In the fall of 1978, Michel Foucault traveled to Iran for Corriere della Sera to write about growing mass protests against Reza Shah Pahlavi’s regime. Famous for his theoretical analyses of European attitudes toward madness, hospitals, and prisons, Foucault knew little, by his own admission, about Persian or Islamic history; and he hadn’t previously been a journalist or reporter. Nevertheless, as he put it, “we have to be there at the birth of ideas.”

In Iran, where millions of demonstrators and strikers appeared united by their hatred for the American-backed Shah and admiration for Ayatollah Khomeini, Foucault claimed to see a new form of “political spirituality.” He wrote admiringly of how the “Grand Ayatollahs” had “caused an entire people to come out into the streets,” expressing “a perfectly unified collective will.” He claimed to be witnessing the “first great insurrection against global systems, the form of revolt that is the most modern and the most insane.”

It is clear now that Foucault’s view of events in Iran were shaped by his own distaste for the political and economic systems—industrial capitalism, the bureaucratic nation-state—created by the revolutions of the West and spread by Western imperialists around the world in the previous two centuries. Earlier that same year he had told a Zen Buddhist priest that Western thought was in crisis.1 Contemptuous of the capitalist West, “the harshest, most savage, most selfish, most dishonest, oppressive society one could possibly imagine,” Foucault was no more enamored of communism, which had attracted many intellectuals of his generation in France.

As Foucault saw it, to live in a world shaped by these two modern ideologies was to be trapped in a vast and elaborate system of control and supervision; it was to subject one’s existential and spiritual life to an impersonal and all-powerful state. With its brutal secret police and army, Iran under the Shah was an extreme version of the modern state that Foucault saw as a prison. Indeed, it was not much of a leap to think of Iran as the victim of the new forms of greed and violence underpinning the modern world.

Although never a European colony, the oil-rich country had been dominated by British and Russian imperialists since the nineteenth century. In 1953, the CIA, working alongside British intelligence officers, toppled its nationalist government and installed the Shah in power. The Shah imposed grandiose schemes of industrialization and urbanization on his largely peasant population. Although the Shah’s attempt to Westernize Iran created a middle class, it also uprooted millions of people from their traditional homes and forced them to live in urban slums.

Most Iranians, who saw the corrupt and repressive Shah as a tool of American interests, sought political redemption through their faith. Foucault was deeply impressed by this mingling of religion and politics: how, as Iranian-born Reza Aslan writes in his stimulating survey of Islamic history and thought, No God but God, although “nearly every sociopolitical organization in Iran” came together in an “anti-imperialist, nationalist revolt against a corrupt monarchy,” it was an exiled cleric, Khomeini, who emerged as the most visible face of protest.

Foucault was undeterred by Khomeini’s deeply reactionary views. As Islamic fervor increased in Iran and the Shah’s departure seemed imminent, Foucault exulted over what he saw as “the last moments” of “the attempt to modernize the Islamic countries in a European fashion.”

An entire century in Iran—one of economic development, foreign domination, modernization, and the dynasty, as well as its daily life and its moral system—is being… totally rejected.

Foucault wasn’t sure of what might take its place in Iran—or what form of government Khomeini, returning from exile in Paris, would prefer. But he admired the Shiite Islam that “transforms thousands of forms of discontent, hatred, misery, and despairs into a force.”

As it turned out, Khomeini kept Iran’s authoritarian state more or less intact. Far from expressing a political spirituality, he installed clerics in powerful positions, and began to use the Shah’s methods—secret police, torture, execution—against his real and perceived opponents, and on a larger scale than the Shah’s. Writing after Khomeini imposed severe restrictions on women’s dress and movement, Foucault appeared less keen on the political potential of Shiism. He acknowledged that “the power that a man exerts over another is always dangerous,” and he referred briefly to the “bloody government of a fundamentalist clergy” and to “the subjugation of women.”

Foucault did not write about Iran or Islam again. He now appears to have been one of those intellectuals who, without knowing much about local conditions, support revolutions or regime changes in the hope of vindicating their cherished ideas of how human societies ought to be. Nevertheless, his insights into the role of Islam in modernizing societies remain relevant today.


