Current Trends in Islamist Ideology

“Alternative Paradigms” after Three Decades

Fulbright Fellow, Morocco
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on January 22, 2016, in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on January 22, 2016, in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Perhaps one of the most influential living statesmen, Ahmet Davutoğlu's combination of political pragmatism and political philosophy sets him apart from most senior diplomats. Despite a relatively recent split from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AKP [Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi]), for which Davutoğlu previously served as party leader in addition to Türkiye's prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, Davutoğlu's ideas have been central to AKP and the subsequent Davutoğlu-formed Future Party (GP [Gelecek Partisi]). Davutoğlu's first major work, Alternative Paradigms: The Impact of Islamic and Western Weltanschauungs on Political Theory, was developed from his doctoral dissertation in political science and international relations and published in 1993.1 A decade later, Davutoğlu's career as a writer and academic would transform into an active role in Türkiye's foreign affairs, as he advised prime ministers Abdullah Gül and Recep Erdoğan. While Davutoğlu's later works, such as Stratejik derinlik (Strategic Depth, 2001), have been discussed extensively as demonstrating a "Neo-Ottoman" approach to Türkiye's foreign relations, his under-appreciated Alternative Paradigms presents a different image of Davutoğlu's vision of politics. The alternative paradigm is not merely a different course of action in foreign policy, a change in political ideology, or an appeal to Islamic solidarity. Instead, Davutoğlu offers an alternative paradigm for understanding the world.

In line with his claim that Western perspectives are incapable of considering other worldviews, many of the actions of Davutoğlu, alongside his one-time advisees Gül and Erdoğan, appear opaque or less than earnest to a Western audience. I argue that, by taking the explanations of Davutoğlu—and by extension, much of the larger contemporary Turkish foreign policy apparatus—at face value, Davutoğlu's alternative paradigm is seen more clearly. With 2023 marking the thirtieth anniversary of Alternative Paradigms and the hundredth anniversary of the Turkish republic, it is an opportune time to revisit his influential work.

This essay begins with an overview of Davutoğlu’s understanding of the Western and Islamic paradigms for perceiving and understanding the world, which, he argues, are fundamentally distinct and incompatible. After briefly summarizing the (at points complex) philosophical underpinnings of Davutoğlu’s worldview, this essay provides an assessment of some of the key implications that this philosophy has on Davutoğlu’s political ideology, particularly regarding Muslim cooperation, Muslim and Western relations, and the responsibilities of Muslim states (namely Türkiye) in the world. In conclusion, I argue that Davutoğlu’s Alternative Paradigms lays out a clear challenge for Western analysts and policymakers to better understand differing worldviews, regardless of whether or not they accept their premises. In this specific case, Davutoğlu’s vision is for Muslims states to govern in line with Islamic values rather than seeking to acculturate Western political ideology.

The Core Argument of Alternative Paradigms

The core argument of Alternative Paradigms is that the West maintains a unique paradigm through which it understands and interacts with the world. Davutoğlu develops this claim from empirical observation and a critical study of Western political analysis—with threads of intellectual history weaving together his argument. He charges that the West can only see within its own horizons and cannot envision other ways of life or competing motivations. Most of all, Davutoğlu argues that this Western paradigm is broken and leading to moral, social, and political degradation throughout the international community. This particularly marks disaster for countries like Türkiye that have attempted to overlay their Islamic beliefs and identity with the Western paradigm of thought—importing notions of civil law, secularism, and Westphalian nation-states. Davutoğlu insists that no Muslim can exist outside a Muslim society, and that Muslim society cannot exist outside the full prophetic vision of community life.

For Davutoğlu, the revelation of Islam set the stage for a complete shift from preceding paradigms or schools of thought. Islam might employ the history, language, or ideas of past paradigms, but it fundamentally subverts and reorients them. Davutoğlu argues that Quranic revelation turned all prior knowledge and concepts on their head, providing them with a semantic reformulation and new epistemological basis. The new paradigm brought by Islam was totalizing and incompatible with prior paradigms insofar as defection from an aspect of Islam represents complete defection from its sense of constructing a universalized whole. In this understanding, the metaphysical revelation and revolution brought about by the Prophet Mohammed provided the perfect political community. Not just civitas or res publica, the Prophetic community combines both hierarchical political order with common participation and welfare. This perfect polity continued to hold the same power and authority as the caliphate under the prophet’s successors, first under Abu Bakr and the three subsequent Rashidun Caliphs and then under later successors—despite these late caliphs straying from its theo-epistemological basis. In other words, their successors may have held the caliph’s office, but they did not properly understood Islam and, subsequently, the moral underpinnings of the world; they thus constituted an image of the Prophetic ideal within the world rather than Mohammed's uniquely constituted and ordained political community. After the Rashidun, the wholeness of the Islamic political community was degraded: each period of subsequent rule did not serve as a model of governance, though it still exemplifies elements of it. For Davutoğlu, the historic realization of the community under Abu Bakr and the Rashidun makes the Islamic paradigm more feasible and real than the Christian or Western paradigm which, at best, seeks an ideal of government and justice that cannot be realized as man neither recognizes his limitation nor his role in the universe.

