This is an article which will be appearing in the ICC paper this month under their new section of 'readers contributions'. In it I deal with the question of the historical roots of Islam and compare the original movement of Mohammad with the present day movement of 'Jihadists' such as ISIS. It also deals in general with the problem of reification and its connection to the older concept of idolatry and its role in these social phenomena.
Recently there have been fresh reports of the cultural destruction wrought by the IS thugs in Iraq as these ‘brave monotheists’ cast down long dead idols of past civilisations. In the process destroying links to the time when Iraq was the cradle of civilisation while making a handy profit on the black market with what they didn’t destroy. This cultural destruction and the attendant attitude of contempt for the past is not only reactionary but also completely in sync with wider trends within bourgeois society and culture both Western, ‘modern’ and ‘secular’ and in the backward view of religious fundamentalism. After all no civilisation in history has been more culturally destructive than capitalism which has destroyed almost every other culture and social form in existence.
These ‘Islamic’ gangsters want to depict themselves as modern day heirs of Moses and Mohammed, casting down pagan idols, ignoring the fact that no one worships these idols anymore and haven’t done for over a thousand years. In actuality ISIS do nothing and can do nothing to oppose the real problem of idolatry in the modern world, because they serve the very same idols as the rest of the world bourgeoisie.
What is idolatry?
Many Marxist writers including Marx himself have pointed out the connection between our concepts of alienation, fetishisation and reification with the older concept of idolatry. Erich Fromm, in his book Marx’s Concept of Man, makes the point particularly explicit when he says:
“The whole concept of alienation found its first expression in Western thought in the Old Testament concept of idolatry. The essence of what the prophets call "idolatry" is not that man worships many gods instead of only one. It is that the idols are the work of man's own hands -- they are things, and man bows down and worships things; worships that which he has created himself. In doing so he transforms himself into a thing. He transfers to the things of his creation the attributes of his own life, and instead of experiencing himself as the creating person, he is in touch with himself only by the worship of the idol. He has become estranged from his own life forces, from the wealth of his own potentialities, and is in touch with himself only in the indirect way of submission to life frozen in the idols” (Erich Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man, 1961, page 39)
This is true of things which are not directly created by man as well, for example a natural object such as a tree; even an idea or experience such as success or love can become idols. This happens when they are fetishised and separated off from their true being which is always in connection with other beings and with being as a whole. This is the essence of reification, the giving of independent power and existence to something which is in reality a part of a whole or one aspect of a dialectical relation. ‘Reification’ is therefore fundamentally the same as ‘deification’ because it involves cutting off and turning a partial aspect of reality into a ‘god’.
By this reckoning modern capitalism is perhaps the most idolatrous society to date, as it is pre-eminently the society of the ‘thing’. Not only in the sense of its worship of commodities and its elevation of Profit as the jealous God of the whole human race, but also in the way that this effects its entire worldview and its whole mode of consciousness. This is not altered by the fact that this idolatry is a repressed, unconscious idolatry; in the spirit of typical bourgeois cynicism the idea that people worship things like greed, success, their own ego or any other expression of reified modern power is denied by all or at least turned into a minor criticism of ‘popular’ culture; the extent to which this ‘worship’ is hard-wired into the system itself is vehemently denied.
Monotheism in History
All three monotheistic religions began as a rebellion of the oppressed. There are numerous theories about what the true origins of Judaism were; the official founding myth of Judaism is the rebellion against slavery led by Moses. However historians disagree on how much historicity can be lent to this tale. Norman Gottwald put forward a theory in the 1970s that was at first derided among mainstream historians but has gained more traction even in these circles since then: that Judaism in fact started as a ‘peasant revolt’ which aimed to ‘re-tribalise’ society (i.e. to go back towards primitive communistic ideals and practices), to avoid the necessity of the state and to create a more egalitarian and free society than the Cannanite society he claims they lived in prior to this. Whatever the case might be, it is almost certain that a rebellion of some oppressed strata was fundamentally involved. Christianity starts as a rebellion not just of ‘the Jews’ against Rome but was fundamentally a movement of the most oppressed and exploited of the time (Kautsky in Foundations of Christianity refers to the proletariat of the day, although its nature was very different from the proletariat under capitalism). This can be seen in the explicit communism of the early Christians (as well as other Jewish groups of the time such as the Essenes) which is more pronounced in Christianity than all other religions, although it is present in nearly all religions to some extent.
Islam was not a movement of the most dispossessed alone, of an equivalent to Kautsky’s proletariat. However it was certainly a movement of the oppressed; in particular it was a movement of the oppressed tribal groups, those who had not emerged to take control of the power and wealth of the newly emerging economic and social reality of 6th and 7th century Arabia. It was a movement which drew in support from all the oppressed strata of this social reality: the poor, women, orphans and widows, unprotected foreigners and slaves, and which attacked the power and the sources of wealth of the leading tribes such as the Quraish (the tribe Muhammad, although an orphan, belonged to).
