Revolutionary Movements and How to Start One
Chapter 1 - A Time of Crisis and the Need for Changes
We live in extraordinary times. The world is beset by problems that seem intractable. If left unresolved, they will lead humanity to calamity and cataclysm. We face climate change, ecological destruction, resource depletion, environmental degradation, ongoing economic crisis, political corruption, overpopulation, world poverty and social inequality. These issues force us to consider the need for drastic changes in the way the world works, in order to avert the apparently impending disaster. A revolution is waiting to happen.
The traditional dissident voices of this World have always existed. These are the Noam Chomskys, Naomi Kleins, John Pilgers and Robert Fisks; those who spoke out and continue to speak out for the exploited, the oppressed, the dispossessed and the disenfranchised. There have always been and always will be those who instinctively call for revolutionary changes in society; those that are the discontent, the disaffected and deviant by default. There are those who naturally exist in a state of protestation and opposition to the rich, the powers that be and the ruling classes.
However, we see today a level of impending global danger, a level of increase in global socio-economic injustice, and also a marked increase in the level of political corruption and plain incompetence that is making a lot more ‘ordinary’ people realize the need for revolutionary change. Also, we are seeing some more establishment voices join the chorus for necessary radical adjustments to be effected in the social, economic and political realms of today’s world.
Economic and Political Issues Create New Voices of Dissent
For instance, the millionaire futurist James Martin (who consults for the United Nations, owns an island in the Pacific and made his money working for IBM Corporation) has predicted inevitable violent revolutionary change. It will be caused, he claims, by the inhibition of necessary evolutionary changes in society, politics and the economy. It is possible that these changes are being blocked, or that the need for them is being ignored, by the corrupt, short sighted corporate and political powers that be. It is also possible that their necessity is neglected due to lack of political will. Joseph Stiglitz, winner of the Nobel Prize and former chief economist at the World Bank, has highlighted the corruption of the Financial Services industries and spoken out for radical, necessary reforms that are not being effected at all. Further, the Oscar-winning documentarian Charles Ferguson (lifetime member of the US Council on Foreign Relations, millionaire ex-entrepreneur, and director of the film Inside Job) has called attention to corruption in the US political system. Specifically, he has identified collusion between the Banks and Financial Services on the one hand, and the main US political parties and some major US academic institutions on the other. He has also hinted at the creation of a new movement that will be able to fix the systemic corruption that lies at the heart of US politics and finance. All of these are new voices of dissent, but are hardly typical dissenters, and certainly not alienated or disenfranchised members of society.
What we’re witnessing is people waking up to what’s happening in the world and seeing the writing on the wall. People are realizing the effects of the ‘disastrous rise of misplaced power’, and the corruption of democratic political systems by the encroachment of corporate, banking and private interests. At the same time, there is a sense of the relative impotence of politicians. There is also a sense that political change no longer brings changes; a sense that regardless of which politician or party we vote for, the result is still the same, for they are all owned by the same banks, corporations and private individuals. All the while, we are continuing to see the shift of power and wealth from the vast majority to the tiny 1% who constitute the political and economic elites. We are constantly seeing instances in which financial power buys political power; in turn, that political power is used to secure more financial gain, either directly or through the changing of laws to suit those who fund the politicians. All of this is done at the expense of the majority, the middle and underclasses. We are seeing a continuing process that, if left to run its course, will lead to tyranny at worst, or a completely unjust and unfair society at best. The ‘road to serfdom’ and the rise of a new feudalism for the 21st century.
The Coming Global Catastrophe
While the events described above are happening in the socio-economic and political realms, the world is walking into a global catastrophe. This takes the form of climate change and global warming; it manifests itself as sea level rise, flooding, drought and increased hurricane frequency and intensity. To make things worse, the population of the world is projected to grow from the 7 billion today, to around 10 billion by 2050. Ecological destruction and environmental degradation continue in the forms of deforestation of the rain forests, reckless depletion of the world’s fisheries and exhaustion of arable land. On top of this, we have resource depletion. It is estimated that water availability will decrease by around a third as a result of over population, climate change and the complete depletion of natural aquifers. It has been predicted that this water shortage will be a major source of war and conflict in years to come. But it is the availability key energy resources which will be most problematic, both now and in the near future. Peak oil (i.e., a plateau in the increase of oil production that will steadily become a decline) has been projected to occur at some point between 2012 and 2020. When this plateau is reached, the problems will begin. Inexorable increase in demand will lead to price instability and scarcity, which will inevitably impact the economic, political and social realms. Everything depends on energy. Much of the world’s agriculture depends especially on oil for transport and for the production of fertilizer as well as pesticides. Peak Gas is projected for around 2020-2030, and Peak Uranium for 2015-2035.
What we are seeing, in terms of environmental and ecological collapse, is not a new phenomenon. It is now believed by scientists that Australia was once covered in lush forests, which were slashed and burned away by farmer ancestors of the Australian Aboriginies. Also, we know that both the Sahara desert and Gobi desert are man-made phenomena. Both existed as pasture land, which was over grazed by nomadic herders and their livestock. In the classic example of ecological, environmental and societal collapse; we know that the completely barren island called Easter Island, with the famous statues, was once covered in forest. This was completely chopped down by former inhabitants, who destroyed their own habitat and the lifeline of their civilization. Through analyzing pollen sediments in lake Tikkal, NASA scientists have deduced that the Mayan civilization of the Yucatan peninsula similarly collapsed as a result of over farming and deforestation.
So the process of man made ecological and environmental collapse, which leads to a break down in society and civilization, isn’t new. We, however, are faced with this problem on a global scale. In the earlier localized instances, some of our ancestors could escape to neighbouring regions or islands. In the face of a global catastrophe, only a lucky few might have that option. If some of the truly horrific doomsday scenarios predicted by some eminent scientists occur, there may not even be a lucky few.
The real tragedy is that all these problems (given enough political will, the implementation of a raft of solutions and the action of humanity in concert) are solvable through evolutionary changes to the way things are done and the way the world works. However, these solutions are often blocked by corporate interests; denied by the allocation of so called ‘perverse subsidies’ which often exacerbate these problems; and stifled by the inability of a disunited humanity, ridden with national, racial, tribal, sectarian and religious divisions and conflicts, to come together and act towards a common cause. Although evolutionary change is necessary in the world, these changes don’t happen. This is due to the generally short sighted, self serving, and plain ignorant nature of the institutions, organizations and governments that control the globe. If evolutionary change won’t or can’t happen, revolutionary change is necessary.
Two Other Traditional Causes of Revolution but on a Global Scale
Indeed, the world is a revolution waiting to happen. All the above reasons are enough to predict the desire for revolutionary change and provide the fuel to help instigate it. Still, on top of global socio-economic injustice, political corruption and impending ecological catastrophe, there are two further factors looming in this equation. Throughout history, they have been powerful predictors and facilitators of revolutionary changes. They are demographics and food availability.
