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Marxism and Islam: Failure and Success


by Dr. Manzoor-ul-Haque


Ernest Gellner

For understanding the real merit of this lecture, a gist of what Ernest Gellner
wrote is summarized below:

There are two big events of this century: one is the failure of Marxism; the
other is the success of Islam. I (Gellner) am an outsider to both. The terms I
(Gellner) use are analytical or sociological and 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.

Success of Islam: A Striking Event of Our Century

A very surprising major striking event is the tremendous success of Islam in

maintaining and strengthening itself. Most social scientists accepted the
secularization thesis: in modern or industrial societies the hold of religion
over society and over the hearts and minds of men declines. This seems
more or less true with one striking exception: the world of Islam, where the
hold of religion over society and men in the past hundred years has certainly

A Total Collapse of Marxism: Another Event

The other equally surprising event of the century was the unexpected and
total collapse of Marxism. It (Marxism) did lack one prominent feature of
religion. When religions are established, they retain a hold on the hearts and
minds of men, and do not collapse easily. When they do collapse, there is
some resistance and struggle; some people remain loyal to their religion.
Marxism succeeded in retaining the loyalty of a remarkably small number
of its followers.

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Marxism and Islam: Failure and Success

Strength of Nationalism: A Less Surprising Event

Another somewhat less surprising but not properly anticipated facet of this
century was the strength of nationalism. However, for a long time the
decline of nationalism was confidently predicted. The syllogism that entails
the demise of nationalism has two features: firstly, Marxists and liberals
share it, and secondly, it is absolutely cogent. The argument is very simple:
Nationalism depends on ethnic, cultural, national differences which it turns
into principles of political membership and loyalty. This is unquestionably
true. Secondly, the conditions of the industrial world, with the tendency
towards mobility, dissolution of local communities, instability, and
standardization of communication, erode cultural, linguistic, and ethnic
difference. Thus one can conclude that nationalism ultimately collapses in
the modern world because the foundations upon which it is built are
gradually eroded. Unfortunately, this conclusion does not correspond to the

Islam and Marxism: Reasons

Why has Islam been so astonishingly successful? To put it simply, Islam

was divided between a high culture and a low culture. High culture Islam
encourages a direct relationship between a unique deity and individual
believer; it is not attached to ritual; it contains little magic and supernatural
belief, and is heavily moralistic, scripturalist, puritan, monotheistic, and
individualistic. It is the Islam of the scholars. My (Gellner's) theory of why
Muslim fundamentalism has the astonishing strength is: modern conditions
unhinged the pendulum of this unstable oscillation and permanently and
definitively shifted the center of gravity away from low Islam and toward
high Islam. The reason of this happening is that the process of
modernization destroyed those communities that provided the basis for the
low culture style of Islam. By turning clansmen, lineage members, villagers,
and tribesmen into labor migrants and shantytown dwellers, it atomized the
population and prompted them to find their identity in a high culture (based
on Islam) that provides an identity shared by all Muslims, uniting them
against the outsiders.

Islam's Ratification: A Transition of People

Islam ratified the transition of these people from a rural to an urban world,
and it provided an idiom for expressing their change of status from that of
rustic ignoramuses to people aspiring to urban sophistication. It also
provided a means of criticizing their current rulers. It provided an idiom for

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Marxism and Islam: Failure and Success

those non-Westernized people who take their Islam seriously, as against the
technocratic rulers who govern them in virtue of their access to Western
technology. On the contrary, what undid Marxism is not its secularism; it
was its pantheism that it inherited. The basic messianic ideal of Marxism
was to abolish the separation of the sacred from the profane in human life.
The idea was that the world is bound to be soiled and miserable, while
fulfillment was to be found in another realm; it was merely a reflection of a
divided society.

As far as I (Gellner) can see, the difference between the success of Islam
and the failure of Marxism is that Marxism was precisely Unitarian and
pantheist and wanted a total consummation in this world. It made the real
world sacred and spurned the old habit of finding consolation in the sky.
Marx's vision of the world was a generalization: the essence of man is work
- not aggressiveness, not virility, or status; fulfillment is through work and
work is its own reward. This was in opposition to an aristocrat or a working
man: the aristocrat does not work at all and the working man works in order
to get his salary. The proponents always hoped that there would be a world,
in which the rule of thugs and humbugs, of the red and the black, would be
replaced by the rule of the people who really work. The essence of Marxism
was that it provided a secular counter-answer to the earlier theological
absolutism meant to be an implementation of an absolute morality. But it
remained a figment of imagination.

Islam has its merits. It is acceptable to the modern world because of its
Unitarian, puritanical denial of magic. At the same time it regulates life. It
does provide for a zone, 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 that is essential for a viable

Hungry for Material Improvement

Large parts of the world are still very hungry for material improvement, and
the differences between the have and the have-not are still powerful. I
(Gellner) do not think this can go on indefinitely."

Dr. Manzoor-ul-Haque

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