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A Comparative Study of Eclectic Cults after the Advent of Islam in Iran

The translated text of Dr. Abbasi’s speech made at the Symposium of the Link between Cults and Terrorism held in Isfahan.


One of the common procedures of assessing social, political, ideological, and cultural movements is to compare and contrast them in order to predict their course of events in different circumstances and also to reveal some facts about them, facts that are even kept hidden from the insiders of such organizations. Such a comparative study prevents to be entrapped by prejudice and unfairness and lets everybody to make a sound judgment.

It has to be pointed out that in such an assessment, it is necessary to first categorize fundamental and effective characteristics of the system and then study such movements in terms of their shared characteristics. In other words, the features that should be taken into considerations are those shared by all cults not the accidental and unique features which emerge in the face a certain condition.

Such points will be considered in the present study. Mujahedin-e-Khalgh Organization (MKO), a.k.a the National Council of Resistance (NCR), shares the same features with its other alias (1) and other similar political movements that developed in recent years in Iran. Although, before and after the victory of Islamic revolution in Iran, they were not too influential, but their futile activities heavily impacted Iran’s social and political atmosphere. Moreover, the following factors may justify the significance of the study of such groups: hidden and apparent support of enemies of Islamic Republic of Iran such as liberal-democrat parties (similar to those in the U.S), fascist and reactionary parties (similar to those in Iraq) of MKO, fluctuation in the world’s order on the eve of the third millennium, and growth of terrorism along with the extension of ideological and practical theories of humanism, human rights and democracy. As such, one of the most assuring procedures is to conduct a comparative study between the current and past political and social movements and MKO to reveal the hidden aspects of this group to evolve a sound judgment of it.

However, it has to be pointed out that because of a lack of due time and authentic resources concerning certain historical periods, the present study aims to consider those movements whose history has been documented in history books leaving aside the ancient and legendary groups whose resources are not authentic. These concerned groups belong to post-Islamic period and which can characteristically and ideologically be compared to MKO.

Moreover, it is worth noting that since MKO pretends to be an ideological and cultural movement aimed at making social reforms, it has been tried to compare it to those movements who based their activities on social support and ideological infrastructures. However, the results indicate that MKO is the less socially supported movement amongst others. Despite some movements have attracted the attention of a large number of people, MKO is the least supported organization.

It is necessary to demarcate between those cults such as Babakie or Isma’ili Nezari and that of divine religious sects such as Shiite and Sunni rather than considering any religious sect as a cult. Beside the factor of divine revelation which constitutes the basis of Islam and Shiite sects, there are other factors which distinguish between a cult and a religious sect: eclecticism, violence, monopolism, mental and ideological metamorphosis, secret instructions, superiority of materialism under the pretext of spiritual pretensions, etc. For example, Shiite believe that “those things considered lawful by the prophet of Islam are permanently lawful and things considered forbidden by him are forbidden forever” (2). This belief has remained untouched after more than 1400 years, but all cults undergo various changes under the claims of ideological revolution after a short period of time.

Intrinsic Characteristics of MKO

A review of MKO’s statements, pamphlets, and instructional as well as propaganda booklets since 1960 implies that Mujahedin-e-Khalgh Organization is an ideological group advocating revolutionary moves aimed at provoking the masses to escalate a revolutionary uprising by exploiting possible means of violence and armed warfare in demand of forming a classless society devoid of any social inequality. Moreover, the sympathizers had to observe two main elements, confidence and absolute obedience never thinking of any criticism. No recruitment was admitted unless the applicants were qualified for the membership, a procedure that well distinguishes it from other active parties.

