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Western Nationalism and Islamic Nationhood

This article is an introduction that Martyr Murtadha Mutahhari wrote for his book ‘The Mutual Services of Islam and Iran’ first published in 1349 H.Sh./1960.

In the Name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful

The relations, conflicts and clashes between various nations have in the present age become a daily issue which has acquired much greater significance than in any other epoch of human history. One of the problems related to it, or perhaps one of the most fundamental of them, is the problem of nationalism, its constructive elements, its scope and limits.

During the last two or three decades many new nations, whose number exceeds fifty, have come into existence, or have acquired a new shape and name. In some cases, a country or a nation was divided into two or more parts, each pursuing a different path. In some cases nations with specific ideological, religious and geographical characteristics have completely changed their philosophical and religious conditions to replace them by a totally different system of ideas and social institutions.

All these changes and the birth of new nations accompanying them, were preceded by years of struggle, resistance, endeavour and bloodshed, which consumed immeasurable time, energy and talents of peoples and called for many sacrifices, small and great.

Did the nations that emerged during recent times have no existence in the past? Did the nations that were separated and divided not form a real, stable social unit in their previous state? Those nations that changed their system while preserving most of their specific traits such as language, race, ecological conditions and geographical boundaries, are they still what they were in the past? Moreover, all the main political, social, and military problems of our age are formulated in terms of nations and national interests.

Nationalism is the most current and popular of all ideologies at present. Even those social and political ideologies that are opposed to nationalist tendencies, on initiating a movement, present themselves in nationalist garb and fall back upon nationalist slogans.

From a different point of view, for us Iranians, too, the issue of nationalism has contemporary relevance, in spite of the fact that our nation and homeland have not been attacked or occupied by any foreign power, and we see much difference and many contradictions between interpretations given by various individuals to nationalism.

At present two factors are at work: first, there is the racial and hereditary factor which is related to our history preceding the last fourteen centuries; the second factor relates to the ideological, religious, social and cultural traditions formed and developed during the last fourteen centuries. As for our physical and racial roots, we belong to the Aryan race, and with regard to our ideological and cultural constitution, traditions and social institutions we are linked to Islam, which came to our land through a non-Aryan race.

If we give basic importance to the factors of race and heredity in our definition of ‘nation’, it will, under the present circumstances, take our nation on a particular course in the future. However, if the social institutions and the ideological structure prevailing for the last fourteen centuries are considered to be of basic importance in defining our nationality, our policy and our future course will be something different.

If we give priority to the Aryan factor in determining and defining Iranian nationality, its consequence in the last analysis will be to make us closely related to the Western world. And this affinity and relation to the West would influence our national and political policy, whose main result would be to break our relationship with our neighbors and non-Aryan Muslim nations and incline us towards Europe and the West.

In this case, the imperialist West becomes our kin and Muslim Arabs will become strangers. On the contrary, if the ideological system, religion, and social institutions of the last fourteen centuries are regarded as the deciding factor in identifying our nationality, it will lead us to adopt a different course and policy whose basis is faith. In that case Arab, Turk, Indian, Indonesian and Chinese Muslims will be our own kinsmen, and the non-Muslim West will be alien to us.

Hence the issue of nationality is not a purely academic issue; it is a real issue of vital importance which determines the course of action and policy, the future and the destiny of a social and political unit known today as the Iranian nation. Hence it deserves to be taken up seriously and understood clearly.

The Historical Background

Nationalism, in its present form and current sense, emerged in Germany, essentially as a consequence of and reaction to the French Revolution which overwhelmed entire Europe. The French Revolution itself was a reaction to and revolt against the old feudal thinking, which did not attach any value or importance to the masses and common people.

It was from that time that ‘nation’ and ‘masses’, and individual’s liberty and equality became central themes in the writings of authors, poets and philosophers. Liberty and equality, which the authors of the ‘Declaration of The Rights of Man’ claimed to have brought as a gift for mankind, in themselves did not recognize any boundary or nationality.

It was due to this universal appeal that the light of the French Revolution, in the short period of a decade, crossed the frontiers of France and engulfed the whole of Europe and affected Germany in particular. In Germany, political philosophers and writers became so much enchanted with the ideas of freedom and liberty that they devoted all their energies exclusively to propagate those ideas. Fichte, the German philosopher, is among the forerunners of this new spirit.

Soon the Germans came to realize that the liberty proclaimed in the Declaration of The Rights of Man meant in Germany something reserved exclusively for the French, and the people of Germany had no share in it. Fichte was the first man to raise his voice against this discrimination. In the course of his famous fourteen lectures delivered at the Berlin Academy, while giving vent to his protest against this discrimination, Fichte, as a reaction to the French character of liberty and equality, advanced the myth of ‘the German nation’ as a real and indivisible unit which on account of its racial, geographical, linguistic and cultural character and traditions was endowed with an innate genius and an exclusive status. In this way German nationalism, which later on emerged as the progenitor of nationalism in the world, was born.

Nationalism, as conceived by its authors in the West, considers a people of a common race living together within particular geographical boundaries, with a common historical background, language, culture and traditions as a fundamental, indivisible unit. Accordingly, all that belongs to the orbit of the interests, advantages, status and worth of such a unit and contributes to them is considered ‘friendly’ and ‘own’, and all the rest is treated as ‘alien’ and ‘hostile’.

In the nineteenth century, three basic reactions or tendencies emerged from the maxims of the French Revolution: 1. the nationalist response; 2. the conservative response; and 3. the socialist response.

The first two trends, in the view of political thinkers, are deviant and opposed to the spirit of revolution, while the third trend is considered to seek the goals of justice and equality.[1]

After Fichte, nationalism found its exponents among thinkers like Charles Moras (?) and Bares (?), who largely shaped and systematized the nationalist philosophy and beliefs of various European countries. Moras stretches the idea of indivisible national unit to the extent of advocating that the nation, as a real, collective entity, should govern all individual wills.

He saw the embodiment of this collective personality in the State. It was this idea that proved to be the source of totalitarian regimes and provided a doctrinal basis to Nazism in Germany and Fascism in Italy.

