How applicable are the classic concepts of “state” and “politics” to the world of Islam? The current prominence of Islamic politics and the establishment of an Islamic Republic in Iran poses this question anew.

On this point there is convergence between the adherents of the Islamist movements and Westerners writing in the Orientalist tradition. Each postulates a cultural essence which underlies and unifies Islamic history and distinguishes it from an equally reductionist notion of the West. They see the territorial nation-state as an alien graft, imposed by the West but remaining “external” to Muslim society, the game of intellectuals and politicians. In Islamic society, both Islamists and Orientalists argue, the global unit of solidarity is the Islamic community of the faithful, the umma, and the territorial nation-state is incompatible with this higher unity. Western writers would add that alongside this global solidarity there is the more immediate solidarity of primary communities based on tribe, region or sect, equally incompatible with the nation-state but played out within its alien political field under modern ideological labels like “nationalism” and “socialism.”

The traditional form of the Islamic polity, the dawlat of a dynasty or a clique, is compatible with both the umma and the primary community. The dawlat enjoys absolute and arbitrary powers over peoples and resources. Though subservient clerics legitimize this rule as Islamic, it is scarcely limited by Islamic law. Writers in the Orientalist tradition see many modern Middle Eastern states as modern extensions of traditional-Islamic absolute rulers, “neo-patrimonial” states ruling by coercion and extensive patronage networks. [1]

The modern Islamists judge this type of modern state as alien to Islamic principles, a creature of imperialism, even when it pretends to Islam. They seek a “truly Islamic” state applying the shariat and unifying the fragmented umma under a revived khilafat, thus providing for justice and the sovereignty of God. The primary model for such a state is contained in the “sacred history” of the Medinan community-state of Muhammad.

These essentialist positions contrast with the view of modern states as products of social and cultural transformations accompanying the uneven expansion of a global capitalist economy. Broadly speaking, the region has experienced a breakdown of local self-contained socioeconomic units and their integration into wider systems which are in turn linked up to an international economy. Aspects of this process include transport, migrations, urbanization, conscript armed forces, education and literacy, as well as print and other communications media.

Nation-states are clearly of European origin but their diffusion to other parts of the world (including much of Europe itself) did not create replicas of the British or the French political systems. In particular, political representation and legal constraints on the exercise of power have been weak or non-existent in many Third World political systems, including those of the Middle East. A political sociology of particular countries explains these factors.

At the same time, the nation-state has itself structured political processes and ideas in the region, and dominated the assumptions and forms of underlying political activity there. Even for those who would transcend the nation-state into pan-Arabism or pan-Islamism, the nation-state represents an elemental political fact and constraint. In fact, the assumptions and concepts of the nation-state underlie, implicitly or explicitly, most of the modern Islamist ideologies. In this and many other respects, they are not continuous with historical Islam but rather are modern constructions influenced by current conjunctures. [2]

Existing Islamic States

This becomes clear when we examine the nature of the Islamic state in Iran. If the nation-state is an imported concept unsuitable for Islamic cultural and social conditions, then can the Islamic state escape its alien trappings in favor of a more authentic and harmonious form? Of the existing Islamic states, Iran is the most appropriate case to consider. Saudi Arabia emerged out of tribal polities and is sustained in its present form by vast oil revenues. In Pakistan, as in Numairi’s Sudan, Islam was imposed by a military regime in an effort to engender some legitimacy and reinforce control. Iran is the only example of an Islamic state installed through a popular revolution which engages all aspects of the question.

There is a dualism in the Iranian state of nation-state concepts intermingled with Islamic forms. These forms are not revivals or continuities with historical instances but quite novel creations. Khomeini’s doctrine of velayat-e faqih, for instance, as applied to government, is a major departure from historical Islamic political thought and practice, including Shi‘ism. The duality is indicated in the very title of Islamic “republic” (jomhuri). “Republic” represents a link with the French Revolution and all the revolutions of this century, in the region and outside, which have toppled a monarchy. It has a written constitution, drafted after wide-ranging and heated debates by an elected Assembly of Experts (on the model of a constitutional assembly), an elected president, a parliament (majlis, the same term used for parliament in the defunct monarchial regime as well as in most countries of the region).

