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Source: Direct Submission
Service: MSANEWS; Alkitab Interface
Date: Tue Oct 27 1998
Title: Power Sharing Islam


Ernest Gellner

There are two big events of this century which obviously deserve our
attention.  One is the failure of Marxism; the other is the success of
Islam. I am an outsider to both these faiths. The terms I use are
analytical or sociological. They do not imply endorsement or condemnation
from an absolute viewpoint; they express the judgments of an observer of
society concerned sympathetically with the fate of the people involved in
these systems. 

Let me begin with the failure of Marxism and my attempt to understand it.
Marxism has often been compared, I think correctly, to a religion. It has
many of the features of the advanced kind of religion which Professor
Keane mentioned, although I think he was slightly narrow in highlighting
religions which are centred on belief and doctrine and in rather
underplaying the different kind of religion which is primarily ritualistic
and traditional and non-doctrinal. Marxism had many of the features of a
religion. It offered a total vision of the universe and of society and a
combined vision of the two, so that social order and social righteousness
were seen as corollaries of the total vision. In brief, it offered a path
of salvation to mankind. It was unusual amongst religions in that it
claimed to be entirely secular and this-worldly. It had no recognition of
the transcendent, in fact it denied the transcendent, and I think what was
fatal to it was that it had no division of the sacred and the profane. 
Paradoxically, it was a secular religion. 

However, as we have learned in the last few years, it failed to resemble
religions in one very important way, it had no great hold over the human
heart. When other belief systems suffer a political defeat for better or
for worse they retain a hold over the hearts of at least some of their
adherents. People who have seen the world through the eyes of a certain
vision, who were brought up in that vision, who identified the terms of
that vision with their evaluation of their surroundings, are not easily
weaned from it. Religion is like love, you cannot break it off overnight.
It tends to go on tormenting you even if circumstances have frustrated it. 

Something weird has happened in the case of Marxism. On my count in what
could be called the previous Moscow zone, i.e.  areas which were once
under the influence of Moscow-based Marxism, there are now 29 separate
countries: 15 in the Soviet Union, 5 in Yugoslavia and the rest in various
parts of other Eastern European countries. Whilst there are people
hankering for the past because it was stable, there seems to be nobody
hankering after the faith. When I say nobody I mean virtually nobody,
there is no nostalgia.  Somehow or other, Marxism has failed to do what
other religions have succeeded in doing. Why is this? Of course the answer
to this question like the answer to most questions is: I do not know.
However I am going to offer you an hypothesis which explains Marxism's
remarkable lack of magnetism. 

Marxism is deeply pantheistic. Under pantheism there is a firm conviction
of a single world: everything is one great unity and when salvation comes‹
and Marxism promised salvation, it will be pervasive and total. It is
often said that man cannot live without religion. This may or may not be
true, but it is conventionally asserted and has a certain plausibility. I
am offering you an alternative and less conventional suggestion, that men
and societies cannot live without profanity.  There has to be some part of
the social world which is not sacred. This was the suggestion of the great
sociologist Durkheim, when he considered the division of life into the
sacred and the profane. He hit upon the very important truth that neither
element is dispensable. 

The intellectual origins of Marxism can be schematised very briefly by
referring to Spinoza, Hegel and Marx. Spinoza was the greatest pantheist,
who described how God- intoxicated man firmly abolished the division, and
how the whole world was equally sacred, and had one pervasive deity‹ the
pantheist vision. Hegel historicised this notion after taking it over, but
saw this one great unity as manifesting itself in world history. Marx in
turn took this over and endowed it with a materialist and economic
content. At this time Russia and much of Eastern Europe were caught up in
the struggle for equality and the emergence from underdevelopment, and it
provided them with a vision which at one time seemed to work and which
held the promise of catching up, of overtaking and of fulfilment.

In my reading of Soviet history I am struck by the strange fact that the
unspeakable horror of the Stalin period did not erode faith in the
religion. For instance, I studied with some care the memoirs of Andrei
Sakharov, one of the finest minds of the century. They are very
illuminating because Sakharov continued to be a believer in the overall
vision, despite the fact that he despised all its individual propositions. 
Here we can see the total transformation of the human condition taking
place. It is inevitably bloody and brutal and in working for it one might
be justified in doing what Sakharov in fact did, namely equipping the
Soviet Union with the H-bomb using slave labour and suppression.

