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In Muslim discourse, whether classic, medieval, or pre-modern, the concept of revolution in the sense of a massive social upheaval that thoroughly transforms the social, economic, and political stratification systems of society was unknown. Had there been such a concept, it would more than likely have been considered in pejorative terms, because overthrowing the order established by the ummah would have been considered acting against God's commands. The concept utilized in Muslim discourse to refer to the rise of Islam itself is not revolution in the sense identified above, but enlightenment or revelation. Contemporary Islamists, however, who condemn most existing Islamic systems for being in fact secular in their nature, do have a concept of revolution as defined earlier. But the word they use for it, at least in the Arab world, does not come from any of the terms in modern standard Arabic for revolution, such as thawrah, but rather from the classic concept of jihād.

Classical Concept of Revolution.

Once the Islamic community was established in Medina after 622, the notion of violent uprisings against constituted authority typically was expressed in the sources with words bearing negative connotations. Among the terms frequently employed by Muslims to refer to revolution in this negative sense are fitnah (temptation, trial, sedition, dissension against Allāh), maʿsiyah (disobedience, insubordination, refractoriness, revolt), and riddah (a turning away or back from, that is, apostasy from Islam). On the other hand, supporters of sectarian movements of opposition, such as that of the caliph ʿAlī's (d. 661) second son, Imam Ḥusayn (d. 680) and that of al-Mukhtār (d. 687) on behalf of ʿAlī's third son, Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥanafīyah (d. 700), referred to their actions in terms of  “a rising up” (qiyāmah). And historians chronicling the movement that overthrew the Umayyad dynasty in 749, led by Abū Muslim on behalf of the descendants of the uncle of the Prophet, ʿAbbās, referred to it as a daʿwah (a call or bidding to) and a dawlah (in the sense of “turn of fortunes”). More neutrally, the term wathbah (literally, a jumping up) was sometimes used to refer to a military rebellion.

Modern Islamists often cite Qurʿanic 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” (Qurʿān 2:191); and “fight them until fitnah comes to an end and Allāhʾs religion prevails” (2:193, and, with a minor variation, 8:39). The term maʿsiyah appears twice in the Qurʿān (8:58 and 8:59), in both cases in reference to those who are in rebellion against the Prophet. The expression riddah is not found as a noun in the Qurʿān, but it does appear in one of its verbal forms (irtadda/yartaddu) in 2:17 and 5:54 (“whosoever among you turns away from his religion”), and in 47:25 (“and those who have turned back [from Islam] after guidance had been shown them”). For its part, riddah came into use shortly after the revelation had ended, and it referred to the defection of some Arab tribes after the death of the Prophet in 632 and their forcible return to the fold in the “wars of apostasy” conducted by the first caliph, Abū Bakr.

Another term that signifies rebellion against Islam but only appeared after the Prophet's death is khārij, an active participle (pl. khawārij), literally “he or those who go out,” in the sense of abandoning an erstwhile position. It referred to the first schismatics in Islam, during the caliphate of ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib (656–661), the Khārijī, who “went out” from ʿAlī's cause when the latter accepted arbitration in his battle with Muʿāwiyah, governor of Damascus.

Terms such as khārij, fitnah, maʿsiyah, and riddah almost invariably are employed by Islamists in contemporary times as antonyms for jihād (striving for the sake of Allāh, either through internal purification or community collective action). Jihād, in short, 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, such as al-Jāḥiẓ (d. 868/869) and ibn Taymīyah (d. 1328), did so on grounds of the impiety of that ruler, rather than on a more abstract argument of the need for violent systemic change. Impiety is a relative term, of course. Thus, ibn Taymīyah ruled that Muslims should rise up against the Mongols for their extraordinary abominations against the faith, such as considering Genghis Khan the son of Allāh. Yet ibn Taymīyah held his counsel in regard to the Mamlūk rulers of the time, whose behavior could be considered at least as intolerable as some rulers of modern times whom Islamists today declare to be unbelievers.

The reluctance on the part of earlier jurists to advocate resistance in all but the most reprehensible instances of misrule is instructive. Resistance could lead to disorder and even chaos. But the doctrine of salvation requires the integrity of the ummah, which must be rendered immune from fragmentation. The believers must not only obey Allāh's laws but must maintain the community, absent which, or in the face of the weakness of which, the laws cannot be implemented. Accordingly, most jurists advised against behavior that could destabilize the community. Those jurists who have served through appointment by putatively wrongdoing rulers have had to be particularly careful in their fatwās (authoritative opinions) in regard to questions of obedience. Thus, in 1981, the Grand Muftī of Egypt, Jād al-Haqq ʿAlī Jād al-Haqq, ruled in the wake of the assassination of President Anwar el-Sadat that Muslims were obliged to do their utmost peacefully and through persuasion to return an unjust ruler to the true path.

