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COMMUNISM AND ISLAM. Interaction between communism and Islam can be found in three areas: theories of human society, competing social structures, and political organizations, which claim the theories and structures as their operational goals. In addition to such immediate concerns, there is a more complex, historical narrative encompassing many institutions and social structures called communist or Muslim. In this article, I shall examine the above-mentioned terms and the historical narrative and follow with a review how non-Muslim and noncommunist observers have assessed the relationship between Islam and communism over the past fifty years.

Theories of Human Society. Neither communism nor Islam is only a theory of human society, but each has such a theory. Communist theory of human society began with the work of Karl Marx and was extended by Vladimir Lenin. Marxist-Leninist theory views human history as one of progressive change driven by the tension between the technical requirements of material production at any historical period and the property rights in which those techniques are embedded. Human society, in this theory, has moved from less-effective techniques and less-efficient property rights to greater effectiveness and greater efficiency. The learning curve for all human societies is the same, and the theory predicts a final stage of this process: mechanical mass production in which property rights are vested in society as a whole rather than in individuals. It is held to be legitimate and possibly necessary to effect this final transfer of property rights (from individuals to the society at large) by force; this is the dictatorship of the proletariat. This final stage would be known as communism, hence the name of the theoretical paradigm and also, after 1919, of the parties espousing it.

Islamic theories of human society have developed over a much longer period of time than communist theory and show significantly greater variety. Nevertheless, all Islamic theories are predicated on the belief that there is a constitutive law for human society manifested to human beings in the monotheist Holy Books (Torah, New Testament, and Qur’an) but only fully known in the Qur’an as revealed to Muhammad. This law provides limiting conditions under which social transactions can occur; such transactions are deemed best when voluntary, and generally the limiting conditions are taken to include significant differences in access to wealth and power among human beings as well as rights to private property. Voluntary action by those with wealth and power to share their entitlements are desirable, although in certain cases (the good of the community in Sunni Islam [maslahah] or the decision of the imam in Shi`i Islam) authoritative actions to redistribute wealth are acceptable. No predictions exist for secular change in human society, although at some future time human society as presently constituted will end, and all human beings will be subject to divine judgment.

The most profound discontinuity between MarxismLeninism and classical Islamic doctrine as theories of human society is over the nature of property rights, but significant differences also exist regarding the source of law, the role of law in society, and ultimate ends of society. Lenin’s major extension of Marxism was the theory that colonialism formed an integral part of European capitalist development. This claim has been largely accepted by many non-Leninists, although some Islamic activists have argued that the roots of colonialism lie in the nature of European Christianity rather than European capitalism. From this viewpoint, Leninism itself represents an extension of European colonial power rather than a weapon against colonialism.

Islam and Communism as Competing Societies. The major confrontation between communist and Islamic social structures occurred inCentral Asia. The independent Muscovite principality of the fifteenth century grew by military confrontation with its Tatar suzerains, and succeeding czarist Russian and Central Asian Islamic states had a long history of conflict. By World War I, the Russian Empire had gained political and military control of largely Muslim CentralAsia, although it left the societies basically intact. There was political conflict within these societies (especially the khanates ofBukharaand Khiva) between the traditional religious and political leaders and younger so-called Jadidi reformers. During the early period of the Soviet Union’s history, Communist party leaders allied themselves with sections of the Jadidi groups to integrate the Central Asians into the new state, theUSSR, and defeat all challenges to their new political order. Revolutionary transformation in the 19205 entailed changing the status of women in order to break up patriarchal family structures, which were deemed potential sources of challenge to the new state, as well as investment in industry to create a proletarian work force and social ownership where none had previously existed. Traditional public institutions, such as waqf (endowments for the common good), were also seized by the state between 1924 and 1930.