Henceforth, the period covering the entire nineteenth century and extending up to the first half of the twentieth century is marked as the age of the emergence and development of nationalism in European societies. Though in the social and political spheres the socialist and conservative tendencies also exercised much influence on the thought of European intellectuals, nevertheless, the nationalist tendency in European States became so dominant that all other kinds of tendencies, including liberalism, conservatism and Marxian socialism, were overshadowed by it.

It was the same nationalist spirit of European States which in its extreme form appeared as the ideology of ethnocentrism and racism, and gave birth to the two great wars. Over and above this, it was the same nationalism of Europe, which in spite of all the slogans of freedom and equality of human beings, defended and justified colonization of the countries of Asia, Africa and South America.

The nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, being the period of intensive and extensive colonial exploitation of Asia and Africa, was a period synonymous and concurrent with the appearance and spread of nationalist ideologies.

Writers and historians of the West, in accordance with the same notions, call various movements in other countries nationalist movements. Intellectuals and thinkers of Asia and Africa, under the inspiration of Western culture and under the influence of Western education, apply this term to their own popular movements.

They judge their own movements by the same criteria which were introduced by Western thinkers to differentiate and identify their own nations. Although since the end of the Second World War, nationalism and national interests have given way to regionalism and regional alliances – at least on the level of economic and colonial interests and to some extent in the social sphere – nevertheless, each of the countries of Western Europe and North America try to point out their national characteristics to Eastern and African visitors and students with a view to convince them that nationalism is still a revitalizing force which is instrumental in the advancements made by Western people and their culture.

The aim is that on returning to their own countries they would follow nationalist ideas and preach and propagate them among their own people, so that the countries of the Third World should always keep themselves apart from one another under banners of separate nationalities, races, languages and ancestral legacies, and engage in perpetual conflict and rivalry against their own neighbours and other countries which have also been suffering from the same kind of malaise left behind by Western colonialism.

While the Western countries, with all their power and cultural, political and economic domination, are united together to exploit other nations, the Third-World countries, with all their inadequacies and with all their political, cultural and economic backwardness, pursue separate paths isolating them from one another.

Let us examine whether the principle of drawing lines of demarcation and distinction between different human social units has any real grounds in the world of concrete actualities. In case it has a real basis, we have to examine whether the criteria of actual demarcation are the same as taught to us by Western nationalism.

The Classical Criteria

We observe that the peoples of the world are different and distinct from one another, from Turkey, Persia and Arabia to the farthest corners of Africa, Europe and Asia. They are different not only in colour, features, language and physical characteristics, but are also different in their norms, traditions, cultures and even in their modes of thinking as well as their spiritual and psychological makeup’s.

If we want to classify various kinds of people into independent social groups, we have to see whether colour, race, ecological conditions and geographical boundaries can suffice to serve as the sole criteria of differentiation, or if we have to take into consideration their traditions, historical backgrounds, cultural traits and other factors as well.

The sense of nationhood, i.e. nationalism, is constituted by the existence of a common feeling, a collective consciousness, among a group of people bound together in a political unit forming a nation. This collective consciousness creates a strong internal bond and cohesion among the living members of a society and their ancestors and predecessors, determines the character of relations and associations among themselves as well as with other nations, and brings about a harmony in their aspirations and hopes.

According to the classical Western definition, this collective consciousness is a product of the conditions determined by regional and racial characteristics, a common language, specific traditions, historical heritage and a common culture. A deeper understanding of the nature of individual and social behavior of man indicates that the above-mentioned factors do not play a basic and vital role in the genesis of collective consciousness and are incapable of serving permanently as a cementing force and the bond of integrity among the members of a nation.


It is evident that at early stages of the genesis of a nationality, common language and traditions contribute to bringing individuals together, inculcating in them a sense of shared identity, and serve as the channel that interconnects their hearts and feelings, and consequently leads to the emergence of a collective and national consciousness.

But if we study the past of nations, we find that a common language is not a constituent element but a product of nationhood. None of these people had a common language from the early stages of their genesis. On the other hand, it was only after they had come together and become emotionally attached to each other in a particular region that they evolved a common language in the course of their own development.

It gradually developed and evolved its grammatical principles in the course of centuries. In the process of interaction with the languages of other nations, their language underwent many changes and continuously evolved new forms until it acquired its present shape.

If in particular epochs of the history of a nation, for instance during the period of a nation’s freedom struggle, its language or specific traditions find more forceful expression, becoming the symbol of its national inspirations – as happened in the case of Hindi[2] during the Indian Freedom Movement or in the case of Arabic during the Algerian struggle for independence – such a phenomenon is always transitory. In these instances, language is used as an instrument to motivate the nation’s masses to act unitely.


Researches in history and sociology indicate that all human races, under favourable social and moral conditions, are capable of developing all human qualities. As we know, the pre-Islamic Arabs were plagued by all kinds of prejudices, tribal conflicts, quarrels and superstitions, which were products of bigotry; but after embracing Islam and being infused with its moral virtues, its revolutionary spirit of tawhid, and its passion for social justice, they acquired the qualities that characterized them as the most civilized and advanced of all human societies of the time.

If after some time their old racial prejudices once again raised their heads and reasserted themselves, it happened because of deterioration in conditions conducive to the moral, social and monotheistic values nurtured by Islam.

This indicates that there are no national traits that may be considered as permanent and unchangeable racial characteristics. As a matter of fact, all the traits and their influence can be modified under changed social and moral conditions. The Algerian people’s example is a recent evidence of this fact.

What are the factors and circumstances that can help in preserving the desired social and moral conditions and whether it is possible to preserve them at all, are questions that fall outside the scope of our present discourse.

However, it is admissible that the factor of specific racial traits has always played a vital and effective role in the history of nations in shaping their development and progress or causing their degeneration and decline. But to admit the role of this factor does not mean that it is also effective in bringing together a people and cementing their individual minds to produce a collective consciousness.

More often, the common elements produced by racial traits, instead of functioning as a factor of cohesion and integration and serving as a source of collective consciousness and national unity, either generate internal divisions and aversions, or render a nation weak, unstable and vulnerable.

