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Typology of Orientalists’ Views on Islamic Revolution

Monday, May 19, 2008

Dr. Mir-Mohammad Hossein Hoda 

The Islamic Revolution of Iran, which triumphed under the leadership of the late Imam Khomeini in February 1979, was the sole revolution in the whole human history that due to its coincidence with major international upheavals was scrutinized by many thinkers and politicians. As put by the author of “New Shiite Ideas in Politics and Governance”, before long research works about the Islamic Revolution inundated the world.

Among humanities scholars, Orientalists, especially those who specialized in Islam, Iran, Arab world and Turks, constituted the most notable circle which has analyzed various aspects of the Islamic Revolution since its victory through comparative observations of its philosophy, leadership, and factors causing it to triumph as well as its evolution and achievements. Most of them have admitted that the Islamic Revolution in Iran took all international institutions as well as political, cultural, sociological, military, and intelligence circles by surprise. This admission by Orientalists has led to two conclusions:

  1. Famous Orientalists like Maxim Robinson in his book, Attractions of Islam, has criticized prevalent scientific and traditional methods used by Orientalists, especially Islam scholars, and others have urged that those methods should be radically reviewed.
  2. Other Orientalists have been doubtful about recognition of various aspects of the Islamic Revolution because their findings are based on prejudgments which do not conform to realities of the Islamic Revolution or the general evolutionary trend of Islam as well as the role of Muslims in world politics.

Therefore, relative review of typology of famous viewpoints of Orientalists on the Islamic Revolution will reveal their strengths and weaknesses.

The common denominator of such studies is emotional treatment of the Islamic Revolution by some of them which has been done under the glaze of scientific research.

However, since most of them have paid attention to some realties of the Islamic Revolution, it is hoped that as time goes by and more accurate scientific methods are adopted and as some Orientalists come to see the truth of the Islamic Revolution and its causative factors, cultural creativities and social aspects of this phenomenon will be made known more than before.

Apart from those types of Orientalist views which are totally hostile, or erroneous ones that have committed a big mistake by comparing Iranian revolution to revolutions in France or Cuba, another type of oriental studies which sees the Islamic Revolution as a cultural revolution against materialistic values of the West is more noteworthy. However, there is a fourth type which is a blend of cautious admissions combined with implied eulogy of the Islamic Revolution. The fourth type of Orientalists has admitted that the Islamic Revolution has been the sole triumphant revolution based on the teachings of Islam. As we will see, the Islamic Revolution opened a new chapter of Islamic renaissance and revived religious thought due to its global effects and materialization of the political philosophy of Islam in the form of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Professor Bernard Louise, the most famous Anglo-American Orientalists whose works have been translated into 23 languages, writes in his book, Political Language of Islam, that “Developments of 1979 in Iran not only changed the political system, but the whole society of Iran and its effects spilled over the borders. Its leaders called it a revolution, and outside observers finally had to admit it as a revolution.”

“Revolutions usually introduce themselves in various manners. Each revolution has its own way to criticize the past and foretell the future. Freedom, equality and brotherhood were major ideals of the French revolution which was based on the intellectual movement of the 18th century. The Russian revolution which was based on the 19th century socialism, foresaw establishment of a class-less society through establishment of proletariat dictatorship. The Iranian revolution, which was bound by Islam, used the language of religion to criticize the past regime and delineate future prospects.

Muslim revolutionaries knew that they should fight infidelity and tyranny in order to establish the real Islamic system.”

Professor Louise, whose stances toward Islam and the Islamic Revolution are usually hostile, has pointed to acceptance by the ideas of the Islamic Revolution among Muslim youths of the world, especially in southeast Asia and West Africa and has noted that the Islamic Revolution of Iran has had powerful impact on various parts of the world because it has defined a new culture on the basis of Islam.

Professor Ludwig Hagemann, who teaches Christian theosophy at Wartburg University of Germany, published an article in June 21 and 22, 1992 issues of a widely circulating Swiss newspaper, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, and while analyzing Islamic movements of 19th and 20th centuries, has enumerated three principles as the basis for revival of the Islamic thought:

  1. Islam should be reviewed on the basis of unity between religion and politics;
  2. Islam should cover all parts of human life; and
  3. The government should be religious and Islamic.

