Jump to content
In the Name of God بسم الله

Shi'ism and State-Skepticism (i.e. Anarchism)

Rate this topic

Recommended Posts

  • Advanced Member


Anarchism is usually studied as an exclusively western ideology and phenomenon, especially in popular discourse. When we think of anarchists, we typically think of Lysander Spooner, Benjamin Tucker, Emma Goldman, and Murray Rothbard. Anarchism is, indeed, an incredibly unorthodox idea that has not been globally popular. However, two non-Western cultural traditions seem to have produced anarchist thinkers, in the broadest sense: Taoist and Islamic.

Anarchists believe in the dispensability of government. Anarchists come in many colors and shapes. Broadly speaking, what unites them is their call for the abolition of the state, an involuntary coercive form of hierarchy, because they believe it is undesirable, unnecessary, harmful or all of the above. Comparatively, early Muslim Anarchists thought that it is not religiously obligatory, and sometimes even sinful, to establish a government (with a head of state) to administer justice. Although anarchism is often incorrectly associated with chaos, it is crucial to keep in mind that it does not mean, according to these Muslim scholars, letting anyone do whatever they want. Anarchists simply think that people can govern themselves more effectively without the state. In the Islamic context, anarchists were not always categorically anti-state, but state-skeptic. They were only supportive of establishing a state if justice can be guaranteed; but otherwise, they would have preferred that no state be established at all.


I don’t want to misrepresent Islamic thought as though it was mainly sympathetic to anarchism. Anarchism has been an unpopular political ideology within every tradition. However, I do intend to explore anarchism themes in Islamic thought to correct historical misconceptions and benefit from the insights of these great thinkers, whether or not I agree with their conclusions.

According to most Muslims, the establishment of the state is a Fardh Kifayah, a communal obligation, with certain conditions to maintain its legitimacy. Sunnis, who make over 80% of Muslims today, view the state as an obligatory institution, necessary to the administration of Islamic Law. They believe it is obligatory because the companions of the Prophet Muhammad had agreed to establisha state, and subsequent generations agreed to maintain it, and because it was a tool to protect human welfare. The Sunni position can be studied in detail in The Ordinances of Government or Al-Ahkaam Al-Sultaniyyah by the famous Islamic jurist, Al-Mawardi. Sunnis regard just administration of Islamic Law as incredibly important, however not a condition for legitimacy. Most of the early non-Sunni sects, namely the Shi’a, Mutazilites, and Kharijites, in the middle of the 8th century, agreed that government is a necessary institution; however, they required that it rule justly to be legitimate. Among the Shi’a, Mutazilites, and Kharijites were scholars who went a step further and embraced Islamic Anarchism. Despite their different initial assumptions, they reached the same conclusion that the government is unnecessary altogether.


Unfortunately, we do not have many authentic documents regarding how early Twelver Shi’a applied their anarchism in real life. However, we know they rejected the legitimacy of any state that builds itself before the reappearance of their awaited ruler, who will return to establish justice before the end of time, the Mahdi. Unlike their Zaydi Shi’a counterparts, who engaged in extensive political activism, Shi’a Anarchists practiced political quietism, the belief that it is inappropriate for laypeople to involve themselves or interfere in the political process, for moral or religious reasons. They were ideological anarchists who, based on their reading of Islamic text, believed that nobody has the right to build a state, and doing so is a grave sin. Specifically, the used to quote a tradition they attribute to one of their Imams: “every [political movement] that rises before the [Mahdi], is a tyrant being worshipped without God.“1 Basically, associating starting a political movement with polytheism or idol worship.


The Najdites’ conclusions were similar to Western Anarchists in the tradition of Spooner, Tucker, and Rothbard.

In general, Kharijites were an incredibly politically active and violent group. They initially formed in an attempted revolution against Ali because they believed he was too lenient against his opponents and in his application of Islamic Law. In their attempted rebellion against Ali, they massacred their opponents and possibly murdered pregnant women as well. However, a Kharijite group called the Najdites, who were disillusioned by their ex-leader’s excessively violent practices, became the first Muslims to deny the necessity of government institutions. This happened between the end of the 7th century and the beginning of the 8th. The Najdites, or followers of Najdah Al-Hanafi, split with the larger group of Kharijites when their leader, Nāfi’ ibn Al-Azraq, ruled that it was lawful to kill the children of those who were opposed to him. The Najdites then migrated to Yamamah, now Eastern Saudi Arabia, where their community was founded. Najdah’s views were unique in that he permitted non-participation in community defense, and his followers eventually developed an Islamic political ideology of anarchism.

They justified their rejection of the necessity of government using two arguments. Their first argument was that they did not believe it was obligatory as per Islamic Law. Since it was not obligatory by Islamic Law, it would only be ethical (Islamically permissible) to establish a state if it can be ensured that no blood would be shed unjustly. Otherwise, it is better for every man to take care of his and his community’s affairs. Their second argument, which makes them quite unique, starts with affirming that an Imam (head of state) must be a mujtahid (authoritative scholar of Islam). And a mujtahid cannot have authority over another mujtahid. All Najdites, a supposedly highly educated religious group, were equally authoritative. Their equal authoritativeness meant “no imam could compel them to defer to his authority, nor could the collective body compel them to defer to an alleged consensus, past or present… Every Najdite of sound mind was responsible for his own religion.”2 Their egalitarian views make them the first bona fide anarchist group and rejectors of intellectual hierarchy in Muslim history. Barring serious epistemological differences between the Najdites, given they were traditional Muslims who based their reasoning on Islamic text, the Najdites’ conclusions were similar to Western Anarchists in the tradition of Spooner, Tucker, and Rothbard.


The Mutazilites are commonly considered the rational school of Islam for their extensive reliance on reason as a tool for substantiating their religious beliefs. They were highly concentrated in Iraq between the 9th to 12th centuries AD. As mentioned before, they believed the government is only legitimate if it rules justly and in accordance with Islamic Law. Otherwise, a revolution to substitute the incumbent government becomes permissible or even obligatory. Perhaps due to disillusionment with the political scene at the time, many famous Mutazilite scholars became theoretical anarchists, including Abu Bakr Al-Assam, Hisham Al-Fuwati, Abbad bin Sulaiman, and possibly3 even Ibrahim Al-Nazzam.