Soviet authorities also set about to construct ethnic identities for the societies ofCentral Asia. In 1924 the republics ofUzbekistanandTurkmenistanwere created. In 1929Tajikistanbecame a Soviet republic, and in 1936 the republics ofKazakhstan,Kirghizia, andAzerbaijanentered the union. By 1936 well-defined territorial entities with differentiated standard languages written in Cyrillic (rather than Arabic or Latin) script were in place. The societies of Central Asia were thus detached from other Islamic societies, and until 1991 it was possible to view communism as the political system that had most successfully secularized and industrialized Islamic societies, although the policies of the central government began a process of Russification, which was intensified by the movement of European Soviet citizens into these regions during World War II. The antireligious policies of the Soviet state coupled with relative isolation from historic Islamic centers of learning drastically reduced the number of `ulama’ (religious scholars) in Central Asia and tended to transform Islamic identification into a set of customary observances, such as avoidance of pork or alcohol and the practice of circumcision, coupled with ethnicity.

The political impact of the so-called noncapitalist road to socialism had affected various strands of Arab nationalism concerned with building powerful anticolonial movements and postcolonial states, especially the Bath party (formed in 1938) of Syria and Iraq, which had a leader who was formerly a member of the Communist party [see Bath Parties]. After World War II Muslim populations came under control of revolutionary Leninist regimes inChina(1949),Yugoslavia(1945), andAlbania(1946), and in each case the new governments attempted to redefine the Islamic identity as a form of ethnicity. In the Soviet Union andChina, the subordination of the Muslim population to Leninist rule was a side effect of other political and social conflicts; in southeasternEuropeit was a fortuitous result of the disposition of forces at the end of World War II. Islamic institutions in these regions were not themselves in competition with Marxist-Leninist parties and often survived in the interstices of society.

The emergence of a Leninist regime inAfghanistanin April 1978 when the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) seized power appeared to be a reenactment of the drama of Soviet power in the north. The inability of the two factions of the PDPA (Khalq and Parcham) to cohere into a single organization, the small number of party members, and the existence of a society with access to arms and men independent of the state doomed the experiment despite the entry of Soviet armed forces, which began with 50,000 men in 1979 and increased to 120,000 by 1986. The Afghan War hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and has led to the reemergence of independent states with a renewed Muslim identity acrossCentral Asia. [See alsoAfghanistan.]

Competition between Islamic and Communist Organizations. Competition between communist parties and various Islamic institutions and organizations occurred wherever Muslims experienced colonial rule and the social effects of investment (foreign or domestic) in largescale industrial production. Between the Russian Revolution (1917) and the Seventh Comintern Congress (1935) communist parties generally defined themselves in opposition to established religious hierarchies and were often aggressively atheist. In North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, andSoutheast Asia, the major institutional representation of Islam was the `ulama’. Scholars of Islamic law tended to oppose nascent Leninist organizations on doctrinal grounds discussed above and often issued fatwds (formal legal opinions) condemning communism for abolishing property rights or for atheism; entire collections of such fatwas have been published (for example, `Abd al-Halim Mahmfid, Fatdwd `an al-shuyu’iyah, Cairo, 1976). One of the relatively few social groups over which these two political forces competed was located in the colonial enclave of the Suez Canal Zone, and it was there that Hasan alBanna’ formed the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. During the Great Depression and World War II, Leninist and Islamic organizations increasingly came into conflict in recruiting from the same social strata.

The development of the “united front” concept at the Seventh Comintern Congress coincided with the birth of Islamic parties or similar institutions not controlled by the `ulama’. such as the Muslim Brotherhood inEgypt[see Muslim Brotherhood, article on Muslim Brotherhood inEgypt]. For both communists and Islamic activists colonialism was the primary enemy, and creating an anticolonial unity was the major political task, setting the stage for real competition for the political audience. After World War II, communists could argue that theSoviet Unionproved the success of their ideology, and in countries where communist parties were perceived to be active in the anticolonial movement, they rose to prominence. Soviet recognition ofIsraelin 1948 often hindered acceptance of the communists as truly nationalist in the Arab world, and in most Muslim communities the Leninist vocabulary regarding equality and social justice remained alien.