According to Davutoğlu, successive caliphates and the Ottoman Empire eventually gave way to Muslim states’ attempts to modernize in line with the West, which inevitably compromised on Islamic values. Davutoğlu describes the work of Kemal Ataturk and others to modernize and seek scientific progress as inherently and necessarily flawed because of its compromise between Islamic and Western traditions. Such an effort grafts foreign elements onto Islamic society; this both neglects what is natural or organic development and also cannot replace the wholeness of the Islamic vision. From this perspective, Ataturk's move away from Islamic traditions and values is nonsensical and ineffective because Western logic or ethics cannot be reconciled with Islamic ontology. This attempt makes Muslims party to the system of colonial imperialism and destroys their ability to spread Islamic ethical and legal ideas or expand their authority.

However, that “modernization” is impossible and destructive to the Islamic paradigm does not mean that Islamic governance cannot continue into the contemporary world. As will be shown, Davutoğlu attempts a return to classical Islamic political theory, a resourcement to align Turkish and Islamic politics with the unique character and ontological unity of Islam. While Davutoğlu’s vision is grand—and his prose is dense—it serves as a useful framework for understanding shifts in Turkish policy and properly identifying the goals of statesmen like Davutoğlu.

Davutoğlu’s Oversimplified Western Paradigm

Alternative Paradigms: The Impact of Islamic and Western Weltanschauungs on Political Theory is equal parts comparative political theory, comparative theology, and comparative metaphysics. Its greatest strength is serving as a rejoinder to common perceptions of the Islamicate world, pointing out the errors in the purportedly universal frameworks of Western scholarship and analysis, and building a positive case for what is unique about the Islamic worldview (weltanschauung). The unique qualities of the Islamic worldview are, as Davutoğlu’s argues, totalizing and encompass all elements of human life and thought. Where I use worldview throughout this essay, Davutoğlu uses weltanschauung, in part to emphasize the totality and unity of the worldview—although even weltanschauung is limited in comparison to the scope of Islamic imagination that Davutoğlu presents.

Alternative Paradigms is weaker in its description of the Western worldview, painting an overbroad picture that elides disagreement or important nuances in Western thought, inverting his criticism of Orientalist scholars. From the introduction’s outset, Davutoğlu outlines a few epistemological claims that he believes to be misguided when discussing Islamic thought or comparing the Islamic and Western worldviews. These lead him to conclude that attempts at Islamic modernism that seek to adapt Western political systems to Islamic societies or to imitate Western styles of life through industrialization and liberalization will lead to grafting failure. First, regarding Islam’s generalizability, Davutoğlu claims that “the relationship between 'aqâ'id, as the origin of the doctrinal antecedents, and fiqh, as the origin of the axiological normativeness and of the political formal structuralism, has not been considered to such a great extent.”2 That is, the analysis of Islamic political thought tends to focus on the application of Islamic law (fiqh) rather than the creedal elements ('aqâ'id) that undergird law. Davutoğlu instead intends to concentrate more “on the intellectual and doctrinal mechanisms of Muslim consciousness than on practical applications or institutional adaptations of the rules of Islamic jurisprudence.”3

In a Heideggerian move, Davutoğlu insists on the need for semantic analysis of the key terms of Islamic and Western worldviews, with words such as “happiness,” “prosperity,” or “pluralism” entailing very different states or assumptions between different languages. These different nuances of meaning, Davutoğlu argues, belie fundamentally distinct conceptions of life and constitute different frameworks of understanding prior to any political theory. This leads to his second claim for a new methodology of comparative analysis based upon the two novel concepts of “ontological proximity” and “epistemological differentiation.” “Ontological proximity” is used to “denominate the Western paradigm” in a more comprehensive manner than comparative theology or comparative philosophy.4 The contrasts between the Islamic concept of tawhid (oneness or unity) and Western ontological proximity, Davutoğlu argues, “specify socio-political imaginations, theories, and cultures.”5

These differences amount to more than philosophical, political theoretical, or cultural distinctions—instead, Davutoğlu thinks that the “interrelationship of ontology, epistemology, axiology, and politics [points to their irreconcilability].”6 The final contrast in terms that Davutoğlu sets up in the introduction is that of the Islamic worldview maintaining an “ontologically determined epistemology” whereas the Western worldview holds an “epistemologically defined ontology.”7 This epistemological differentiation maintains that Islam’s understanding of all facets of knowledge is subsequent to the awareness of the being of divine unity while the West understands all forms of existence—divine, intellectual, and material being—through reason.

The outline of the Western paradigm Davutoğlu posits here elides a great deal of intellectual history. As he accuses Western scholars of Islam of oversimplification, Davutoğlu exhibits a strong recency and selection bias in suggesting that Western ontological proximity entails panentheistic or materialist theologies; it is a cleaving of the history of ideas to posit that the perfectibility of man is Western civilization’s fundamental mission (Selbstverständnis).8 However, Davutoğlu echoes and is well-versed in continental philosophy, especially the German phenomenological tradition. His diagnosis of the West is comfortably within contemporary criticism and representative of real—perhaps central—assumptions that underlie Western thought and politics.

