Maxime Rodinson Was a Revolutionary Historian of the Muslim World

French historian Maxime Rodinson transformed our understanding of the Muslim world with books like Muhammad and Islam and Capitalism. Rodinson’s pathbreaking work, based on the creative use of Marxist ideas, is still an invaluable guide to the politics of the Middle East today.

Rodinson's intellectual legacy is of particular importance to the Left today. (Rob Mieremet / Anefo)

Maxime Rodinson was one of the foremost international specialists on the Middle East, the Arab world, and Islam, with a worldwide reputation among scholars in this field. Born in Paris in 1915, he died in Marseille at the age of eighty-nine in 2004.

The French historian left behind a bibliography of more than a thousand works, including some twenty books, six of which have been translated into English, and several collections of essays. His chosen subjects ranged from seventh-century Arabia all the way to the states and movements of the modern Middle East.

That intellectual legacy is of particular importance to the Left today because Rodinson sought to explain the key political and social developments in Arab societies with the help of Marxist concepts, applied in a creative and undogmatic spirit.

Rodinson was no detached academic. His most influential contribution may have been his politically engaged account of Israel’s origins and trajectory in books like Israel: A Colonial-Settler State? and Israel and the Arabs. Many people who have never heard of Rodinson nonetheless owe a debt to his critical evaluation of Zionism, which he combined with a clear-sighted view of the failings of Arab nationalism.

That was just one part of Rodinson’s work, however. His books and essays are invaluable tools for anyone who wants to understand the societies of the Middle East, past and present. This article will give readers an introduction to the main political and intellectual signposts in Rodinson’s long and remarkable career.

A Life Against the Tide

Rodinson’s parents, humble socialist tailors of Jewish origin, fled the pogroms of Russia at the end of the nineteenth century to settle in France, where they joined the Communist Party in 1920. At the age of thirteen, armed only with a primary school leaving certificate, Rodinson became an errand boy and taught himself Esperanto, English, Greek, and Latin.

He devoured the books he borrowed and sought the advice of teachers whenever he could. When he was seventeen, he passed the entrance exam for the École nationale des langues orientales vivantes in Paris. Four years later, he graduated in Ge‘ez, Amharic, Classical Arabic, Oriental Arabic, North African Arabic, and Turkish.

In 1937, Rodinson received a scholarship from the National Research Council. The same year, he joined the French Communist Party (PCF). As he later recalled, the PCF had a strongly “workerist” culture, and he felt himself to be much closer to the party’s working-class members than other intellectuals from bourgeois families: “At least so I believed. But the ‘full-timers’ nevertheless considered me an intellectual, a carrier of all the vices inherent in the category.”

Rodinson left France soon after the Second World War had begun to work in Syria and Lebanon. It was his mastery of Arabic that enabled him to escape deportation to the camps under the Nazi occupation. Many of his relatives were not so fortunate, including his parents, who died while being transported to Auschwitz in 1943.

During his years in the Middle East, Rodinson taught at a secondary school and collaborated with the Archaeological Mission of Free France. It was there that he began his study of Islam from a materialist perspective. Returning to Paris in 1948, he became head of the Oriental Publications Department of the National Library, and then director of studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études.

Over the course of his teaching career, Rodinson advanced to become a professor of classical Ethiopian and Sudarabic, and finally a lecturer in Historical Ethnography of the Near East. He inspired many students: in 1971, he was simultaneously supervising more than seventy doctoral theses.

Rodinson remained a PCF member until his expulsion from the party in 1958 for showing an increasingly independent line of thought, especially after the “secret speech” of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 that denounced some of the abuses of Stalin’s reign. In 1981, he wrote a long and uncompromising self-critique of his Stalinist period, explaining that he now viewed Stalin as a “sadistic tyrant” responsible for terrible crimes, while insisting on the sincerity of many Communist militants of the time, who had believed that they were fighting for a better world.

The historian said that he would not accept “pharisaic condemnation” from figures who supported the injustices of the status quo. However, Rodinson declared his respect for those left-wingers whose understanding of Stalinism had been more lucid than his at the time: “I accept only the lessons of those who have proven themselves more clear-sighted by better directing their indignation and rebellion.”

