The Iranian Revolution and Sunni Political Islam

Toby Matthiesen, University of Oxford

*This piece was drafted as part of the New Analysis of Shia Politics workshop. See POMEPS Studies 28 for the full collection.

This memo tries to reassess the impact of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 on Sunni Islamic movements outside of Iran.[1] The Iranian Revolution had, in some form or another, an impact on all movements across the globe that were using Islamic frames of reference for political activism.[2] Best-known is the case of transnational Shii networks that, after 1979, often became tied to some faction or another in Iran. One example of such a network is the Shirazi movement, initially at the forefront of the export of the Islamic revolution to Arab Shii communities around the region.[3] Others included the Hizbullah or Khatt al-Imam networks that were soon established in numerous countries.[4] But focusing on the relationship between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Shii communities and movements across the world, which has long been the dominant frame of reference for analysis of transnational Shii politics, obscures not just the complicated dynamics within Shii politics but also the impact of the revolution on Sunnis across the world. In fact, most key proponents of Sunni political Islam initially embraced the revolution, something that is surprisingly little studied in the literature.[5]

From Enthusiasm to gradual Disenchantment: The waning appeal of the Iranian Revolution amongst Sunni Islamists

Many Muslim Brothers saw the revolution in a positive light, oscillating between outright enthusiasm and tentative support. Abuʾl-Aʾla Mawdudi, the founder of the Jamaat-i Islami in Pakistan, was initially thrilled by the Iranian revolution.[6] In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, Hizb ut-Tahrir was so hopeful that cooperation with Iran could lead to its ultimate goal, the establishment of a Caliphate, that its leaders seemed willing to accept Khomeini as de-facto head of state, in other words, as Shi’i caliph.[7]

So, given this affinity in the pre- and immediate post-1979 period between Sunni Islamists and the revolution in Iran, how can we explain their later estrangement? How can we explain that Yusuf al-Qaradawi, widely seen as the spiritual leader of the global Muslim Brotherhood, by 2013 viciously denounced Iran and Hizbullah, which literally means the “Party of God,” calling it Hizb al-Shaytan, the “Party of the Devil”, instead?[8] This paper is not trying to provide final answers, but rather spur discussions and encourage a rethinking of these questions, which are so crucially important to the politicization of Sunni-Shii relations.

For a start, the Muslim Brotherhood is not a monolithic group. National branches differ in their historical genealogies, their political experiences, and their ideology. Some national movements, such as the Syrian one, emerged as vicious critics of the Islamic Republic, its regional allies, and even Shiism in general, while others were inspired by, maintained relations with, and in the case of Hamas, even came to rely on Iran. Other Sunni Islamic movements, such as the Lebanese Tawheed Movement and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, remained staunch Iranian allies.[9] In time though, many key ideologues of Sunni political Islam started to criticize aspects of the government, the constitution, and religious and foreign policies of Iran, in particular the position of the Supreme Leader and the importance ascribed to Shiism. However, it is only in connection with the inter-state rivalries between Iran and its neighbors, as well as with global powers opposed to Iran, that these major networks of Sunni political Islam turned away from Iran and that the doctrinal differences between Sunnis and Shiis became a source of serious division and a way to limit the appeal of the Iranian revolution. Syrian Muslim Brothers and clerics and polemicists in the Gulf states in particular tried to sway Sunni Islamists away from Iran by spreading anti-Iranian and anti-Shia discourse and reviving semi-dormant doctrinal debates.[10]

For, while Iran never abandoned its official rhetoric of trying to appeal to the whole Umma,[11] it locked itself, as Olivier Roy has put it, into the “Shi’ite ghetto.”[12] Crucially, and this is a factor that is at times understated, it was also locked in it by its adversaries, who were frightened by the pan-Islamic aspirations and appeal of the revolution.