Yet a contradictory duality of sovereignties is written into the constitution: the sovereignty of the popular will (Article 6), in line with democratic nation-state constitutions, and the principle of velayat-e faqih, giving sweeping, almost arbitrary powers to the ruling faqih (jurist). Popular sovereignty is embodied in parliament, but the legislative powers of this parliament are subject to the approval of the faqih. The faqih and the “Council of Guardians” (half its membership appointed by Khomeini and half by the majlis) watch over the compatibility of legislation with Islamic law and general principles. In theory, the ruling faqih has wide discretion in interpreting the Islamic sources and their applicability. In practice so far, the majlis, itself composed of the revolutionary elite, has enjoyed considerable legislative powers; the Council of Guardians has restricted the majlis only on the particular issues of land reform and the nationalization of foreign trade, which were judged to be incompatible with Islamic safe guards of private property.

The Islamic Republic has a cabinet system with the familiar divisions into functional ministries and departments, with bureaucratic rules and procedures. Its legal system is to date quite diffuse and sometimes chaotic. According to the constitution, the Islamic shariat is the basis for all law and legislation. In fact, many of the codes of civil law survive from the previous regime and are administrered by civil (madani) rather than shariat courts (a distinction that also applies in many other countries in the region). The judges include secular personnel, some from the previous regime, but the constitution stipulates that they should all be competent in Islamic law. In addition, “revolutionary courts” deal with offenses against the revolution (often arbitrarily defined by the prosecuting authorities of komitehs (revolutionary committees) and Revolutionary Guards), much in line with post-revolutionary practice in other countries.

This state of affairs is clearly unsatisfactory, and there are calls for the codification of Islamic law into a unified system which would cover all spheres of legal transactions and processes. But nothing has been done so far — partly, it is thought, because such codification would infringe the traditional autonomy of mujtahids, each of whom can (theoretically) reach a different but equally valid judgement on the same case. In fact, though, this traditional autonomy is increasingly confronting the central state, which asserts that it is the higher (Islamic) authority. Elements of this centralization are the appeal system which goes all the way up to Tehran, and can therefore overrule the judgement of individual clerics, and the centralized administration of justice in the appointment of a state prosecutor with overall responsibility. At the same time, the most publicized aspects of the legal system are such applications of the Quranic penal code as amputations and executions by stoning. Thus the legal system in revolutionary Iran illustrates the mixture of modern bureaucratic and traditional Islamic elements. It will be interesting to see, if and when a unified system of Islamic law is introduced, how it will cope with matters so far covered by civil law.

Supreme Authority

Of the Islamic elements in the revolutionary state, the most central is the principle of velayat-e faqih. As we have seen, this is enshrined in the constitution. This idea, quite novel in relation to politics and government, gives the ruling faqih (in this case Khomeini) or his collective equivalent (there is provision for a council of fuqaha) supreme authority in the interpretation of the sacred texts and the Islamic and specifically Shi‘i traditions. In other words, the faqih can intervene and direct legislation on any matter of general policy to which he judges his authority and expertise to be relevant, and to arbitrate in any conflict.

Other Islamic elements in Iran today can be found in the multitude of revolutionary organizations at all levels of government, society and the armed forces. Some of these parallel state organizations and intervene in their operations as revolutionary monitors and censors, if not rivals. The most important of these are the Pasdaran, or Revolutionary Guards, first started as a revolutionary militia with police and internal defense functions. The war with Iraq added general military functions parallel to the regular armed forces, partly to keep these forces in check. Eventually the Pasdaran became major rivals to the regular forces, complex and well-equipped in all three services and with a special ministry to handle their affairs.

The Pasdaran are unique in performing parallel functions to their regular equivalents. Revolutionary committees in government departments and public enterprises do not perform parallel functions but watch over the revolutionary purity of the organizations (interpreted in relation to current political factions and struggles, with occasional purges of supporters of one side in favor of another). They also watch over the Islamic morals and comportment of the employees — their observation of rituals (prayers and fasting) and correct forms of dress, particularly for women. More important, in factories and other enterprises employing workers, they maintain industrial and ideological discipline and counter subversive radical but non-Islamic notions of trade unionism. Other Islamic committees and organizations control urban quarters, performing police and security functions; yet others administer charitable distributions to the poor, building up patronage networks in the process.