MKO’s ideological infrastructure is an eclectic one synthesizing Islam with Marxism. However, many experts and experienced members of the organization state that the organization is much tainted with Marxism than Islam. Its inclination to Marxism is proven since the organization plays a key role to define concepts such as discrimination, class and economic equality, struggle, and the like that are the central issues in Marxism. In contrast, its adherence to Islam is partial and selective mainly extracting social and political rules while disregarding laws concerning individual status, legal laws, and religious rituals. In addition, the organization’s ambitious utilization of Islamic concepts such as martyrdom, leadership, jihad, enjoining good deeds and forbidding evil are best exploited by the leaders to justify the group’s deeds. As such, many religious customs and rituals of Islam were denied since they were known to be reactionary and thus, Marxism was decorated with an Islamic texture.

However, here the aim is to discuss the remarkable characteristics of MKO rather than its ideological inclinations. It is evident that there are eclectic elements in MKO’s ideology, but here we do not use the term “eclectic” as denoting a negative conception. We use it because it is the best term describing the combination of two or more ideologies in a single one. Some people consider eclecticism as a useful procedure in order to select positive points of different ideologies while some other consider it as an example of distortion in religious issues.

It seems that the first ideologues of the organization were of the first group and believed that they could form a dynamic religious and revolutionary ideology through combining positive points of Marxism and Islam in order to fight against the reign of Iranian monarchical regime. To achieve this end, the Islamic rules did not seem to be productive, as they concluded. On the other hand, because of the global political circumstance at the time that regarded the left ideologies as dynamic in confronting against global colonialism and capitalism, Marxism and communism, disregarding their inherent tenets of secularism and irreligiousness, worked as the best. The outcome was an eclectic ideology that combined Islam and Marxism to the point that the leaders distorted the Quranic concepts to harmonize their eclectic ideology. Later on, some other offshoots of the group like “Peykar” totally denied Islam and antagonized it while some others maintained what they did not judge to be reactionary. Moreover, being unaware of the history and philosophy of Marxism and because of a lack of comprehensive understanding of Marxism’s scientific role in the future, they submitted to a blind acceptance of some key materialistic concepts such as dialecticism, contradiction, and proletariat and never made an attempt to differentiate between them in Islamic and Marxist context.

In general, the organization’s four inherent characteristics can be enumerated as the adopted ideology, eclecticism, attaching to Islam and maintaining Marxism.

The fifth characteristic which was not a product of synthesizing Islam and Marxism but the result of a sever atmosphere of strangulation in Iran in 1960s was a dominant inclination toward revolutionary feats in their most violent form since, because of the overwhelming political situation, no peaceful struggle seemed to be contributive. The best violent struggle mold was known to be assassination and revolutionary execution that MKO proved to be expertise in the practice. The evidences are the group’s perpetrated atrocities before and after the Islamic revolution in Iran, like the violent moves against the survivors of Pahlavi’s regime, armed demonstration in 1980, bombings and assassinations, collaboration with Iraqi regime, and a broad military aggression across the Iranian borders named Forugh-e-Javidan, Operation Eternal Light.

Another unique feature of the organization which has been developed parallel to its ideology, the outcome of both the cause and effect of its ideology, is its inclination to be a cult. This innate tendency made the organization from the very beginning to be a closed and secret group, a tendency that evolved under the impact of a variety of unfolding, both intentionally and unintentionally, which was much the impact of its eclectic ideology, revolutionary objectives, and organizational conducts. (3).

A Comparative Study into a Number of Islamic Cults

Regarding the above-mentioned distinctive characteristics of MKO, it is necessary to further a study of some political and social movements that persisted in a thousand-or so-period and which were similar to MKO. A comparison between the activities and destiny of those movements and that of MKO helps to illuminate facts on the manner, nature and course of events of MKO and grants Iranian elite, officials, masses and even diplomatic and juridical officials of other countries an opportunity to make a sound judgment about this group.

It has to be pointed out again that we are not to value or disvalue such concepts like eclecticism, cult, etc. Rather we use them in order to get a better understanding of the nature of this system, permitting others to make due judgment in this regard.