Creative Marxism

Rodinson was above all a field researcher devoted to the “concrete exercises of investigation” (collection and analysis of sources and critical reading). He guarded his independence of mind. When I had the opportunity to speak at length with him in the late 1970s, he confided that he no longer considered himself a Marxist, perhaps echoing the late Marx’s famous comment that he was not a “Marxist” by the standards of some self-professed disciples in his own time.

Rodinson was in any case one of the first postwar “Marxists” to advocate an approach to history based on the analysis of concrete social formations. From his perspective, while the prevailing mode of production certainly determined social reality, other subordinate ones could also influence it. Furthermore, the political and ideological “superstructures” of particular societies were not rigidly determined by their economic “bases,” as the cruder forms of Marxist theory would have it. These ideas helped bring Marxism out of the sterile impasse in which Stalinist dogma had trapped it.

Being “modestly” able, as he put it, to read about thirty languages, Rodinson hated national borders as much as disciplinary ones. He was at the same time a linguist, a historian, an anthropologist, and a sociologist. As a specialist in Semitic languages, he was also interested in the Turkish world, Central Asia and Ethiopia, Islam and Judaism, Zionism, Israel and the Palestinian question, social classes, economics, ethnic groups and racism, medicine, cuisine, bewitchment, magic, myths, and the rituals of the moon.

His two most important works, Muhammad (1961) and Islam and Capitalism (1966), marked a turning point in the historiography of the Muslim world, advancing a materialist analysis of its evolution and refusing to give religion a privileged status. Rodinson dismissed “the idealist conception of religion as a set of ideas floating above earthly realities and constantly animating the spirit and actions of all its followers” — a conception that was (and remains) especially prevalent in discussion of Muslim societies:

There is a considerable gap between Islam, as it has come to be, and the original inspiration. Were it not so, how could one explain the appeals to ihya [revival] and tajdid [renovation] which recur throughout the history of Islam? This dynamic holds for all religions. Indeed it is more or less valid for all ideologies and ideological movements, including Marxism!

In 1972, he published Marxism and the Muslim World. This collection of articles, prefaces, conference papers, and essays written between 1958 and 1972, and updated by the author for publication, deals with the social formations and ideologies of Muslim-majority states. He also wrote The Arabs (1979), a monograph that attempts to paint the anthropological, sociological, historical, and political portrait of a people in its infinite diversity, along with Europe and the Mystique of Islam (1980), which traces the evolution of Western perspectives on the Muslim world from the earliest encounters to the modern age.

Muhammad in Flesh and Blood

Rodinson’s 1961 biography of the prophet of Islam marked a departure in the thinking of its time in that it presented readers with a man of flesh and blood. The book described Muhammad physically as if he were standing in front of us: “He was of medium height, with a large head but a face that was neither round nor at all plump. His hair was slightly curly and his eyes were large, black, and well-opened beneath long lashes.”

The author went on to offer a psychological portrait of Muhammad:

He was not happy. Happiness, with its limitations, its calm or eager acceptance, is not made for those who are always looking beyond what they are and what they have, whose questing spirit is always reaching out for the next things to be desired. And a poor, deprived, orphan childhood such as Muhammad’s was bound to foster the growth of this endless capacity for desiring. Only success on an extraordinary, one might even say superhuman, scale, would satisfy it.

Rodinson tried to give a materialist explanation of the birth of Islam in a place and at a time where and when biblical ideas and merchant caravans intersected. In 610, when he turned forty, Muhammad began to recite the messages that he believed God had dictated to him, giving birth to the Quran. This new creed claimed to bring together true monotheists by revisiting and transcending Jewish and Christian traditions and providing a shared spiritual identity to all Arabs across their tribal barriers.

In 622, having previously forced the new prophet into exile in Medina, the Meccan aristocracy rallied around his leadership. Muhammad and his successors led a mighty army of Bedouins in the conquest of the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain. At the same time, however, Islam remained bound to its original egalitarian position, often standing in the way of absolute power for the caliphs, emirs, and sultans who came after.