Islam painted itself from the start as a return to a previous way of being. Firstly this meant that Arabs should remember their own moral codes that had been lost in the rush towards individual success and economic ruthlessness. A ‘pagan’ morality of self-interest and prideful contempt for the ‘weak’ became widespread as the emerging relations of private property eroded the tribal principles based on caring for all members of the community. War and blood feuds had also gotten out of control. This is where the newness of the Islamic morality really comes into play. The shifting influence of moral responsibility from the tribe collectively as in the traditional Arab worldview of the time to an ‘individualistic’ morality which saw the individual as alone being responsible for his/her actions in Islam reflects many contradictory historical tendencies. Firstly, it can be said to represent the growing alienation of the individual from the community; however it is a community by this point which has already degenerated and no longer fits the new historical circumstances. This expresses itself in the way that this ‘individualistic’ morality was able to help combat the prevalence of blood feuds in which one life from a tribe was seen as being interchangeable for another.
Islam was also a movement of a growing merchant class and it would be wrong to obscure or diminish this fact. Marx and Engels, in the little writing they did dedicate to the history of Islam, make the accurate observation that Islam was the ideological basis which expressed and gave body to the movement towards Arab unification and an early kind of ‘nationalism’. This unification was made possible and could only be made possible at this time through the growing importance of trade and the merchant class in general.
The fact that Islam was less radical than Christianity in its rejection of money and possessions is not only connected to the fact that Christianity was a more ‘proletarian’ movement and was therefore expressing the views of people who could see firsthand, to an extent the majority of Arabs of this time could not, the inherent problems and injustices that money and trade create. It reflects also a difference in ‘temperament’ between the two movements; Christianity was a movement of a class which, as rebellious they might have been, had no realistic way in which to establish their ‘kingdom of God’ on earth and could only imagine it coming through an apocalyptic struggle with the aid of divine intervention; the early Muslims on the other hand had a realistic programme of social reform and saw the ‘end times’ and the perfect age of righteousness as still firmly in the future, not as an immediate goal. This was why the revolution of Islam in taking power and giving rise to a new society (even if it immediately disappointed the most radical of the followers of Muhammad such as Abu Dharr, for following wealth and status and becoming like all the other kingdoms) was successful while Christianity could only be co-opted and sanitised by its enemies in the form of the Roman empire.
This is not to say that the civilisation that was established and came to dominate much of the world throughout the medieval period, as progressive as it was in many respects, would not have been a huge disappointment to Muhammad. The degree of this disappointment can be glimpsed at in particular by considering the example of one of his most radical followers, Abu Dharr, who did live to see the beginnings of this process. Abu Dharr, who was likened to Jesus in his humility and way of life by Muhammad, was a proto-communist who was exiled by the second Caliph Uthman for preaching against the slide back towards the ‘old ways’ of ostentatious and luxurious living of the powerful at the expense of the poor. Abu Dharr declaimed against this stating that: “This capital, wealth, gold and silver which you have hoarded must be equally divided among all Muslims. Everyone must share in the others' benefits in the economic and ethical system of Islam, in all blessings of life." (http://www.iranchamber.com/personalities/ashariati/works/once_again_abu_dhar1.php#sthash.9xmYwI2A.dpuf)...
What does all this have to do with idolatry?
The question to be posed then is what was it about monotheism that allowed it to be so closely connected to revolutionary movements. Firstly monotheism in its original sense implied a rejection of the worldly powers. The connection between ‘having power over’ and being the ‘god of’ someone was much clearer to those living in the ancient world than it is today in our so called ‘secular’ world; and in declaring that there was no ‘god but God’ as in the Islamic Shahada (declaration of faith) the early Muslims, like the early Jews and Christians, were directly challenging and rejecting the existing power structures of their times. It is obvious as well that monotheism in the case of Islam was a rebellion against the economic and social power connected with the worship of these idols. Control of the holy site of the Kaaba and the markets connected to it for example was central to the social-economic power structure of the day. This connection between ‘theological’ ideas and concrete economic and social questions was also much clearer in the ancient world than it appears today when the idolatry inherent to capitalism is hidden behind a veil of repression and ‘common sense’ and monotheism has long since been accommodated to worldly power.
Therefore not only did monotheism originally entail a rejection of the power structures, but also an attempt at a critique of the increasingly alienated economic structures and practices of the time. If we look at this question historically we see that the idea of a ‘Supreme Being’ is extremely common throughout the world and in all stages and forms of human society; and indeed Allah was just such a ‘Supreme Being’ recognised by the pre-Islamic Arab peoples as well as the Muslims. Why then does monotheism as such, i.e. a conscious and vehement denial and denunciation of all other gods, only emerge at a certain point in history? It is precisely because it is only when the economic break up and fragmentation of the tribal community had reached such a level that a symbol of a higher unity, one that goes beyond the tribal conception in that it aims to incorporate all of humanity, while also harking back to it in terms of its emphasis on solidarity and equality, can emerge.
