemonic, current within Islam. Islam is definitely broader than political Islam; but there is nothing wrong, odd, or un-Islamic, about the incessant attempts of scores of Islamic scholars and arguably millions of lay Muslims worldwide to Islamize the political sphere, including the realm of international relations.

Political Islam is a social reality whose multiple facets warrant careful examination; irrespective of whether we personally agree, or disagree, with the Islamization of politics and more broadly of society. As a broad and diverse field of study, political Islam has tended to focus inter alia on the histories, organizations and ideologies of both popular Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and radical Islamist ones, in particular al-Qaeda and its offspring the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

It has also addressed at length the relationship between Islam and important political phenomena such as democratization, human rights, women rights, and violent extremism. Understandably, the literature also abounds with studies on the life and thought of prominent radical Islamist thinkers, such as Sayyid Qutb, Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (just to name a prominent few).

But despite some notable exceptions, there have not been many academic studies, especially in English, on Islam and international relations. This book’s principal contribution to the field of political Islam lies in offering a close examination of the international relations’ views of a select number of prominent moderate-reformist Arab scholar sheikhs, who are referred to here as mainstream. My reading of the discourses of the six scholar sheikhs aims at identifying the principal elements of this moderate-reformist (mainstream) perspective on international relations. I also seek to trace the origins of this perspective and shed light on its evolution over three generations of scholar sheikhs. Last but not least, I situate the examined discourses on international relations within their ideational and historical settings and elaborate on the principal differences between the mainstream perspective and the radical one, arguing that political Islam encompasses both camps.

While this work falls primarily within the broad field of political Islam, it also significantly intersects with the even broader field of International Relations (IR). The study seeks to contribute, even if modestly, to both burgeoning fields of study. Its contribution to IR lies in demonstrating the usefulness of the field’s principal concepts and theories for analyzing non-Western, in this case Islamist, perspectives on international relations. Stated otherwise, I maintain that the standard concepts and theories of IR, despite their Western origins, can be ←x | xi→intelligently applied to analyze how non-Western thinkers conceptualize international relations. One thus need not invent a new lexicon of IR and come up with new theories to comprehend how non-Western thinkers conceptualize international relations.

The book further contends that—while anchored in the Quran, the Sunna, and the Islamic tradition—the discourses of mainstream Islamists reflect the major historic developments that impacted the Arab and broader Islamic worlds since the latter part of the 19th century. It further argues that, despite their distinctive Islamic character, these discourses center on themes that are at the core of the IR discipline (such as power, independence, interdependence, sovereignty, international conflict, war, and peace), rendering it worthwhile to compare the views of each of the six scholar sheikhs to the basic tenets of the two principal traditions of theorizing on international relations: realism and liberal internationalism.

Throughout the writing process, I benefited from the unfailing support of my home institution, the Lebanese American University (LAU) and its libraries, despite the very dire conditions in Lebanon over the past few years. My friend and LAU colleague Dr. Vahid Behmardi was a constant source of encouragement and a superb translator of difficult passages from Arabic to English. Ms. Samira al-Shami and Ms. Hala Nasreddine provided valuable editorial assistance. I would also like to thank the editorial team at Peter Lang for their major support.

When I started the writing process, my mother Minerva and my aunt Aida, my immediate family and main source of emotional support, were with me, albeit in failing health. Losing both of them in 2019 left a void in my heart that was only exacerbated by the upheaval and socioeconomic deterioration that my country Lebanon has been witnessing since 2019 and by the COVID 19 pandemic. I myself caught the COVID 19 virus around New Year Eve 2021 but made a full recovery following a short stay at the LAU Medical Center where I received excellent treatment. While adding to the stress, working on this manuscript gave me focus and helped me deal with my personal loss and with the turmoil in my beloved country Lebanon and indeed in the world.

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1 Introduction: The Moderate-Reformist (Mainstream) Strand of Political Islam

Aim of the Book

Much has been written on radical Islamist groups and movements, such as al-Qaeda1 and more recently the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).2 Similarly, studies on the political thought of radical Islamist figures such as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi,3 Ayman al-Zawahiri,4 Sayyid Qutb,5 and Osama bin Laden6 have proliferated. In contrast, scant attention has been paid to the political and social thought of moderate-reformist contemporary Islamist scholars, referred to here as mainstream. The aim of this work is to help fill this gap by examining an important, albeit understudied, dimension of the political and social thought of moderate-reformist Islamists, namely their conceptualizations of international relations. It provides a close, critical reading of the international relations discourses of six contemporary scholar sheikhs from the Sunni and Shia Arab world of the 20th and early 21st centuries. Four of these scholar sheikhs are Sunni Egyptians who received their education at al-Azhar and/or maintained a long-term affiliation with the institution. They are Mahmoud Shaltut (1893–1963), Muhammad Abu Zahra (1897–1974), Muhammad al-Bahi (1905–1982), and Yusuf al-Qaradawi (1926–). The fifth is the Sunni Syrian Sheikh Wahbah al-Zuhaili (1932–2015) who also studied at al-Azhar before pursuing a doctorate in ←1 | 2→jurisprudence at the University of Cairo. He functioned as a university professor and a practicing cleric in his native Syria. Finally, there is Sayyid Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah (also written Fadlullah) (1935–2010) a renowned Lebanese Shia cleric, who received his religious training at al-Hawza in Najaf, Iraq, the Shia equivalent of al-Azhar. The reasons for the focus on these six Islamist scholars are briefly addressed below.

