Chris Harman


The prophet and the proletariat


Islam, religion and ideology

The confusion often starts with a confusion about the power of religion itself. Religious people see it as a historical force in its own right, whether for good or for evil. So too do most bourgeois anti-clerical and free thinkers. For them, fighting the influence of religious institutions and obscurantists ideas is in itself the way to human liberation.

But although religious institutions and ideas clearly play a role in history, this does not happen in separation from the rest of material reality. Religious institutions, with their layers of priests and teachers, arise in a certain society and interact with that society. They can only maintain themselves as society changes if they find some way of changing their own base of support. So, for instance, one of the world’s major religious institutions, the Roman Catholic Church, originated in the late ancient world and survived by adapting itself first to feudal society for 1,000 years and then, with much effort, to the capitalist society that replaced feudalism, changing much of the content of its own teaching in the process. People have always been capable of giving different interpretations to the religious ideas they hold, depending on their own material situation, their relations with other people and the conflicts they get involved in. History is full of examples of people who profess nearly identical religious beliefs ending up on opposite sides in great social conflicts. This happened with the social convulsions which swept Europe during the great crisis of feudalism in the 16th and 17th century, when Luther, Calvin, Munzer and many other “religious” leaders provided their followers with a new world view through a reinterpretation of biblical texts.

Islam is no different to any other religion in these respects. It arose in one context, among a trading community in the towns of 7th century Arabia, in the midst of a society still mainly organised on a tribal basis. It flourished within the succession of great empires carved out by some of those who accepted its doctrines. It persists today as the official ideology of numerous capitalist states (Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Pakistan, Iran etc), as well as the inspiration of many oppositional movements.

It has been able to survive in such different societies because it has been able to adapt to differing class interests. It has obtained the finance to build its mosques and employ its preachers in turn from the traders of Arabia, the bureaucrats, landowners and merchants of the great empires, and the industrialists of modern capitalism. But at the same time it has gained the allegiance of the mass of people by putting across a message offering consolation to the poor and oppressed. At every point its message has balanced between promising a degree of protection to the oppressed and providing the exploiting classes with protection against any revolutionary overthrow.

So Islam stresses that the rich have to pay a 2.5 percent Islamic tax (the zakat) for the relief of the poor, that rulers have to govern in a just way, that husbands must not mistreat their wives. But it also treats the expropriation of the rich by the poor as theft, insists disobedience to a “just” government is a crime to be punished with all the vigour of the law and provides women with fewer rights than men within marriage, over inheritance, or over the children in the event of divorce. It appeals to the wealthy and the poor alike by offering regulation of oppression, both as a bulwark against still harsher oppression and as a bulwark against revolution. It is, like Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism, both the heart of the heartless world and the opium of the people.

But no set of ideas can have such an appeal to different classes, especially when society is shaken by social convulsions, unless it is full of ambiguities. It has to be open to differing interpretations, even if these set its adherents at each other’s throats.

This has been true of Islam virtually from its inception. After Mohammed’s death in 632 AD, just two years after Islam had conquered Mecca, dissension broke out between the followers of Abu Bakr, who became the first Caliph (successor to Mohammed as leader of Islam), and Ali, husband of the prophet’s daughter Fatima. Ali claimed that some of Abu Bakr’s rulings were oppressive. Dissension grew until rival Muslim armies fought each other at the battle of the Camel resulting in 10,000 deaths. It was out of this dissension that the separation of the Sunni and Shia versions of Islam arose. This was but the first of many splits. Groups repeatedly arose who insisted that the oppressed were suffering at the hands of the godless and demanded a return to the original “pure” Islam of the prophet’s time. As Akbar S. Ahmed says:

Throughout Islamic history, Muslim leaders would preach a move to the ideal ... They gave expression to often vague ethnic, social or political movements ... The basis was laid for the entire schismatic gamut in Islamic thought from the Shia, with its offshoots like the Ismailis, to more temporary movements ... Muslim history is replete with Mahdis leading revolts against established authority and often dying for their efforts ... Leaders have often been poor peasants and from deprived ethnic groups. Using Islamic idiom has reinforced their sense of deprivation and consolidated the movement. [7]

