At first glance, you might suspect some intense cognitive dissonance with me claiming to be a “Muslim Communist”, but I can assure you, dear reader, these ideas are not as opposed as they might seem.
In order to locate myself on this spectrum of political and religious thought, we have to go back a few years. We have to retreat to my adolescence and its discontents.
We have to talk about the first prophet that I ever followed.
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was born in April in the year 1870 at the twilight of the Russian Empire. When he attended university in the late 1880’s, Ulyanov was transformed by the works of Marx, Engels, and Chernyshevsky. After he changed his name to Lenin in 1901, Vladimir went on to lead the Great October Revolution in Russia in 1917 and establish the Soviet Union. For the next four years, he and Leon Trotsky led the Red Army against the White Army (a collection of monarchists, nationalists, and proto-fascists) in a brutal civil war. His meteoric career was cut short by a series of strokes and by 1924 the communist leader was dead.
When you think of the Soviet Union, you probably think of a gray, icy dungeon; a frozen hell where all there is to eat is one single potato, and even that is covered in mold and ice. The people are surrounded by chains and commissars and, in order to pass the time, everyone drinks vodka and builds nuclear weapons.
We all know the distorted image that Americans have of the Soviet Union.
But you can rest assured that I’m not here to sing the praises of the USSR.
However, when I was fifteen, I was more than happy to do so.
After all, the Soviet Union under Lenin was the first country in the world to decriminalize homosexuality (which would later be re-criminalized by Stalin and remains an issue to this day), it was the first country to legalize abortion and provide abortions on demand for free, and it was the first country to implement universal healthcare.
I was totally willing to overlook the pitfalls of the revolution as long as I could maintain my glossy-eyed reverence for Lenin and my deep and abiding love for the Communist movement.
To this day, I still have to catch myself occasionally, because once you slip into that mindset, it becomes far trickier to wiggle yourself free. Conviction turns into some sort of self-righteous rebellion and your ego takes over.
If you’re ready and willing to see the good things that the USSR accomplished, then you’re probably ready and willing to see the terrible things that the US has done. At this point, it becomes easier to simply flip allegiances and latch on to the absurd notion that 20th century Soviet-styled countries were borderline paradise.
Before you know it, you’re wishing Fidel Castro a happy birthday on your blog, despite your better judgement.
(To be clear, I don’t regret wishing Castro a happy birthday, but I wish I would have written something more balanced and critical, because I think that post doesn’t really reflect my genuine opinions about the government of Cuba.)
But if Lenin was my first prophet, then it wasn’t Stalin who served as my first khalifa (or “Caliph”, meaning “successor” or “vicegerent”). No, Stalin’s Russian chauvinism and bureaucratic despotism represented to me everything wrong with 20th century communism.
The only legitimate khalifa I would recognize would be someone with whom I felt a deep affinity in their opposition to such a deformed communism.
That title goes to the man with whom Lenin commanded the Red Army throughout the civil war – Lev Davidovich Bronstein, also known as Leon Trotsky (if you want to his life story, I highly recommend this excellent documentary).
Trotsky had joined with Lenin on the eve of the revolution and would stand by his side for the next 7 years (not without a few hiccups here and there). Following Lenin’s untimely demise, Trotsky fought against Stalin for control over the Communist Party. Stalin had successfully consolidated his power by 1926 through some political maneuvering and in 1929 Trotsky was thrown into exile. He spent the next 11 years writing, speaking, and organizing against Stalin’s “degenerated worker’s state“. He was assassinated in 1940 by one of Stalin’s agents in Mexico.
In the eyes of many, Trotsky was a man of theory while Lenin was a man of action. Trotsky was the esoteric and Lenin was the exoteric. Trotsky was the tragic hero and Lenin was simply the hero.
But, as time went on, I moved on to a more nuanced position regarding the “Great” October Revolution.
This isn’t to say that I don’t still have love for Lenin and Trotsky, because I do. However, I’m not the Trotskyist that I once was. On the flip side, I’m also certainly not trying to strengthen the pathetic argument that Marxism is some sort of religion with prophets and false prophets, blah blah blah.
