Understanding the ‘Islamic Revolution’: Comparative Study of Qutb, Maududi, and Khomeini

This article relies on a textual analysis of primary sources, that is, the ideologues’ speeches and writings on the Islamic Revolution.

The concept of an ‘Islamic Revolution’ has been propounded by three influential ideologues of the 20th century: Iran’s Imam Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, Pakistan’s Syed Abul A’la Maududi, and Egypt’s Sayyid Qutb. It is important to examine the similarities and differences among their notions of the Islamic revolution and analyse their reasons for advocating it. Moreover, it also merits investigation as to how these Islamist theorists aspired to spread the revolution internationally as well as the role of violence in their approaches. The last point that must be accorded attention to is Khomeini’s unprecedented success and the reasons why Maududi and Qutb were unable to achieve their ideological and political goals.

This article relies on a textual analysis of primary sources, that is, the ideologues’ speeches and writings on the Islamic Revolution, which reveals the nuances in the respective approaches of these three influential Islamist scholars of the 20th century. After extensive study, it is argued that Khomeini had certain peculiar advantages over Maududi and Qutb in the form of his Shia ethos and Persian values. It was these factors that together helped translate his notion of the Islamic Revolution into a resounding success. This remains an example for modern Islamists to emulate today.

Defining the Islamic Revolution

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ‘revolution’ in multiple ways. The Dictionary states revolution as, a sudden, radical, or complete change”, “a fundamental change in political organisation”, “activity or movement designed to effect fundamental changes in the socioeconomic situation”, and “a fundamental change in the way of thinking about or visualising something”.[1] More than one of these stands relevant to the notions of the ‘Islamic Revolution’, as propounded by Imam Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini of Iran, Maulana Syed Abul A’la Maududi of Pakistan and Sayyid Qutb of Egypt.

The general concept of the Islamic Revolution operates on all of the above levels as identified in the dictionary, unlike that of a socialist revolution. It aspires to radically change the existing political structure by overthrowing the government and introducing its own socioeconomic and legal systems. Furthermore, it aims at achieving these by means of an initial bottom-up change, beginning at the ideological level. This theme runs common among the teachings of all three Islamist leaders under discussion: Khomeini,[2] Maududi[3] and Qutb.[4]

How Khomeini, Maududi and Qutb Viewed the Islamic Revolution

Farhang Rajaee, a top pro-Revolution Iranian cleric and an official of the Organisation of the Propagation of Islam, while referring to the Islamic Revolution, stated, “The domination of Islam will not materialise unless Islamic solidarity rules, and this is not possible unless there is a revolution. [By revolution] we mean evolution towards God.”[5] In an audiotape, Khomeini hinted at the possibility of violent rebellion, a theme not found in his speeches as much as in the writings of Qutb and Maududi. Khomeini stated: “Would it be surprising if people follow the path of revolution, resort to violence and continue their struggle to regain their rights and resources?”[6]

According to Choueiri, Maududi considered Islam as a revolutionary ideology that all members of the Muslim community were bound to follow in their collective struggle, directed towards a massive revolution.[7] Maududi considered the Revolution as the highest form of jihad, for the establishment of hukumat-i-Ilahiyah (rule of God).[8] Taking a violent line, he did not deem the use of force unjustified towards this end. [9]

Husain states that Maududi declared that he and his party, the Jamaat-i-Islami (Party of Islam) had the agenda of launching an Islamic Revolution in Pakistan, and “at the appropriate time they would seize power from the rebels against God who rule the country”.[10] As Maududi himself preached if someone really wished to morally correct the ‘corrupt’ Muslim society, they should not rely on preaching alone. Rather, they should “stand up to finish the government run on wrong principles, snatch power from wrongdoers and establish a government based on correct principles and following a proper system”.[11]

The radical Qutb, having borrowed both ideology and terminology from Maududi, spoke of the Islamic Revolution as, “a revolution against all earthly authority that usurps the main feature of the divinity, that is, uluhiyya.”[12] Moreover, in his epic book, Ma’alim fi al Tareeq (Milestones on the Road), Qutb elaborated on the aim of the Revolution as, “…the usurped authority of Allah be returned to Him and the usurpers thrown out…”[13] Clearly advocating ‘tyrannicide’ or the murder of perceived tyrannical rulers, he further wrote, “When they have no power, then it becomes incumbent upon Muslims to launch a struggle through individual preaching as well as by initiating an activist movement to restore their freedom, and to strike hard at all those political powers that force people to bow to their will and authority…”[14]

In all these above descriptions by the three scholars, it can be observed that violence is a possibility for Khomeini, however, Maududi and Qutb seem to be more inclined, at least theoretically, towards a violent public uprising.