Foucault could see how the experience of deprivation, loneliness, and anomie made many Muslims in urban centers turn to rather than away from Islam; how there was little “protection” for the millions of uprooted Muslims except in “Islam, which for centuries has regulated everyday life, family ties, and social relations with such care.” Foucault could also see how, in the absence of any democratic politics, Muslims used Islamic themes of sacrifice and martyrdom to challenge despotic and corrupt rulers who claimed legitimacy in the West as modernizers and secularizers.

Foucault also managed to see that this Muslim revolt was unlikely to be confined to Iran. The West had deemed modernization and secularization as the highest aim for Muslim societies ever since it began to dominate them in the nineteenth century. But the process, now advanced by Westernized postcolonial elites, of uprooting people from their traditional cultures and forcing them into Western-style cities and occupations was only likely to produce more converts to political Islam. It was why Foucault believed that “Islam—which is not simply a religion, but an entire way of life, an adherence to a history and a civilization—has a good chance to become a gigantic powder keg, at the level of hundreds of millions of men.”

Unknown to Foucault, the powder keg was about to be set alight, even as he traveled across Iran, in neighboring Afghanistan. Here, a Communist regime propped up by the Soviet Union tried to modernize hastily what it saw as a feudal and backward society. The subsequent backlash from radical Islamists was supported by the United States, and turned, with the help of Pakistan’s Islamist dictator General Zia-ul-Haq and Saudi Arabia, into the first global jihad in Islam’s long history.

Islamic Fundamentalists or radical Islamists had long existed in such countries as Pakistan, Egypt, and Algeria; they often articulated popular opposition to Western imperialists in the Middle East and South Asia, and then acquired greater support as postcolonial elites claiming to be nationalist and socialist proved to be corrupt and despotic.

But it was the experience of training and fighting together during the decade-long anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan that bound the Islamists together into an international community. It defined their enemy more clearly than before—the materialist and imperialist civilization of the West in which both Communists and capitalists were complicit—and stoked their fantasy of a global Muslim ummah (community).

Over the last two decades, Islamists returning from Afghanistan have declared jihad against Westernized and Westernizing elites in their respective countries. More recently, they have successfully attacked what many of them see as the main patron of their corrupt ruling classes: the West, most particularly the United States and its close allies. Their ideology, disseminated through videos, Web sites, and audio recordings, seems to have as many takers among Muslim immigrants in Europe as among their home populations. Indeed, as the recent bombings in London suggest, millenarian Islam may have a special appeal among uprooted Muslims struggling to invent new sources of moral and religious authority in their secular surroundings.

The eruption of jihadi rage and hatred in New York and London—in what appeared to be serenely self-absorbed worlds until September 11, 2001—seems to bewilder many people in the West, especially those unaware of the roots of present-day jihadis in the cold war. Many journalists and political commentators trying to find out “why they hate us” conclude that Islam itself is, as Boris Johnson, editor of The Spectator, wrote after the recent bombings in London, “the problem”—the ultimate source of the nihilistic violence unleashed on the West. These critics of Islam often risk appearing as literal-minded as the jihadis while scouring the Koran for arguments in favor of violence, misogyny, and despotism.

Defenders of Islam in turn describe it as a religion of peace and compassion, pointing to the Ottoman Empire, which was hospitable to Jewish minorities expelled from Catholic Europe. Politicians mindful of Muslim sensitivities take a slightly diplomatic variation on the belief that Islam is the main issue. President Bush speaks often of “good” and “bad” Muslims. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has apparently read the Koran three times, blamed the recent bombings in London on a “perverted interpretation” of Islam. Thus bad theology rather than bad politics appears responsible for terrorist attacks that were widely anticipated after Britain joined the American invasion of Iraq.

What these views of good, bad, and moderate Muslims assume is that Islam possesses some core, unchanging values which can explain sufficiently the culture, politics, and even the specific intentions and motivations of its followers in any historical situation: the status of minorities in the Ottoman Empire as well as the status of women in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and the inner life of a present-day suicide bomber.


An Islam unchanged across several continents and centuries also underpins Samuel Huntington’s influential vision of “Islamic civilization”—an autonomous and self-contained world that knew wealth and power long before the West did but has been locked since the eighteenth century in what Bernard Lewis calls “a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression.”2

Both Lewis and Huntington speak primarily of Arab Muslims, although three fourths of the world’s Muslim population lives outside the Middle East, in countries such as Bangladesh, Turkey, and Indonesia, that are arguably more democratic than some of their non-Muslim neighbors. More than a hundred million Muslims live in India, the world’s biggest democracy, and vote strategically in every election. Broad generalizations about Islam and Muslims may not help clarify why Muslim Malaysia does better economically than Buddhist Thailand; why literacy rates for women in cleric-ruled Iran rose from 28 percent to 80 percent between 1976 and 1996; or why many Muslim women in officially secular Turkey demand the right to wear head scarves.