The nations which from the very beginning possessed martial qualities and engaged in constant wars, attacking and pillaging other nations, abided in conflict, either with others or within themselves, until they grew weak and exhausted, or some other factors, which were social and moral in essence, entered their lives in the course of history, providing them with ground for retaining their unity and cohesion:

“And remember God’s blessing upon you when you were enemies, and He brought your hearts together, so that by His blessing you became brothers …” (3:103)

On the contrary, the nations that possessed the trait of peacefulness and adaptability, not only among themselves and with their living conditions and environment, but also in relation to all other peoples – even invaders, with whom they were inclined to mix, adjust and conform – such nations could not develop a feeling of nationhood or racial unity. In case they did develop such a feeling, it was colourless, ineffective, devoid of distinctive vitality and prone to weakness and decline.

Basically, it is one of the basic characteristics of every human individual that he, in his rationally thought out or emotionally directed relationships, tends to establish relations with those who, by fulfilling and satisfying his inner urges and aspirations, are in a position to compensate for his individual shortcomings.

The firmest bond of love is one in which the lover feels that his most basic and profound needs can find their fulfillment in the person of the beloved. Our day-to-day experience provides abundant evidence of this fact. Similarly, the strength of a group’s internal bonds of social relationships and emotional cohesion is ensured only when various units constituting it are complementary and satisfy the needs of other units. It is in this context that the racial factor, with its fixed traits and characteristics, is of no consequence so far as unity and cohesion are concerned.


In different nations we find various common traditions which, in the same manner as language and race, distinguish them from others. But here a question arises: How far are they effective in making a nation? Customs and traditions, even cultures, are products and results of the voluntary and conscious activities of individuals of past generations.

If there were no relation and connection between past and present generations and social institutions, these traditions would never be transferred from generation to generation. Unless there is a collective feeling and consciousness of unity, tradition and culture cannot be inherited by succeeding generations. Hence all existing national traditions themselves are rather products of national consciousness and human beings’ life and activity in that direction, rather than being their basis and source.

Furthermore, the existing social traditions of a nation are of two kinds: firstly, those which emanate from higher moral values and sublime strivings and struggles of the past, embodying all sacred human virtues which are directed at establishing the rule of justice and good; secondly, those traditions that spring from ignorance and lust for worldly benefits and are derived from unjust social relations.

The first kind of traditions are responsible for the continuity of the life, advancement, progress and prosperity of nations, while the second kind of traditions result in retrogression, decline, slavery and deception of peoples and are tools and instruments in the hands of the rich and the ruling class.

Since justice, piety, progress and development are the vehicles of life, good and healthy traditions are those that emanate from these values and are instrumental in strengthening the life and stability of a nation. On the other hand, undesirable or unhealthy traditions lead to the decline of a nation and even cause its destruction and death. For an evidence of this claim, it is sufficient to glance at history and study the fate of nations from the peoples of Lot, ‘Ad, Thamud, ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece up to the present nations of the world.

As a matter of principle, the evolution of living beings has been in the direction of attaining freedom from natural limitations, external environmental conditions and internal instinctive urges. The primitive man, who emerged at the end of a long evolutionary process, was the freest of creatures from the shackles of nature.

Nevertheless, this freedom was never absolute; it was relatively greater than that of other animals that existed before the emergence of man. Primitive human beings were still governed by the forces of instinct and physical nature, forces at work from within and without. With the gradual development of man’s consciousness and his volitional faculties, man could attain greater and greater freedom from the bondage of physical and instinctive determinants.

In human society, too, at early stages of its formation and evolution, individuals’ relations with one another were determined by inner urges as well as by physical and environmental factors. In primitive societies, first environmental and physical conditions and subsequently emotional, familial and tribal associations had been basically instrumental in constituting social consciousness.

But in developed and advanced societies, in which new emergent factors participate in molding social consciousness and in determining social relations among members of society, the role of physical factors – including the factor of environment – decreased gradually and these factors became of lesser and lesser significance.

Today we find a large number of states and nations in a particular region and living under similar physical and geographical conditions that not only do not form a single national entity, but are at loggerheads and at times in a state of direct confrontation with one another. In the Indian Subcontinent, the Hindu and the Muslim communities, despite living under similar physical and environmental conditions, do not share similar national feelings, and lack the bond of cohesion essential for a nation’s solidarity.

A similar example is that of the English and the Irish, who in spite of sharing the same historical, social and linguistic heritage, do not nurture the spirit of harmony and understanding that can make them a single nation. On the contrary, in our age we find many Third-World countries thousands of kilometers apart and peoples living in different physical and environmental conditions, with considerably vast differences of language, race and historical heritage, who have a profound sense of solidarity. For instance, the Algerians feel a sense of unity with the people of Cuba or Vietnam or with the Palestinians

All the above factors mentioned by Western authors as the constituent elements of nationhood may form the elementary criteria for defining existing nations and for distinguishing them as distinct entities, in the same way as each of the hundred and odd elements found in nature are defined and differentiated according to their specific physical and chemical properties.

But these properties which appear to be fundamental and innate at first on a superficial knowledge of things prove to be essential at a later stage. A deeper insight into the inner world of the atom discovers that the apparent differences of elements are manifestations of the number of electrons constituting the atoms.

In fact, it is the number of electrons in an atom that is responsible for the emergence and manifestation of various kinds of elements. A similar probe is to be conducted in order to find out more fundamental factors at work beneath the level of various factors and elements – some of which have been discussed above – that identify, distinguish, and define a national unit.

We should conduct this research at a deeper level to discover the more fundamental factors which are real constituents of collective consciousness, or at least are closer to them than the factor discussed above.

It is always some more basic and latent factor which is alive and at work in the consciousness of people and manifests itself as a life stream in external forms. It externalizes itself from time to time in particular language patterns and specific national traditions. The main aim and objective of all research and investigation is to lead us to this basic reality and the hidden meaning underlying all external phenomena comprising things and temporal events, which are mere appearances.

Frantz Fanon, an African writer and sociologist who has done penetrating psychological and sociological researches on the development of national consciousness among various African peoples, arrives at the conclusion that the factors of common history, language and cultural traditions, along with geographical conditions, play only a transitory role in the birth of national awareness; these factors are not of permanent significance.

He cites the examples of nations engaged in the struggle for freedom and independence from imperialism, and points out that in these countries the really basic human ideals and aspirations sometimes find expression in such commonly shared factors as tradition, history and language. But these are means only of attaining the desired goals. With the dawn of independence the points of division and conflict appear again.

