It is very difficult to reduce interpretations of Islam into certain categories. But, there are, in the first place, sects (like the Sunni, Shia, Wahhabi, Alevi, Nusayri [Alawite], etc.) involving orthodox as well as heterodox concepts of Islam. Besides the scriptural interpretations of Islam as generally represented by religious scholars (the ulema), there are popular (folk) interpretations developed by the Sufi orders or brotherhoods. There are religious communities and movements that have evolved from within these brotherhoods like the Nurcu community founded by Said Nursi in Turkey in the first half of the 20th century, and its various different branches, including the faith-based social movement inspired by Fethullah Gülen in Turkey in the last quarter of the last century.
One of the most striking examples of the diversity and conflicting nature of the interpretations of Islam is the divisions among the Shiite clergy. On the one side there are the grand ayatollahs who are committed to the traditional conception of Shiite Islam, which preaches that men of religion should stay clear of politics and serve the moral and social needs of the faithful, while on the other, there is the concept advocated by Ayatollah Khomeini, which assigns them the role of political leadership. The latter inspired the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
A remarkable recent event, in the context of the seriousness of the conflict between different conceptions of Islam, took place in Libya last week. Salafis, committed to a highly fundamentalist and dogmatic conception of Islam, attacked with bombs and destroyed a mosque and cemetery in the city of Zlitan belonging to a Sufi brotherhood. Salafi attacks against Sufi orders, whom they regard as having un-Islamic beliefs and rituals, have recently been on the rise in Libya, as well as Egypt and Mali. (Reuters, Aug. 25.)
Islamist political movements reject and challenge mainstream concepts of Islam represented by both the ulema and the brotherhoods. These movements were mostly developed by intellectuals educated in Western-style secular schools and are inspired partly by the teachings of Islam and partly by modern political ideologies like socialism, nationalism and liberalism that have their origins in the West. At one end of the spectrum of Islamist movements or political Islam is the revolutionary and totalitarian Islamism of Sayyid Qutb from Egypt and Abul Ala Maudidi from Pakistan.
The best known examples of this radical Islamism (inspired by Leninism) are Jamaat-e-Islami and al-Jihad in Egypt, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in Algeria and al-Qaeda, which stands for internationalist Islamism. At the other end of the Islamist spectrum there are the liberal and democratic interpretations as best represented by Abdolkarim Soroush (inspired by Karl R. Popper) in Iran. And in between the two are the examples of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere, Ennahda in Tunisia and the National View Movement in Turkey.
The “hard” (anti-democratic) kinds of Islamism regard Islam as a political ideology as well as a religion, while the “soft” (democratic) kinds find in Islamic moral and social values guiding principles for political activism. The latter kinds display the potential to evolve out of the Islamist framework as best exemplified by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey. The AKP can be regarded as the first example of a Muslim Democratic party. Displaying so far a mixture of nationalist, Sunni-conservative and liberal values and principles, its political identity can be said to still be evolving.
As follows from the discussion above, it is a grave mistake to confuse the religion of Islam with Islamism or political Islam. It is clear that identification of Islam and Islamism, whether by Muslims or secularists in Turkey or elsewhere, is a politically motivated manipulation. It is obvious that all Muslims are not Islamists, while it is highly debatable whether all Islamists are Muslims, since the great majority of Muslims do not regard as Muslims the radical Islamists of al-Qaeda and the like who engage in terrorism.