Concerning demographics, a large number of young and disenfranchised people in a society is often the substrate and source of a revolutionary social movement. As we have already discussed, the world is facing a population spike and coming into being of a lot of young people. This phenomenon will primarily affect third world countries, but even a moderately developed country such as Iran currently sees two thirds of its population under 30 and 25% under the age of 15. Even in industrialized countries, in which the population is ageing and birth rates are often declining, we are seeing soaring youth unemployment and a new generation that is remarkably open to radical and revolutionary ideas. The continuing and ongoing economic woes of the world, with its jobless masses and minor economic recoveries, will hit everybody hard (except the rich). It is the young who will be hardest hit, and it is they who hold the key to revolutionary change.
Concerning food availability, we have recently witnessed food shortages in the world. These have been brought about or exacerbated by climate change, production of bio-fuels, lessened availability of arable land, and stress on finite agricultural resources resulting from increased demand for meat. Further, the problem of food availability is perpetuated by population growth. As the years progress, these problems will become increasingly acute. It will become harder and harder for food production to keep up with demand. However, the trajectory will not be smooth. Certain events will cause food availability to diminish suddenly and dramatically. Firstly, peak oil will suddenly make food production more expensive. There will be increases in the costs of fertilizers, pesticides and transport, all of which rely on oil. Secondly some parts of the world will see their water resources dramatically and suddenly reduced. For instance, in Punjab (India’s bread basket, where grain production relies on water extracted from underground aquifers) the water levels are now about 10% of what they were, and will head towards zero in a few years. Climate change, in the form of altered rain fall patterns and drought, has affected many parts of the World. In China, vast swathes of the country are now affected by chronic water shortages. Vast stretches of South Eastern Australia are commonly experiencing drought; at some point in the future, they will be unsuitable for widespread agriculture. And yet, year after year, there are more mouths to feed, more people demanding richer diets, and more demands made on over stretched agricultural resources. This will initially lead to rises in food price. These will be followed by food riots, malnutrition and hunger. Traditionally, this pattern of events has sparked social upheaval and revolution. With 7 billion people, the world is already bursting at the seams. The addition of another 3 billion young people, over the next 30 to 40 years, will be a powerful factor in the instigation of revolutionary changes.
There are good reasons for some sort of revolution to occur in the world, as a necessary antidote to the intractable problems of our age. The world’s incumbent powers cannot solve these problems, and are sometimes directly responsible for them. We can predict that these incentives for revolutionary change (global warming, population growth, resource shortages especially food and water, energy crises etc.) will grow increasingly severe with the passage of time. These are all progressive phenomena that will get more and more acute over the next four decades, and lead us more inexorably towards a state of world revolution. The question is, “How might this occur?” We run into a problem here. Currently, there seems to be a missing revolutionary social movement in the world. If this movement existed, it would have the power to bring about necessary changes to the existing order, and to solve the global problems that we have described.
What? Who? Where?... The Missing Revolutionary Social Movement and Void to be Filled
The world lacks a social movement that is powerful enough to bring about the changes that we need, and to tackle the world’s corrupt powers. The traditional force of opposition (i.e. the Left, in the forms of Socialism and Marxism) is considered by most people, including some influential left wing thinkers, to be a spent force. Gabriel Kolko, a writer and advocate of the New Left in North America, asserts that ‘The historical opposition – made up of communists and socialist – has disappeared, its credibility gone. What will replace it?’’ He goes on to say that, ‘The exact nature of this opposition is at present a mystery.’ Also, the Marxist writer David Harvey (whose books have been appearing on the best seller lists recently, due to the resurgent interest in Marxism that accompanied the banking crisis of 2008) expresses similar views. Concerning the present world situation he writes, ‘While openings exist towards some alternative social order, no one really knows where or what it is.’ and that, ‘there is no political force capable of articulating, let alone mounting, such a programme.’ Interestingly, Harvey suggests that, ‘the lack of an alternative vision prevents the formulation of an oppositional movement’, which is an, ‘animating vision of what is to be done and why.’
The filmmaker Charles Ferguson, who is not associated with the Left, has expressed similar views. He sees a desire for radical political changes to be present in the minds of many Americans, especially in relation to the perceived corruption and abuses of the US Financial Services industry. At the same time, he is unsure of what form this ground swell of public opinion might take, or of what will emerge from it. He speculates that it could take the form of a third American political party, or of something like the environmental movement. He acknowledges existent attempts to forge this oppositional force, but dismisses them as ineffectual. We see this ineffectuality in the protest movements that have emerged within industrialized countries in 2010 and 2011; they generally fail to articulate clear goals, set agendas and mobilize sustained actions. At this point in time, we see public expression of anger and frustration; we see protestation of the evils, iniquities and corruption of this world; still, we do not see a clear conception of what to do about it. But what about other social movements that exist in the world? What about the idea of a revolutionary challenge to the incumbent powers that be through a coalition of NGOs (Non Government Organizations)?
What about the World Social Forum and the Environmental or Global Justice movement?
It may be tempting to think that a grand coalition of NGOs could bring about revolutionary and systemic change. This, however, would be a fallacy. The experience of the World Social Forum, which is a sort of big meet up for the world’s NGOs, demonstrates the limitations of Revolutionary change through Non Government Organizations. We might hope that the World Social Forum could produce a united front to pursue a common cause. In reality, it could not even agree upon whether it should be agreeing upon anything in the first place. It lacked the will, in other words, to grant itself the authority to formulate a joint declaration, let alone actually produce one. The WSF can only ever be and will only ever be a talking shop. This alone is its charter. The WSF may state that ‘A Better World is Possible’, but it will never clearly articulate what that utopia might look like. Its inability set forth collective agendas will ensure that this “better world”, possible though it may be, remains unrealized. To be fair, this arises from NGOs’ obligation to obey circumscribed charters that don’t allow them to enter into revolutionary activities. NGOs also have to consider their sources of funding. Often, these are corporations, governments and rich private individuals, who might endanger their own interests by allowing the World Social Forum to become a genuinely oppositional movement. Revolutionary change through NGOs is really a non-starter.
But what about the environmental movement, or the Global Justice movement? Could these evolve into some sort of oppositional movement, and seriously challenge existing powers? Unfortunately, the answer is “no”. Social scientists describe these movements as ‘rainbow coalitions’, rather than social movements in the normal sense of the expression. They lack the cohesion and organization to effect maintained, sustained and focused protest on a large scale. These rainbow coalitions may come together to protest some specific issue, such as the construction of a large dam. They will, however, proceed to dissipate until a new issue galvanizes renewed participation and protest. By nature, they fail to scale up to larger organizational forms, that might grow to tackle political powers in themselves. There is, instead, a preference for horizontal organization and networking. There is even a disdain for any sort of formal overarching organization, and a disdain for wide, long term agendas. Without cohesive organizational structure, and without a vision that can embrace a wide set of issues, the Environmental and Global Justice movements will never become fully revolutionary. They will never recognize the system as the general cause of the particular problems that infuriate them.
So far, we have discussed certain current conditions of the world. These encourage, in all sorts of different people, belief in a global need for revolutionary political and economic changes. Further, the factors which inspire this belief will become progressively acute with the passage of time. We have also discussed the absence of a collective agency that could act as a coherent oppositional movement. So, what is to be done?.