Al-Assam believed that if everyone acted virtuously the government would be redundant.

All of them agreed that the government (Imamate) was unnecessary by rejecting that it was made mandatory by Islamic Law. There is no explicit text on it like there is for praying five times a day or fasting Ramadan. Al-Assam believed that if everyone acted virtuously the government would be redundant. Since we can imagine a situation where people do act virtuously and government would be redundant, then one could not prove that government is an unconditionally necessary institution. Likewise, since justice is a condition for a government’s legitimacy, if the government cannot operate justly, statelessness and local administration are preferable. Patricia Crone, a Danish-American historian, specializing in early Islamic history, explains Al-Assam’s preference by narrating the state of affairs when he was writing:

The distribution of power in the ninth-century caliphate was, in fact, extremely lopsided. The ‘Abbasids tended to recruit their soldiers and governors in one province, eastern Iran, and their bureaucrats in another, lower Iraq; by and large, all others were excluded from decision-making at a central level, however influential, wealthy or meritorious they might be in local terms. This was to get worse, for instead of broadening their power base the caliphs decided, from the mid-ninth century onwards, to import Turkish tribesmen as slaves and to train them as soldiers and government servants, so that central government came to have even less anchorage in Muslim society than before.

Perhaps Al-Assam saw the localization of power as a means to counteract this trend. Other Mutazilite Anarchists also seemed to support more local participation.

Hisham Al-Fuwati seemed to favor community-led law enforcement. He “recommended straightforward recourse to self-help”4 where Muslims would take the law into their own hands when they could. In plain English, he recommended self-governance. Others speculated that the leaders of households, districts, and tribes are better fit to govern their subjects and maintain the law. In other words, the Abbasid Empire could disband and leave local leaders to manage their affairs. Overall, Mutazilite Anarchists were regretful anarchists. They would have preferred to have just government. However, their observations of the Muslim political scene led them to believe that their hopes are no longer viable, and statelessness would likely provide better socioeconomic outcomes. ‘Abbad ibn Sulayman went as far as to say that there could never be an Imam (head of state) again.5


In 817 AD,6 Baghdad experienced a severe power vacuum due to the Caliph’s continuous absence and his occupancy with a civil war in Merv. During the absence of the Caliph, a Mutazilite ascetic by the name of Sahl bin Salamah was able to free Baghdad from the Abbasid governor, exiling the ‘Abbasid representative, without substituting him with a new team of state officials. By doing that, Sahl effectively made Baghdad, the capital city of the Abbasid empire, stateless. He did not apparently see himself as worthy of being the leader of Baghdad. Instead, he attempted to invite a pious and experienced scholar, Abdullah bin Musa Al-Hasani, to become Baghdad’s leader. Since Al-Hasani did not accept the offer, Baghdad remained practically stateless for 12 months. Within these twelve months, he substituted the Abbasid government with a group of loyal vigilante activists. They protected the city from outlaws as a community service. Al-Jahiz, a Mutazilite polymath and historian reports:

At a time when government disintegrated, and the plebs and ruffians took over… we saw a small number of people of integrity and standing get up in their district, tribe, street, and quarter to… subdue the… ruffians so that the weak could once more move freely… and so that merchants could go around again.7

At first glance, this may not seem like a positive assessment of anarchism. However, the point is not to highlight the ruffians’ takeover after the state crumbled, but to emphasize the new form of governance that emerged after the disintegration of the state that was not centralized, but communitarian. A new order emerged to protect the city from the ruffians that was likely more favorable in the eyes of many inhabitants due to its grassroots nature. Sahl bin Salamah’s vigilante movement was composed of multiple decision-making units that naturally allow for a smoother flow of knowledge and customizes security practices in different localities. Sahl was able to secure safety and revived Baghdad’s economy for 12 months until the Abbasid military regained control of the capital. After this incident, Mutazilite anarchists discovered that when people are forced to rely on themselves, they find out talents they did not know they had. Mutazilites learned about spontaneous order.


As the Muslim Anarchists were forming their ideas, the Muslim world was becoming more and more politically fragmented. It is quite possible that their support for anarchy or localization was a form of realism given the political trends at the time. A century after Al-Assam’s death, two new Muslim empires formed, which challenged Abbasid hegemony: the Fatimids and Buyids. And several statelets formed in between these three competing empires, usually governing by their tribal rules, the school of jurisprudence their intellectual elite adopted, and frequently a mix of both. The latter because rules-in-play ought to match rules-in-form.

Whether or not anarchism is ideal, there are many valuable insights early Muslim anarchists can offer us. A study of their history presents anarchism, in its broadest sense, as more universal than previously thought. Also, we learn that making government legitimacy contingent on the appropriate administration of justice is a universal concept, as Islamic as it is a Lockean. Moreover, we learn that the benefits of decentralization were recognized universally, on both moral and efficiency grounds. Finally, their history of thought and their 9th-century experiment with anarchy provides an interesting historical example of the effectiveness of community rules. Islamic history is frequently overlooked when looking for case studies of spontaneous order and decentralized regulation. It is about time for academics to take the rich history of the Muslim world more seriously.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Advanced Member


Anthony T. Fiscella

Varieties of Islamic Anarchism
A Brief Introduction


Al-‘amr bi’l-ma’ruf wa nahy ‘an al-munkar

You shall command the right and forbid the wrong.

Quran 3: 104

La ‘ikraha fi al-din

There shall be no compulsion in religion.

Quran 2: 256

How shall one begin to discuss an interaction between two complex cultures or social phenomena, each with their own local variations, internal disputes, and challenges to their respective canons?