The nation’s rich who struggled for freedom until last night, part their way from the deprived masses of the nation. While the former take the course of occupying positions of power in order to consolidate their political and economic privileges and to cash in on their past deprivations and sufferings borne during the freedom struggle, the latter take the path of resistance and struggle against the former in order to attain their rights.

Ultimately these divergent paths divide them causing a new social stratification and class conflict. As a consequence of this conflict, the nation is again divided into two or more classes pursuing conflicting ideals, though its members have a common language, common customs, culture and history. There is abundant evidence of class conflicts and religious discords within the present nations, which is sufficient to show that the factors of common language, history, culture and tradition do not have a permanent basis.

Political independence, which has been the strongest impetus for the awakening of nationalist sentiments and has been the common ideal of all the nations of the world, has lost its meaning in the present situation – at least for the countries of the Third World – due to the presence of world imperialism. In a large number of newly independent countries, as well as countries that have been independent for a long time, political organizations and even the political structure, disguise themselves as champions of national interests while operating in reality as agents of foreign powers and serving their exploitative interests.

These foreign agents, armed and equipped with ‘independence’ and ‘national sovereignty’, serve foreign interests, although their organizations, parties and governing bodies are formed of members of that nation and share with its people the same language, culture and history.

Even in the advanced and powerful countries of the world today, the original meaning and import of political independence and territorial sovereignty have lost their former significance. Now these countries are realigning themselves in regional groups. This change in attitudes indicates that these countries consider their linguistic, traditional, cultural and racial differences to be inessential or insignificant in view of their present interests and goals.

This unity expresses itself more prominently in the fields of economic, social and cultural cooperation. The present-day Western world, with regard to culture and economy, has emerged as a monolithic force against the Third World. As a consequence, Western countries have set aside their national identities and differences, at least in the area of the common economic interests of the region.

In the countries of the Third World (the developing and the underdeveloped countries), also, on the one hand, the economy and the ruling elite are in the grip and under the domination of economic superpowers of the advanced world; on the other, their cultural leadership is in the hands of the so-called intellectual class that blindly follows the dominant Western culture and imposes it on their people.

The Role of Intellectuals

In underdeveloped societies under the yoke of imperialism, it is usually intellectuals who try to awaken national consciousness among the people of their country. Since, in their view, the linguistic and cultural traditions of their country are synonymous with and responsible for the actual conditions of the life of their nation – which is an amalgam of misfortunes, backwardness, difficulties and deprivations – they abstain from emphasizing traditional culture.

Therefore, they ask the people to give up their past and to turn to the advanced and dominant countries as their ideal and model. They strive to inculcate those models as the ideal goal towards which the new national consciousness should evolve and develop.

Frantz Fanon, an enlightened sociologist, in the chapter on national culture of his work of lasting significance The Cursed of the Earth (Les damnees de la terre, de la culture nationale), considers the emergence of such an ethos among intellectuals of the countries affected by colonialism as a raw and initial phase in the crystallization of national consciousness in this class.

In this phase, in his view, the intellectual of a society affected by colonialism, while earnest in his endeavour to awaken national consciousness, is himself totally submerged in colonial culture. In every respect his ideas are true copies of his counterparts in the imperialist countries.[3]

In other words. at this stage, although the thought of the intellectuals of exploited countries belongs to the realm of ideas, it is nothing but a commodity imported from the other side of the frontiers from the dominant countries of the West. The intellectual, at this juncture, is capable only of translating alien culture into his own language and actions.

His confidence in his information and the contents of his memory usually make him arrogant – an attitude strengthened by the general ignorance and backwardness of the people of his land that prevents him from closely and critically studying and analyzing actual facts and events. It would take years, or perhaps centuries, of tragic events for such intellectuals and for the people, who have been spell-bound by them, to awaken from their complacent slumber and to realize the true worth of their ideas.

Apart from this, intellectuals of this brand direct their intellectual and practical efforts towards the awakening of national consciousness only at the initial stages of national movement. In a short course of time, because of the nature of their thought and spirit, they adopt the Western style of life and develop fondness for superficial aspects of Western culture which urge them towards affluent and comfortable ways of European life.

This compulsive inclination towards the West, of necessity, makes them maintain silence, or occasionally even prompts them to compromise with the agents of oppression, exploitation and corruption. As a result, they are assimilated in the institutions of imperialism and become its obedient tools.

The second stage, in Fanon’s analysis, comprises of a determined effort on the part of the intellectual to devote himself to the situation of his people with greater sincerity. But since the existing conditions of the nation present nothing but distress, anxiety, ignorance and backwardness, he turns his attention toward those epochs of the nation’s past in which he sees grandeur, glory and greatness or at least pomp and pageantry.

Thereupon, he at once breaks himself off from all relations with the present and leaps across centuries – which, with the people who inhabited them and their long chain of causes and effects, have shaped the present – to some point thousands of years in the past. If the actual history of his nation fails to provide such a golden age, he takes recourse in myths and legends.[4]

The only worth of the ideas and efforts of this class of intellectuals is that they should be confined to the pages of books or entertain and comfort a limited group of people for a short period of time. Since they do not emerge from the present sufferings of human beings, they are absolutely incapable of arousing national and popular awareness among people.

The third stage of change commences when the intellectual liberates himself from fantasy and comes to terms with his people and acquaints himself with their hardships and sufferings. At this stage, the intellectual, having tasted the hardships and deprivations of the common people, shares with them their aspirations.

He respects the beliefs and sentiments of the people, familiarizes himself with them and draws inspiration from them. It is at this stage only that an intellectual can play an effective leading role in making, arousing and molding the national consciousness of his nation, provided he is sincere and free from blind imitation of his Western teachers. The more committed and flexible he is, the more rapid and far-reaching influence he can exercise in the realms of thought and action.

The Real Lines of Demarcation

Now that the factors supposed to be effective, according to the classical definition of nationalism, in giving rise to national unity and collective consciousness have lost their relevance today, shall we assert that there are essentially no real lines of demarcation between various social units of mankind and, such being the case, all nations can, or rather should, merge together to form a single nation?