How Do You Start a Global Revolutionary Movement for the 21st Century?
Observing the much-used dictum, ‘Be the change you want to see in this world’, we now ask, “How do you start a global revolutionary movement for the 21st century? How do you cultivate, and bring to fruition, a revolutionary movement that will fundamentally alter the world’s society, economy and politics? How do you dispel the evils that inspire calls for radical change?” A quote from the great Florentine political philosopher, Niccolo Machiavelli, is useful here. He said that, ‘There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things.’ How, then, do we initiate this new order? How do we start a revolution?
As with any difficult and uncertain undertaking, we can learn from the past. In our personal lives, we draw from memories of our past successes and failures. Accordingly, on the social level, we can derive ideas and inspiration from world history. In seeking to form a revolutionary social movement that will succeed in our time, we can study successful revolutionary movements of the past. This will provide us with examples of effective strategies and tactics, but will also reveal something more profound. We will discover two recurrent factors, which are visible in most major revolutionary movements of the past 500 years. These crucial factors have been neglected or ignored by most mainstream sociologists and political scientists. When a case-by-case study of past revolutionary movements is performed, these factors appear repeatedly. They are present in the North American French and Turkish revolutions; in such Chinese revolutions as the Taiping and White Lotus movements; in the rises of the Nazi party and Marxism; in most Islamic revolutions; and even in the English Civil War.
The first of these factors is the so-called Apocalypse archetype. The second is the influence of esoteric religion and mystical beliefs. Despite their immense significance, these things have been widely misunderstood by mainstream scholars. So, what is the Apocalypse archetype, and what is esoteric religion? What role have they played in the history of revolutionary movements?
What is the Apocalypse archetype?
The Apocalypse archetype is a narrative that appears recurrently in the scriptural prophecies of the world’s major religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism). These prophecies predict future world historical events; they also describe a point at which all of these future events will culminate, and world history will conclude. The narrative put forth by prophecies has also been presented through modern forms of storytelling; it can be seen in films such as Star Wars or The Matrix, and in novels such as Dune and Lord of the Rings. This basic storyline portrays a time of calamity, the denizens of which are beset with environmental and social problems. It conveys an atmosphere of discontent, uncertainty, moral degeneration and social disarray. In these portentous circumstances, an ultimate battle between good and evil is enacted. The outcome of this battle is absolutely transformative. If the forces of evil triumph, the world becomes irreversibly, crushingly dystopian; if the forces of good triumph, the world becomes a wondrous, delightful utopia. This final battle can be portrayed as internal, as well as external. It can happen within the minds of individuals, as well as through a physical clash of armies. Throughout history, this simple narrative (the Apocalypse archetype) has been applied to actual socio-political issues. In this way, it has instigated revolutionary movements’ formation, and facilitated their success.
What is esoteric religion?
Most major religions have a two tiered structure; they possess an outer, or exoteric, layer and an inner, or esoteric, one. Exoteric religion is widely known and understood. It is the type of religion that most people grow up with; the type of religion that is propagated in churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples. It consists of rules, rituals, regulations, fantasies and fables. It is the religion of Popes, Roman Emperors, Muslim Caliphs, and modern Fundamentalists; a religion of political control and social stability. It maintains the status quo, protects the powers of ruling elites, and perpetuates social division.
Esoteric religion is not widely understood, and claims relatively few adherents. Traditionally, it is the religion of mystics and prophets. The founders of the world’s major religions have generally upheld esoteric, rather than exoteric, beliefs. Despite their differences, exoteric religion is often subtly suggestive of its esoteric counterpart. The New Testament, for instance, says that, ‘Jesus have revealed the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven only to his disciples. To everyone else the mystery is spoken of in parables, so that they may be ever seeing though never perceiving, and though hearing they are never understanding.’ This reference to hidden mysteries is a reference to esoteric religion. In Judaism, we find the so-called “hidden teachings of Moses”, the Kabbalah. In regard to its scriptures (the Koran and the Hadith), Islam distinguishes between ‘batin’, or hidden meanings, and ‘zahir’, or superficial meanings. Buddhism entails hidden teachings, in the form of Vajrayana. In Hinduism, we find the mystical Tantras. Mainstream, exoteric scriptures do not only allude to the existence of esoteric religion. These allusions also consistently refer to a particular idea. This is, namely the God within; or the Christ within; or Krishna within; or Buddha within; or Allah closer to you than your jugular vein; or, as Sikhism would have it, ‘The One God [who] is all pervading and alone dwells in the mind’. These statements, although diverse in origin, represent a single idea; namely, that we and God are somehow equivalent. This startling and counter-intuitive assertion, which lies at the heart of esoteric religion, has historically played a crucial role in the formation of effective revolutionary movements.
The Historical Pattern of Mutual Antagonism Between Esoteric and Exoteric Religion
Many of religion’s critics have failed to understand or appreciate its division into the exoteric and esoteric tiers. Their ranks include such thinkers as Richard Dawkins, John Gray, and even Karl Marx. Be that as it may, the presence of a two-tiered (as opposed to monolithic) structure in the major world religions is undeniable. Further, interaction between esoteric and exoteric religion has historically been less than harmonious. In fact, their relationship has generally consisted of mutual antagonism. Throughout world history, the religion of state has repeatedly sought to destroy its esoteric counterpart; in extreme cases, the texts and adherents of esoteric religion have literally been consigned to flames. Exoteric religion’s attempts to eliminate its subversive counterpart have entailed a combined process of threat, intimidation, censure, imprisonment and execution. This has been particularly conspicuous in Christianity and Islam.
Exoteric Religion’s Persecution of Esotericism
In Christianity’s history, we see persecution and extermination of the early Gnostics, the later Gnostic Cathars, Knights Templars and Bavarian Illuminati. The Knights Templars are definable as a Medieval order of “holy knights”; they were deeply involved in the Crusades. During their extended occupation of the Holy Land, they came into regular contact with esoteric Sufi and Shiite Muslim sects. They gradually adopted these sects’ beliefs, and their organization became increasingly mystical and heretical. The Catholic church reacted to this development by seeking the Knights Templars’ destruction. Also, many historians consider the witch hunts of the late medieval period to have been primarily concerned with persecution of heretics. Specifically, the witch-finders’ ire was directed at practitioners of pre-Christian Pagan mystery religion, who covertly performed its rites in remote rural areas. This historical pattern of persecution is further demonstrated by the Catholic church’s longstanding antagonism towards Freemasonry. Although this attitude appears arbitrary and unwarranted, it can be explained by Freemasonry’s ritualistic and doctrinal roots in esoteric religious tradition. It is possible, albeit unproven, that Gnosticism was never completely wiped out by the forces of Catholicism. It may have gone underground. Its secrets may have been maintained, in symbolic form, by such secretive organizations as the Freemasons and Rosicrucians. If this is the case, the Catholic Church has reason to view Freemasonry as heretical and deserving of censure.
