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CLASS. [This entry comprises two articles. The first explores Islamic concepts of social class; the second considers the application of class analysis to the study of the political and economic structure of modern Islamic societies.]

Concepts of Class

The notion of class in Islamic civilization differs from the notion of class in modern Western social science. Originally, the word was used to refer to a category of people. In classical Arabic it did not have the connotation of a special income group, and it was used to refer to any group of people with a variety of criteria in mind. The word for social work, (darajah) tabaqah, appeared in the Qur’an: “And we have created you into several ranks over other ranks” (6.165). The idea of social inequality and stratification was rationalized in the Qur’an (43-32): “We have divided among them their livelihood in this world, and raised some in rank over others, so that the one may take the other into his service.” It is also said in the Qur’an (16.71): “God has given preference to some of you over others in regard to livelihood.” The Qur’an accepts the multiplicity of social groups in society, and charity (almsgiving) constitutes one of the five pillars of Islam. Islam rejects neglect of the poor and the orphans, and the ummah (Islamic community) as a whole is considered responsible for the improvement of their lot.

Classes existed inArabialong before the rise of Islam. The tribal aristocracy ofArabiawhich often coincided with the merchant class enjoyed much of the wealth of society, while the very poor and slaves were located at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The notion of tribal aristocracy was not rejected by Islam, although Muhammad preached a message reflecting a less-stark social stratification. This explains, the humble origins of his early followers who sought equality with the elite of the Quraysh, the tribe of the Prophet. Moreover, the nomadic class was always separate from the rest of the community, although Islam brought a citied life to many of the nomads ofArabia. [See Tribe.] Although Islam accepts the principle of inheritance (albeit on the basis of gender inequality, with the woman inheriting half the share of the man), the Qur’an considers religious devoutness and piety-and not birth within an aristocratic elite-as the only criterion for prestige and honor.

Class conflict is to be avoided from the standpoint of Islam, and the rich are strongly urged to share some of their wealth with the poor. Classlessness in society is incompatible with the provisions of the Qur’an, and the very notion of the ummah implies the unity of all Muslims-regardless of class and ethnic background-under the banner of Islamic solidarity. Some hadiths reject pride in one’s ancestry, although Muslims continued to place a social emphasis on tribal genealogies. The glorification of Muhammad’s own tribe in Islamic theology and jurisprudence attests to the power of pre-Islamic tribal traditions of prestigious birth. Moreover, Islam did not abolish the institution of slavery; it merely regulated its practice: it was banned in peacetime and legalized in wartime, although Islam encourages the emancipation of slaves.

In practice, the early Islamic rulers, like the rightly guided caliphs, did not try to abolish classes and inequality. Although Muslims sometimes take pride in the egalitarian distribution of spoils by the first rightly guided caliph, Abu Bakr al-Siddliq (r. 632-634), the second rightly guided caliph, `Umar ibn al-Khattab (r. 634-644), clearly favored the ansdr (companions) and the muhajirun (emigrants) in the distribution of spoils (giving each member of the two groups 5,000 dirhams). This practice allowed for the emergence of a privileged class from among the Muslims. The favoritism toward descendants from traditional Arab tribes led to the emergence of a new social group called the mawdli, or clients, who attached themselves to established Arab tribes to receive prestige and benefits or to achieve emancipation if they happened to be slaves. Nevertheless, under post `Umar governments the mawali were treated unequally and were subject to the kharaj (land tax), from which the Arabs were exempted. [See Kharaj.] Furthermore, many Arabs were uncomfortable with the Qur’anic principle of the equality of all believers regardless of racial or ethnic background and continued to regard African slaves as inferior.

Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians were tolerated under Islamic rule but only as inferior groups subject to special laws and regulations. A special poll tax was required from them in return for the right to security by the state. [See Dhimmi; Jizyah.] Islam-the practice and not the Qur’an itself-also contributed to the rise of new social groups in society, the most important of which were the sharifs or sayyids who, on claiming (with varying degrees of credibility) descent from the Prophet’s family, became entitled to special rights and privileges. [See Sharif; Sayyid.] The status of `ulama’ (religions scholars) was so elevated that they emerged as a separate class under the `Abbasid Empire (749-1258) and were often related through intermarriage to the landed and merchant class.

