Recent events in parts of the Muslim world have revived memories of the Islamic revolution in Iran, and aroused fears that more such revolutions may be in preparation and new Islamic fundamentalist regimes about to emerge, with similar consequences both at home and abroad. Western observers in particular recall with alarm what they saw as the ferocity of the Iranian revolution, when large numbers of people were summarily arrested, tried in batches, and executed, sometimes within hours. Many were deeply shocked by this method of dealing with political opponents by execution, which in various parts of the Western world had been abandoned centuries, or at least decades, ago.

This kind of ferocity, this resort to ruthless, large-scale, summary trial and execution, however, is not characteristic either of Iran or of Islam. It is very characteristic of revolutions. Of the three components, Islam, revolution, and Iran, it is rather to the revolutionary than to the Islamic or Iranian aspects of what has been happening that we should look. This does not of course mean that such things are unknown in either Iranian or Islamic history. In the early days of the revolution, at the height of the anti-American campaign, one of the accusations that were frequently brought against the United States was that the CIA was responsible for instructing the Shah’s men in torture and repression. This would be rather like accusing the Iranians or the Arabs of having introduced sharp business practices to the United States.

A certain level of repression, of violence, has been endemic in the Middle East, but mass killing has not. Similarly, although Islamic penal law and regional political usage can be very severe, there is nothing in either to justify mass political executions of the kind that we have seen. These events are, however, characteristic of revolutionary situations, such as those others, in Europe and elsewhere, with which the Iranian revolution may reasonably be compared. Successful revolutionaries generally seem to find it necessary to remove their domestic opponents in large numbers and at high speed—usually in larger numbers and at higher speeds than the tyrannical regimes which they overthrow and replace. This phenomenon is familiar from the histories of the French and Russian revolutions. Even within the Middle East, after the Young Turk revolution of 1908—the liberal constitutional revolution which overthrew the legendary tyranny of Sultan Abdulhamid II—the Young Turks managed to kill more Turks in three years than the old Turks had killed in the previous thirty years.

The Iranian revolution has kept up with this tradition, and has its own definition of the enemy it seeks to destroy. Earlier revolutions had defined their opponents in various ways. The French Revolution defined them socially as aristocrats, economically as feudal, ideologically as reactionary. The Russian Revolution defined them socially as bourgeois, economically as capitalist, ideologically as counterrevolutionary. The Islamic revolutionaries in Iran, and those who seek to follow their example in other Muslim countries, define their opponents with a term that covers both the social and ideological aspects, as “the enemies of God,” and their crime as corruption or evildoing (the Qur’anic Arabic word is fasad) on earth. And in case there should be any misunderstanding of the significance of this expression, the enemies of God are named more precisely as the followers of Satan, and Satan himself, qualified as “Great,” is identified with the United States.

We all think we know what evil-doing means, and many of us nowadays have direct experience of it. For religious radicals, it can serve as a theological way of denoting what other revolutionaries call repression or exploitation, or—if we look at the vocabulary of “scientific” revolutionaries—incorrect policies. There is, as is well known, an extraordinary belief in some circles that politics is an exact science like mathematics, and that there is, so to speak, one correct answer to any problem, all the others being incorrect. It is a delusion, a false theory, and its forcible application has brought untold misery to untold millions of people, and has in particular deprived the Russian people, and those other peoples over whom they ruled, of almost a century of their history. The language of the Iranian revolutionaries in Iran and elsewhere indicates something of the same kind—a similar belief in a correct policy, which of course is God’s policy, as opposed to all others which are incorrect, and therefore opposed to God.

Since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 and the definition and denunciation of the “old regime” and its supporters, the course of events in Iran has followed familiar revolutionary patterns. These revolutionaries inflicted and suffered their reign of terror—worse than the French, though not as bad as the Russian. They faced and overcame the forces of foreign intervention, and themselves evoked a widespread international response, for which they created an appropriate international organization. They have their Jacobins and their Bolsheviks, with the fierce enthusiasm of the one, the rigid certitudes of the other, and the ruthless violence of both. Sooner or later, they will probably give way to some sort of restoration. Before that, they may yet—though this is unlikely—produce their Napoleon or their Stalin, to achieve new heights in the war against the enemies of God.