Throughout Islam’s history, we find the persecution of Sufism, a mystical sect that exists within the religion’s mainstream. Sufi organizations have been driven underground, and their members have been executed. This is famously exemplified by the Sufi Al Hallaq’s death in 922 AD. He was beheaded in Baghdad, as punishment for claiming to be Allah. Sufism ascribes hidden meanings, or ‘batin’, to the Koran and the Hadith (a record of Muhammad’s sayings). It also entails belief in the possibility of union with God. This belief is expressed by the doctrines of ‘fana’, or elimination of the self in God and that of ‘tawhid’’, meaning ‘unity’ of the soul with God
Islam is divisible into two major competing sects, the Sunni and the Shia. As with Sufism, the various Shiite sub-sects have been recurrently persecuted by the authorities of majority Sunni Islam. Shiites also share the Sufi belief in ‘batin’. They have been referred to as the ‘batini’ or ‘batin-ya’, which means “esotericist”. The term “Shia” translates to “partisan”, and derives from an expression meaning “Party of Ali”. Ali was a cousin and son-in-law of the Muhammad. Shiites believe that the prophet revealed ‘batin’ to Ali, and that Ali’s reception of these secret teachings qualified him to succeed Muhammad as a figure of religious authority. Disagreement over these questions of succession and validity of ‘batin’ has caused the schism between Islam’s two main sects. In general, Islam’s Esoteric element is constituted by Sufism and certain forms of Shiia. These sects have been subjected to repression and threats of extermination by mainstream Islam; their relations with their religion’s institutional authorities are analogous to historical relations between esoteric Christianity and the Catholic Church.
Esoteric Religion as Antinomian and Subversive
We must emphasize that the antagonism between Exoteric and Esoteric religion has traditionally been mutual. The religion of state’s contempt for its subversive counterpart has frequently been reciprocated. Just as Exoteric religious institutions have violently stifled social and theological dissent, Esoteric religion has supported insurrection and revolution. Moses, Jesus, Muhammad and Buddha all challenged existing power structures. The Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament criticized corrupt political authorities. Esoteric religion has generally accorded with this behaviour.
What follows is a broad survey of important revolutionary movements, which occurred within the past millenium. In all of these movements, the influence of Esoteric religion and the Apocalypse archetype is clearly apparent. Our survey will include all the major revolutions that have occurred in China over the past 700 years; the rise of the Nazi party; Marxism; many of the major revolutions that have occurred in Islam; the English civil war; and the Freemason-led revolutions that occurred in France, the USA and Turkey. We shall begin with China’s revolutions.
Revolutionary Movements in China over the past 700 years
The White Lotus Movements
The White Lotus Movement emerged in Medieval China during the Mongol Yuan dynasty, which reigned from 1271-1368 AD. This dynasty was established by Kubla Khan, conqueror of China and grandson of Genghis. The phrase “White Lotus” refers to The Sutra on the White Lotus of the Sublime Dharma (commonly known as the Lotus Sutra), a highly influential Buddhist scripture. The sutra deals with metaphysics, and has strong mystical leanings (its title, incidentally, refers to a psychedelic plant, which is chemically identical to the Blue Lotus of the Nile). It implies, but does not explicitly assert, that human consciousness is identifiable with the Buddha. The sutra describes infinite hierarchies of Buddhas; these are presided over by the Celestial Buddha, who controls the universe’s workings. It is subtly suggested that the reader numbers among these Buddhas. In accordance with this text’s spirit, the White Lotus Movement was an esoteric sect that practiced meditation and adhered to a mystical interpretation of Buddhism. This movement was also Maitreyist, and was therefore akin to Western Apocalyptic movements. The term “Maitreya” denotes a figure who appears in Buddhist prophecies; he plays a Messianic role, and is presented as the world’s savior. The White Lotus Movement viewed engagement in revolutionary struggle as means of preparing the world for the Maitreya’s arrival. It believed that, through ushering in this Christ-like figure, its activities would initiate a new age, and restore a decadent society to utopian conditions. In short, the White Lotus movement displayed the influence of Esoteric religion and the Apocalypse archetype.
The Mongol Yuan dynasty was eventually overthrown by a coalition of the White Lotus Movement and the Red Turban Army, a Manichaen group from Western China. The Manichaens were an Esoteric Gnostic sect, whose beliefs entailed a strong apocalyptic aspect; given what we have said above, it is not surprising that these two groups formed a revolutionary coalition. After the defeat of the Yuan dynasty, the Ming dynasty emerged, and reigned from 1368-1644 AD. The first Ming Emperor was a White Lotus Buddhist, and an affiliate of the Red Turban Army. He was born into extreme poverty, and became a monk in his youth. He proceeded to rise through the ranks of the White Lotus organization, becoming a military leader and, ultimately, Emperor of China.
After a few centuries of stable power, the Ming dynasty was overthrown by the Manchurians, a North-East Asian warrior tribe related to the Mongols. The Manchurian invaders instituted the Qing dynasty, China’s final imperial dynasty, which reigned from 1644-1912 AD. A sect called the Eight Trigrams emerged during this dynasty, in 1774 AD; it was derived from the earlier White Lotus movement. Smaller groups known as White Lotus Societies also appeared during this time; as the name would suggest, these also emulated the revolutionary movement that created the Ming dynasty. These organizations led protests and armed revolts against the ruling Manchurian authorities.These diffuse rebellions ended around 1804 AD, and ultimately proved unsuccessful. Still, they made the Qing dynasty appear vulnerable, and thereby potentialized future revolts.
The Taiping Rebellion
In 1850, an Apocalyptic movement called the Taiping rebellion emerged in Southern China. It differed from earlier Chinese Apocalyptic movements in that it was directly based on the Bible. The originator of this rebellion, a colourful character named Hong Xiquan, proclaimed himself the brother of Jesus and the Messiah incarnate. He was heavily influenced by Christian missionaries, and by Chinese vernacular versions of the Bible. So starting in Southern China with his Apocalyptic message of the end times and the creation of a heavenly kingdom on Earth through an armed struggle, he succeeded in starting a major revolution. In fact the Taiping rebellion was able to capture huge swathes of China for a while and seriously challenged the Qing dynasty. They may have welll succeeded had they not been defeated by a coalition of the ruling Manchurian Qing together with Western forces including the British and French. The Taiping rebellion largely ended with the death of Hong Xiquan in 1864, but pockets remained till 1871. After this, though the Taiping rebellion didn’t succeed in taking power and fully defeating the Qing, none the less the ruling powers were so weakened that the end was only a matter of time. The end came in 1912 with the founding of the Republic of China by the Chinese Nationalist party.
