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2012 Sydney: Muslims protesting against the release of Innocence of Muslims

Islamic extremism, Islamist extremism or radical Islam refers a set of extremist beliefs, behaviors and ideology within Islam. These terms remain contentious, encompassing a spectrum of definitions, ranging from academic interpretations to the notion that all ideologies other than Islam have failed and are inferior.[1] Furthermore, these terms may extend to encompass other sects of Islam that do not share such extremist views.

Political definitions of Islamic extremism, such as that employed by the government of the United Kingdom, characterize it as any form of Islam that opposes "democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs."[2] In 2019, the United States Institute of Peace issued a report on extremism in fragile states, advocating the establishment of a shared understanding, operational framework for prevention, and international cooperation.[3]

It is crucial to distinguish Islamic extremism from Islamic fundamentalism or Islamism. Islamic fundamentalism refers to a movement among Muslims advocating a return to the fundamental principles of an Islamic state in Muslim-majority countries. Meanwhile, Islamism constitutes a form of political Islam. However, both Islamic fundamentalism and Islamism can also be classified as subsets of Islamic extremism. Acts of violence committed by Islamic terrorists and jihadists are often associated with these extremist beliefs.


Academic definition

The academic definition of radical Islam consists of two parts:

United Kingdom High Courts definition

The UK High Courts have ruled in two cases on Islamic extremism, and provided definition.

Aside from those, two major definitions have been offered for Islamic extremism, sometimes using overlapping but also distinct aspects of extreme interpretations and pursuits of Islamic ideology:

UK High Court rulings

There are two UK High Court cases that explicitly address the issue of Islamic extremism.[8]

May 2016 appeal case

The judge refers to several grounds: section 20 of the 2006 Act; the definition of "terrorism" in section 1 of the Terrorism Act 2000 and the decision of the Supreme Court in R v Gul.[9]

October 2016 Shakeel Begg case

Begg, a prominent Muslim public figure and Imam at Lewisham Islamic Centre since 1998 lost his 2016 court case of Libel against the BBC. This case is noteworthy because the judge lists a 10-point definition of Islamic extremism that he used to determine the case:

In Charles Haddon-Cave's findings he wrote:[10]

Extremist Islamic positions

118. In my view, the following constitute "extremist" Islamic positions (or indicia thereof).

Key influences of radical Islam

Early Islam

According to the academic definition of radical Islam, the second condition for something to be called radical Islam, is that it is antigovernmental. Consequently, a government is a condition for radical Islam. However, even though the peace of Westphalia was established in 1648 and thus introduced the nation state, the writings of the formative centuries of Islamic history are influential to the contemporary writings that were coined radical after the concept of the nation state was established in the Muslim world as well. Key influences of radical Islam that stem from early Islam include:


Main article: Kharijites

Islamic extremism dates back to the early history of Islam with the emergence of the Kharijites in the 7th century CE.[12] The original schism between Kharijites, Sunnīs, and Shīʿas among Muslims was disputed over the political and religious succession to the guidance of the Muslim community (Ummah) after the death of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.[12] From their essentially political position, the Kharijites developed extreme doctrines that set them apart from both mainstream Sunnī and Shīʿa Muslims.[12] Shīʿas believe ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib is the true successor to Muhammad, while Sunnīs consider Abu Bakr to hold that position. The Kharijites broke away from both the Shīʿas and the Sunnīs during the First Fitna (the first Islamic Civil War);[12] they were particularly noted for adopting a radical approach to takfīr (excommunication), whereby they declared both Sunnī and Shīʿa Muslims to be either infidels (kuffār) or false Muslims (munāfiḳūn), and therefore deemed them worthy of death for their perceived apostasy (ridda).[12][13][14]