One of the reign eras in the history of Iran and Islam which gave rise to various movements is that of Abbasids in the second century A.H. because of development of conflicting ideas in Muslim world and certain political and social conflicts.

The remarkable feature of these movements was that they were invested with eclecticism, thought and faith deviation as well as exploiting religion for material and worldly gains. These early Islamic movements turned into a new cult with a leader who occupied a high status parallel to that of an imam, prophet or even God. The followers mainly involved farmers, slaves and common masses. It is interesting to know that the cult leaders were mostly dismissed rulers who now turned to abuse national and religious beliefs to regain a higher status.

An interesting case to begin with may be rebellion of Al-Muqanna’ or masked prophet in the years147-148 A.H. At first, he was a launderer and then was appointed as the secretary of Abu Muslim of Khurasan. Once in a war he lost one eye and since then wore a mask on his face. However, his followers believed that since he claimed to be incarnated God and God could not possibly be seen, he did so to maintain his sacredness.

After the death of Abu Muslim, Muqanna claimed that Abu Muslim’s soul had become incarnated in him and soon claimed to be a prophet and later a divinity. He would hide his face under a golden mask and formed his eclectic cult.

The followers of Muqanna’ consisted of some infidel Asian Turks, Zoroastrians, and a number of other cults. They would wear white garments and started a 14-year long period of murder, plundering, destruction of mosques in the vicinity of Khurasan. Finally, Muqnna’ was surrendered in a fort by Harat ruler. When he became certain that he would be killed, first he poisoned all his wives (about 200 women) and then threw himself into the fire along with some of his followers and burned to death. The major typical of his cult was adherence an eclectic ideology in the frame of a cult and practice of violence. (4)

Coincident with Muqanna’, somewhere in his neighborhood, a man called Staps rebelled in Sistan in 150 A.H. He was a Zoroastrian who pretended to be Muslim. Despite gathering a large number of supporters, he was surrendered, imprisoned, and killed by Mansur Abbasi. Since then, a number of other eclectic rebellions were formed none of which were successful. Such eclectic groups, under the pretext of Islam, indulged in most violent practices; they destroyed the mosques and beheaded children in schools (5).

Babak Khorram-Dīn or Babak Xoramdin formed a Zoroastrian cult which was also tainted with pre-Islamic faiths. They were alleged to run a communal life of sharing wives and properties, somehow an ancient form of a Bolshevik and Marxist community that adhered to a violent strategy that resulted in many murders and plundering. Being a great threat for both Muslims and non-Mulisms, he was suppressed by Muslim Caliphs. After his death, Mazyar, an Iranian prince, became the Khorramis’ leader and continued the path of the former in a much violent manner in looting and killing in the northern Iranian cities of Amol and Saari in 224 A.H. He also maintained the same eclectic ideology and cult manner of Babak. Finally he was imprisoned and executed by Mo’tasem Abbasi (6).

Khawarij was another case of a violent cult in the early Islamic period. Their cult was formed after the Battle of Siffin. They were known to be most violent and extremist. They called their opponents infidels and considered their killings a duty to accomplish. Khawarij were an amalgamation of some other cults, like Abazie, Azaraghe and the like, which were all infamous for their violent feats. The group ended to be notoriously referred to by historians as the Puritans of Islam. It is worth noting that after some decades, regardless of holding onto extremely catchy mottos, they underwent a change to become a conservative sect and became spoiled to the point that actually rejected what they once held precious and strongly fought to promulgate (7).

It is worth noting that all above-mentioned movements were eclectics as well as cultist. In fact, cultist groups such as Khawarij, Babakie, Muqanna’i and the like were popular and famous cults (8).

Isma’ilim is another political and social movement in Muslim world; Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia in particular. Despite many similarities existing between this sect and Mujahedin-e-Khalgh Organization, little attention has been paid to further studies.

