Western and Islamic International Theories

Date01 April 2018
Published date01 April 2018
Subject MatterArticles
Western and Islamic
International Theories:
A Comparative Analysis
Mohammed Nuruzzaman1
Islamic theories of international relations (IR) have been traditionally dominated
by debates between two distinct approaches—traditionalism and modernism.
A third perspective, often labelled the ‘jihadist perspective’, has emerged following
the 11 September 2001 attacks and this radical perspective principally embod-
ies the worldview of al-Qaeda and its off-shoot the Islamic State. The jihadist
perspective directly challenges the Western concepts, methods and theories
of IR. This article examines how the Islamic and Western international theo-
ries clash in terms of ontological foundations, epistemological approaches and
modes of inquiry. It argues that Islamic discourse on IR has contributed to the
development of a set of theories to analyse and interpret relations between the
Islamic and the non-Islamic world, and secondly, it implicitly presents arguments
in favour of opening up IR for rather more global perspectives.
Western international theories, Islamic international theories, secularism
versus Islamic faith, Muslim traditionalists, Muslim modernists, ontological and
epistemological bases of Western and Islamic international theories
In 2010, Amitav Acharya and Barry Buzan published a co-edited volume entitled
Non-Western International Relations Theory: Perspectives on and Beyond Asia
challenging the prevailing idea that international relations (IR) theory was an
exclusive Western project. Their volume primarily offers distinct Asian IR
International Studies
55(2) 106–129
2018 Jawaharlal Nehru University
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/0020881718790687
1 Associate Professor, International Relations, Gulf University for Science and Technology, Mishref,
Corresponding author:
Mohammed Nuruzzaman, Associate Professor, International Relations, Gulf University for Science and
Technology, Mubarak Al Abdullah Area, Mishref 32093, Kuwait.
E-mail: nuruzzaman.m@gust.edu.kw
Nuruzzaman 107
traditions and voices to provide readers with alternative comparative IR
perspectives. Two years later, Tickner and Blaney (2012) published their co-edited
book Thinking International Relations Differently raising powerful voices against
Western dominance in the discipline of IR. Tickner and Blaney’s edited book
presents diverse non-Western scholarly perspectives on central concepts and
issues in a West-dominated IR—the state, security, authority and sovereignty,
secularism and religion, globalization and so on, and thus questions the taken-for-
granted concepts, categories and epistemologies of Western IR. Likewise, Shilliam
(2011) has problematized the concept of global modernity which the West views
as an exclusive Western contribution to the world and so frames the contours of
IR to deal with the non-West. Shilliam questions the very foundations of Western
social and political thought, brings to light non-Western ideas and perspectives on
modernity, probes their significance for IR and thus opens up new spaces for
further engagements with non-Western modernities. None of these three major
books on non-Western IR theories and perspectives has, however, attempted to
map out and analyse the relatively unexplored discourses on Islam and IR. Though
Acharya and Buzan (2010) exclusively focus on Asian IR perspectives and
theories, they left the West Asian (or Middle-Eastern) IR theories and praxis out
of purview citing reasons for lack of expertise and resource constraints. A single
contribution by Tadjbakhsh (2010) to Acharya and Buzan’s volume attempts to
outline how Islamic IR contradicts Western IR theories premised on positivistic
and empiricist undertakings to account for the link between cause and effect.
Tadjbakhsh contends that there is a fundamental disjuncture between Islamic and
Western IR theories, but she does not highlight the disjuncture from ontological
and epistemological angles to clearly map out the nature and implications of the
Back in 1993 Samuel Huntington published his seminal paper ‘The Clash of
Civilizations?’ juxtaposing Islamic, Western and other civilizations, and had
reached the conclusion that conflicts between Islamic and Western civilizations
were unavoidable, especially in the context of the collapse of the bipolar world
structure in 1991. The problem with Huntington’s thesis was that he highlighted
(and perhaps exaggerated) more on the conflicting aspects of Islam and the West,
viewed Islam as a monolithic religion, discussed little about the multiple groups
and voices within Islam. Nor did he theorize the inevitability of conflicts between
the Islamic and Western civilizations. More rigorous attempts to problematize
relations between Islam and the West were made by scholars working in the criti-
cal and neo-Gramscian theoretical traditions of IR. Pasha (2010, 2012, 2013), for
example, has accounted for violence by Islamic radicals in relations to globalizing
Western modernity that restricts cultural horizons to prevent authentication of
non-Western forms of life. He explains Islamic resistance to the West by looking
at how conditions of late modernity have ruptured and displaced Islamic faith in
what he calls ‘Islamic Cultural Zones’. Though Pasha’s contributions to under-
standing conflicts between Islam and the West are appreciable, he remains nar-
rowly focused on how the Islamic radicals become disenchanted with Western
modernity and why violence erupts; the positions of the vast majority of
Muslims—the modernists, the secularists and even the ‘Western Muslims’ receive

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