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SOCIALISM AND ISLAM. Two important currents of social and religious philosophy that have flowed through centuries of Middle Eastern and North African development are socialism and Islam. Although they have often reinforced each other, sometimes they have come into conflict. Both schools of thought have individually and collectively exerted major influences on the political and spiritual direction of the region.

Socialist philosophy and practice, though generally considered to be of European origin, also have roots in the Arab Middle East. One of the earliest references to socialism can be found in the writings of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897), among the most celebrated Islamic reformers of the late nineteenth century. AlAfghani located the concept of ishtirakiyah (socialism) in pre-Islamic Arabian bedouin traditions. The framers of the initial Islamic state in the seventh century, according to al-Afghani, adopted these traditions as the structural basis from which to organize and regulate society. Al-Afghani contended that socialism was an indigenous Arab doctrine, which explained the Muslim community’s historic commitment to the welfare of all its inhabitants.

In Egypt, among the first and most prominent socialist thinkers was Salamah Musa (1887-1958), whose long career as an advocate for social justice began while he was a student in England in the early 1900s. In 1913, on his return to Egypt, he published his groundbreaking essay entitled Al-ishtirdkiyah (Socialism), a work that introduced the socialist theme to a generation of Arab intellectuals and activists interested in reformist strategies for modernization and development. Deeply influenced by Fabian thought, Musa published some fifty books on social, economic, and philosophical subjects which were widely read and profoundly respected.

Salamah Musa also engaged in political organization, and in 192o he participated in the formation of the short-lived Egyptian Socialist Party, which was recast as the Egyptian Communist Party in 1923 and guided by Marxist ideology. Objecting to the radical ideas of the recast party, Salamah Musa and others of his reformist philosophical inclination dropped out of organized oppositional activity. The Communist Party had marginalized Fabian socialists, who no longer had an organization in which to operate.

In Egypt, secular socialists had organized both legally and clandestinely since World War I, but Islamic reformers did not begin articulating religiously based ideas of social justice until the 1930s and 1940s. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, founded in 1928, did not adhere to socialist ideology, but throughout its existence it has interacted, often in a confrontational manner, with both secular and religious socialists. Philosophically, the brotherhood embraced the vision of the nineteenth-century Islamic revivalist movement, which supported the establishment of an Islamic system of government based on the Qur’an and the sunnah of the Prophet. The organization opposed the Western penetration of the Islamic world, including socialist thought, which it understood as another form of colonial ideology imposed on Muslim society.

Hasan al-Banna’ (1906-1949), supreme guide of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and others represented a new generation of nationalists who had lost faith in the prevailing liberal, economic, and Western model of development. Calling for national independence, socioeconomic modernization, and Islamic social justice, they advocated society’s rebirth through the affirmation of religiously inspired concepts. Asserting Islam’s universality and its commitment to comprehensive human and economic justice, Islamic reformers went back to the Qur’an itself for confirmation of the faith’s spiritual and material compatibility with social progress. Identifying relevant passages from the Holy Book and examples from the prophet Muhammad’s life, Islamic thinkers maintained that religious doctrine not only contained prescriptions for the relationship between a believer and the Lord, but also mandated how a society should organize itself and how its people should be ministered to. The Muslim Brotherhood’s ideologues went back to the time of the Prophet and his immediate successors in order to produce an appropriate paradigm.

In the post-World War II period, Islamic socialism (a phrase used sometimes interchangeably with Arab socialism) took root in the Middle East and North Africa. Egypt, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Iran, Tunisia, Algeria, and South Yemen separately and at different times have subscribed to variations of Islamic socialism. However, it was Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) who first capitalized on the intersection between Islam and socialism and used it to consolidate and then to protect his regime.

Nasser’s socialist revolution, carried out by juniorlevel military officers in 1952, paid tribute to the writings of progressive Islamic intellectuals in Egypt. In particular, Shaykh Khalid Muhammad Khalid (b. 1920), in his book Min hung nabda’ (From Here We Start), argued that socialism was sanctioned by Islam and necessary as an alternative to capitalist economic development in the country. Although Khalid’s ideas were derived from the European social democratic movement, his interpretation of modern Egypt was firmly grounded in the conditions of the time: British colonial control, economic backwardness, and moral bankruptcy. Egypt, he contended, would not develop spiritually or economically until it improved the lives of its people and provided them with the decent treatment and justice stipulated by the Qur’an. Khalid believed that the revolution of 1952 could be the beginning of meaningful societal development and Islamic spiritual growth.

A critic of mainstream Islam as taught and practiced at al-Azhar, Khalid argued that the religion of the priesthood was a religion of reaction that strengthened the position of the wealthy and excused the poverty of the majority. For him, true Islam was compassionate, fair, and grounded in a commitment to economic justice. [See the biography of Khalid.]

One of the most influential theorists of the Nasser period was Mustafa al-Siba`i (1915-1964), dean of the Faculty of Islamic Jurisprudence and the School of Law at the University of Damascus and head of the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (known as the Islamic Socialist Front) between 1945 and 1961. An ally of Nasser, al-Siba`i dissolved the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1958 when all Syrian political parties and organizations were abolished in preparation for the establishment of the United Arab Republic.