The Triads or Soldiers of the Heaven and Earth Societies
During the centuries of rule by the Qing dynasty another insurrectionist revolutionary movement was formed which was dedicated to its overthrow. This was a secret society known as the Triads or Soldiers of the Heaven and Earth Societies. The Triads are also thought to be influenced by the Buddhist White Lotus Societies and Movements. But their name comes from a TriadicTaoist symbol which denotes the essential unity and identity between a person, heaven and earth. This is the Gnostic meaning behind Taosim, that essentially that which is eternal, transcendent and cosmic is also that which is our true nature, i.e. that we are the Tao. So Triads started life as an underground insurrectionist esoteric organization with the aim of toppling the Qing dynasty. There were many factors which eventually brought an end to the Qing, including wars fought with Western powers. But even if the Triads didn’t directly and significantly challenge the power the Qing, they were heavily involved in and with the Chinese Nationalist Party who came to rule the Republic of China. So in a roundabout way they eventually achieved their stated aims. Today most people know Triads as gangsters, the Chinese equivalent of the Italian Mafia who are involved in organized crime, i.e. drugs, guns, gambling, smuggling and prostitution. This is what they have become today. In the past they may have started out with more nobler aims.
The Chinese Communist Party
Another Revolution would occur in China pitted the revolutionary Chinese Communist Party against the Chinese Nationalists. Led by Mao Tse Tung, the Communists won and the Nationalists fled to Taiwan. This led to the establishment in 1949 of the People’s Republic of China under the Chinese Communist Party which rules to this day. This revolution based on Atheistic Marxist ideology may seem like a break from our repeated revolutionary pattern of involvement of the Apocalypse archetype and Esoteric religion. But when we more closely examine Marxist ideology and learn more about its roots then we once again find in Marxism the Apocalypse archetype and the influence of Esoteric religion.
Marxism as Apocalyptic ideology derived from Esoteric religion
It may at first seem incongruous to include Marxism in a survey of revolutionary movements involving the Apocalypse archetype and Esoteric religion. For Marxism is avowedly Atheistic and explicitly non religious. As Marx famously said, ‘[Religion] is the Opium of the people’. However when examine Marxism more closely then we discover then Marxist thought is derived straight from Esoteric Religion and Apocalyptic thinking. The fact that at one point in the 20th century, over a third of all the people on the planet were living under political regimes which would have referred to themselves as Marxist, in one shape or form, including the China and the Soviet Union. This alone would attest to the power of Marxist ideology, the hold it had on the minds of so many people, and also its ability to inspire revolutionary movements. Though the systems of political adminstration that resulted from these Marxist revolutions were often fatally flawed and live up to expectation, nonetheless, what we are interested in are the reasons behind the revolutionary powerful of Marxist ideology. Which we believe to be the involvement of Apocalyptic and Esoteric religious beliefs. So how is Marxist ideology derived from Esoteric religion and Apocalyptic ideas?
Karl Marx as a follower of Hegel
The esoteric and mystical roots of Marxism are a result of the fact that Marx himself was a follower of the great German Idealist Philosopher Georg Gottfried Wilhelm Hegel. It is an interesting fact and most relevant for the present discussion that Hegel thought he was God. He is also believed to have been involved in a shadowy revolutionary group called the Bavarian Illuminati, though evidence for this is largely circumstantial. This startling assertion of a well known Philosopher having such strong mystical leanings doesn’t seem so out of place when we take into account the strong under current of mysticism and esoteric religion that lies behind German Philosphy and German culture, that was quite common right up to the end of the Second World War in 1945. This interest in mysticism and esoteric religion can also be found in other German philosophers such as Schopenhauer, Liebnitz, Goethe, ad Shilling. During his student years Hegel dreamed of a new enlightenment religion for the Volk. Also in some of his later writings he even asserted that his own work was the final culmination of the process of progress of philosophic thought. This process he described as the Dialectic and was appropriated and adapted by Karl Marx.
The Hegelian Dialectic
It was Hegel originated the idea of the Dialectic which was presented as the process by which ideas evolve and existing ideas become superceded by better and more powerful new ideas. He proposed that any idea or set of ideas, which he called the ‘Thesis’, and would be useful and the best idea(s) around for a time; would eventually conflict with the inevitable emergence of the ‘Anti-Thesis’, which would be a competing idea or group of ideas. This conflict would result in the ‘Synthesis’ which would take the best from the original ‘Thesis’ and the novel ‘Anti-Thesis’ to create a newer and better composite truth. This new ‘Synthesis’ would then be generally accepted and become the ‘Thesis’ or dominant and incumbent idea. And so the process would begin again, with a new ‘Anti-Thesis’ emerging to challenge the ‘Thesis’, to form yet another even newer ‘Synthesis’ and so on and so forth. Eventually this process would, in Hegel’s world view, lead to the emergence of the ‘Absolute’ or the final truth all encompassing truth.
Karl Marx took Hegel’s idea of the Dialect but reinterpreted in a distinct and different way. Marx was part of a branch of Hegelian thought called the ‘Left Hegelians’ or ‘Young Hegelians’. One of the adaptations that Marx along with his fellow Left Hegelians did was to recast Hegel’s ideas from an Idealist background into a Materialistic one. Whereas Hegel saw consciousness, mind and ideas as primary, instead the Left Hegelians held that matter and the physical universe as primary. And whereas Hegel saw the Dialectic process as something happening in the realm of ideas, instead Marx reinterpretted the Dialectic Materialistically as the process of a conflict between different social groups or as Class War. So essentially Marxist ideology is an amalgam of a Materialistic interpretation of Hegel, 19th century economic theory and French revolutionary thinking. Another important ingredient in the Marxist ideological mixture is the inclusion of the Apocalypse archetype.
Apocalyptic influences on Marxist Ideology
Marx was influenced by a stream of apocalyptic thought that derived from the xxxxxx. Essentially the idea of a final conflict between the proletariat working classes on the one hand and the borgiesies capitalists and factory owners on the other, resulting in a utopian socialist workers paradise; is really secular reinterpretting of the Apocalypse archetype. Some words from the Communist anthem, The Internationale really brings out this sense of Apocalypticism the Internationale, the part which goes, ‘This is our last and final struggle. After then, there would be no more struggles. All would be peace.’ This statement expresses well the apocalypticism that lies behind Marxism.
We turn our attention now to another revolutionary movement that happened to emerge from Germany like Marx himself but in the early 20th century and which actually became a direct challenger to Marxism and its manifestations as Communism and Bolshevism. This was the NSDAP, or National Socialist German Workers Party; Nazi party in abbreviated form.
The Nazi party as Apocalyptic Revolutionary Movement with Roots in Esoteric Religion
The Nazi party is generally not normally considered as revolutionary movement. The common perception of what the Nazi party was about is World domination and the imposition of tyranny and Facist dictatorship. But in early years of the nascent Nazi party, immediately following the end of the First World War, at the time the Nazis were very much the revolutionary under dogs. A tiny political party emerging, in 1919, from a North Eastern suburb of the Munich, a Southern German city. One of their stated aims was the overthrow of the power structure which existing in Germany at the time, the Parliamentary Democracy known as the Weimar Republic. In this sense they were revolutionary. Also it was said by some of Hitler’s contemporaries that most people start a revolution to gain power, whereas Hitler gained power in order to start a revolution in German society. And trying to gain power through revolutionary activity was something the Nazis first attempted in 1923 in the ill fated, so called Beer Hall Putsch. This was an armed insurrection partly inspired by Mussolini’s march on Rome the previous year. The Nazis had intended to march on Berlin. Hitler led a coalition of Right Wing Nationalists and Nazi paramilitaries groups in an attempt to seize power by force but was stopped literally under a hail of bullets.