In the book’s final chapter, Rodinson rejected the kind of “primitive determinism” sometimes associated with Marxism, according to which “if Muhammad had never been born, the situation would have called forth another Muhammad.” This was a clear allusion to the Russian Marxist philosopher George Plekhanov, whose influential essay “On the Role of the Individual in History” had made the same claim about Napoleon.

For Rodinson, the course of historical events could not be explained so neatly:

A different Muhammad, coming twenty years later, might perhaps have found the Byzantine Empire consolidated, ready to fight off the attacks of the desert tribes successfully. Arabia might have been converted to Christianity. The situation called for solutions to a number of crucial problems, as we have seen; but these solutions might easily have been different ones from those that actually occurred. A different throw of the dice and chance takes another turning.

New Controversies

Rodinson based his materialistic analysis of the Muslim tradition in particular on two seminal works on Muhammad’s life in Mecca and Medina published in the 1950s by the British historian William Montgomery Watt. At the time, Western historiography accepted this view in its broad outlines. Since the end of the 1970s, some prominent scholars, such as John Wansbrough, Michael Cook, and Patricia Crone, have subjected it to strong criticism.

These figures have depicted Islam’s “prehistory” as a messianic movement bringing together Jews and Christians that brought about the Arab conquest. Their work has dated the writing of the Quran to a period some two centuries later, and even questioned the role of Muhammad and Mecca in the birth of Islam.

However, recent research does not provide substantial support for such radical historical revisionism. On the contrary, it tends to confirm that the Quran originated in Central Arabia, and that most of its content dates from the seventh century, although there were probably textual revisions at a later stage.

The Great Mosque of Sanaa in Yemen.

In 1972, the restoration of Sanaa’s Great Mosque in Yemen uncovered a palimpsest probably dating from the late seventh century, which contained about half of the Quran. A retired German professor then revealed in the early 1990s the existence of an essential photographic archive of ancient Quran fragments that were believed to have disappeared in the bombings of World War II. This discovery gave new impetus to research on the origins of the Quran.

When reading Rodinson’s biography of Muhammad today, one must keep these ongoing controversies in mind. It remains broadly compatible with the most up-to-date work, particularly that of Fred M. Donner or Angelika Neuwirth.

Orientalism and Underdevelopment

Islam and Capitalism (1966) was without doubt the most passionately discussed of Rodinson’s books. His central thesis echoed the debates of the 1960s on the principal causes of underdevelopment, particularly in the Muslim world. For Rodinson, Islam had not prevented economic growth, whether by means of its institutions or its secular practices.

Those who argued otherwise pointed to one principal doctrinal factor that they believed to have inhibited the development of capitalism in Muslim countries, namely the prohibition of interest-bearing loans. According to Rodinson’s research, this rule had in practice been widely circumvented by legal means. Islam had always defended private property and individual enrichment as long as the wealthy were charitable and provided aid to orphans or the poor.

Following the path of inquiry opened up by Rodinson, historians like Jairus Banaji have sought to show that medieval Islam in fact bridged the historical gap between the flourishing trade of late antiquity and that of the Italian city-states, Portugal, and the Netherlands hundreds of years later. This bridging role involved commercial practices, legal innovations, and institutions.

From the nineteenth century on, Western Europe and the United States dominated the world economy. For Rodinson, the hegemonic status of these powers explained why commercial capital in Muslim societies, which existed in substantial quantities, could not produce a self-sustaining form of industrial capitalism.

Egypt’s spectacular attempt at industrialization in the first half of the nineteenth century lends support to his argument. In the 1830s, it had one of the world’s most developed modern industries, especially in sectors like cotton spinning and weaving. However, a powerful diplomatic and military intervention by Britain and other Western powers cut this experiment short in the 1840s.

Islam and Capitalism shows the importance of Quranic reasoning at a time when the founders of Islam were engaged in a dialogue with seventh-century Arabian society. This way of thinking developed in response to the rise of commerce and finance. The Quranic instigation to think, confront ideas, and engage in an intellectual effort to find the truth stems from the need to promote a more universal understanding of the world.

Does the Quran really advocate fatalism, a passivity contrary to the entrepreneurial spirit, as many scholars have suggested? Let us suppose that the destiny of human beings depends on God, the creator of all things, the omniscient. If that is the case, then the idea of predestination in Islam (as in other religions) does not contradict the call to action, since human agency is itself a product of God’s will. Indeed, the word jihad refers not only to holy war but, above all, to the effort to improve oneself and society.