The Islamic tradition traces the origin of the Kharijities to the battle between ʿAlī and Mu'awiya at Siffin in 657 CE. When ʿAlī was faced with a military stalemate and agreed to submit the dispute to arbitration, some of his party withdrew their support from him. "Judgement belongs to God alone" (لاَ حُكْمَ إلَا لِلّهِ) became the slogan of these secessionists.[12] They also called themselves al-Shurat ("the Vendors"), to reflect their willingness to sell their lives in martyrdom.[15]

These original Kharijites opposed both ʿAlī and Mu'awiya, and appointed their own leaders. They were decisively defeated by ʿAlī, who was in turn assassinated by a Kharijite. Kharijites engaged in guerilla warfare against the Umayyads, but only became a movement to be reckoned with during the Second Fitna (the second Islamic Civil War) when they at one point controlled more territory than any of their rivals. The Kharijites were, in fact, one of the major threats to Ibn al-Zubayr's bid for the caliphate; during this time they controlled Yamama and most of southern Arabia, and captured the oasis town of al-Ta'if.[15]

The Azariqa, considered to be the extreme faction of the Kharijites, controlled parts of western Iran under the Umayyads until they were finally put down in 699 CE. The more moderate Ibadi Kharijites were longer-lived, continuing to wield political power in North and East Africa and in eastern Arabia during the 'Abbasid period. Because of their readiness to declare any opponent as apostate, the extreme Kharijites tended to fragment into small groups. One of the few points that the various Kharijite splinter groups held in common was their view of the caliphate, which differed from other Muslim theories on two points.

By the time that Ibn al-Muqaffa' wrote his political treatise early in the 'Abbasid period, the Kharijites were no longer a significant political threat, at least in the Islamic heartlands. The memory of the menace they had posed to Muslim unity and of the moral challenge generated by their pious idealism still weighed heavily on Muslim political and religious thought, however. Even if the Kharijites could no longer threaten, their ghosts still had to be answered.[15] The Ibadis are the only Kharijite group to survive into modern times.

Ibn Taymiyyah

Main article: Ibn Taymiyyah

Modern Islam

Salafism and Wahhabism

Main articles: Salafi movement and Wahhabism

Further information: International propagation of Salafism and Wahhabism, International propagation of Salafism and Wahhabism by region, Petro-Islam, and Salafi jihadism

The Salafiyya movement is a conservative,[16] Islahi (reform)[17] movement within Sunnī Islam that emerged in the second half of the 19th century and advocate a return to the traditions of the "devout ancestors" (Salaf al-Salih). It has been described as the "fastest-growing Islamic movement"; with each scholar expressing diverse views across social, theological, and political spectrum. Salafis follow a doctrine that can be summed up as taking "a fundamentalist approach to Islam, emulating the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers—al-salaf al-salih, the 'pious forefathers'....They reject religious innovation, or bidʻah, and support the implementation of Sharia (Islamic law)."[18] The Salafi movement is often divided into three categories: the largest group are the purists (or quietists), who avoid politics; the second largest group are the militant activists, who get involved in politics; the third and last group are the jihadists, who constitute a minority.[18] Most of the violent Islamist groups come from the Salafi-Jihadist movement and their subgroups.[19] In recent years, Jihadi-Salafist doctrines have often been associated with the armed insurgencies of Islamic extremist movements and terrorist organizations targeting innocent civilians, both Muslims and Non-Muslims, such as al-Qaeda, ISIL/ISIS/IS/Daesh, Boko Haram, etc.[20][21][18][19] The second largest group are the Salafi activists who have a long tradition of political activism, such as those that operate in organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood, the Arab world's major Islamist movement. In the aftermath of widescale repressions after the Arab spring, accompanied by their political failures, the activist-Salafi movements have undergone a decline. The most numerous are the quietists, who believe in disengagement from politics and accept allegiance to Muslim governments, no matter how tyrannical, to avoid fitna (chaos).[18]

