Connected Histories

'International Relations and Diplomacy' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

About This Resource

This article provides historical background oninternational relations and diplomacy  for Amin Maalouf's Leo Africanus and Stewart Gordon's When Asia Was the World. The article by James P. Piscatori is reprinted from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


Muslim writers argue that the international and diplomatic realms are incorporated in the very comprehensiveness of Islam, and analogues to the concepts of international relations exist in Islamic history. The Prophet's compacts with the Medinans (623–624) as well as with the Jews and Christians of the Arabian Peninsula (e.g., in Najran and ʿAqabah) are presented as examples of treaties, and the despatch of envoys to the rulers of Abyssinia, Byzantium, Egypt, and Persia are regarded as evidence of early Islamic diplomatic practice. Despite the assumption that jihād against infidels or the unfaithful is an unremitting obligation, the Prophet's agreement with the Meccans in 628, the Ḥudaybīyah treaty, has become the prototype of a truce (though not lasting peace) between combatants. Following this precedent, the fifth Umayyad caliph, ʿAbd al-Malik (r. 685–705), concluded a truce with the Byzantine ruler and even paid tribute to him in the interest of securing one flank in order to turn against Muslim rebels on the other.

Since the time of Caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd (r.786–809), the ʿAbbāsids routinely concluded treaties with foreigners for a number of reasons—in particular, in order to ransom their prisoners of war. They also regularly and lavishly received foreign envoys in Baghdad as representatives of fellow sovereigns. Around the year 800, for example, Caliph Hārūn received an ambassador from Charlemagne and sent one in return to Aix-la-Chapelle. Even during the Crusades, there were several formal treaties with Christian princes, such as the agreement in 1192 between Saladin (Salāḥ al-Dīn, r. 1186–1193) and the English king Richard I, which facilitated Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

The Politics of Conflict and Competition.

Polemicists often disregard this early history and later events and conclude that Islam is preeminently concerned with the creation of a universal Muslim community and is intolerant of those who are not Muslims. The Qurʿān and the traditions of the Prophet (ḥadīths) have many references to the need and desirability of fighting the unbelievers, often to the bitter end. This is one dimension of the jihād that is especially emphasized in the case of polytheists: the Qurʿān urges the believers to fight them “wherever you find them” until they repent or are defeated (surah 9:5), and a ḥadīth records the Prophet as saying, “I am ordered to fight until they [the polytheists] say ‘there is no God but Allah.’ ” Ahl al-kitāb (People of the Book), other monotheists such as Jews or Christians, are also to be fought until they pay a special tax and are “subdued” or “humbled” (9.29). Generally, the ḥadīths tell us that “whoever fights to make Allāh's Word superior fights in God's cause,” and that even a single journey for this purpose is “better than the world and all that is in it.”

This expansionist zeal accounts for the ʿAbbāsid elaboration of a bifurcated and conflict-ridden world—dār al-Islām (the Islamic realm of peace) and dār al-ḥarb (the non-Islamic realm of war). Moreover, within the realm of Islam, non-Muslims who pay jizyah (tax) in exchange for protection are to suffer certain disadvantages and are not to be treated equally with Muslim citizens. For example, they are not allowed to display their religious symbols openly or to carry arms—the former condition applied to non-Muslim Western military forces stationed in Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf crisis of 1990–1991. 

Yet it would be facile to conclude that a built-in antipathy exists between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. One reason why such a conclusion is doubtful is that Islamic political theory is more complex than that outlined above. Rather, the scriptural sources also articulate a view that is at odds with the image of jihād as an instrument of Islamic militancy and expansionism. This alternative view is of a tolerant, nonviolent Islam that accommodates itself to the reality of political pluralism and non-Muslim centers of power. Indeed, there is to be no compulsion in religion (Qurʿān 2:256). It is important for Muslims to commit their wealth and very lives (61:11) to “strive” ceaselessly against falsehood, but combat should be avoided if at all possible. Rather than relying on the sword, Muslims are to use their hearts, tongues, and hands for the good of their own souls (29:6) and to build the just society. Fighting is enjoined for self-defense: “Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not be aggressive, for God does not love aggressors” (2:190). Muslims may even, in certain circumstances, conclude a treaty with the enemy, which would take precedence over any obligations to fellow Muslims: “If they [Muslims] ask for help in the matter of religion, it is your duty to help them, except against a people with whom you have a treaty” (8:72).

