The Iranian Revolution - Past, Present and Future

Chapter Five - The Basis of Islamic Fundamentalism

Karl Marx wrote that "Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet found himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being encamped outside the world. Man is the world of man—the state and society. This state and this society produce religion: an inverted world-consciousness, because we live in an inverted world, a world in which natural human relationships are stood on their head."[1]

The Marxist analysis of religions and their social roots aids us in the understanding of past society and, through the understanding of past society, of present-day society which has evolved from it. Once we have grasped this scientific method (historical materialism) then we can easily understand the phenomenon of fundamentalism, which is so widespread in contemporary society—not just Islamic fundamentalism, but also the Jewish, Hindu and Christian varieties. The spread of fundamentalism and other kinds of irrational thought, is a reflection of the impasse of capitalism. Alan Woods writes: "Beneath the thin veneer of civilisation lurk primitive irrational tendencies and ideas which have their roots in a remote past which has been half-forgotten, but is not yet overcome. Nor will they be finally rooted out of human consciousness until men and women establish firm control over their conditions of existence."[2]

Religious ideas still play a powerful role in human society but, in the last analysis, this is based on material realities. Religious thoughts which arise at a certain period of human social development, despite all the peculiar formations and characteristics, ultimately arise out of changes which take place in the productive relations and are themselves reflections of these changes. Every religious institution, and also the organisations based upon it, also at bottom represent certain class interests within society. The tenacious survival of religion is only possible insofar as it maintains its own social base in the support of one class or social grouping or another.

For example, the Roman Catholic Church, which arose in the late ancient world, has survived by adapting itself first to feudal society and then to capitalist society that replaced feudalism. In this process much of its content has changed. In the 16th and 17th centuries, when the crisis of feudalism cracked the social fabric of the old society, a convulsive movement swept all over Europe. Social and class interests were clothed in a religious garb. In this context Luther, Calvin and other religious leaders reinterpreted the Bible, unconsciously reflecting the changing class relations. Although they themselves were not aware of the relations between religious dogma and the underlying interests of social classes, they nevertheless played a fundamental role in determining the course of the bourgeois revolution in Europe (the "Reformation" and the English Revolution). Thus, from a Marxist point of view, it is necessary to distinguish carefully between the ideological outer forms of religion and the class interests that are expressed in them in a twisted and mystical form. In other words, it is necessary to distinguish between form and content.

Islam is not fundamentally different to any other religion. It was born in the cities of Arabia in the 7th century and reflected definite economic trends and the resulting changes in property relations, class interests and social tendencies. The lengthy wars between Persia and Byzantium had, in addition to weakening their economies, made the trade routes in the Gulf and the Red Sea unsafe. The result was that the trade route through Mecca and Yathrib (Medina) became increasingly important. The influx of wealth into Mecca brought about fundamental changes in its social, political and cultural life.[3] The emergence of private property strengthened the newly-formed Arab merchant class. While the rich merchants were engaged in increasing their personal wealth, they increasingly disregarding their traditional tribal obligation to take care of the poorer members of the clan. The important business of personal enrichment came before clan solidarity. In effect, the old clan society was rapidly disintegrating under the pressure of money relations and trade, leading to growing impoverishment of the masses. The result was increasing hostility towards the leading merchants among a population that still expected respect for the old values.

Among those most alienated were members of the most powerful Mecca tribe, the Quraysh, who did not share in the wealth of the new class of merchants. Muhammad was born into this tribe. His main concern was to remedy the injustices of Meccan society. Agriculture was not possible in Mecca and there had been no development of class relation based on land, as later occurred in feudal Europe.[4] The empires of Persia and Byzantium had played off the different tribes against each other for their own advantage and used the Bedouin warriors as mercenaries.

