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International Socialism, Spring 1979


Phil Marfleet

Islam and Revolution


From International Socialism, 2:4, Spring 1979.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up for the Marxists’ Internet Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The following discussion is published here as a background to recent events – particularly in Iran – and as a point of departure for further, more contemporary (and more detailed) work to come.

The Islamic Revolution in Iran marks a new era of Islamic revival for the whole of the Muslim world. It has come with the blessings of Allah as a result of the jihad of Muslims in Iran, and a reward for the 50,000 martyred lives which the Iranian Muslims had sacrificed in their struggle.

The Shah’s … anti-Islamic regime was crushed forever. The Muslim masses destroyed it with their faith in Allah and their bare hands.

The enemies of Islam ... branded Islam as reactionary, medieval and oppressive, they accused the Ulema of being agents of imperialism and the masses of being ignorant, backward and unworthy of freedom and independence.

Islam is a divinely-revealed system of life. It is humane, unprejudiced, equitable and most suitable for the organisation of human life and fulfilling man’s ambition for freedom, progress and happiness.

We give our full support to the leaders of the Islamic revolution of Iran in their effort to establish Islamic rule. The Islamic revolution of Iran shall be an inspiration to Muslims the world over.

(From a leaflet issued by Muslim students in the UK)

What are we to make of the place of religion in the revolution in Iran? On the one hand the whole experience of the revolution has borne out the hopes of revolutionary socialists. This has been a revolution led by the working class, whose mass strikes brought the Shah to his knees. Industrial workers, based on the workplaces have formed the embryonic workers’ councils which hold out the promise of a struggle for workers’ power. All the ideas which only organised workers can fight for – full trade union rights, the purging of the collaborators and secret police from the workplaces, the election of managers from the shopfloor – have come more and more fully to the top of the revolutionary agenda. Women have led in the struggles in streets and in the workplaces, and for their own rights. But for every slogan shouted against the Shah we have heard the chorus ‘Allah akhbar’ – ‘God is the greatest’. And the huge portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini that swayed their way through the streets of Tehran or Tabriz in the hands of both men and women have not been confined to the street demonstrations. When the factory councils have met to discuss the next step for the revolution they have often done so under the same fixed stare from the Ayatollah, the walls hung with quotations from the Koran.

The language of Islam has, certainly, so far dominated the events in Iran. It has been easy for most bourgeois commentators to agree with Muslim observers that this has indeed been an “Islamic revolution”. And superficially at least, most socialists have had to say that Islam has played at least a “complementary” role.

There are already hosts of contradictory ideas in circulation. Not surprisingly, the Sunday Express has referred to Khomeini as “a Moslem fanatic”, recommending to the Iranian people that they were, and could again be better off under the Shah. The more hysterical left-wing newspapers have described the ayatollahs and mullahs from the beginning as enemies of the people, not to be differentiated from the Shah and his friends. On the other side of the fence views vary between the Muslim acclamation that Islam has been and will always be the only liberator, to the more measured comments of, for example, The Middle East magazine: “(Khomeini’s) Islam does not have to be reactionary and conserva­tive. The new Iran could be a progressive force in the region.” [1]

Meanwhile, in Iran, Khomeini and the “Revolutionary Council” proceed with their edicts on the new “Islamic” laws. News of stonings, hangings and shootings are pumped through by Western journalists, and we see film of mullahs on the television lecturing on the “correct line”. Khomeini announces the establish­ment of an Islamic Republic, a return to the sharia law and to the umma.

What do Khomeini, and the “Islamic revolutionaries” mean? What is their “umma“? Can it be recreated in the twentieth century? What are the facts about the “Islamic community”, the “Islamic republic” and the “Muslim state”? The revolution in Iran is still unfolding and others will take up the debate over the precise role and relative weight of Islamic ideas and institutions. But some answers concerning the basic ideas with which the religious are working will be useful for the present.

What is Islam?

Islam means “surrender”. Those who “”surrender” to the total will of God – Allah – are the muslim – literally ‘the surrenderee”. This faith of surrender to the will of the one God first appeared in Western Arabia, in about the year 610 AD. It was begun by Muhammad ibn Abdullah, a man from a merchant family of Mecca.

