Ayatollah Khomeini
Ayatollah Khomeini; drawing by David Levine

Until the latter part of 1978 the discussion of Islam as a factor in politics was subject to certain taboos in the Western world. There was no such taboo in the Middle East and generally in the Muslim world, where the rise of nationalism had touched off a continuing debate on the relationship between patriotic or national and religious loyalties, and on the role of Islam in ideology, allegiance, and government.

This debate attracted little attention in the Western world, which in this as in other matters tended to see other societies in its own image. For one thing there was a growing consensus among social scientists that religion was no longer an adequate criterion by which to classify peoples and societies, and that to use it could involve grave distortions. In the second place, and perhaps more important, it was felt that the suggestion that peoples, particularly other peoples, were influenced or, worse, determined by religion in making political choices was somehow insulting. This was particularly true of those who professed the religion of Islam, the great majority of whom were Asians and Africans and thus part of what had come to be known as the third world.

There were still scholars, in both the first and second worlds, who continued to undertake the academic study of Islam, its history and its culture, and some of these from time to time ventured to publish their findings and offer their opinions on the relationship between Islam and politics in the past and even in the present. For the most part their studies, and the impact they made, remained confined within their own professional circles. The International Congress of Orientalists, which has held meetings every few years since 1873, has always devoted one of its major sections to the study of Islam, alongside other sections concerned with India, China, and the ancient civilizations of the Middle East. The one exception was the Twenty-third International Congress, which met in Moscow. On that occasion the local organizing committee deleted the section on Islamic studies and reassigned the papers that had been submitted for consideration by this section to other sections, dealing with the history, languages, and literatures of the Arabs, Persians, Turks, and other predominantly Muslim peoples. For the first time, a section on Afghan studies was added.

In subsequent congresses the section on Islam was restored, but in some circles the Islamicist approach, that is, the approach using Islam as the organizing principle of study, was still viewed with some mistrust. Indeed, as Edward Mortimer remarks in his excellent new book, one angry polemicist came close to implying that Islam itself was an invention of malicious orientalists, who had not only constructed the Orient, but had also devised its component parts.

Paradoxically, this curious reluctance to ascribe political significance to Islam sprang from a deep-seated cultural arrogance, which by this time has become rare in most other Western circles. Its judgments rest on the basic assumption that we of the liberal West are the model of progress and enlightenment, the standard by which others must be judged. To be like us is to be good, to be unlike us is to be bad, to become more like us is to improve, to become less like us is to deteriorate. From this it follows that to suggest that any other nation, people, or society is in fact unlike us is to insult them.

Most of us in the Western world have long since outgrown this kind of crude ethnocentrism. On the contrary, we often tend to fall into the opposite extreme. This makes it all the more surprising, even disconcerting, that some non-Westerners still feel insulted at the suggestion that they may be different from us—as if being like us were so wonderful. At one time such attitudes were not uncommon among the old liberals and both the old and new left of the Islamic world. They have become rare, surviving chiefly among expatriates living in the West and addressing a Western audience.

They do not appear among the Muslim revivalists, who recognize and indeed proudly proclaim the difference, seeing it as the measure of their own moral and religious superiority over the materialistic and decadent infidels of the Western world. The current Islamic revolution—by far the most powerful and significant movement within the Islamic world for more than a century—has no problem in defining itself, through the words of its theorists and the actions of its leaders, by religion, which is seen as the ultimate basis of identity, the final source of authority, the only true loyalty. And the revolution means a return to Islamic ideals, to the mainstream of Islamic history and civilization, after a period of alien-inspired deviation and—to borrow a phrase from another religion—the pursuit of strange gods.


The revolution in Iran and the emergence of a charismatic religious figure, the Imam Khomeini, as its leader, forced a change in the perceptions of even the most ideologically blinkered Western observers. In the more popular presentations, the shift, as usual, was from one extreme to the other. Those who previously had been unable to see Islam were now suddenly unable to see anything but Islam. The two views are equally misleading. Islam is a reality, and its importance for Muslims as a political factor is immense. But having accepted Islam as a fact, we should remember that there are still other facts. Muslims, like other people, are apt to protest and rebel against political oppression and economic deprivation; Muslims, like other people, tend to react and respond in ways that are familiar to them.