To prevent the core point of this introduction and the entirety of Alternative Paradigms from being lost either through the opacity of Davutoğlu’s philosophical terms or the nuances of scholarly debate, it is important to underscore the claim that the Islamic and Western worldviews hold fundamental, necessary, and irreconcilable differences. Yet, his argument is not that of a “Clash of Civilizations,” an incompatibility of democracy with Islam, or numerous other tensions that Western scholars have offered between the West and Islamic world. 

Rather, Davutoğlu’s argument is that the mode of being and knowing are so fundamentally different between Islam and the West that the same words, policies, or practices represent entirely distinct objects. If true, these differences would be nigh unbridgeable.

Importantly, this epistemological-ontological barrier between worldviews does not just complicate the capacity of Western influence or analysis; according to Davutoğlu, it makes impossible the goal of “Islamic Modernism,” Kemalism, and other Muslim-led attempts to reconcile Islamic thought with the contemporary West. The modernizers, Davutoğlu claims, are “attached to ontological presuppositions and conjectural/material Selbstverständnis [self-perception],” leading to divided personalities, official/secular dissimulation, and civilizational anxieties.9 Davutoğlu raises Türkiye as a prime example, arguing that Atatürk’s open welcome to Western pedagogy and scholarship as a replacement for Islamic tradition transformed Türkiye’s value systems and made education superficial.10 Attempts to synthesize the traditions, to import Western thought or ideals with high fidelity, are doomed to fail.

Throughout the book, Davutoğlu alternates between sections describing the Western and then Islamic paradigm in relation to theory, political justification, knowledge and belief, political legitimacy, and pluralism. This essay focuses on what Davutoğlu presents as the Islamic paradigm, only making reference to the Western paradigm when it’s useful for comparison.

Tawhid: The Islamic Paradigm

According to Davutoğlu, the core of the Islamic paradigm is its unity, with theological, ontological, and political senses of tawhid emanating throughout. In juxtaposition, the West is defined by a sense of individual atomism and thus requires multitudes or plurality in place of unity: Everything begins with the individual seeking knowledge and action, so all politics is the organization of disparate individuals who are coming to recognize one another.

Davutoğlu explains:

The principle of tawhid is the main channel from theory to practice, from belief to life, and from ideal to reality in the holistic Islamic Weltanschauung [worldview]. This principle implies that Allâh is one in His essence (dhât), i.e., not composed of parts; one in His attributes (sifât), i.e., not having two powers, two knowledges, etc.; one in His works (af’al), i.e., not being influenced in any way by anything other than Himself.11

The essential unity of God is the fundamental underpinning of Islamic cosmology and thus, Davutoğlu argues, of Islamic life. It is the distinctive character of Islamic thought and one that Davutoğlu does not believe is truly shared with any other faith or worldview, the other Abrahamic traditions included.12 God’s unity makes any ontological identification between human persons or created things as contingent or relative beings and the absolute, undivided being of God.

The unity between cosmology and ontology that follows from tawhid is not only demonstrated in the Quran but demonstrated through the Quran. Despite some pre-Islamic antecedents, Davutoğlu explains that the Quran serves as a semantic reformulation that resystematizes existing words and concepts into a new, uniquely Islamic worldview. This is seen first and foremost through the name “Allah,” which was used for the pre-Islamic high god of Mecca but with a wholly distinct imagination from the monotheistic conception. By completely flipping the understanding of even God’s name, Islam is thus seen as “a comprehensive imaginative revolution establishing a new set of links between linguistics and mental imagination.”13 Davutoğlu underscores the uniqueness of the Islamic worldview with this shift: that in one sense, the Prophet Muhammad shared the same deity with pre-Islamic Arabs, while in another sense the similarity is merely virtual. 

Davutoğlu provides a fascinating overview of Islamic intellectual history, working to show how this epistemological revolution and unity is evinced in all of the Islamic sciences and across many different thinkers. That such diverse perspectives all return to the unity of being and knowledge demonstrates its realization in the eyes of Davutoğlu. In turn, this influences “axiological normativeness”—a unity of belief and creed with life and law. Succinctly, the creation of man entails duties of man. As Davutoğlu writes:

The fundamental characteristic of Islamic axiological normativeness is its interpretation of man's responsibility on earth which forms the imagination of the unity of life and law by preventing any type of compartmentalization of the different sections of life. Islamic morality has been directly attached to the ontological antecedents via specification of man's place in the universe as the basic element for the divine responsibility. Man, who has not been created except to serve Allâh (Qur'ân, 51:56).14

The wholeness of God and His revelation brings about “an ultimate unity of life” where there is “[indivisibility of] this life and the next,” where there is no division between political life and Islamic faith, where knowledge and right action are the same.15 It must be stressed that this is not a cultural, historical, or merely normative claim that Davutoğlu makes. Rather, he claims that the imagination of the world is fundamentally different. While “Western ways of life ... [understand] divisibility of the sectors of life,” the Islamic worldview is one in which all being and ideation is unified.16 Thus, Islamic law is not to be understood merely as just and faithful, but that it is unified with and indicates the unity of all other domains of life. Crucially, human happiness and perfection can only be attained within the “protection of a comprehensive law” realized through its Quranic basis.