Following a spell in Landsberg prison, Hitler had a rethink and formulated a new strategy of gaining power through the electoral parliamentary process and reorganized the party along these lines. After years of campaigning and political manouvering, Hitler was able to grow the Nazi party into the largest political grouping in Germany by number of votes. Though never achieving an absolute majority of votes he was nonetheless able to secure the Chancellorship of Germany in 1933. Shortly after this he gained dictatorial powers and dissolved parliament, effectively dismantling the Weimar Republic and inaugurating the Third Reich. After a period of rapid re-armament in the short space of about 6 or 7 years Germany under Hitler would oversee a series of political and military initiatives which led to the outbreak of World War Two. A hopeless and helpless nation in a short space of time came to dominate Europe and perhaps even stood at the threshold of potential world domination. We gain a better insight into how this came about when we learn about the roots of the Nazi in Esoteric religion and German mysticism; and also through understanding the Nazis as an Apocalyptic mass movement.
The Thule Society
So considering the esoteric origins of the Nazi party we discover that it initially emerged from a secret society called Thule. The Thule society itself emerged from the Munich branch of the List society named after the Austrian German Mystic Guido Von List. In the late 19th and early 20th century up to the end of World War One, List was an influential figure, and many large towns in both Germany and the German parts of Austria had branches of the List Society or a related society called the Germanenorden or Teutonic League. Guido Von List taught the Gnostic idea of a person as God and God as a person, indeed that the person and God were one; that is the recurrent idea in Esoteric religion. List died at the end of World War One in 1919 and shortly afterwards the Munich branch of the List society related Germanenorden renamed itself the Thule society. Certain members of Thule decided to form a political party in order to reach the masses and this was called the German Workers Party or DAP for short.
In September 1919, Hitler then aged 30 and still serving in the German army after the war was sent to spy on the DAP and came to one of their early meetings. This was because they were believed to be a Left Wing Socialist grouping. Hitler though initially unimpressed by the DAP, joined it slightly later, became its leading public speaker, progressing to leader and then changing the name of the German Workers Party into the National Socialist German Workers Party or NSDAP, which came to be called in abreiviated form the Nazi party.
This mystical origin of the Nazi party from a secretive organization believing in key ideas form Esoteric religion and connection with it is further reinforced by the fact they certain key early Nazi leaders and thinkers were members or else affiliates of the Thule Society, including deputy leader Rudolf Hess, Alfred Rosenberg, Deitrich Eckhart and Karl Haushoffer. Also much has been written about the mystical leanings of other well known Nazis such as leader of the SS and Gestapo, Heinrich Himmler and also Hitler himself.
This strong influence of esoteric and mystical beliefs on the Nazi party, including many of its leading figures, derives from a strong mystical undercurrent that had already been existent in Germany. Earlier in our discussion of Marxism and Hegel we mentioned the great German Idealist philosophers and their essential mystically oriented philosophies. Also we may include mention of famous early Renaissance Period German mystics such as Meister Eckhart, Paracelsus, Jakob Böhme and Hildegard of Bingen.
Theosophy and Nazi Ideology
In the late 19th and early 20th Century another influential stream of mystical thinking in Germany was Theosophy which was an organization set up by a Russian mystic called Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. It was Blavatsky who originated the idea of root races of humankind, including the Hyperborians, Atlantians, Lemurians and importantly for our discussion the Aryans. And it was she who first wrote that the Swastika (The religious symbol adopted by the Nazi party), was the sign of the Aryan root race. Later German speaking such as Guido Von List, mentioned earlier, and also a Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels; took Blavatsky’s ideas and gave them a Teutonic twist, by promoting the idea that the German peoples were closest to the Aryan root race.
Jorg Lanz Von Liebenfels
Jörg Lanz Von Liebenfels, developed a doctrine called Theozoology, which held that the original Aryans were a race of god men with psychic powers, but through cross breeding with other humans lost their god-like qualities. Historians believe that Hitler actually met Von Liebenfels sometime in his early 20s and that he was a supporter of his ideas. The idea that the doctrine of Theozoology was later incorporated into Nazi thinking is supported by the fact that the elite wing of the Nazi organization, i.e. the Schutzstaffel or SS, became a breeding programme. Under Hitler’s henchman Heinrich Himmler who led the SS, the idea was that through a process of breeding together the most ‘pure’ and fittest Aryans; then eventually a perfectly ‘pure’ Aryan will be reconstituted and the god-like powers would be regained. Bizarre though this idea may seem, it had a practical application of motivating the elite soldiers of the Waffen SS (i.e. the armed SS); in that the best performing and bravest SS soldiers were promised the prospect of being ‘bred’ with the finest and multiple examples of German or ‘Aryan’ womanhood.
Finally we mention the Völkisch movement which was very prevalent during the time of the rise of the Nazis. This was a popular movement which incorporated, German Romanticism, Nature Mysticism and Teutonic pagan beliefs. Hitler himself wrote in his book Mein Kampf that, "the basic ideas of the National-Socialist movement are populist (völkisch) and the populist (völkisch) ideas are National-Socialist." And so it is that the Nazi party was really the embodiment of a host of mystical and occult ideas, (some traditional, some radical and some bizarre) that had been circulating in Germany at that time and before. Another important strand of the Nazi world view was the incorporation of the Apocalypse archetype.
The Nazi World View as Apocalypticism
Historians have now determined that the early Nazi party was indeed an Apocalyptic mass movement and that the appalling conditions of the Weimar Republic, the extreme poverty, hyper-inflation, unemployment and social chaos was interpreted in Apocalyptic terms. In early Nazi writings and speechs we see vividly described a struggle for the very survival of the German people against an array of forces that would seek their total annihilation. In Nazi ideology we see a rendering of the Apocalypse archetype in terms of a Cosmic battle fought out between the Aryan race and supposedly lesser non-Aryan races. In Nazi world view the Jews were seen as the arch enemies of the Aryans. Out of this conflict would emerge a future perfect state of German world domination that would last a millenium, or the so called Thousand Year Reich. This idea is derived directly from the Apocalyptic writings in the book of Revelation in the Bible which describes a 1000 year reign of Christ. So both Marxism, as described earlier, and Nazism took Apocalyptic ideas from the Bible and both took on the idea of a final struggle between good and evil that would lead to a utopian vision. But whereas Marxism described Class War, instead the Nazis thought in terms of Race War. And whereas the Marxist saw an internationalist socialist workers paradise, the Nazis had in mind the goal of a nationalist socialist ideal future world state, but only for the Aryan that is German people.
We turn our attention now to some of the major revolutionary movements that have occurred in the Muslim world, in the past 500 years and before. And so move from two movements, i.e. Marxism and Nazism, which used ideas derived from esoteric religion and apocalypticism, to movements which were inspired by the esoteric and apocalyptic ideas that are an inherent part of Islam, particularly among the various Shiite sects and Sufi orders.