Sometimes it can work well to start off at a spot close to home. In my case that would be the country I live in: Sweden. Though it may seem like an unlikely place to begin talking about Islam and anarchism, if we go back to the 1800s, we’ll see that Sweden happens to be the birthplace of the artist Ivan Aguéli, perhaps the first anarchist to convert to Islam. Born on May 24, 1869 (as John Gustaf Agelii) in a tiny town named Sala, he developed an early interest in philosophy, spirituality, ideology, and literature. From Dostoevsky to Tolstoy and from Nietzsche to Swedenborg, he explored new ideas ravenously. His curious mind carried him to France where he joined the Theosophical Society and then to London where he met the anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin in 1891. He began reading the Quran around 1892 and converted to Islam by 1897. Aguéli usually wrote about Islam and anarchism without connecting them to one another[1] such as when he publically advocated syndicalism[2]: “We have already received the solution of our generation. The union of individualism and solidarity… This union is called syndicalism and it is the only possible form of cooperation between socialism and anarchy.” Yet there were occasionally moments of vague overlap in his Western and Eastern[3] paradigms such as when he wrote that one of his favorite thinkers “Ibn ‘Arabi was a feminist,” and, after shooting a matador in protest against animal abuse, defiantly told French authorities “My fatherland is the universe.”

Born eight years after Aguéli there was another young anarchist who, fathered by a Russian acquaintance of anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, grew up in Geneva. Her name was Isabelle Eberhardt and her unconventional upbringing combined with a tomboy spirit which led to an early expression of “queer”: She dressed as a male when she felt like it, lived nomadically, and, when she converted to Islam around 1896–97, took on a male name: Si Mahmoud Saadi (or Essadi). She moved to Algeria, joined a Sufi order, and pursued a lifestyle of purported promiscuity, journalism, smoking kif (hashish), and journeying across the North African desert by horse.

Eberhardt challenged both Eastern and Western norms through her writings and praxis. In an article called Age of the Void published in 1900, she laid out a critique of modern society that seemed to foreshadow the anti-civilization perspective of anarcho-primitivists like John Zerzan. She wrote:

Civilization, that great fraud of our times, has promised man that by complicating his existence it would multiply his pleasures… Civilization has promised man freedom, at the cost of giving up everything dear to him, which it arrogantly treated as lies and fantasies. …The superfluous has become a necessity and luxuries are indispensable.

Her determination to live her own life the way that she saw fit without much regard for the customs or norms of French, Swiss, Algerian, or Moroccan societies, was a testament to her vision of her uncompromising quest to experience life as deeply as she could imagine. She would likely have agreed with the sentiment expressed by contemporary Algerian feminist poet and singer Djura Abouda (b. 1952) in her 1986 song “Achal Im Di Nan Sver” (The Challenge):

If they ask you…
To be silent
To be patient a little longer…
Just listen to your soul
and act!

Seize your rights,
For nothing can stop
The course of history.
Your new-found strength will lead you
To the fulfillment of your desires.

… Your freedom?
It lies in the reality
Of your hopes,
In the consequences of your actions,
And in your will to survive,
And to exist.

Perhaps the most comprehensive study (in English at least) in regard to the early anarchist community’s interaction with the Muslim world can be found in a 2010 book by Ilham Khuri-Makdisi (Northeastern University) where she describes how European anarchists (predominantly Italians) organized within the Ottoman Empire. These interactions provided a larger context for people like Aguéli (who lived in Egypt for a while) and Eberhardt (who had corresponded with people in Egypt). In Alexandria alone there were approximately 12,000 Italians living and working (often in the building sector). By 1876 anarchists there had organized a branch of the syndicalist International Workers Association and in the early 1880s, Errico Malatesta and other Italian anarchists joined the ‘Urabi uprising against the British (which was perhaps the first time that Muslims and anarchists fought a military campaign side by side). The uprising was however squashed. Malatesta was deported to Beirut while Britain occupied Egypt and consolidated control. Yet anarchists were less harassed there than in many other places in Europe and the Ottoman Empire. In 1901 anarchists co-founded a “free popular university,” the Université Populaire Libré (UPL), in Alexandria. It was founded shortly after the first such university in the world (in France) and provided free courses (mostly in French and Italian but some in Arabic as well) on subjects like Tolstoy’s and Bakunin’s ideas, the arts, or pragmatic topics like worker negotiation strategies. While the UPL claimed to have attracted 15,000 people in its first two years, indigenous Muslims and Arabic speakers were quickly marginalized. Gradually anarchists and workers too lost control and were marginalized by an institution that became more aimed toward and controlled by upper class interests. Though the UPL did not survive, anarchist ideas continued to spread throughout the region. Even mainstream newspapers such as al-Hilal and al-Muqtataf (read in places like Cairo, Alexandria, and Beirut and written mostly by Syrians) began to publish anarchist-friendly articles including biographies of Pierre Proudhon and Elisée Reclus and, on occasion, entire issues devoted to people like Tolstoy and Emile Zola. Khuri-Makdisi wrote about the coverage style of these journals:

One such tactic was to claim that both socialism and anarchism had existed in prior epochs and in different geographic or “civilizational” spaces; in other words, the periodicals searched for the roots of the two ideologies or comparable manifestations, in especially in the Arabo-Islamic past.