This proliferation of revolutionary committees and councils is highly reminiscent of the situations following other popular revolutions, such as the French or the Russian: citizens’ or workers’ committees watching over the revolutionary purity of government and society, and in the process engaging in factional struggles. Their Iranian equivalents are different in the content of their ideology and, crucially, in the fact that they are not elected but appointed from above. The “routinization” of revolutions typically includes the suppression or incorporation of the zealous censors. There are indications that this step is part of the hidden agenda of the “moderates” in Iran’s revolutionary establishment.

What, then, is constitutionally Islamic about the Iranian state, beyond the principle of velayat-e faqih and the application of the notable features of the shariat? There are no systematic Islamic principles, such as constitutional or public law, to apply to the system of administration or to the organization of government departments. Islam does not significantly alter the constitution or the administration of the state as such.

An interesting aspect of state functions is the question of taxation. In Shi‘i practice a religious tax, called the khoms (one-fifth of specified items of wealth) is paid by the believer to his chosen mujtahid who, at his discretion, uses it for religious administration and charities. Now that an Islamic state is in power, are the dues of the believer to that state or to his chosen mujtahid? The official ruling is quite emphatic on the duty to pay state taxes, quite distinct from the khoms, which remains a matter between the believer and his or her chosen mujtahid. State requirements are not compromised or subordinated to religious practice, in spite of the ruling of some conservative clerics to the contrary.

Clerical Rule

The supremacy of the Islamic state in religious matters has been further enhanced in a recent declaration by Khomeini that a truly Islamic state has discretion over the most basic rules of Islamic worship, such as prayer and fasting. But the most Islamic element of the Islamic Republic is not so much in the administration as in the political field and its personnel. Religious institutions and personnel are in the ascendance; after defeating, banishing or subordinating their opponents and rivals, the Islamic Republic became basically a government by clergy. (Not all the clergy: many of the conservative senior clerics remain quietly opposed to velayat-e faqih and the direct involvement of religious leaders in government.) The clergy occupy most of the senior positions in government, parliament, the revolutionary organizations and the institutions of recruitment and mobilization of cadres, supporters and soldiers. Religious functions and ceremonies which they lead have now acquired political and mobilizing significance. Most notable are the Friday prayers and sermon (khotba), now a major political institution in each city. The imam jomeh, or preacher, always an official government appointment, now enjoys considerable power in the city or region of his appointment. Many of the major mobilizing initiatives of the regime started as the Tehran Friday prayers attended by vast throngs in open public spaces.

The open political arena has been entirely “Islamicized.” Islamic justification and rhetoric are the final criterion of legitimacy of a political position. Antagonists berate one another in terms of non-authenticity of their advocacy. Factions of radicals and conservatives, left and right, have emerged within this Islamic field.

A central issue of the debate is that of the sanctity of private property versus the primacy of social justice. This is pursued in terms of Islamic sources and historical precedents. The different factions are made possible by the existence of rival power centers within the state and the clergy, each with networks of supporters and clients. Particular identifiable political groups and factions may be dissolved or suppressed if they lose out or become an embarrassment to the regime, as in the case of the conservative Hojjatiyeh Society, but then their positions reemerge within different organizations and among different personnel.

This political field is clearly different from those of neighboring countries, in that its discourses of legitimacy and contest are entirely Islamic. It is also a surprisingly more open and diverse political field than that of most other countries in the region. These differences, if anything, bring Iran closer than the other Middle East countries to the Western model of a modern national political arena. Where else does one find ideologically-based organizations contesting “class” issues and similar matters?

The pan-Islamic commitment of the revolution has at one significant level to do with the export of the revolution, itself a contested issue. But this does not alter the fact that politics in Iran primarily concerns national issues within the well-identified and unquestioned entity of the Iranian nation-state. The identification of Iran with Shi‘ism marks it off in religious terms from the surrounding countries and reinforces its separate national identity. This is even more emphasized by the war with Iraq and, in effect, with most of the Arab world. It should be emphasized, however, that this Shi‘i identity is underplayed and mostly unspoken in public, where the emphasis is on Islamic unity.