The assumption of inherent conflict between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds also ignores a variegated pattern of war and alliance, competition and cooperation, across the centuries. Although they did not concede that Western states were equal to them, Muslim states regularly entered into territorial agreements and concluded peace, as in an Ottoman treaty with Russia in 1739. In the sixteenth century, Muslim practice closed the earlier debates among Muslim jurists as to the length of a truce between Muslims and non-Muslims. Invoking the Ḥudaybīyah treaty, jurists of at least two legal schools argued that such agreements could last no more than ten years. But the treaty of 1535 between the Ottoman ruler Süleyman the Magnificent (r.1520–1566) and Francis I of France endorsed the idea of “valid and sure peace” between them for their lifetimes, and from this point historical experience redefined the theoretical approach.

Compatibility of Islam and Nationalism.

It is undeniably true that Islamic theory places substantial emphasis on the idea of worldwide community. There is no distinction among the believers except in piety (Qurʿān 49:13), and the fraternity of the faith will inevitably extend to incorporate all peoples. Other bonds of loyalty, such as to tribe or race, must be replaced by common submission to the one God, and as the influential Indian/Pakistani writer Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī (1903–1979) maintained, the Islamic community (ummah) can only be “universal and all-embracing, its sphere of activity … coextensive with the whole of human life” (Political Theory of Islam, Lahore, 1960, p. 26). Yet one can also point to indicators of an Islam that recognizes, implicitly and explicitly, ideological, political, and territorial divisions. One reading of the Qurʿān, for instance, seems to sanction such divisions. It says that God divided men into nations and tribes for a purpose—to come to “know each other” (49:13)—and the divisions of language and color “are signs for those who know” (30:22). At another point, the Qurʿān says, “If God had so willed, He would have made them one community” (42:8).

The texts of the various schools of law also accept territorial divisions to which the law must bend (such as when dividing the spoils of war), and medieval thinkers came to accept that there was pluralism within the Islamic realm as well as between it and the non-Islamic realm. Al-Ghazālī (1058–1111), for example, raised the possibility that caliphs owed their position to decisive, noncaliphal centers of power. Ibn Taymīyah (1263–1328) went further in stressing that because of Islam's essential religious unity, it need not have only one political regime, and Ibn Khaldūn (1333–1406) endorsed the idea of pluralism by arguing that the rise and decline of political units is natural and in accord with the divine plan.

Parallel to this intellectual adaptation is the flexibility that Muslim statesmen have displayed. In addition to maintaining regular diplomatic relations with non-Muslims, Muslims have come to accept the reality of separate sources of power within the Islamic ummah itself. An early example is the dispute between ʿAlī (c.600–661), the Prophet's son-in-law and the fourth caliph, and Muʿāwiyah (c.602–680), the governor of Syria and later the first Umayyad caliph, over legitimate succession to the caliphate. The text of the arbitration between them is remarkable for the way it rendered the two equal, and territorially based, sovereigns.

In the twentieth century, Muslim–Western relations and inter-Muslim relations came indisputably to be measured by the yardstick of territorial and national sovereignty. From the end of the eighteenth century onward, European colonialism had implanted itself, in turn fostering the growth of indigenous nationalisms. Local elites realized that they needed to rid themselves of imperial control, while simultaneously protecting their own prestige and power against rival claimants to postcolonial leadership. They recognized that, to achieve both goals, they had to play by the rules of the international game. Playing this game first involved securing recognition from the great powers, then enhancing the sense of national uniqueness in the greater society of nation-states.

