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REVOLUTION. In contemporary Islamic discourse, there are various terms that bear on the social-science concept of revolution as a rising up against constituted authority. However, from a classical Muslim point of view, revolution has pejorative connotations, since it signifies impious attempts to overthrow the order established by believers who are following the commands of Allah. Among the terms frequently employed by Islamists to refer to revolution in this negative sense are fitnah (temptation, trial, sedition, dissension against Allah), ma’jiyah (disobedience, insubordination, refractoriness, revolt), and riddah (a turning away or back from, i.e., apostasy from Islam).

Modern Islamists often cite Qur’anic verses condemning the fitnah of the Prophet’s early enemies: “fight those who fight you wherever you find them and expel them who had expelled you, for fitnah is worse than killing” (surah 2.191), and “fight them until fitnah comes to an end and Allah’s religion prevails” (surahs 2.193 and, with a minor variation, 8.39). The term ma’siyah appears twice in the Qur’an (8.58 and 8.59), in both cases in reference to those who are in rebellion against the Prophet. The term riddah is not found as such in the Qur’an, but it does appear in one of its verbal forms (irtaddalyartaddu) in surahs 2.217 and 5.54 (“whosoever among you turns away from his religion”), and in surah 4725 (“and those who have turned back [from Islam] after guidance had been shown them”). For its part, riddah came into use shortly after Qur’anic revelation had ceased, and it referred to the defection of the Arab tribes after the death of the Prophet in 632 and their forcible return to the Islamic fold.

Another term that signifies rebellion against Islam but which only appeared after the end of the revelations is kharij (pl., khawarij; lit., “to go out”), which referred to the first schismatics in Islam during the caliphate of `All ibn Abl Talib (r. 656-661). Kharij, fitnah, ma’siyah, and riddah are employed by Islamists as antonyms for the word jihdd (striving for the sake of Allah). Jihad therefore always appears as a positive value in Islamic discourse.

Until the modern period, those few writers who justified rebellion against the ruler of the ummah (community) (e.g., al-Jahiz [d. 868/69] and Ibn Taymiyah [d. 1328]) did so on grounds of the impiety of that ruler, rather than on the abstraction that he was a bad ruler and his government was bad. But impiety itself is a relative term. Thus, Ibn Taymiyah ruled that Muslims should rise up against the Mongols for their extraordinary abominations against the faith (such as considering Chinggis Khan the son of Allah). Yet Ibn Taymiyah held his counsel in regard to the Mamluk rulers of his time, whose behavior could be considered at least as intolerable as some of the contemporary rulers whom Islamists today declare to be unbelievers.

This reluctance to advocate resistance in all but the most reprehensible instances of misrule is instructive. Resistance could lead to fitnah, creating disorder in the ummah. But the doctrine of salvation requires the integrity of that ummah, for people must not only believe in Allah’s laws but establish and maintain the community which is the institutionalized expression of those laws. Accordingly, most jurists advised against behavior that would put the ummah at risk. Those jurists who served through appointment by putatively wrongdoing rulers have had to be particularly careful in their fatwas (authoritative opinions) in regard to questions of obedience. Thus, in 1981 the grand mufti of Egypt, Shaykh Jad al-Hagq `All Jad al-Hagq, ruled in the wake of the assassination of President Anwar el-Sadat that Muslims were obliged to do everything in their power peacefully and through persuasion to return an unjust ruler to the true path and to abjure violence.

The modern terms for revolution, all of Arabic derivation, are: in Arabic, thawrah (from a root meaning a stirring up [of dust]); in Persian, inqilab (from a Toot meaning overturn); and, in Turkish, ikhtilal (from a root meaning disturbance, confusion) and inqilab They mainly came into use after the French Revolution and generally have positive connotations when used by nationalists resisting the despotism of unjust secular rulers, although some Turkish writers, critical of revolutionary developments in France, did employ inkilab in a pejorative sense. Of these four terms, only thawrah appears to have antedated the French Revolution in its active participial form (tha’ir) to refer to those who had either rebelled against established Muslim rulers or who had replaced them once they had fallen.

In the modern period, beginning with the Wahhabi movement in the mid-eighteenth century and continuing through a variety of revivalist movements in West, North, and East Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, Islamic movements arose to condemn what they perceived to be heretical deviations from Islam. In most cases, these movements were spurred by deep antipathy to Western colonialism and imperialism, which began as armed intervention or economic penetration but inevitably involved political and cultural threats to the integrity of the ummah.

Although disgruntled secular officials of the Husaynid, Muhammad `All, Ottoman, and Qajar dynasties played a major role in coining and elaborating on such terms as thawrah, inqilab/inkilab, and ikhtilal, these terms have also sometimes been appropriated by certain members of the `ulama’, such as Jamal al-Din alAfghani (1838/39-1897).

