Polaris A Takshashila Institution Blog on International Politics and Security

Historical Parallels to Modern Jihadism

Those who study modern Islamist terrorism and insurgency have never been able to provide (or perhaps have never been interested in providing) good historical parallels to what the world has witnessed since 1979. That was the year when Juhayman al-’Utaybi and his “Brethren” (al-Ikhwan) occupied the Grand Mosque in Mecca, a jarring incident for the Saudi royal dynasty that led to a gradual shift among the Kingdom’s religious institutions towards more conservative Salafism. Need I remind anyone that 1979 was also the year of the (Shi’a) Islamic Revolution in Iran, and the burning of the American Embassy in Islamabad

It is true that smaller, more mobile and more effective technology enabling the conduct of violent acts (accurate, reliable and user-friendly small arms, IEDs, suicide bombings) probably stifle historical parallels to Islamist insurrections outside recent modernity. Yet I was struck by the familiarity of one rationale behind the 1979 Mecca insurrection as narrated by Pascal Menoret of the University of Paris-Sorbonne.

Menoret’s study quotes the 2007 account of  Nasir al-Huzaymi, a former member of the Brethren: “The Brethren had broken the obstacle of respectful fear between the mufti and the believer.” Menoret continues: “This direct experience of the sacred text is partly responsible for bringing the Brethren to their textual and later political adventurism.”

This—as well as other descriptions of “back to basics” interpretations of Islam leading to recent violence—sound quite similar to the motivations behind Christian religious violence between the establishment of the Schmalkaldic League in 1530 and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, and most closely reflect the approaches of the Calvinists and Anabaptists (although many of these groups espoused non-violent approaches.) Both in the Christian world of the 16th and 17th centuries, and in the Muslim world of the 20th and 21st, a set of politically-influenced revolutionary movements couched in “back to basics” religious rhetoric fought violently to overturn the established political-religious nexus. I can think of a few other common traits between the two contexts—quasi-communalism, strict opposition to idolatry, theocracy and religious fatalism—among others.

Before I get flooded by Calvinist hate-mail, I should say that there are, naturally, several major divergences. One is that the Reformation of Christendom led to an irreversible religious and political rift between Protestants and Catholics. By contrasts, the uprisings among Sunni Muslims since 1979 have caused state-sponsored religious institutions to move decisively towards the Right, in an effort to preempt further politico-religious rebellion. What was also unusual about the Protestant revolutions was that they were overtly supported by feudal subalterns attempting to establish their relative political autonomies from the centre. So the parallels are not exact, but I see a doctoral thesis somewhere here!

3 Responses to “Historical Parallels to Modern Jihadism”

  1. Dhruva

    Please tell me if you want any excerpts or parts from the book ‘The Siege of Mecca’ by Yaroslav Trofimov. I would be happy to provide you those.

  2. Jeff Smith says:


    You mention Islamabad in 1979, but don’t forget ’78-’79 was also the time Zia ul-Haq announced and began his “Islamicization” of the Pakistani armed forces and the society at large. I always look back on ’79 as the turning point; where events in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan really reached Islamist critical mass.

    Also, I wonder if ’79 “led to a gradual shift among the Kingdom’s religious institutions towards more conservative Salafism,” as you say, or if it convinced the House of Saud that its already conservative religious institutions must be given more leeway to promote their worldview abroad lest they focus their energies on criticizing the Saudi leadership at home. Did the Wahhabi religious establishment turn more radical after ’79 or was it simply given greater freedom to preach its doctrine abroad? I don’t know the answer to that.

  3. Jeff: My guess would be both. Since ’79, the Saudi government has made shockingly few attempts at moving away from religious ultra-orthodoxy within the Kingdom (there are apparently factions within the dynasty on these issues). However, there have been a few minor political and social improvements recently:



    In terms of Wahhabi actions abroad, they didn’t necessary require the sanction of the House of Saud, although they were likely encouraged for the reasons you suggest, especially monetarily. Another problem which muddies any discussion of Saudi funds being used abroad is the tithe concept that naturally blurs the line between state-sponsored and privately-sponsored initiatives.