The experience of human history and the evidence provided by social conflicts and upheavals show that the human world has been divided into many groups and classes different and distinct from one another, each following a different path, and, therefore, the possibility of such a merger does not exist. Social, political and cultural changes taking place in the contemporary age are leading the Western world every day further away from the Third World in respects of understanding and unity.

Despite much talk about coexistence, world peace and unity, the hard realities of the present situation and dynamics of change make such ideas appear far-fetched and impracticable.

As long as there exist wolves and sheep in the world, there is no possibility of any unity between them. As soon as a group organizes itself in the form of a political entity, whatever its basis, it attracts the greed of other groups and becomes prone to encroachment and aggression. Hence, it is compelled to protect its territorial, political and economic interests and defend its culture and ideology from its enemies’ onslaughts.

We are not interested here in discussing the present differentiation of nations; our aim is to discover the elements and factors that form national awareness among a group of people and fuse them emotionally with one another in a way that a nation comes into being.

We have already seen that the factors usually known to be responsible for national integration, viz. Language, cultural heritage, historical background and race, although, of initial effectiveness in the formation of a nation, fail to serve as a basic and permanent ground for national unity. For this reason, we do not consider them to be essential; they are rather accidental.

The people who once fought together against foreigners for independence and dignity were, after reaching this goal, divided again into rulers and the ruled, into privileged and underprivileged, in accordance with their expectations, claims, interests and objectives. As a consequence of this, the national struggle against alien domination is transformed into an internal class struggle.

The people sharing a common culture, language and race become divided and wage war against one another. The same people and the same individuals who were earlier united by a collective awareness now lose the sense of togetherness due to changed social relations. The question raised earlier still remains unanswered: What is the real basis and source of the formation of a national unit or a nation? What is the nature of the bond that cements together the hearts and feelings of various individuals, as a consequence of which common aspirations and ideals emerge?

As in the case of the Algerian people when they started their struggle against French colonialism, or as in the case of the Palestinians’ struggle for regaining their legitimate right and human dignity, or as in the case of the Vietnamese, we observe that the commonly accepted factors of nationhood that is common language, historical heritage and territorial and economic interests – were effective in creating a sense of affinity and mutual understanding among the individuals of a nation.

But at the same time we also see that there are other peoples in various parts of the world whose sympathy with the cause of Algeria, Palestine or Vietnam is as intense as that of an Algerian, a Palestinian, or a Vietnamese. A strong sense of unity and a deeply-felt bond of sympathy for these people joins the peoples of different nations and regions.

This sense of unity sometimes prompts a group of individuals to forget their women and children, environment and country, and to join the ranks of those struggling thousands of miles away from their homeland. They even sacrifice their lives for others with whom they have nothing common – neither language nor culture, nor historical heritage.

If you study the history of these freedom movements, you will see in their midst many individuals of “alien” nationality who fought for their cause, even performed heroic deeds, and, after the victory, became part and parcel of the freed peoples, merging with them to build a new nation.

On the other hand, we find diverse groups within a nation sharing a common language, tradition, culture and geographical conditions who are not bound to one another with a sense of oneness. Their ideals and aspirations for the future do not conform and are contradictory. If there is some semblance of a bond of unity, it is merely superficial and mechanical, contrived to meet the needs of their day-to-day life.

Many a battle is fought by their governments and ruling cliques, of which their own people remain totally unaware or to which they show complete indifference. In our own history there are ample instances of such an attitude of indifference on the part of the people. On the contrary, it happens very often that the people of Africa or India express great interest, warmth and intense enthusiasm for the victory of the people of Palestine or Algeria or Vietnam.

Hence, it may be concluded that neither the historical, geographical, political, racial and linguistic frontiers constitute any barrier between members of human species, nor do these factors constitute a bond of unity between them.

Common Sufferings

How do the people scattered in different parts of the world evolve strong emotional ties and common ideals? What is common among them that unites people far away from one another and breaks them off from their own neighbors and even compatriots? The factor under question may be described as the experience of common sufferings, the common anguish arising from the oppression and encroachments of imperialism.

Incidentally, the birth of nationalist movements in various nations coincided with the period when the masses had a strong feeling of common suffering and a commonly shared sense of vacuum. German nationalism was born out of the discrimination practiced by the French and their interference, which were felt painfully by the Germans. Nationalism in Italy, Hungary, India, Indo-China and Algeria also emerged as a movement at a time when these nations, or at least the majority of their people, were seized by a common feeling of pain and vacuum.

Western scholars of Iranian history say that nationalism or awareness of national unity in Iran came into existence since the beginning of the Tobacco Movement, that is at the time when a section of the Iranian people felt the pinch of colonialism. Hence, a collective consciousness, a sense of nationhood or nationalism, is born among a group of people when they are possessed by a sense of common suffering combined with a common aspiration.

The common aspiration gives rise to the common ideal, for attaining which a movement is initiated among the people, who strive and struggle together and are prepared to endure all kinds of injuries and deprivations. It is this aspiration which further strengthens their collective awareness at later stages, integrates them emotionally, and ultimately results in the nation’s unification.

Factors of Unity

If we study the sufferings that have been instrumental in the birth and emergence of nations up to our times, and compare them with each other, we find a common factor at work among all nations.

For instance, when we examine the circumstances that were responsible for the German philosopher Fichte’s intense and enthusiastic campaign for arousing German nationalist sentiments, or the circumstances that compelled a Gandhi or a Garibaldi to struggle for the freedom of India or Italy, or the conditions under which the people of Vietnam and Palestine started their crusade for independence and liberty as remedies for the maladies afflicting them – these, and many other such instances, will show that whenever a people, or a group of it, arose in revolt and launched a struggle for freedom, two factors have been common in all the cases: firstly, a feeling of injury caused by the tyranny and domination of rulers and their institutions; and secondly, an urge to negate this domination.

Fichte wanted to liberate the Germans from the political and cultural domination and influence of the French; Gandhi fought for freedom from British political, cultural and economic exploitation of his people and country; Algeria struggled against French occupation. Hence, the factor common among the sufferings and aspirations that lead to the emergence of the world’s nations has been, on the one hand, the sense of suffering itself, and on the other, the will to eradicate injustice and establish a just order.