The religion of the Bedouins, like that of the ancient nomadic ancestors of the Hebrews, consisted of belief in local deities, spirits inhabiting sacred places and fetishist objects of various kinds. Muhammad urged Mecca to accept one God, whose prophet, Muhammad, had been sent to convey the divine law, and who would weigh man’s conduct on the Day of Judgement. His message to his followers was: abandon all forms of idolatrous worship and surrender yourself completely to the omniscient and omnipotent, yet compassionate, Allah. He warned the wealthy that considering the accumulation of riches as an end in itself and being niggardly in the use of money would lead them to catastrophe. This message was revolutionary in more than one way. The attacks on worldly wealth struck a responsive note with the poor, but were not well received by the merchants. On the other hand, by demanding the unequivocal acceptance of one God, Muhammad was also creating a loyalty which went beyond traditional allegiance to the clan. This upset powerful clan leaders who also resented Muhammad’s strictures against their unshared riches. By 619 hostility towards Muhammad and his small band of followers reached a point where they were often harassed and attacked.

In June 622, at a meeting of 75 Medinese with Muslims of Mecca, the latter decided to migrate to Medina. The Muslims of Mecca headed for Medina, 300 miles to the north, with Muhammad and his companion Abu Bakr the last to leave. Muhammad set out to build a group based upon his followers, the Ummahh. The Ummahh organised a series of attack on Meccan caravans, calumniating in a major victory after which Muhammad divided the booty among the members of Ummahh. Within eight years of his move from Mecca, the Meccans surrendered themselves to Muhammad. Mecca was already the centre of the regional economy and now became the centre of a rapidly growing Islamic empire. Western Arabia was now unified under a strong central authority ruled by Muhammad. This represented a profound social revolution which united the scattered Arab tribes under one rule and religion. Islam became a powerful force that transformed the world. It acted as a cohesive force which initially served to protect from tribal raids the commerce that had grown up and turned the restless Bedouin energy outwards.

The Muslim empire, spread rapidly within a few years. It covered much of North Africa, Syria, Iraq and Iran. In the context of oppressive Byzantine and Persian rule, the Islamic forces were regarded as liberators. Initially the Islamic empire imposed a relatively modest tax burden on conquered territories. It did not occupy or take away peasants’ land and it did not compel them to change their religion. Religious zeal contributed to the victories. But beyond this there was the inner decay of existing empires that caused them to fall like overripe fruit.[5] There was every reason why the Arabs should be hailed as deliverers by the older populations of the Semitic world of Syria and Mesopotamia and by the Egyptians. They had long been in subjection to Rome, then to Byzantium in the West and to the Persian Sassanid Empire in the East. They were in a state of permanent revolt and this revolt had both a religious tinge and a social basis.[6]

The spread of the Islamic religion over a vast region from the Atlantic Coast of North-West Africa to the Bay of Bengal, involved the incorporation into Islamic society of all those people who had adopted Islam. Many of these retained significant elements of their old religious practices and culture, which had a big effect on Islam. This was quite natural since, contrary to the belief of theologians and fanatics, religious ideas do not have a life of their own independent of society. After the death of Muhammad, within two decades, Islam was itself being shaped by the character of the societies it had conquered.

Just two years after Muhammad’s death, dissension broke out between the followers of Abu Bakr, who became the first Caliph, and Ali, the husband of the prophet’s daughter Fatima. Ali claimed that some of Abu Bakr’s rulings were oppressive. Dissension grew to the point that partisan armies fought each other. It was out of this dissension that the separation of the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam arose. Shiism began as a political grouping of the followers of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad.