This term, the “enemies of God,” which recurs so frequently in the statements of the Iranian revolution, both in its judicial proceedings and in its political pronouncements, must seem very strange to the secular-minded modern outsider. The idea that God has enemies, and needs human help in order to identify and dispose of these enemies, is a little difficult to understand. It is not, however, all that strange. The concept of the enemies of God is familiar in preclassical and classical antiquity, in both the Old and New Testaments as well as in the Qur’an, and occupies a central position in the ideology of the modern radical Islam.

The concept comes in various forms. The ancient Greeks recognized several kinds of enemies of the gods. One was the super-hero who actually defied the gods, and was presented in a favorable rather than an unfavorable light. Another was the enemy of the gods in that he was, so to speak, not their opponent but rather their victim, the object of the spite, the rancor, the envy of the gods. Yet another group consisted of those titans or heroes who were engaged in a sort of cosmic warfare against the gods, or who, unfortunately for themselves, inadvertently became involved in internecine warfare among the gods.

A particularly relevant version of the idea occurs in the dualist religions of ancient Iran. Most of the religions of Iran before the advent of Islam in the seventh century were to a greater or lesser degree dualist, believing not in one but in two cosmic powers. The Zoroastrian devil, unlike the Christian or Muslim or Jewish devil, is not one of God’s creatures performing some of God’s more mysterious tasks, but is an independent power, a supreme force of evil engaged in a cosmic struggle against God. This belief influenced a number of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish sects, through Manichaeism and other traditions. Although the Manichaean religion has almost disappeared, its name is still used—with some injustice to a complex theology—to designate a simplistic view that sees the world and all its problems as a stark struggle between good and evil.

The Bible also contains some indications about enemies, not of course of the gods, as in Greece, but of God. One is the distinction between those who love God and those who hate God, presumably meaning those who do not love God. In a key text in Exodus 23:22, God says: “If thou wilt indeed obey, then I will be an enemy unto thine enemies and an adversary unto thine adversaries.” The same notion is expressed in a more passionate and personal form in many of the Psalms. In the Qur’an the enemies of God are specified as the unbelievers, and are doomed to Hell-fire (2:98; 41:19 and 28); the believers are commanded to “strike terror into God’s enemy and your enemy.” But the struggle need not be to the death. “If the enemy incline towards peace, do you also incline towards peace, and trust in God,” who in His omniscience will give sufficient protection against any trickery that the enemy may intend (8:60-62). According to the historical record, those who fought against the prophet in his lifetime submitted to him. For some of the so-called Islamic fundamentalists of today, it would seem, this alone is what the sacred text means by peace.

In the teachings of the monotheistic religions, it is not God calling on mankind to help Him against His enemies; it is mankind, or rather some parts of it, calling on God to help them against their enemies, to adopt their enemies as His. They are, so to speak, recruiting God, not—as in dualist religion—being recruited by God. The same approach is often adopted in modern times, as for example in the many hymns and anthems and special military prayers in which God is requested, or sometimes even instructed in somewhat peremptory terms, to save our King, Queen, Kaiser, Tsar, republic, or country, and of course to frustrate our enemies by adopting them as his own.

With the advent of Christianity, the Jewish concept expressed in the Old Testament was greatly developed. As the notion of God was broadened, and included Christ, the notion of enmity to God was correspondingly broadened and acquired a new significance. It was now possible for human beings not merely to be enemies of God, but also to wound or even, in a sense, to kill God. And so, in the early Christian patristic literature, there are many and frequent references to the enemies of God. This term, which had in the past been used by pagans about Christians, was now used by Christians about Jews and about heretics, who were seen as enemies of Christ and thus of God.


In Islam the notion of the enemies of God assumed a much greater role. The Qur’an is of course strictly monotheistic, and recognizes one God, one universal power only. There is, according to the Qur’an, a struggle in men’s hearts between good and evil, between God’s commandments and the tempter, but this is seen as a struggle ordained by God with its outcome preordained by God. It is a struggle that serves as a test of mankind, and not, as in some of the old Iranian dualist religions, one in which mankind has a crucial part to play in bringing about the victory of good over evil. Despite this monotheism, Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, was at various stages in its development influenced by Iranian dualist notions, by the idea of a cosmic clash of good and evil, light and darkness, order and chaos, truth and falsehood, God and the Adversary, variously known as devil, Iblis, Satan, and other names.

