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Islamic Revolution

And finally, a practical matter, but one of considerable significance; Islam, as recent events have demonstrated again and again, provides the most effective system of symbols—one might say of slogans, though no derogatory sense is meant—for mobilizing public opinion, for arousing the people in defense of a regime that is perceived as possessing the necessary legitimacy, or against a regime that is perceived as lacking that legitimacy, in other words, as not being Islamic. It was and is in Islamic terms that those who overthrew the Shah, murdered Anwar Sadat, seized the Great Mosque in Mecca, and now threaten the existing order in many Muslim countries justified their actions and appealed for popular support.

It is by now a truism that in Islam there is no distinction between church and state. In Christendom the existence of two authorities goes back to the founder of Christianity, who enjoined his followers to render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s. There are two powers: God and Caesar. They may be associated, they may be separated; they may be in harmony, they may be in conflict; one or the other may dominate; one may interfere, the other may protest, as we have learned recently. But always there are two: God and Caesar, Church and state. In classical Islam, that is to say in pre-Westernized Islam, there is no such distinction. There were not two powers but one, and the question of separation did not therefore arise.

This difference between the religions goes back to the very beginnings of Islam and to the career of its founder. Unlike Moses, Muhammad lived to enter and conquer his promised land. Unlike Jesus, he triumphed in his lifetime over his worldly enemies and established an Islamic state in Medina of which he was sovereign. As the Ayatollah Khomeini has reminded us, Muhammad exercised the normal functions of a head of state—he dispensed justice, he raised taxes, he promulgated laws, he made war, he made peace. In other words, from the very beginning, in the sacred biography of its Prophet, in its earliest history enshrined in scripture and tradition, Islam as a religion has been associated with the exercise of power. Again to quote Khomeini: “Islam is politics or it is nothing.” Its founder was judge, statesman, and general, as well as prophet. Church and state were not separable since they did not exist as different institutions or even as different concepts. These came, but much later and from elsewhere.

There are many different strands in the rich and varied traditional culture of Islam. There are in particular two political traditions, one of which might be called quietist, the other activist. The arguments in favor of both are based, as are most early Islamic arguments, on the Holy Book and on the actions and sayings of the Prophet.

The quietist tradition obviously rests on the Prophet as sovereign, as judge and statesman. But before the Prophet became a head of state, he was a rebel. Before he traveled from Mecca to Medina, where he became sovereign, he was an opponent of the existing order. He led an opposition against the pagan oligarchy of Mecca and at a certain point went into exile and formed what in modern language might be called a “government in exile,” with which finally he was able to return in triumph to his birthplace and establish the Islamic state in Mecca. The Prophet’s departure from Mecca—the hijra—marks the starting point of the Muslim era. The struggles in adversity that preceded his exile, like the ultimate triumph that ended his career, are all part of the Islamic tradition, of the holy life of the Prophet.

Of these two traditions, that of the Prophet as sovereign is obviously far better known and far better documented, but the tradition of the Prophet as rebel is also old and deep-rooted, and it recurs throughout the centuries of Islamic history. The activist tradition has been stronger and more explicit among the Shi’a, but it is not exclusive to them, and there has been no lack of Shi’i quietists and Sunni dissidents in Islamic history. The Prophet as rebel has provided a sort of paradigm of revolution—opposition and rejection, withdrawal and departure, exile and return. Time and time again movements of opposition in Islamic history tried to repeat this pattern, a few of them successfully. The rebels who carried out the first great Islamic revolution in the eighth century went to Eastern Iran and from there they came to Iraq and founded the great Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad. Another group of religiously inspired rebels, in the tenth century, went to Yemen and then to North Africa, and from there they conquered Egypt and established the great Fatimid Caliphate in Cairo. Khomeini went to Iraq, and thence to Neauphle le Château, outside Paris, and from there he returned to rule in Tehran.

Does all this mean that Islam is a theocracy? Different observers have answered both yes and no. Some Western observers, particularly of late, have described Islam as a theocratic system. Most Muslim writers reject this with indignation. In the terms in which they argue, both sides are right, depending on what is meant by theocracy. From the point of view of Muslim scholars, historians, theologians, and others, who reject the idea of Islam’s being a theocracy, the meaning of the word is very clear. There is, as they rightly point out, no church in Islam. There is no priesthood in the sense of an ordination and a sacred office. There is no Vatican, no pope, no cardinals, no bishops, no church councils; there is no hierarchy such as exists in Christendom. Consequently, they argue, since theocracy means government by the church, rule by the priests, and since Islam has neither church nor priests, it follows that Islam is not, indeed cannot be, a theocracy.