Nevertheless, many books, magazine articles, and Op-Ed pieces in the West continue to try to define who Muslims are and what ails them and to prescribe what they ought to be or do in order to live within or with Western civilization. Writing in The New York Times soon after September 11, Salman Rushdie asked Muslims to depoliticize their religion and confine it to “the sphere of the personal.” “The world of Islam,” he wrote, “must take on board the secular-humanist principles on which the modern is based.” “It is essential,” Thomas Friedman asserted after the recent bombings in London, “that the Muslim world wake up to the fact that it has a jihadist death cult in its midst.”

The Bush administration’s foreign policy also seems based on the conviction that the Muslim world can be either persuaded or forced to embrace Western-style freedom and democracy. “Moderate Muslims,” or Westernized Muslims in exile, seem a key catalyst in this ambitious experiment. As Daniel Pipes wrote in his recent book Militant Islam Reaches America,

A battle is now taking place for the soul of Islam. On one side stand the moderates, those Muslims eager to accept Western ways…. On the other stand the Islamists—fearful, seeking strong rule, hoping to push the outside world away.3

In this vision of Muslims bitterly divided between pro-Western “moderation” and jihad, America often appears uniformly secular-humanist, oddly free of the fundamentalist Christians who shape its politics and seek to change its culture. One of the achievements of Reza Aslan’s book No God but God is that it gives Islam as much internal complexity and diversity as the concepts “the West” and “America” possess in our eyes. If Aslan, who was born in Iran and teaches at the University of California at Santa Barbara, occasionally appears defensive, it is primarily because Muslim writers in the West such as himself are so often called upon to explain to a largely unsympathetic audience why their coreligionists support jihad and the veiling of women. Writing about Islam, he contends not only with assumptions of Western superiority and Muslim backwardness, but also, occasionally, with views of Islam first formed during the Crusades, in which Muslims appear as blood-thirsty warriors, inspired by a false prophet.4

Not surprisingly, Aslan pauses often in his narrative of the Prophet’s life and successors to explain controversial Islamic concepts. He disputes the popular notion that jihad means “holy war.” “War, according to the Quran,” he writes, “is either just or unjust; it is never ‘holy.'” He explains that the verses (“slay the polytheists wherever you confront them”; “fight those who do not believe in God and the Last Day”) that are used to suggest that “Islam advocates fighting unbelievers until they convert” were “directed specifically” at the clan with whom the Prophet and the new-born Muslim ummah were “locked in a terrible war.”

Aslan skillfully places the Prophet’s life and the revelations contained in the Koran against the backdrop of the clan and tribal rivalries and the social and cultural mores of seventh-century Arabia. According to Aslan, Muhammad saw Jews and Christians as “spiritual cousins” and borrowed from Jewish dietary laws and purity requirements. He informs us that “throughout the first two centuries of Islam, Muslims regularly read the Torah alongside the Quran.” He describes how Muhammad gave unprecedented rights of property to women in the ummah he founded; and how these rights form the basis of contemporary women’s movements in Iran and Turkey, which are “predicated on the idea that Muslim men, not Islam, have been responsible for the suppression of women’s rights.”5

He quotes the Iranian Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi: “God created us all as equals…. By fighting for equal status, we are doing what God wants us to do.” As Aslan sees it, Muhammad preached a “radical message” of “sweeping social reform” in Mecca, upholding “the rights of the underprivileged and the oppressed.” But over the centuries this crucial message of Islam was distorted by political and religious elites fearful of losing their power, especially the clergy or the Ulama, an “extremely small, rigid, and often profoundly traditionalist group of men,” who institutionalized Islam by devising the Shariah as a comprehensive code of conduct for Muslims.

