Communism and Religion--Part 3: Islam

Roots and Revolution

By Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #916, July 20, 1997

Let's apply dialectical materialism to examine certain aspects of Islam and its Holy Book, the Qur'an (Koran), historically and in the present-day world. In A History of God, Karen Armstrong discusses the rise of the Islamic religion, at the time of its founder Muhammad, at the beginning of the seventh century. She links this with significant changes in the circumstances and "fortunes" of the Meccan tribe of Quraysh, of which Muhammad was a member--specifically, a rapid and dramatic change from a nomadic life in the Arabian steppes to becoming very successful in trade in the area of Mecca (in what is now Saudi Arabia). Along with this, there were corresponding ideological changes. Armstrong characterizes it this way: "their drastically altered lifestyle meant that the old tribal values had been superseded by a rampant and ruthless capitalism"--actually this was a pre-capitalist mercantilism but nevertheless Armstrong's point is important. And she goes on to say: "People felt obscurely disoriented and lost. Muhammad knew that the Quraysh were on a dangerous course and needed to find an ideology that would help them adjust to their new conditions." "At this time," she adds, "any political solution tended to be of a religious nature."

Islam at that time, as Muhammad was first forging it, had many different influences, including the influences of the other major monotheistic religions, Judaism and Christianity, which both had adherents in that region. Out of all this, Muhammad developed a new religion that fused elements of these monotheistic religions and religious traditions with traditions from the Bedouin tribes of Arabia. But Islam was a new synthesis, adapted to the changing conditions in Arabia at the time of Muhammad; and this religion, as it was evolved by Muhammad, was able to unite Arabs across and beyond tribal divisions. This was an important factor. The changing conditions brought forth both the need and the possibility to unite Arabs across and beyond tribal divisions. This was one of the great strengths of the new religion of Islam that Muhammad synthesized out of different trends and influences.

Now, when I say he forged this new synthesis out of these different traditions in the context of changing conditions, I don't necessarily mean that Muhammad sat there and consciously said "I'll borrow a little bit from Judaism...I'll take a little from Christianity, I'll make Christ one of the main prophets..." and so on (although he did incorporate significant parts of the whole tradition of Abraham and Moses). Muhammad claimed to be receiving this from god (Allah), via the archangel Gabriel. And Muhammad apparently spoke much of what became the Qur'an while in a trance-like state.

Obviously, I'm not in a position to know whether, or to what degree, he was sincere, to what degree he actually got himself into a trance-like state and had all kinds of hallucinations and other things--this is quite likely since it seems he was frequently fasting--and to what degree he coldly calculated it. It is clearly the case, as I will show a little bit later, that there are parts of the Qur'an that he coldly calculated, yet it is quite possible that, in an overall and basic way, Muhammad actually believed that he was receiving the divine word from Allah.

But the point here that's important, in terms of situating this materially and historically, is that this was a religion under these new and drastically changing conditions. It was a new religion that was able not only to provide an ideological rationalization for these changing conditions, but was able to unite Arabs across and beyond tribal divisions. As Armstrong sums up: Muhammad "brought the Arabs a spirituality that was uniquely suited to their own traditions and which unlocked such reserves of power that within a hundred years they had established their own great empire, which stretched from the Himalayas to the Pyrenees, and founded a unique civilization."

Of course, as Armstrong's summation also implies, this empire was not built on spirituality--on the strength of its ideas--alone or essentially. It was spread not merely, or mainly, by the force of its compelling logic--or its compelling spirituality--but by the force of arms. Still, Armstrong is also right to stress how this new ideology--wearing religious garb--was suited to the traditions and to the new conditions of the Arabs in that period and did provide a unifying ideological "mold" and driving force for the establishment and expansion of their civilization and empire.

The Origins of Islam

But what is the tradition of Islam, what is the essence of that ideology, and what kind of civilization--that is, what kind of production and social relations--does it reflect and serve? What role does this play in today's world and in relation to the necessary transformation of society and the world? What role, in other words, does it play in relation to the two radical ruptures spoken of in the "Communist Manifesto" (the radical rupture with traditional property relations and with traditional ideas)?