Davutoğlu uses the example of the 12th century Andalusian scholar Ibn Rushd’s commentary on Plato’s Republic to again highlight the ontological-epistemological revolution. While the Greeks may utilize myth to understand law (nomos) and guide some men toward justice, virtue, and happiness, the Islamic worldview is built upon God’s revelation and offers perfection to all men. Where the Greek philosophers and Islamic thinkers overlap is primarily in methodology. Where truth and right thinking are found, they gesture toward and are most fully expressed within the worldview of Islamic tawhid.

Political Consequences of the Islamic Worldview

The first political consequence of the divergent Western and Islamic worldviews lies in how the two systems justify the state. Davutoğlu aims to explain both “the origin of the state as a socio-political system” and “the aims of the state as a socio-political institution” in order to delineate justifications.17 Bolstering his past claims about ontologies, Davutoğlu discusses the shared epistemological and methodological tools between Aristotle’s metaphysics and political theory. Tracing back their Aristotelian roots, Western political sciences thus depend on prior sciences: many political theories are dependent on a state of nature and all on the study of nature. Using a classification on the origin of states as emerging from “(i) the state of nature, (ii) the state as a divine institution, (III) the theory of force, (iv) the theory of contract, and (v) the natural sociability and political consciousness of man,” Davutoğlu concludes that these are all ultimately dependent on the study of nature and being.18 Despite superficial similarities, Davutoğlu argues that the state as a divine institution is not the Islamic origin.

The Islamic way of justifying the state instead refers to the absolute sovereignty of God. As Davutoğlu explains, “The ontological hierarchy as ‘Allâh-human being-nature’ implies a socio-political hierarchy as ‘Allâh-human being-political system’ in the Islamic way of thinking.”19 That is, the state’s origins lie in man’s trusteeship over nature, the state comes from a “meta-historical covenant,” and its aim is to fulfill the God-given responsibilities of flourishing as creation and caring for creation. As with the earlier discussion of Greek philosophy, one can describe a social contract or other elements of Western political theory within the Islamic state, but their meaning is entirely different: Islamic society has a social contract, but it itself is not a social contract. With some quibbles, Davutoğlu quotes an attempt at this analysis: “interpreted in terms of social contract theory, a covenant between a prophet and his followers created a millah [religion as community], and a covenant between God and His devotees laid the foundation-stone of a moral order (din [religion as way of life]) among human beings, but a social contract among different religious communities gave birth to the ummah.”20

Focusing on the etymology of caliphate, Davutoğlu describes how the Quran transforms a pre-Islamic title and unites it with Islamic cosmology. He notes that the first Quranic usage relates to Adam’s creation, “[specifying] the ontological status of man on earth.”21 Second, it is used for the socio-political status of King David. The other uses of caliph pertain to the role of a new nation succeeding the prior nations that have failed to maintain their divine duties. While Davutoğlu admits it is not possible to definitively determine whether Abu Bakr was given the title of caliph because of pre-Islamic usage or Quranic use, it represents the blending and transformative effect Islam has for human life.

In a similar vein, Davutoğlu compares how the West and Islam legitimate their political orders. Legitimacy in the West is presented as harmonization between a value and the “epistemologico-axiological imagination of a society.” Though obtuse, this is an insightful observation that the manner in which something is believed and the belief itself are self-reinforcing: proposals to different manners of justifying belief are doubted, and beliefs that cannot be justified by Western academic methods are rejected. This tends to take the form of a conflation between legitimacy and legality, as the West assumes that actions within political norms and laws are broadly perceived as legitimate. This legal prescriptivism gains strong support from Thomas Hobbes, but Davutoğlu sees it even earlier in Scholastic legal thought and antecedents in Augustine. Setting aside positive law, even natural law falls within this paradigm as the West seeks to discover law through reason. Such an endeavor is, of course, dependent on the paradigm’s epistemological-ontological mode.

For Davutoğlu, the Islamic manner of legitimation then appears simple: How well do political acts fit within the normative character of epistemology and ontology, and do they cohere with the eternal values that have continuously been upheld by Islamic history? Rather than judging political form or institutional constitution, Davutoğlu sees Islam as censuring the evils that stem from the nature of politics. Pre-Islamic laws, monarchy, democracy, or other “accidental” elements of the state are unimportant so long as they promote trusteeship and prevent evil. 

The contrast Davutoğlu builds is therefore between a Western paradigm where political mechanisms inform values and an Islamic paradigm where the value structure determines mechanisms. The fundamental difference, he claims, of Muslim political society is the responsibility of man in maintaining the ummah’s socio-political and religious unity. Within this constraint, Islamic society “is an open society for any human being, regardless of his origin, race, or color, who accepts this responsibility which is the basis of the identification and political socialization process of a Muslim in an Islamic socio-political environment.”22