“Possessive Exclusivism”

Rodinson was one of those thinkers who believed that searching for truth through scientific methods is a universal prerogative of humanity, as is the criticism of ideologies that hinder its development. He appreciated Edward Said’s work Orientalism (1978), which became a hugely influential text in the humanities:

Its great merit, to my mind, was to shake the self-satisfaction of many Orientalists, to appeal to them (with questionable success) to consider the sources and the connections of their ideas, to cease to see them as a natural, unprejudiced conclusion of the facts.

However, Rodinson expressed some reservations about Said’s method. Fully aware of the colonial prejudices of many European researchers toward the East, he was nonetheless wary of an approach that could lead to the a priori invalidation of Western science.

In La fascination de l’islam (1980), which was translated into English as Europe and the Mystique of Islam, he set out those concerns explicitly. In Rodinson’s view, while it was important to recognize and challenge the distorting effect of colonialism on both the choice of data and its interpretation by scholars, this should not mean adopting the concept of the “two sciences.”

He was referring to an idea promoted by Stalin’s lieutenant Andrei Zhdanov in the late 1940s. Zhdanovism subjected Soviet society to a veritable inquisition by dividing the fields of science and culture into two categories, “proletarian” and “bourgeois,” rejecting the idea of objective scholarly inquiry and giving party commissars the right to adjudicate the correct line, even in fields like biology and physics.

In a 1985 article, “Orientalism Reconsidered,” Said insisted that Rodinson’s criticisms of his approach were unfounded. Nevertheless, he took up a warning formulated by Myra Jehlen from a feminist perspective, touching on the question of “whether, in identifying and working through anti-dominant critiques, subaltern groups — women, blacks and so on — can resolve the dilemma of autonomous fields of experience and knowledge that are created as a consequence.”

According to Said, those working in such fields would have to guard against a dual temptation:

A double kind of possessive exclusivism could set in: the sense of being an excluding insider by virtue of experience (only women can write for and about women, and only literature that treats women or Orientals well is good literature), and second, being an excluding insider by virtue of method (only Marxists, anti-Orientalists, feminists can write about economics, Orientalism, women’s literature).

For all the polemical barbs exchanged between them, Rodinson would have agreed with that.

Islam and politics

In Islam and Capitalism, Rodinson had already sounded a cautionary note about the form political Islam was likely to assume, swimming against the current of what he considered to be a naively optimistic Third Worldism:

The reactionary interpreters of the scriptures enjoy the benefit of the whole heritage of the past, the weight of centuries of interpretation in the traditional sense, the prestige of these interpretations, the established habit of relating them to the generally accepted religion for reasons that are not at all religious. These factors could be eliminated only after a radical aggiornamento of the Muslim religion.

(Aggiornamento, an Italian term for “modernization” or “bringing up to date,” had been used in 1959 by Pope John XXIII to describe his plan for renovation of the Catholic Church.)

As Rodinson explained more than once in his writings, “Islamism” was not a one-dimensional phenomenon. Political Islam could take on conflicting orientations, depending on which social actors claimed to be its advocates and which political and intellectual leaders came forward to articulate its program. There was not a single, internally consistent religious doctrine that could be applied to the realm of politics.

The tradition built around the actions and sayings of the prophet, his companions, and the first caliphs, compiled some 150 to 200 years afterwards, informed sharia. While this body of thought tended to uphold privileged private interests and advocate total submission to authority, the demands of a creed born in a relatively egalitarian context often cut in the opposite direction, offering the basis for social critique. On the other hand, the caliphs, emirs, and sultans whose autocratic power had reigned over the Islamic world from the mid-seventh century onward wanted to be sole judges of the proper course for Muslims to follow.

Religions are not set in stone once and for all by the text of their founding scriptures. They evolve with the societies that adopt them, whose ruling classes have a decisive influence on their institutional and doctrinal forms. This co-optation of clerics — the ulema — by the powerful is not something unique to Islam, even if it took on a particular shape in the Muslim world. “Heresies” that proclaim a return to “the true faith” have also fueled many social resistance movements within Islam, just as they have done in other faiths.