Mecca had grown rapidly in the course of a generation, and by the early seventh century occupied a position as the leading Arabian commercial centre. Prospering from the strategic position of the western province of the western province of Hejaz – in that part of the Arabian peninsula which lay between the territories of the warring Byzantine and Persian empires – Mecca had become the caravan centre for the region. Meccan businessmen had transformed the life of the city and that of many neighbouring tribes. The caravan trade generated vast wealth for a few Meccan families, and drew in many of the local nomadic population in alliances which gave them a place in the trading expeditions or established agreements on security over the valuable trade routes.

The rapid economic change in Mecca brought widespread disruption in social life. The social and political norms which had governed behaviour in the city had been those of the desert tribe. The more intense commercial life brought a breakup which transformed the nomadic values of communalism, solidarity equality and mutual responsibility into those of acquisition, exclusiveness and individualism. A handful of men in Mecca

acquired great fortunes, and as they established powerful trading monopolies took care to see to it that these gains were secure. It seems to be clear from Islamic and other documents that the majority of the population of Mecca, and those attracted from the countryside by the wealth of the city, came to feel not only economically insecure, but with the loss of much of the traditional sense of community, deeply alienated from the new commercial ethic.

Muhammad ibn Abdullah belonged to the clan of Hashim, part of the leading and most wealthy Meccan tribe, the Quraysh. Members of Quraysh held most of the important trading monopolies. Muhammad, like his relatives, readily participated in business, and was at times modestly successful, leading caravans to Syria and elsewhere. Though not personally a thrusting entrepreneur in the true contemporary Meccan style, after his marriage to the wealthy widow Khadija, which raised him rapidly from a quite poor to extremely wealthy status, Muhammad played out most of the parts of the merchant’s role.

But Muhammad always stood slightly apart from the generality of wealthy Meccan society – he was never, it seems, fully committed as a hard-headed businessman, being a more thoughtful and sensitive character, who as the years passed became increasingly preoccupied with his own thoughts, showing a particular interest in religious ideas of the Jewish tribes and the few Christians who were part of the Meccan community.

In about 610 AD Muhammad received his first visitation from “The Voice”. He had been in the habit of disappearing for period of “holy retreat”, and on one of these occasions heard a voice which told him “You are the Messenger of God”. Later he was told “Recite”. Muhammad asked “What shall I recite”. The Voice of Allah told him “Recite: in the name of the lord who created thee”. “And”, said Muhammad, “I recited”. Over the remaining twenty-two years of his life Muhammad was to hear The Voice hundreds of times. When written down and collected, the messages he received became known as al-qur’an – “the recitation”, the Koran.

Leaving aside the historical and theological debates over the authenticity and detailed content of Muhammad’s “revelations” the scanty evidence that we have seems to point to the conclusion that Muhammad was a sincere and socially-conscious individual whose main preoccupation in the early days of his teaching was to express the deep distress felt by many in the Meccan community over the new morality enforced by the voracious merchant class.

“While the rich merchants were increasing their personal wealth, they were also more disregarding their obligations towards the less fortunate members of their clan or family. The capital which had formed the basis of their earliest trading operations was probably the communal wealth of the group, of which they were only the administrators; but the profits went into their own pockets, and before long there was no communal property left. Those in a socially weak position, notably widows and orphans, were shamelessly cheated and oppressed.” [2]

Today’s Muslims wanting to associate themselves with what they call the “socialist” content of Islam point to the fact that the first converts to the new faith represented the most oppressed elements in Meccan society. Watt identifies three main groups – a small number of young men from the richest clans, but individuals who had been excluded from the most profitable enterprises; a second group from those clans excluded by the monopolists, and who as a result had become impoverished; and a third described by the Koran as “weak” – strangers to the city or those from neighbouring tribes who did not have a relationship with the richest merchant clans.

As we shall see it is not the case that Muhammad argued for a movement against the Meccan rich. By and large he accepted the new values of his tribe. His Islam was a corrective to the excesses of the newly-wealthy, and identified itself by arguing against the more crassly materialistic aspects of the city life, and the way in which these had left so many of the community isolated and insecure.