Then, he expounds the role of the Islamic Revolution and writes, “The establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran under the leadership of Imam Khomeini for the realization of those ideals is a good example to the point. The leaders of the Islamic Revolution have frequently noted that they are Shias and that Shias constitute only 15 percent of the world population. They have stipulated that their revolution is neither Shiite, nor Iranian, but is for the whole Islamic ummah. Islamic fundamentalism covers both Shiites and Sunnis and is a move to bring about unity among Muslims.”

As for the relationship between Imam and nation, Professor Hagemann has written that the Iranian people called their leader who was in exile, Imam.

Professor Gottfried W. Scheiber, the famous Orientalist, philosopher, researcher and professor of Christian divinities, has written in his book “Clear Answers” which was published in Austria, that the Islamic Revolution has had great impact on the Arab youth.

“Reactions shown to the Islamic Revolution of Iran in 1979 were confirmatory. For them, the Islamic Revolution was a prelude to the realization of an ideal political system for the Islamic ummah, on the one hand, and a political move to encourage pan-Islamism, on the other hand. In 1979, Islamic Society of Cairo University Students published a pamphlet entitled “Lessons from Iran” in which they had admitted that the Islamic Revolution was worth studying and its lessons were worth learning.”

Dr. Scheiber then analyzes the text of the pamphlet in which the students had opined that separation of state and religion was an “imported mistake” and had supported establishment of an Islamic rule. In conclusion, which was surprising for Sunni Muslims, the students had advocated more political role for religious ulema and had accepted the model of the Iranian constitution, that is, Velayat Faqih (Guardianship of Muslim Jurist).

Professor Klaus Kintseler, who teaches Christian divinities at Augsburg University, Germany, has written a paper on new fundamentalism which has been published in a book authored by five scholars in the fields of Islam, sociology and law in 1990 that “dramatic changes brought about in Iran by the Islamic Revolution have drawn the world public opinion to extraordinary importance of this phenomenon which has transcended the limits of the Iranian government and the world of Islam.”

Professor Francois Thual, a teacher of strategy at the military university of France, has written in his book, “Geopolitics of Shiism” that “The victory of the (Imam) Khomeini’s revolution in Iran has been one of the most important developments in the second half of the 20th century and, in fact, the most important development in the history of Shiism.”

Professor Heinz Holm, the famous scholar of Iran and Islam and author of many books about Shiism, has noted in the book “Shiite Islam” in 1994 that many theories proposed by Orientalists about the origins and history of Shiism are erroneous.

Referring to the role of the Islamic Revolution of Iran, he adds, “Fifteen years ago (15 years before the book was published) you could not find a single European who had heard the word ‘Ayatollah’ and few of them had heard about ‘Shiism’. It was only after (Imam) Khomeini came to Neuphle le Chateau that we see him on our television screens every night to remind us that Shiism is still alive.”

“The Dictionary of 20th Century World Politics,” which was authored by some European scholars in Germany in 1996 has expounded on revolutions in China, Mexico, Russia, and Cuba. Referring to “religiously motivated revolution of the 20th century”, it adds, “When Imam Khomeini put an end to the reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi through the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and established an Islamic government, the first religiously motivated revolution of the 20th century had triumphed. Fundamentalist forces tried in 1980s and 1990s to expand the revolution to some Arab countries too.”

The dictionary has noted that the Islamic Revolution plays a great role in world politics after the end of Cold War hostilities between socialist and capitalist poles.

Helmut L. Muller, a prominent Austrian writer has noted about the Islamic Revolution in May 1, 1993 issue of Salzburger Nachrichten newspaper that “the uprising of (Imam) Khomeini against the Shah of Iran was a cultural and broad-based revolution against the West and its values and proved to Western countries that machines and skyscrapers were not enough to make other countries adopt the Western culture.

“Ayatollah Khomeini laid the foundation of the Islamic Revolution through his theories and regulated Iran’s relations with other countries based on the principle of ‘Neither East, nor West, the Islamic Republic’. This is the loftiest goal of the Iranian foreign policy.”

In another part of his paper, he noted that since 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran has not only taken Islam back to society, but has also put unity among Muslims (pan-Islamism) on its agenda.

These were but few examples of viewpoints of Western Orientalists, sociologists and writers about the Islamic Revolution. Let’s hope that as time goes by, this revolution and its message would be judged with less bias and in a more fair and scientific manner.

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