The Wahhabi movement was founded and spearheaded by the Ḥanbalī scholar and theologian Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab,[22][23][24] a religious preacher from the Najd region in central Arabia,[25][26][27][28][29] and was instrumental in the rise of the House of Saud to power in the Arabian peninsula.[22] Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab sought to revive and purify Islam from what he perceived as non-Islamic popular religious beliefs and practices by returning to what, he believed, were the fundamental principles of the Islamic religion.[26][27][28][29] His works were generally short, full of quotations from the Quran and Hadith literature, such as his main and foremost theological treatise, Kitāb at-Tawḥīd (Arabic: كتاب التوحيد; "The Book of Oneness").[26][27][28][29] He taught that the primary doctrine of Islam was the uniqueness and oneness of God (tawḥīd), and denounced what he held to be popular religious beliefs and practices among Muslims that he considered to be akin to heretical innovation (bidʿah) and polytheism (shirk).[26][27][28][29]

Wahhabism has been described as a conservative, strict, and fundamentalist branch of Sunnī Islam,[30] with puritan views,[30] believing in a literal interpretation of the Quran.[22] The terms "Wahhabism" and "Salafism" are sometimes evoked interchangeably, although the designation "Wahhabi" is specifically applied to the followers of Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab and his reformist doctrines.[22] The label "Wahhabi" was not claimed by his followers, who usually refer themselves as al-Muwaḥḥidūn ("affirmers of the singularity of God"), but is rather employed by Western scholars as well as his critics.[22][23][27] Starting in the mid-1970s and 1980s, the international propagation of Salafism and Wahhabism within Sunnī Islam[30] favored by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia[25][31][32] and other Arab states of the Persian Gulf has achieved what the French political scientist Gilles Kepel defined as a "preeminent position of strength in the global expression of Islam."[33]

22 months after the September 11 attacks, when the FBI considered al-Qaeda as "the number one terrorist threat to the United States", journalist Stephen Schwartz and U.S. Senator Jon Kyl have explicitly stated during a hearing that occurred in June 2003 before the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology, and Homeland Security of the U.S. Senate that "Wahhabism is the source of the overwhelming majority of terrorist atrocities in today's world".[34] As part of the global "War on Terror", Wahhabism has been accused by the European Parliament, various Western security analysts, and think tanks like the RAND Corporation, as being "a source of global terrorism".[34][35] Furthermore, Wahhabism has been accused of causing disunity in the Muslim community (Ummah) and criticized for its followers' destruction of many Islamic, cultural, and historical sites associated with the early history of Islam and the first generation of Muslims (Muhammad's family and his companions) in Saudi Arabia.[36][37][38][39]

Contemporary Islam

Main article: Political aspects of Islam

The contemporary period begins after 1924. With the defeat and dissolution of the Ottoman Empire (1908–1922), the Ottoman Caliphate was also abolished. This event heavily influenced Islamic thinking in general, but also what would later be coined radical Islamic thought.[40] Key thinkers that wrote about Islam in the 20th century, and especially about jihad, include:

Muhammad Abduh

Main article: Muhammad Abduh

Rashid Rida

Main article: Rashid Rida

Hassan al-Banna

Main article: Hassan al-Banna

Abul A'la al-Maududi

Main article: Abul A'la Maududi

Sayyid Qutb

Main article: Sayyid Qutb

Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri of al-Qaeda have promoted the overthrow of secular governments.[41][42][43]

Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian Islamist ideologue and prominent figurehead of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, was influential in promoting the Pan-Islamist ideology in the 1960s.[44] When he was executed by the Egyptian government under the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Ayman al-Zawahiri formed the organization Egyptian Islamic Jihad to replace the government with an Islamic state that would reflect Qutb's ideas for the Islamic revival that he yearned for.[45] The Qutbist ideology has been influential on jihadist movements and Islamic terrorists that seek to overthrow secular governments, most notably Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri of al-Qaeda,[41][42][43] as well as the Salafi-jihadi terrorist group ISIL/ISIS/IS/Daesh.[46] Moreover, Qutb's books have been frequently been cited by Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki.[47][48][49][50][51][52]