Whatever the causes—political, social, economic—the form of expression that the great majority of Muslims most naturally find to voice their criticism of the old order and their aspirations for the new is Islamic. The slogans, the symbols, and to a very large extent the programs are evocations or formulations of Islamic religious principles and memories. The notion and practice of revolution are not new things in the Islamic world, which has its own long tradition of protest and action against oppressive governments. Muslim opposition through the centuries has expressed itself in terms of theology as naturally and as spontaneously as its Western equivalents do in terms of political and social ideology. The one is no more a mask or a cloak than the other.

In his attack on the old regime and his program for the new, Khomeini was working within the historic and religious traditions of Islam. The ayatollah is no mere rabble-rouser, though he has considerable skill in this activity; he is a man of learning, a theologian and a jurist, and the author of many scholarly works as well as of appeals to popular sentiment. These leave no room for doubt on what he found wrong in the Shah’s regime, and how he proposed to put it right. To a very large extent, he has carried out his declared intentions.

At first there was considerable misunderstanding of the nature of the Khomeini phenomenon, not only among Western observers, but even—with less excuse—among the Westernized liberal elite in Iran. He was so outspokenly and vehemently opposed to the Shah, to the United States, to all things Western, that nothing else seemed to matter. The main points were that he was against the old regime and, far more important, seemed to offer the first real chance of overthrowing it. Some Iranian radicals assumed, despite extensive evidence to the contrary, that he was as insincere as they were in his use of populist—which in Iran necessarily meant religious—themes, and would forget them when the revolution was won. Others, only slightly more realistic, believed that while they needed him and his appeal to rouse the masses, they would be able to dispose of him and the other unworldly mullahs when the moment came.

In this they were sadly mistaken. In fact, it was they who were unworldly, and the mullahs who proved adept in handling the affairs both of this world and the next. Khomeini declined the role of Kerensky that had been assigned to him, and instead the mullahs have been steadily and efficiently disposing of the liberal and leftist allies who had given them some help—the extent should not be exaggerated—in achieving power.

With few exceptions, Western sympathizers and supporters have reacted with indifference to the consequences of the revolution to which, at crucial moments, they gave encouragement and help—not only the general consequences for the Iranian people, but the specific imprisonment, torture, and execution of great numbers of their own liberal and leftist friends. Nor have they shown much concern at the reversal, by the revolutionary government, of the steps that had been taken under the old regime to give greater rights to women and to religious minorities. In Khomeini’s view, these steps, inspired by Western secularism, were among the gravest crimes committed by the Shah, and their rectification was a priority of the revolution. Most of Khomeini’s former Western admirers have chosen to turn aside and devote their attention to newer and more rewarding subjects. The popular press, on the rare occasions when it gives some attention to Iran, prefers to regale its readers with lurid accounts of the more picturesque aspects of the Islamic penal code.

Does all this mean that the revolution has gone wrong, that it has been perverted from its original purposes, that—as one participant put it—it has been hijacked by the mullahs? The answer to these questions depends of course on who the authors of the revolution really were, and what were their intentions.


There can be no serious doubt that what has been happening in Iran during the last four years is an authentic revolution—to use this word in the same sense as when we speak of the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution. This is not to speak in praise or blame of the change in Iran; only to say that it is major and significant. For better or for worse—which one still remains to be seen—there have been genuine and radical changes, brought about by an authentic mass movement with very wide participation. This is a change of a very different order from the so-called revolutions in other Middle Eastern countries in this century. The earlier ones were largely inspired by European models and programs; the more recent might be more accurately designated by such terms as coup d’état or Putsch. In Iran a transfer of power took place not just from one group of people to another, but from a whole social order to another, comprising a process of profound social transformation. And, as with other major revolutions, this was itself part of a longer, broader, deeper process than the immediate transfer of power that took place at a moment in 1789 in Paris, in 1917 in Petrograd, in 1979 in Tehran.