In North Africa the communist parties were compromised, probably fatally, to the degree that the French Communist party did not consistently and completely oppose the colonial regimes inAlgeriaandTunisia. In March 1956 the French communists voted to support emergency powers for the Guy Mollet government to crush the Algerian revolt; from that point on, Leninism as a contending ideology inNorth Africadisappeared.

In Egypt small but active groups of Leninists in several different parties (with at most two or three thousand members) engaged in conflict with the much larger Muslim Brotherhood for popular support. Communist influence peaked between 1945 and 1952, and in 1957 the Communist party was dissolved. There were later attempts to reform the Communist party inEgyptthat met with little success. The Muslim Brotherhood emerged as a leading contender for popular support in the Arab nationalist state formed after 1952 by the Free Officers, and it provided a model for institutional innovation throughout the Arab Middle East.

Important communist parties existed inSudan,Iraq,Syria, andLebanonin the 1950s and 1960s; most were effectively destroyed by repression on the part of Arab nationalist states rather than in competition with Islamic groups. In each country, however, Islamic organizations appear to have appealed successfully to elements of the constituency for radicalism previously associated with the Communist party (notably among the Sh!’Is inIraqandLebanon).

An important direct conflict between Leninist and Islamic associations occurred inIranaround the time of the 1979 revolution.Iran’s Tudeh (Communist) party had a powerful constituency among oil workers; the religious hierarchy stood in opposition to the shah; and groups of young activists attempted to combine Marxist, Leninist, and Islamic ideas (Fida’Iyan and Mujahidin). An extremely potent revolutionary alternative was created by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who organized the Shl’! `ulama’. against the shah’s government and created an institutional and theoretical framework for the transfer of power to the `ulama’. conceptualized in the wildyat al faqh. By 1984 the Islamic Republic of Iran was firmly established, and it had routed its internal opposition, including both Marxist and radical Islamic groups. [See alsoIran; Wilayat al-Faqih.]

Direct conflict between Islamic and communist organizations also occurred inIndonesia. The Indonesian Communist party had allied itself with Sukarno during the independence struggle that culminated in 1945, as had several Muslim organizations, notably the Nahdatul Ulama and the Masjumi. By 1959 Sukarno had enhanced his own power by promulgating a national policy known as Nasakom, an acronym for the names of the three major strands of Indonesian politics: nationalist (nasionalis), religious (agama), and communist (komunis). Sukarno attempted to play these three forces against each other, and leaders in each attempted not to lose out to the other two. By 1964 the Indonesia Communist party (PKI) appeared to outsiders to be emerging as a dominant force, although its own leaders were acutely aware of its weakness. In the aftermath of a coup and countercoup on 30 September-1 October 1965, a half-million Indonesian communist militants, sympathizers, and innocent bystanders were massacred, and the most intense conflicts occurred in the highly islamized areas ofIndonesia. [See alsoIndonesia; Masjumi; and Nahdatul Ulama.]

Islamic societies and even Islamic parties appear at the end of the twentieth century to have greater staying power and a far more promising future than do MarxistLeninist ones.

Debate among Muslim and Western Intellectuals. The earliest Muslim intellectual to address seriously the issue of communism was a Tatar, Mir Said Sultan Galiev (b. 1880), who was a high-ranking member of. the Soviet Communist party from 1920 until 1923 and a specialist on colonialism and nationalism. Sultan Galiev may have been the first to put forward the idea that national independence for colonial peoples had to precede the social revolution. By 1923 Sultan Galiev came to believe that the dictatorship of the proletariat would not change European domination and began to organize opposition to Soviet power, for which he was executed, probably in 1928.

A number of intellectuals in Muslim countries, notably literary figures, were members of communist parties in the 1940s and 1950s. Some, such as the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963), or the Egyptian literary critic Mahmud Amin al-`Alim, were lifelong communists. Others, such as the great Iraqi free-verse poet, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, quit in great anger. A number of prominent social scientists, of whom the best known is Anouar Abdel-Malek, the author of Egypt: Military Society (translated by Charles Lam Markmann, New York, 1968), also share a background of membership in Marxist-Leninist organizations. The relationship of national independence to class conflict figures prominently in the work of these intellectuals.