Muhammad crystallised his criticisms of the Meccans in increasingly strident attacks on their several gods. He argued for a single deity, Allah, who had created all things, was all powerful and was also wilful – while wishing men to act honourably and charitably, he would most severely punish those who on the Day of Judgement had not obeyed those instructions he was conveying through his Messenger.

The Messenger, of course, was Muhammad. He was also the Warner, sent to tell of the awful power and will of God. Those who became Muslims, who “surrendered” to God’s will, accepted the place of Muhammad, the Warner, as definitive and the last of God’s Prophets. There had been a long line of such Messengers – including Abraham, Moses and Jesus. All preached of the One God. Woe betide those who did not accept this God and Muhammad as the last Prophet.

Whilst Muhammad did not organise politically against the rich and powerful of Mecca it is no surprise that he rapidly incurred their displeasure.

It was the increasing pressure brought to bear on him by his own clansmen which led in 622 AD to the hijra, the emigration, to Medina. In Medina, with the core-group of seventy-five Emigrants – the muhajirun, then with the newly-converted Medinan Helpers – the ansar, Muhammad set about the task of creating a fully fledged independent Muslim community.

The community, the umma – which today’s “Islamic revolutionaries” are intent on reconstituting – was to be a unit within which all the believers would be united in co-operation with one another, and against the unbelievers. All Muslims, even the humblest, would be assured of the protection of Allah, and would owe one another exclusive aid and protection. Whilst all agreed to “surrender” to the power and will of Allah, they also accepted the unique leadership of Muhammad. Muhammad was a conciliator within the umma. Indeed his skills as a conciliator, and the increasing confidence in his judgement led to rapid successes in drawing the Medinans into the Islamic community. In the course of resolving the many daily problems within the community, and then in Medinan affairs outside the umma, Muhammad elaborated the whole code of social conduct which when written down as the Koran, or later as hadith – traditions – was to define the basis of Muslim law – the Shar’ia.

Muhammad combined his skills as preacher and arbiter with that of successful military strategist. The great majority of the Medinans were converted, and agreements and alliances made with the neighbouring tribes. The more intransigent enemies – those who could not be coaxed into alliance or converted – were despatched with considerable brutality – as was the Arabian (or indeed the European) tradition.

Within twenty years of his first revelations, Muhammad had returned to Mecca leading a victorious army. The city was “converted”, wholesale, and Muhammad declared the “pagan” shrine at the Ka’aba to be dedicated to Allah. Muhammad returned to die shortly afterwards at Medina, but the umma had by now been extended to the whole of Western Arabia.

The caliphs extended the empire of Islam with extraordinary speed. Within a few years the Muslim armies had extended their control over most of the “Middle East” and North Africa. Within the new borders of the empire the caliphs set about developing the framework of a state which Muhammad had begun to construct at Medina.

Authority was placed in the hands of paid Arabian governors who were sent out to control the newly conquered lands, though, day-to-day administration remained with those whom the Islamic armies already found in control. The Arabian and indigenous authorities were instructed to impose the rudiments of a civil and criminal law – drawn from the Koran, and where it could remembered, from the sunna or custom of the Prophet.

The umma thus became a religious community which embraced all the converts to Islam (not all those conquered were required to convert: “people of the Book” – Jews and Christians-were tolerated), but which was also effectively synonomous with the extent of the military conquests of the Islamic armies. Within the umma, the idea of community was given meaning by the Islamic prescriptions, clearly stated by the Prophet, on prayer, pilgrimage, alms-giving etc., but also by the continually-evolving process of establishing Law by reference to the sunna. The constant necessity for supplementing the law gave rise to the production, first orally and later in writing, of scores of thousands of Traditions of the Prophet’s conduct. Each was said to enshrine some legal or ritual principle.

The spiritual leader of the Islamic community was to be the caliph acting as the Prophet’s successor and as guardian of his teachings. This has been the tradition of Sunni Islam (orthodox Islam, literally, “of the tradition”) until modern times – the various political leaders of “Islamic” empires like that of the Ottomans claiming religious leadership as the variously legitimised guardians of the faith.