Containing Iran: The United States’ and its Sunni Allies’ Reactions to the Iranian Revolution

Sunni-dominated countries, namely Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Egypt, in conjunction with the United States,[13] soon reacted to the revolution by trying to “contain” Iran. Throughout the 1980s, the Middle East and Central Asia saw a combined anti-Iranian and anti-communist war, at times covert and at times overt. In this grand scheme, the Iran-Iraq War was the major anti-Iranian war, while the Afghan jihad was supposed to bleed the Soviet Union, while also containing the Iranian revolution on its Eastern flank. Crucially, however, both efforts relied on similar tactics and often on the same local partners, most of whom were Sunni Muslims. The key local allies leading the fight against Iran were either Arab chauvinists like Saddam Hussain, who stylized the war as one in which racial superiority and purity were at stake, or anti-Shia Sunni Islamist movements, whose intellectual home was Saudi Arabia but who found fertile ground for their ideas not just in the Arab world but also in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This turned the effort to contain Iran post-1979 into one that played on sectarian divisions. Anti-Shiism, which was often coupled with anti-Iranian racism, thus became a form of containment of Iran, with long-lasting consequences. The Gulf region was particularly important in this regard.

Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been part of the same regional security complex.[14] They thus spend most of their time worrying about the actions of other states in that region, whom they see as most important for their security.[15] In the Middle East and the Gulf region in particular, the challenge of ideational threats and transnational political movements is seen as equally, if not more, important than classical military power by a neighboring rival. As such, the threat of the Iranian Revolution was as much imagined as it was real.[16] The prospect of pan-Islamic revolution, combined with unrest at home, spurred Sunni rulers to respond forcefully. It is in this context of inter-state rivalries that the major Sunni movements slowly changed course and turned away from the Islamic Republic. The causes are numerous and remain relatively little understood. But the fact that many leaders of the Sunni movements lived in the Gulf states, where they gained importance in the religious, educational, media and financial sectors, as well as the importance of Gulf donors for Islamic finance and Islamic charities that formed the financial backbone of many of these movements, meant that many eventually pivoted away from Iran.


The story of revolutionary Iran’s relations with its neighbors, as well as with Sunni Islamic movements, is crucial for an understanding of the rise of sectarian politics in the region. The rivalry between Iran and countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq (pre-2003), and the shift of many Sunni Islamic movements from an ecumenical vision of pan-Islamic revolution to one of anti-Shii polemics, has allowed the language of sectarianism and Sunni-Shii polarization to become a key feature of Middle Eastern politics post-1979. That many Sunni Islamic movements went from being supporters of the Iranian revolution to becoming critics of it, was a key, if as yet understudied, factor in this broader development. In other words, it was Iran’s export of the revolution and the almost simultaneous deployment of anti-Shiism as containment that sowed the seeds for the sectarianization of politics in the Middle East and Central Asia.

[1] The questions of Sunni Muslims in Iran will not be addressed in this memo, although it has often been used as an argument by Sunni Islamic Movements abroad as to why they changed their position on Iran. See, for example, Muhammad Surur Zayn al-‘Abidin, ahwal ahl al-sunna fi Iran (2006, first published in 1990),

[2] As an at least partly Third Worldist revolution with initially strong involvement of Leftist forces, it of course also had an impact on many other secular political movements.

[3] But they soon were at odds with Iran’s foreign policy establishment that tried to have more normal relations with its neighbors. The spiritual leader of the movement, Muhammad Mahdi al-Shirazi, also personally fell out with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini. For their history see Laurence Louër, Transnational Shiite Politics: Religious and Political Networks in the Gulf (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).

[4] See, for example, Toby Matthiesen, “Hizbullah al-Hijaz: A History of the Most Radical Saudi Shiʿa Opposition Group,” The Middle East Journal 64, no. 2 (Spring 2010), 179–97.

[5] While in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, a number of think tank reports and conferences explored the impact of the Iranian revolution on the Islamic world, and much ink has been spilled on polemical writings, little serious research has been devoted to this issue. The literature largely consists of shorter pieces written during the 1980s, or sporadic references to Sunni Islamic movements’ relationships with Iran or views on Shiism in larger works on particular movements or country chapters. Two conference proceedings explore the issue: David Menashri (ed.), The Iranian Revolution and the Muslim World, (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1990); John L. Esposito, The Iranian Revolution: Its Global Impact (Miami: Florida International University Press, 1990). See also Mohammad Ataie, “Revolutionary Iran’s 1979 Endeavor in Lebanon” Middle East Policy 20 (2/2013), 137–157; Olivier Roy, “The Impact of the Iranian Revolution on the Middle East”, in Sabrina Mervin (ed.), The Shi’a Worlds and Iran (London: Saqi, 2010), 29-44.