There is a largely unwritten history of early anarchist development in the Muslim world. For example, Shibli Shumayyil (1850–1917) from Cairo wrote perhaps the first pro-anarchist work in Arabic as early as 1898, yet beyond Khuri-Makdisi’s book, he is hardly a well-known figure and anarchism has only recently begun to resurface as a political concept in Egyptian discourse (thanks in part to thinkers like former Muslim Brotherhood associate Heba Raouf Ezzat and the newly formed Libertarian Socialist Movement in Egypt).[4] Who’s to say how many Italian anarchists had been drawn to Islam or how many Muslims adopted anarchist ideas in the late 1800s and early 1900s? As Khuri-Makdisi wrote,

What is evident, though, is that anarchism and anarchist ideas, in Egypt and elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire, far from being confined to marginal and minority groups, were gaining ground and being synthesized in other revolutionary radical or social movements, which included proto-nationalist, nationalist, trade unionist, and Muslim reformist movements.[5]

While the examples provided by Khuri-Makdisi and the lives of Aguéli and Eberhardt (along with other similar cases such as Leda Rafanelli and Gustave-Henri Jossot) may illustrate that anarchists and the Islamic world have had interaction for more than a century, they do not explain what ingredients have historically formed the basis for a potentially common “language” between Islam and anarchism: a language of resistance to oppression and skepticism to human authority but also commitment to egalitarianism, universalism, and solidarity. Iranian studies scholar at Columbia University, Hamid Dabashi (b. 1951), for example, speaks of an “Islamic Liberation Theology” that dismisses bin Laden as “senseless” and Tariq Ramadan as “reformist” and lifts up the examples of the revolutionary Babi movement of the 1800s, Malcolm X, and Ali Shariati’s quest for a “just” and “classless” society. Even anti-clericalism is a common tenet amongst most Muslims and anarchists but is that enough to unite the two world-views?

The anarchist slogan of “No Gods, No Masters,” seems to actually exclude the possibility of common ground with any religion. In fact, to most people, it would seem on the surface that (except for the fact that members of both groups have been stigmatized by Western governments and media as violent, anti-democratic and fanatical) there is absolutely no commonality between Islam and anarchism. After all, there is the well-known hadith (a saying by or about the Prophet Muhammad), “A thousand days of tyranny are better than a single night of anarchy.” Yet this no more sums up the whole of Islamic tradition in regard to statelessness than Thomas Hobbes’ chaotic “state of nature” sums up all Western views on anarchy. According to L. Carl Brown (Princeton), “the traditionalist Islamic attitude toward actual government (as opposed to… ideal government) is neatly summed up in the… dictum that the government that governs least governs best.” The general discourse within the Islamic world took a sharp turn toward the right (i.e. literalism and radical conservatism) with the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the British and U.S.-backed Saudis in Arabia as custodians of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. With the fall of the Caliphate in 1924, two new influential currents of Salafism began to spread: one typified by the Muslim Brotherhood (with social-democratic leanings) and the other typified by the Saudis (with monarchic leanings). Both emphasized scripture over legal schools/traditions and looked to the early Muslim community as a Golden Age and as a model for today’s society. Even though both currents are socially conservative, they bear potentially emancipatory aspects: 1) The undermining of scholars’ exclusive right to interpret scripture opens the door for lay people to read and interpret scripture on their own and; 2) The emphasis on Divine authority can imply undermining the legitimacy of the state, as in the case of Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb, for “to proclaim the authority and sovereignty of God means to eliminate all human kingship.” Yet just as different people (including Qutb) may interpret the Quran in different ways, he too is now a figure to interpret in various ways.

Also, as Swedish Islamic scholar Jan Hjärpe pointed out in a well-cited article: Islam (as well as other traditions) can be understood as a sort of basket. Within the fold, one finds elements of quietism as well as activism, detached mysticism as well as pragmatic daily concerns. There are traditions of violence and non-violence, moderation and extremism. People (as well as local cultures) essentially pick and choose what will be emphasized at any given time. As Hjärpe wrote, “From the basket is taken only that which has relevance in a given situation… It provides patterns of interpretation for what happens in one’s personal life.” Whether the philosophical ventures of Ibn Rushd or the strict interpretations of Ibn Taymiyya, there are innumerable figures in the history of Islam to whom one can refer to for any given point and there are numerous ways to interpret these figures. An example of interpretation and mobilization can be drawn from Ali (Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law). He engaged in non-violent conflict resolution through arbitration with Muawiyah, a competing claimant to the Caliphate. His example of arbitration can be referred to when one is in a situation that calls for peaceful means to resolving a conflict. Ali’s son Husayn and his family however were slaughtered in the battle of Karbala and this story serves as a powerful motif for resistance and sacrifice when attempting to mobilize (Shiite) Muslims to more actively resist tyranny with insurrection (as they did during the 1979 revolution in Iran).

Similarly, the anarchist “tradition” has its own “basket”. Here we can see pacifism[6] and terrorism, primitivism and syndicalism, nationalism[7] and anti-nationalism, collectivism and individualism.[8] Atheism has of course long been a part of the anarchist basket (via Bakunin, Emma Goldman and others) but then so has religiosity and mysticism (via Tolstoy, Gustav Landauer and others). Though the internal debates continue regarding what can really justifiably be called “anarchism,” there is, as within Islam, no central authority within the anarchist tradition that can definitively settle the debate. People pick and choose from the basket while their peers judge. A typical basis for anarchist assertions in an Islamic context is the fundamental tenet that appears in the Quran: “Serve none but God.” This part of the Islamic basket can be and has been applied when the individual (or group) asserts its own independence from the laws of the state or rulers (who, even in Sunni tradition, have not been regarded as “rightly-guided” since the death of Ali).

Scholars have located certain groups within Islamic history whom they have characterized as anarchist. Princeton scholar Patricia Crone (1945–2015) wrote about the Najdiyya Kharijites and certain Mutazilites of the 9[th] century as anarchist in that they did not believe that a ruler was necessary for the Muslim community. The Kharijites in general were the group who (in contrast to those who later became identified as Sunni) opposed Muawiyah’s claim to the Caliphate and (in contrast to the Shiites) opposed Ali’s attempt at peaceful arbitration. “Let God be the judge,” they declared and asserted that the battlefield was where God would separate the righteous from the corrupt. The Kharijites (of which the Najdiyya were one branch) continued as a separate tradition and were regarded as prone to violence and fanaticism by both Sunnis and Shiites. In fact the act of takfir, declaring that a Muslim is not a Muslim, is still associated with the Kharijites and regarded as unlawful. According to Crone however, the Najdiyya (within their own group) manifested a radical egalitarianism:

All believers were entitled to their own opinions on law and doctrine on the basis of ijtihad, independent reasoning, for all of them were equally authoritative. … Najdite Islam was a do-it-yourself religion. Politically and intellectually, a Najdite would have no master apart from God.