Islam, no less than Christianity or Judaism, enshrines and expresses patriarchy and the oppression of women, the taking of women and others as plunder through warfare and as prizes of war, slavery and other forms of exploitation. These are all openly preached and promoted in the Qur'an. And, as noted earlier, Muhammad adopted much of the tradition of Abraham and Moses. As part of this, the Qur'an adopts to a large degree the explanation given by the "Mosaic" scriptures of the origins of life and the universe, and so on, which reflect the limited understanding of nature of that time and which, in many essential aspects, have been shown to be in error by scientific discovery since that time. This "Mosaic tradition" and other elements from the "Judeo-Christian tradition" were interwoven by Muhammad with the traditions of the Arab peoples. And, as the Islamic empire spread to other areas, and other peoples were conquered and came under the sway of this empire, some of the traditions of these conquered peoples were also "integrated into" the Islamic religion, while the Qur'an remained the essential foundation and backbone of this religion--just as Christianity, as it has expanded its reach and especially as it has been enshrined as the official religion of various empires, has incorporated elements of other religions, such as the Pagan religion in ancient Rome and the various religions of peoples conquered and colonized by Christian empires.

Now, as to how the Qur'an reflects the age and the general kind of society that Muhammad lived in--and also the very particular society and conditions that Muhammad was most directly familiar with, including the geographic as well as the social conditions that he lived in--examples of this can be found throughout the Qur'an. One example is the vision of heaven presented in the Qur'an. This vision is one where shade and relief from the hot sun is important. But this is not going to be a situation where everybody in heaven has air conditioning--the reason being, there was no air conditioning at the time Muhammad lived, and even in his trances he could not conjure up an image of electrically powered air conditioning. But what is talked about in the Qur'an, when it speaks of heaven, is a scene with lots of shady trees, and water flowing underneath. In other words, this is an idealized vision of what someone who lived in the Arabian desert, in the material and social conditions in which Muhammad lived, would conceive of as an ideal place to stay for eternity. The Qur'an doesn't talk about how people would be able to visit other parts of the world by jet plane, because there were no jet planes at that time. But it does present this idealized vision of heaven.

This idealized vision of heaven portrayed in the Qur'an reflects not only the geographic conditions in which Muhammad lived (which comes through in the emphasis on shady trees and water flowing, and so on) but it also reflects, more importantly, the patriarchal and generally the oppressive and exploitative social relations of that age and society. This is why, in the Qur'an's vision of paradise, there are not only going to be shady trees and rivers flowing underneath, but there are going to be all kinds of seductive "dark-eyed maidens," as well as young boys, who will serve the faithful in paradise!

Now what does this vision of paradise tell us about those Muhammad envisioned as the faithful, who would be rewarded this way in paradise, and what does it tell us about the social relations and the underlying mode of production that Muhammad was, in fact, expressing, whether in a trance-like state or otherwise, when he brought forward this religion? What is being expressed here is not the vision, or the will, of some eternal, transcendental, all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful god (Allah) but instead is the vision of a human being reflecting the natural and social conditions, including relations of patriarchal oppression, in which he lives. And this comes through in ways that get a lot funkier and even more down on the ground. There is, as I referred to earlier, some cold calculation on Muhammad's part that is incorporated in the Qur'an: besides the general and very frequently repeated references to heaven with the "dark-eyed maidens" waiting on the faithful, and so on, there are even references in the Qur'an that are much more personal and clearly a matter of personal calculation by Muhammad.

This comes out very sharply, for example, in one chapter (sura) of the Qur'an called (in English translation), "Prohibition" (or "The Forbidding"). This is very interesting. You have to remember, when you read the Qur'an, that it's not supposed to be Muhammad speaking as such, it's Allah speaking, through the archangel Gabriel. And at one point Allah feels moved to scold Muhammad for being too lenient with his wives. As recorded by Muhammad, Allah tells Muhammad--this is a very intimate and personal reference right here in the Qur'an--Allah tells Muhammad that he (Muhammad) has been doing too much to please his wives. What was Allah taking about?

Well, you see, Muhammad's wives were mad at him because he kept on sleeping with a slave woman that he had promised he was going to cut loose, and obviously his wives had been complaining about this, so here it is, right in the Qur'an, Allah starts scolding Muhammad for having been too lenient with his wives about all this. And, as relayed by Muhammad, Allah warns Muhammad's wives that there are plenty more where they came from: "it may well be if he divorce you, his Lord will give him in your place better wives than yourselves!!" In effect, what has happened is that Muhammad says, my wives are out of line, so I need a verse in the Qur'an telling them they'd better watch out or I'll get better wives. Maybe Muhammad actually believed, or convinced himself, that he got this word from Allah, but the least that can be said is that this is very convenient for Muhammad! Now, in passages like this in the Qur'an, what comes through is not only a general expression of certain patriarchal social relations, but a direct (and rather crude) voicing of Muhammad's personal interests in enforcing, in his own family-sexual relations, these oppressive patriarchal relations. Muhammad even manages to enlist Allah to warn his wives that they'd better quit bugging him about sleeping with this slave mistress that he's got.