Modern Interpretations.

The modern terms for revolution, all of Arabic derivation, are: in Arabic, thawrah (from a root meaning “a stirring up [of dust]”); in Persian, inqilāb (from a root meaning “overturn”); and, in Turkish, ikhtilal (from a root meaning “disturbance, confusion”) and inkılap. 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 inkılap in a pejorative sense. Of these four terms, only thawrah appears to have antedated the French Revolution in its active participial form (thaʿir) to refer to those who had either rebelled against established Muslim rulers or replaced them once they had fallen.

In the modern period, beginning with the Wahhābī 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 Islamic principles. 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 Ḥusaynid, Muḥammad ʿAlī, Ottoman, and Qājār dynasties played a major role in coining and elaborating on such terms as thawrah, inqilāb/inkılap, and ikhtilal, these terms have also sometimes been appropriated by certain members of theʿulamaʿ, such as Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (al-Asadābādī) (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 Aḥmad ʿUrābī'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 against the British in 1920 was viewed as a jihād by that movement's clerical leaders, as were the movements led by Abd el-Krim (ʿAbd al-Karīm al-Khaṭṭābī) against the Spanish and French in Morocco in 1921–1927, Amīr ʿAbd al-Qadīr against the French in Algeria in 1840–1846, ʿUmar al-Mukhtār in Libya against the Italians in 1922–1931, and Muḥammad al-Mahdī in Sudan against the British in 1881–1885.

In Iran during the Constitutional Revolution of 1905–1909, the term inqilāb was in some use, but even more current was the neologism mashrūtah (from a root meaning to make conditional, that is, to lay down stipulations on the autocratic rule of the shahs). In other places the terms qiyāmah and nahdah (Persian qiyām and nihzat)—a rising up, with connotations of a reawakening for the latter term—have acquired currency, as has the more metaphorical word sahwah (from a root meaning “a coming to consciousness”). These expressions have come into increasing use, frequently to connote fighting on behalf of righteous 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’état, extensive urban insurrections, and profoundly transformative social revolutions has done little to help provide analytical clarity. 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-Īrāniyah, so this generalization about the reluctance to employ words closely associated with secular movements must be qualified.

Inspiration for Revolution.

Any discussion of revolution in the Islamic world must account for the prominent role in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of sūfī-inspired opposition movements. In North Africa, Egypt, and Sudan, the great sufi shaykhs, Muṣṭafā ibn ʿAzzuz (d. 1866), ʿAbd al-Qadīr (d. 1883), Muḥammad al-Mahdī (d. 1885), ʿAbd al-Karīm al-Khaṭṭābī (d. 1963), Muḥammad ibn Bādīs (d. 1940), and Ḥasan al-Bannā (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 Qurʿānic term jihād suffused the ideas and actions of these leaders in their efforts to mobilize the people against the European invaders. Also relevant in this connection is the term tajdīd (renewal), which came increasingly into use, although it designates essentially reformist movements often unaccompanied by wide-scale collective protest.

More recently still, collective protest against ruling regimes became the cri de coeur of Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī (1903–1979) in India and Pakistan, Sayyid Quṭb (1906–1966) in Egypt, and ʿAlī Sharīʿatī (1933–1977) and Ayatollah Ruhollah al-Musavi Khomeini (1902–1989) in Iran. In the cases of Mawdūdī and Quṭb, the key word was jihād, and the point of reference was ibn Taymīyah's fatwā opposing the Mongols. Although Quṭb modeled his thinking greatly on Mawdūdī's, Mawdūdī apparently stopped short of pronouncing takfir (unbelief) on Muslims, whereas Quṭb extended it to those he believed were nominal, hence “false,” believers.

Somewhat in contrast to Quṭb and Mawdūdī are the Shīʿī activists, Sharīʿatī and Khomeini. Although the concept of jihād was important for them both, they (especially Sharīʿatī) also employed the apparently passive term intizār (waiting) to powerful effect in mobilizing the faithful of the Hidden Imam. In this way, Sharīʿatī called on devotees to take the initiative against injustice and thus prepare the way for the Mahdī. He termed this activism intizār-i musbat (active waiting) and invidiously contrasted it with intizār-i manfi (passive 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 inqilāb-i Islāmī (Islamic revolution) to refer to the movement that overthrew the shah in 1979 and established the doctrine and practice of rule by the clergy (Persian vilāyat-i faqīh; Arabic wilāyat al-faqīh). Khomeini purported to find the doctrinal basis for clerical rule in a ḥadīth (saying) attributed to the sixth Shīʿī imam, Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq (d. 765) regarding the ex ante appointment of judges to arbitrate technical disputes over debts or inheritance bequests. 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 of judges cum rulers was the legal basis for contemporary jurists to take over executive authority in the modern state. Apparently, however, Khomeini did not call for a jihād against the West.