The evolution of classes in Islamic history was not impeded by Islam, because, like Christianity and Judaism, it did not reject on principle the institution of private property. There are some contemporary Muslims, particularly under Gamal Abdel Nasser inEgypt, who tried over the years to argue for the compatibility of Islam and socialism, although the incompatibility of the classless society with Islam can be supported by Qur’anic citations.


Batatu, Hanna. The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements ofIraq.Princeton, 1978. Important book on Iraqi social classes, with a brief discussion of the concept of class (pp. 1o-11). Lapidus, Ira. A History of Islamic Societies.Cambridge, 1988. General and highly useful history of Islamic societies in and outside of theMiddle East, with coverage of the formation of classes in various historical periods.

Levy, Reuben. The Social Structure of Islam. 2d ed.Cambridge, 1962. Classic work, and still a valuable source on the social structure of Islamic societies. The first chapter covers “grades of society in Islam.”

Siba i, Musiala al-. Ishtirdkiyat al-Islam (The Socialism of Islam).Damascus, 196o. Attempts to reconcile Islam with the popular ideas of Nasserist socialism of the 1960s; informative about Islamic socialist tendencies.

Class Analysis

The application of class analysis to Islamic societies has been a subject of considerable controversy, both in academic discussion of the region and in political debates within the Muslim world. With the growing influence of Marxist and, more broadly, sociological thinking within the social sciences, a range of academic work pertinent to Islamic countries, past and present, has been produced. Beyond social science, interpretations derived from class analysis have been diffused throughout the political rhetoric of the region: this applies most especially to the concept of imperialism, seen as a necessary and exploitative emanation of Western society, and to the project, much followed from the 1950s until the late 1980s at least, of a noncapitalist or socialist path of economic and social development.

Class analysis is an approach to the study of society and politics that posits the salience of class in the formation of societies and states, and in the political process, both domestic and international. It is part of the broader approach of political sociology. Class analysis of a Marxist variety sees classes as defined in terms of their relation to production and the ownership of productive forces. It has also taken a Weberian form, with classes defined not only in terms of ownership, but also in terms of skills and education, and with stratification also affected by status, knowledge, and political function. In the class-analysis literature on Islamic societies, it has been the Marxist strand that has predominated. Interpreted in a dogmatic form, by orthodox Marxists as well as by critics, to mean that class and class alone determines the political process, it is not an adequate mechanism for interpreting any society, developed or underdeveloped, Islamic or other: there is no society in which a pure class politics operates, except in brief periods. However, seen as a broad heuristic approach, one that investigates the role of class in social and political change, but seeks to relate it to other forces, including those of ideology, religion, tribe, and community, it has considerable analytic relevance to modern Islamic societies, as to others.

Several major themes can be identified as running through the literature based on class analysis. First, there is an emphasis on the role of class in social and political life and in the explanation of historical change. This has taken as its starting point the pertinence of concepts of class struggle, class formation, and the class character of the state, but has also applied this to broader features of Islamic societies, notably the role of religion: such applications range from the first involvement of urban mercantile and tribal forces in the seventh century to the varied range of contemporary Islamic societies and Islamist movements. Class analysis has also placed particular emphasis on conflicts arising from social considerations, be these urban conflicts, involving workers and trades unions, or rural ones, involving the peasantry. Work produced in this field has, equally, seen anticolonial and other nationalist movements as having a class character. Second, class analysis stresses the formative role in Islamic societies of international economic factors generated by capitalism, particularly those associated with Western economic penetration from the sixteenth century onward-first the incorporation of these societies into a world market, and then colonialism, and subsequent, postcolonial forms of domination. Working in the field of economic history, but more within a framework that locates the modern history of all countries within the expansion of Western industrial society, class analysis seeks to identify the ways in which this external, class-generated penetration of Islamic societies has intersected with local social and ideological systems and transformed their economies.