Islam and Imperialism

Now, moving from the origins of Islam and how the Qur'an reflects the world--including the economic and social relations--in which Muhammad lived, about 1400 years ago, we can say that, in terms of the role of Islam in the world today, generally speaking, in the societies where Islam is the dominant religion there has not been any kind of thoroughgoing bourgeois-democratic revolution, and society has not been thoroughly transformed in correspondence with the bourgeois mode of production. At the same time, in many of these societies, with the further penetration of imperialism, there is a tendency for a kind of "hybrid" to develop in which Islam in various ways upholds the old traditions, corresponding to pre-capitalist relations, but attempts to adapt or "interpret" these in accordance with certain changes in productive forces and corresponding production relations. (And, to a large degree, the differences in the "interpretation" and practice of Islam in different societies, as with Christianity and religion in general, reflects differences in the prevailing production and social relations in those societies, including the degree of imperialist penetration and corresponding transformation of economic relations and conditions).

You can see this, for example, in Iran. During the 1960s and '70s, while remaining a semi-feudal as well as semi-colonial country, Iran underwent certain partial but significant economic and social transformations associated with the "modernization" program of the Shah, under the direction of U.S. imperialism. Now, when the Shah was overthrown--and reaction against the effects of this "modernization" had a lot to do with the upheaval that resulted in the overthrow of the Shah--the "Islamic Republic" that replaced the Shah in power has not attempted to do away with the technology, etc., associated with the Shah's "modernization" and generally with imperialist penetration and domination of the economy of Iran, but instead has attempted to make use of this technology.

Actually, there is an analogy here with the Christian Fascists in the U.S. and similar forces in other imperialist countries. The Islamic fundamentalists aren't going around literally trying to impose all the economic and technological conditions of the time of Muhammad, any more than the Christian Fascists are trying to remake society on the basis of the economic and technological conditions that existed at the time of Jesus or of Moses or Abraham. They're not saying, "throw out all advanced technology." They use very advanced technology.

And the Islamic fundamentalists in Iran are even going forward on the basis of some changes that were made under the Shah--certain partial changes in the economic base of society. They're not trying to reverse all that, but what they are attempting to do is to graft into the superstructure, and also somewhat into the production and social relations, elements of the old tradition. So it becomes kind of a "hybrid": the society overall remains a semi-colonial, semi-feudal society, but it has these peculiar features where the superstructure is to a significant degree dominated by forces who are seeking to impose aspects of culture and custom and social relations that run counter to "modernization" while at the same time, in a fundamental sense, these forces are compelled to act in accordance with the underlying production relations of semi-colonial, semi-feudal society and to actually facilitate the further domination and penetration of imperialism in their country.

Now, in a certain way, there is an analogy between the role of Islam today in Iran and many other countries, and the initial development of Islam under the circumstances Muhammad faced (which I briefly summarized). The analogy, or the similarity, lies in the massive upheaval and dislocation in society--and in today's world the massive uprooting and urbanization (or, we could describe this as the "shantytown-ization") of masses of (former) peasants--and the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism in the face of these changes.

In today's world, all this upheaval, disruption of traditional life, and dislocation is associated--objectively and to a significant degree in popular consciousness--with Western imperialism and its penetration and domination of the country. In other words, a lot of this upheaval--the uprooting and dislocation of masses of peasants, who are being forced in the millions into the cities, or into miserable shantytown conditions, and are being to a significant degree wrenched out of the formal economy--these changes are objectively very much related to and a product of the operation of imperialism, particularly Western imperialism. And, to a significant degree, in the minds of the masses these changes are associated with this imperialist penetration and domination. In the spontaneous consciousness of the masses, this is not understood in any kind of scientific way, but there is a certain popular association of this dislocation and desperation with imperialism and the West, and with "modernization"; and there is a rationalization for this that's provided by Islamic fundamentalism, which is profoundly unscientific. But this has a certain appeal because it does seem on the surface to correspond to--to provide an explanation for and a means of resisting--powerful, alien forces that have brought sudden and violent changes in the traditional way of life while continuing and deepening the immiseration of the masses.

