My interest in political Islam began in 1965 with the case of the famous member of the Muslim Brotherhood Sayyid Qutb. This interest intensified when the Muslim Brotherhood entered the arena of events in Egypt at the beginning of the 1970s. For a period of 40 years I have been studying the entire literature of political Islam and have followed all of its movements issuing from the Muslim Brotherhood current.

I also engaged in lengthy discussions with several of the leaders and followers of these currents. In this article I will attempt to summarize for the reader the import of four decades worth of discussions with this leadership and their followers on a number of major issues.

Every Islamist – without exception – believes in the concept of ‘enjoining that which is good and forbidding that which is evil’, and not one of them considers a citizen or non-governmental body taking upon itself the task of enforcing ‘that which is good and forbid that which is evil’ as constituting a contradiction to the concept and the thinking of a modern state. For the Islamist believes that it is his right to take any measure (which he defines for himself!) against a woman who swims in the sea in a modern bathing costume, and holds it to be his right that should he see anyone expressing opinions that (in his opinion) contradict the faith he is to take such measures against him that will put a stop to it. In short, Islamists do not consider that any Muslim who undertakes activities against that which, in his opinion, run counter the dictates of the faith as contradicting the concept of the modern state or the concept of contemporary law. No better indication of this can be seen than the example of the famous Egyptian cleric M.A who attended the trial of the murderer of the Egyptian thinker Farag Foda and opined to the effect that the killer had done what he had done only because the state had failed to do so.

While humanity in other civilised, advanced communities has subscribed to freedom of thought in the sense of mankind’s freedom to believe (or not to believe) in that which he wishes and chooses, most of the Islamists in our world today do not accept this concept in its absolute form. Instead they believe in the duty to apply the death penalty to anyone who forsakes his faith in cases where a Muslim has abandoned his belief in Islam. And all of this in the full knowledge that they permit the conversion of followers of other faiths to Islam.

A few years after he won the Nobel Prize for literature (in 1988) the well-known Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz fell victim to an assassination attempt when an Islamist tried to slaughter him – and indeed he was able to sever a number of veins, arteries and nerves in Naguib Mahfouz’s neck. From then until now every single Islamist I have spoken with concerning this assassination attempt has insisted that his 1957 novel Children of Gebelawi justified his killing. The Islamists’ view on Naguib Mahfouz is the same as their opinion on the pillar of Arab literature Taha Hussein (1889 to 1973) on the grounds of his work On Pre-Islamic Poetry.[1] The reason is clear: among the Islamists there is a very low threshold for freedom of thought, and execution is to be the punishment for those who overstep the mark.

Among the Islamists there is a very low
threshold for freedom of thought

Through 40 years of studying political Islam I have never read any book or heard any Islamist (and I have spoken to hundreds of them) lend his support to any modern state (with a Muslim majority population) promulgating legislation that regulates marriage or divorce on the basis of a complete equality between men and women, or prohibiting (or criminalising) a man’s marrying more than one woman, or granting the woman the same right as a man to terminate marital relations, or licensing the division of the collective wealth of either party following a divorce, or reviewing the regulations on inheritance given that these were appropriate for tribal social conditions which are no longer in existence in the contemporary world.

Most Islamists prohibit depiction, in particular the depiction of persons. And the few that do not go so far as to outlaw it take no interest in it. If they had their way there would be no place for painting, painters, art galleries or the study of art in schools, or at least its presence would be marginalised. As a matter of course the depiction of women is prohibited by the majority of Islamists. If they had their way they would destroy the entire human legacy of art where painters had depicted women.