The ‘Need’ for the Islamic Revolution

Regardless of the exact strategies for bringing the Islamic Revolution, all three ideologues were fully convinced that the Revolution was the need of the hour for the moral and political correction of their respective ‘corrupt Muslim’ societies. Esposito writes that Khomeini held that the adoption of Western secular model of government with the compartmentalisation of religion and politics, “was the cause of the political, military, economic and social ills of Muslim societies”. Only “a return to Islam” and “reintroduction of the Sharia (Islamic law)” could change the situation, which was to be achieved through the Islamic Revolution.[15]

To this end, Khomeini would famously proclaim, “Neither the East nor West, but the Islamic Republic”.[16] Similarly, Maududi was avowedly against secularism, considering religion and politics inseparable, evident from the creation of his Islamist political party.[17] According to Husain, Maududi saw secularism as resulting in the gradual decline of religious practice in public life, and with this erosion of faith, “there would be a decline in ethics, morals, and human decency.”[18] Maududi spoke about the Islamic Revolution as “…the struggle for obtaining control over the organs of the State, when motivated by the urge to establish the din [religion] and the Islamic Shariah and to enforce the Islamic injunctions, is not only permissible but is positively desirable and as such obligatory.”[19]

Maududi went to the extreme of claiming that a holistic state system implemented by Muslims—other than what he perceived as ‘mandated’ by the Quran, Sunnah (the way of the Prophet) and Shariah—would amount to “committing partial apostasy, which would eventually lead to total apostasy”.[20] Similarly, owing to “Westoxicated” secularism and the absence of Shariah, Qutb maintained that ‘dar al-Islam’ was immersed in a state of jahiliyyah (the pre-Islamic period in Arabic, translated as ‘ignorance’) even worse than that which existed in pre-Islamic Arabia.[21]

Mincing no words, Qutb termed Muslims living under such a system the “Party of Satan”, bracketing them together with non-Muslims that he considered the enemies of Islam.[22] In Milestones on the Road, Qutb emphasised a return to Islam through the Revolution which would entail “remov[ing] jahiliyyah from the position of authority… in order to promulgate [Islam’s] own special way of life [Shariah] that is a permanent feature of its system”.[23] It can clearly be noticed that while emphasising the need for the Revolution, Khomeini did not use radical terminology for Muslims living under a secular state system, however, Maududi and Qutb espoused harsher views.

Particularly Khomeini, in the continued absence of the Islamic Revolution, was wary of the Western interests in his country’s ‘endangered’ mineral wealth under the Western-influenced Shah of Iran. In one of his writings, he implicitly gave his followers the message that they would have to struggle for the Revolution rather than just pray for help. He wrote, “If you pay no attention to the policies of the imperialists, and consider Islam to be simply the few topics you are always studying and never go beyond them, then the imperialists will leave you alone… It is your oil they are after… That is the reason [they have installed a] puppet government…”[24]

This ‘concern’ for safeguarding the natural resources of Iran from the imperial powers—through overthrowing the pro-imperialist Shah’s government—is unique to Khomeini due to his geographical location. This theme is not likely to be found in either Maududi’s or Qutb’s discourse.

Post-Revolution Vision: Government Systems and Export of the Revolution

Khomeini believed that the establishment of an Islamic republic through the Revolution was imperative to achieving the key goal of social justice, and that only an Islamic government led by theologians could do that. In accordance with that belief, he propounded the notion of velayat-e-faqih (translated from Persian as the ‘leadership of the jurisprudent’).[25] This religio-political concept not only put the Iranian Shia clerics in the vanguard of leading the Revolution through tablighat[26] (preaching), but also bestowed on them the executive authority of the subsequently created Islamic Republic. Khomeini thus aimed at establishing a strict theocracy.

Maududi, on the other hand, dreamed of the establishment of a ‘theo-democracy’: an “articulation of [two differing] themes”[27] distancing himself from suggesting the establishment of a proper theocracy run by clerics.[28] Qutb, as the most radical ideologue, rejected attempts to combine any Western system, such as democracy, with Islam, or the concept of an “Islamic democracy”.[29] From his characteristic Manichean or black-and-white approach, he considered all Western systems as ‘alien’ to Islam.[30] Therefore, the goal of the Islamic Revolution for Qutb would be different from that of the Revolution for Khomeini or even Maududi.