In addition, however, a class analysis approach would reject as a starting point the very concept of Islamic society or indeed of an Islamic world. In contradistinction to both conventional “Orientalist” approaches, which explain much social and political behavior in terms of Islam, and to Weberian analyses which seek to explain the distinctive path of Middle Eastern history in terms of the tenets of Islam, there is in class analysis a rejection of any necessary connection between religion, in this case, Islam, conceived as a determinant set of values, and social and political practice: although the salience of religious belief and institutions, as molded and interpreted by social forces in any particular situation, is recognized, the terms “Muslim society,” “Muslim politics,” and analogous formulations are rejected. What this therefore entails, in the denial of any shared Islamic specificity, is a methodological and theoretical universalism: this is not to say that Islamic beliefs are irrelevant to the study of these societies, but only that these beliefs have to be studied in conjunction with other factors, and that these factors can be found in a range of countries across the developing world (see, for example, the work of Rodinson, 1974 and 1979, and Zubaida, 1989). This may be more evident if generalization about what is essentially Muslim is based not just on a narrow range of Middle Eastern societies, but also includes the more populous Islamic countries of Asia, includingIndonesia(Taylor and Turton, eds., 1988).

Just as there is nothing that necessarily unites different countries where Islam is the sole or main religion, so there is nothing that necessarily separates them from other societies in comparable social, economic, and political conditions. Issues as diverse as forms of state power and mechanisms of ideological control, democratization and military rule, urbanization and employment, populist movements and peasant resistance, the position of women and the role of law, can all be studied comparatively, as between Islamic and other societies. The question of whether these Islamic societies have anything in common, across time and space, or are in significant respects different from others, is contingent. All societies, irrespective of religion, are part of the overall process of capitalist transformation, state formation, and social change, and the role of religious belief and institutions within this process has to be specified in each case.

Class analysis has therefore sought to provide alternative, materialist accounts of histories conventionally presented in terms of the spread of Islam and of Islamic society. If a considerable body of work has been produced that applies concepts of class to premodern Islamic societies, class analysis has informed the study of the formation of contemporary Islamic societies. Maxime Rodinson in his Islam and Capitalism (1974) sought to disentangle the complex questions surrounding the failure of Islamic societies to produce an indigenous capitalist dynamic and to show how the Islamic religion itself, in the sense of the texts and traditions, was a contingent factor in this outcome. Simon Bromley, in his overview of the development of states in theMiddle East, distinguishes between the injunctions and influences of religion and the specific forms of state created by tribal and military conquest and, later, by interaction with and subjugation by the West. Roger Owen’s analysis of theOttoman Empire’s economy in the nineteenth century placed class relations, and imperialism, at the center of the explanation.

Class analysis of the modern period has, equally, provided explanations of contemporary societies and events. One general set of arguments was advanced by Maxime Rodinson in his Marxism and the Muslim World (1979). Here he argued that Marxism could provide an analysis not only of the politics of the Arab states but also of the Islamic religion itself: he stressed the “sociological weighting” that affected the role and shape of all ideologies, including in this weighting the conflict between different social groups for resources and power. This approach is evident in a number of more specific studies of features of modern Islamic society. Beinin and Lockman (1987) have described the central importance of class conflict, including working-class struggle, in the modern history ofEgypt, prior to and subsequent to the 1952 revolution. Abrahamian, in his work onIranbetween 1941 to 1953 (1982), has equally identified major contributions of the working class movement and more generally of the conflicting classes, interacting with external forces, to the outcome. Outside the Middle East,Lubeck’s work on northernNigeria(1986) charts the intersection of class and religion in a different, Islamic context.