Sayyid Qutb could be said to have founded the actual movement of radical Islam.[43][44][53] Unlike the other Islamic thinkers that have been mentioned above, Qutb was not an apologist.[53] He was a prominent leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and a highly influential Islamist ideologue,[43][53] and the first to articulate these anathemizing principles in his magnum opus Fī ẓilāl al-Qurʾān (In the shade of the Qurʾān) and his 1966 manifesto Maʿālim fīl-ṭarīq (Milestones), which lead to his execution by the Egyptian government.[53][54] Other Salafi movements in the Middle East and North Africa and across the Muslim world adopted many of his Islamist principles.[43][53]

According to Qutb, the Muslim community (Ummah) has been extinct for several centuries and reverted to jahiliyah (the pre-Islamic age of ignorance) because those who call themselves Muslims have failed to follow the sharia law.[43][53] In order to restore Islam, bring back its days of glory, and free the Muslims from the clasps of ignorance, Qutb proposed the shunning of modern society, establishing a vanguard modeled after the early Muslims, preaching, and bracing oneself for poverty or even death as preparation for jihad against what he perceived as jahili government/society, and overthrow them.[43][53] Qutbism, the radical Islamist ideology derived from the ideas of Qutb,[43] was denounced by many prominent Muslim scholars as well as other members of the Muslim Brotherhood, like Yusuf al-Qaradawi.

Active Islamic extremist groups


This list is incomplete; you can help by adding missing items. (October 2016)
Group Name Banner Home Base Leaders Strength Casualties Ideology
Al-Qaeda Afghanistan, Pakistan, and MENA region Osama bin Laden  (1988–2011)
Ayman al-Zawahiri  (2011–2022)

Saif al-Adel (de facto; 2022–present)

300–3,000[55][56] 4,400 casualties[57] Sunnī Islamist and militant terrorist organization which aims to "restore Islam" and establish "true Islamic states", implement Sharia law, and rid the Muslim world of any Non-Muslim influences by following the doctrine and teachings of the Egyptian Islamist ideologue and propagandist Sayyid Qutb.[58] The title translates to "Organization of the Base of Jihad".
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb Kabylie Mountains, Algeria Abdelmalek Droukdel 800–1,000+[59] 200+ AQIM is a Sunnī Islamist and militant terrorist organization which aims to overthrow the Government of Algeria and replace it with an Islamic state.
a.k.a. al-Qaeda West Africa
Mali, Niger, and Libya Mokhtar Belmokhtar Under 100 (French claim) Killed 27 in the 2015 Bamako hotel attack. Affiliated branch of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb listed above.
Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen
a.k.a. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula
Yemen Nasir al-Wuhayshi  (2011–15)
Qasim al-Raymi  (2015 – 2020)[60]
2,000+ Over 250 killed in the 2012 Sana'a bombing and 2013 Sana'a attack.[61] AQAP is considered the most active[62] of al-Qaeda's branches, or "franchises", that emerged due to weakening central leadership.[63] The U.S. Government believes AQAP to be the most dangerous al-Qaeda branch due to its emphasis on attacking the "far enemy" and its reputation for plotting attacks on overseas targets.[61][64]
al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar Asim Umar 300[65][66] Claims 6 killed in assassinations. Naval frigate hijacking attempted in 2014. AQIS is a Sunnī Islamist and militant terrorist organization which aims to overthrow the Governments of Pakistan, India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh in order to establish an Islamic state.
Boko Haram – West Africa Province of the Islamic State Caliphate Northeastern Nigeria, Chad, Niger, Mali, and northern Cameroon[67] Mohammed Yusuf  (founder

2002 - 2009)
Abubakar Shekau  (2009-2021)