The Choice of the Authors

While each of the six scholar sheikhs noted is renowned in the Arab and broader Muslim worlds, their perspectives, especially on international relations, have received scant attention from Western and Arab academics alike. That is why a principal aim of this book is to highlight the insights on contemporary international relations that these scholar sheikhs represent, driven in part by an urge to identify the multiple ways in which religion influences contemporary political and social reality in the Arab world, especially popular perceptions of the major powers, primarily the United States, and more generally views on international relations. In the introductory chapter of a popular graduate textbook on international relations, Burchill and Linklater underscore that religion, among other factors such as language, culture, and ethnicity, is one of “a few of the factors that shape world-views” about international relations.7

Equally important, as noted above, each of the six scholars received extensive and rigorous religious training at two of the most renowned religious-educational institutions in the Muslim World, primarily al-Azhar in Egypt and al-Hawza in al-Najaf, Iraq. In the words of Sheikh Sobhi al-Mahmassani – a moderate Lebanese Sunni cleric and author – each of the six scholars has met the “conditions of juristic fulfillment” (shurut al-kifaya al-shar‘iya).8 Their religious backgrounds shaped their worldviews on political and social issues, including international relations, while lending credibility, especially among Muslims, to their massive discourses, which relied extensively on the Quran, the Sunna, and the opinions of classic and post-classic Muslim jurists.

The oral and written discourses of religious scholars, such as the ones included here, undoubtedly constitute a principal medium through which religious ideas influence public opinion, politics, and society. For decades, the Arab public has been subjected to a plethora of conflicting ideas about the meaning of Islam and the role it should play in Arab politics and societies. While Western literature has generally focused on the radical Islamists, this book contends that the ←2 | 3→differing perspectives of mainstream Islamists, such as the ones examined here, represented an equally important and competing source of influence on the Arab public. Both radical and mainstream Islamists start from the premise that Islam is a comprehensive way of life and that there can be no separation between religion and politics under Islam, but they arrive at strikingly different conclusions about how Islam should shape politics.

This book argues that the mainstream Islamists, despite their differences, share a common outlook on international relations, characterized by the following features. First, it posits peace rather than war as the norm, or guiding principle, in international relations, and more specifically in relations with non-Muslim states. Second, it encourages dialog and cooperation with non-Muslim states, as long as the resulting interactions are mutually beneficial and do not form guises to dominate Muslims. Third, it categorically rejects the use of violence to impose Islam on non-Muslims. Fourth, it presents jihad in the context of defending Muslim lands, lives, and freedoms, particularly the freedom to practice and call peacefully for Islam. Fifth, it advocates a peaceful and incremental approach to achieving Islamic unity, which need not take the form of a caliphate.

Furthermore, each of these six scholar sheikhs actively disseminated his views to wide audiences, including non-Muslims, employing varied traditional and novel means—lengthy manuscripts, fatwas (religious verdicts), Friday Sermons, and, in the cases of Qaradawi and Fadlallah, broadcast media, and the Internet. They were all embodiments of the public intellectual, deliberately reaching out beyond the confines of the pulpit and the gates of the academy to inform and educate mass audiences transcending national, linguistic, and even sectarian boundaries, with Bahi, Abu Zahra, and Zuhaili university professors at state institutions. Their discourses help shed light on the role of public intellectuals in structuring political debates in the Arab world. Broadly speaking, Islamist scholars constitute one wing of the Arab intelligentsia, the other being the more secular Arab nationalist thinkers.9

Islamist thinkers are heterogeneous in that they propagate varying views on the role of Islam in politics, but while there are significant differences between them, this book follows the commonly drawn distinction between moderate and radical Islamists.10 It focuses on the first group for the following three reasons: First, as argued, they have been understudied in comparison to radical Islamists. Second, their perspectives on international relations are far more nuanced and sophisticated than those of radical Islamists, thus providing a richer understanding of the diversity within political Islam. Third, their perspectives on international relations, especially on armed conflict and relations ←3 | 4→with non-Muslims, have had a greater influence on Arab decision-makers and the Arab public than those of radical Islamists, as will be further addressed in the concluding chapter.