Islamic Patronage

What of the relation of the revolutionary state to society? In its attempt to create an Islamic nation in its image, the Islamic state intrudes into many aspects of social and domestic life. It may be argued, however, that the Islamic state is not as “external” to the social fabric as its predecessors. At least it has its ties to more “popular” social classes. The religious personnel and institutions now comprising the government are involved in various social networks, especially in the bazaars and the old urban quarters. Do these relations and networks continue when their apexes are now in the very different positions of state power? Or are they transformed into the patronage networks of the distributive (so-called “neo-patrimonial”) state? Let us not forget that Iran is a state where oil revenues are at the basis of the power for the Islamic Republic, as much as they were for the ancien regime, and that oil represents the primary resource for continuing its long war with Iraq.

The revolutionary state does indeed function as a distributive state, but with different sets of clients and priorities than its predecessor. Since 1980 the most pressing priorities have been those of war, an issue beyond the present discussion. The populist emphasis of the revolution and its championing of the mostazefin, the weak and the oppressed, was translated in the early days of the revolution into handouts and various forms of assistance. Selected groups of the urban poor, for instance, received housing. Radical measures for systematic welfare policies and to protect the rights of workers and peasants have been for the most part blocked or subverted by groups headed by the leading conservative clergy, some of them in the Council of Guardians. The selective handouts, then, established networks of patronage and support tied to particular institutions and people.

The recruitment of bands of militant young men, hezbollahi, for vigilante organizations is, in part, aided by this process. Resources are also channeled to the families of the war dead and wounded. At higher class levels, networks of patronage and allegiance connect the state clergy to bazaar merchants. Disadvantaged under the shah in relation to other “modern” businessmen and financiers, some of the bazaar merchants played an important part in the support for the revolution. These same supporters were later worried by the radical rhetoric of the revolution and the proposals for land reform and the nationalization of foreign trade. They shared these fears with their patrons in the conservative factions of the clergy, who have been largely successful in blocking these measures as well as in reversing or subverting policies advancing workers and tenants rights. These are general class gains.

In addition, particular groups of merchants have benefitted from business opportunities gained through preferential considerations for import and export licenses, which they owe to particular patrons among the state clergy. This leaves many sectors of the bazaar still discontented, especially with the restrictions on business opportunities resulting from the interminable war. In this, too, they have support from sections of the political clergy, some of whom advocate an early settlement. It would seem, then, that the clergy and their networks are adapting very well to the logic of the distributive state.

The multiplicity of factions and their rivalry appears to have (limited) parallels in the earlier history of some of the Arab states — the 1960s of the Ba’th regimes in Iraq and Syria, for instance. These were ultimately ended by the emergence of one dominant clique through a process of progressive elimination or subordination of the others. This is not an unlikely scenario for the future of the Islamic Republic. So far, the war situation as well as Khomeini’s restraining influence and authoritative arbitration of intra-regime disputes have prevented serious fights from reaching fatal conclusions. Under different conditions, and after Khomeini, factional fights might very well develop differently, to favor the emergence of a dominant clique which would control and suppress the others.

These structural similarities should not detract attention from the striking contrast which the Islamic Republic presents to all other countries in the region. The institutional differences, government by clergy, the spectacles of popular manifestations, the factional struggles with ramifications into government as well as religious institutions and personnel, the political discourses of disputation (with exotic mixtures of class rhetoric and religious scholasticism) — all these and many more elements mark revolutionary Iran as quite a unique phenomenon. But the structural similarities are important, especially for future developments.

Does Islam in revolutionary Iran negate the nation-state model? The Iranian case indicates that the Islamic elements of the Republic fit in very well with the nation-state model, both in terms of state organization and of the structure of the political arena and its discourses. The one Islamic strand that does not fit in is that of the power and autonomy of the conservative mujtahids, notably in law and taxation. But we have seen that this autonomy is being progressively eroded, and this may very well provoke future confrontations and struggles in the religious institutions and in the government.



[1] For a recent coherent statement of this position, see Bertrand Badie, Les Deux Etats: Pouvoir et Societe en Occident et en Terre d'Islam (Paris: Fayard, 1986). Pronouncements to the same effect are widely scattered in the English literature; see, for instance, P.J. Vatikiotis, “Authoritarianism and Autocracy in the Middle East,” in his Arab and Regional Politics in the Middle East (London: Croom Helm, 1984).
[2] This theme is pursued in my Islam, the People and the State (London: Routledge, forthcoming 1988).

How to cite this article:

Sami Zubaida "An Islamic State?," Middle East Report 153 (July/August 1988).

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