Estimates range between 500 and 9,000[68][69][70] Since 2009, it has killed 20,000 and displaced 2.3 million. Title means "Western education is forbidden", founded as a Sunnī Islamic fundamentalist sect and influenced by the Wahhabi doctrine, advocating a strict form of Sharia law.[67] Since 2015 Boko Haram has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), rebranding itself as Islamic State's West Africa Province (ISWAP).[67]
(acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyah, "Islamic Resistance Movement")[71]
Gaza Strip Khaled Meshaal 16,000+[72] Since 1988, numerous rocket attacks and suicide bombers targeting Israel and Israelis. Founded as an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Its 1988 founding charter, steeped in Sunnī Islamist rhetoric, calls for jihad to take all of historical Palestine, resulting in the destruction of the State of Israel.
a.k.a. The Party of Allah
Lebanon Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah 1,000+[73] Since 1982, numerous rocket attacks and suicide bombers targeting Israel and Israelis. Shīʿa Islamist and militant group with Jihadist paramilitary wing. Hezbollah was largely formed with the aid of the Ayatollah Khomeini's followers in the early 1980s in order to spread the Islamic revolution outside of Iran.[74][75]
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (commonly known as ISIS, ISIL, IS, or Daesh) Iraq and Syria (occupied territories) Abu Musab al-Zarqawi  (founder 1999 - 2006)
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi  (2010 - 2019)
Abu Ibrahimi al-Hashimi al-Qurashi  (2019 - 2022)[76]
Abu al-Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi (2022)[77]Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurashi (2022-2023) Abu Hafs al-Hashimi al-Qurashi (2023-present)
40,000–200,000 at its height across all 'provinces'[78][79] 30,000+ killed, including the genocides of Shīʿa Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, other ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East, and many others around the world by ISIL or groups associated or inspired by ISIL. Since 2015 includes Boko Haram, rebranded as "Islamic State's West Africa Province" (ISWAP).[67][80] Salafi-jihadist and Sunnī militant terrorist organization that follows the Islamic fundamentalist Wahhabi doctrine of Sunnī Islam.[81] Originated as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Gained large swathes of territory in Iraq in 2014 and is currently at war with Iraq, Syria, and a coalition of 60 other countries including the United States, United Kingdom, and France.
Jemaah Islamiyah Southeast Asia: Abu Bakar Bashir 5,000[82] Over 250 killed in bombings throughout Indonesia since 2002 With a name meaning "Islamic Congregation" (frequently abbreviated JI),[83] is a Southeast Asian Sunnī Islamist and militant terrorist organization dedicated to the establishment of a Daulah Islamiyah (regional Islamic caliphate) in Southeast Asia.[84]
Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan
a.k.a. Pakistani Taliban
Northwest Pakistan Maulana Fazlullah 25,000[85] hundreds TTP is an umbrella organization of various Sunnī Islamist and militant groups protecting foreign Islamic terrorists hiding in the mountains of Pakistan. Not to be confused with the Afghani Taliban.
Jaish-e-Mohammed Kashmir, India Masood Azhar Aim is to annex Jammu and Kashmir to Pakistan. Operates primarily in Jammu and Kashmir.
Lashkar-e Tayyiba

a.k.a. LeT

Kashmir, India Hafiz Saeed Aim is to annex Jammu and Kashmir to Pakistan and, ultimately, install Islamic rule throughout South Asia. Operational throughout India, especially in the northern region of Jammu and Kashmir since at least 1993.[86]
Allied Democratic Forces Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo
National Thowheeth Jama'ath Sri Lanka 269 (excluding 9 bombers) Convert Sri Lanka into an Islamic caliphate

Foreign political support

According to the British historian Mark Curtis, in his book Secret Affairs: Britain's Collusion with Radical Islam, Britain has been accused of consistently supporting radical Islam to combat secular nationalism. Because the secular nationalists threatened to seize the resources of their countries and use it for internal development, which was not accepted by England.[87] The United States, like Britain before it, has been accused of historically supporting radical Islam in the face of secular nationalism, seen as a major threat to Western colonial dominance. Chomsky and coauthors accuse Israel of destroying Egypt and Syria in 1967, two bastions of secular Arab nationalism opposed to Saudi Arabia, which they view as the leader of radical Islam.[88]

See also


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Further reading