Those who were outside their group, however, could be enslaved or killed.[9] Some of the Mutazilites, an ascetic circle of philosophers, arrived at similar conclusions but in a different manner. Among them were thinkers like Al-Asamm who believed that the problem of Imams degenerating into corrupt kingships could be resolved if they chose not to set them up in the first place. Instead, there could be various alternatives, including a decentralized federalist system in which power would be vested in the hands of local (male) leaders. In fact, similarly stateless systems of patriarchal organization are quite common throughout the Muslim world, from the Pashtun in the Swat territory in Pakistan/Afghanistan to the Bedouins of the Arabic Peninsula or the Kabyle in Algeria (who were discussed by Peter Kropotkin in Mutual Aid ). Another scholar Ahmet Karamustafa (University of Maryland) has located anarchist tendencies in some of the dervish groups of the Middle Ages. Many of these groups were reacting to the institutionalization (i.e., co-optation) of mainstream Sufism. One group, the Madaris of India, refused to wear clothes except for black turbans. In a vague foreshadowing of certain anarcho-crust punks or some Rastas of today, members carried black banners, wore dreadlocks, smoked lots of hash, and systematically breached traditional taboos. Likewise, many of the Qalandariyya had body piercings and tattoos in explicit defiance of Islamic traditions that regarded such practices as haram (forbidden). In a legend recounted by anthropologist Tord Olsson via Mehmet Selim, one of the early dervishes of the Malamatiyya was once being followed by a crowd of admirers. In reaction to their praise, he paused, extracted his penis, and urinated on the ground (much to their horror). Rejection of society included rejection of its values (such as pride). Many of these groups chose voluntary poverty and nomadism as a lifestyle. Karamustafa described their “individualist anarchism” as an “active nihilism targeted directly at society.” In reference to their total rejection of civilization, he cited one dervish leader, Otman Baba, as saying, in effect, that “money is [Edited Out]” (similar to the anarchist Pierre Proudhon’s famous declaration that “property is theft”).

In the Western anarchist community, this research inadvertently led, in 2004, to perhaps the first public debate in the anarchist tradition as to which Muslims could rightly be considered anarchist. On the pages of the anarchist journal Fifth Estate, Harold Barclay (1924–2017), an anarchist anthropologist and author of People Without Government, cited Crone’s research and the Najdiyya as anarchist while critiquing the dervishes for submitting themselves to a master ( sheikh ). Peter Lamborn Wilson (b. 1945), self-identifying Sufi and author of Sacred Drift, replied that, “political structure is not everything. The Lawless dervishes may still have a guru… but they lead free lives (or so it appeared to me). The Kharijites may not have a guru but they live like Cromwellian dragoons.” Elsewhere Wilson has lifted up the example of the Assassins during the reign of Hassan-i Sabbah (and specifically under Hassan II) as an early form of syndicalism and insurrectionary anarchist praxis.

Then, at the same time, there have been modern manifestations of anarchist praxis in Muslim contexts (i.e., Somalia’s statelessness 1999–2006 in which the Internet developed as effectively there as in neighboring Kenya) as well as anarchist theory by prominent Muslims (i.e., Qaddafi’s Green Book advocated a society based on socialism and direct democracy).[10] It seems, however, that only within the last twenty or thirty years have there arisen individuals who have explicitly and publically self-identified as Muslim anarchists. Some of them, such as Abdennur Prado (Spain) and Mohamed Jean Veneuse (Canada) have written their own exegetical analyses in books that explain how Islam and anarchism fit together ( El Islam como Anarquismo Místico and Anarca-Islam respectively). Citing al-Ráziq, Prado said the original community of the Prophet could be seen as a form of anarchism. Veneuse, invoking “Anarchic-Ijtihad,” takes traditional Islamic concepts such as ijma (consensus), shura (consultation), and maslaha (public interest) to describe a democratic, egalitarian, and anti-state current within Islam. Writing about the classical criterion for the election of Caliphs, Veneuse wrote: “First, that Muslims participate in the decision-making process of choosing. Second, choosing without being coerced by any means, measure or standard. Last, Muslims must possess all the ‘facts’ with respect to the field of candidates or representatives from which they are to select.” Similarly, Veneuse sees the ban on riba (usury/interest) as an example of an anti-capitalist current within Islam. Yet not all of those who see parallels between Islam and anarchism are anti-capitalist. More in line with the philosophy of Rothbard, M. Zuhdi Jasser gave a speech entitled “The Synergy of Libertarianism and Islam” in 2005 where he said:

In the Quran, God tells Muslims -“If I so desired I could have forced you to believe, but I did not.” Thus to believe in God and his faith is to believe an individual’s choice is his or hers alone and must be free of coercion or else the entire faith is abrogated and irreconcilable. …ultimate acceptance and governance is still divinely individual -in point of fact libertarian. …While much of the Quran is rules, the acceptance of them is individual and is to be left inviolable by society.

In fact, as it may perhaps be obvious by now, the very interpretation of the rules has become an individual process (much to the dismay of those scholars in the various traditional schools of Islamic thought). Former anarchist Ian Dallas founded the neo-Sufi group Murabitun and graphic designer Soofiya realized that Islam fit in well with her anarcha-feminism when she discovered London’s Inclusive Mosque Initiative. Though the individualization of this phenomenon has accelerated in recent times, its roots stretch deep into Islamic history and the poet Rumi and the mystic-philosopher Ibn ‘Arabi are glowing examples of the way that Islam can be used to resist Islamic tradition. “Out beyond ideas of right and wrong, there is a field,” Rumi wrote, “I’ll meet you there.” Ibn ‘Arabi (a favorite of anarchists such as Wilson and the Swedish Sufi syndicalist Torbjörn Säfve) wrote that, “If men knew themselves, they would know God,” as he drew upon a mix of scripture and personal revelation (activities which led to his execution for heresy in the year 1240).