“Universal export of the Revolution” was a key goal for Khomeini[31]. Considering the Revolution ‘Islamic’, it had to be transcendental, sans boundaries, just as Islam itself. Export of the Revolution is a “doctrinal duty” and a part of Iran’s Constitution.[32] Khomeini explicitly made it clear what he meant by ‘export’: “When we say we want to export our revolution we mean we would like to export this spirituality and enthusiasm we see in Iran.”[33] He called tablighat as the “greatest means” to export the revolution[34].

Maududi also called upon his followers to strive for the establishment of an Islamic state at the world level[35], partly through preaching[36]. Qutb, similarly, aimed at “secur[ing] complete freedom for every man throughout the world” through his Revolution, to be brought about by jihadand preaching[37] both. The tendency towards violence by Maududi and Qutb can be observed here as well, in the export of the Revolution.

Factors Behind Khomeini’s Success

Although all these Islamists preached the Revolution, only Khomeini was successful in the achievement of this important goal. A number of factors worked in his favour, which Maududi and Qutb lacked. First, Khomeini appealed to masses across the board, without sounding overtly hostile to any segment of the population. He treated them all as oppressed Iranians under the Shah[38], whereas Maududi and Qutb drew distinctions between believers and non-believers.

Second, Khomeini emphasised the lack of spirituality and ethics in society, not a militant brand of Shariah, which resulted directly from his universalistic Persian Sufi cultural heritage and academic background. His emphasis on traditional Persian values motivated the people as they could relate to his call for the Islamic Revolution.

Third, Khomeini’s Shia background advantaged him vis-à-vis Maududi and Qutb. The Shia faith traditionally encourages revolt, and places a greater emphasis on martyrdom, aiming to follow Imam Hussain’s example from Karbala (the Imam being the Prophet’s grandson who was murdered in the 7th century by the ruler’s forces in Iraq).[39] Not only that, Khomeini, like every Shia cleric, used Karbala terminology and successfully turned the huge Ashurah (10th of the Islamic month of Muharram when Imam Hussain was martyred, marked by Shias as a day of mourning) procession into an anti-Shah protest in 1979. Thereby he successfully translated religious devotion into practical change.

Fourth, he had a centralised, already motivated clerical force supportive of him, owing to his velayat-e-faqih concept.This is because the clerics knew that they would assume power as the faqihs in the event of the success of the Islamic Revolution.

Fifth, both Khomeini and the rest of the clergy benefitted from supposedly being vicegerents to the ‘Hidden Twelfth Imam’ (a belief in Shiaism about the last one of the twelve imams) as opposed to Sunni clerics. This raised their stature to holy personalities, obeying whose revolutionary orders was obligatory upon ordinary Shias[40]. Therefore, they were empowered to shape the Constitution and establish the institution of the “Revolutionary Guards” to safeguard the Islamic Revolution. The two Sunni radical thinkers under consideration could never avail of any above opportunity particularly bestowed by the Shia faith.


As argued in the Dictionary definition of ‘revolution’ in the beginning, all three ideologues proposed ideologically, politically and socioeconomically revolutionary ideas with agreements and disagreements. All three believed an Islamic Revolution was necessary for the moral and political correction of their respective societies. However, they differed in their approaches to violence and the establishment of an Islamic government. In the end, only Khomeini’s notion of Revolution saw concrete success in achieving its goals, which can be attributed to his appeal to the masses, his emphasis on spirituality and ethics, and his peculiar religious background.

Indeed, the Shia-Sunni division provides a useful framework for understanding the notions of the Islamic Revolution by Khomeini, Maududi and Qutb. Khomeini’s Shia background and his inclusive Persian ethos that did not condemn certain segments of the population are two unmistakable aspects that helped turn his concept of the Revolution into a socio-cultural success—factors that Maududi and Qutb never had.

Nevertheless, the notion of the Islamic Revolution in itself remains relevant for the Muslim world and beyond, with various groups in Muslim countries striving towards this end, seeking inspiration from Maududi, Qutb or Khomeini.

[1] Merriam Webster Dictionary, 2015 http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/revolution

[2] Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, Islam and Revolution, (London: Kegan Paul, 2002), 14.

[3] Syed Abul A’la Maududi, The Process of Islamic Revolution, (Lahore, 1970), p. 21-28; Kapil Kaul, Role of Religion in Politics: Impact on the Civil and Military Society of Pakistan, Strategic Analysis, Vol. 26, No. 3, (2002), 356-369.