In inter-Muslim relations, the norm roughly from the 1930s to today has been to acknowledge the spiritual and cultural unity of the faith while insisting on preserving the reality of territorial divisions. Most bilateral agreements and every multilateral one make clear that the form of association contracted must not be seen as a derogation or qualification of the individual sovereignties of the contracting parties. The Arab League Pact (1945), although “desirous of strengthening the close relations and numerous ties which link the Arab states” (Preamble), is committed to preserving the independence and sovereignty of its members (Article 2) and requires that “each member state shall respect the systems of government established in the other member states and regard them as the exclusive concerns of those states” (Article 8). The Charter of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC, 1972) unambiguously affirms that the organization is based on the principles of “respect of the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of each member State” (Article 2b) and of “abstention from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity, national unity or political independence of any member State” (Preamble).

Many Muslims, such as Mawdūdī, however, have rejected the institution of the nation-state as alien and destructive of pan-Islamic union. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902–1989) was the most notable recent exponent of this view, and Principle II of revolutionary Iran's constitution commits the government to promoting Islamic unity. Yet for all his wider aspirations, Khomeini implicitly accepted the legitimacy of the territorial state of Iran when it was under attack by the Iraqis during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988). In effect, Iran was validated as the vanguard of the Islamic Revolution. The demands of political and economic intercourse, the development of an intellectual and pragmatic consensus, even if unenthusiastically so, and the pervasive influence of modern, nationalized educational systems have combined to make nationalism and the nation-state a powerful presence on the modern Muslim landscape. Indeed, for all their criticisms of the status quo, most Islamists have been less concerned about supplanting the nation-state system than with making the state more “Islamic.”

Transnationalism of Islam.

Political Islam is clearly an international phenomenon, but as international politics has become more complex and is now more accurately described by the concept of world politics, so too Islam is more than simply international. This is demonstrated by the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwān al-Muslimūn), which, although rooted in individual countries, operates simultaneously in Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, even South Asia, among other countries—and exhibits some degree of linkage among them. The Muslim Brotherhood is a nonstate actor, operating in the state environment and exercising an impact on the state system. 

Nonstate actors are an increasingly prominent aspect of modern Islamic life, particularly in the field of daʿwah (the “call” to Islam). Such organizations as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, but also the Palestinian Ḥamās (Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamah al-Islāmīyah, the Islamic Resistance Movement), are involved in providing a range of social welfare activities through such institutions as health clinics, schools, and housing cooperatives, which by their very efficiency and popularity provide a powerful challenge to the legitimacy of state institutions. Although their bases are securely located in their own national territories, there is no doubt that assistance in the training of activists, significant funding, and intellectual stimulation are derived from external sources.

Governments often seek to channel popular Muslim sentiments by sponsoring their own daʿwah organizations. The Islamic Propagation Office in Iran is concerned with various dimensions of the export of the Iranian revolutionary message, but like its counterpart in Libya, the Islamic Call Society (Jamʿīyat al-Daʿwah al-Islāmīyah), the degree of success can be overstated. The Saudi government, with its sponsorship of the Muslim World League (Rābiṭat al-ʿĀlam al-Islāmī), has been more successful in facilitating the spread of a nonrevolutionary but nonetheless assertive strain of Islamic activism. Through such journals as Al-Rābiṭah (The League; English edition: Journal of the Muslim World League) and Al-Nahdah (The Renaissance, the journal of the allied Regional Islamic Daʿwah Council of Southeast Asia and the Pacific), transnational daʿwah groups provide a potent communications and information network. Such a network encourages the mobilization of Muslim opinion on broader, pan-Islamic issues, such as the jihād against the Soviet authorities in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the plight of Muslim minorities in places like the Philippines and Thailand, and the future of Muslim Chechnya or Kosovo.

The Islamic transnational network was also instrumental in generating and sustaining the negative reaction to the publication in 1988 of Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses, which was widely regarded as blasphemous of the prophet Muḥammad, and to the award of a knighthood to Rushdie in 2007. Britain and Iran broke off diplomatic relations over the original affair and the European Community and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) put it near the top of their agendas. But in addition to these foreign policy results, the Rushdie affair generated more complicated politics.