Esoteric Religion, Apocalypticism and Revolutionary Movements in Islam
At the outset, in a sense, Islam started life as a revolutionary movement with Muhammad as rebel leader and font of esoteric teaching. Early Islam can be viewed as a radically inclusive and egalitarian revolutionary social movement that challenged the existing social order of the Meccan elites, overturning it in armed insurrection and open battle, to establish the first Muslim state. The esoteric side of Islam was described earlier, in our discussion of the ‘batin’ or hiddens meanings behind the Koran and sayings of Muhammad in collections called the Hadith. Essentially the hidden meaning of Islam is the ‘[Allah] closer to you than your jugular vein’, or more directly the idea of the underlying unity between the human being and God. So in the more mystical sayings of Muhammad he says, ‘Whoever knows himself knows God.’ and the more straight forward saying attributed to the prophet which goes, ‘Man is my mystery and I am his mystery, for I am he himself and he is I myself.’
The Apocalyptic dimension to Islam derives from prophecies, or predictions for the future, of the coming of Imam Mahdi, or Imam at the end of time and world saviour of Islam. In prophecies echoing those in found in Christianity and Judaism, for the Second Coming of Christ and Messiah respectively, what is described is a time of great injustice and the world in disarray. Together with the emergence of Imam Mahdi and a great struggle between the forces of good versus evil, that will lead to a utopian world state. This Apocalypticism or Mahdism has been a instigating and/or inspirational force behind many insurrectionist and revolutionary movements in Islam. And as we shall see, this Apocalyptic and revolutionary activity has often worked hand in hand with Islam’s Esoteric aspect, i.e. Sufism and Shiaism.
Mahdism: Recurring appearances of the Mahdi or Islam’s expected one
First we’ll deal with those instances of Mahdism and associated insurrections or revolutions which are less Apocalyptic mass movements but more rather cults of personality. Madhist movements have occurred in Islam with some regularity, indeed dozens and dozens of times, where somebody somewhere proclaims himself to be the Mahdi or the ‘chosen one’ of Islam, goes on to attract a following and is then able to make a challenge to the incumbent powers that be. More often than not this has been quite small scale and without much lasting effect. Sometimes it has lead to major insurrections or the formation of new break away sects within Islam.
So a few notable examples of this sort of phenomenon would include in Persia in the 19th Century, Siyyid Ali Muhammad(1819-1850) who declared himself the Mahdi in 1848. He was executed shortly after but provided the inspiration for the founding of the Babi religion which briefly flourished in Persia from around 1844 to 1852. The Babi faith or Babism was a direct forerunner to the Bahai faith and the remains of Siyyid Ali Muhammad are kept in a tomb at the Bahai world headquarters in Haifa, Israel. The Bahai are now recognized as one of the World’s major religions with around 6 million adherents scattered around the globe.
In 1881, Muhammad Ahmad(died 1885), a Sudanese Sufi leader declared himself Mahdi and lead an armed rebellion which succeeded in capturing for a while the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. This is the same Mahdi whom a lot of Westerners know as the nemesis of the celebrated Gordon of Khartoum, whose life including his death in the battle of Khartoum(1885) against the forces of the Mahdi ,was made into a fairly well know 1966 film staring Charlton Heston.
Moving onto India, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad(1835-1908) declared he was the Mahdi and founded the Ahmadiyya religious movement in 1889 proclaiming the transmission of purer and truer form of Islam, closer that of the prophet Muhammad. However this claim was challenged by the leaders of more mainstream Muslims. The Ahmadiyya sect exists to this day mainly in India and also Pakistan where, in particular the, Ahmadis face discrimination and religious persecution.
More recently in 1979 in the 20th Century Saudi Arabia, one Muhammad bin abd Allah al-Qahtani, while not proclaiming himself to be the Mahdi, nonetheless was given that title by his brother-in-law. This tiny Mahdist movement made world headlines when 200 armed militants took control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca for a period of two weeks. The siege was finally ended by commandos of the French Foreign Legion. It is believed that the Saudi security forces were prevented from taking action due to concerns some of them had, that the Mahdi of Islam had finally arrived and that they would be opposing the chosen one of their faith. The uprising was completely obliterated with all the protagonists eventually executed by public beheading.
While the above examples of Mahdism would derive from Apocalyptic beliefs in Islam, and some were armed insurrections with revolutionary intent, they are however slightly less relevant for our study into the role that esotericism and apocalypticism have played in the formation of revolutionary movements. For all the above are better considered as personality cults, gathered around qualities of specific individuals, perceived or imagined. Of course that is not to say, charisma and personality are totally irrelevant factors in the formation and bringing to success of revolutionary movements. What we, in particular, are interested in is the effect of the input into the formation of revolutionary movements of esoteric and apocalyptic beliefs. And this is because we are interested in understanding the role of these two factors in the formation of revolutionary movements; with the intention in mind of learning how we may form a revolutionary movement for the 21st century. I should say also that there doesn’t exist an absolute demarcation between the charismatic input behind many revolutionary movements and the effects of Apocalypticism and Esoteric beliefs. For, as will be shown in a later chapter, Esoteric and Apocalyptic beliefs can attract the charismatic, fuel charismatic energies and even effect a mass transmission of inspiration and enthusiasm towards revolutionary ends. But what we’ll consider now is some more revolutions that have occurred in Islam and a revolution that has been waiting to happen all along.
Shia Islam as a Revolution Waiting to Happen
If Islam, in a sense, began as a revolutionary movement then the situation with Shia Islam is that in a sense it is a revolution that has been waiting to happen for the past 1300 years or so. To understand why this is so we have to go back to the early history of Islam and the matter who was the rightful successor to the prophet Muhammad after his death.
The minority Shiites believe that is Imam Ali, Muhammad’s Cousin and Son in Law who was the rightful successor, whereas the majority Sunnis believe that the choice of the first three Caliphs (Which means successor, substitute or lieutenant in arabic) was actually correct, i.e. Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman. The Shia, which means literally partisan and who derive their name from an arabic expression meaning ‘The party of Ali’, believe that the succession should have gone directly to Ali and that leadership of the Muslim community should be in the hands of Ali’s bloodline and direct descendents.
There is another interpretation of the succession which holds that Ali was the rightful successor to the prophet Muhammad because it to Ali that the prophet fully revealed the ‘batin’, or hidden meanings of the Koran and saying of Muhammad. So this view sees Ali as the rightful heir of Muhammad due to the belief that it was to solely to Ali that the esoteric secrets of Islam were fully divulged; and that by this criterion he should have assumed leadership of the early Muslim community after the death of the prophet.