Taha Hussein: Pillar of Arab literature but a
target for Islamist animosity

Singing, generally speaking, is frowned upon by most Islamists, and there are some who outlaw it outright. Others get to the same point by repeating this dictum: “if the singing be to the praise of God and His creation, lauding His religion and His rulings, then it is halāl and consequently ‘permissible’. But if the words in the songs speak of love, passion and desire, then (for sure) it isharām and ‘impermissible’”. The silliest of pronouncements by the Islamist leadership is that circulated recently by the leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood when he said: “When the singer ‘Abd al-Wahhāb sings: ‘Oppressors, my friend, have gone beyond all bounds’, this is permissible singing, but when he sings ‘her eyelids betoken love’ this constitutes impermissible singing.” This is deeply absurd and backward. The most ominous element here is the existence of a theocratic authority wielding its power over artistic innovation, defining what is ‘permissible’ and what is ‘impermissible’. It is worth noting that Islamists were behind the confiscation of the book The Prophet by Gibran Kahlil Gibran, merely for there being sketches by the pen of the author himself within the body of the text.

I have asked dozens (perhaps hundreds) of Islamists: “If your fervent wish took place and Islam spread over the entire globe, would you preserve the thousands of nude or semi-nude paintings and statues of persons (male and female) in museums over the world – from the Louvre, to the British Museum, to the Metropolitan”? The answer (without exception) is: “No. No Muslim ruler would permit the persistence of such ‘immorality’!”

Sculpture is entirely forbidden by the Islamists, particularly statues that depict a man or a woman. If the Islamists had their way they would order the destruction of statues by Michelangelo and other master sculptors admired by civilised humanity.

Every single Islamist, from Indonesia to Mauritania, has refused to adopt the United Nations project that opposes violence against women under any circumstances. They have insisted that such a thing stands in opposition to Islamic law! Many of them have stated that banning male violence against women will destroy the family! 

Many Islamists have stated that banning male violence
against women will destroy the family

Well nigh 99% of Islamists reject the idea that a woman can become head of state. Most of them repeat the supporting hadith for this that holds that a woman is deficient in intellect and faith, or hadith that foretell doom for any human community that accepts a woman governing them. I would often say to my interlocutor: “Madame Curie obtained the Nobel Prize for physics in partnership with her husband, and later went on to win it a second time on her own, and brought up one of her daughters who herself gained a Nobel Prize for science. So I wonder – is Marie Curie also deficient in intellect? Is there a single Shaykh from among the Councils of Leading Scholars in Islamic faith, in any state with a Muslim majority population, that has attained the status of Madame Curie?”

Marie Curie: winner of two Nobel Prizes,
but for the Islamists, ‘deficient in intellect’

The Islamists believe that the testimony of a woman equates to the testimony of ‘half a man’. Similarly many Islamists influenced by thefatwas of Ibn Taymiyya, believe that the testimony of a non-Muslim cannot be accepted over that of a Muslim. Consequently, should a Muslim enter a church and kill dozens of people, any testimony of this event made by Christians in the church would carry neither weight nor credibility!

All Islamists share the view that social intercourse (‘mingling’) between men and women is the cause of all calamities and evils. They are of one in calling for the need to separate the two genders in schools, universities and places of work. This is a deeply backward standpoint and one that evidences a deep contempt for womankind, whom the Islamist sees as nothing more than something that excites male instincts, a vessel for procreation or a means for providing him with pleasure and service! It is well known that the Wahhabist religious institution in Saudi Arabia considers Muslim society to be founded upon two basic principles: the application of the Sharīʻa and the prohibition of ‘mingling’.

Theirs is a deeply backward standpoint that evidences
a deep contempt for womankind

The vast majority of non-Muslims are unaware that the doctors of law in all the various Islamic trends and sects do not consider that the woman has the right ‘to withhold the practice of private relations with her spouse’ for any reason whatsoever, even if this were to be stressful to her or if her psychological state were not conducive to such relations. Indeed most of the doctors of law have stated frankly that while it is the woman’s right to refuse to undertake housework, or prepare food, or nurse children, she does not have the right to refuse to engage in these relations whenever her spouse should demand it! Many have even gone so far as to declare such a refusal by the woman deeply sinful, and are of one accord that the angels in heaven (all seven heavens!) will curse the woman who refuses these relations throughout the entire length of the night that she repudiates him!