Aslan describes the complex phenomenon of the Sufis, who, he claims, became prominent in Islam in the eleventh century as mystics opposed to “the Imperial Islam of the Muslim Dynasties” and the “arid formalism” of the clergy. Contrary to their popular image as otherworldly dervishes, many of the Sufi masters (sheikhs) enjoyed political power as Islam spread across the Indian subcontinent in the first half of the second millennium. Aslan describes the rise of Shiism as the official religion in Iran during the sixteenth century, and its political use by Khomeini. According to him, Khomeini recognized that “in a country steeped in the faith and culture of Shiism, only the symbols and metaphors of Shiite Islam could provide a common language with which to mobilize the masses.” He also traces the centuries-long debate between the rationalist and the traditionalist philosophers over the meaning of the Koran and the Hadith, the collection of unverified stories about what Muhammad said and did—a debate that ended in victory for the traditionalists and the “closing of the gates” of ijtihad (interpretation).


Aslan is at his best in tracing the origins of political Islam, which, he makes clear, lie in the fear, shared by many educated Muslims in the nineteenth century, that their coreligionists were helpless before European imperialists. He begins with the British suppression of the Muslim-led Indian Mutiny of 1857, when “Europe’s civilizing mission in the Middle East was revealed for what it truly was: an ideology of political and economic dominance achieved through brutal military might.”

He relates admirably and briskly how Indian Muslims responded to the fact of unassailable British superiority with an attempt at adopting what they saw as European virtues. He goes on to describe the Muslim thinkers in Iran and Egypt who tried to bring such traditional Islamic concepts as shura (rulers’ consultation with the ruled), ijma (consensus), and ijtihad in line with Western innovations of parliamentary governance and elections.

These early advocates of political Islam were often educated in the West, and were far from fundamentalists: the poet-activist Muhammad Iqbal (1877– 1938), who had much influence in India, wished to throw open the gates of ijtihad; Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Anglicized founder of Pakistan, had a particular distaste for religious zealots. But their admiration for the achievements of Europe was always checked by their experience of a brutally exploitative imperialism in their respective countries. As the Grand Mufti of Egypt Muhammad Abdu (1845–1905) wrote,

We Egyptians believed once in English liberalism and English sympathy; but we believe no longer, for facts are stronger than words. Your liberalness we see plainly is only for yourselves, and your sympathy with us is that of the wolf for the lamb which he designs to eat.

For Muslims in oil-rich countries, formal decolonization of the Middle East after World War II brought no respite from foreign domination. With its growing energy needs, the United States soon replaced France and Britain as the paramount power in the Middle East, committed to propping up the fundamentalist Wahaabi Saudi regime in Saudi Arabia, the secular Shah of Iran, and the Jewish state of Israel. But by the Eighties, a better-educated and more politicized generation of Muslims had emerged in the Middle East—one that was more aware than its ancestors of aggressive foreign meddling in the region, and more inclined to channel its anger and frustration over corruption and unemployment in their countries against America.6

Aslan shows clearly why Muslims espousing ideals of the European Enlightenment in lands occupied by Europe failed to gain popular support:

Throughout the colonized lands of the Middle East and North Africa, the voice of modernism and integration with the Enlightenment ideals of the European colonialists was drowned out by the far louder and more aggressive voice of traditionalism and resistance to the insufferable yoke of imperialism.

This history explains why many Muslims today are likely to be suspicious of and resistant to democratization and secularization under Western auspices—a form of modernization that may appear to them designed for the West rather more than for its presumed beneficiaries. They are hardly likely to be persuaded otherwise by the American invasion and occupation of Iraq in the name of democracy.

Nevertheless, Aslan argues that a reformation is “already under way in most of the Muslim world.” He sees the attacks on New York and Washington as “part of an ongoing clash between those Muslims who strive to reconcile their religious values with the realities of the modern world, and those who react to modernism and reform by reverting—sometimes fanatically—to the ‘fundamentals’ of their faith.”

Aslan may appear to describe the same internal clash within Islam that Daniel Pipes and others hope to intensify, especially when he declares himself to be on the side of reform, warning that it may be as bloody as the one Christianity experienced. But unlike many Western commentators on Islam, he does not believe that Muslims have to depoliticize their religion or even confine it to the so-called personal sphere in order to be modern. He is convinced that the process of building democracy in Muslim states “can be based only on Islamic traditions and values.”

