Khamenei, Allah, and Totalitarian Islam

Ayatollah Khamenei’s March 12, 2015 speech should serve as confirmation of mid-19th century Western scholarly characterizations of Islam as an aggressive, bellicose, Allah-inspired despotism, or in the parlance of 20th century scholars, totalitarianism, akin to Communism. Hope springs eternal that such gimlet-eyed understanding has not, as Rodinson lamented, fully given way to apologetics, imperiling Western freedom itself.”    


Iran’s Supreme Leader, theocrat Ayatollah Khamenei, during a speech delivered March 12, 2015 to the new head, and members of the Shiite religious Assembly of Experts, crystallized the traditional essence of Islamic totalitarianism, for both Sunni, and Shia alike. Khamenei, deemed, appropriately, the third most influential contemporary Muslim eminence worldwide, by the mainstream, moderate Royal Jordanian Aal-al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, reminded these Shiite Muslim leaders, and Muslims in general,

Allah calls for the establishment of the entire religion with all its parts and constituents…[W]hat we understand from all Koranic teachings is that Islam commands Muslims to create a perfect and complete Islamic government. Islam wants the complete implementation of Islam.

Consistent with this totalitarian Islamic Weltanschauung, Khamenei stressed inculcating, even amongst Western youth, “the Islam of jihad and fighting.” Such jihadism—fighting—was to be directed, specifically, at “opponents of this [Islamic] movement and outlook,” Khamenei re-stating the Koranic injunctions (per verses 9:73, 48:29, and 66:9) that Islam compelled Muslims to be “hard to the unbelievers.”

Khamenei could not have been more blunt and explicit in his pronouncements. Nonetheless, one can be certain that the self-evident implications of Khamenei’s words will be ignored, obfuscated, or dismissed by a vast swath of the U.S. political, media, academic, and religious establishment. Most assuredly, and ominously, this willful denial applies to the Obama Administration brain trust brokering a dangerous and destabilizing nuclear agreement with Iran, enshrining Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium, with simultaneous “quick” economic sanctions relief, and even a partial lifting of the embargo on arms sales to the Islamic Republic.

Why is this the sorry, dishonest state of intellectual affairs vis-à-vis Islamic doctrine, and its, living, practical impact upon world affairs? Respected Islamologist Maxime Rodinson (d. 2004) proffered a cogent explanation. Rodinson, in a 1974 observation, decried the Left-dominated academic treatment of Islam, which has prevailed now for the past half century:

[t]he anti-colonial Left, whether Christian or not, often goes so far as to sanctify Islam and the contemporary ideologies of the Muslim world…Understanding has given way to apologetics pure and simple.

This destructive mindset systematically negates and anathematizes a vast corpus of earlier assessments of Islam made by Western scholars and intellectuals, essential to a rational understanding of Islamic doctrine and history. In my book Sharia Versus Freedom, I compared the Western Judaeo-Christian and Islamic conceptions of freedom, the latter being “hurriyya” in Arabic. Following Islamic law, Sharia, slavishly was paramount to “hurriyya” freedom. Here is a concrete characterization of hurriyya’s metaphysical meaning as pronounced by the Sufi scholar al-Qushayri (d. 1072/74):

Let it be known to you that the real meaning of freedom lies in the perfection of slavery. If the slavery of a human being in relation to Allah is a true one, his freedom is relieved from the yoke of changes. Anyone who imagines that it may be granted to a human being to give up his slavery for a moment and disregard the commands and prohibitions of the religious law while possessing discre­tion and responsibility, has divested himself of Islam.

Whittaker Chambers, the remarkable 20th century apostate from Communism, articulated eloquently how freedom itself is a manifestation of divinity in the alternative Judaeo-Christian conception:

Freedom is a need of the soul, and nothing else. It is in striving toward God that the soul strives continually after a condition of freedom. God alone is the inciter and guarantor of freedom. He is the only guarantor. External freedom is only an aspect of interior freedom. Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible. Religion and freedom are indivisible.

Slavery abolitionist James Freeman Clarke (d. 1888), was America’s first, and arguably still one of her greatest, scholars of comparative religion. He understood, and enunciated with candor, the origins of these starkly contrasting Islamic and Judaeo-Christian theological conceptions of human freedom. Clarke, in his 1871 treatise, “Ten Great Religions—An Essay in Comparative Theology,” observed that,

Mohammed teaches a God above us; Moses teaches a God above us, and yet with us; Jesus teaches God above us, God with us, and God in us.