Power and Pluralism

The most concrete political question that Davutoğlu considers in light of his thesis pertains to the perception and basis of pluralism in the Western and Islamic worldviews. The distinct understandings of what pluralism entails shows most clearly how the worldviews differ in their fundamental understanding of terms, alongside the political and normative possibilities that worldviews allow for. Davutoğlu highlights the relationship between pluralism and how power is manifested in a society. He traces the history of power as a concept from the common ancient Greek understanding as the ability to do what one wants, with the Platonic correction of power as a morally directed power informed by knowledge and the Aristotelian emendation that power is a movement toward an object’s natural end.23 With the Romans, Davutoğlu sketches an evolution toward a solely political understanding of power that is morally neutral, only represented in a public sphere cleaved from private life, and chiefly concerned with legal boundaries. Importantly, the Roman concept became what Davutoğlu terms “ontologically impenetrable” in its segmentation from other spheres of life and removal of a natural origin. In essence, the Greek concept of power was concerned with ends while the Roman concept was concerned with legal sources. While the Middle Ages, Davutoğlu argues, was closer to the Hellenic understanding—with a great degree of Christian syncretism—the modern period has reembraced the Roman understanding. Davutoğlu attributes Machiavelli as the case of this shift, with “[Machiavelli] assuming the notion of political power as an autonomous process categorically divorced from any non-political justification or legitimacy but related to its origin and purpose.”24 Davutoğlu traces Machiavelli’s influence on modern theories of power, arguing that each conceptual evolution from Hobbes to Bentham, Smith, and Arendt is increasingly mechanistic but essentially the same.

An important corollary to political power for the Western worldview is a commitment to what Davutoğlu describes as social change and dynamism or the “imagination of unilinear progress.” A development from the Aristotelian understanding of power that Davutoğlu attributes to Newton and the Renaissance and Marx and the Enlightenment, power comes to be seen as a motion toward an end that is always being developed, refined, or perfected. This entails an assumption that all change progresses in one direction toward progressive perfection, whether historical, political, or social—an end of history that Davutoğlu is weary of.

Thus, Davutoğlu summarizes the Western institutional form and its motivations:

The consequences of this Western phenomenon related to the institutionalization of power might be summarized thus: (i) the assumption of unilinear progress; (ii) dynamic pluralistic adventure of social change; (iji) the determinative supremacy of economics over politics; (iv) socio-economic pluralism, in the sense of economic stratification, as the basic parameter of socio-political differentiation; and (v) institutionalization of power as a reflection of socio-political autonomous institutional pluralism based on the socio-economic dispersion of material power, namely the formation of interest groups.

These tendencies give rise to the extreme importance of pluralism in the Western paradigm, which Davutoğlu divides between European and American forms of political pluralism. The distinction roughly lies in the European pluralism with the agreement of guilds or group interests versus the American pluralism where economic interest or the dispersion of power is more common. Each represents a different accommodation in the tension of the “two swords” that Davutoğlu identifies between Sts. Paul and Augustine, where the former holds that power resides solely in God while the latter presents the manifestation of power in the world as divinely ordained. In contrast, Davutoğlu claims that Islam’s ontological-political unity is the complete synthesis of the Pauline and Augustinian accounts of power.

While there is de facto pluralism within the Islamic worldview, Davutoğlu argues that there is “almost no attempt in the Islamic political accumulation to justify political power without appealing to its ontological dimension.”25 Quoting Ibn Rushd’s commentary on Plato’s Republic to this effect, the comparison is drawn between Western states as chaotic without a single identity and Islamic states as a unified body composed of many parts. As Ibn Rushd writes:

The bad states are in reality many states, even though their area may be in one locality, because in them the political administration in only for the sake of the economy, and not economics for the sake of the politics. So, if a state is called one, it is by accident. For the Ideal State with its parts is like the body as a whole; before speaking of the whole body, the hand or the foot, for example, exists only for the sake of the limbs which are parts of it. But with those States the situation is exactly opposite; for their political community exists in general only by a sort of compulsion in order to preserve the economy.”26

Davutoğlu further highlights Ibn Rushd’s arguments that, “there is nothing which brings more evil and confusion to the State than when its citizens say of something 'this is mine' and 'this is not mine' and that the whole body feels pain when one finger is in pain, so that through this pain the condition of the whole body is determined.”27 As a properly body politic, the Islamic state serves as “confederation of several socio-cultural groups (millets) under the patronage of the political center where power is concentrated. The political center gives a socio-political identity to every religious-cultural group according to its ontological approach which is bound to the system with a specific act of citizenship (dhimmiship).”28 Relying heavily on the medieval scholar Ibn Taymiyyah, Davutoğlu further explains that the unified Islamic state is protective and inclusive of non-Muslim religious-cultural groups. Christian and Jewish religious society is described as extra-political or beyond the state, with the communities sovereign in their extra-legal obligations to their own religious customs and codes. This does not make them equal citizens, however. While excepted in matters of their religions, the other Abrahamic faiths are still subjected to Islamic political requirements such as jizya (tax for non-Muslims), which Davutoğlu attempts to frame not as a debt but as a special payment for protection as dhimmi and the reclamation of Jewish and Christian prisoners.29