Communism as an ideological challenge also provoked reaction from a variety of Muslim intellectuals, although in general communism appears in the writing of such figures after the 1920s as simply another species of Western colonialism. In books such as Social justice in Islam (1948; translated by John Hardie, Washington, D.C., 1953), by Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian Muslim intellectual who was executed in 1965, communism (like Western capitalism) is devoid of the social and religious content of Islam, but it does not appear as a particularly menacing threat. In addition to orthodox religious criticism of communism, there were also attempts to integrate aspects of Marxism with Islamic orientations. Such attempts were most notable in the activities of the Fida’iyan-i Khalq and the Mujahidn-i Khalq organizations inIranprior to and just after the 1979 revolution and in the intellectual activity of `All Shariati (d. 1977). Shari’ati surpassed the ideas of Sultan Galiev by arguing that the victory against colonialism and an ultimate social revolution against injustice was impossible without a return to the religious roots of cultural identity.

During the cold war (approximately 1947 to 1991) one concern of policymakers in theUnited StatesandEuropewas how Islamic doctrines and institutions might affect Muslim perceptions of the East-West confrontation. A scholarly literature grew up on Islam and communism. This literature often recapitulated themes about religion, ideology, and social structure already present in the work of Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim, although it recognized the inherent difficulty of specifying mechanisms linking religion, culture, and social structure. An early contribution was Bernard Lewis’s “Communism and Islam” (1954) in which, although doctrinal differences are noted, it is argued that both Islam and communist doctrine claim to derive policies from first principles for all social affairs and thus are properly speaking totalitarian. Other contributors to the debate on the relationship of communism to Islam included Maxime Rodinson (“Rapports entre Islam et Communisme,” 1961), who argues in a vein somewhat parallel to Lewis. Leonard Binder argues against Lewis’s view in The Ideological Revolution in the Middle East(New York, 1964), with a discussion of Islam, nationalism, and communism that is more purely descriptive and contingent. After the Iranian Revolution interest in this subject waned, and it no longer appears as an important controversy, although elements of the debate continue to color attitudes in Europe toward Islamist political movements in the Middle East, South Asia, andSoutheast Asia. In arguments by Gilles Kepel, for example, such movements play the transitional role to modern liberalism formerly played by communist parties in western and centralEurope(Les banlieux de l’Islam, Paris, 1987). With the collapse of both theSoviet Unionand Leninism as a vital political movement, the relationship of Islam to communism has ceased to be of any but historical interest. Whether political activists striving to create Islamic states will, as Lewis’s argument suggests, recapitulate any of the experiences of the centralized bureaucracies that governed in the name of socialism remains to be seen.


Abrahamian, Ervand.IranBetween Two Revolutions.Princeton, 1982. Allworth, Edward.Central Asia: A Century of Russian Rule.New York, 1967.

Binder, Leonard. The Ideological Revolution in theMiddle East.New   York, 1964.

Botman,Selma. The Rise of Egyptian Communism, 1939-1970.Syracuse,N.Y., 1988.

Coulson, Noel J. A History of Islamic Law.Edinburgh, 1964. Gallisot, Rene. Mouvement ouvrier: Communisme et nationalismes dans le monde Arabe.Paris, 1978.

Kepel, Gilles. Les banlieuex de l’Islam.Paris, 1987.

Lapidus, Ira, and Edmund Burke, III, eds. Islam, Politics, and Social Movements.Berkeley, 1988.

Lewis, Bernard. “Communism and Islam.” TheMiddle Eastin Transition, edited by Walter Laqueur.New York, 1958.

Nove, Alec, and J. A. Newth. The SovietMiddle East.London, 1968. Rodinson, Maxime. Marxisme et le monde musulman.Paris, 1972.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/communism-and-islam/

  • writerPosted On: November 6, 2012
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