Who's Afraid of Mazdak? Prophetic Egalitarianism, Islamism, and Socialism

Derek Ide I Geopolitics I Analysis I April 27th, 2016

PFLP revolutionary and socialist of the 1970s, Leila Khalid in Algeria (1972).

The year was 1974. Algeria's National Liberation Front (FLN) had liberated their country from the French occupying forces and the pieds noirs (French settlers) only twelve years prior. Under the leadership of Ahmed Ben Bella (1962-5) and then Houari Boumédiène (1965-78), Algeria underwent a series of state-building initiatives immediately following independence. The Algerian leadership operated within the parameters of a loosely defined "socialism" that became the organizing ethos under which they constructed the newly independent state.

Algeria was still in the midst of its "socialist" transformation when, a year earlier in 1973, the president of Egypt, Anwar al-Sadat (1970-81), embarked upon his neoliberal Infitah ("Opening") program. This nascent economic program significantly augmented Western capitalist institutions control over Egypt and would eventually overhaul the "Arab Socialism" that had been arduously built from the top-down by his predecessor, the pan-Arab nationalist hero Gamal abd Al-Nasser (1954-70). To deal with the remnants of the Nasserist and Communist left in Egypt, Sadat slowly released many members of theIkhwaan (Muslim Brothers) from prison. While they had been locked up under Nasser, Sadat viewed the Islamists, including al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group), as a counterweight to the still active Egyptian left, especially on university campuses. Violence against the left was often encouraged, and the Islamists eventually came to dominate many university settings.[1]

While the Islamists engaged in violence against the left in Egypt on behalf of the state, the Islamists of the Maghrib launched a new ideological war against the "socialist" states in North Africa. In 1974 Abdellatif al-Soltani published what historian Benjamin Stora called the "first manifesto of the Islamist movement in Algeria." This "virulent critique" of the "Socialism of the Algerian leaders" invoked the name of none other than the 6th century Zoroastrian prophet and Iranian reformer Mazdak. Al-Soltani's polemic was titled "Mazdakism is the Origin of Socialism" [2] and it denounced the moral decay of the "destructive principles imported from abroad." All political action must emanate from "within the framework of the party of God, as opposed to the party of Satan," it proclaimed, implicating that the "socialist" policies of the Algerian state as deriving from the latter. Al-Soltani continued that there must be a "single state with a single leader, founded on Muslim principles."[3] For the Islamists like al-Soltani, socialism was something foreign, a contaminant that could not be reconciled with the all-encompassing totality that was Islam.

Yet, the Algerian state during its "socialist" stage was far from secular in any sense of the word. Even at the peak of these state-building and industrialization exercises, the Islamic lexicon was dominant and the state was heavily adorned in religious garb: Islam was the official state religion, no future law could ever "target the state religion," jumaa became the official day of rest, gambling and alcohol sales to Muslims were illegal, Muslims couldn't raise pigs, the president had to be a Muslim, the amount of masajid more than doubled (2,200 to 5,829) from 1966 to 1980, and government sponsored seminars on Islamic thought took place annually.[4] Thus, critiques of the Algerian state on the basis of any perceived secularism were relatively desiccated. Instead, the primary enemy for the Islamists was the socialist model of development; their issue was with "socialism" in any form or degree, not with the professed religiosity of the state. Not only was Marxism an "imported" ideology foreign to Islam, socialism was also an ideological descendent of Mazdakism, a dangerous heresy against God that any good Islamist ought to struggle against.

But who was Mazdak, and why was this pre-Islamic Iranian prophet's name being pejoratively drug into Islamist political discourse in 20th century Algeria? Mazdak was a Zoroastrian prophet who lived and preached during early 6th century. Although details of his life are tenuous at best, a few tenants of his ideology and religious teachings have been established. Mazdak claimed to be a prophet of Ahura Mazda, the monotheistic god of Zoroastrianism. However, Mazdak's Zoroastrianism was an egalitarian rejection of the mainstream clerical establishment and most of his teachings were considered heresy by the Zoroastrian clergy. A significant element of Mazdak's religious thought focused on economic egalitarianism, including an emphasis on developing communal property and community work where all people benefited. Although Mazdak himself was a Zoroastrian Mobad (priest), his teachings were radically anti-clerical in the fact that they accused the mainstream Zoroastrian clergy of oppressing the Persian population and causing poverty through excessive accumulation.