Revolutionary Movements Elsewhere.

Other groups that began more moderately but have become more radicalized include various breakaway movements from the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Ḥamās in Palestine, the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria, and Ḥizbullāh in Lebanon. Ḥamās, the Islamic Resistance Movement, came to power as a result of elections in 2006, in the wake of the “al-Aqṣā intifādah” that began in September 2000. This term, a neologism that comes from a root one of whose meanings refers to confusion or turbulence, has a positive connotation in the context of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation. As for Ḥizbullāh, it swept all the parliamentary seats to which it was entitled in the elections of 2005, but was given only two minor portfolios in the Lebanese government, which meant that although it gained 25 percent of the seats in parliament, it got only 8 percent of the cabinet posts. In Iraq after 2003, some Shīʿī groups, such as the Ḥizb al-Daʿwah, which had been repressed under the regime of Saddam Hussein, have also achieved electoral successes.

Religion and Politics.

The common denominator for these modern movements of collective protest in the Islamic world would appear to be the determination that Islam is both religion and politics (Islām dīn wa dawlah). If it is true that there is no separation of religion from politics in Islam, then protesting against political injustices becomes a collective religious duty (farḍ kifāyah). Apart from the Prophet himself and, for Shīʿī, Imam Ḥusayn (d. 680), the authority most often mentioned by contemporary Islamists to justify their actions is ibn Taymīyah. As he put it: “It must be known that governing the people is one of the most important tasks of religion. Indeed, there is no establishment of religion without it. [People's] interests will only be secured by coming together because they need each other. And upon coming together, they must have a leader” (p. 74).

As noted earlier, ibn Taymīyah did not protest against the impiety of the Mamlūks. Although he sanctioned rebellion against the Mongols, this was exceptional. He agreed with al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) and virtually all jurists who preceded him that it was better to accept tyranny than to risk chaos. However, it is clear 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 much of its compelling force, and has even come to be seen as a recipe for conniving with unjust rulers in their oppression of the Muslims.



  • Arjomand, Said A.The Turban for the Crown: The Islamic Revolution in Iran. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988. In-depth study of the religious and political causes of the Iranian revolution as well as a comparative analysis with other revolutions.
  • Delong-Bas, Natana. Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Important reconsideration of the thought of eighteenth-century revivalist Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb, with an emphasis on its moderation.
  • Ibn Taymīyah, Aḥmad ibn Taqī al-Dīn. Al-Siyasah al-Sharʿiyah fi Islah al-Raʿi wa al-Raʿiyah (Religious Politics and the Reform of the Leader and His Subjects). Cairo: Maktabat Ansar al-Sunnah al-Muhammadiyah, 1963. Inquiry into the relationship between religion and politics in Islam by the canonical jurist of the contemporary Islamists.
  • Jansen, Johannes J. G.The Neglected Duty: The Creed of Sadat's Assassins and Islamic Resurgence in the Middle East. New York and London: Macmillan, 1986. Important examination of the ideologies and practices of radical Islam in Egypt since the June 1967 War, especially those of Anwar el-Sadat's assassins.
  • Kepel, Gilles. Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. Translated by Anthony F. Roberts. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003. Argues that contemporary Islamists’ resort to violence emanates from their failure to win broad Muslim support for their goals.
  • Khomeini, Ruhollah. Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini. Translated and annotated by Hamid Algar. Berkeley, Calif.: Mizan Press, 1981. Valuable compendium of 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: Allen and Unwin, 1972. Discussion of the evolution of terms and their meanings in reference to Muslim collective protest.
  • Nasr, Vali Reza. Mawdudi and the Making of Islamic Revivalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Authoritative analysis of Mawdūdī's thought and impact, based on extensive archival research and secondary sources.
  • Peters, Rudolph. Islam and Colonialism: The Doctrine of Jihad in Modern History. The Hague and New York: Mouton, 1979. Incisive exploration of the classic formulation of jihād doctrine, and its pertinence to a variety of cases of anti-colonial rebellion in the modern period.
  • Peters, Rudolph. Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam: A Reader. 2nd ed.Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener, 2005. Valuable source with selections by jurists across the centuries, as well as an original essay by the author on the concept and practice in the early twenty-first century.
  • Quṭb, Sayyid. Maʿalim fi al-Tariq. Damascus: Dar al-ʿIlm, 2000. Originally written in 1964, a handbook of contemporary radical Islamists, advocating the creation of counter-societies in the Muslim world that then would overthrow their governments and institute true Islam.
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