Theologies of Liberation and Oppression

Is Islam condemned to be a tool of reactionary policies? Not necessarily, Rodinson insisted. Under the impact of the Russian Revolution and the liberation struggles that followed the Second World War, certain sectors in the Muslim world had developed a kind of liberation theology with socialist overtones.

The Tatar Communist Sultan-Galiev. (USSR)

Rodinson paid particular attention to these developments, looking at the career of the Tatar political activist Mir Sayit Sultan-Galiev. Sultan-Galiev was a spokesman within the Bolshevik Party for the national and religious demands of Russia’s Muslims:

He saw Muslim society, with the exception of a few big feudal landowners and bourgeois, as a unit which had been collectively oppressed by the Russians under Czarism. There was thus no point in dividing it with artificially created differences and class struggles . . . in fact, the socialist revolution should adapt itself to fit a society so imbued with Muslim traditions. Sultan-Galiev, an atheist himself, therefore recommended that Islam be handled gently, through a gradual “defanaticization” and secularization.

Lenin supported Sultan-Galiev, but he later fell foul of the Soviet leadership. Under Stalin’s rule, he was imprisoned and eventually shot. Rodinson saw the Tatar revolutionary as the man who first recognized the importance of the national question in colonial countries, and “the international relevance for socialism of those national movements who do not immediately envisage complete class war and socialization.”

Rodinson believed it was possible to envisage an “Islam of liberation” along the same lines as Latin America’s Christian theology of liberation. This could happen so long as the bearer of such a trend was a popular movement whose leadership consciously broke with the ulema’s long tradition of collaboration with the ruling class and state power.

With this in mind, Rodinson criticized Amar Ouzegane, one of the founders of the Algerian Communist Party. In his view, Ouzegane had certainly been right to recognize the widespread religious feelings that the nationalist movement mobilized against French colonialism in his 1962 book Le Meilleur Combat (The Best Fight). However, Rodinson opposed Ouzegane’s support for the traditional Muslim authorities in Algeria. He warned that these clerics would inevitably defend the interests of the new Algerian ruling classes after independence, as well as reactionary social values.

An official photograph of Ahmed Ben Bella, the first president of Algeria.

In a 1986 interview with the Lebanese Marxist Gilbert Achcar, Rodinson recalled a trip he had made to Algeria in 1965, at a time when the country’s first president, Ahmed Ben Bella, was “making cautious attempts to foster women’s equality”:

An official women’s organization — not the fake organization they have today — was holding a congress in the capital. As the congress was closing, Ben Bella came to march at the head of a procession of women through the streets of Algiers. From the sidewalks on both sides, disgusted men were whistling and jeering.

Rodinson believed that Ben Bella’s tentative support for gender equality had been a significant factor behind the coup led by Houari Boumedienne that ousted him later that year. He saw this as an early example of a much wider phenomenon: “One reason why Islamic fundamentalism has had a seductive appeal almost everywhere is that men are being stripped of their traditional privileges by modernist ideologies.”

The Rise of Islamic Fundamentalism

The seeds that Rodinson detected in the aftermath of Algerian independence burst into full flower after the Iranian Revolution of 1978–79 with the consolidation of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Shia fundamentalist regime. As the Iranian revolutionary movement had been developing over the previous two years, some Western left-wing intellectuals greeted it with a mixture of exhilaration and fascination. They were all the more enthusiastic as they had seen the political hopes of the revolutionary 1960s turn sour elsewhere.

Rodinson immediately saw the dangers of such a naive and ill-informed reaction. In three articles published in December 1978 for Le Monde, he described Islamic fundamentalism as a kind of “archaizing fascism” based on “the will to establish an authoritarian and totalitarian state whose political police would ferociously maintain the moral and social order,” while also imposing “conformity to the norms of religious tradition as interpreted in the most conservative sense.”

Ruhollah Khomeini in the late 1970s.