To say that the laws of inheritance contained in the Qur’ān reflect social realities that are no longer present, or therefore to say that logic requires a reconsideration of the fact of a male’s portion is to be twice that of a woman on the grounds that this conflicts with present social realities – is rejected by all, and not just most Islamists.

The Egyptian harassment crisis: blaming the victim

Are women allowed to engage in physical exercise or participate in international athletic contests? This is a question I posed to dozens (or indeed hundreds) of Islamists, and the answer has always been the same: “Yes, on condition that they do this in an Islamic dress that reveals only the face, the feet and the hands of the woman and on condition that they do not mingle with men!” Many of them say: “it is better that women keep themselves away from such an environment altogether!”

Egypt is a society where male harassment of women is at its most widespread. Some of this harassment is ‘verbal’, but most of it is ‘tactile’. In my discussions with dozens (or hundreds) of Islamists the opinion which most of them regurgitate is that it is the woman who is primarily (or indeed solely) responsible for all these incidents of harassment. For were she to dress in ‘Islamic clothing’ or (even better) remain in the home, then harassment would be minimised. It is impossible to convince Islamists that the source of harassment is that which I have pointed to in several articles – the ‘lupine male’ who sees woman as nothing more than a prey to his desires and a target for his instincts. It is the education of men rather than the concealing of women that is necessary in this context. For a man who harasses women is nothing other than a construct of intellect, culture, education and psychology.

The source of harassment is the ‘lupine male’ who
sees woman as nothing more than a prey

I have asked more than 100 Islamists – all of them leaders of political Islamic, Salafist and Jihadist trends – their opinion on men and women journeying together into space, and the constant answer is: “This is forbidden, they may only do this if they are married! It is even forbidden if the female astronaut is veiled since the men mightsee her!”

For more than 40 years I have asked dozens (and perhaps hundreds) of Islamists the following: “Is the life of an Albanian woman such as Mother Teresa – who gave her life to the service of the simple, the sick, and the needy in India – in your view an ideal, virtuous and noble life?” The reply has always been: “Not entirely so, for her life is marred by its failure to embrace Islam. All the works that she did will not avail her to gain paradise!”

Such a response applies to much of the relationship of the Islamists’ mindset to values such as pluralism, the acceptance of the other, relativism and objectivity.

The vast majority of the doctors of law in the various currents and sects of Islam still give their blessing to suicide operations where the Muslim blows himself up in order to kill a few or many civilians. Moreover they have termed these depraved acts ‘martyrdom operations’, so that they have become the object of admiration and a subject for incitement and encouragement.

Religious intolerance

Without exception the Islamists avoid what Ibn Taymiyya, the imam most influential to their thinking, wrote about Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) –  his condemnation of him and his open declaring of him to be an ‘infidel’. Among all Islamists this position reflects their standpoint on the intellect championed by Ibn Sīnā. One cannot understand the reason for the Islamists ignorance of Ibn Taymiyya’s views on Ibn Sīnā without steeping oneself in the writings of both parties. Ibn Taymiyya demanded that every Muslim should despise non-Muslims, even those who behave honourably to a Muslim!

Muhammad Mursi: An incapacity to approach
the concept of a modern state

During the period of Muslim Brotherhood rule over Egypt (369 days from mid-2012 to mid-2013) Islamists, in all their formations, insisted in their proposals for the constitution of Egypt that the religions that the Egyptian state should recognise were Judaism, Christianity and Islam alone. Non-Abrahamic religions practised by a full half of humanity were not to be recognised and indeed were not to be allowed to be stated as a person’s preferred religious affiliation on official documents. The reader cannot be blind to the manifold consequences of such an attitude for many issues relating to marriage, affiliation, paternity, inheritance and so on.

I have long realised that the question that most irritates the Islamists (and one that I have asked of hundreds of them) is: “Can a state ruled by Islamists grant legal status to Baha’is, that they may live in the society as Baha’is?” The answer is always the same – an angry refusal! I have always felt that they were making a confusion between two things: between belief in the correctness of the Baha’i faith and the right of some to be a Baha’i. This is another standpoint that reveals the major contradiction between their mentality and exalted values such as pluralism, acceptance of the other, relativism and freedom of conscience.

