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Review of "The Genealogy of Terror: How to distinguish between Islam, Islamism and Islamist Extremism" by

This book is by an expert in Islamic theology. It provides a clear analytical framework for distinguishing between these often-blurred categories.


Posted 3 February 2019. Updated 17 February 2019.

With the growth of terrorism committed by Muslims around the world, for well over 20 years governments in Europe, North America and indeed in Muslim majority countries have struggled with a difficult question.

How do you tell the difference between somebody who wishes to commit acts of terrorism in the name of Islam, and somebody who does not?

Much nonsense has been written around this subject.

Some believe that the more religious a Muslim becomes, the more likely he or she is to want to commit terrorism. Some contend that such terrorism has nothing to do with Islam while others contend that the terrorists are the only true Muslims.

Reading this book will enable you to understand clearly why some Muslims believe that God requires them to kill non-Muslims, while other Muslims are model citizens.

My involvement with this book

It is impossible for me to be objective about this book. Apart from anything else, it is dedicated to me!

While the ideas and the words are the author’s, I have contributed to the book in the following ways:

  1. Debating the ideas, and the proposed terminology, with the author on a one-to-one basis on many occasions. There are many other people also listed in the acknowledgements including a former Director of Public Prosecutions and the current Director of Public Prosecutions who at the time the book was written was the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation.
  2. I proofread the entire text twice.
  3. During the period when the book was written, I was the principal donor to the Curriculum for Cohesion project which funded its writing.

About the book

The book consists of 17 pages of preface and 235 pages of text including the appendices, index etc. It is very easy to read and requires no prior knowledge of Islam.

The author

I have known Dr Matthew Wilkinson since June 2010. The great-grandson of Lord Jellicoe who led the British fleet at the Battle of Jutland, and a former head boy at Eton, he converted to Islam in his early twenties and was the creator of the Curriculum for Cohesion project.

He has been an expert witness on Islamic theology in over 20 terrorism trials. In such trials, the defendant is often found with texts which the prosecution alleges promote terrorism. Meanwhile the defendant contends that these are mainstream Islamic texts. Dr Wilkinson’s task is to read the texts and give the court his expert opinion on whether or not they are genuinely mainstream Islamic texts.

In a similar way, he was the expert witness instructed by the BBC in the libel trial Shakeel Begg (Claimant) v British Broadcasting Corporation (Defendant) where he had a similar role, being asked for his opinion on whether Mr Begg’s views were mainstream Islamic views or not.

Table of contents

The best way to see just how comprehensive the book is within its relatively short length is to read the full table of contents which is reproduced below:

Foreword by Professor Norman Doe


  • The context of this book
  • The aims of this book
  • A note on the transliteration of Arabic terms


1 — Why this book is needed

A global crisis of misunderstanding: why this book is needed; who its author is; what this book will accomplish

Why? How? What?

My story and credentials

The structure and substance of this book

2 — The roots of Islam, Islamism and Islamist Extremism: the historical fault lines of Islam

Introduction: Islam is shaped by the presence and absence of Muhammad

Political-theological hiatus and split: the Sunni-Shia divide

Institutional hiatus and split: the division of powers between the Muslim Executive and the religious judiciary

Intellectual hiatus and split: rationalist vs. literalist intellectual tension

3 — The Worldviews of Islam, Islamism and Islamist Extremism

Islam, Islamism and Islamist Extremism are all internally coherent, self-contained Worldviews

The idea of a Worldview

Islam, Islamism and Islamist Extremism as Worldviews

The Worldview of Mainstream Islam: unity-in-diversity

The Worldview of Activist Islam: diversity-in-unity

The Worldview of Islamism: contingent separation and exaggerated difference

The Worldview of Non-Violent Islamist Extremism: absolute Manichean separation

The Worldview of Violent Islamist Extremism (VIE): absolute, eternal difference and separation with lethal consequences for the non-Muslim and wrong-Muslim out-groups

4 — Basic beliefs, practices and characteristic themes of Islam, Islamism and Islamist Extremism

The sources of the Worldview of Mainstream Islam: the Qur’an and the Sunna

The themes and ethical praxis of Mainstream Islam

The themes and ethical praxis of Activist Islam

The themes and ethical praxis of Ideological Islamism

The themes and ethical praxis of Non-Violent Islamist Extremism

The themes and ethical praxis of Violent Islamist Extremism

5 — Mainstream Islam: the people, texts and contexts

Hermeneutical health warning: people and their ideas are ‘shifters’

Mainstream Islam: the people and the texts

The Book of God – Al-Qur’an (the recitation)

The Opening Chapter (Al-Fatiha)

Other seminal chapters

Commentaries on the Qur’an

The canonical books of hadith

The great works of law (Fiqh), Jurisprudence (Usul al-Fiqh)