Why does it happen so often that nations are born during periods of unjust treatment, deprivation, oppression, aggression, exploitation and colonialism? It happens so because it is in difficult times, in deprivation, under denial of dignity and inhuman treatment and during endeavor and struggle for liberation from such circumstances that man’s true nature is revealed to him; then he discovers his real identity and realizes the significance of sublime human values and merits.

When man stands against tyranny, crime, oppression, unbelief and corruption and is moved to anguish and pain by them, the yearning for justice and truth is awakened in the depths of his being. These are the values that unite and integrate humanity. Man is a being that is a lover of justice, piety and truth in the depths of his conscious being. This passion has been manifesting and expressing itself in all forms and colors at all points of space and time.

On this basis I feel inclined to say that it is the sense of deprivation, the realization of the gulf between the rulers and the ruled, which is the factor that demarcates human groups from one another and draws the real barriers between them.

Tiburmund,[5] a Western writer and researcher, also divides the present nations of the world into two camps, the deprived and the privileged, or the backward and the industrially advanced countries. This division and distinction, though it corresponds to the reality of our times, is not the whole truth. If we agree to divide humanity into the ruled and the ruling nations, we have to see if all the deprived nations stand in one camp. Frantz Fanon says in this matter:[6]

Black chauvinism in Black literature is an emotional – if not logical – antithesis of the indignities that are heaped up on humanity by the White man. A revolt against the white man’s contempt, it is, in some cases, the best means of overthrowing the restrictions and insults imposed upon the Blacks.

As the intellectuals of Guinea and Kenya have more than anything else seen themselves face to face with total rejection and all round humiliation by the dominant power, their reaction is that of self-praise and self-glorification; the unquestioned justification of the African culture takes the place of un-conditional affirmation of the Western culture.

The poets of the Black movement array the old and worn-out forces against the young Africa, morbid reason against poetry, and oppressive logic against ebullient nature. On the one side is violence, hostility and skepticism, and on the other purity, fervour, unity, freedom and the fertility and bounteousness of the earth, but also irresponsibility …

The irresponsibility pointed out by Fanon results from the fact that the common suffering and aspiration that have emerged in African society are still weak in respect of perception of goals and objectives.

The anti-imperialist movement of the Black continent against the injustice and oppression of the Whites, so far as it aims at uprooting injustice and discrimination and winning human rights, is sacred; but when it assumes the form of vengeance, pride and ambition and seeks privileges of a new kind, it also, in its own turn, lays down the foundation of a new injustice which has not yet found any outlet.

Hence the question of objectives also gains importance with regard to deprivation and slavery of nations. If the Black movement were to mature into devotion to truth and justice, then a rightly directed and blossoming movement will be its fruit.

Therefore, the movements and struggles motivated by common sufferings and aspirations are to be judged by their objectives: Whether they are governed by righteousness, justice, and freedom, or their objective is domination, new privileges and acquisition of benefits and advantages. This is something which is derived from the ideology, faith and outlook of the leaders of a national movement.

The Western culture excludes the above-mentioned factors from those which constitute collective consciousness and national awareness. The Eastern intellectual, too, be he a Muslim or an African, drenches his nationalism in the same colour and sees it with the eyes of the West. That is, with the same tools and weapons that are sold to him by the enemy he wants to build his nation and defend it. What a foolishness to buy one’s weapons from the enemy!

Fortunately, in all nationalist movements and class struggles we witness another factor at work along with the awareness of common suffering and aspiration, and that is a yearning and love for justice, truth, and freedom. These two factors combined together can provide the criterion of a movement’s rightfulness and legitimacy.

German nationalism could not inspire and influence the people of other countries because it emerged with the objective of racialism and expansionism. Zionism, which appeared in its beginning as a movement for the liberation and freedom of the Jews from homelessness and international humiliation, has now assumed the form of an aggressive, racist and oppressive ideology.

This movement, despite being the expression of the common suffering and aspirations of the Jews, due to its imperialist and exploitative objective of promoting the interests of twelve million Jews at the cost of the deprived people of the world, not only has no sympathizers but also invites the hatred of the freedom-loving people of the entire world.

The nationalist resistance in France, with all its heroic tactics, not only failed to build any ideology or movement of liberation due to the source of its inspiration, which was French chauvinism, but also justified aggression against Algeria, its exploitation and the ruthless suppression of its liberation movement.

The more prominent and dominant the elements of justice and righteousness in a nationalist movement, the greater was its universal appeal and the more did it contribute to the sources and foundations of universal human thought and civilization.

Hence, for determining and distinguishing different human societies with a view to determining their national identity and its boundaries, we should take into consideration all the factors; that is, their sufferings, the degree of their consciousness of their deprivation, the intensity of aspirations awakened by them, and, at last, their ultimate objective in its proper perspective. Then we will find that these are the factors which constitute the fountainhead of the life of a group of people and their movement and dynamism.

It is evident that these fundamental and essential factors, once they inspire the collective psyche and feelings of a people, prepare the foundation and the spirit of a nationalism. This foundation and spirit need a form and a body, which of necessity constitute the conventional natural and physical frontiers of a nation.

The safeguarding of these fundamental and essential factors depends on the security of those frontiers against the infiltration and encroachments of the foreign elements that are opposed to the very essence of a nation and either do not understand its sufferings and objectives or are hostile towards them.

The Birth of a New Nationality

In our search for the basic factors that produce collective consciousness, we arrived at two points: common suffering and common aspiration in the face of domination and exploitation of man by man or his institutions. We also observed that these factors are not permanent unifiers unless infused by the yearning for justice, righteousness and piety (in the terminology of Western writers, the human and progress objectives).

It is this vital essence which like life itself is living and is the augmenter of life, the élan vital. When this essence is injected into the body of a people or a group, it stimulates a collective movement, dynamism and evolution, resulting in the creative development of its culture and traditions, which are manifestations of a nation’s independence and its distinct character.

In a considerably large part of our world, we see different nations with different languages, traditions, racial descent and living in geographically diverse conditions, which have formed numerous political units and separate and independent states. These are the world’s Islamic nations. The classical Western criteria see them as different nationalities as alien to each other as they are to other nations and countries.