Islamists seek to reintroduce the past in forms
which our modern age cannot possibly accept

Without exception, Islamists are not content merely to deny the theory of evolution, they even refuse its being taught or merely studied. It is well known that education programs in most of the states raising the banner of Islam (even including it on their flag) are empty of any sign of the theory of the development of species, as if this theory simply did not exist.

A history painted in hues of reverence,
glorification and sanctity

Many Islamists live in what in our contemporary world constitutes a rarefied state, in that they seek to reintroduce the past in forms, thoughts, patterns and behaviours which our modern age and mindset cannot possibly accept. More than once I have said to numerous Islamists: “The early Muslims used to seize their enemies’ property and women when they were victorious in battle. Do you see conditions today as being such that you can combat your enemies and be victorious over them (a purely theoretical supposition!) and do you think it reasonable and acceptable to seize the wealth, property and womenfolk of the defeated party?” The answer, hilariously, is: “Yes!” This reveals the fact that the Islamists are living in an unfulfillable state of seeking to bring back the past. One of the products of this state is their inability to study the history of Muslim peoples in a scientific and objective manner. For they paint this history in hues of reverence, glorification and sanctity which cannot be considered applicable to any human history.

Is it reasonable to believe that the description of Jews as descendants of apes and pigs is a true one? This is a question I have posed frequently to celebrated Islamists, and the reply has always been that the Jews were indeed sons of apes and pigs. I used to make fun of my interlocutor and say that the text they depended on for this does not actually state that the Jews are ‘sons’ of apes and pigs but ‘fathers’ of apes and pigs! That is, even reading their own texts properly is beyond them!

The concept of the modern state developed as a result of a long journey that began with the Greeks almost two and a half thousand years ago, one which passed through ancient Rome and modern Europe, particularly the age of the great French Enlightenment philosophers Voltaire, John Jacques Rousseau, Diderot and Montesquieu. Sadly Arabs and Muslims have not been part of this journey but instead are the product of a history that has not known any development in the field of the state and political theory. The Arabs of the Peninsula never knew the concept of the state and their system of government was simply an extension of the concept of the tribe. The ruler was an extension of the position of the ‘elder of the tribe’ and today the Islamists remain far removed from the concept of a modern state and the concept of the ‘elder of the tribe’ still predominates over the concept of the president of a state.

Arabs and Muslims are the product of a history
that has not known any development
in political history

‘Azza al-Garf: Seeking to reduce the
marriage age limits for girls

Over the course of hundreds of conversations with Islamists it became clear to me that they were cleaving to a primitive system which had no room for the principle of the separation of powers (which constitutes the essence of the modern system of government). Over the course of the 369 days of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt their incapacity to approach the concept of a modern state became patent. It was clear that the subordination of three powers (legislative, executive, and juridical) to the main power (the General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood and not the head of state) was the cornerstone of the Islamists’ political system. The period of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt was a great opportunity for Egyptians to see that a modern system of government cannot exist in any society where the political system is not founded upon the complete separation between religion and the state. Without this full and strict separation democracy simply cannot exist.

Islamists believe that womankind was created for the pleasure of men and for procreation, and they believe that women are also the source of most evils. You will not find an Islamist who does not believe that female circumcision is a vital Islamic requirement, since an uncircumcised woman (a ‘foreskinned’ woman in Ibn Taymiyya’s phrase) is like an animal whose instincts are let loose and constantly demanding unbridled sexual pleasure! Ibn Taymiyya’s views on women are known to everyone who reads his fatwas. One of these states that if a woman is killed her bloodwit should be half that of a man killed. Most Islamists accord the man the right to beat his wife, and they have specified rules on how one beats a wife in a legitimate or illegitimate way. But the greatest disaster lies in the Islamists’ insistence on the need to reduce the legal age of marriage for a girl. Most Islamists believe that the law should adjust the age of marriage and reduce it to the age of nine! No sooner had the Islamists come to power in Egypt when a Muslim Brotherhood woman (‘Azza al-Garf) stood before the Brotherhood-dominated parliament in 2012 and insisted on the need to adjust the laws concerning the person to allow for the marriage of girls who had reached the age of menstruation.