Under the Abbasid dynasty the main divisions of the Shiities crystallised as the "fivers", the "seveners" and the "twelvers". The "fivers" hold in special reverence the fifth imam (Ali). The "seveners" and "twelvers" differ on the line of succession after the sixth imam. This imam increasingly came to be regarded as divinely protected against all error and sin, and as the mediator between Allah and the masses. The Sunnis on the other hand stressed that the Koran, and not divinely inspired men, was a guide for all areas of life. The most radical of the Shiite sects in the 9th and 10th centuries were the "seveners" or Ismailis who constituted a serious threat to the Abbaised Empire. Ismailism was movement of the oppressed in its early period, its main followers being the peasants and then the artisans in the towns,

There is a striking similarity between the early movements of Islam and the early movement of Christianity which was also based on the poor and oppressed. Not for nothing did the Roman enemies of the early Christians stigmatise their faith as a religion of "women and slaves". In Persia the militant Safavid warriors came to power in 1501 following a popular "twelver" Shiism. Under the Shiites the old Persian tradition of hereditary monarchy was transformed from a messianic ideology into a means of solidifying Safavid rule and into a weapon against the rival Sunni Ottoman empire. This was a pattern that reproduced itself again and again: the poor masses, rallying under the flag of religion, revolted against the wealthy elite, but then the resulting dynasty, having established itself in power, becomes rich and oppressive, and is directed against the downtrodden masses.

One idea taken from the Ismaili Shiite sect by the Shias and Sunnis alike is that of the Mehdi. The Mehdi—the divinely guided one—will appear just before the end of time, when the world will have gone to wrack and ruin, full of injustice and oppression, to save humankind. This idea is similar to that of the Christian Messianic schools who have been waiting for the coming of Christ for the last two thousand years. It is also rooted in the yearning of the suffering and oppressed for a better world and a divine Saviour who will rid the world of injustice, punish the evil and give succour to the weak and downtrodden.

Later, against the background of imperialist colonial expansion, Islamic revivalist movements emerged as a focal point of resistance to the foreign oppressor. The struggle against European imperialism was a source of renewed vigour for Islam. Islamic revivalist movements came onto the political arena at a time when the socio-economic relations in colonial and semi-colonial societies had already had gone through a process of transformation under the rule of imperialism. What Lenin and Trotsky described as combined and uneven development acted as a powerful agency for social and economic change.

The corruption of the regimes and the servile and cowardly conduct of the ulama (clergy) in relation to the foreign masters produced a series of movements which set out to return to an original and "pure" version of Islam as a means of fighting against the establishment. After the First World War, European imperialism divided the Ottoman empire into spheres of influence and brutally exploited the region. Against this colonisation, there were different sorts of responses from the local elites—some organised armed resistance, some used political pressure, some attempted to fight western imperialist influence by copying the west, modernising the economy and reforming the state. But all these strategies ended with failure. Traditional manufacturing was replaced by capitalist methods imported from the West which transformed the internal social relations of the East. Colonisation also brought profound changes in both political and social structure.

The first Islamic revivalist current was expressed by Jamal-al-Din Al-Afghani, who argued that: "The divisions which have occurred in Muslim States originate only from the failure of rulers who deviate from the solid principles upon which the Islamic faith is built and leave the road which was followed by their early ancestors. When those who rule Islam return to the rules of their law and model their conduct upon that practised by the early generations of Muslims it will not be long before God gives them extensive power and bestows strength upon them comparable to that wielded by the orthodox caliphs, who were leaders of the faith." He argued strongly against the idea of Muslim national states, and called for a pan-Islamic state, the unification of all countries with an Islamic tradition. Afghani’s approach was a break with the traditional line and called for the restoration of purified Islamic values. Jamaluddin Afghani laid the basis for radical Islam or Islamic fundamentalism. From this background arose Ikhwan al Muslimin as established by Hassan al-Banna in 1929. In fact, this was an absolutely utopian approach towards the problem facing the colonial countries.

After the Second World War, the colonial revolution mobilised the colonial masses in their millions in the struggle against imperialism. But after the so-called liberation, the colonial bourgeois stands revealed as completely impotent to solve the tasks posed by history. The experience of the Algerian revolution shows that, on the basis of capitalism, there is no way out for the masses. Despite the heroic struggle against the French oppressors, Algeria today is more dependent on imperialism then ever. And the same thing can be said of all the Muslim countries after so-called independence from imperialism. On the basis of capitalism nothing can be solved. The widespread poverty, the alienation of the masses, particularly the youth and middle class layers, has pushed them into the blind alley of religious fundamentalism. The same phenomenon can be observed in Egypt, Palestine, Sudan, Turkey, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Iran.