[6] He would die in September 1979 and so we have no way of knowing how he would have seen later developments. Khomeini, on the other hand, criticized the Jamaat-i Islami for its gradualist, peaceful approach to Islamic revolution. Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, Mawdudi and the Making of Islamic Revivalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 165; Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future (London: W. W. Norton, 2007), 138.

[7] Hizb ut-Tahrir changed its position when the Iranians started drafting a new constitution throughout 1979 but not from a particularly sectarian point of view, rather because it applied to one country, thereby accepting the notion of the nation state (something that Hizb ut-Tahrir opposes, as it stands in confrontation with the idea of the Caliphate). Hizb ut-Tahrir did, however, criticize Article 12 of the Iranian constitution, which stipulates the centrality of the Twelver Ja’fari school of jurisprudence, calling it a nationalist deviation, too. Fritz Steppat, “Islamisch-Fundamentalistische Kritik an der Staatskonzeption der Islamischen Revolution in Iran” in: Hans Roemer and Albrecht Noth (eds.), Studien zur Geschichte und Kultur des Vorderen Orients: Festschrift für Bertold Spuler zum Siebzigsten Geburtstag (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1981), 443–52, 446 and 452.

[8] It is noteworthy, however, that al-Qaradawi had praised Hizbullah in 2006 during its war with Israel. “Leading Sunni Muslim cleric calls for “jihad” in Syria”, Reuters, 1 June, 2013, Many other such anti-Iranian statements can be found. In 2012, an Open letter to the rulers of Iran, from Hizb ut-Tahrir / Wilayah Pakistan’ criticizing Iran for helping the Syrian regime, included the following statement: ‘We know it is too late for you to repent and turn back from your black deeds. Heed well, the Khilafah “Caliphate” that is about to arise soon inshaaAllah will seize you and punish you along with the other traitor rulers in the Muslim World!’

[9] For recent accounts see Wissam Alhaj, Nicolas Dot-Pouillard, Eugénie Rébillard, De la théologie à la libération? histoire du Jihad islamique palestinien (Paris: La Découverte, 2014) and Raphaël Lefèvre, The ‘Islamic Emirate’ of North Lebanon: the rise and fall of the Tawheed movement in Tripoli, 1982-1985 (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Cambridge, 2016).

[10] One of the earliest and most enduring polemics is the one published in 1981 under a pen name by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood figure Muhammad Surur Zayn al-Abidin, who at that time lived in the Gulf states: “The Time of the Magian has come (wa ja‘a dawr al-majus.)” He confirmed in a new edition (2008) that he had been the author of the book. For more see Werner Ende, “Sunni Polemical Writings on the Shiʿa and the Iranian Revolution,” in The Iranian Revolution and the Muslim World, ed. David Menashri (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1990), 219–32.

[11] See, for example, Wilfried Buchta, Die iranische Schia und die islamische Einheit 1979-1996 (Hamburg: Deutsches Orient-Institut 1997).

[12] Olivier Roy, The Failure of Political Islam (London: I.B. Tauris, 1994/reprint 2007), 184.

[13] In the first year of the revolution, the U.S, tried to maintain relations with the Iranian regime, preferring the Shii clerics rather than the communists of the Tudeh party, and trying to maintain some influence in the country. But after the takeover of the U.S. embassy, U.S.-Iran relations soured dramatically, and Shiism, previously seen as a rather quietist form of Islam, started to be portrayed in U.S. government circles as inherently revolutionary. See Mattin Biglari, ‘“Captive to the Demonology of the Iranian Mobs”: U.S. Foreign Policy and Perceptions of Shi’a Islam During the Iranian Revolution, 1978-79’, Diplomatic History 40, 4 (2016), 579-605.

[14] This point has convincingly been made by F. Gregory III. Gause, The International Relations of the Persian Gulf (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[15] Barry Buzan and Ole Wæver, Regions and Powers: The Structure of International Security (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[16] F. Gregory Gause III., “Revolution and threat perception: Iran and the Middle East” International Politics, Vol. 52, No. 5 (September 2015), 637-645.