Western Nationalism and Islamic Nationhood
This article is an introduction (pishguftar) that Martyr Murtada Mutahhari wrote for
his book Khadamat-e mutaqabil-e Islam wa Iran (The Mutual Services of Islam and
Iran) first published in 1349 H.Sh./1960. The translation of this book is under way
and will soon be published by the Sazman-e Tablighat-e Islami, and we hope to
publish some parts of it in the future in al-Tawhid.

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
neighbours 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

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

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 makeups. 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 behaviour 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 unitedly.  Race:

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
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 fulfilment 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.  Traditions:

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 moulding 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 kilometres 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 lifestream 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 damn ees 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
analysing 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.

To be continued ...

اللهم صلي علي محمد و آل محمد و عجل فرجهم و العن اعدائهم
Western Nationalism and Islamic Nationhood
Western Nationalism and Islamic Nationhood
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Islamic Nationhood