The opposing argument takes theocracy in a rather different sense. Proponents of this view concede that there is no priesthood in Islam in the sense of an ordained intermediary performing some sacred office between God and man, but they claim that there is a very important priesthood in a sociological sense. It consists of a class of professional men of religion whose status is acquired by learning rather than by ordination and hierarchic rank, but who nevertheless function in most respects as a clergy. And these men of religion, the theologians and the jurists (the two in Islam are intimately associated), represent God and God’s law for most practical purposes, and therefore in a very real sense exercise authority, though not the ultimate political authority, which until the present regime in Iran has never been exercised by the professional men of religion. In this respect, the Iranian Mullahs are not, as they claim, restoring the order that existed in antiquity; they are creating something entirely new in Islamic doctrine or history.

Islam is in principle, if not in practice, theocratic in another and deeper sense. Theocracy literally means the rule of God. And in this sense Islam has, in theory, always been a theocracy. In Rome, Caesar was God. In Christendom, God and Caesar coexist. In Islam, God is Caesar, in that he alone is the supreme head of state, the source of sovereignty and hence also of authority and of law. The state is God’s state, the law is God’s law. The army is God’s army—and of course the enemy is God’s enemy.

The enemies of God” is an expression that is often heard nowadays in Iran, both in political polemics against enemies abroad and in criminal charges against enemies at home. To modern man, the idea that God not only has enemies, but needs human help in coping with them, may seem a little strange. But the notion of God’s enemies is a very old one, with preclassical, classical, biblical, Islamic, and Iranian antecedents. It becomes much more intelligible in its modern context if we bear in mind the Islamic perception of God as the head of state. Those who exercise authority do so on behalf of God, in the same way and perhaps to the same extent as the prime minister of England exercises authority on behalf of the Queen and the president of the United States on behalf of the people. And since the state undoubtedly can have enemies, it follows that the enemies of the state are the enemies of God.


The larger question arises of the definition of the other, the outsider, the stranger. If the definition of self is by Islam, if the insider is the Muslim, it follows that the “other” is the non-Muslim, the unbeliever, the Kaffir. And this for most purposes is seen as the basic division of mankind.

In classical usage, the difference between Muslim and unbeliever was one of creed and allegiance. The Iranian revolutionaries have given this ancient dichotomy a modern dimension, by linking it with another distinction drawn from the Koran, between the humbled and the haughty. In the religious and political language of present-day Iran, the humbled (one might also translate the Arabic word mustad’af as deprived, downtrodden) include even the non-Muslim oppressed, who benefit from a kind of Islam of grace. Similarly the haughty (in Arabic mustakbir, which in the Koran means something like hubristic) include even those, both at home and abroad, who profess the Islamic religion but do not accept the teachings and discipline of the revolution. They too are counted among the enemies of God, and against them there is a perpetual obligation of struggle (in Arabic jihad, usually inaccurately translated as “holy war”), until all mankind adopts the faith and obeys the law of Islam.

These enemies are perceived as falling into two basic categories: the external and the internal. The external enemy means the non-Islamic world, relations with which, in war and in truce, are elaborately regulated by Islamic Holy Law. But for the revolutionaries, it is the enemy within Islam that is their first and main concern.

Since we are talking about religiously defined politics, a term that would most naturally occur to a Western observer is heresy. It would not be appropriate. Heresy is not an Islamic notion; there is not even an Islamic term corresponding to it. Heresy is a Christian term meaning a deviation, officially defined as such, from an officially defined orthodoxy. And since Islam has no councils or churches or hierarchy, there is no officially defined orthodoxy and there cannot therefore be any officially defined and condemned deviation from orthodoxy. What can happen is something much more serious and much more dangerous. If a Muslim deviates from Islam to the point where he is no longer regarded as a Muslim with the minimum of correct belief, he is something much worse than a heretic. He is an apostate. The process by which one is declared to be an apostate is called takfir, naming and denouncing a Kaffir, an unbeliever. This term is much used in religious movements nowadays, notably by the group responsible for the murder of Sadat.

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