In due course Sakharov was converted to a kind of dissidence both by the
injustices of Soviet life and by the violation of scientific integrity. 
Lysenkoism was the major factor in his conversion, but the interesting
fact is that he was never converted completely. Of course he knew with
great intimacy all the horrors of the period. What did convert the
citizens of the Soviet Union away from it was not the terror of Stalinism,
but the squalor and inefficiency of the Brezhnev period. As long as they
murdered each other, this was acceptable. When they started bribing each
other it was not. Why not? Why should relatively minor sins, which are the
common currency of most societies, be so profoundly unacceptable? The
answer I am suggesting to you is that Marxism, by sacralising the whole of
social life, including the economic, by making the economic the sacrament
of social righteousness, made squalor deeply corrosive. So, when the lid
was finally taken off in the Gorbachev period, every one discovered with
pleasurable surprise that the emperor was naked and that everybody else
was naked as well. The faith which had survived random horrific murders
and terror on a massive scale did not survive the truth about economic
life, precisely because economic life was sacralised. Hence Marxism, while
resembling religion in other ways, failed to have that tenacious hold over
the human heart which other religions have.

Now let me consider the other major interesting phenomenon of our age, the
victory and success of Islam. In the social sciences, one of the commonest
theses is the secularisation thesis, which runs as follows. Under
conditions prevailing in industrial- scientific society, the hold of
religion over society and its people diminishes. By and large this is
true, but it is not completely true, for there is one major exception,
Islam. In the last hundred years the hold of Islam over Muslims has not
diminished but has rather increased. It is one striking counter-example to
the secularisation thesis. Like the failure of Marxism, it is a
fascinating intellectual problem that serves as a background to the more
practical, moral and political problems which are the concerns of this

I would tentatively and in all humility attempt to offer you an
explanation. The Western perception of the strength of Islam is distorted
by the fact that the West has largely noticed this fact in connection with
the Khomeyni revolution. Although the Iranian revolution is,
unquestionably, the most dramatic manifestation of the social and
political vigour of Islam, it is in some interesting ways untypical, which
somewhat distorts the perception. The social and political vigour of Islam
is something which long antedates that particular revolution and ought not
to be identified with it.

What is the sociological explanation of this counter-trend? I would
suggest that two things need to be considered, the nature of high
religions and the crisis of underdevelopment. Let me begin with the

Underdevelopment is the condition of a society which endures political
humiliation as a result of a technological, and hence economic and
military, inferiority. The uneven distribution of the benefits, if such
they are, of modern technology in production and military hardware, has
led to a curious kind of imbalance over the last two centuries, in which
the early beneficiaries of technological power had their relative power
enormously increased, and the later beneficiaries of course were
temporarily disadvantaged. This is a key characteristic of the last two
centuries.  What is the characteristic reaction of a society to

I think the paradigm of the reaction is the tension between Westernisation
and populism. Many European countries have gone through this reaction, but
it finds its supreme expression in the Russian literature of the 19th
century. There are two ways that this reaction can be expressed. You can
say, "Well, those Western bastards are very strong and powerful, we've got
to pinch their fire, we've got to turn their weapons against them." Then
of course you try to identify what the secret of their power is. Is it
constitutionalism? Is it democracy? Is it science? The details of the
diagnosis vary, but the outcome is that you try to redress the balance by
emulating your enemy. A sensible strategy, but with one psychic
disadvantage, the repudiation of your own local tradition, which is
psychologically painful. It is not easy to say, "What our fathers and
grandfathers did was deeply mistaken." Some Westernisers bring themselves
to do it, but it is nevertheless painful.

The alternative is to say, "Not only are those Westerners bastards, but
virtue is on our side." If you cannot idealise the government, which is
usually difficult to do because they are caught between traditionalism and
compromise with the past, you idealise some kind of local folk culture.

In the case of Russians of course it was the idealisation of the simple
peasant soul.  The simple peasant faith was seen to contain great virtue
which compensated for its possible technological ineptness. Of course one
can see with hindsight why Marxism was so tempting for Eastern Europe and
for Russians because it did both things at the same time. It combined
total mysticism and idealisation of the ultimate virtue in the human
essence, with a promise not only to emulate the West but to overtake it
without the weaknesses which were going to bring the West down.  It was a
deadly combination, and it was no doubt attractive. Yet in the end it
proved disastrous, not only for the reasons I stated, but because its
recipes for social organisation were incompatible with the preconditions
for efficiency in the fourth or fifth industrial revolution, in an age of
very rapid technological advance and computerisation.