As in prerevolutionary France and Russia, so too in imperial Iran a major process of change was already taking place under the old regime. These changes had imposed great strains and stresses on traditional Iranian society. The old institutions, the structure of loyalties, the system of values cracked and broke under the impact. The institutions and values that had been imported from the West were still imperfectly assimilated or understood. Not surprisingly, they failed to respond to the needs and aspirations of the people at a time of crisis. The Iranian revolution, like others, was the result and expression of deep resentments, strong convictions, and passionate hopes, and the forces that launched it are still far from spent.

Like the French and Russian revolutions in their day, the Islamic revolution in Iran faces hard times—economic and political breakdowns, foreign war, internal struggle. When the Iranians won their first military victory against the invading Iraqi army, it seemed that they had just achieved their Valmy, and some thought that they were heading toward their Napoleon. He may yet appear, though he does not seem to be imminent.

In every major revolution there is a histrionic, even a mimetic element. The actors in the revolutionary drama are keenly aware of their historic role; they perceive and try to play that role according to the revolutionary traditions of their own society, in which they were nurtured. The English radicals of the seventeenth century and their successors in colonial America took the Book of Exodus as their model—the release from bondage and the journey to the promised land. The Jacobins looked to Rome, and saw themselves as the upholders of republican virtue; the Bolsheviks in turn saw themselves as Jacobins, and tried in vain to stave off the Thermidorian reaction.

The revolution in Iran was an Islamic revolution. Those who were its true inspirers and leaders cared nothing for Rome, Paris, or Petrograd, and saw European ideologies, of both left and right, as part of the pervasive enemy against which they were waging their struggle. Theirs was a different society, educated in different scriptures and classics, shaped by different historical memories, including memories of both successful and unsuccessful revolutionary action. The symbols and the slogans of the revolution were Islamic because these alone had the power to mobilize the masses for struggle. And for the real leaders of the revolution, these symbols and slogans were not mere devices; they were the true reflection of the very nature of their revolution.

The Islamic character of the revolution in Iran can be seen in another respect—in the powerful fascination which it has exercised over other Muslim peoples, that is to say, peoples sharing the same religious and historic culture, the same universe of discourse. As far east as Indonesia, as far west as Senegal, Muslims have reacted to the Iranian revolution much as did contemporary Westerners to the first French and Russian republics—with the feeling that was expressed by Wordsworth in the famous lines:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

All over the Muslim world men and women, particularly young men and women, responded with the same kind of enthusiasm—perhaps more so, since the Muslim world today faces problems of economic privation and political oppression far worse than any that confronted the Western world in 1789 or 1917. Just as hopeful Westerners were prepared to excuse or even accept the French terror and the Bolshevik tyranny, so many Muslims are willing to excuse what some of them see as a necessary bloodletting, and they eagerly await the attainment of revolutionary Islamic goals. Meanwhile, the various anciens régimes of the Islamic world, including such religious traditionalists as the Saudis, have seen the revolution in Iran as a mortal threat, and have tried to protect themselves in the time-honored way of dealing with a forest fire.

At the moment Iran is still suffering from war, upheaval, bloodshed, and terror, and the outlook seems very grim. But the examples of France and Russia should warn us not to discount the continuance of the revolutionary process and the attainment of goals which, though they may differ greatly from the original intentions of those who initiated the process, may yet be immensely significant.

In the meantime, the linking of Islam and politics has now become permissible in polite Western society. Indeed, there is a certain curiosity about the nature of these powerful pent-up forces, which men like Khomeini can release and direct, and a desire for more and better information about Islam, and more particularly about the relationship between religion and the exercise and pursuit of power in the Islamic world.

The Islamic revolution in Iran, followed by such events as the seizure of the Great Mosque in Mecca, the assassination of Sadat, and other ominous signs of mounting religious passions in the Muslim world aroused a new interest in political Islam, which publishers, authors, and above all editors were quick to gratify. The task was not an easy one. Though the literary output of the Islamic movements is vast and rich, it is mostly in Arabic and other Islamic languages. There are a few scholarly studies based on this literature, but most of these are in French and German, and thus only slightly more accessible. Even an appropriate vocabulary seemed to be lacking in English, and writers on the subject had recourse to such words as “revivalism” and “fundamentalism.” But both of these are words with specifically Christian, one might even say American, connotations, and their use to denote Islamic religious phenomena depends at best on a very loose analogy. Even the common use of such words as “clergy” and “clergymen,” to denote the mullahs of Iran, obscures the profoundly significant difference between the Christian priesthood and ministry and the Muslim doctors of the Holy Law.