One of the distinctive features of the Rushdie affair was the replication of both Saudi–Iranian rivalry and the fragmented Islamic politics of South Asia on British soil. Partly because of the lack of full assimilation into British economic, social, and political life, linguistic pluralism, and ethnic differences, there was a built-in competitiveness in British Muslim communities, reflected in identifiably sectarian mosques and schools, and a susceptibility to outside influences. These latter included pirs, Barelwī or Deobandī ʿulamāʿ, the Jamāʿat Tablīgh, and Jamāʿat-i Islāmī from the Indian subcontinent. Correspondingly, the reactions of Muslim groups in Britain and their support for Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwā against the novel in February 1989 had an impact on the factionalized politics of Iran. 

Paradigmatic Challenges.

Even before the unsettling events of September 11, commentators had questioned the relevance of conventional ways of conceptualizing international relations, whether among Muslim societies or otherwise. This questioning has taken four dimensions.

First, Samuel Huntington famously argued that cultures and civilizations are diverging in the post–Cold War order and are likely to be the main source of conflict. The advent of al-Qaʿida and global terrorism in the name of Islam appeared to confirm this assumption, first put forward eight years before the attacks on Washington and New York. But critics have argued that his depiction of the “centuries-old military interaction between the West and Islam” (“The Clash of Civilizations?,” Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993, pp. 31–32) simplifies history, overlooks the heterogeneity of Muslim societies, and understates the possibilities of cross-cultural cooperation. Whereas Huntington refers to Islam's “bloody borders” and others have explicitly spoken of the “Islamic threat,” critics of these views argue that, owing in great part to the potency of global communications, ideas, and norms easily move across supposed cultural barriers and cross-cutting alliances become possible when interests dictate.

Second, a set of challenges that can be summarized as globalization has also arisen. Although Muslims have long developed a self-conscious sense of the cosmopolitanism of Islam, notions of territory, time, and authority may be in the process of rapid redefinition because of the greater intensity of economic interdependence, cultural exchange, and political interaction. Some Muslim intellectuals, broadly in common with leftist, liberal, and secular critics, have objected to the polarizing, marginalizing, and homogenizing effects of globalization. Others see it as an ally in efforts to reduce poverty or as a way to disseminate Islamic ideas. Muslim political leaders have found that responding to globalization may enhance as well as reduce the regulatory powers of the state and produce ‘reforms’ that redound to the advantage of entrenched elites. This ambivalence points to the persistence of the old rules of the game even as challenges to them are formulated.

Third, Muslim radicals have advanced a powerful criticism of contemporary order that calls into question the past acquiescence of Muslim elites in the prevailing international order. In this view, the great powers, particularly the United States, and international institutions such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization manipulate and exploit Muslims. Local regimes of the Muslim world, preeminently the Saudi monarchy, have allied themselves with such oppressive forces. Muslims aspire to “recapture” the unity of the ummah and, especially in the program of Hizb al-tahrīr al-Islamī (the Islamic Liberation Party), to restore the caliphate. Individual Muslims function as heroic mujāhidīn against the “Crusaders” (al-sālibīyīn), “Jews,” and “infidels” (kuffar) of the age. For some, terrorism becomes an integral part of what is presented as a “defensive” jihād, and in the view of Osama Bin Ladin even civilians can become legitimate targets. World politics is thus conceived of as centered on peoples rather than states and territory and on a religiously charged framework rather than a geopolitical one such as balance of power. But implicit notions of territorial and political differentiation are also found in lively debates over where the lines between dār al-Isām and dār al-ḥarb lie today.

Fourth, a preoccupation with “Islamic” or domestic matters has suggested to some that the internal, rather than the external, realm is the main site of political activity today. This inward turning comes from two sources. Just as the secular Arab nationalists a generation earlier had concluded that they would never prevail over Israel as long as their own governments were corrupt, the vast majority of Islamists have put at the heart of their program an overturning of secular, impious government and a vaguely defined Islamization of society. In addition, others—women, human rights, and other special interest groups—are also increasingly making their views heard and enhancing the pluralism, perhaps even contributing to the democratization, of Muslim societies.

The combined effect has not been to displace the state or interstate politics; the tacit acceptance of this framework so long as it appears to have some Islamic legitimacy continues to be a major, if not the predominant, trend. But the shifting of focus to the ummah for many, on the one hand, and to society and governance, on the other hand, suggests a more complex politics of identity than had prevailed in the past.


