Islamist Approaches to Governance

Book Review: “The Rule is for None but Allah: Islamist Approaches to Governance”, by Joana Cook and Shiraz Maher, eds.

The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2014 led to the extremist group controlling almost 50,000 square miles of territory and ruling over between 8 and 10 million people.[i] Although the emergence of ISIS and its engagement in governance came to many as a shock, it represented only an extreme manifestation of the use (and, in the case of ISIS and other terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda, the abuse) of Islam as a justification for governance.

In the book “The Rule Is for None but Allah: Islamist Approaches to Governance,” editors Joana Cook and Shiraz Maher present an investigation into what they call Islamist governance. As they explain, “there is no single ‘mode’ of Islamist expression”.[ii] To differentiate between groups that have little in common beyond their shared appeal to Islam, Cook and Maher propose their categorization as either constitutional or violent actors, with the former pursuing “legitimate political avenues to affect change.”[iii]

Among these constitutional actors, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia stand out as they both achieved power after the 2010-11 Arab Spring. Once in government, the Egyptian Brotherhood sought to implement the so-called Renaissance Project to transform Egypt’s economy from reliance on rentier capitalism into a productive, value-added economy.[iv] Even before President Mohamed Morsi was removed from power in 2013, the Renaissance Project had already proven to be “heavy on rhetoric and much lighter in terms of practical policy”, argues Martyn Frampton in his contribution to the volume.[v]

In a chapter dedicated to Ennahda, Aaron Zelin explores the changes in the Islamist party’s policy towards the Salafi Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST). Whereas Ennahda leaders were initially convinced that they could integrate AST in the new democratic context, they eventually (and some would argue, belatedly) concluded that AST was not only a threat to their party but to Tunisia more broadly. Meanwhile, in Libya, following the fall of Colonel Muammar Ghaddafi in 2011, the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood “never had the opportunity to connect with the masses” or build a strong organization as the Egyptian Brotherhood and Ennahda had been able to do.[vi]

While the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia achieved state power through the ballot box, there is a different set of groups whose Islamist governance has emerged in a context of civil war. These groups can be described as rebel rulers engaged in rebel governance, which implies, in Mampilly’s seminal definition, “the formation of a political order outside and against the state.”[vii] The concept is similar to Arjona’s ‘rebelocracy’, which refers to “a social order in which armed groups intervene beyond security and taxation.”[viii]

One of the cases combining rebel rule with Islamist governance is that of the Houthi movement in northern Yemen. Nadwa Al-Dawsari argues that the Houthis have established “a highly efficient Islamic governance system” underpinned by violence and mass indoctrination.[ix] She adds that the Houthis’ political ambition is “rooted in religious belief that descendants of Prophet Mohammed have a divine right to rule over Muslims.”[x]

In Somalia, Al-Shabaab seeks to outperform the federal government and the Somali regional state governments by managing courts and mediation mechanisms, engaging in taxation as well as “the carrying out of public works projects including irrigation and infrastructure repair and construction.”[xi] While the case of the Afghan Taliban presents some differences because of their previous experience of power in Kabul before the U.S. invasion in 2001, the Taliban also engaged in rebel governance in the buildup to their return to Kabul in 2021. Encompassing the co-optation of state education services, the establishment of Taliban courts, and taxation, the Taliban developed a broad “set of rules regulating economic and social activity”.[xii]

“The Rule Is for None but Allah” also examines the relations between governments and movements calling for Islamist governance. In Saudi Arabia, the Sahwa movement supported in the 1980s the fight of the mujahidin in Afghanistan against the Soviets. The Sahwa also denounced that Saudi Arabia was drifting “towards a secular direction as a betrayal of the tenets of Islam.”[xiii] The relationship between the Sahwa and the Saudi rulers has had periods of relative calm, such as the 2000s.

However, with the ascension of Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), who became the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia in 2017, the Sahwa is now seen as an unacceptable threat to both the Saudi leadership and MbS’s reforms program. The Sahwa represents an obstacle to MbS’s efforts to reform the Saudi judicial system, which has the double purpose of insulating Saudi citizens from the more extremist preachers and introducing a “more transparent and predictable legal framework” that stimulates “economic growth and diversification.”[xiv]

As Cook and Maher argue in the introduction to “The Rule Is for None but Allah”, groups engaged in Islamist governance seek legitimacy through their governance. In the case of Hamas, the group had long engaged in “providing religious, educational, and welfare services” before it won the 2006 Palestinian legislative election and took over the Gaza Strip the following year.[xv] Hezbollah in Lebanon has also leveraged social provision to legitimate its activities but contrary to Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, “Hezbollah functions as a hybrid political actor, with one foot in government structures and the rest of its body standing outside of them.”[xvi]