The need for instruction was, however, becoming urgent, and a long overdue effort was made to provide it for the Western reader. The resulting books are of several kinds. Among the first to appear, for obvious reasons, were the collected papers of a number of colloquia and symposia, many of which violate the humane Pentateuchal ban on yoking creatures of unequal strength. The circumstances in which such gatherings are held and their proceedings are published usually make it necessary to hurry and difficult to discriminate. Some of the volumes that have appeared include excellent papers, genuine scholarly monographs based on firsthand knowledge; they also include many others.

One symposium that maintains a consistently high standard is a volume published in France, L’Islam et l’état, edited by Olivier Carré. This deals not only with the Middle East and North Africa but also with Muslims in West (but not East) Africa, in south and southeast Asia, and in the communist societies of Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and China, on a consistently high level of information and analysis. The chapter on Shi’ism and the state in Iran (by J.P. Digurd), though inevitably overtaken by subsequent events, is still helpful in understanding the intellectual and organizational background of the religious opposition to the monarchy. Two chapters on Turkey, one on the vicissitudes of Turkish official laicism (by P. Dumont), the other on the Alevi minority (by J.F. Bayart) do much to clarify the problems of Islam and power in the one Muslim state that has, so to speak, disestablished Islam and repealed the Holy Law.

The symposia was followed by a number of books on Islam which might be described as journalistic or academic, as the one word is used by professors, the other in newspaper offices. By no means all of them suffer from this kind of professional deformation. Edward Mortimer, the Middle East correspondent of The Times of London, has written a fine example of journalism at its best. Mortimer does not appear to have used primary sources in Arabic, Turkish, or other Islamic languages. He has, however, two qualifications that are becoming increasingly rare in the literary world: he can read, and he can write. He has read the secondary scholarly literature in Western languages carefully and intelligently, and has used his reading to give greater depth to his own insights attained at first hand by travel and interviews in Muslim countries. Inevitably, he has sometimes been led astray by his authorities, and on occasion gives versions of past events that have been discarded by critical scholarship—as, for example, in discussing the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century and the Arab revolt against the Ottoman empire. But even these errors have their value, as illustrating current romantic misperceptions of the past. Clearly and soberly written, Mortimer’s book offers what is probably the best general introduction to the subject, including some new insights even for the specialist.

His book, in both its strongest and weakest parts, illustrates the value of direct access to sources. The chapter on Pakistan, where much of the relevant material, from the state and from the men of religion, is in English, is by far the best, with an immediacy and a depth that are not equaled elsewhere. The chapter on the Muslims of the USSR, when even the published statements both of the Muslims and of the power that governs them are locked in unknown and sometimes arcane languages, is much the least satisfactory.

There is another reason why such terms as “revivalist” and “fundamentalist” are misleading when applied to current Islamic movements. In Western usage these words have a rather specific connotation; they suggest a certain type of religiosity—emotional, indeed sentimental; not intellectual, perhaps even anti-intellectual. Modern Islam has its due share of ecstatics and simple pietists, but they are not the whole or even the dominant part of the Islamic revival. Writers like Khomeini are rigorous and disciplined thinkers—scholars with a deep knowledge of the doctrines and laws of their faith, whose reasoning, for those who share their premises, is surely cogent and may seem incontrovertible.

For more than a century Muslim theologians have been debating the problems posed to their faith and community by the impact of the modern Western world on traditional Islamic societies, and the replacement, in one Muslim country after another, of the Holy Law of Islam by the laws, norms, and values of the secular West. Traditionalists and modernists have long argued over these matters. The neoconservative radicalism of Khomeini and his disciples springs from a profound conviction that the experiment in modernization—both in deed and in thought—has failed, and that the only salvation for Muslims is to return to the divine origins of their faith. In contrast to Western sympathizers and Western-influenced modernists who argue that Islam has nothing to do with politics, Khomeini insists, as Mortimer reminds us, that Islam “is political or is nothing.” “The Koran,” Mortimer quotes Khomeini as saying, “contains a hundred times more verses concerning social problems than on devotional subjects. Out of fifty books of Muslim tradition there are perhaps three or four which deal with prayer or with man’s duties towards God, a few on morality and all the rest have to do with society, economics, law, politics and the state….”