For Muslims, this cosmic struggle of good and evil could easily acquire political and even military dimensions. Muhammad, it will be recalled, was not only Prophet and teacher, like the founders of other religions; he was also the head of a state and of a community, a ruler and a soldier, and the founder of what became a vast empire. Hence the struggle became one involving states and their armed forces as well as individual believers. If the fighters in the war for Islam, the holy war “in the path of God,” are fighting for God, it follows logically that their opponents are fighting against God. And since God is in principle the sovereign, the supreme head of the Islamic state, with the Prophet, and after the Prophet the caliphs, as His viceregents, then God as sovereign commands the army. The army is God’s army and the enemy is God’s enemy. The duty of God’s soldiers is to dispatch God’s enemies as quickly as possible to the place where God will chastise them, that is to say in the afterlife. In the chronicles of the various holy wars that Muslims waged against infidels, the reported death of a Muslim is customarily followed by some such formula as “Peace be upon him” or “God have mercy on him”; the death of an infidel enemy is often accompanied by the phrase “God speed his soul to hell.”

The holy war fought in the cause of God and against God’s enemies is normally fought against infidels who must be induced, by force of arms if necessary, either to accept Islam or to submit to the rule of the Muslims. But there is another enemy, more insidious and more dangerous than the alien infidel beyond the frontiers of Islam, and that is the apostate—one who was brought up in Islam and bears a Muslim name and appearance but has abjured the faith and works in secret to destroy it from within. Already in medieval times, some jurists discussed the possibility of an internal jihad against a renegade regime. Among modern fundamentalists this has been developed into an ideology of revolution. The murderers of Sadat and the destroyers of the Iranian monarchy shared the belief that they were engaged in a sacred struggle against apostate rulers and regimes that had abandoned God’s revelation and were seeking to abrogate God’s law and replace it with new laws and new ways copied from the infidel West.

The archetype of the enemy of God is, of course, Satan, who appears frequently in the Qur’an and against whom the Believers are given many warnings. And in the demonology of the Islamic Republic, Satan has been given a local habitation and a name in the Western hemisphere. In Muslim scripture and tradition, Satan expresses his enmity to God by constantly trying to lead God’s people astray. Since the First Temptation of Adam and Eve, he has never desisted from this evil endeavor. The final sura of the Qur’an, which ranks after the first sura as the best known and most widely repeated among Muslims, reads as follows: “I seek refuge with the Lord of men, the King of men, the God of men, from the mischief of the insidious whisperer who whispers in the hearts of men…”

From the writings of Khomeini and other ideologists of Islamic fundamentalism, it is clear that it is the seductive appeal of American culture, far more than any possible hostile acts by American governments, that they see as offering the greatest menace to the true faith and the right path as they define them. By denouncing America as the Great Satan, the late Ayatollah Khomeini was paying an unconscious tribute to that seductive appeal.

In modern as in medieval times, among Muslims as among Christians, Jews, and followers of other faiths, many, often most, have been willing to see their quarrels in less apocalyptic terms and to conduct themselves accordingly. Between human opponents fighting over human issues there can be dialogue and compromise and, as the Arab-Israeli peace talks have shown, even a prospect of peace. For God’s self-appointed executioners, there can be no such prospect.

For those who wage war against the enemies of God, their struggle can end only in death or victory. For death in God’s cause, so they believe, holy writ promises ineffable rewards in the hereafter. In victory, the same authority grants the victor rights over the persons and possessions of the vanquished greatly in excess of anything recognized in modern secular laws. In such a war, there can obviously be no peace, still less good will—only endless warfare until the final triumph of good over evil, of God over Satan. At most, the war may be interrupted by truces—tactical pauses until such time as it is convenient and expedient to resume the divinely ordained struggle. Peace, and with it good will, can only come when those who now perceive themselves as the warriors or the Party of God are ready to redefine the identity of the adversary and the purpose of the conflict.

Until they do—as most such movements have sooner or later done in the past—unfanatical believers of all faiths may agree that if indeed God is troubled with human enemies, then the most noxious are surely those who defame his name by portraying him as a patron of kidnappers and assassins, as a deity whose gospel is hatred and bloodshed, and whose greatness is proclaimed by the random slaughter of unoffending strangers—young and old, male and female—with bombs, guns, and kitchen knives.

This Issue

March 25, 1993