That is my general analysis of the dilemma of underdevelopment which the
entire world went through. You can include the French Enlightenment in the
underdevelopment crisis. What the thinkers of the French Enlightenment
were thinking is, "Why do those bastards, that nation of shop-keepers
across the Channel, keep beating us ?" The answer was, "They've got some
secret about social organisation which has escaped the French." So,
although the notion of underdevelopment did not then exist, it really was
the same kind of situation.

What then is the distinctive feature of Islam amongst the high religions? 
I think all high religions, by a high religion I mean a religion equipped
with a scripture, a doctrine, and a professional core of interpreters,
tend to suffer from a tension between the high variant and the folk
variant. This takes a very specific form in Islam. The high variant is the
faith of the scholars, unitarian, pure and puritan, spiritualist,
anti-mediationist and anti-hierarchical. Their's is an egalitarian
religion stressing the unity of God, the symmetry in the relationship
between believer and God, with an ethic of rule observance rather than an
ethic of loyalty to particular individuals. There is such a strong
distrust of mediation, that there is a special name for the sin of
associationship and of the use of mediators. By contrast, folk religion is
more oriented towards mystical practices, hierarchy and a kind of
surrogate priesthood in the form of cultish living saints.

If I read Muslim history correctly, within the history of Islam, from
whenever it shook down after the early first centuries under the impact of
the West, there was a tension between these two. Sometimes they lived in
harmony, interpenetrating each other. Often the tension was expressed in
the form of revivalist movements attempting to establish the true faith of
the scholars against the corrupt version of the folk. Then came the impact
of the West. Of course this occurred at different times and in different
regions, as early as the Napoleonic invasion in Egypt, as late as the
French invasion of Morocco in 1912, and even later in places like the

Under the impact of Westernisation, Muslim society can reform itself
without facing the dilemma which the Europeans faced, namely either to
westernise or to idealise the folk culture. This is because it can invoke
its own high tradition which is always respected, but usually not fully
implemented, honoured in the breach, but not always in the observance. 
Muslims like to think that the high tradition goes back to the Prophet and
his companions. I find this historically implausible, because I think that
the circumstances in which they worked were different. But what is
unquestionably true is that there is a genuine well-established old local
tradition, and that it has many of the features which make it suitable for
conferring what you may call international dignity: a very low level of
magic, low ritualisation, egalitarianism and all kinds of features which
make it compatible with modern conditions, and in particular the
conditions of self-correction and industrial, economic and scientific
catching up. Islam is more compatible with this than are the more
hierarchical, ritual-ridden aspects of other religions. In brief, the
Islamic World escapes the dilemma which, in my argument, pervades other
societies caught in the trap of temporary underdevelopment.

Islam revives in the name of its own high tradition, not in the name of
either the West or in the name of a populist idealisation of the folk
culture. Muslims leave the latter to Western romantics; they do not
themselves practise this and what they idealise is the old high tradition,
in which case it appears as fundamentalism.

The definition of the term "fundamentalism" has a double edge, a double
frontier. What fundamentalism says is that religion, its doctrines and its
prescriptions are to be taken seriously;  they mean what they say, neither
more nor less. The doctrine of firm interpretation has of course two

The first is a Western one which says that religion does not really mean
what it says, and is in fact just a kind of symbolic expression. Talking
to uneducated people like peasants and fishermen in Galilee, the founder
of the dominant Western faith had to use simple language because if he
talked modern philosophy they would not have understood him. But he really
meant the latest philosophic fashion. So you get Christianity which in
this sense tends to be vulgarised. In each generation it gets restated,
and the basic message is: the doctrine does not mean what it says, it
really means what the latest prophet has been saying, in simple language
so that a simple fisherman can understand it. 

The other one of course is esotericism: the doctrine of the hidden
meaning, that there is a special secret way that the religion is
stratified. Islamic fundamentalism fought on both these fronts. On the one
hand, it opposed that alliance between itself and its folk use of
mediators, while on the other hand it enhanced the stratification of an
inner truth and an outer truth. If my diagnosis is correct, that the
strength of Islam comes from this fundamentalism and self-correction in
terms of a literal doctrine taken seriously, a kind of combination of
simple and elegant unitarianism in theology with a firm set of rules for
social life, why should the most dramatic manifestation of fundamentalism
have appeared in Iran? It seems to go against the thesis, because of the
sects established by the fissions in the early history of Islam, Shi'ism
is of course in theological terms, furthest to the right, most given to a
cult of personality, and to ritualism.