The Nation-State versus Dar al-Islam

Providing an etymological, historical, and evolutionary account of nation-states, Davutoğlu shows how this “multi-compartmentalization” fits within the Western worldview. His ultimate conclusion is that, despite the existence of universally valid moral laws (i.e., natural law or Islamic law), each state develops its own system of moral thought and action. The state and nation become the center of life, defining identity and serving as a material representation of every citizen’s worldview. Whereas there is a break in consciousness between an individual and their neighbor across a border, the “Islamic idea of belief-oriented socio-political unity assum[es] a unitary aspect of life.”30 While the West compartmentalizes every state, unit, and individual as a discrete entity, Davutoğlu argues that Islam maintains only two divisions: Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb. Loosely, these translate as “the territory of peace” and “the territory of war,” and were legal categories employed during the early Islamic conquests to distinguish political obligations and relations. In a simple, classical formation, these categories distinguish between supra-national Dar al-Islam territories that are ruled by, safe for, and united within the Muslim community and Dar al-Harb territories which are not.31

Davutoğlu is critical of what he considers to be Western misperception of these concepts, singling out the late Orientalist Bernard Lewis, whose presentation of the division “[inevitably causes a] consciousness of fear and hostility by the non-Muslims in Dar al-Harb.”32 That the misperception exists points to the mismatch of worldviews according to Davutoğlu, as Westerners view the two communities as nation-states wherein Dar al-Islam must conquer Dar al-Harb through jihad. Instead, Davutoğlu argues that the division between the two worlds is not a political boundary such as an international border, but a wider gulf entailing two veins: a paradigmatic division between modes of being, thinking, and acting politically; a political division between those accept the caliph’s authority and those who do not. 

To understand this division within the Islamic worldview, Davutoğlu first addresses the ummah (community of believers) as the basis of socio-political unity. Despite the rise and fall of many nations, empires, and civilizations, the ummah persists with Islam as a universal tie through the progression of politics and time. Davutoğlu writes that, “Socio-political identification in Islamic political thought and practice is an extension of the belief in the unity of human responsibility and in the unity of life.”33 Thus, the strict dichotomy between believer and unbeliever is whether they accept this responsibility as a way of life and socio-political identity. The community of believers is an open and dynamic society, united in their commitment to the unity and oneness of God. Davutoğlu argues that this is a wholly different dichotomy than, e.g., Jew and Gentile, barbarian and citizen, or “modern nationalist hierarchical stratifications” that depend on innate, immutable characteristics. Rather than a restricted membership, participation in the Muslim community is more of a “feeling” that one fits within it as well as acceptance of some baseline credal and religious practice qualifications. Rather than representing territorial or physical union, the bond of the ummah is metaphysical. Thus, members of the ummah maintain obligations toward and responsibility for other members who live as minorities outside Islamic lands. For Davutoğlu, that the ummah persists as a core consciousness in Islamic political thought despite the absence of a contemporary caliphate further demarcates the ummah from Dar al-Islam.

Similarly, that multiple Muslim nation-states have emerged further demarcates the realm of a Muslim country and Dar al-Islam. While a state is an administrative unit, an individual political authority, Dar al-Islam is a universal political system, “a consistent world-system within which there is a common base of Selbstverständnis [self-understanding], a possibility for the realization of the divine responsibility, and a common axiological framework for the application of the prescriptivist legal system.”34 Dar al-Harb is the counter-system to Dar al-Islam. Davutoğlu concludes on the difference:

Dâr al-Islam could not be imagined like a nation-state which is in a continuous state of war for its expansion. Rather it is a de facto reality in the sense of judicial application and a consistent world-system in the sense of axiological prerequisites which shape political imagination and culture.35

Davutoğlu further rejects that there exists permanent war between Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb. Instead, as Davutoğlu sees it, the normal, permanent state of international affairs would be that of peace. He insists that the common translation of jihad as warfare is misleading, and that jihad should be properly understood as an “exertion” or “endeavor” to fulfill divine responsibility for the world—violent action therefore being only a specific form of jihad. Davutoğlu claims, drawing more on moral theology than historical example, that peace is the natural state of the world and more useful for the expansion of Islam than perpetual warfare. The equality between the suffering of Muslims and non-Muslims, the legal possibility that Muslims may only declare war on Jews and Christians in response to invasion, the legal framing of war as “permi[ssible] only to protect right and justice against the attacks of enemies and of tyrants,” and the historical example set by Abu Bakr that absolute war is permitted, is the basis of Davutoğlu’s belief that peace is normative.36 Unless treaties are broken, Davutoğlu insists that normative restrictions on Muslims require strict observance to treaty terms and just, proportionate military conduct even if conflict does occur.37

Davutoğlu also argues that for that which is not prescriptive in sharia, the ummah provides normative guidance. So, it stands to reason, that cultural, technological, or other change within the ummah changes the manifestation of the Islamic state. Islamic political community can therefore change with the times, but only insofar as ummah appropriately evolves within sharia allowance. In other words, the Caliphate of today can share in the advancements of political and other science that have appeared since the Rashidun, but it cannot change its essential theological and ethical character. For Davutoğlu, the ummah is expansive and has no limits in terms of race, nationality, or otherwise insofar as constituent members are Muslims. Striving to imitate the example of the Rashidun looks different in different eras or contexts because of the normativity of ummah. The will of the ummah is democratic and the ummah can exist within democratic context but not in the way the West conceives of it. Yet, Davutoğlu’s concern is theoretical and so he remains opaque in articulating the content or limits of the organic development of the Islamic political community, thereby avoiding staking any position that might elicit a response from one Islamic political faction or another. His argument is nonetheless important if one wishes to understand 21st century Islamism of the sort seen in modern Türkiye.