I’m simply placing the lens upon my experiences as a former Trotskyist and a current Muslim.
The story of a prophet and his/her dispossessed rightful successor has played out countless times throughout the history of humanity.
And if you happen to know the story behind the Sunni-Shi’a split, then you’re probably already able to predict the parallels I’m about to draw. If not, dear reader, then away we go!
There exists a classical and incredibly potent story of a prophet and his/her dispossessed rightful successor. That is the story of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his progeny) and Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib (peace be upon him).
Briefly, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was born in or around the year 570. When he was 40 years old, he was visited by the Angel Gabriel and began receiving revelation. This revelation would be eventually compiled into what is now the Qur’an. Throughout the rest of his life he would fulfill the roles of father, grandfather, husband, statesman, general, diplomat, and (most importantly) messenger of God. He passed away when he was 63 and his death sent the young Muslim community into disarray.
Two main factions emerged almost immediately – the proto-Sunni and the proto-Shi’a.
The Stalinists and Trotskyists of their age (although neither group would like me characterizing them in those terms).
The people who came to be called “Sunni” pledged allegiance (or some form thereof) to the actual political successors to the Prophet (PBUH) in the following centuries. The Shi’a, on the other hand, believed that Imam Ali (a.s.) had been designated by the Prophet (and by extension, by God) to be the true successor. Just as the Trotskyists had been designated by Lenin (and by extension, by Marx) to be the true successor.
And since Imam Ali (a.s.) was the son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and had been raised in his shadow, it’s easy to see why. Imam Ali (a.s.) is considered to be one of the most noble individuals to have ever lived. In his marriage to the Prophet’s daughter Fatima (a.s.), and their lineage, the Shi’a draw the people whom they consider to be the 12 imams – the 12 true successors to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
In fact, even the Sunni venerate Imam Ali (a.s.), albeit not recognizing his imamate and unrivaled claim to khalifa from the beginning. He instead fulfills the role of 4th Rightfully-Guided Caliph. And although his son, Hasan (a.s.) was the 2nd Shi’i Imam and the 5th Sunni Caliph, his brief political career is overshadowed by the preceding and succeeding civil wars.
(For a great, also brief, video about the life of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the religion of Islam, I recommend this video.)
The nexus between the story of the Russian revolutionaries and the early Muslim community might seem a bit tenuous at first, but I’d invite you to examine the haunting similarities between Imam Ali (a.s.) and Leon Trotsky.
Both men were considered to be almost too fitting for the role of successor.
In the case of Imam Ali (a.s.), the argument has often been made that if he had led the Muslim community, it would’ve collapsed into strife, simply because he was too noble in his decision-making. Whereas in the case of Trotsky, the other Bolsheviks were trying to prevent him from becoming a second Napoleon.
You see, the early Soviet leaders very much saw themselves as having taken up the mantle of the French Revolution of 1789.
Therefore, they constantly were analyzing the progress of the Russian Revolution against that of the French Revolution. And who killed the French Revolution?
He was too clever, powerful, and charismatic. The others banded behind Napoleon in the counter-revolution and the establishment of the First Empire.
So the Bolsheviks looked around and thought to themselves, “Who is a potential Napoleon here?” For them, the answer was obvious.
Trotsky had studied literature, languages, culture, politics, and history. He was charming, attractive, and intelligent. He was the best public speaker among them and he had the broadest support throughout the ranks of workers. He had led the Red Army to victory and all the while wrote brilliant works of literary criticism like Literature and Revolution.
He was clearly the next Napoleon.
And it was this paranoia of Trotsky’s power that eventually led to a number of Communists standing behind Stalin, whom they initially believed would serve as the perfect mindless bureaucrat and just shuffle paperwork.
And although the 7th century Muslims probably weren’t scared of Imam Ali (a.s.) morphing into Napoleon, the tribal leaders certainly didn’t want him in power.