But even mainstream Islam is not, in its popular forms at least, a homogenous set of beliefs. The spread of the religion to cover the whole region from the Atlantic coast of north west Africa to the Bay of Bengal involved the incorporation into Islamic society of peoples who fitted into Islam many of their old religious practices, even if these contradicted some of Islam’s original tenets. So popular Islam often includes cults of local saints or of holy relics even though orthodox Islam regards such practices as sacrilegious idolatry. And Sufi brotherhoods flourish which, while not constituting a formal rival to mainstream Islam, put an emphasis on mystical and magical experience which many fundamentalists find objectionable. [8]

In such a situation, any call for a return to the practices of the prophet’s time is not in reality about conserving the past but about reshaping people’s behaviour into something quite new.

This has been true of Islamic revivalism over the last century. It arose as an attempt to come to terms with the material conquest and cultural transformation of Asia and North Africa by capitalist Europe. The revivalists argued this had only been possible because the original Islamic values had been corrupted by the worldly pursuits of the great medieval empires. Regeneration was only possible by reviving the founding spirit of Islam as expressed by the first four Caliphs (or, for Shiites, by Ali). It was in this spirit that Khomeini, for instance, could denounce virtually the whole history of Islam for the last 1,300 years:

Unfortunately, true Islam lasted for only a brief period after its inception. First the Umayyids [the first Arab dynasty after Ali] and then the Abbasids [who conquered them in 750 AD] inflicted all kinds of damage on Islam. Later the monarchs ruling Iran continued in the same path; they completely distorted Islam and established something quite diferent in its place. [9]

So, although Islamism can be presented by both defenders and opponents as a traditionalist doctrine, based on a rejection of the modern world, in reality things are more complicated than this. The aspiration to recreate a mythical past involves not leaving existing society intact, but recasting it. What is more, the recasting cannot aim to produce a carbon copy of 7th century Islam, since the Islamists do not reject every feature of existing society. By and large they accept modern industry, modern technology and much of the science on which it is based – indeed, they argue that Islam, as a more rational and less superstitious doctrine than Christianity, is more in tune with modern science. And so the “revivalists” are, in fact, trying to bring about something which has never existed before, which fuses ancient traditions and the forms of modern social life.

This means it is wrong simply to refer to all Islamists as “reactionary”, or to equate “Islamic fundamentalism” as a whole with the sort of Christian fundamentalism which is the bastion of the right wing of the Republican Party in the US. Figures like Khomeini, the heads of the rival Mujahedin groups in Afghanistan or the leaders of the Algerian FIS may use traditionalist themes and appeal to the nostalgia of disappearing social groups, but they also appeal to radical currents produced as society is transformed by capitalism. Olivier Roy, referring to the Afghan Islamists, argues that:

Fundamentalism is quite different (to traditionalism): for fundamentalism it is of paramount importance to get back to the scriptures, clearing away the obfuscation of tradition. It always seeks a return to a former state: it is characterised by the practice of re-reading texts and a search for origins. The enemy is not modernity but tradition, or rather, in the context of Islam, of everything which is not the Tradition of the Prophet. This is true reform ... [10]

Traditionalist Islam is an ideology which seeks to perpetuate a social order which is being undermined by the development of capitalism – or at least, as with the version promoted by the ruling family in Saudi Arabia, to hark back to this order in order to conceal the transformation of an old ruling class into modern capitalists. Islamism is an ideology which, although it appeals to some of the same themes, seeks to transform society, not to conserve it in the old way. For this reason, even the term “fundamentalism” is not really appropriate. As Abrahamian has observed:

The label“ fundamentalism” implies religious inflexibility, intellectual purity, political traditionalism, even social conservatism and the centrality of scriptural-doctrinal principles. “Fundamentalism” implies rejection of the modern world. [11]