One of the most developed areas of Marxist analysis of Islamic societies has been in regard to the postindependence state and more particularly to the formation of new classes within the parameters of such states. A pioneering work, developed originally with regard toPakistan, is that of Hamza Alavi (1972), whose theory of the triple alliance underlying the postcolonial statelandowners, military, and bureaucrats-was generalized to otherThird Worldsocieties, Islamic and non-Islamic. In theMiddle East, the consolidation of nationalist military regimes provided the occasion for a large body of work based on class analysis. In regard to Egypt there developed the concept of al-tabagah al jadidah (the “new class”), whose interests were established by the land redistribution and nationalization of industry under the Nasserite regime: critiques of this were produced by a number of writers, including Anouar Abdel-Malek (1968), Samir Amin (1978), and Mahmoud Hussein (1968). A similar analysis was produced in regard to the regime inAlgeria, by Karen Pfeifer (1985). Within the Arab left, the concept of the petty bourgeois regime gained wide currency during the middle I96os: the defeat byIsraelin 1967 was associated with the crisis of such regimes, and the appeal for a politics based not on the Arab states but on mass activity and popular resistance.

Probably the most ambitious attempt to produce a study of a Middle Eastern society using the concept of class, in conjunction with other categories, is that of Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movement of Iraq (1978). Batatu took as his starting point the Marxist concept of revolution, as a major social and political upheaval involving classes, and examined the role of different classes-the middle class, with its various subdivisions, the working class, the peasantry-in the overthrow of the monarchy and the creation of a new regime. Batatu examined how these intersected with other loyalties-of family, clan, religion-in contemporaryIraq. As Zubaida (1989) has noted, many of the more creative applications of class to Middle Eastern society have been of a less-rigorous, or orthodox, kind and inclined to use class as one among several variables in political sociology.

As in work produced on other societies, this approach has been as much the context for controversies within its overall framework as the provider of a unified analysis. Variations of class analysis have been developed by writers who identify class as an important factor, but see it not as a given but as itself shaped by other political forces, be these the state (Richards and Waterbury, 1990) or ethnic and communal factors (Zubaida). Within the class-analysis approach opinion varied greatly on the character of the nationalist regimes of the 1950s and I96os, some seeing them as embodying a progressive national bourgeoisie capable of resisting Western domination and introducing some internal change, while others saw them as necessarily limited by their class character and bound, in the end, to capitulate to the West. The issue of imperialism’s impact has varied as between those who stress its unequivocally destructive impact, to others which stress the contradictory, destructive and modernizing, impact of Western domination. The literature on Israel and the Palestinians has occasioned extremely wide uses of class analysis: in the period after World War II, Marxists sympathetic to Israel stressed the socialist character of Zionism, in contrast to the more feudal and backward character of the surrounding Arab society; others produced analyses of the Palestinian relation to Israeli society stressing its exploited, class, character. Much Arab nationalist analysis has seenIsraelin class terms as the illegitimate product of settler colonialism and of Western imperialism.

Opposition to class analysis has come from a number of sources, academic and political. Within much Western writing on the Middle East, for example, it has been argued that Marxist concepts of class and those derived from it are irrelevant to Islamic societies, in that stratification is based on other considerations of a kind more susceptible to analysis in Weberian terms (descent from the Prophet, possession of knowledge, judicial function, etc.). Equally, it is argued, individuals identify themselves not in relation to a social or economic group but as members of a religious community and, beyond that, by reference to tribe, clan, or region. It has also been argued that the concept of imperialism is without great explanatory force for these countries, since the main axis of their interaction with the outside world has been cultural and religious, and that any project of social or political activity based on historical materialism is irrelevant to the Islamic world. Within Islamic thinking, there has been significant but selective borrowing from Marxism, as in ideas of imperialism or revolution, but many Islamic writers have argued that Marxism, with its atheistic approach, its emphasis on material determination and class conflict, is incompatible with Islam. Islamist movements, although sharing a hostility to Western imperialism and often verbally opposed to what they term capitalism, are equally hostile to Marxism and proffer an economic model that appears to be a variant of capitalism, tempered by religiously-sanctioned redistribution.