Accordingly, these criteria require them to retain their separate identities and remain alien to one another. The consequences of this separation and alienation are observable for all. But despite the apparent differences they share certain elements that unite them. Among these people, the most prominent common factor is their faith, Islam, which is a world in itself, rich in culture and specific traditions.

We have to see how their attachment to Islam serves as a ground of common consciousness and unity; that is, what are the common goals and objectives which are taught and inspired by Islam as a creed and a world-view. Secondly, we have to find the common malaise that affects these nations despite their adherence to Islam. Let us review the teachings of the Quran in this regard:

“That which you serve apart from Him, is nothing but names which you have named, you and your fathers; God has sent down no authority touching them. Judgment belongs only to God, He has commanded that you shall not serve any but Him. This is the right religion; but most men know not. “(12:40)

“O Men, a parable is set forth, so give you ear to it. Surely those whom you call upon, apart from God, shall never create a fly, though they banded together to do it; and should a fly snatch away from them aught, they would never rescue it from it. Feeble indeed alike are the seeker and the sought! “(22: 73)

“And struggle for God as is His due, for He has chosen you, and has laid on you no impediment in your religion, the creed of your father Abraham, He named you Muslims aforetime and in this, that the Messenger might be a witness upon you, and that you may might be witnesses upon mankind. So perform the prayer, and pay the alms, and hold you fast to God; He is your Protector – an excellent Protector, an excellent Helper.” (22:78)

“O mankind, We have created you of a male and a female, and made you races and tribes, that you may know one another. Surely the noblest among you in the sight of God is the most God-fearing of you. God is All-knowing All-aware.” (49:13)

“And hold you fast to God’s bond, together, and do not scatter; remember God’s blessing upon you when you were enemies, He united your hearts, so that by His blessing you became brethren; and you were on the brink of a pit of fire, then He saved you from it; thus does God make clear to you His signs that you may follow the right way.” (3:103)

“You are the best nation raised up for men; you enjoin what is good and forbid the wrong and believe in God. Had the people of the Book believed, it were better for them; some of them are believers, but most of them are transgressors.”(3:110)

Those who have studied the history of liberation movements know that the independence of nations and peoples essentially depends upon an individual or a group, howsoever small it may be, that has completely liberated itself from the bondage of worldly temptations and attachments; these are the men who tell the people that if they wish to be dominated and ruled by the worldly powers they shall remain under their subjugation, but if they resolve to be free, all the rich and the powerful shall melt like ice and be destroyed.

The basis of liberation is the conviction of the oppressed in their rightfulness and deprivation on the one hand, and the weakness and vulnerability of the forces of untruth on the other. What ideology can teach humanity the fundamentals of freedom in clearer and more evident terms? Tawhid and Islam mean liberation and freedom, freedom from all chains and bonds and opening of the avenues of man’s evolution and upliftment towards the Divine.

Islam tells its followers that all the distinctions of colour, race and language that are observed among the nations of the world, and which have been made the criteria of their separation, are accidental, having no essential reality. On the whole, those people are noble and honourable who are advancing on the path of human perfection.

The plurality of colours, languages and traditions in human society, and all the other differences observable in nature, are manifestations of the richness and variety of being and forms of a single reality. Every flower has its own colour and odour, its own properties and uses. But all are to be evaluated and measured according to the criterion of their contribution to man’s advancement towards his Supreme Source.

These differences and distinctions cannot be regarded as divisive factors; rather it is their coming together and getting to know one another (ta’aruf) that gives birth to material and spiritual development.

Whatever your race, territory or language, you share a common Law (Din), and it is your duty to safeguard this Divine Law with firmness and not to let yourselves be divided. Always remember God’s blessing that earlier you were enemies of one another but after the spirit of Islam and tawhid was infused into you, you were united together.

The fruit of this unity was a world full of knowledge, merit and moral excellence, which you brought as a gift for entire humanity. If you preach and defend virtue and fight against evil and corruption, you shall be the best of all nations. Either this material and social existence of yours will lead you to commit aggression against one another and oppression and exploitation of one another, or the same material and social existence of yours will become the source of your life, development and growth:

“O men your insolence is only against yourselves; the enjoyment of this world’s life, then unto Us you shall return …” (10:23)

On the other hand, this very material existence is the source of your life and its development and evolution at both the individual and collective levels.

“The likeness of this world’s life is only as water which We send down from the heaven, then the herbage of the earth, of which men and cattle eat, grows luxuriantly thereby, until when the earth puts on its golden raiment and becomes garnished …” (10:24)

Now since this worldly existence of yours in society is an admixture of evolution and transgression, in order not to give injustice and aggression any chances of growth, your remedy lies in this: With complete and perfect faith in the Unity and Sovereignty of God, with self-denial and willingness to sacrifice, take up arms and wage a perpetual, unceasing struggle against the sovereignty of wealth and against egoism.

“O believers, shall I direct you to a commerce that shall deliver you from a painful chastisement? You shall believe in God and His Messenger, and struggle in the way of God with your property and your lives. That is better for you, did you but know. “(61:10-11)

In this way, the basis of your nationhood and the constituent of your collective consciousness is, firstly, faith in God (the objective), and, secondly, your jihad (the common anguish, which at the level of action is translated into insurrection against untruth and preparedness for self-sacrifice).

And (as for) those who believe, and have migrated and struggled in the way of God, and those who have given refuge and help, those in truth are believers they shall have forgiveness and generous provision. (8:74)

Study the history and fates of past and present nations; whatever they were and whatever they became was a result of their own individual and collective endeavours; you, Muslims, are also governed by the same law.

“This is a nation that has passed away; they have what they earned, and you shall have what you earn, and you shall not be called upon to answer for what they did.” (2:134)

In the end your destiny as human beings depends upon your efforts made in the way of sublimation towards your Lord, who is the highest representative of justice and truth, virtue and beauty. It is only after effort and endeavour that you will achieve the ultimate success of attaining His vision:

“O Man! Thou art labouring unto thy Lord laboriously, and thou shalt encounter Him .” (84:6)

The different Muslim nations, with all their present separation from each other, live under the influence of this kind of teaching so far as their world-view and objectives are concerned. And it is this teaching which forms the common culture of these peoples. It is this Islamic and tawhidi culture that has produced their heroes and martyrs, and has preserved the legacy and memorable epics that were woven into the fabric of their collective Islamic consciousness.