Of other important ideological, political and social movements in Islamic territories is Isma’ilism. A split of Isma’ilism is what is notoriously referred to as assassins of Alamut that many think it analogous to MKO. Batinis is also an offshoot of Isma’ilism that can be compared to MKO. Isma’ilism evolved many other splintered sects and was favored by other religions and non-Islamic ideologies because of its innovative and self-interpretation of Islam both in doctrine and practical laws. Such characteristics turned it into an eclectic cult recruiting members of other cults (9).

The first leaders of Isma’ilism, being afraid of the rulers of the time, lived in the hideout and thus, were mostly known as the “occult imams”. The occultation of leaders continued in the next generations to achieve a holy status among the masses. A good example may be Hasan Sabbah(10).

The Iranian Isma’ilis, known as Nizaris, gradually transformed into an extremist cult to the point that they rejected to obey the Fatimid Caliph in the Egypt and tried to recruit remainders from among Mazdakites, Zoroastrians and some others and turned into an eclectic cult. They resorted to violence and assassination and perpetrated big crimes and assassinated king Mlik of Saljuk, Khajeh Nezamolmulk, and a number of Abbasid Caliphs. The Isma’ilis also underwent some ideological revolution, the same as MKO. After a while, this sect that had suffered a complete internal metamorphosis, lost its supporters and was dismantled by Mongols (11).

Qaramite was another aggressive cult formed in 264 A.H. by Hussein Dehdari in Iraq. Qaramite initiated first in Isfahan, Ahvaz and near the Kufa in Iraq. His followers were mostly Qebtis and Arabs while its leaders were Iranian. They distorted Islam and even deviated from the fixed, practical Islamic rituals and made the Arab followers rebel against Sunnis and other Arab tribes; they spilled the blood of people and looted their wealth in Syria, North Iraq, Bahrain, and Yamame (12).

Abu Tahir al- Qaramati was one of the leaders who in 311 A.H. conquered Basra and shed much blood. He invaded Mecca in 317 A.H., and when his troops entered the city, they massacred the people and even the pilgrims who were around and within the Ka’bah. He tore away the door of the Ka’bah and took the Black Stone from its place to Yemen. It was in the hand of Qaramite for 22 years and was later returned by his successors (13).

Qaramatie’s practice of violence was to the extent that even Isma’ilis avoided having any link to it. Eclecticism of this cult was known to every body as a combination of Islamic and non-Islamic ideas. Being an aggressive and threatening cult, any allegation of being a link to it was enough to seize upon a suspect to take away his properties and be executed. (14).

Formation of eclectic cults has been accelerated in recent century. Babism, Baha’ism and Wahhabism, out of which originated al-Qaeda, sects that like Qaramate differ in both the principles and Branches of Islam developed in the modern age.

For example, Babism, initiated during the Qajar reign, was a combination of Isma’ilism and Sufism. Not only it turned into a cult but also took a different path from Islam and came to believe in a devised prophet and Book other than Mohammad (A.S.) and the Holy Qur’an. Baha’ism, formed by Hussein Ali Noori, was a sect branched from Babism.

Besides being eclectic cults, theses cults were strongly supported by England and Russia. Babism was more like an ideological revolution which abrogated Islamic rules that consequently attracted the attention of many permissive people.

As a result of economical and social problems at the time, most supporters of Babism were from among the lower classes that rose in rebellion in various parts of Iran and plotted bloody killings. For instance, they killed Mohammad Taqi Barghani known as “Shahid Thani” in Qazvin when he was saying prayer with broadsword. They also made attempt to assassinate Naser al-din Shah, the Qajar king, and Amir Kabir and killed an old woman in Yazd in Pahlavi’s reign accusing her of cursing Baha’ism (15).

Wahhabism was much violent. Not generally considered a cult, it was also abhorred by the Sunni Muslims, and once its leader Ibn-Taymyyia was excommunicated by great Sunni Faqihs. In the past three centuries, this cult has been heavily supported by Western and colonialist governments. Interestingly, propagating the mottos of Salafism, the cult insisted on reintroducing Shariah (Islamic law) and renaissance of the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (S). it shed people’s bloods on allegations of having faith in modernized Islam.