Mazdak's socially conservative critics accused him of extending "communal property" to the point of "sharing wives" and "free love." Despite these allegations, Mazdak's real crime was his economic message. It was his radical egalitarianism that caused him to become a target of the state. Zoroastrian scholar M.N. Dhalla articulated the core teachings of Mazdakism:

"The account of Mazdak's system is very meagre; but it is known that he accounted Jealousy, Wrath, and Greed as the three main causes of all evil in the world. Everyone, according to Mazdak's teachings, should be given equal opportunity and equal share of the enjoyment of the earthly possessions of God. So it was originally ordained by God, but that natural order has been upset by the aggressive strong for their own self-aggran­dizement. Society should therefore return to that original ideal state. These revolutionary teachings thrilled for a time Iran, and exercised a powerful fascination on the masses. The crisis was brought to a head when, far from taking any initiative to stamp out the heresy, the king encouraged it, and finally embraced it. His son, Prince Noshirvan, summoned the Dasturs and Mobads to consider the situation. It was certain that the cult would spread and the young prince adopted severe measures to suppress it, lest it should menace the public peace. The clergy who viewed the new heresy with great alarm, advised rigorous measures to extirpate the threatening creed. Mazdak did not live long to preach his doctrine, for the prince arranged a banquet for him and his followers and put them all to the sword in A.D. 528."[5]

Thus Mazdak and his followers were executed by the state and the religious establishment for the "excitement" they encouraged amongst the Iranian masses. A variety of accounts of Mazdak's death show the gruesome hatred ruling elites harbored for Mazdak. One narration suggests that Mazdak was presented with the spectacle of a "human garden" by his executors when three thousand of his followers were buried alive with their feet sticking from the ground. According to this account Mazdak himself was then hanged upside down and shot with arrows. Other stories of his execution employ equally morbid methods of torture.

Overtime Mazdak and "Mazdakism" became a common pejorative utilized by religious scholars, both Zoroastrian and Islamic, to denigrate any radically egalitarian religious philosophies within their respective traditions. While medieval Muslim historiography often condemned the "socialist" aspects of Mazdakism, this critique was carried over effectively into the 20th century, and not just by way of al-Soltani and the Algerian Islamists. As early as 1919 the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Mohammed Bakheet, was vehemently condemning Mazdakism as a predecessor of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Bakheet wrote that the communists in Russia represented an "ancient 'way' and it is the creed of a Persian hypocrite named Zoroaster." [6] But this "ancient way" was only spread to the masses by a "man from Mazria called Mazdaq" who "taught communism of property and of persons, and put it in their mind that this, although it might not be from religion, was at least honorable in the doing." Mazdak's "heresy" furthermore articulated the idea that "God furnished the means of living to be divided equally among the people… [so] they decided to take from the rich and give to the poor… [and] the masses seized this opportunity wholeheartedly with Mazdaq and their followers aiding them in all their views." After condoning the slaughter of Mazdak and his followers, the Grand Mufti goes on to explain that "Islam was introduced and swept this false way aside." Furthermore, Bakheet proclaimed, God himself had "undertook the distribution of the means of living among His creatures by saying 'We divided up their livelihood among them' and 'God gives the livelihood to whom He wishes from among His servants,' and so on." Thus God had ordained prodigious inequality, and it was no place for mere humans to challenge God's will in this regard. Bakheet furthers his critique of the Bolsheviks, proclaiming that their "way" is:

"…one which destroys all Divine laws… it legalizes blood-shedding, allows trespass upon the property of others, treachery, lies, and rape… demolishes human society, destroyed the order of the world, leads to apostasy from religion, threatens the whole world with horrible distress and bitter troubles, and instigates the lower classes against all systems founded upon reason, morals, and virtue.