Radical Islamic movements do not find support equally in all sections of society. Islamic fundamentalism gets nourishment from different social groupings, each of which utilises this current in their own class interests. The ruthless over-exploitation of the colonial countries, and the crisis of the world economy over the last 30 years, has aggravated all these contradictions. Modern industry has developed to the point where the narrow economic limits of the nation-state are too narrow for it to operate efficiently. But the world economy is too competitive for them to survive without state protection. And the opening up of the colonial countries for imperialism has intensified the crisis. The majority of these countries spend more than 30 percent of their export earning on debt servicing and the payment of interest. The impact of the privatisation of state-owned industries and utilities has created growing resentment among workers and the middle class youth deprived of jobs and career prospects.

After the collapse of Stalinist Russia and counter-revolution in Afghanistan, the black economy, particularly the drug sector, was the major source of funding for the Islamic fundamentalists. The producers and dealers of illegal drugs are therefore backing these organisations to protect themselves against pro-IMF policies. Sections of the Saudi ruling class are playing a leading role in this black economy. A good example is Osama Bin Laden. US imperialism and Saudi Arabia are both responsible for the Taliban reaction in Afghanistan. They armed and financed the Taliban in their struggle against the former Stalinist regime in Kabul. This mafia earns $80 billion per year from drug trafficking. World imperialism now wrings its hands over this illegal trade in human misery, but it was imperialism—especially US imperialism—which handed Afghanistan bound and gagged to the forces of reaction and turned it into the largest poppy-cultivating area in the world.

However, the phenomenon of fundamentalism is complex. For example, in Iran the Shah’s land reforms of the 1960s benefited a minority of the peasants whilst leaving the rest no better off and sometimes worse off. These land reforms enriched the nobility and absentee landowners who dominated Iran. The real motive behind the land reforms was to push the peasants off the land to provide cheap labour for the factories. So in this context peasants suffered, and were detached from traditional rural society. That section of the rural poor that suffered from the Shah’s reforms flooded into the cities, desperately looking for work and bread, but the cities of Iran were not adjusted to properly meet the new situation, with a chronic lack of housing, poor infrastructure, scarce health facilities and widespread unemployment.

These conditions increased the alienation of the poorest layers of urban society. In Iran (and also in Afghanistan) the majority of them, suffering from bad housing and low wages, preferred to live in the mosques which offered them some crumbs of consolation and help in their affliction. Large numbers of Muslim volunteers, largely drawn from the poorest sections of the population, impoverished from their childhood, left their homes and joined the mullahs’ networks in the mosques. They worked as a reserve army and they played an essential part in mobilising the forces for pro- or anti-regime demonstrations.

Although the main forces for the mullahs were drawn from the poor, a section of traditional traders also financed them. The Islamic fundamentalists got vital political support from among the new middle class that had arisen as a result of the limited capitalist development. The children of the new middle class gained access to the universities, where they met with new and severe frustrations arising from the lack of job and career prospects. This pushed a layer of educated or half-educated youths towards terrorist activities. Organisations such as Hizbollah, Hamas, FIS (Islamic Salvation Front), etc., came mainly from this layer. The desperation of these youths is such that they are prepared to throw away their lives in suicide bomb attacks. They are seeking a road to emancipation from the agony of their lives, but have found only a dead-end. The widespread social and family crisis, alienation and above all the lack of a clear Marxist alternative has pushed them towards the blind alley of religious fundamentalism. Suffering from a hopeless present, and with no hope in the future, they turn to the past for consolation, and the past for them becomes glorious. Mass poverty, misery, oppression all combine in aggravating the fundamentalist phenomenon. And continuous splits among these organisations create a favourable environment for the most bitter, violent conflicts, approaching a situation close to civil war.