Finally, coming back to ISIS, the most extreme case of Islamist governance, two chapters of the volume focus on the extremist group’s economic dimension and its policy towards women. ISIS portrayed itself as opposing Western economic practices and introducing traditional monetary economics through the establishment of its own markets and coinage. However, in one of their manifold contradictions, it was “ISIS’s solidification of stable illicit practices that played a key role in enhancing its economic effectiveness (…) and enhancing its ability to provide economic benefits, welfare, and social services.”[xvii] When it came to its policy towards women, ISIS “strictly controlled local women’s lives.”[xviii] At the same time, ISIS employed women in less conventional roles, such as policing other women or using them as propaganda tools to showcase the alleged benefits of life under ISIS rule. Sometimes they were also tasked with recruiting other women both online and offline.

“The Rule Is for None but Allah” is a valuable contribution to the broader debate on Islam and politics as well as to the study of governance. Traditionally understood as being the responsibility of the nation-state, and to a more limited extent also of regional entities in federal states, recent decades have seen a proliferation of literature on the increasingly relevant phenomena of global governance, hybrid governance, or rebel governance.

“The Rule Is for None but Allah” would benefit from a concluding chapter summarizing the main findings of the book and outlining how the volume advances our general understanding of governance by showing that Islamist governance is a phenomenon far more complex than the rule of state. Although there is value in the term ‘Islamist governance’, it is one that we should use with caution as it encompasses such different cases as the political Islam of Ennahda in Tunisia and the totalizing ideology and violence of ISIS.

[i] Tønnessen, Truls H. “The Group That Wanted to Be a State: The ‘Rebel Governance’ of the Islamic State.” In Islamists and the Politics of the Arab Uprisings, edited by Hendrik Kraetzschmar and Paola Rivetti (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018), p. 57.
[ii] Maher, Shiraz, and Joana Cook. “Introduction: Islamist Approaches to Governance.” In The Rule Is for None but Allah: Islamist Approaches to Governance, edited by Joana Cook and Shiraz Maher (London: Hurst and Co., 2023), p. 2.
[iii] Ibid., p. 12.
[iv] Farah Halime, “Egypt’s Long-Term Economic Recovery Plan Stalls,” The New York Times, May 2, 2013,
[v] Frampton, Martyn. “‘The Quran Is Our Constitution’: The Muslim Brotherhood and Ideas of Governance.” In The Rule Is for None but Allah, p. 53.
[vi] Badi, Emadeddin, and Inga K. Trauthig. “Islamist Parties in Libya after Gaddafi: Old Networks in New Environments,” in Ibid., p. 83.
[vii] Mampilly, Zachariah. Rebel Rulers: Insurgent Governance and Civilian Life during War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011), p. 36.
[viii] Arjona, Ana. Rebelocracy: Social Order in the Colombian Civil War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), p. 28.
[ix] Al-Dawsari, Nadwa. “Houthi Governance: An Examination of Engagement with Tribes.” In The Rule Is for None but Allah, p. 286.
[x] Ibid.
[xi] Anzalone, Christopher. “Organising Sharia Politics and Governing Violence: Al Shabaab’s Rebel Proto-State in Somalia,” in Ibid., p. 109.
[xii] Jackson, Ashley. “Ideological Adaptations in the Taliban’s Shadow State, 2006–2020,” in Ibid., p. 156.
[xiii] Al-Saud, Abdullah. “The Sahwa in Saudi Arabia: History and Evolution,” in Ibid., p. 336.
[xiv] Maher, Shiraz. “‘Extremism in All Things Is Wrong’: Contextualizing Mohammed Bin Salman’s Legal Reforms in Saudi Arabia,” in Ibid., p. 369.
[xv] Musgrave, Nina. “Hamas’s Quest for Legitimacy,” in Ibid., p. 127.
[xvi] Levitt, Matthew. “Hezbollah’s Parallel Governance Structure in Lebanon,” in Ibid., p. 247.
[xvii] Lokmanoglu, Ayse, and Alexandra Phelan. “Monetary Economics, Illicit Economies, and Legitimation: The Case of Islamic State,” in Ibid., p. 185.
[xviii] Cook, Joana. “Women in Jihadist Practices of Governance: The Cases of Al-Qaeda and ISIS,” in Ibid., p. 227.

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