But, in fact, movements like that of Khomeini in Iran have been based on “ideological adaptability and intellectual flexibility, with political protests against the established order, and with socio-economic issues that fuel mass opposition to the status quo”. [12]

Yet there is often a blurring of the differences between Islamism and traditionalism. Precisely because the notion of social regeneration is wrapped in religious language, it is open to different interpretations. It can mean simply ending “degenerate practices” through a return to the forms of behaviour which allegedly preceded the “corruption” of Islam” by “cultural imperialism”. The stress then is on female “modesty” and the wearing of the veil, an end to “promiscuous” mixing of the sexes in schools and workplaces, opposition to Western popular music and so on. Thus one of the most popular leaders of the Algerian FIS, Ali Belhadj, can denounce the “violence” against Muslims that comes from “cultural invasion”:

We Muslims believe that the most serious form of violence we have suffered is not physical violence, for which we are ready ... It is the violence which represents a challenge to the Muslim community by the imposition of diabolical legislation instead of the sharia ...

Is there any violence worse than that which consists in encouraging that which God has forbidden? They open wine making enterprises, the work of the demon, and they are protected by the police ...

Can you conceive of any violence greater than that of this woman who burns the scarf in a public place, in the eyes of everyone, saying the Family Code penalises women and finding support from the effeminised, the halfmen and the transexuals ...

It is not violence to demand that woman stays at home, in an atmosphere of chastity, reserve and humility and that she only goes out in cases of necessity defined by the legislator ... to demand the segregation of sexes among school students and the absence of that stinking mixing that causes sexual violence ... [13]

But regeneration can also mean challenging the state and elements of imperialism’s political domination. Thus the Iranian Islamists did close down the biggest US “listening” station in Asia and seize control of the US embassy. The Hezbollah in the southern Lebanon and Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza have played a key role in the armed struggle against Israel. The Algerian FIS did organise huge demonstrations against the US war against Iraq – even though these lost them their Saudi funding. Regeneration can even mean, in certain instances, giving support to the material struggles against exploitation of workers and peasants, as with the Iranian Mujahedin in 1979-82.

The different interpretations of regeneration naturally appeal to those from different social classes. But the religious phraseology can prevent those involved recognising their differences with one another. In the heat of the struggle individuals can mix the meanings together, so that the fight against the unveiling of women is seen as the fight against the Western oil companies and the abysmal poverty of the mass of people. Thus in Algeria in the late 1980s, Belhadj,

made himself the voice of all those with nothing to lose ... Conceiving Islam in its most pure scriptural form, he preached strict application of its commandments ... Every Friday Belhadj made war against the entire world, Jews and Christians, Zionists, communists and secularists, liberals and agnostics, governments of the East and the West, Arab or Muslim heads of state, Westernised party leaders and intellectuals, were the favourite targets of his weekly preaching. [14]

Yet beneath this confusion of ideas there were real class interests at work.




7. A.S. Ahmed, Discovering Islam (New Delhi, 1990), pp.61-64.

8. For an account of Afghan Sufism, see O. Roy, Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan (Cambridge, 1990), pp.38-44. For Sufism in India and Pakistan, see A.S. Ahmed, op. cit., pp.90-98.

9. I. Khomeini, Islam and Revolution (Berkeley, 1981), quoted in A.S. Ahmed, op. cit. p.31.

10. O. Roy, op. cit., p5. A leading Islamist, Hassan al-Turabi, leader of the Sudanese Islamic Brotherhood, argues exactly the same, calling for an Islamicisation of society because “religion can become the most powerful motor of development”, in Le nouveau reveil de 1’Islam, Liberation (Paris), 5 August, 1994.

11. E. Abrahamian, Khomeinism (London, 1993), p.2.

12. Ibid.

13. Who is responsible for violence? in l’Algerie par les Islamistes, edited by M. Al Ahnaf, B. Botivewau and F. Fregosi (Paris, 1990), pp.132ff.

14. Ibid., p.31.


Last updated on 17.6.2002