For the shi’ia Islam which has produced the leaders who are intent on restoring the religious law in Iran, the question of such leadership has been crucial. The shi’ite movement (shi’a – “party” or “partisan”) developed around the question of the spiritual and political succession to Muhammad. Interestingly, the shi’ites, like the other early split – the Kharijites, are said to have represented largely those Muslims who had not profited from the massive expansion of Islam in the same fashion as had the families and friends of the first caliphs. They also resented the vast bureaucratic organisation which had sprouted equally rapidly and was leaving them with a feeling of exclusion or impotence. The “party” developed as a secessionist movement which claimed the Islamic leadership was not a matter of election – as with the first three caliphs – but rested with the descendents of the Prophet and the members of his immediate family – like his son-in-law the fourth caliph – ’Ali. Spiritual leadership should pass through ’Ali’s sons Hasan and Husein.

This apparently merely theological difference between sunni and shi’a is enormously important for the Islamic revolutionaries of Iran today. As the magazine The Middle East commented, on the subject of Khomeini’s proposed “Islamic Republic”, “Comparisons cannot be drawn with existing Islamic states like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or Libya ... these countries are based on Sunni Islam, whereas Iran is Shiite.” [3]

The various descendents of the Prophets would be able to interpret the religious teachings anew. They could be innovators, their ideas could break new ground, for whilst they retained their legitimising connection with the Koran or the sunnah, they could be flexible and responsive. This quality has been absorbed by the whole body of shi’ism, with which its establishment of imams, ayatollahs of various degrees of sanctity, and the mullahs, has developed not merely a sort of hierarchy which is almost entirely absent in the orthodox sunni, but a large degree of involvement by religious leaders in all areas of social and political life. The “elasticity” of shi’a theory has, its apologists argue, made it uniquely able to resolve the contradiction in, for example, Iran, between a seventh century religion and a twentieth century industrial state.

Taking the “undistorted” Islam of Muhammad and the “rightly-guided caliphs” Khomeini and other Shi’a leaders in combination with the various “Islamic revolutionaries” have declared that they will reinstitute the umma. Once again, all Muslims, even the humblest, would be assured of the protection of Allah and of his spiritual agents on earth. The law will be restored and Muslims will live as the Prophet had intended, submitting to the will of God, and to the letter of his Law.

Islam and inequality

“The ideal Islamic society would consist of citizens who, having chosen their faith, have become liberated from every allegiance other than that which they have undertaken towards God. A society which truly lived and applied Islam could not but be free and democratic. Its citizens would be, as Muhammed put it, ‘as equal as the teeth of a comb’.” [4]

Muhammad’s faith developed in a context in which the mass of the people were suffering both materially and “spiritually” from the incursions of the newly wealthy Meccan commercial class. But it is by no means the case that Muhammad rejected commerce or the business ethic.

There is no whisper of a criticism in the Koran of the mercantile community as such, only of particular points in the conduct and outlook of the rich – their oppression of the weak, their especial reliance on wealth.

“Beware! You do not honour the orphan, Nor urge to feed the poor.
Greedily you devour the inheritance (of the weak)
And you love riches inordinately.”

(Koran 89, 18–21)

In contrast, the just will act generously:

“They were sleeping but little at night.
At first light they were praying for forgiveness,
Their goods they shared with the beggar and the destitute”.

(Koran 51, 17–1)

Wealth in itself was by no means evil, but it should not be amassed simply for its own sake. Part should be given to the poor:

“Whoso gives and shows piety,
And professes the truth of the most excellent (reward),
We shall smooth (his way) to ultimate happiness.
Whoso is mean and bumptious on account of his wealth,
Who denies the most excellent (reward),
We shall smooth (his way) to ultimate misery.
His fortune shall not profit him when he falls into the abyss.”

(Koran 92, 5–11)

As the rather extraordinary English translation puts it – those who are “bumptious” – ostentatious, self-satisfied, lacking in compassion – will face “ultimate misery”. The “bumptious” describes peculiarly well the values of the newly-rich; self-centred, hard and cynical, they offended Muhammad’s own sense of humanity. He was not offended, however, by the system itself. The practice of accumulation itself was never taken up – it was the outward manifestation of mercantilism which was offensive.