Thus, wherever one looks, it is hard to find a single stable Muslim bourgeois regime. A terrible crisis is looming over these countries. A turning-point was February 1979, when the Shah’s regime fell. However, from the very beginning there has been a widespread misconception about the nature and content of the Iranian revolution. The Islamic fundamentalists proclaimed it as the victory of Islamic ideology and intellectuals over imperialism. They systematically distorted the real facts of the Iranian revolution. In this way, they did their best to conceal and deny the role of the working class in the revolution. This lie has been repeated by the imperialists who have their own reasons for misrepresenting the nature of the Iranian revolution, particularly to confuse and disillusion the workers of the West. Some bourgeois intellectuals went so far as to proclaim Shiism as a "revolutionary" phenomenon. They all presented a completely false picture of the revolution.

Partly as a result of years of propaganda from the bourgeois camp, the facts about the Iranian revolution are now a book sealed with seven seals for most people. It is very important to expose the real role played by the fundamentalists in Iran: how they hi-jacked the revolution, crushed the working class, restored capitalist relations and the bourgeois state. The Iranian mullahs had enjoyed good relations with the Qajar Dynasty, they occupied key official posts under the Shah, especially in the judiciary. They also raised a lot of money from the traders, as well as the income they drew from the voaf (endowed) lands.

A section of the mullahs had participated in the movement against the Shah in 1892 when the Shah gave further concessions to the British imperialists in the sale and export of tobacco. That concession affected the merchant class, and the pressure from the merchants inclined the mullahs to protest against the Shah. But prior to this, the mullahs had been closely integrated with Qajar dynasty. In 1927 some mullahs protested against the Shah’s reform policy, which included the reforms of the legal and educational institutions. In 1936 the Shah legislated in favour of the unveiling of women, and to bring the legal and educational system under state control.

After the 1953 coup of the CIA against Mossadeq, which restored the Shah, they had realigned with the regime. In that period they were openly allied to the Reza Khan dictatorship. The rest of the opposition forces were in disarray at this time. After 1953 the Tudeh party subjected itself to self-criticism for pursuing a left-sectarian policy and not fully supporting Mossadeq’s government. But as a result they only went deeper into the marsh. In 1963 during the Shah’s White Revolution, the party was silent and remained a passive onlooker of events. The National Front after the 1953 coup went through many splits. However, as we have seen, the mullahs only emerged as an opposition force in 1963, when they came out against land reforms. Land reform was viewed as a threat to vaof (endowed) property which served as an important source of income for the mullahs. They combined with sections of the feudal landowners to organise a campaign against the reforms—not from a revolutionary, but from a purely reactionary standpoint. Only at this point did Khomeini emerge as an anti-Shah leader. The majority of the mullahs were actually in support of the Shah’s regime. Khomeini’s first criticisms came to the surface when he accused the Shah of abandoning Islamic precepts in favour of imperialism. But his criticism remained within the confines of the establishment. He merely protested against the Shah’s excesses.

However, the conflicting interests between the Shah and the mosque grew and produced new conflicts. When the Shah announced a referendum on his "White Revolution", Khomeini and the religious establishment opposed it, and the regime attacked the protesters. Khomeini was arrested. After that Khomeini went into exile for 15 years. In exile he wrote the book Velayet-e-faqih (Rule of the Jurist) in which he explained how to reach a pure form of Islam, and how it applied to the state. He spent a lot of time in the Najaf to deliver lectures on Islam, and called on the whole religious establishment to move with him against the Shah.

In September 1978 mass strikes gripped the country. Beginning at first as a protest against killings, they soon became converted into strikes on economic and political demands. It is true that the majority of the demonstrations, especially in the first six months of 1978, were connected with the religious establishment. In December 1977, Khomeini again called for the overthrow of the Shah and the re-establishment of the 1905 constitution. Mullahs through the mosques appealed to the anti-Shah forces and attracted the traders, lumpen-proletariat, and even the Tudeh Party and some sections of the National Front.