[4] Ana Belén Soage, Islamism and Modernity: The Political Thought of Sayyid Qutb, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, Vol. 10, No. 2 (2009), 189-203, p.196.

[5] Farhang Rajaee, Iranian Ideology and Worldview: The Cultural Export of Revolution in John L. Esposito (ed.), The Iranian Revolution: Its Global Impact (Miami: Florida International University Press, 1990), 67.

[6] Jacob Goldberg, “The Shii Minority in Saudi Arabia,” in Shiism and Social Protest, (ed.) Juan R. I. Cole and Nikki R. Keddie (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 243.

[7] Choueiri, Youssef M., Islamic Fundamentalism, (London: Pinter, 1997), 144.

[8] Syed Abul Ala Maududi, The Islamic Law and Constitution, (trans. and ed.) Khurshid

Ahmad, (Lahore: Islamic Publications, 1960), 136-141.

[9] Choueiri, Fundamentalism, 145.

[10] Mumtaz Ali Asi, Maulana Maududi aur Jamaat-e-Islami: Ek Jaeza (Maulana Maududi and the Jamaat-e-Islami: A Survey), in Urdu (Lahore, 1964), 103-4, in Zohair Husain, Maulana Sayyid Abul A’La Maududi: An appraisal of his thought and political influence, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1, (1986), 61-81, p.69.

[11] Syed Abul A’la Maududi, Fundamentals of Islam (Lahore, 1976), 246, in Husain, Maududi: An appraisal, 64.

[12] Sayyid Qutb, Fi zilal al-Qur’an (Beirut and Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 1982), 1760–1; p.1433, in Soage, Islamism, 194.

[13] Sayyid Qutb, Milestones, (United States of America: American Trust Publications, 1990), 40.

[14] Ibid, 42.

[15] Esposito, The Iranian Revolution, 32

[16] Esposito: “Neither of these principles is explicitly mentioned in the [Iranian] Constitution, but their meanings are incorporated in various provisions.”

[17] Syed Abul Ala Maududi, Four Basic Quranic Terms, trans. Abu Asad, (Lahore:

Islamic Publications, 2000); Syed Abul Ala Maududi, Quran ki Char Bunyadi Istilahain

(Lahore: Islamic Publications, 2000).

[18] Maududi: An appraisal, 63

[19] Abul A’la Maududi, Tafhim al-Quran, Vol. II, 638, in Husain, Maududi: An appraisal, 63

[20] Abul A’la Maududi, Tehrik-e-Azadi-e-Hind aur Musalman (Muslims and the Indian Independence Movement), in Urdu, (Lahore, 1974; first published in 1946), 118-20, p. 339, n Husain, Maududi: An appraisal, 63

[21] Emmanuel Sivan, Sunni Radicalism in the Middle East and the Iranian Revolution, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Feb., 1989), 1-30, p. 2

[22] Wa’il ‘Uthman, Hizb Alldh fi Muwdjahat Hizb al-Shaytan, (Cairo, Malqa’at Nahdat Misr, 1975), 79-80, in Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, The Qur’anic Justification for an Islamic Revolution: The View of Sayyid Quṭb, Middle East Journal, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Winter, 1983), 14-29

[23] Qutb, Milestones,  105

[24] Khomeini, Islam and Revolution, 39

[25] Rajaee, Iranian Ideology, 47

[26] Ibid, 73

[27] Nasim Ahmad Jawed, Islam’s Political Culture: Religion and Politics in Pre-divided

Pakistan (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999), 164.

[28] Husain, Maududi: An Appraisal, 64

[29] Qutb, Milestones, 108

[30] Husain, Maududi: An Appraisal, 193.

[31] Rajaee, Iranian Ideology, P. 68

[32] Ibid, 67.

[33] Farhang Rajaee, Islamic Values and Worldview: Khomeini on Man, the State and International Politics (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1983), 83.

[34] Sermon delivered on February 7, 1980. See Dar Justejuye, 442. In Rajaee, Iranian Ideology, 72.

[35] Kaul, Role of Religion, 356

[36] Maududi, Fundamentals, 246

[37] Qutb, Milestones, 41-51

[38] Khomeini, Islam and Revolution, 244

[39] Khomeini, Islam and Revolution, 327

[40] Sivan, Sunni Radicalism, 21

Naveen Khan
Naveen Khan
Naveen Khan is a nonresident research fellow with the Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies at the University of Akron, USA. She holds an MSc in Sociology with a Distinction in the History of Political Islam from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). She specialises in Afghanistan-Pakistan security affairs and can be reached at naveen.khan118[at]gmail.com.