In addition, all six figures subscribed to an institutional view of Islam, underscoring the indispensable role of religious institutions, such as al-Azhar11 and al-Hawza, in serving as deliberative forums among religious scholars and as authoritative bodies interpreting Islam to the general public and propagating its “true” message. A few examples follow. During his tenure as Sheikh al-Azhar, Shaltut defended its autonomy from both state and societal figures, while playing an important role in modernizing the institution. Not a product of al-Azhar himself, still Abu Zahra’s first teaching assignment was at al-Azhar, and he would return later to serve in its prestigious Islamic Research Academy (majma’ al-buhuth al-Islamiya). In addition, Qaradawi’s strong informal ties to the Muslim Brotherhood did not diminish his advocacy for an independent al-Azhar. Thus, throughout his long career as a scholar and activist for Islamic causes, he staunchly defended the autonomy of al-Azhar from both the state and influential societal figures. Similarly, Fadlallah, while ideologically close to Hezbollah and to the Islamic Republic of Iran, did not want either to dominate al-Hawza or other Shia religious-educational centers, such as Qum. Equally important—and capitalizing on his role as the exclusive agent (wakil) in Lebanon of his former mentor in Najaf, Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qassem al-Khoei—Fadlallah established a dense nexus of religious, educational, philanthropic, and media institutions, whose independence he carefully guarded against undue influence from both Tehran and Hezbollah. These institutions, still functioning after his death, are being currently led by his sons and are likely to be the most enduring aspect of his legacy.

As the chapters on Qaradawi and Fadlallah, treated here as members of the third generation, demonstrate, each worked tirelessly to institutionalize his vision of Islam, viewing himself as part of a community of religious scholars that transcended the boundaries of nationality and indeed sect. Thus, while taking great pride in belonging to al-Azhar and al-Hawza, respectively, both Qaradawi and Fadlallah shunned formal ties to political movements with which they had undeniable ideological affinities (the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah, respectively). Such formal affiliations would have undermined their standing as independent scholars, as well as their roles in the religious institutions they revered, al-Azhar and al-Hawza. This commitment to institutions, and more broadly to an institutionalized form of Islam, can be traced back to the first generation of moderate-reformist scholars, such as Muhammad ‘Abduh and Rashid Rida. Mahmoud ←4 | 5→Haddad describes Rida as follows: “While his ideal exposition stressed that Islam had no religious hierarchy comparable to Christianity, he was, in fact, calling for a similar Muslim religious institution that would reinterpret the sharia and commit all Muslims to one modern unified interpretation of its edicts.”12 This dual commitment to religious institutions and institutionalized, or structured, Islam is one of several demarcation lines that separate the moderate-reformist Islamist scholars considered here from the radical Islamists. The commitment to religious institutions and to an institutionalized form of islam can, however, go hand in hand with a commitment to reform and to revisit certain aspects of the Islamic tradition. In line with Muhammad Qassim Zaman, I seek to demonstrate that “traditionally educated religious scholars,” such as the six scholar sheikhs surveyed here, can be “vigorous critics of specific aspects of that [Islamic] tradition and by, the same token, important contributors to the debate on reform in Muslim societies.”13 In this regard, the appellation “reformers” applies to each of the six scholar sheikhs examined here.

Finally, each of the six scholar sheikhs devoted considerable attention to the analysis of both theoretical and practical issues in contemporary international relations, undoubtedly emanating from a number of historical realities, particularly 1) the legacy of colonialism, which spread to most Muslim lands, 2) the division of the Muslim world into multiple and often rival entities or states, 3) the proliferation of economic, political, military, and cultural ties with non-Muslim countries, and 4) the major disparities in power between the nascent majority-Muslim states, overwhelmingly developing countries, and the more developed states, whether these were part of the US-led Western camp or the Soviet-led Eastern camp. The ideological division of the developed world and the concomitant Cold War were mainly felt by members of the second and third generations of scholar sheikhs. The international relations discourses of Qaradawi, Fadlallah, and to a lesser extent, Zuhaili (the three representing the third generation) include multiple references to the post-Cold War era and the emergence of US ascendancy.

The impact of these historic realities appears as early as the discourses of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad ‘Abduh and Rashid Rida, treated here as representing the first, or founding, generation of contemporary mainstream Islamists. Subsequent historic realities, especially the rival ideological camps of the developed world competing for support throughout the developing world, and the eventual triumph of the first camp, the Western, as of 1989, as well as the ideas of the founding reformist scholars, shaped the discourses of subsequent generations of Islamists. In this work, Shaltut, Abu Zahra, and Bahi represent the ←5 | 6→second generation of moderate-reformist Islamists, while Qaradawi, Zuhaili and Fadlallah stand for the third generation.


XII, 304
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (March)
Moderate Islamists Scholar-Sheikhs Qaradawi Fadlallah al-Azhar Arab world Contemporary Islamist Perspectives on International Relations: Mainstream Voices from the Sunni and Shia Arab World Sami E. Baroudi International Relations Political Islam Islamism
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2022. XII, 304 pp.

Biographical notes

Sami Baroudi (Author)

Sami E. Baroudi is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in Lebanon. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Indiana University, Bloomington. His publications focus on the political economy of Lebanon and Egypt, internal Lebanese politics, US-Lebanese relations, Arab intellectuals’ perceptions of the United States, the ideational origins of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and, more recently, on how moderate-reformist (mainstream) Islamists perceive international relations.


Title: Contemporary Islamist Perspectives on International Relations
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318 pages