Nevertheless, as we have seen, the key event that brought the Shah down, was neither the petty bourgeoisie nor the urban poor classes, but the strikes of the advanced workers, particularly the oil workers. The state collapsed, mutiny spread inside the armed forces. This was the result of the massive movement of the working class. Unfortunately, due to absence of the subjective factor, i.e. the revolutionary party, much of the rising movement became identified with Khomeini. On his return to Teheran in January 1979 he became the symbolic "leader of the opposition". After the overthrow of the Shah, as we have pointed out, the shuras (soviets) emerged in the factories; universities were under the control of the left students; in the cities, shura-style administrations were formed.

Khomeini moved very tactfully at first. He appointed Bazargan (the representative of the National Front) as the prime minister. But there was another centre of authority—a so-called revolutionary council nominated by Khomeini. Through the alliance with Bazargan they started a campaign against the shuras and the Kurdish national movement. They formed the Hizbollah, a terrorist organisation to use against left forces and women activists.

Khomeini utilised these Bonapartist tactics to concentrate power at the top and to isolate Bazargan. He sent his supporters to capture the American Embassy and then utilised the popular anti-American feelings to mobilise mass forces behind the IRP (Islamic Republican Party). In all this, the Tudeh Party was behind Khomeini. When he had subdued the revolutionary currents to some extent, he formed an alliance with Bani Sadir to attack the universities which were not under fundamentalist control. They sent militant gangs of Hizbollah supporters to invade the universities, brutally killing students and burning all left literature and then closed all colleges and universities for three years. He also made use of all external events to consolidate more power in his hands. The Iraqi invasion, the adventurist tactics of ultra-left organisations, like the bombing of the IRP headquarters—all these factors helped Khomeini to consolidate his grip on power and balance between the different factions within the IRP.

The first aim of Khomeini was to destroy the independent movement of the Iranian working class which had carried out the revolution. After consolidating the power at the top he brutally crushed the shuras, using the Islamic Hizbollah movement on the phoney pretext that they were "backed by the CIA". Fundamentalism represents a terrible blind alley for the masses. In a negative way, this phenomenon represents a striking confirmation of the theory of permanent revolution. On a capitalist basis there was no way forward for Iran. The failure of the proletariat to take power when that was possible led, not to progress, but to a monstrous regression. For twenty years Iran has been in the grip of religious reaction. However, in a broader historical sense, the rise of fundamentalism will be seen as a temporary aberration. Paradoxically, the setting up of an "Islamic republic" will prove to be the undoing of the fundamentalists. The fact that the fundamentalists have come to power, and have had two decades to reveal themselves in their true colours has given the masses ample opportunity to understand the reactionary and corrupt nature of fundamentalism.

At the present time, the dictatorship of the mullahs is nearing its limits. The clerics are clinging to power and have so far succeeded, mainly through the temporary inertia of the masses. This will not last forever. The Shah’s powerful army and police did not save him once the workers began to move. Already after 20 years of rule by the mullahs, the masses are fed up with their hypocrisy and corruption. The youth are in open revolt. The split within the mullahs camp and their recent defeat in election indicates the beginning of a new process. At a certain stage there can be a revolutionary explosion of the Iranian proletariat which will take the world by surprise, as it did in 1979. But this time the message must be clear: The alternative to imperialism and capitalism is not fundamentalism, but socialist revolution.


1. Karl Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law, Marx and Engels, On Religion, Progress Publishers, Moscow.

2. Alan Woods and Ted Grant, Reason in Revolt, p. 35.

3. Bryan S. Turner, Weber and Islam, a critical study, p. 29.

4. Asghar Ali, The Origin and Development of Islam, p. 45.

5. R. Ashtor, A Social and Economical History of Near East in the Middle Ages, p. 11.

6. Maurice Lambard, The Golden Age of Islam, pp. 3, 113.

7. Shaul Bakhash, The Reign of the Ayatollah, p. 23.


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