Davutoğlu continues to explain that the Caliphate is a form of popular government insofar as it is necessarily supported by the ummah, and it is also a unifying entity. The Caliphate is nationalism well-understood: it maintains a strong power center but allows for smaller regional power centers to coexist and govern as is appropriate in their context. In this way, tension between madhabs (schools of thought), sects, or other divisions need not be so extreme, boil into conflict, or exist at all. Islam, and the caliphate, also creates a division into two: Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb. Dar al-Islam is expansive and includes all with the sole criterion that they accept rule of the caliph—regardless of their beliefs or other factors. Jihad as an oppositional endeavor ought to be taken against Dar al-Harb, those who do not accept the rule of the caliph, in addition to, or perhaps synonymously with, all tyrants and enemies of justice. However, Davutoğlu again claims that jihad need not necessarily be violent but can also take the form of diplomatic or cultural opposition—whatever seems prudential amid other moral constraints—although he is characteristically vague about what non-violent opposition might entail and the circumstances under which it might be acceptable to embrace a violent strategy. Despite Davutoğlu’s repeated emphasis that jihad need not take the form of military engagement, he similarly avoids discussion of violent jihad beyond limiting it to the rather open-ended rules of war.

Davutoğlu briefly offers an interesting possibility worthy of further reflection. Although some scholars in the past have taken a hard line that all non-Muslim states—i.e., any political entity not ruled by the caliph—are within Dar al-Harb, states and rulers that sign treaties with Islamic states inherently recognize the political authority and legitimacy of the Islamic rulers. Within the Western paradigm, Davutoğlu has identified the core positivist notion that legal reality entails all reality. Perhaps, Davutoğlu seems to almost suggest, non-Muslim states allied to the ummah and Islamic rulers through treaties are within Dar al-Islam themselves. 

The Political Implication of the Davutoğlu Paradigm

The influence of Alternative Paradigms and Davutoğlu’s theoretical framework can be seen throughout Turkish politics, particularly in foreign diplomacy and across Erdoğan’s speeches. Though the political centrality of tawhid is not unique to Davutoğlu—it is central to the beliefs of varied Islamist thinkers such as Abul A'la al-Maududi, Hassan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, and others—the Turkish emphasis draws heavily on Davutoğlu’s theological understanding.

Especially since the 2010 reorganization of the Diyanet (the government’s Directorate of Religious Affairs), Türkiye has increasingly relied on religious-inflected soft power.38 Though previously neglected, religious diplomacy transformed Türkiye’s approach to foreign relations from Davutoğlu’s “zero problems with neighbors” mantra across the 2000s to a great expansion in outreach across the globe.39 As of 2016, Diyanet-drafted sermons were delivered not just at Türkiye’s 85,000 mosques, but across over 2,000 foreign mosques serviced by Türkiye’s imams-cum-diplomats.40

In addition to diplomacy through religion, Davutoğlu repeatedly spoke in his role as Minister of Foreign Affairs about the importance of Türkiye as “a bridge country between East and West” guided by a value- or vision-based foreign policy.41 The notion of Türkiye as a bridge between East and West, Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb, has been a key focus across crises in Iraq, Syria, and now Gaza, with Türkiye often presenting itself as the only actor capable of engaging all parties.42 In so doing, Türkiye frequently presents itself to Western leaders as the authoritative spokesman for the ummah.

While readers are left to judge Davutoğlu’s claim to a virtuous, value-driven foreign policy, this moral rhetoric has been extensively employed in Turkish-led treaties and agreements. One prime example of moral focus and Davutoğlu’s claim that there is a unique Islamic understanding of concepts is the D-8 Organization for Economic Cooperation. A key goal of Davutoğlu’s predecessor, former prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, Davutoğlu cheered its formation at the time in his influential Yeni Şafak column.43 The D-8, or Developing-8, is a policy representation of both Erbakan’s Millî Görüş (National View) and Davutoğlu’s Alternative Paradigms. All of the member states of the organization are Muslim-majority countries: Bangladesh, Egypt, Nigeria, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Türkiye. The founding documents, particularly the 1997 Istanbul Declaration, sought to promote a moral vision alongside economic development among like-minded countries:

[T]he main objective of D-8 is stated to be socio-economic development in accordance with following principles: Peace instead of conflict. Dialogue instead of confrontation. Cooperation instead of exploitation. Justice instead of double standard. Equality instead of discrimination. Democracy instead of oppression.44

This statement exemplifies the notion that policy ought to aim for specific moral ends. This economic pact does not call for market liberalization or freedom of trade—indeed, not even growth for its own sake or for poverty alleviation. Instead, it calls for justice. One does not need to consider all or any of the signatory states to be exemplars of justice, equality, or democracy to recognize an intention to be framed as an alternative to the Western paradigm. 

In his speeches, policies, and outlook, Erdoğan has frequently relied on the principles Davutoğlu set forth in Alternative Paradigms. The repudiation of Kemalism and the secularism of Turkish politics is not a novelty of Davutoğlu, but he does present perhaps the best intellectual case for secular failings and most thoroughly reimagines a different course. When looking at the odd ideology that is frequently, though perhaps for the wrong reasons, termed “Neo-Ottomanism,” the ideas of Davutoğlu are seen throughout.