In 2003 there was an announcement of the formation in a small town in southern Spain of a group of anarcho-syndicalist Muslims named Asociación Islámica-Libertaria Internacional (AILI). The same year, Michael Muhammad Knight self-published the fictional novel The Taqwacores and helped inspire a small scene of “taqwacore” punks to connect together.[11] The diversity, inclusiveness, and antinomian nature of the scene was a sharp contrast to the vegan straight edge-inspired moralism that characterized “hardline,” a militant scene that developed in the 1990s and drew on currents in Shiism, Taoism, Rastafarianism, anarchism, martial arts, the MOVE organization, and the Nation of Islam. Taliyah al-Mahdi (Vanguard of the Messiah) was a loose millenarian group in that scene (which included rapper Naj One and hardline founder Sean Muttaqi of Vegan Reich). Taliyah al-Mahdi, perhaps the first modern group of Muslim anarchists, faded out of existence about the same time that Knight published The Taqwacores (later made into a feature film and a documentary).

There are also a number of non-Islamic anarchist organizations in predominantly Muslim countries (Egypt, Lebanon, etc.) while some of them (such as in Jordan or Indonesia) also have members who identify as religious or “Sufi.” In general, too little research has been done to be able to speak generally about these scenes. Subsequently, the following diagram is far from presenting an accurate picture. Yet, like a crude map with plenty of errors, it may nonetheless provide a general orientation to facilitate exploration (Fig. 1).

The diagram charts two variables for varieties of Islamic anarchism:

  1. Various views on economic order (such as socialism/syndicalism; capitalism; a mix between the two or a third path such as mutualism; small-scale economy, monastic “anti-economies;” various blends or those who take no stance on the matter) and,

  2. Various views on how to organize individuals in society (through moralistic mutual policing; following antinomian sheikhs; individualism; or some type of blend).

The purpose is to visually demonstrate some contrasts between a range of ideas and/or practices that could potentially be regarded as “Islamic anarchism.” The terms “Islamic” and “anarchism” are furthermore used very loosely here. “Anarchism” here ranges from syndicalism to anti-authoritarianism to minarchism (minimal state) while “Islamic” includes all those who have a discursive relationship to some part of the broad historical current of Islam including its heresies and deviants (note: one Muslim’s heretic is another Muslim’s saint). The fact that the Green Book by Muammar Qaddafi (1942–2011) is placed in the same category as Shariati (1933–1977) does not mean that these thinkers have very much in common (except two respects: 1) socialism and 2) a syncretic blend of individual and societal needs). In fact, they are quite different. Shariati’s general ideological views regarding the state were probably closer to Heba Raouf Ezzat than either Qaddafi or Sayyid Qutb. So the full range of variety is actually far greater than the 20 “types” provided. Given that individuals and groups often change their ideas and practices (which are often not even in sync with one another), categorization can be a problematic endeavor. Thus, the categories and examples here are not set in stone and there is no claim to genuine accuracy. The point instead is to argue that the sheer complexity and range of possibilities here demonstrate that we are currently ill-equipped to understand and grasp the actual diversity that appears in real life. As we become more aware of (and affected by) cultures outside of our own and as we discover new evolving subcultures, we may need to dramatically overhaul our conceptual tools for understanding the world around us.

It is, of course, easier to make broad sweeping categories based on a small category of “Correct” teachings (which we ourselves belong to) versus a large group of “False” teachings (which everyone who disagrees with us belongs to) but such oversimplifications are better suited for the battlefield (if even that) than the academy: they don’t help us understand much at all. That said, this diagram is also a gross simplification as issues such as feminism, queer, nationalism, pacifism,[12] and primitivism are not included. In several cases, different schools of thought are lumped together for convenience. On the other hand, a distinction between “antinomian” and “individualist” seems important: Islamic antinomianism is based on the explicit challenge of social and religious norms (while doing so in a context that legitimates master-disciple relationships) while individualism is detached from all traditional bonds (including the master-disciple relationship) and does not necessarily challenge norms (although it claims the right to). Finally, many of the groups or individuals listed here do not self-identify as anarchist per se. Their inclusion here is because they have either a) drawn from anarchist theory; b) manifested a form of anarchistic praxis; c) been described as “anarchist” by scholars; or d) written a text that can easily be read as anti-state and/or espousing a classless doctrine.[13]

The above diagram should not be read to imply a large degree of commonality on many issues but what it ought to display is the fact that there is a huge range of both diversity and overlap of ways in which self-identifying Muslims challenge the idea of the state. In some cases, they have been in contact with one another (such as Knight’s contact with Wilson) but in many cases, they are neither in contact with one another nor aware of one another. There is currently no “Muslim anarchist scene” (much less movement). Their meeting, to the extent that it takes place is largely on the Internet or in literature (like this). While the U.S.-based Jesus Radicals have organized annual conferences, gathering Christian anarchists to meet, discuss, and network for ten years in a row, there has, so far, been no similar organization or meeting ground for Muslim anarchists.

Interestingly, the biggest physical meeting space which included some Muslim anarchists was a public square in Egypt in 2011 that functioned as a center for revolution primarily for non-anarchists who used anarchist methods (yet included groups like Egypt’s Black Flag). As sociologist Mohammed Bamyeh (Pittsburgh) wrote about Tahrir Square in 2011:

Thus in these revolutionary experiments we encounter a rare combination of an anarchist method and a liberal intention: the revolutionary style is anarchist, in the sense that it requires little organization, leadership, or even coordination; tends to be suspicious of parties and hierarchies even after revolutionary success; and relies on spontaneity, minimal planning, local initiative, and individual will much more than on any other factors. On the other hand, the explicit goal of all Arab revolutions is the establishment of a liberal state—explicitly, a civic state-not an anarchist society.