The Wahhabi reformation: the Book of Divine Unity (Kitab al-Tawhid)

To philosophize or not to philosophize? Al-Ghazali vs. Ibn Rushd

Mainstream Islam in the modern and contemporary period

6 — Islamism: the people, texts and contexts

Maududi, Al-Banna and Khomeini: the Ideological Islamist shift from agency to structure

The second phase of Islamism: Sayyid Qutb and the birth of Non-Violent Islamist Extremism

Milestones (1964) – the ‘ur’ text of Islamist Extremism

Ayatollah Khomeini: Shia Islamism succeeds where Sunni Islamism fails

7 — The Genealogy of Terror: the people, texts and contexts of Violent Islamist Extremism

Violent Islamist Extremism’s ‘pioneers’: Abdullah Azzam and Muhammad Abd as-Salam Faraj

Defense of Muslim lands: the first obligation after faith (1979)

The glamour of Jihad

The ideologues of Al-Qaeda: bin Laden, Al-Awlaki, Al-Zawahiri and As-Suri

The impact of the Bosnian War (1991–1995)

Al-Zawahiri and As-Suri: Al-Qaeda’s backroom boys

The ideologues of the Islamic State: Abu Musab Az-Zarqawi, An-Naji, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and Abu Muhammad Al-Adnani

The Arab Spring reaches Syria

The state-building of Islamic State

8 — A second Age of Extremes or a second Age of Enlightenment?


The political conditions of Extremism

Why? The root causes of Islamist Extremism

Appendix 1: Basic Guides to Mainstream Islam

Appendix 2: Digital Islam

Glossary of key terms and names



The five worldviews

The book places Muslims into three broad categories:

  1. Mainstream Islam
  2. Islamism
  3. Islamist extremism.

As illustrated below, this means that there are two areas of overlap, giving rise to five sets of people.

Each set of people sees the world differently. The book contains detailed explanations of each of these worldviews.

Below I have just given my own understanding in a few words.

Traditional Islam

it is not the level of your religious practice that determines whether you fall in this category. It covers the complete range from keeping every fast and observing every prayer to hardly ever praying or fasting.

The key point is seeing that the entire world belongs to God, and that he created all your fellow human beings, both Muslim and non-Muslim. Hence the author’s phrase “unity-in-diversity.”

It is precisely because the entire range of religious practice can fall in this category that it is wholly wrong to think that a Muslim who is more religious in their practice is therefore more likely to become a terrorist.

Activist Islam

Mohammed Amin:
Proud to be an Activist Muslim.

People in this category share the above worldview.

However, their religious beliefs also cause them to want to help mankind by getting involved both with the voluntary sector and with mainstream political organisations.

Ideological Islamism

The author stresses that Islamism is a revolutionary political ideology, and that it is aimed at overthrowing, rather than improving existing political structures.

It seeks to replace them with an Islamic state governed by what Islamists regard as Islamic law. They emphasise the separation between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Non-Violent Islamist Extremism

This goes beyond the above category by emphasising an absolutely divided, Manichaean Us versus Them division of the world into true ideological Muslims on the one hand, and on the other hand non-Muslims and the wrong kinds of Muslims.

The British and American governments have for many years expressed concerns about Non-Violent Islamist Extremism. In response, many Muslims and many on the political left have contended that there is no such thing or that it cannot be defined. In this book, the author explains exactly what it is.

I have often made the point (for example in my presentation "Do Muslim religious texts cause religious persecution?" that the intellectual sources of Non-Violent Islamist Extremism are Maududi and Hassan Al-Banna. The author traces the line from them to Sayyid Qutb, looking at their writings, before going on to discuss the category below.

Violent Islamist Extremism

In this most extreme category, the adherents want to bring about the ideal Islamic state by violent force, killing both non-Muslims and the wrong kinds of Muslims.

As discussed on my page "Terrorism by Muslims and two opposing denials" many Muslims deny that such terrorists are motivated by their religious beliefs. The author's detailed analysis of the writings and speeches of Abdullah Azzam, Muhammad Abd as-Salam Faraj, and the others mentioned in Chapter 7, demonstrates beyond any doubt exactly how these terrorists are motivated by their (incorrect) religious beliefs.

For each of the above categories, the author gives a very detailed explanations of their thinking and the key source texts that underlie that thinking.

Who should read this book?

Since the 9/11 attacks, terrorism committed by Muslims, and the question of what it means to be a Muslim in the modern world, have both been of major political significance in the USA, Britain and Western Europe.

Accordingly, the book should be read by everybody who cares about the goal of creating a united multi-faith country which together can overcome the poisonous ideologies of Violent Islamist Extremism, Non-Violent Islamist Extremism, and to a lesser but still important extent, Ideological Islamism.

You cannot defeat something if you do not understand it.



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