  • Abu-Rabiʿ, Ibrahim M.“Globalization: A Contemporary Response.”The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, 15.3 (Fall 1998): 15–45. A useful overview of Muslim views on globalization.
  • AbūSulaymān, ʿAbdulḥamīd A.The Islamic Theory of International Relations: New Directions for Islamic Methodology and Thought. Herndon, Va., 1987. Lucid analysis by modernist Muslim writer on the Islamic framework of diplomacy and interstate relations.
  • Abū Zahrah, Muḥammad. Al-ʿalāqāt al-duwalīyah fi al-Islām (International Relations in Islam). Cairo, 1964. Study of how Islamic norms have allowed Muslim states to engage in a fully functioning international practice.
  • Ahsan, Abdullah, al-. Ummah or Nation? Identity Crisis in Contemporary Muslim Society. Leicester, 1992. Expert on the Organization of the Islamic Conference calls for the strengthening of Muslim identification with the ummah and the consequent enhancement of the OIC.
  • Dawisha, Adeed, ed.Islam in Foreign Policy. Cambridge, 1983. Valuable as a unique study of the roles that Islam plays in the foreign policy of several Muslim countries.
  • Djalili, Mohammad-Reza. Diplomatie islamique: Stratégie internationale du khomeynisme. Paris, 1989. Informed analysis of the international ideas and practice of the revolutionary regime in Iran.
  • Hamidullah, Muhammad. Muslim Conduct of State. 4th rev. ed.Lahore, 1961. One of the standard expositions on Islam's compatibility with the norms of the international system.
  • Hurewitz, J. C., ed.The Middle East and North Africa in World Politics: A Documentary Record. 2 vols.2d ed.New Haven and London, 1975. Indispensable collection of treaties and other documents that present the record of Muslims’ adaptation to prevailing international practice in their relations with both non-Muslims and fellow Muslims.
  • Iqbal, Afzal. Diplomacy in Islam. Lahore, 1977. Study of the Prophet's diplomatic practice.
  • Khadduri, Majid. War and Peace in the Law of Islam. Baltimore and London, 1955. Classic work on the theory of Islamic international law and international relations.
  • Khan, S. A.Reasserting International Islam: A Focus on the Organization of the Islamic Conference and Other Islamic Institutions. Karachi, 2001. Reliable guide to the development of Islamic international organizations.
  • Landau, Jacob. The Politics of Pan-Islam: Ideology and Organization. Oxford and New York, 1990. The best study of how Pan-Islam emerged in the context of the transition from the imperial to the national age in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
  • Moinuddin, Hasan. The Charter of the Islamic Conference: The Legal and Economic Framework. Oxford, 1987. Detailed study of the structure of the OIC, placed in a larger discussion of Islamic ideas on international law and cooperation.
  • Proctor, J. Harris, ed.Islam and International Relations. London, 1965. An early examination of many of the enduring issues, such as nationalism and Pan-Islam, by eminent scholars.
  • Rajaee, Farhang. Islamic Values and World View: Khomeyni on Man, the State and International Politics. Lanham, Md., and London, 1983. Particularly insightful study of Khomeinist international thought written by a student of both Islamic political thought and international relations theory.
  • Saleem, Musa. The Muslims and the New World Order. London, 1993. Deals with a broad range of subjects, but last quarter of book directly deals with such matters as relations between rich and poor countries (including within the Islamic world) and such contemporary problems as Bosnia and Kashmir.
  • Schulze, Reinhard. Islamischer Internationalismus im 20. Jahrundert: Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der Islamischen Weltliga. Leiden, 1990. Excellent study of “international” Islam, particularly the activities of the Saudi-backed Muslim World League.
  • Siddiqui, Kalim. Beyond the Muslim Nation-State. London, 1980. Vigorous attack on the idea of Muslim national pluralism by a leading British Muslim who became the leading figure in “the Muslim Parliament” in Britain.


Piscatori, James P. "International Relations and Diplomacy." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #248: 'International Relations and Diplomacy' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", May 21, 2024


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