[See also Communism and Islam; Socialism and Islam.]


Abdel-Malek, Anouar.Egypt: Military Society.New York, 1968. Influential study of the Nasserite regime, based on the concept of the “new class.”

Abrahamian, Ervand.Iranbetween Two Revolutions.Princeton, 1982. Comprehensive overview of modern Iranian history, bringing out the role of class factors in the Constitutional and Islamic revolutions.

Alavi,Hamm. “The State in Post-Colonial Societies.” New Left Review 74 (July-August 1972). Reprinted in Imperialism and Revolution inSouth Asia, edited by E. Kathleen Gough and Hari P. Sharma, pp. 145-173.New York, 1973. Pioneering work on the postcolonial state, based on the Pakistani case, but of relevance to Islamic and non-Islamic societies alike.

Amin, Samir. The Arab Nation.London, 1978. Overview by perhaps the most influential of all Arab Marxists.

Batatu, Hanna. The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements ofIraq.Princeton, 1978. The most ambitious attempt to use the concept of class in relation to a Middle Eastern society, within a broader focus on social revolution and the intersection of class with religious and clan loyalties.

Bayat, Assef. Workers and Revolution inIran: AThird WorldExperience of Workers’ Control.London, 1987. Detailed study of the role of the industrial working class in the Iranian revolution.

Beinin, Joel, and Zachary Lockman. Workers on theNile: Nationalism, Communism, Islam, and the Egyptian Working Class, 1882-I954.Princeton, 1987. Commanding overview of modern Egyptian history, locating it within the context of capitalism and the development of the working and other classes.

Bromley, Simon. RethinkingMiddle EastPolitics: State, Formation, and Development.Cambridge, 1994. Survey of the modernMiddle East, from a Marxist perspective on state and class formation. Halliday, Fred.Arabiawithout Sultans.New York, 1975. Overview of social and political upheaval in the Arabian Peninsula andIranfrom the end of World War II.

Halliday, Fred, and Hamza, Alavi, eds. State and Ideology in the Middle East andPakistan.London, 1988. Application of class analysis to the Arab world,Turkey,Israel,Iran, andPakistan.

Hussein, Mahmoud. Class Struggles inEgypt.New York, 1968. Forceful critique of the Nasserite regime, from a Marxist perspective. Keyder, Caglar. State and Class inTurkey.London, 1987. Overview, framed in terms of the process of class formation in modernTurkey, from the Ottoman to the contemporary period.

Lubeck, Paul. Islam and Urban Labour inNorthern Nigeria: The Making of a Muslim Working Class.Cambridge, 1986.

Owen, Roger. TheMiddle Eastin the World Economy, 1800-1974.London, 1981.

Pfeifer, Karen. Agrarian Reform under State Capitalism inAlgeria.Boulder, 1985.

Richards, Alan, and John Waterbury. A Political Economy of theMiddle East: State, Class, and Economic Development.Boulder, 1990.

Rodinson, Maxime. Islam and Capitalism.New York, 1974. Study of the apparent failure of medieval Islamic society to produce a capitalist transformation, arguing against Islamic belief as an explanatory factor.

Rodinson, Maxime. Marxism and the Muslim World.London, 1979. Argues for the application of Marxist categories to the histories of Islam and Arab nationalism.

Turner, Bryan S. Marx and the End of Orientalism.London, 1978. Critical examination of the works of Marx and Weber as applied to theMiddle East, as of their “orientalist” critics.

Taylor, John G., and Andrew Turton, eds.Southeast Asia.New York, 1988. Class analyses ofIndonesiaandMalaysia, often ignored in discussions of the political sociology of Islamic society.

Zubaida, Sami. Islam, the People, and the State.London, 1989. Astute sociological study critical of orthodox forms of class analysis, focusing on the Iranian revolution and on the role of classes in the contemporaryMiddle East. Argues for the role of political forces in shaping classes, and their effectivity.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/class/

  • writerPosted On: November 5, 2012
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