What IS idolises
So where do IS stand in all this and how do they relate to idolatry? How do they relate to the ‘gods’ of our times? They like to portray themselves as being the only true heirs to the original followers of Muhammad and paint their current struggle almost as a re-run of the original struggles of Muhammad. While we must denounce these claims it is also necessary to analyse them from a historical perspective in order to really understand the differences and similarities between the two movements. This is the only way to avoid the bourgeois right wing/left wing or moderate/extremist dead ends. The problem with IS and their ilk is not, as the ‘moderates’ (both Muslim and non-Muslim) claim, that they are ‘extreme’ or ‘radical’. It is precisely the opposite- it is that they are not radical at all. They do not understand let alone offer an alternative to capitalism and in fact simply represent capitalism in its most raw, undisguised gangster form.
One key similarity between IS and the original movement of Muhammad lies in the historical context. Both are expressions of the disintegration of ‘great civilisations’ and a vacuum left by the collapse or non-existence of state power; as well as the desperate search for new ways of thinking and being which these historical situations at all times produce in those living through them. However this is where the similarity ends and the key differences in the two movements is most clearly illustrated.
Whereas the early Muslims aimed to unite all of humanity into one community and in practice their movement led to an enlarging of the community and allowed massive strides forward in various fields of life, not least morality, medicine and science, IS can only offer bloodshed, oppression and a shrinking and dividing of the community to a greater and greater extent. Early Islam saw itself as not starting a new religion but as the renewal and fulfilment of all the prophets sent to all the nations of the earth through time. IS on the other hand do not even recognise fellow Muslims as belonging to their community; extreme sectarianism and xenophobia have replaced the ideas of universal brotherhood and equality which gave early Islam its impetus. IS’ ‘takfiri’ policies of denouncing all other Muslim groups and communities as well as all non-Muslims as non-believers, and hence legitimate targets of their brutal violence, are the polar opposite of the original Islamic conception and practice. IS therefore can clearly be seen to worship the idols of ‘their’ religion and ‘identity’ serving the most deadly and corrosive idol of our times in the form of nationalism (albeit disguised with a veil of hypocritical talk of the Umma, the world community of Islam)....
Norman O Brown made an accurate enough observation when he said that Marxism and Islam agree on one proposition: “there will be one world or there will be none” (The Challenge of Islam, Norman O. Brown, 2009,p 12 – a collection of lectures first given at Santa Cruz university in 1980). In the past this uniting of humanity was envisioned in many traditions including Islam as a result of the actions of a conquering hero/ prophet/messiah establishing a kingdom of peace and justice. This vision is flawed and can only be seen as a symbolic view of a change which for most of history was impossible to achieve in reality but now can only be achieved by the united self-determined force of the workers of the world. The Caliphate even in its most exalted sense cannot be a programme of progress in the present epoch for this precise reason. IS’ vision is the most extreme example of the purely negative aspect of this vision and this is reflected in the fact that despite the fact that the Quran clearly states that there can be ‘no compunction in religion’, their only hope of achieving their insane ideal is to force the whole world at gun point (including even the vast majority of Sunni Muslims whom they supposedly represent) to bow before them...
Society descending into gangsterism
It is no coincidence that IS derives a lot of its support from ex-gang members and was actually created by an ‘ex’ gangster in Al Zakarwi. Their entire world view and practice is gangsterism; from the protection money, black market trading and intimidation which are the keys of their ‘economic model’ to their celebration of brute force, extreme violence and misogyny which make up their ‘teachings’.
This shows not only that the first and foremost god they serve, just as every other capitalist ‘nation’, gang, or individual company, is the world-eating god of profit; it also illustrates the most important difference between the present historical moment and that of early Islam. Unlike with the collapse of Roman and Persian civilisation, the collapse of capitalism will not result in any new progressive civilisations such as the Islamic (even if the eventual civilisation established under the banner of Islam would have been a massive disappointment to Muhammad himself and was an immediate disappointment to his most radical followers) or feudalism in Europe. The barbarity capitalism will produce will not be related to any organic growth coming out of any other social strata for the simple reason that capitalism has destroyed all other societies and social relations bar its own.
In contrast to this, both European feudalism and the Islamic civilization created after the life-time of Muhammad could develop tribal social models and the surrounding ‘civilized’ but collapsing societies into a new synthesis of the two, creating a new civilization and a higher form of culture.
This should remind us that there is one truth which IS and their ideology has at least an intimation of, however perverted that insight is, and that is the sheer extremity of the situation facing the world in the current epoch. The idea that these are the Last Days has much truth to it. Humanity stands at a cross-road between world revolution and the creation of a world-wide communist community or the gradual (or not) destruction of huge swathes (if we are lucky) of life on earth. Those proletarians who have been fooled by IS are not all simply ‘mad’ or stupid as they are portrayed in the bourgeois press. They are having their real insights and healthy instinctive opposition to and will to fight against this situation corrupted and led into a dead end by one sect among thousands of bourgeois ideologues. The simplistic claim by ‘the moderates’ of all stripes that ‘Islam is a religion of Peace’ hides the truth that IS corrupts; that the movement of Muhammad and the prophets before him were movements of struggle; a sometimes violent struggle against oppression and alienation and against the false gods which support them. We do not aim to re-fight their battles nor make a fetish of the past as all religion does to some extent; but we are the inheritors of the dreams of the past, charged with the task of making them flesh; and to do that we need to understand them.