In the first century of the Islamic era the principles and objectives of Islamic tawhid were conveyed to the world in such clear and unambiguous terms that all the civilized people of those days, with all their fervor and awareness, embraced these teachings. Very soon the Islamic nation or rather the Islamic cosmopolitan society came into being.

But this unity disappeared soon and divisions emerged, because the men who wielded power could not or did not wish to understand the real meaning of Islamic objectives. The Islamic international movement was perceived as an Arab empire and caliphate – a perception which was a flagrant violation of Islamic objectives.

Because of this, the unity which was achieved was soon squandered, a defeat in whose wake appeared many upheavals, weaknesses and deviations, until, subsequently the Muslims went into a long and deep slumber.

Concurrent with this slumber was the awakening of the Christian West. By making abundant use of the Islamic traditions in culture, social life and science, the West laid the foundations of its own culture, a culture which, apart from its indebtedness to the traditions and the scientific endeavours of the Islamic world, was motivated by worldly ambition, greed for wealth, urge for aggression and quest for worldly power.

As a consequence, a few centuries ago the Islamic world came under the attack and exploitation of the enemies from the West. At first their cultural, moral and religious existence was threatened; then their material and economic resources were pillaged and plundered. The prolonged state of slumber, on the one hand, and the colonial onslaughts on the other, intensified the captivity of Muslim nations producing a defeatist mentality in them.

Now it is a hundred years that the cultural, social and political changes in the world have been shaking these nations and ringing the bell of alarm for them. They are, on the one hand, understanding the import of tawhid, Islam and its objectives from a new angle, and a new world of fresh truths is dawning upon them; on the other hand, the observation of the present conditions of Muslims and their misery, deprivation and backwardness is generating a fresh urge and aspiration among the Muslim masses.

We are witnessing an awakening and movement in the captive Islamic countries. The liberating slogans and objectives of tawhid and Islam inspire and stimulate not only Muslims but also every oppressed people who become acquainted with Islamic teachings. Both in the newly-formed African countries and the Arab countries under the yoke of imperialism, Islam has emerged as a militant ideology of revolt and struggle for the oppressed people of the world.

Western civilization, which for centuries has been waging war openly as well as covertly against Islam, has sprung to its feet at the emergence of this phenomenon. As a result, the bourgeois imperialist West has adopted the stance of peaceful coexistence with the Marxist Eastern bloc. With its innate affinity with Zionism, it established a Zionist state in the heart of the Muslim world.

On the other hand, it endeavors to win the hearts of the followers of other faiths, such as Buddhists and Zoroastrians. Today it appears that the West is busy in uniting all the forces opposed to Islam and justice and equipping them against the Muslims. It is for this reason that every now and then we see steps being taken and conspiracies being hatched, in every nook and cranny, to weaken the impact of Islamic slogans and teachings.

As a consequence of all these conspiracies and unholy alliances, the sense of common anguish is growing amongst Muslims, strengthening further the fabric of their collective consciousness.

The Islamic outlook and the sense of suffering is expanding today and the Islamic nationhood is in the process of a rebirth, a nationhood that transcends the conventional age – old frontiers and embraces all Muslims, or rather all free and God-loving human beings.

It is a nationhood which negates the sovereignty of every nation, tribe and family and is founded upon the freedom and liberty of man from every kind of intellectual, social and political bondage and upon his ascent to the heights of the abode of the Divine.

Men like ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi, Sayyid Jamal al-Din Asadabadi, Muhammad ‘Abduh, Na’ini, Iqbal and Bashir Ibrahimi are the pioneers of this new outlook of tawhid and Islam. They were the first to feel the new anguish and to spouse the Islamic aspiration; they were the founders of a new nationhood based on tawhid.

It is the lament of Iqbal Lahuri which like morning breeze awakens the slumbering hearts and unites the divided consciousness of the Muslim world, reminding it of its mission of magnanimous service to God’s creation and bringing the good tidings of man’s freedom and liberation:

O sleeping bud, wake up to a narcissus-like vigilance over the world,
Rise, for grieves have devastated our haven;
Let the lament of the morning fowl and the dawn call of prayer wake you up;
Rise, the fire-eaters are at work and the fire-balls hang in the air.
Rise from heavy slumber, from heavy slumber arise!
What an ocean is thine that is silent like a desert?
What an ocean is that which swells not and falls like a lake?
What an ocean is it that knows no storms and whales?
Rise like a tidal wave from the split breast of the ocean!
Rise from heavy slumber, from thine heavy slumber arise!
Beware of the West and its bewitching coquetry!
Beware of its disloyal charm and its Machiavellian malice!
The world lies desolate from the savagery of the West!
O builder of the Sanctuary, take up the task of building a new world!
Rise from thine heavy slumber, from thine heavy slumber arise!
From thine heavy slumber arise!From thine heavy slumber arise!From thine heavy slumber arise!From thine heavy slumber arise!From thine heavy slumber arise!From thine heavy slumber arise!From thine heavy slumber arise!



[1] J. J. Chivallier, les grandes oeuvres politiques troisieme partie.

[2] Translator’s note: Martyr Mutahhari has referred to the common Indian language as ‘Hindi’, but what he really means here is the expression of nationalist sentiments in Urdu during the Indian Freedom Movement. Usually no distinction is made in the Middle East between Urdu and Hindi. By ‘Hindi’ the people of this region mean the ‘Indian language’.

[3] In this context, refer to the writings of such intellectuals as Mirza Salih and Fath ‘Ali Akhundzadeh from the early days of the Constitutional Movement and then those of Faridun Adamiyyat, or the steps taken by the government of Ataturk in modern Turkey.

[4] Refer to such works as: Parwin, dukhtar-e Sasan, Az in Awesta, Do qarn-e sukut, Mah-e Nakhshab, Majmu’ah-ye Iran-e bastan, and Majmu’ah-ye Iran kudeh.

[5] Triburmund, Jahani miyan-e tars wa umid (Persian translation).

[6] Frantz Fanon, Les damn’ees de la terre: de la culture nationale.

About Ali Teymoori

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