Interestingly, some Muslim jurists referred not to the Muslims but to the British as the “rebels” in the events known in the West as the great Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-1858 in India, because the British were seen to be violating the terms of the agreements that they had earlier contracted with representatives of the ummah on the subcontinent. Colonel Ahmad `Urabi’s rebellion in Egypt in 1881-1882 was glossed by contemporaries as a thawrah, as were the anti-British uprisings of the Egyptian people in 1919. The insurrection of southern Iraqis in 1920 was viewed as a jihad by that movement’s clerical leaders, but because the Sunni areas did not join, it would be misleading to term it as a general jihdd of Muslims against the infidels.

In Iran during the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1909, the term inqiliab was in some use, but even more current was the neologism mashrutah, (“to make conditional; i e., to lay down stipulations {on the autocr atic rule of the shah). In other places, the terms qiyamah and nahdah (Pers., qiyam and nihzat; lit. a “rising up”) have acquired currency, as has the more metaphorical word, sahwah (a coming to consciousness, awakening). These three words, along with such terms as ma’rakah and nidal (both of which may be translated as “struggle”), have come into increasing use, frequently to connote fighting on behalf of righteous or progressive causes.

One of the costs of the profusion of terms is a certain diffusion of meaning. The use of thawrah to refer to phenomena as divergent as simple coups d’etat, extensive urban insurrections, and profoundly transformative social revolutions has done little to help provide analytical clarity. In any case, Islamists try to avoid the use of terms like thawrah, because they have been until recently the virtually exclusive preserve of secular nationalists. Islamist Arabs, however, refer to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 as al-thawrah al-Iraniyah, so this generalization about reluctance to employ words closely associated with secular movements must be qualified.

Any discussion of revolution in the Islamic world must account for the prominent role in the nineteenth century of Sufi movements. In North Africa, Sudan, and Egypt, the great Sufi shaykhs, Mustafa ibn `Azzuz (d. 1866), `Abd al-Qadir (d. 1883), Muhammad alMahdi (d. 1885), Abd el-Krim (Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Karim al-Khattabi, d. 1920), `Abd al-Hamid ibn Badis (d. 1940), and Hasan al-Banna’ (d. 1949), all took up the banner of revolt against colonialist rule. Their counterparts in Central and South Asia, often inspired by the examples of their fellow Muslims elsewhere, also followed this pattern. The Qur’anic term jihad suffused the discourse of these leaders in their efforts to mobilize the Muslims in anticolonialist struggles. Also relevant in this connection is the term tajdid (“renewal”), which came increasingly into use, although it designates essentially reformist movements often unaccompanied by widescale collective protest. [See the biographies of `Abd al-Qddir, Abd el-Krim, Ibn Badis, and Bannd’; for alMahdi, see Mahdlyah.]

More recently still, collective protest against ruling regimes became the cri de coeur of Abu al-A’la Mawdudi (1903-1979) in India and Pakistan, Sayyid Qutb (19061966) in Egypt, and `All Shari`ati (1933-1977) and Ayatollah Ruhollah al-Musavi Khomeini (1902-1989) in Iran. In the cases of Mawdudi and Qutb, the key word was jihad, and the point of reference was Ibn Taymiyah’s fatwa against the Mongols. Although Qutb modeled his thinking greatly on Mawdudi’s, Mawdudi stopped short of pronouncing takfir (unbelief) on Muslims, whereas Qutb extended it to those he believed were nominal, hence “false,” believers. [See the biographies of Mawdudi and Qutb.]

Somewhat in contrast to Qutb and Mawdudi are the Shi’! activists, Shari’ati and Khomeini. Although the word jihdd was revered by them both, they (especially Shari`ati) also employed the apparently passive term, intizar (“waiting”), to powerful effect in mobilizing the faithful of the Hidden Imam. In this way Shari’ati called on devotees to take the initiative against injustice and thus prepare the way for the Mahdi. He termed this activism intizar-i musbat (“positive waiting”) and invidiously contrasted it with intizdr-i manfi (“negative waiting”).

Of course, no account of the concept of revolution in Islamic literature would be complete without mention of Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran. He repeatedly used the phrase inqilab-i Islam! (Islamic revolution) to refer to the movement that overthrew the shah in 1979 and established rule by the clergy (Pers., vildyat-i faqih; Ar., wilayat al faqih; led by himself. Khomeini purported to find the doctrinal basis for clerical rule in a hadith attributed to the sixth Shi’! imam, Ja’far al-Sadiq (d. 765) regarding the ex ante appointment of judges to arbitrate technical disputes over debts or inheritance. Deliberately conflating the differences between the role of judges to arbitrate and that of sovereign rulers to govern, Khomeini claimed that the imam’s ex ante appointment was the key legal basis for contemporary jurists to take over executive authority in the modern state. Having come this far, however, it is intriguing that Khomeini demurred from advocating an anticolonial jihad against the United States or the West, for all of his animosity toward them.