In contrast to what is said, Wahhabism is opposed to both Shiite and Sunni Muslims. It was only some years ago that they assaulted Egyptian pilgrims of Mecca in the vicinity of Mecca and killed a lot of Sunni pilgrims. The killing darkened the political relation between Wahhabists and Egypt for years. Their much recent bloodshed was killing of many Iranian pilgrims in 1986.

Nowadays, the dormant Wahhabism is split in two groups. The group seeking violence and crime is known to be al-Qaeda notoriously referred to as an aggressive and terrorist group. It was first supported by Arab Sheikhs, the U.S., and England. The second group underwent a metamorphosis after facing the resistance of Shiite and some other conservative Sunni groups as well as establishing ties with the modern, liberal and the capitalist world. They have resorted to cold war by means of propaganda and political activities and prefer to follow a strategy of wealth gathering. They form that greater part of Wahhabism.

Of other atrocities of Wahhabism is their invation to Karbala and Imam Hussein’s Holy Shrine seeing the weakness of the Othman empire. They massacred a great population there and offended the Holy Shrine by riding their horses into the shrine and looting its treasures (16).

Now, with respect to the above mentioned characteristics of some cultist movements during the past 1400 years in Islamic history, disregarding many existing cults in Christianity, Buddhism, and other faiths, shared characteristics of cults can be identified as follows:

1. Cults have a special outlook on the religion, faith and ideology in contrast to what the majority of people believe in. In their view, the other majorities are misled.

2. Eclecticism; it is the result of (a) a new developed outlook toward ideology, and (b) it is used as an instrument to recruit passive members of the society.

3. The lack of a theoretical balance as a result of eclecticism, i.e. cultist eclecticism consists of putting cultural and ideological issues side by side. It may lead to imbalance and violence.

4. Cults’ opposition to majorities results in the justification of applying violence against others.

5. Cults in their early days receive a great support but their later function cause abhorrence and they face many detachment.

6. They propagate under extremist and catchy slogans.

7. They gradually deviate from their early ideology and undergo a transformation that is in absolute contrast with their basic principles. It is a result of practice of extremism and eclecticism that leads to metamorphosis.

8. They revolutionize their ideological thought and principles calling it ideological innovation and new tactic.

It seems that such actions aim at solving problems, strengthening leadership and turning members into absolute cultists. For example, Isma’ilism abrogated some Islamic rules and declared drinking wine as lawful. According to Mas’ud Banisadr, an ex-member of the National Council of Resistance (NCR), Mujahedin-e-Khalq resorted to ideological revolution after any defeat.

9. The leaders are granted a status as high as the saints or incarnated God to increase the blind obedience of the insiders.


1. The U.S. State Department report on MKO.

2. A well-known saying found in many hadith collections and approved by all Shiite scholars.

3. The history of Mujahedin-e-Khalgh organization and National Council of Resistance.

4. Abbasid Reign in Iran, vol. 4, Cambridge University Press, pp.59-60.

5. The History of Iran after the Advent of Islam, p.456.

6. Abbasid Reign in Iran, pp.68-9.

7. The History of Iran after the Advent of Islam, pp.364-5.

8. Iranian People History, vol.2, p.153.

9. ibid.

10. ibid, pp. 153-4.

11. ibid, pp. 154-5.

12. ibid, pp. 155-6.

13. ibid.

14. ibid.

15. Shamim, Ali-Asghar; Iran under the Qajar Reign, pp.151-2.

16. Khanswari, Mohammad-Baqir; Rozat-al-Jannat, vol.4, pp.402-6. Also the great Islamic encyclopedia; Al-Saud

Nejat Society – June 2007

Translated by mojahedin.ws

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