My answer to this is that although the cult of personality, combined with
the cult of martyrdom, was very useful in the act of political
mobilisation practised by Khomeyni, it was rapidly dropped in the course
of success. What Khomeyni in fact did was Sunnify Islam. I have studied
Khomeyni's works in the translation of his Welsh convert and acolyte
Algar, and it seems to me very clear that the social and political
doctrine of the kind of Islamic republicanism you get in Khomeyni's
thought is a shift from a cult of personality to a cult of law, in other
words a shift towards Sunnism. 

Khomeyni does not deny the authority of the hidden Imams, but politically
speaking he pensions them off. They are really politically irrelevant. 
What matters about religion is the implementation of the law.  When the
Imam comes back, of course, the authority will be his and he will take on
government, but until he comes back the law must be implemented by those
most competent to do so. Who else can do this but the lawyers? They will
implement the law neither more nor less severely before or after his
coming. His coming is almost a political accident. Khomeyni has rude
things to say about such things as the cult of saints. So without actually
abolishing the cult of personality there has been a kind of transfer or
movement to a cult of the law away from the cult of personality, which I
took to be the crucial distinguishing line between Sunnism and Shi'ism.

Let me now come back to the contrast with Marxism. Once again I have an
interesting little disagreement, it is a matter of stress really, with
Professor Keane. Professor Keane rightly pointed out that Islam is not
just faith; it is an ordering of social life. Yes indeed, but it is an
ordering of social life that does not fully sacralise it. In the
regulation of economic life, for instance, Islam provides a set of hand
rails so that people know where they are but it does not actually say that
economic life in itself is sacred.

In other words, Muslims have a sphere of the profane to which they can
retreat at times of less and maximum religious zeal.  When it had the
opportunity to play at the world of religion, Marxism deprived humanity of
that zone precisely by sacralising the economic. If it had ritual and
symbolic objects, they were the tractors, the images of muscular workers,
huge socialist dams and so on. Economic life provided the sacraments for
that religion. But when economic life in the end turned out to be both
squalid and markedly less efficient, then Marxism collapsed. I think one
of the most important factors in the final self-destruction of the Soviet
Union was the discovery that Western capitalism could indeed be overtaken,
but not by them; the people who were doing it were the Confucianists of
East Asia and not the Marxists of the Euro-Asian centre.  That discovery
was crucial in causing the loss of faith which led to the self-dismantling
of a system which had not provided a zone in which people could retreat
when they wanted to work out their way.

Islam does provide for such a zone, which is one of the things which makes
it a workable modern religion. It combines firm guidance in an idiom
compatible with modern backgrounds, with a respect for the type of social
division which is essential for a viable society.


Professor Ernest Gellner is William Wyse Professor of Anthorpology at the
University of Cambridge. . He is an internationally recognised
philospopher and sociologist. He is a regular contributor to the Times
Litrerary Supplement and is a visiting Professor at the Central European
University in Prague. He is author of many articles and books, including: 
Arabs and Berbers (1972), Contemporary Thought and Politics (1974),
Legitimation of Belief (1974), Muslim Society (1981), Nations and
Nationalism (1983), State and Society in Soviet Thought (1988), Plough,
Sword and Book: the Structure of Human Society (1988) and Postmodernism,
Reason and Religion (1992).


world of penguin author description: 

Ernest Gellner was born in 1925 and joined the staff of the London School
of Economics in 1949. He was Professor of Philosophy from 1962 until 1984,
when he became William Wyse Professor of Social Anthropology at Cambridge
and Professorial Fellow at King's College.  During the last few years of
his life he was Research Professor at the Central European University,
Prague, which he was intrumental in establishing and where he was Director
of the Centre for the Study of Nationalism. His many books include Words
and Things (1959), Thought and Change (1964), Spectacles and Predicaments
(1979), Nations and Nationalism (1983), The Psychoanalytic Movement
(1985), Culture, Identity and Politics (1987), State and Society in Soviet
Thought (1988), Plough, Sword and Book (1988), Reason and Culture (1992) 
and Encounters with Nationalism (1994). 

Ernest Gellner died in November 1995. In its obituary the Independent
praised him as: 'A superb public speaker and debater, and also a gifted
teacher ... [he] was an outstanding theorist of modernity and one of a
rare breed among late twentieth-century scholars.'


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