After all, he was from the same blood as the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), which means that once that bloodline was established in power, other factional groups were not going to be able to regain the control that they lost after the message of Islam decimated their Pagan political-economic systems.
Imam Ali (a.s.) says in Nahj al-Balagha: “Greed is an eternal slavery.”
Sounds fairly close to communism to me.
These two men share more than just their dispossession. They were both top-notch generals and warriors. They were both considered to be men of deep theory and sharp wit. They both spent their lives fighting against what they perceived as injustice. And they both were assassinated by former allies.
And Trotskyists and Shi’a Muslims have more in common than might initially meet the eye. They both obsess over the distortion of “correct” history – about rumored (and actual) last wills. They both read heavily into texts in order to grab at historical indications of their prophets designated the true successor. And they both mourn for the loss of the true, righteous path of the ideology.
If only my person had won out, everything would be different!
I do it too. How could you not?
Sometimes it’s easy for me to play with the histories of my two ideologies.
I can imagine Imam Ali (a.s.) commanding the Red Army in the war against the fascists.
Or Leon Trotsky pressing his head in the sand in submission to Allah and reciting duas in Russian.
The call to prayer echoing over Saint Petersburg, including the Shi’a line “ashhadu anna aliyun waliullah”.
Shaykh Lenin’s Mosque being constructed in Saudi Arabia around his tomb proclaiming his elevated place among the community of the believers.
Sufi mystics twirling on Red Square during the Victory Day Parade.
My two seemingly paradoxical viewpoints seamlessly blending into one another in my head. It’s never been difficult for me to justify both positions, even though everyone may look at me like I’m incredibly neurotic.
Perhaps it’s my need to identify with the dispossessed in order to feed into some self-righteous nonsense.
Maybe there’s something deeply psychological in the way I’ve read and interpreted the stories.
It might not be so accidental that a young Trotskyist would later identify with a minor sect of Islam.
Or maybe I’m not as neurotic as I seem.
That insanely handsome man in the photo was a Tatar Muslim Communist who became a prominent member of the Bolshevik Party during the early years of the revolution.
He was the theorist and strongest proponent of national communism. He fought for national self-determination for the Muslims of the former Russian Empire and supported a Marxist analysis of economics, while remaining committed to the Muslims of the world. Lenin and he were incredibly close, but after Lenin’s death he was purged from the Party and eventually killed by Stalin’s systematic persecution of early Bolshevik leaders.
But, for Sultan-Galiev, there was nothing inherently contradictory in the tenets of Islam and the tenets of Marxism.
In fact, in many ways, they complemented each other.
And he isn’t alone in this trajectory.
Abu Dharr al-Ghifari was a contemporary of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and sided with Imam Ali (a.s.) in the initial question of succession. We could call him a proto-Shi’i Muslim, while at the same time easily slipping him into the history of socialism.
Frantz Fanon, who although himself was not a Muslim, wrote extensively about Muslims struggling against the imperialist yoke of the West. In books like Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth, he formulates a new method of thinking about resistance to European/American hegemony. His account of the Algerian Revolution is considered to be one of the most important accounts of any revolution ever.
And Ali Shariati, the man considered to be the theorist behind the Iranian revolution, made a point of sewing together the fabric of socialism with the fabric of (Shi’a) Islam. His works on reinterpreting Shi’i history as well as his anti-imperialist positions make his works a light in the darkness.
Putting the words “communist” and “Muslim” together is fairly dangerous these days.
Some crackpot, right-wing lunatic is going to steal this blog post in order to defend their bizarre conspiracy theories about Barack Obama.
So I’ll leave you with this, dear reader:
Unfortunately, Barack Obama is neither a Muslim nor a Communist. A Muslim would not drone-bomb Pakistani children and a Communist would not have such dismal policies in helping impoverished people.
And, of course, there’s probably no convincing you of that if you’re one of the wretched idiots who still thinks that Obama is a socialist, Muslim, fascist, black-power, Kenyan Nazi.
But you can rest assured, dear reader, if Barack Obama was a Muslim Communist, then I would have voted for him.