Again, the example of the "Islamic Revolution" in Iran is very instructive in this regard, not only now but also in the original upheavals in '78 and '79 which led ultimately to the triumph of Khomeini and the forces associated with him as the rulers of the country--forces that are outwardly and in certain secondary aspects in opposition to "modernization" associated with imperialism but are fundamentally dependent upon and subordinate to imperialism and the international accumulation and rule of capital. You could see in the initial outpourings of the Iranian revolution that one of the main bases for the "Islamic Revolution" in general, and more specifically one of the main bases for the Khomeini forces, were these masses of recently dislocated and uprooted peasants who had been crowded into the rings of shantytowns around the cities.

Now, it is important to keep in mind that, in the revolutionary upsurge in Iran in this period, and particularly before the Islamic fundamentalists grouped around Khomeini consolidated their hold on government, there were many different forces in the field, including Maoists and other non-religious revolutionary forces as well as some Islamic forces who played a positive role in the revolutionary struggle, and who opposed the imposition of reactionary, theocratic rule by Khomeini & Co. Reactionary Islamic fundamentalism was not the only force in the field--it was not even the only Islamic trend in the field--although, unfortunately, it did win out in the short run and did turn the revolutionary upsurge into its opposite, into the consolidation of power by reactionary forces whose ideology and program represents the oppression and exploitation of the masses and ultimately the domination of imperialism.

At the same time, it is also important to understand that dislocated peasants who were crowded into the impoverished shantytowns were not the only significant force who were affected by the Shah's "modernizations" and more generally by imperialist domination in Iran and its continuing "penetration" and "transformation" of aspects of Iranian society. There were also significant groups within the middle strata, including the urban middle strata, of Iranian society who were affected by this. These forces also made up an important part of the social base for the ouster of the Shah, and some of them became a social base for the eventual consolidation of power by the Khomeini forces and their ©Islamic revolution.™

One very key aspect and indication of its actual counter-revolutionary nature is that this "Islamic revolution" in Iran did not really mobilize--and definitely did not fully unleash--the peasant masses who remain in the countryside. This "Islamic revolution" had (and has) no program for carrying out an agrarian revolution in the countryside as a pivotal part of an overall revolution. And here we can see, very dramatically, the need for a real revolution--a New Democratic Revolution as the direct prelude to the socialist revolution--which still cries out to be made in Iran, and which MLM forces there are working to bring about--a revolution led by the proletariat, which is capable of and does in fact win the masses away from the Islamic fundamentalists.

Islamic Fundamentalism and
the Proletarian Revolution

Islamic fundamentalism is a significant phenomenon as an ideological expression in the world today, but more than that as a political movement which is obviously gaining in influence and in organized strength, not only in the "Middle East," but in other parts of the world and even to a certain degree in the U.S. As with every other major social phenomenon, we have to get a deep and all-around understanding of Islamic fundamentalism as an ideological and a political trend and as a material force. We have to understand more deeply its attraction, particularly among those dislocated masses in the urban slums and shantytowns of many countries in the "Middle East" and some other parts of the Third World.

In this connection, I think it is important to speak to a point that is touched on in "The End of a Stage--The Beginning of a New Stage."* In "End/Beginning" there is a discussion of "the demise of communism"--in particular, the end of the Soviet Union as a counterfeit "communist" state (a revisionist state) and the break-up of the Soviet bloc--and how strategically this does not represent a defeat but a positive factor for us, how it represents revisionism becoming more openly bourgeois, and how this in turn provides more of "an uncontested field" for us, for genuine Marxist-Leninist-Maoists, in upholding the banner of communism and rallying the masses to that banner. Now, in reviewing this more recently and thinking about it in various aspects in light of developments since then, including the growing strength of this whole phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalism, it strikes me that there was a secondary tendency in "End/Beginning" to underestimate the complexity of the situation with the "demise" of Soviet revisionism.

As Lenin emphasized, at one point when he was arguing against "infantile leftism" and dogmatism, the world would be very simple and the revolution would be very easy if it just consisted of two opposing armies: one lines up on one side of the battlefield and says "we're for socialism," while the other one lines up on the opposite side of the battlefield and says "we are for imperialism," and they square off, and that's it. But, as Lenin was emphasizing, making revolution is always much more complex than that--there is always more than one army in the field (at least in a political sense, if not in a literal military sense), even within the broad camp of opposition to the ruling system--there are always many different banners being raised and rallying forces (and even the communist forces are themselves not "pure" but consist of many contradictory things). This is a principle that has important implications and application in a number of different ways, but here I'm focusing on how it applies to this phenomenon of the "demise of communism" and its consequences. And in fact one of the main things giving impetus to this growth of Islamic fundamentalism as a trend and to its influence and material force is precisely the changes in the Soviet Union (changes which have led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its bloc), as well as what happened in China with the coup and the restoration of capitalism in the mid '70s. So we have to continue to return to this reality and deepen our grasp of it, and be able to explain it to the masses as well as act on it in a deeper way. We have to recognize the strategically favorable situation, and maximize our advances in this situation, but in order to do this we have to take full account of and deal with the complexities of the situation.