Accordingly, every true Moslem ought to avoid such people and their misguided views and false doctrines and deeds, because they are undoubtedly apostates." [7]

Indeed, it is this historical memory that al-Soltani and other Islamists drew upon in 1974 to validate their "Socialism as Mazdakism" critique of the Algerian state.

It is no wonder then that the United States and other imperialist powers often viewed the Islamists as appropriate vehicles through which they could combat pan-Arab nationalism and left-wing movements in the Middle East. At nearly every turn the Islamists presented themselves as enemies of left-wing and progressive movements and as such could be readily absorbed into the larger imperialist framework. When the Islamic Salvation Front (ISF) finally took power in Algeria in the 1990s, they hastened the privatization of the state sector and the dismantling of any remnants of the socialist project. But examples of the Islamist movement serving the interests of imperialism go far beyond Algeria. Islamists of the Maghrib undermined the legitimacy of anti-imperialist states like Libya and Syria. Egyptian leaders used the Ikhwaan to undermine the pan-Arab and nationalist left. While the Palestine Liberation Organization, including its second largest party the communist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), engaged in militant guerrilla war against Israel, Palestinian segments attached to the Egyptian Muslim brothers (those that would eventually become Hamas) refused to fight for decades. Instead they opted to try to "Islamicize" Palestinian society before engaging in the struggle and focused on developing enough cadre to position themselves at the forefront of the Palestinian national liberation movement. During the events of "Black September," the Jordanian Muslim Brothers sided with the Hashemite monarchy, originally installed by the British, in its brutal repression against and expulsion of the secular Palestine Liberation Organization. Most explicitly, the "brave Mujahideen fighters of Afghanistan" (as they were infamously eulogized in the Rambo film) worked in tandem with the United States to overthrow the revolutionary communist government of Afghanistan established in 1978. Thus, wherever the modern incarnation of "Mazdakism" needed to be undermined, the Islamists were there to do it.

Not all Islamic theology has been predicated upon disdain for radically egalitarian messages, however. For some Mazdak was even a religious figure that could be rehabilitated within the framework of a sort of "Islamic liberation theology," one shares some characteristics with its Catholic counterpart in Latin America. For instance, as Shireen Hunter notes the Iranian scholar Ali Shariati "believed the Iranian mind has always been attracted to ideas of social activism for the sake of justice." Shariati, who spiritualized Marxist notions of class conflict and social struggle within the lexicon of Shia Islam, appeared to have held an interest in Mazdak himself.[8] Shariati brilliantly satirized the arguments put forward by the class of religious elites, such as the Grand Mufti quoted above, who perpetually told the poor to be content with their lot in life.

"Have patience, my religious brother. Leave the world to those who are of it. Let hunger be the capital for the pardon of your sins. Forebear the hell of life for the rewards of paradise in the Hereafter. If you only knew the reward of people who tolerate oppression and poverty in this world! Keep your stomach empty of food, O brother, in order to see the light of wisdom in it. What is the remedy? Whatever befalls us. The pen of destiny has written on our foreheads from before: The prosperous are prosperous from their mother's womb and the wretched are wretched from their mother's womb. Every protest is a protest against the Will of God. Give thanks for His giving or non-giving. Let the deeds of everyone be accounted for on the Day of Reckoning. Be patient with oppression and give thanks for poverty. Do not breathe a word so that you do not lose the reward of the patient in the Hereafter. Release your body so as not to require clothes! Do not forget that the protest of a creature is protest against the Creator. The accounting of Truth and justice is the work of God, not the masses. In death, not in life. Do not pass judgment for the Judge of the judgment is God. Do not be shamed on the Day of Resurrection when you see that God, the Merciful, the Compassionate forgives the oppressor who you had not forgiven in this world. Everyone is responsible for his own deeds." [9]

Thus, for Shariati these views that condemn the poor to a life of misery were mere religious facades intended to placate the population and perpetuate economic inequality. The religious leaders who tell the masses to wait for their pie in the sky and dare not shake the foundations of social inequality while on Earth were the real scoundrels.