The best primary source of information on the resurgence of Islamic belief and loyalty is, of course, that of the Muslims themselves. Their testimony is to be found in a variety of forms, ranging from learned theological and juridical treatises to pamphlets and leaflets of popular piety and radical dissent. Some Muslim material has been produced in English, mainly in or for countries in Asia and Africa where English is in common use as a second language. These writings are usually popular and polemical, and tend to be on a much lower level than those published in the Islamic languages. Comparatively few Muslim scholars have so far desired to open to a Western audience the passionate debates that are going on within the Muslim world.

One of the most sensitive issues in the debate between various schools of modernist and traditionalist Islam is the interpretation of the Koran and the application of its teachings in a modern society and state. According to the view which has come to be accepted as orthodox by most Muslims, the Koran is not merely divinely inspired; it is itself divine and eternal, and is therefore an infallible and unchangeable source of guidance. It provides the basis and essentials of any kind of Islamic education; in view of its considerable political and legal content, it is also seen as containing at least the basic principles of the constitution of any authentically Islamic state.

As Professor Fazlur Rahman shows in the latest of a series of important contributions to Islamic intellectual history, the characteristic problems of the Muslim modernists—the adaptation to the needs of the contemporary situation of a holy book which draws its specific examples from the conditions of the seventh century and earlier—are by no means new, but have been faced by earlier generations of Muslim theologians and philosophers, from the time when the first Arab Muslims brought their faith and their scripture out of the Arabian peninsula into the lands of the ancient civilizations of the Middle East.

In Professor Rahman’s view, the intellectual and therefore the social development of Islam has been impeded and distorted by two interrelated errors. The first was committed by those who, in reading the Koran, failed to recognize the difference between general principles and specific responses to “concrete and particular historical situations.” By their atomistic and literalist approach to the scripture, they devised and imposed a rigid and inflexible system of thought, hence of education, and ultimately of society and life. This very rigidity gave rise to the second major error, that of the secularists. By teaching and interpreting the Koran in such a way as to admit of no change or development, the dogmatists had created a situation in which Muslim societies, faced with the imperative need to educate their people for life in the modern world, were forced to make a painful and self-defeating choice—either to abandon Koranic Islam, or to turn their backs on the modern world. The second of these is hardly possible in the long run; the first, Fazlur Rahman argues, means the abandonment by Muslims of their most precious heritage.

He is severe on both the traditionalists and the neoconservatives, condemning some for their obsession with rigid and arid abstractions, and others, including the well-known Pakistani Islamic radical Mawdudi, as ignorant and superficial. He is alarmed at the deliberate anti-intellectualism of such groups as the Muslim Brothers, who insist that “Islam is a simple and clear-cut affair,” and that “the ulema and Sufis, because of their vested interests, have made it complicated and have buried it under debris.” While recognizing the attraction, and in some measure even the truth, of this argument, he nevertheless insists that “in the form in which it is fed to the faithful it is highly fallacious and dangerous.” The old dogmatism left the Islamic world with an ossified and stultifying educational system, which some wish to preserve and others seek to replace with ignorant emotionalism. For Dr. Fazlur Rahman neither can help the Muslims in their present dilemma. The only answer is to return to the source, the Koranic revelation, but with a new intellectual method—a systematic theology and philosophy, which seeks to discuss and formulate universal moral and metaphysical principles, with a validity that is independent of the specific social and political contexts in which they appear in the Koran.

Another recent book, also concerned with the divinity and centrality of the Koran and its place in Muslim belief at the present time, is the Lectures du Coran, in which Mohammed Arkoun, an Algerian professor teaching in Paris, has grouped a number of papers previously published in various journals. These deal with both general and specific points—the problem of the divine authenticity of the Koran, the element of the marvelous in the Koran; and two studies on specific texts—the opening chapter, used in the daily prayers of Muslims, and the eighteenth chapter, telling the story of the seven sleepers of Ephesus. This chapter is particularly esteemed in Muslim countries and is traditionally recited in mosques during the Friday public prayer.