Khomeini’s supporters were of two varieties, Rodinson believed: some attached prime importance to the “renewal of faith” by artificial and coercive means, while others saw it as a “psychological supplement” that would facilitate “retrograde social reform.” In February 1979, in the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, he offered an ironic comment on Michel Foucault’s enthusiasm for what was happening in Iran under Khomeini’s leadership:

Hope, long dead or dying, for a world revolution that would liquidate the exploitation and oppression of man by man, resurfaced, first timidly, then with greater assurance. Could it be that, most unexpectedly, this hope is now being embodied in this hitherto unpromising Muslim East and, more precisely, in this old man lost in a medieval world of thought?

In Iran, too, Marxists and liberals alike seemed taken aback by the mobilizing power of religious slogans — “covering the more material reasons for dissatisfaction and revolt,” according to Rodinson — in the name of which the masses had faced the shah’s army with their bare hands. Many progressive Iranian intellectuals had been trying for a long time to find points of convergence between Islam, particularly Shiism, and socialism.

Some did so in all sincerity, such as Ali Shariati, whose ideas were influential among the left-wing People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran. Others followed this approach for tactical reasons, hoping to win the hearts of the masses. After the so-called White Revolution of 1962–63, a program of liberalizing social and economic reforms launched by the shah’s pro-Western dictatorship, others still attempted to form religious alliances in opposition to his rule.

However, they had all overlooked the social position and ideology of Iran’s religious leadership, who were close to the mainly commercial bazaar bourgeoisie. By the 1970s, Ruhollah Khomeini had won the mullahs over to his conception of an “Islamic government” that would be subject to the unquestionable authority of a supreme guide.

For Rodinson, there was no question of trying to prevent Muslims from seeking their future in some version of Islam, “whose new face they would have to form with their own hands.” In the Iranian case, it was not the term “Islamic” in Khomeini’s formulation that should have caught the attention of observers, but rather the word “government,” which Khomeini had firmly invested with an autocratic content in his speeches and writings.

Rodinson saw Islamic fundamentalism as a product of the impasses of modernity in its various forms — colonial, neocolonial, national, or even “socialist” — whether in the Arab region, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, or sub-Saharan Africa. In 1986, he warned that it would remain a feature of the political scene in Muslim countries for a long time:

Islamic fundamentalism is a temporary, transitory movement, but it can last another thirty or fifty years — I don’t know how long. Where fundamentalism isn’t in power it will continue to be an ideal, so long as the basic frustration and discontent that lead people to take extreme positions persist. You need long experience with clericalism to finally get fed up with it — look how much time it took in Europe! Islamic fundamentalists will continue to dominate the period for a long time to come. If an Islamic fundamentalist regime failed very visibly and ushered in an obvious tyranny, an abjectly hierarchical society, and also experienced setbacks in nationalist terms, that could lead many people to turn to an alternative that denounces these failings. But that would require a credible alternative that enthuses and mobilizes people. It won’t be easy.

In this, of course, he was right.

“Doubt everything!”

Rodinson’s life and intellectual trajectory were marked by a constant search for truth within the framework of a belief in collective emancipation. Without hesitation, he would have taken up Marx’s celebrated injunction: doubt everything! He was distrustful of abstract theories that lacked a concrete foundation and always strove to base his own conceptions on tireless empirical research. Nor did he accept the idea that critical thinking about a particular subject could be the prerogative of one group of people because only they had experienced that form of exploitation or oppression.

Rodinson firmly rejected the idea of Marxism as a finished body of doctrine that already contained all the answers to important political questions, “rather like one of those electronic boards in Paris Metro stations, which indicate the correct route from one point to another.” In his understanding, there was “not just one Marxism, but several Marxisms, all with a common core, it is true, but also with many divergences, each version being as legitimate as any other.”

From his own Stalinist phase, he drew the lesson that high political ideals were “no guarantee against the traps of self-satisfaction and collective narcissism, nor against the ideological delirium and moral lapses to which even the most admirable of commitments can lead.” However, Rodinson’s skepticism about ideological dogmas did not lead him toward political quietism. As he wrote in the introduction to Marxism and the Muslim World:

When it is patently obvious that unacceptable calamities are the direct result of fundamental oppressive and exploitative structures, then the remedy must be radical; it must, as Marx put it, go to the root of things. And in that case there is but one valid stance for those unable to resign themselves to accepting humanity’s avoidable suffering: to be a rebel.