Nonetheless, there have been some anarchists (even Muslim anarchists) who have participated in the Arab Uprisings. More basic here has simply been the demonstration of the very existence of various individuals and historical currents that have been identified or self-identify as both anarchist and Muslim. In conclusion, I’d simply like to cite a scholar, Muslim, and anarchist by the name of Seth ‘Abd al-Hakeem Carney who wrote that “Islamic law does not provide sufficient bases for legitimizing coercive state power, and that the only alternative for Muslims seeking to ‘implement Islam’ in the political realm is a turn towards a libertarian movement that does not use the state and its apparatuses for creating justice and imposing piety.” In another paper Carney provided a quote by Ali:

Your sickness is within you, though you do not realize,
And your cure is within you, yet you do not see.
You claim that you are nothing but a tiny entity,
Yet wrapped up inside of you is the greatest universe.
You are the clear book, through whose letters
All that is secret is revealed and made known.
So you have no need of anything outside of you…

Whether any of this amounts to true Islam or is really anarchist is not the question here. My goal here has merely been to try to understand and describe some things in the baskets. In the end, the reader decides what to pull out of all this and then, if anything, what to do with it.

Conceivably, the classical liberal ideals …in their libertarian socialist form are achievable. But if so, only by a popular revolutionary movement, rooted in a wide strata of the population and committed to the elimination of repressive and authoritarian institutions, state and private.

— Noam Chomsky

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Advanced Member

Posted to provoke thought and discussion—thoughts, comments, critiques, criticisms? 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Advanced Member

Sunni political theory exposed itself by eschewing the concept of Divine Justice—Sunnism had to legitimize historical excesses made by the Umayyad and Abbasid authorities and fit their overabundance/overindulgence into their theological framework—highlights the tendency within Sunnism to subordinate Islamic idealism and diminish it in order to comply with profane pragmatism. 

Edited by Eddie Mecca
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Interesting to see you mention Taliyah al-Mahdi in one of these pieces. That’s a blast from the past. One of the leading members of that organization was quite active here back in the early to mid aughts. Naziri was his handle here, I think. 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

This is not the first time I’ve seen someone put forward the argument that Islam could be consistent with anarchism. On some levels I see it, on others I am skeptical. 

I do think it’s important to distinguish between the principle of governance and the idea of government or a state. As well, Islamic precedent has a strong emphasis on regulating affairs of people via private contracts and has a tradition of multiple parallel dispute resolution systems, and of judges running parallel to but apart from the state. So there’s that. I also tend to agree it’s probably an easier sell among Shias. Sunnism developed entwined with the state and still hasn’t really figured out how to imagine itself apart to it. Shias are more comfortable operating in parallel. 

At the same time, at least in this historical context a state still seems to me like the natural way to govern a people. I would have to see anarchism work on at least the scale of a city of a few million people before I would believe it.  

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Advanced Member
2 hours ago, Eddie Mecca said:

Sunnism had to legitimize historical excesses made by the Umayyad and Abbasid authorities and fit their overabundance/overindulgence into their theological framework—highlights the tendency within Sunnism to subordinate Islamic idealism

Agreed that in General sunni thought is the advocacy of statist ideals, and even making excuses when those ideals are completely trampled upon.

The anarcholiberterians are a very interesting group,  they believe, like we see sociologically , with a strong grounding in communal good, non interference , prevention of harm and  strong property rights, society can be self governing and self propagating. Was this not the basis for ancient nomadic life for eons.

But we also know that humans can quickly descend into a LORD OF THE FLIES, situation if such grounding doesn't exist.

I'm reminded on peace and law in the land  and nature of man from Sura At Tin.

  In fact ayat 3 to 8 can be used as the basis of a peaceful society as long as we remember Allah Is the  ultimate judge, then the Muttaqi person would never dare violate another rights unlawfully.

So govt would be extraneous,  but this would require a society of , at Minimum good decent Muslims , and ideally Muttaqeen.

Thanks to @Eddie Meccafor a great topic  but a very slightly long summarization,  but Bravo nonetheless.

@kadhim has also moved the topic along.

Im curious, who was Taliyah Al Mahdi ?


Edited by guess
Link to comment
Share on other sites

10 hours ago, guess said:

Im curious, who was Taliyah Al Mahdi ?

Hmm. How to answer that? They were—are?—a curious sort of synthesis of straight-edge punk aesthetic, animal rights and veganism, militant social and political justice ideology, martial arts and Chinese medicine, eclectic spirituality and irfan, physical and spiritual development, Shia Islamic messianism—with a sprinkle of Erik van Daniken style ancient aliens and alternate Biblical stuff. 

It’s a little out there, but thought-provoking. 


Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Moderators

I'm going to come back and read this again more thoroughly. My old eyes can't look at the screen for that long.  But as an anarchist-sympathizing Shia Muslim, I am very interested in reading more.  This is the first I have seen on this matter.  

I like a lot of the ideas of western anarchism,  but I'm also very nearly pacifist and they are (universally, as far as I can tell) revolutionary.  

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Moderators
13 hours ago, kadhim said:

I would have to see anarchism work on at least the scale of a city of a few million people before I would believe it.  

Anarchism doesn't rule out local governance,  just denies state authority over local.  

13 hours ago, guess said:

The anarcholiberterians are a very interesting group, 

In the US, those guys are terrifying,  but the An-coms are pretty chill. That's who I'd be,  if I could just get past their urge to violently overthrow existing states.  

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Advanced Member
On 8/20/2022 at 3:57 AM, Eddie Mecca said:

The Kharijites in general were the group who (in contrast to those who later became identified as Sunni) opposed Muawiyah’s claim to the Caliphate and (in contrast to the Shiites) opposed Ali’s attempt at peaceful arbitration. “Let God be the judge,” they declared and asserted that the battlefield was where God would separate the righteous from the corrupt. The Kharijites (of which the Najdiyya were one branch) continued as a separate tradition and were regarded as prone to violence and fanaticism by both Sunnis and Shiites. In fact the act of takfir, declaring that a Muslim is not a Muslim, is still associated with the Kharijites and regarded as unlawful. According to Crone however, the Najdiyya (within their own group) manifested a radical egalitarianism:


As for good government the pious man performs good acts in it, while in a bad government the wicked person enjoys till his time is over and death overtakes him.