In a prime example of the semantic reformulation Davutoğlu’s credits to Islam, Erdoğan evinces a sort of nationalism while frequently criticizing Kemalist nationalism as a source of moral weakness in Türkiye, particularly with regard to minority groups. Erdoğan’s repeated tenets of “One Nation, One Flag, One Homeland, One State,” are a rhetorical demonstration of Turkish unity, but have been paired with meaningful attempts to bring Christian, Jewish, and minority communities into the political fold. Granted, there is a notable exception: Erdoğan’s actions do not live up to his ecumenical language in regard to the Kurdish community especially. Despite the territorial demarcations of the phrase, it has likewise been accompanied by increasing efforts in the past decades to expand Turkish influence among its neighbors and the Muslim world as a whole. Erdoğan praised the reestablishment as a mosque of the Hagia Sophia’s as a herald for the liberation of al-Aqsa, and frames Türkiye as a protector of Muslims globally—in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Europe. 

Erdogan may have a greater appreciation for democracy—at least rhetorically—than is commonly ascribed, but it is certainly a particular, idiosyncratic concept of the term. He justifies the jailing of political opponents or excessive counterterrorism policies on the grounds that they are seen by his supporters as concrete steps to prevent overthrow of the democratic government and the popular will that undergirds it. While frequently framed abroad as extra-territorial Neo-Ottomanism, Erdoğan appears to view his mandate to govern Türkiye as coextensive with obligations to Libya, Syria, and beyond. Regardless of terminology, Erdoğan presents the nation as a collective that expands beyond Türkiye and includes all Muslims, oppressed peoples, and—importantly—supporters of his own political project. The balancing of these apparent contradictions in Erdoğan’s foreign policy may be best understood through the framework Alternative Paradigms provides. That said, taking a more cynical view, one might also consider that semantic reformulation of the sort Erdoğan employs can be useful when one’s polls are disappointing and the economy is plummeting, or in the aftermath of an attempted coup. As is often the case with judging a leader’s motivations, it can be difficult to determine where genuine conviction ends and opportunism begins.


Türkiye has long perplexed Western analysts, not the least because of the occasionally awkward relations between Türkiye and its Western allies. As Davutoğlu demonstrates, misestimation of policy goals or actions betray a deeper miscomprehension of the Turkish political order and its intellectual foundations. A soft version of Alternative Paradigm’s argument demonstrates that policymakers and academics have not fully accounted for the blinders of their own worldviews when studying and interacting with foreign polities. A more forceful version of the book’s thesis is that the West is incapable of understanding the world beyond its own compartmentalization. If Davutoğlu’s particular claims about Islamic intellectual history and its uniqueness are correct, then ignorance of the Islamic paradigm leaves Western leaders and analysts incapable of grasping the motivations, goals, and beliefs of partners, allies, and opponents in the international arena. However, even if one concedes Davutoğlu’s claim that the paradigms are mutually unintelligible, political Islam à la Davutoğlu need not be the only manifestation of Islamic ontological, epistemological, and political unity. Alternative Paradigms presents important insight into the Selbstverständnis (self-understanding) of AKP, Erdoğan, and their intellectual heirs, but we need not presume it to explain contemporary Islamism in toto given the significant variation within the ideological movement.

Beyond Türkiye, Islamic political thought, and Davutoğlu, the challenge of understanding other societies’ intellectual paradigms appears ever more pressing. As the United States begins to be challenged in new theaters of conflict and diplomacy, it may be disastrous to assume the analytical and ideological framework of Western government is universally held. Davutoğlu goes to great lengths to demonstrate the historical and philosophical particularity of European and American thought while contrasting it with what he sees as the Islamic intellectual tradition. While the current government of Türkiye and other states are increasingly convinced of the inadequacy of the Western paradigm and its failure to encompass their reality, the West must examine alternative paradigms to understand how other states—both friendly and hostile—view their Western relationships.

Three decades after its publication, Alternative Paradigms still appears prescient in its articulation of a new ambition for Turkish power. A hundred years into the Turkish Republic, with Erdoğan announcing his retirement at the current presidential term’s end, Davutoğlu’s vision of Islamic governance appears to have caught hold and will likely continue to guide Turkish policymaking to at least some extent. Despite its density and relative opaqueness, Alternative Paradigms is the rare book of political theory that has strategic implications, with Davutoğlu serving as the rare philosopher-statesman. Whether one welcomes or is worried by the book’s revelation, its core assertion that politics is downstream of fundamental beliefs about the world should be deeply considered by analysts and policymakers globally. The extent to which those beliefs significantly impact a nation’s diplomacy varies—and it is important to recognize, whether in Türkiye or elsewhere, that the ideology of the regime is not always embraced fully by the body politic or even all members of the ruling elite—but to assume such beliefs are merely lip service would be mistaken.

A foundational work for contemporary Turkish politics and an ambitious work of comparative intellectual history, Alternative Paradigms issues a challenge to the West that must still be heeded: There are other modes of thinking and being in the world. Will they be sufficiently studied and considered?