It should be noted--and this is a very important point--that the growth of this Islamic fundamentalist trend is particularly among masses of people who have to be won to, and even have to be major forces in, the proletarian revolution--or the revolution led by the proletariat. In the case of Third World countries the revolution generally involves going through the stage of new democracy as a prelude to the socialist stage, but nevertheless in world-historical terms is part of the proletarian revolution. So, in an important aspect, there is a very profound and intense contention going on between us and these Islamic fundamentalist forces. These forces may, in certain contexts and to a certain limited extent, oppose imperialist domination, or aspects of this, but in the final analysis, where they pursue their own program and resist the program of the proletariat, they can only end up serving the rule of imperialism and the all-around exploitation and oppression of the masses of people.

In strategic terms, it is a question of winning these masses to one banner or the other--one that represents their fundamental interests or one that runs counter to those interests even if it opposes certain secondary aspects of the established order. These are masses of people, numbering in the hundreds of millions, that the ruling classes may consider, or declare, to be marginalized, but they are hardly marginal to the process of proletarian revolution and the transition from the bourgeois epoch to the communist epoch. And for that matter they're hardly marginal to the overall process of imperialist accumulation.

The growth of this Islamic fundamentalist trend is very pronounced precisely among these masses--particularly those people, in countries where Islam is a major religion, who have been uprooted and then migrate into the urban slums, or shantytowns, and who have not been integrated in any kind of articulated way into the formal economy. Not only were many of these masses a base of support for Khomeini, during the course of the Iranian revolution at the end of 1970s and the beginning of the '80s; but, if you look at Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt and a number of other places--places where, generally speaking, Islam is a major religious and ideological expression--these strata of uprooted and shantytown-ized masses are a major base right now for the growth of these Islamic fundamentalist movements.

This is not something that we, that is, the international proletariat and the international communist movement, can allow to happen--we cannot let the Islamic fundamentalist forces have the banner of opposition to imperialism and oppression. As I have said, with their outlook and program these forces can only end up serving imperialist rule and the all-around oppression and exploitation of the masses, while we represent the only ideology and program that stands for thoroughly defeating and uprooting imperialism and all oppression and exploitation.

Now, we can't just say we cannot let this happen--we have to change things through our work and struggle. But, from a strategic standpoint, we cannot allow these Islamic fundamentalist forces to rally these masses under their banner, because what that banner represents is actually against the fundamental interests of the masses.

Again, going back to what Lenin emphasized, we can't just say, "Not that banner, this banner, line up on this part of the battlefield, not that part of the battlefield, be for socialism, not for Islamic fundamentalism." As Lenin stressed, we have to recognize and deal with the complexity of the situation, and in particular the complexity of every situation that involves real revolutionary transformation. We have to recognize the various "shadings" and variations within things, including the fact that there are differences--including in some cases very significant differences--between various Islamic forces and their political roles. Not all such forces are the same as the fundamentalists, and even some fundamentalists may, at certain times and under certain conditions, be opposed to certain aspects of imperialist domination and to certain forms of the oppression of the people, even though in the final analysis such forces, particularly when they have the initiative and are in the lead of things--and more especially where they actually head governments--can only end up oppressing the people and serving imperialist domination.

The point is that we have to win the masses to our banner, through carrying out our line and program and in that context carrying out ideological struggle for MLM in opposition to religious fundamentalism, to all religious ideology, and to philosophical idealism generally. And, in order to do this in the most correct and powerful way, we have to understand this phenomenon. We have to understand deeply and in an all-round way why Islamic fundamentalists (and some other, similar trends) are gaining in influence and in organized strength now among important sections of the masses. This is a very important part, a new complication (if you want to put it that way), of the terrain we have to work on--of the objective and subjective factors we have to confront and transform. This is a real challenge for the MLM forces worldwide, represented in a concentrated way by the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement (RIM), and for our Party in carrying out our internationalist responsibilities and contributing to the work and development of the RIM in the fullest way that we can.


* "The End of a Stage--The Beginning of a New Stage," Revolution magazine, Fall 1990.

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