Sermon 40: A true statement to which a false meaning ...

When Amir al-mu’minin heard the cry of Kharijites that “Verdict is only that of Allah” he said:

ومن كلام له (عليه السلام)

في الخوارج لما سمع(عليه السلام) قولهم: "لا حكم إلاّ لله"

A true statement to which a false meaning is attributed. It is true that verdict lies but with Allah, but these people say that (the function of) governance is only for Allah. The fact is that there is no escape for men from ruler good or bad. The faithful persons perform (good) acts in his rule while the unfaithful enjoys (worldly) benefits in it. During the rule, Allah would carry everything to end. Through the ruler tax is collected, enemy is fought, roadways are protected and the right of the weak is taken from the strong till the virtuous enjoys peace and allowed protection from (the oppression of) the wicked.

قال (عليه السلام):

كَلِمَةُ حَقٍّ يُرَادُ بِهَا بَاطِلٌ! نَعَمْ إِنَّهُ لا حُكْمَ إِلاَّ للهِ، ولكِنَّ هؤُلاَءِ يَقُولُونَ: لاَ إِمْرَةَ، فَإِنَّهُ لاَبُدَّ لِلنَّاسِ مِنْ أَمِير بَرّ أَوْ فَاجِر، يَعْمَلُ فِي إِمْرَتِهِ الْمُؤْمِنُ، وَيَسْتَمْتِعُ فِيهَا الْكَافِرُ، وَيُبَلِّغُ اللهُ فِيهَا الاْجَلَ، وَيُجْمَعُ بِهِ الْفَيءُ، وَيُقَاتَلُ بِهِ الْعَدُوُّ، وَتَأْمَنُ بِهِ السُّبُلُ، وَيُؤْخَذُ بِهِ لِلضَّعِيفِ مِنَ الْقَوِيِّ، حَتَّى يَسْتَرِيحَ بَرٌّ، وَيُسْتَرَاحَ مِنْ فَاجِر.

Another version

When Amir al-mu’minin heard the cry of the Kharijites on the said verdict he said:

I am expecting the verdict (destiny) of Allah on you.

Then he continued:

As for good government the pious man performs good acts in it, while in a bad government the wicked person enjoys till his time is over and death overtakes him.

وفي رواية أُخرى أنّه(عليه السلام) لمّا سمع تحكيمهم قال: حُكْمَ اللهِ أَنْتَظِرُ فِيكُمْ.


أَمَّا الاْمْرَةُ الْبَرَّةُ فَيَعْمَلُ فيها التَّقِيُّ، وَأَمَّا الاْمْرَةُ الْفَاجرَةُ فَيَتَمَتَّعُ فِيهَا الشَّقِيُّ، إلى أَنْ تَنْقَطِعَ مُدَّتُهُ، وَتُدْرِكَهُ مَنِيَّتُهُ.


Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 2 weeks later...
  • 3 months later...
  • Advanced Member

@Eddie Mecca

I have been thinking about this. While anarchism does carry its own hazards and should, like all other approaches, be subject to critique, all too often man’s failings lie in blind obedience to the “powers that be,” the state and its ruling class. Pharaoh and his system were/are archetypal in this respect. Although religion does recognise the individual’s personal and moral responsibility, one may also question whether systemic, structural changes have made men even more docile over time, ever more willing to abase themselves before the dictates of the state/ruling elite. As societies have become more specialised due to globalisation and the rise of capitalism, the masses have relied more on more on specialised classes (including the so-called technocratic, “‘scientific’ priesthood”), while having less direct control over the means of production and self-government. The state and its uniform laws have replaced individual sovereignty and local custom.

I think there also is something to be said about the inherent ethos of different classes and how the dominant mentality of the people changes in accordance with society. Most traditional, premodern societies have been feudalistic, in that mercantile values, while not entirely excluded, have been subordinated to soldierly and scholarly ones. It is a bit difficult for a single man, at least a typical individual, to simultaneously exemplify the virtues of the merchant and those of the warrior. Warriors tend to be more concerned about transcendental values like duty, honour, and dignity, rather than the desire for material gain and shameless pragmatism. In feudal societies warlords tended to be stronger and more dominant than merchants, while at the same time the central bureaucracy tended to be weak or absent. Merchants did play an important role in the Islamic Middle Ages, but they didn’t decide, dictate, or dominate policy, or usurp the landlord/warrior.

Today, however, a large part of the global population is dependent on either wage-earning or continuous investment in profitable enterprises (especially in the financial or service sector), whereas feudal landlords tended to be relatively self-sufficient in terms of inherited wealth and production. Markets are much more integrated and specialised today, so mercantile rather than soldierly values tend to predominate. Notice how so many politicians and ordinary men alike seem to have little moral sense other than material gratification and political expediency. Even when key institutions become rotten to the core, modern society fears instability and revolution so much that it prefers to work within the system, rather than opt for revolutionary change, even as the state of society continues to worsen in every sphere. There is none of the warrior ethos that characterised feudal elites, nor do they retain the skills to produce items themselves.

It is striking to see how a country founded on violent revolution, the U.S., is so politically passive under succeeding Democratic and Republican administrations, even though the partisan rhetoric on all sides very frequently endorses violence. American society is so insecure that criminals in power can openly stand before the masses, lightly guarded, and insult them yet not be assassinated or overthrown. At most one would see a lot of hyperbole but no action, notwithstanding the fact that Americans in general are very well armed, at least on paper. Instead Americans use their weapons in domestic violence or to, say, gain control over a rival gang, but not to effect a revolutionary regime à la 1979-style Iran. Look at how many far-right boosters once hinted that they would assassinate Obama, yet the latter served two terms without the slightest threat to his personal power or his administration. Look at how Trump gets away with failed promises...

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 2 months later...

Join the conversation

You are posting as a guest. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.
Note: Your post will require moderator approval before it will be visible.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Create New...