Since the execution in 1966 of Sayyid Qutb by the Egyptian government of Gamal Abdel Nasser, a variety of radical groups have emerged among Sunnis, inspired by Qutb’s last book, Milestones (1964). These groups advocate violence to overthrow existing regimes and to apply immediately what they believe to be shari`ah (the holy law of Islam). The radical Sunni movements include various groups in Egypt, such as al-Fanniyah al`Askariyah (The Technical Military Academy Group), Jama’at al-Takfir wa al-Hijrah (Pronouncing Unbelief on Infidels and Emigrating to Islam), al-Jihad, and alJama`at al-Islamiyah (the Islamic Group); and Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Other groups that began more moderately but have become more radicalized because of suppression include certain supporters of the leader of the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood, Hasan al-Turabi; the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader, Said Hawwa; Rashid al-Ghannushi of the Tunisian Nahdah; and `Abbasi Madan-1, the leader of the Algerian Jabhat al-Inqadh al-Islami (Islamic Salvation Front). The Tunisian and Algerian organizations are ironically better known by their French nomenclature, the Tendence Tunisien and the Front Islamien du Salut (FIS), respectively. [See Muslim Brotherhood, articles on Muslim Brotherhood in the Sudan and Muslim Brotherhood in Syria; Hizb al-Nahdah; Islamic Salvation Front; and the biographies of Turdbi, Ghannushi, and Madani.]

In Afghanistan, this form of radicalism among some Islamic groups evolved in the course of the devastating internal war fought against Soviet occupying forces between 1979 and 1989. The Shi’i world also has seen the emergence of revolutionary groups intent on overthrowing the regimes in Iraq and Lebanon, where the groups are called, respectively, Hizb al-Da’wah and Hizbullah.

The common denominator for all these modern movements of collective protest in the Islamic world would appear to be the determination that Islam is both din wa dawlah, both religion and state.  If it is true that there is no separation of religion from politics in Islam, then protesting against political injustices becomes a religious duty (fard al-kifdyah). Apart from the Prophet himself and, for Shi’is, Imam Husayn (d. 68o), the authority most often mentioned by contemporary Islamists to justify their actions is Ibn Taymiyah. As he put it: “It must be known that governing the people [wilayat amr alnds] is one of the most important tasks of religion. Indeed, there is no establishment of religion without it. Men’s interests will only be secured by coming together because they need each other. And upon coming together, they must have a leader” (1963, p. 74).

As already noted, Ibn Taymiyah did not protest against the impiety of the Mamlfiks. It is clear, however, that revolution is no longer considered invariably harmful to the interests of the ummah. For some contemporary Islamists, the classic view that fitnah must be avoided at all costs has lost its compelling force and even come to be seen as a recipe for conniving with unjust rulers in their suppression of the Muslims.


Arjomand, Said Amin. The Turban for the Crown. New York, 1988. In-depth study of the religious and political causes of the revolution.

Ibn Taymiyah, Ahmad ibn `Abd al-Halim. Al-siyasah al-shar`iyah ft islah al-ra`i wa-al-ra’iyah (The Politics of the Holy Law of Islam in Reforming the Leader and His Subjects). Cairo, 1963. Inquiry into the relationship between religion and politics in Islam, by the canonical jurist of contemporary Islamists.

Jansen, J. J. G. The Neglected Duty. New York and London, 1986. Important examination of the ideologies and policies of radical Islam in Egypt since the June 1967 war.

Kepel, Gilles. Muslim Extremism in Egypt. Berkeley, 1985. Another significant study of radical Islamic groups in Egypt since the 1970s.

Khomeini, Ruhollah al-Musavi. Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini. Translated and edited by Hamid Algar. Berkeley, 1981. Valuable compendium of Ayatollah Khomeini’s major speeches and writings, including his most famous work, Islamic Government.

Lewis, Bernard. “Islamic Concepts of Revolution.” In Revolution in the Middle East, edited by P. J. Vatikiotis, pp. 30-40. London, 1972. Illuminating overview of the evolution of terminology employed by Muslims to refer to collective protest.

Peters, Rudolph. Islam and Colonialism: The Doctrine of Jihad in Modern History. The Hague, 1979. Incisive exploration of the classic formulation of jihad doctrine, and its pertinence to a variety of cases of anticolonial rebellion in the modern period.

Qutb, Sayyid. Milestones. Beirut, 1978. Handbook of contemporary radical Islamists, advocating the creation of countersocieties in the Muslim world which then would overthrow their governments.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/revolution/

  • writerPosted On: July 17, 2017
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