He points to the Prophet Muhammad’s respect for Christian and Jewish traditions, and his social and egalitarian ideals. He asserts that “a democratic state can be established upon any normative moral framework as long as pluralism remains the source of its legitimacy.” He claims that a large number of modern democracies are built upon “inherently moral” foundations, and invokes Tocqueville on America to support his claim that religion can be the basis of a modern country’s constitution, laws, and customs, even as church and state are kept apart. According to Aslan, an “Islamic democracy” does not have to be a “theo-democracy,” ruled by clerics, but “a democratic system founded upon an Islamic moral framework, devoted to preserving Islamic ideals of pluralism and human rights.”

Born in Iran, Aslan moved, while still a child, to the United States soon after the fall of the Shah’s regime. He is among a growing number of Muslim writers and intellectuals born or educated in the West who bring a rare intimacy, born of experience, to their analysis of Islam in the world, and can also translate it into terms comprehensible to their Western readers.7 These thinkers are products of Muslim societies’ ongoing, multifaceted encounter with the West from which have emerged such modernists as Muhammad Iqbal and Muhammad Abdu as well as the jihadis of today.

They appear to share Foucault’s conviction that Western secular ideologies are in crisis, increasingly unable to solve the problems of both the West and the non-West, even though they do not go as far, in their invocation of religious tradition, as Gandhi, who advocated a comprehensive rejection of modern industrial civilization. Rather, they engage with Islamic traditions in order to find common ground with the liberal traditions of the West, believing that, as the Egyptian-British novelist Ahdaf Soueif wrote recently, “ideals of social justice, public service and equality, identified in modern times as Western, are to be found in the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet.”8

The Prophet named no successors, and the Koran says nothing very specific about the nature of government best suited for Muslims. But the fundamentals of Islam, as defined by Aslan, do seem compatible with democracy. Certainly, he appears no more fundamentalist than those who trace the roots of modern Western democracy to classical Athens when he invokes the egalitarian community built by the Prophet as an inspiration for Islamic democracy.

Aslan may appear to ignore the liberal principle of individual rights when he asserts that “Islam’s quintessentially communal character necessitates that any human rights policy take into consideration the protection of the community over the autonomy of the individual.” Yet even the most advanced liberal democracies often curtail individual liberties for the sake of national security. Moreover, Aslan has a contemporary example of a country trying to build an Islamic democracy: Iran, which, he writes, “has been struggling to reconcile popular and divine sovereignty.”

Nevertheless, the recent attempts in both Iran and Pakistan to build democratic states on Islamic values warn us against underestimating the clergy, which wields the all-powerful weapon of the Shariah. Aslan admits that it is “practically impossible to reconcile the Traditionalist view of the Shariah with modern conceptions of democracy and human rights.” At the same time, he does not rule out a role for the clergy in an Islamic democracy. “The function of the clergy in an Islamic democracy,” he writes, “is…to reflect the morality of the state” and since it is “the interpretation of religion that arbitrates morality, such interpretation must always be in accord with the consensus of the community.”

This sounds too optimistic. Given Islam’s “quintessentially communal character,” will not the clergy be well placed to dictate the consensus of the community and stifle individual dissent? Iran’s oil revenues helped create a middle class that now demands more democracy and freedom from the country’s rulers. But can regular elections and representative politics allay the rage and despair of people fighting for mere survival in places such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh—countries with no oil and a small, besieged middle class that is too busy protecting its own interests to create an intellectual and cultural enlightenment?

In any case, these questions are unlikely to be settled by writers and intellectuals in the West. Certainly, events in the Muslim world continue to surprise—especially those who believe that most Muslims, when given the choice, would opt for Western ways. Despite its growing economy, Iran elected a known hard-liner as its president in June. In Pakistan the same month, the democratically elected government of North-West Frontier Province authorized clerics to prevent unrelated men and women from appearing in public together and to discourage singing and dancing. Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon have convincingly won sizable votes this year. American efforts to promote democracy in Iraq seem to have resulted in a Shiite-dominated Islamic Republic backed by Iran.

These events not only repeatedly confound American expectations that regime change, elections, and the free market will empower pro-American, “moderate” Muslims; they also tend to confirm what Foucault felt after witnessing the “first great insurrection against global systems”: that Islam as a “political force” is an essential problem for “our time and the coming years.” Largely identified today with extremism and violence, political forms of Islam may shape Muslim societies long after the West has contained jihadi suicide bombers. In the meantime, few writers are likely to outline its possibilities and hint at its dangers as vividly as Reza Aslan does.

This Issue

November 17, 2005