Because of its Christian analogues, this chapter attracted the special attention of Louis Massignon, a French orientalist deeply concerned with Christian-Muslim convergences. Professor Arkoun reviews previous interpretations of this chapter, in which he distinguishes three types: that of the classical Muslim commentators, which he designates as “grammatical and historicomythical exegesis”; of the orientalists, which Massignon, whom he cites with approval on this point, called “analytical and static exegesis”; and a third, from within the Islamic world—“the symbolic expansion of the archetypical spiritual themes of the chapter in the collective imagination, notably in Shi’ite and mystical circles.” As a necessary preliminary to a new exegesis, Professor Arkoun proposes certain basic decisions of principle. The first is to find again “the axial purpose, the significant intention which affirms itself through the diversity of persons and places, the cyclical reincarnations of civilizing heroes, the symbolic recurrences, the semiotic or discursive reutilizations.”

This first decision will obviate the need “to reduce or abolish the pragmatic paths of knowledge, which were open before the triumph of abstract and reductive rationality.” The second decision, in “educative tension” with the first, is to forego the questions posed by the old scholasticism, and in their place to introduce “a critique of Islamic reason.” Rather than pursue an “illusory reconciliation” between such metaphysical categories as faith and reason, faith and religion, revelation and science and the like, the new exegesis will concern itself with exploring “the semiotic status of Koranic discourse,” with the “transcendentalization” of the book as a “pratique culturelle” common to all societies, and finally, beyond the Koranic and Islamic example, to help free historical knowledge from the framework and modalities of the narrative, so as to enable it to achieve its function—the “unveiling of the real stakes of historicity.” (He uses the word “historicity” in Heidegger’s special sense.)

Like Fazlur Rahman, with whose approach he has something in common, Arkoun is dissatisfied with mere reiteration of the eternal verity of the Koran, but is not prepared to abandon it for a new secularism. The need, as he sees it, is for something that devout Jews, Catholics, and Protestants have long been doing with the Old and New Testaments, but that, in his view, no Muslim theologian has yet seriously attempted with the Koran—to discuss God’s revealed book in terms acceptable to the modern intelligence. Arkoun—a learned Algerian Muslim and a rigorously analytical Paris intellectual—makes a promising start.

In one of his chapters Professor Arkoun introduces the study of relations between Islam and politics. This last forms the main theme of another book, by a young Iranian at Oxford, whose sudden death has deprived Islamic scholarship of one of its most promising figures. Dr. Enayat’s concern is with modern Islamic political thought. To be fully appreciated, he believes, this must be seen in its philosophical setting, and he therefore devotes some attention to Islamic political thought that is not modern, and to Islamic modernism that is not political.

What he excludes is non-Islamic political thought—even when the thinkers are Muslims addressing Muslims, in the setting of an Islamic society. Islamic ideas, he explains, are those which “are articulated in the recognized terms and categories of Islamic jurisprudence, theology, and related disciplines, however much they may sound ‘unorthodox’ or unconventional.” He is however very much concerned with the “Islamic”—in this sense—responses to certain ideas that have crossed the previously watertight barrier between Christendom and Islam, have changed the political ideas and practices of countless Muslims, and even transformed the way they define themselves and their aspirations. Three new ideas were especially potent—nationalism, constitutional democracy, and socialism. They came to different parts of the Muslim world at different times, from different sources, in different forms—and evoked vastly different responses and reactions. It is with these responses and reactions—among Arabs, Persians, and Turks, among Sunni and Shi’a, among conservatives and radicals of various persuasions that Dr. Enayat’s book is concerned.

Three Muslim authors, coming from three different Islamic countries, addressing audiences in three different Western countries, together illustrate, in their different ways, the responses of Muslim piety, learning, and passion in confrontation with the challenge and temptation of the West, and the appetites, hopes, and resentments that these arouse.

This Issue

June 30, 1983