Rodinson affirms that “the Koran has nothing against private property, since it lays down the rules for inheritance for example. It even advises that inequalities be not challenged, contenting itself with denouncing the habitual impiety of rich men, stressing the uselessness of wealth in the face of God’s judgement and the temptation to neglect religion that wealth brings.” [5]

Indeed Rodinson points out that “the Koran looks with favour on commercial activity”.

“The Koran, as a present day Muslim apologist honestly sums up the position, ‘does not merely say that one must not forget one’s portion of this world’ (28.77), it also says it is proper to combine the practice of religion and material life, carrying on trade even during pilgrimages, and goes so far as to mention commercial profit under the name of ‘God’s bounty’.”

(Koran 2, 193–194, 197–198 and 62, 9–10)

Though so many of them were so completely offensive to him Muhammad proclaimed that “The trustworthy merchant will sit in the shade of God’s throne at the Day of Judgement”. [6]

The Koran fully accepts commerce and “big business”. As Watt points out “the Qur’an is deeply penetrated by mercantile terms, not merely in illustrative material, but in the formulation of some of its main doctrines”. [7] It is full of references to “profit” in the commercial sense, to buying and selling and trading and to hiring. “Wage labour is seen as something perfectly normal. It is a particular case of hiring. One hires a man’s labour power just as one hires a house or a boat.” [8]

One could hardly expect Muhammad to be anti-capitalist when he began his preaching in 610 AD! However, the particularly commercial ethic which crops up throughout the Koran has produced a tradition which is shot through with quite hard-nosed commercial principles, in which property rights are used as definitions, like moral absolutes. As the Sh’ia theologian Nasr expresses it;

“A person who does not fulfil his moral obligations falls short in Muslim eyes on the simplest moral plane. He is like a man who has rented a house and refuses to pay the rent. Man has accepted a covenant with God but simply refuses to live up to his side of the agreement.” [9]

Here then Allah as the landlord and the Muslim as tenant enjoy a relationship mediated not by trust, understanding or even the Prophet’s “surrender” or “submission”, but by rent!

There have been a whole host of theorists for “Islam as socialism”, who have tried to lay out the case that certain Koranic restrictions on the right to hold property, and an insistence on mutual aid within the community will guide the Muslim world along we road to radical social change.

The Nasserite “Arab Socialist” Abdel Moghny Said, draws profusely on the Koran to bear out his case:

According to the general economic and social principles given in the Koran, there should be a reasonable minimum standard of living for each individual, as well as a maximum level of affluence …

The aim of sufficiency or adequacy for everyone is affirmed in the Quran in simple words but carrying the strongest meaning: “God gives sufficient to the man who serves him”.

The requirements to remedy material inequality and level out extremes of wealth and poverty is underlined throughout the Quran, and themes such as the following often occur.

When you give, give from the best of what you have.
God favours a full life for everyone.
Never forget that everyone has an equal right to a share of life’s gifts.

Said insists that it is a principle “that wealth should not be allowed to accumulate in the hands of the privileged few to the extent that they could exploit and dominate, ‘that it become not a commodity confined to a limited circle of Wealth’.” [11]

But he also has to point out that “individual property and private enterprise are permitted in Islam, but such permission is subject to self-imposed limitations intended to prevent exploitation and protect the interests of the community as a whole.” [12] He continues

“… for all there will be ranks derived from what (work) they do. Economic grades are necessary for the functioning of human society, and they provide much-needed cadres of authority and responsibility. They are the natural outcome of man’s varying abilities. All this is developed in the Quran.” [13]

Such contradictions run through all “Islamic socialist” ideologies, and are rooted in the quite clear Koranic acceptance of property rights, rights to inheritance, and the very favourable attitude taken toward mercantile practice.

For Rodinson,

“The notice that it is possible to use the traditional concept of property used in the sunnah, and the relative restrictions it imposes, in order to advocate and promote a move by Muslim societies towards socialist structures, or even towards those vaguely defined forms of social control of economic life which are recommended by ‘advanced’ economists is utterly fantastic ... all that is possible ... is demagogic use (demagogic in the strict sense) of the slogans and prestige of Islam as a banner to be raised above more or less socialist decisions that have originated elsewhere than from religious sources. They could have done as well for almost anything else.” [14]

It is no surprise that with the massive expansion of the Islamic empire after the death of the Prophet, with the long period of relative stability introduced to politically quite closely-unified areas, commercial activity – the original driving force behind the early Meccan hegemony in Hejaz – became widespread amongst all sections of the population throughout the region.

