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Revolution

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Revolution

    In classical Islamic thought, the idea of revolution has a negative connotation, suggesting the overthrow of legitimate leaders of the Muslim community. Among the various terms that refer to revolution in this sense are fitnah (strife, dissent), masiyah (disobedience), and riddah (turning away from Islam). The Qur'an states that “fitnah is worse than killing” and uses the term masiyah to mean rebellion against the Prophet Muhammad. During the 1800s and 1900s, Western colonial governments threatened the political and cultural interests of the ummah (community of believers). Nationalists and other groups mobilized Muslims in an effort to overthrow foreign regimes. As a result, the connotation of the term began to change in the Islamic world.

    Keeping the Peace.

    Few early Muslim writers supported the idea that revolution was ever justified. Those who advocated rebellion usually based their arguments on the immorality of the ruler, rather than on his inability to govern effectively or justly. Muslim scholar Ibn Taymiyah ( 1263 – 1328 ) urged Muslims to overthrow the Mongols, who had adopted Islam as their official religion but did not rule according to accepted Islamic principles. He identified them as kafirs (nonbelievers).

    In general, Muslim jurists were reluctant to stir up resistance to corrupt rulers because they feared that doing so would create disorder in the Islamic community and threaten its existence. Jurists had to be extremely careful about issuing fatwas regarding obedience to authority, especially if they served under unjust leaders.

    Changing With the Times.

    After the French Revolution of the late 1700s and the beginning of the colonial era in the Muslim world, the idea of revolution generally took on more positive overtones. Several movements emerged to advocate resistance to Western imperialism, and they spread throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, local Muslim leaders, such as Colonel Ahmad Urabi of Egypt, led uprisings against colonial regimes.

    Sufi movements in North Africa, Sudan, and Egypt played a prominent role in the anticolonialist struggle. Leaders such as Muhammad al-Mahdi , a Sufi shaykh, took up the banner of revolt, often using the term jihad to unite Muslims in support of the cause.

    In the 20th century, Muslim activists Sayyid Abu al-Ala Mawdudi, Sayyid Qutb, Ali Shariati, and Ayatollah Ruhollah al-Musavi Khomeini protested various regimes. Mawdudi and Qutb applied Ibn Taymiyah's arguments to their own resistance movements in India, Pakistan, and Egypt. Shariati and Khomeini were Shi'i Muslims who called on the Iranian people to resist the pro-Western government of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Shariati encouraged Muslims to take the initiative against injustice in order to prepare the way for the Mahdi, a leader who will arrive at the end of time to deliver the Muslim community from oppression. Khomeini repeatedly used the phrase “Islamic revolution” to refer to the movement that eventually overthrew the shah in 1979 and established rule by the clergy.

    Many revolutionary theorists suffered imprisonment and exile and some, such as Qutb, were executed by the state for their activities. Their ideas led to the emergence of a variety of radical groups calling for the violent overthrow of existing regimes and the application of shari'ah. Such groups include al-Jihad and al-Jamaat al-Islamiyah (the Islamic Group) in Egypt, Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Hizbullah in Iran and Lebanon. The members of the radical movement believe that Islam is din wa dawlah—both religion and state. In their view, protesting against unjust political leaders is a religious duty. Failure to rebel is considered to be a way to perpetuate the oppression of Muslims. See also Hamas; Hizbullah; Ibn Taymiyah ; Khomeini, Ruhollah al-Musavi; Mawdudi, Sayyid Abu al-Ala; Messianic Traditions; Qutb, Sayyid.

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