The key lesson Islamic movements must learn from Iran’s Revolution

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Dhu al-Hijjah 10, 1424 2004-02-01


by Zafar Bangash (Reflections, Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 17, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1424)

Three distinct Muslim responses to the abolition of the khilafah (Islamic State) in Turkey in 1924 can be identified: the emergence of the Ikhwan al-Muslimoon in Egypt, founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1928; the establishment of the Jama‘at-e Islami as a political party in British-ruled India by Maulana Abul Ala Maudoodi in 1941; and Imam Ruhullah Khomeini's ijtihad regarding the Islamic State (Hukumat-e Islami), published in 1970. A closer look at the three movements provides useful insights for workers in the Islamic movement.

But first a word about the Islamic State itself is necessary. The Islamic State and muttaqi leadership are fundamental precepts in Muslim political thought, linked to the first Islamic State, established by the Prophet (saw) in Madinah. The absence of either undermines Islamic governance, as happened with the corruption of leadership soon after the Khulafa ar-Rashidoon. A continually deteriorating version of the khilafah existed until its abolition by Mustafa Kemal in Turkey, but it was never the same.

Neither Banna nor Maudoodi was a madrassa-trained alim, although both were undoubtedly learned. Imam Khomeini emerged from traditional religious institutions, in the somewhat different environment of Shi'a Islam, in which direct involvement in politics was traditionally shunned in the absence of the Twelfth Imam. Imam Khomeini initially refrained from challenging the quietist political approach of more senior ulama, but after the death of Ayatullah Burujerdi in 1961 he took the lead in challenging the Shah's regime, denouncing it as both illegitimate and subservient to the US and zionist Israel.

A comparison of the three movements and how they dealt with the challenges facing them is instructive. In Egypt the Ikhwan's initial aims were modest: reform of society and looking after the needs of the poor. Gradually, however, they were sucked into the vortex of secular politics, supporting the Free Officers with whom they had shared trenches during the war against the new zionist state in Palestine in 1948. This alliance proved fatal; once in power, the Free Officers turned against the Ikhwan. Senior Ikhwan figures such as Abdul Qadir Audha and Syed Qutb were executed, others were exiled, and huge numbers of the rank and file members were consigned to the dungeons of Egypt. Today, the Ikhwan operate on the margins of Egyptian politics but remain officially banned.

The Jama‘at experience in the subcontinent – India, Pakistan and Bangladesh – has been equally unimpressive, although it was spared the brutality inflicted on the Ikhwan. The Jama‘at has undermined its own credibility by operating as a political party rather than a movement, and entering into electoral politics under a secular system in Pakistan. This has given the secular establishment undeserved legitimacy while also preventing the Jama'at from opposing the established system effectively. The Jama'at's alliance with the military regime of Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s also damaged it.

In Iran, Imam Khomeini overcame the inertia in Shi’a theology itself, which called for the shunning of all worldly authority in the absence of the Twelfth Imam, and provided the Muslims of Iran with credible leadership through the mosques. He totally rejected any compromise with the Shah's political system, let alone participation in it. His commitment to the establishment of the Islamic State by means of a movement uncontaminated by alien ideas, and based on a total rejection of the existing secular framework, enabled him to challenge, and ultimately to demolish, the secular order imposed by the Western colonial powers and supported by the US. The Islamic Revolution in Iran is the only success story so far in the history of the contemporary Islamic movement.

The lesson for Islamic movements seeking to emulate the Imam's success is clear enough. The Islamic movement cannot settle for being a political party within a secular system and hope to bring about an Islamic State. The lesson of the total rejection of existing, un-Islamic orders is central to the Seerah of the Prophet, peace be upon him. The example of the Islamic Revolution in Iran demonstrates not only that this is still valid, but that it is the only method that will bring success for other Islamic movements in other parts of the Muslim world.

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