Anyway, following the assasination of the third Caliph Uthman, Ali finally became the fourth Caliph and leader. However his rule was plagued by trouble and dissent at the outset, with various factions, some of them powerful, denying him their alliegence. After five years of rule Ali was assasinated. He was followed by Muawiyah I who became the fifth Caliph and who was himself a cousin of the third Caliph Uthman. Thus began the Umayyad dynasty which was characterized by corruption and heavy handed rule. Later after the death Muawiyah I, his son Yazid became Caliph. There arose a state of contention between Yazid and Imam Husain who was the Son of Imam Ali (After whom the Shia derive their name). Husain refused to swear alliegence to the new Caliph and rose up in an attempt to establish an alternative Muslim polity in opposition to what he considered the unjust rule of the Umayyads. As a result and soon after, Husain was killed in the battle Karbala, vastly outnumbered by the forces of Yazid. And so Husain and his martyrdom came to symbolize resistance to illegitimate rule and opposition to corrupt political authority, meaning the Caliphate.
The death of Husain on the plains of Karbala is still mourned by Shias today in the Day of Ashura, which is an important date on the Shia calendar. On this day the Shia lament the fact that they didn’t come to the aid of Husain, when he sought to challenge the political authority of his day. But also yearly on this day they renew a vow that they will be ready to be called upon to take up armed struggle, in the future when the Imam Mahdi arrives, and who is expected to likewise instigate a challenge to the corrupt political powers of a later time. So in this very real sense, Shia Islam is really a revolution waiting to happen.
Shia Islam: Insurrection, Revolution and Resistance
This historical background to the Shia sect together with its more esoteric interpretation of Islam has meant that they have existed in a state of opposition to Sunni Islam. This together with the difference of views concerning the legitimacy of the first three Caliphs between Shia and Sunni Islam, which holds to present times, has meant that the schism between the Shia and Sunni has never been reconciled. Instead the two rival sects have exist in a state of mutual rivalry and the championing of competing claims.
So throughout the history of Islam we find this process of conflict and mutual antagonism between Sunni and Shia Islam. Sunnism became the Islam of the Caliphs and therefore the religion representing the dominant political authorities whereas Shiaism become the religion of resistance and rebellion. Shia Islam has always been the minority sect and usually found itself out numbered and also dominated by their majority Sunni co-religionists. This is with certain notable exceptions in some places and at some periods, where the Shiaism became the dominant interpretation of Islam. For instance the Fatimid Caliphate which existed in North Africa from 909 to 1171AD. Also Persia in the 15th century became converted from a Sunni state to a Shia one, a situation which persists to this day in Iran. Historical it has been said that Shiaism was the religion of a tiny esoteric elite but managed to grow over time. Today the Shia make up between 10 and 15 percent of the total number of Muslims in the World. However in the Middle East the proportion of Shia is believed to be around 36 percent. Through out the history of Islam generally the Shia have been the underdogs and the persecuted minority. Shia sects have often been the resistance and instigators of Insurrection against the Caliphs and mainstream Sunni Islam.
So for instance in the 10th century, a Shia sect called the Qarmatians staged a revolution and managed to dominate much of Eastern Arabia for a while, around the area where the state Bahrain exists today. They became notorious when in 930, after sacking Mecca and Medina, they kidnapped the Black Meteorite that is kept at the Kaaba (The famous Black Cube shaped structure towards which Muslims prayer and is Islam’s holiest site). They held it ‘captive’ for over 20 years finally returning it when a huge ransom was paid by the Caliphate, though they broke the stone into pieces in a further act of desecration. The Qarmatians held strongly esoteric and apocalyptic beliefs. Unusually they were strict vegetarians. They were defeated by the Sunni Caliphate in 976 and gradually faded from the history thereafter.
The Nizari (Assasins)
Another Shia which gained a reputation for insurrection is the Nazari, who were also known rather derisively as the Assasins. The assassin word deriving from a word meaning hashish(A form of the drug cannabis) user. The Nazari were a heavily mystical esoteric Shia sect existing in the 11th to 13th Centuries, with a strong Apocalyptic and Mahdist aspect. In their early history they saw a several of their leaders proclaim themselves to be the Mahdi and expected one of Islam. The modern word assassin actually cames from the alternate name given to the Nizaris. This was because they earned themselves a fearsome reputation for long term infiltration toward the purpose of killing of targeted individuals, often political leaders who opposed them or called for their persecution and even annihilation. The Nizari always existed as a small minority sect, scattered in the holy lands and parts of Western Persia, sometimes concentrated in strongholds located in isolated mountainous regions. Interestingly, the Nizari are thought to have had a lot of interaction and even collaboration with the Knights Templar and historians conjecture that they may have passed on esoteric beliefs and practices to their European contemporaries. It is widely believed that Templars went on to influence Freemasonry.
Around the mid 13th Century, the Nizari were largely exterminated during the Mongol invasions of the Muslim world. The Mongols were so impressed by the fearsome reputation that the Nizari had earned as assassins, that they decided the Nizari were too dangerous to left alone; and therefore mostly eradicated them. However remnants of the sect survived these people became the forerunners to the modern day Ismaili sect, led by the Aga Khan. Both the Aga Khan and his father are and were Freemasons, which would be fitting given the alleged connections between the Nizari and the Templars, and therefore indirectly between today’s Ismailis and modern Freemasonry.
The Safavi Sufi Order and conversion of Persia from Sunni to Shia Islam
Earlier we mentioned that Sunni Persia became a Shia majority state. How this conversion came about was through the intervention of the Safaviyya who were a Sufi order from Azerbaijan. The Safavi invaded a fragmented and politically disunited Persia in the early 16th Century to set up the Safavid dynasty. They were sympathetic to the Shia cause and thereupon embarked upon a systematic conversion of all of Persia from Sunnism to Shia Islam. This they did by bringing in scholars and Shia Imams from places such as Qom in what is now southern Iraq and Damascus in Syria. This is why Iran today is a majority Shia nation, which is quite an anomaly. And today there exists connections between on the one hand Iran and on the other, Southern Iraq and Syria which derive from history and their shared Shia identity.
Muslim Revolutionary Movements in Modern Times
When we move our attention to Muslim revolutionary and insurrectionist movements of the modern era then we continue find in them the influence esoteric religion and apocalypticism, though these factors may be underlying and indirect. We shall examine the Muslim Brotherhood and the Iranian revolution which diposed the Shah in 1979.
The Muslim Brotherhood
The Muslim Brotherhood or The Society of the Muslim Brothers, was an organization that emerged in Egypt in the 1928 with the goal of reasserting Muslim identity and provide a response to Western Imperialism and the exploitation of Muslim peoples by colonial corporate interests. It sought to be pan-Islamic religious, political and social movement and its popularity quickly spread and now has branches all over the Muslim world. Both the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hasan Al-Bana and it best know idealogue and martyr Syed Qutb, belonged to Sufi orders; though both of them came to reject Sufism as being backward and part of an undesired divisioning of Islam. Yet both of retained in their thinking elements derived from Sufism. Qutb’s writings were thought by some of his contemporaries to reflect certain distinctly Sufi doctrines such as that of ‘wahdat al-wujud’ or ‘unity of being’. And Al-Bana would organize factions of the the Muslim Brotherhood along Sufi lines, forming them into secret cells.
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