He concluded that Islam’s distinct “central idea concerning God”—its notion of an indifferent, incessantly autocratic Allah—had spawned despotic Muslim societies:

Its governments are not governments. . . .It makes men tyrants or slaves, women puppets, religion the submission to an infinite despotism…Islam saw Allah but not man; saw the claims of Deity, but not the rights of humanity; saw authority, but failed to see freedom; therefore hardened into despotism

Jacob Burckhardt (d. 1897), an iconic, latter 19th century figure in the annals of Western his­toriography, also referred to Islam as a despotic, or in twentieth-century par­lance, totalitarian ideology. He added this compelling justification for his assessment:

The strongest proof of real, extremely despotic power in Islam is the fact that it has been able to invalidate, in such large measure, the entire history (customs, religion, previous way of looking at things, earlier imagi­nation) of the peoples converted to it. It accomplished this only by instilling into them a new religious arrogance which was stronger than everything and induced them to be ashamed [emphasis in original] of their past.

Numerous 20th century scholars and intellectuals would go on to equate the world-conquering, totalitarian aspirations of Islam and Communism, including, three years prior to his death in 2004, Maxime Rodinson, himself. For example, Bernard Lewis, doyen of modern Western Islamic authorities, in a pellucid 1954 analysis, described the “uncomfortable” concordances between Islam and Communism. Lewis expounded upon on the quintessence of totalitarian Islam, and how it was antithetical in nature to Western democracy, while sharing important features of Communist totalitarianism—most notably, global domination via jihad. The “very nature of Islamic society, tradition, and thought,” Lewis argued, is manifested by “the authoritarianism, perhaps we may even say the totalitarianism, of the Islamic political tradition.” Islam, he continued, “was authoritarian, often arbitrary, sometimes tyrannical,” asserting its “sover­eign power, to which the subject owed complete and unwavering obedience as a religious duty imposed by the Holy Law. [Sharia].” The crux of Lewis’s remarkably frank, searing assessment—was as follows:

Both groups profess a totalitarian doctrine, with complete and final answers to all questions on heaven and earth; the answers are different in every respect, alike only in their finality and completeness, and in the contrast they offer with the eternal ques­tioning of Western man. Both groups offer to their members and followers the agreeable sensation of belonging to a community of believers, who are always right, as against an outer world of unbelievers, who are always wrong. Both offer an exhilarating feeling of mission, of purpose, of being engaged in a collective adventure to accelerate the historically inevitable victory of the true faith over the infidel evil-doers. The traditional Islamic division of the world into the House of Islam and the House of War, two necessarily opposed groups, of which—the first has the collective obligation of perpetual struggle against the second, also has obvious parallels in the Communist view of world affairs. There again, the content of belief is utterly different, but the aggressive fanaticism of the believer is the same… The call to a Communist Jihad, a Holy War for the faith—a new faith, but against the self-same Western Christian enemy.

And as Lewis also noted, wryly, during the 1950s, humorists unconstrained by cultural relativism in that era, referred to the Communist credo as a re-formulation of the Islamic confession of faith,

There is no God, and Karl Marx is his prophet.

One hundred and fifty years before Khamenei’s recent address, William Gifford Palgrave (d. 1888) journeyed through the Arabian penin­sula (from 1862 to 1863), disguised as a Muslim physician. Recording his detailed observations in a renowned travelogue (published during 1865), Palgrave developed an intimate understanding of Islam, in both theory and practice. Palgrave’s elegant word painting depicted Islam as a “Pantheism of Force,” emanating from the Muslim deity Allah’s “autocratical will,” which begot an “unregarding despotism.” The predictable and historically verifiable consequence of this animating, “divine” despotism has been a legacy of brutal jihad conquests, and harsh inequality, intolerance, and injustice towards the vanquished non-Muslim survivors of these destructive, mass-murderous campaigns.


Ayatollah Khamenei’s March 12, 2015 speech should serve as confirmation of mid-19th century Western scholarly characterizations of Islam as an aggressive, bellicose, Allah-inspired despotism, or in the parlance of 20th century scholars, totalitarianism, akin to Communism. Hope springs eternal that such gimlet-eyed understanding has not, as Rodinson lamented, fully given way to apologetics, imperiling Western freedom itself.

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