In stark contradistinction to the Sunni Islamists who condemned "Socialism as Mazdakism," Shariati laid forth his revolutionary and radically egalitarian theology in the quintessential work The Philosophy of History: Cain and Abel. There Shariati posited that "History represents an unbroken flow of events that, like man himself, is dominated by a dialectical contradiction, a constant warfare between two hostile and contradictory elements that began with the creation of humanity and has been waged at all places and at all times, and the sum total of which constitutes history." This "contradiction" began with the origin of human history, the struggle between Cain and Abel. Abel, as the manifestation of pastoralism, represents a sort of "primitive communism" where accumulation is impossible. Alternatively, Cain is a reflection of agricultural modes of production and represents the first schism between social classes in human society. Thus:

"In my opinion, the murder of Abel at the hands of Cain represents a great development, a sudden swerve in the course of history, the most important event to have occurred in all human life. It interprets and explains that event in a most profound fashion scientifically, sociologically, and with reference to class. The story concerns the end of primitive communism, the disappearance of man's original system of equality and brotherhood, expressed in the hunting and fishing system of productivity (equated with Abel), and its replacement by agricultural production, the creation of private ownership, the formation of the first class society, the system of discrimination and exploitation, the worship of wealth and lack of true faith, the beginning of enmity, rivalry, greed, plunder, slavery and fratricide (equated with Cain). The death of Abel and the survival of Cain are objective, historical realities, and the fact that henceforth religion, life, economy, government and the fate of men were all in the hands of Cain represents a realistic, critical and progressive analysis of what happened…

The wing represented by Abel is that of the subject and the oppressed; i.e., the people, those who throughout history have been slaughtered and enslaved by the system of Cain, the system of private ownership which has gained ascendancy over human society. The war between Cain and Abel is the permanent war of history which has been waged by every generation. The banner of Cain has always been held high by the ruling classes, and the desire to avenge the blood of Abel has been inherited by succeed­ing generations of his descendants‑the subjected people who have fought for justice, freedom and true faith in a struggle that has continued, one way or another, in every age. The weapon of Cain has been religion, and the weapon of Abel has also been religion…

This inevitable revolution of the future will be the culmina­tion of the dialectical contradiction that began with the battle of Cain and Abel and has continued to exist in all human societies, between the ruler and the ruled. The inevitable outcome of history will be the triumph of justice, equity and truth.

It is the responsibility of every individual in every age to determine his stance in the constant struggle between the two wings we have described, and not to remain a spectator. While believing in a certain form of historical determinism, we believe also in the freedom of the individual and his human responsi­bility, which lie at the very heart of the process of historical determinism. We do not see any contradiction between the two, because history advances on the basis of a universal and scientif­ically demonstrable process of determinism, but "I" as an individual human being must choose whether to move forward with history and accelerate its determined course with the force of knowledge and science, or to stand with ignorance, egoism, opportunism in the face of history, and be crushed."[10]

Whereas Bakheet condemned Mazdak for inciting revolution amongst the masses and Al-Soltani issued his invective of "Socialism as Mazdakism," Shariati invites the revolutionary and egalitarian struggle. Far too many Islamists have lent their services to the "system of Cain" contra the socialist and left-wing "system of Abel." Naturally, Mazdak was a manifestation of the latter. It is imperative for the future of humanity that we follow in the footsteps of Mazdak and Shariati's Abel, not the oppressive forces of Cain and their religious interlocutors.


[1] See Hossam El-Hamalawy, MERIP, http://www.merip.org/mer/mer242/comrades-brothers

[2] Alternatively translated as "Socialism is the Descendent of Mazdakism."

[3] See Benjamin Stora, Algeria 1830-2000: A Short History, 171-2.

[4] Stora, 171.

[5] M.N. Dhalla, History of Zoroastrianism, http://www.avesta.org/dhalla/history5.htm

[6] See Tareq Ismael and Rifa'at El-Sa'id, The Communist Movement in Egypt, 1920-1988, 164.

[7] See Ismael and El-Sa'id, 166-7.

[8] Shireen Hunter, Reformist Voices of Islam: Mediating Islam and Modernity, 54.

[9] See Ali Shariati, Religion vs. Religion.

[10] Ali Shariati, The Philosophy of History: Cain and Abel.