Most of those called  ‘scholars’ have only
a superficial in science or literature

A demolisher of alternative value systems

Islamists bestow the name ‘scholar’ (and not just ‘religious scholar’) to men of the cloth. This is a phenomenon which is not found in any other environment. Yet it is a phenomenon with many implications: it is a phenomenon that means not recognising true scholars (in the fields of engineering, medicine, pharmacy, astronomy, technology, sciences and so on); it means that the values of human life are not considered to be exalted ones, since it is the scholars who will lead (!) humanity towards a better life after death; it is a phenomenon that means that the class of clerics will be the one to compose the notes to human life in all its various directions and arenas. Most of those who are called ‘scholars’ have only received a highly superficial, unidirectional education in science or literature. Even the works of Al-Farābī, Ibn Sīnā, Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and the legacy of the Muʽtazila are known to them but partially. Hardly any one of these scholars knows anything about the 25-century human scientific legacy from Socrates to the present-day, while in our contemporary world it is well known that a partial acquaintance with some (as opposed to all or most) areas of knowledge leads to distorted results. One of the oddest manifestations of these ‘scholars’ is that despite their narrow, limited scientific education they take it upon themselves to speak on these other aspects of life about which they possess little or no knowledge at all!


My discussions with dozens (or even hundreds) of Islamists over four decades has ranged over many other areas. I have frequently spoken with them on the destructive role which Muslim immigrants play in Western societies, in particular in France, Britain, Germany and Italy. My point of view always has been, and still is, that a large number of these were, and still are, working to shatter the value system of the societies to which they have emigrated, despite having themselves left backwardness, poverty and primitiveness behind and entered into an environment of progress, comfort and civilisation. Even so there are some who do not stop at attempting to shatter the foundational values of these societies; Islamists have always stated that any integration of Muslims into the societies they have emigrated to is something that is forbidden! Many of them affirm that emigrants should work towards turning these societies Islamic!

What occasionally perplexes me is the Islamists’ claim that Islam does not recognise a ‘clerical class’, despite the fact that reality on the ground confirms that a class of Islamist clerics does not only exist but wields the greatest authority and hegemony over the sons and daughters of their societies. For a Muslim is barely left to deal with anything without a ‘cleric’ telling him how to behave. A Muslim wakes up every morning only to repeat what the cleric has told him to do that morning. He cannot go to the toilet without first receiving instructions from the cleric. He cannot step out of his home without reading orders from the cleric, nor can he initiate sexual relations with his wife without first reciting a prayer formulated and taught him by the cleric! Before any dealings with banks he must listen to the opinion of a cleric! If a work of art takes his fancy, before obtaining it he must first ascertain the degree of prohibition or permission associated with owning the object! And before a male doctor is allowed to draw up a prescription for his wife he must first be acquainted with the opinion of a cleric!

In short, as my four decade-long study of the entire literature of the Islamists has shown me, they find most of the premises, manufactures, features and products of modern society unacceptable. My discussions with dozens (indeed hundreds) of Islamists has shown me that modern societies stand in flat contradiction to their concepts, viewpoints and requirements down to the tiniest detail, and that their intention is to bring about an entirely different type of society. If we want to know what such a society would look like we have only to go to Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan and north-west Pakistan. There we will see whither the Islamist mindset will lead us!

Tarek Heggy is an internationally celebrated Egyptian liberal political thinker and one of the most creative analysts of the Arab world. THis article is reproduced from, with permission.

Tarek Heggy is an internationally celebrated Egyptian liberal political thinker and one of the most creative analysts of the Arab world. His work constitutes some of the most systematic social criticism...