“The merchants of the Muslim Empire (during this early period during and after the first caliphs) conformed perfectly to Weber’s criteria for capitalist activity. They seized any and every available opportunity for profit, and calculated their outlays, their encashments, and their profits in money terms.” [15]

The great Arab traveller and historian Ibn Khaldun described the character of this trade in the fourteenth century: “It should be known that (this) commerce means the attempt to make a profit by increasing capital ... the accrued amount is called profit (ribh).” [16]

Riba, profit derived from money-lending, or usury, was prohibited by the Koran. From the very earliest times, however, certainly during the Prophet’s own lifetime, the prohibitions were imply ignored, and finance capital has always played a leading role in “Islamic” economic activity. Many practitioners of Islamic law put great effort into hiyal (“ruses” or “wiles”) which by “esoteric” (sic) explanations of the Prophet’s words devised methods of getting around the theoretical prohibitions.

Integrating his various ideas about wealth and status, the Prophet made work a virtue: “No laden one should bear another’s load. And man should only have that for which he makes effort.” [17]

Where such effort might appear to “create” wealth it was doubly virtuous, for it allowed the rich the opportunity to distribute a fraction to the poor: “The Prophet heaps praise upon those who, far from being parasites, enrich themselves so as to be able to help the deprived.” [18]

The Prophet therefore squares the circle of the problem of holding riches (and the likelihood of misusing them) as neatly as Weber’s “Protestant Ethic” was able to do for the aspirant European capitalist of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Muhammad was indeed motivated by a distaste of Meccan mercantile excess. But the most generous possible interpretations must conclude that the greater part of his commentary on property-holders, inheritance, trade and so on, merely reflected approval for those whose “efforts” had secured them wealth or position. It would have been quite extraordinary had the Prophet, a product of early seventh century Arabia, come to any more radical conclusion.

Towards the end of his life though he lived frugally and gave generously, Muhammad became enormously wealthy. With the consolidation of the umma after his death, the succeeding four caliphs enjoyed equal position. And by this time, with the fusion of church” and “state”, the wealth and power of the political leaders, and those who served them in the developing imperial bureaucracy fitted without contradiction over their claims to hold spiritual leadership.

The case for early Islam as a guide to revolutionary practice is not a convincing one. The umma institutionalised inequality, though to be sure, with a far more sophisticated ideological apparatus than ever the Meccan merchants had to hand. The various modern attempts to recreate the umma, and to draw on early Islam as a revolutionary model, have not been able to rise above this contradiction, notwithstanding the often very considerable radical passions which have been brought to bear – a subject we hope to discuss in the next issue of International Socialism.

For those “Islamic marxists” and others with illusions in Khomeini’s project for a reconstituted umma in Iran, the Islamic evidence itself is quite conclusive. In effect the Koran prescribed inequality, the early umma institutionalised it. It has nothing common with a radical movement for a more equal society. And Rodinson observed, “the idea that early Islam can be a stimulus for socialist change is, simply, utterly fantastic”.


1. The Middle East, No. 53 (March 1979), p. 28.

2. W. Montgomery Watt in Islam and the Integration of Society (London 1961), p. 7.

3. The Middle East, No. 53, p. 28.

4. Abdel Moghny Said, in Arab Socialism (London 1972), p. 46.

5. Rodinson in Islam and Capitalism (London 1974), p. 14.

6. ibid., p. 16.

7. Watt, op. cit., p. 9.

8. Rodinson, (1974), p. 16.

9. Seyyed Hossein Nasr in Ideals and Realities of Islam (London 1966), p. 27.

10. Said, op. cit., pp. 25–26.

11. Said, ibid., p. 27.

12. Said, ibid., p. 26.

13. Said, ibid., p. 26.

14. Rodinson, (1974), p. 175.

15. ibid., p. 30.

16. ibid., p. 30.

17. Said, op. cit., p. 26.

18. Rodinson (1974), p. 17.

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