In 1959, al-Siba’i published Ishtirakiyat al Islam (The Socialism of Islam) in which he argued that socialism and Islam were not only compatible, but that the adoption of socialism must be society’s goal. According to alSiba`i, socialism was more important than the nationalization of property, more significant than progressive taxation, and more meaningful than setting a limit on personal ownership; socialism as a developmental tool was a means by which society could prosper and mature. Moreover, it was a guarantor against human exploitation and an instrument to be used by the state to supervise economic development. Socialism was alSiba’i’s formula for eliminating poverty and for allowing individuals to achieve their potential.

Asserting that it protected the right of ownership, alSiba’i defined Islam as less rigid than communism. In fact, Islamic socialism is different from so-called scientific socialism or communism in that it allows for the private ownership of the means of production and only appropriates property when its advocates deem property owners to be exploitative. Islamic socialism allows the public sector to exist side-by-side with the private sector and advocates harmonious relations between social groups, not class warfare. Society thus allows different occupational groupings to exist and to constitute a division of labor in society, but these groups are envisioned as cooperative and not adversarial.

The basis of social solidarity in the Islamic socialist model was, according to al-Siba`i, al-takdful al-ijtima’i, or a combination of equality, justice, mutuality, and responsibility. When socialist society achieves its goals, he maintained, it will be free of conflict, basing itself on moral principles and collectivism.

Al-Siba’i asserted that Islamic socialism rested on five pillars: the right to live protected and healthy; the right to liberty; the right to knowledge; the right to dignity; and the qualified right to property. He stressed that Islam recognized a person’s desire to create and amass wealth and to own property. Although al-Siba’i believed in the social obligations connected to affluence, such as zakdt (giving alms), he also argued that these obligations did not constitute socialism. He was emphatic in his befief that the only way to eliminate hunger, disease, and injustice was through national legislation backed up by the authority of the state. Economic and social development would not be accomplished by means of charity alone. Al-Siba’i’s ideas were embraced by Nasser and used to defend the Egyptian regime. The National Charter of 1962 was Nasser’s attempt to merge nationalism, socialism, and Islam. [See the biographies of Siba’i and Nasser.]

Although al-Siba`i played a profound role in providing the intellectual justification for Islamic socialism, not all Islamic thinkers or activists agreed with this approach. Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), for example, the major ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt in the Nasser period, denounced the term Islamic socialism, believing that Islam alone provided for human and economic justice, moral and spiritual values, and equality. Qutb held that Islam provided the only solution to the social, economic, national, and moral problems created both by capitalism and communism.

For Qutb, there were only two ideological paths a society could follow: there was the Islamic route or the one he called Jahiliyah, or pre-Islamic ignorance. Qutb contended that capitalism, socialism, and communism were similarly part of Jahiliyah and could never be reconciled with Islam. Islam, on the contrary, was just and would satisfy all human needs. Qutb’s opposition to Nasser’s socialism and his militant writings made him an enemy of the regime. He was imprisoned for many years and finally executed in 1966. [See Jahiliyah and the biography of Qutb.]

The creation of an Islamic state based on shari’ah (the divine law) was an imperative for Sayyid Qutb; any other type of society was illegitimate. In the many books he wrote on Islam, Qutb argued that all Muslims should give of themselves completely in the effort to achieve the true Islamic society.

Outside Egypt, Ba’thists in both Syria and Iraq adopted the broad features of Islamic socialism. Ba’thist ideology has been consistently anticolonialist, PanArabist, and interventionist in social legislation in the areas of health, education, and workers’ rights. It has supported the nationalization of basic industries, banks, and foreign trade and boasted a planned. But Qadhdhafi went beyond Nasser and placed his highly idiosyncratic stamp on Libya by the affirmative islamization of social life. In particular, Qadhdhafi prohibited the practice of gambling, the use of alcohol, and the presence of nightclubs in an effort to improve public morality. He also introduced Islamic punishments for such crimes as theft, adultery, and usury.

Qadhdhafi codified his ideas in a three-volume work entitled The Green Book. In the first volume, “The Solution to the Problem of Democracy,” published in 1975, Qadhdhafi outlined his Third International theory (also known as The Third Way), which he conceived as an alternative to both capitalism and communism. In The Green Book, Qadhdhafi excoriated both Western colonialism and Soviet domination, arguing that foreign influences have contaminated Muslim societies and led the believers astray morally and theologically.

As a means to resist imperialist forces, Qadhdhafi produced a doctrine whose inspiration was the Qur’an and whose natural constituency were to be Muslims and anticolonialists throughout the Middle East and the Third World. In the teachings of the Qur’an, he indirectly suggested, solutions could be found to all problems of humanity-ranging from personal matters to international relations. For Qadhdhafi, the application of the Islamic socialist and democratic model would prevent both foreign and domestic exploitation and would lead to the creation of a just society.

The Green Book was written not as a religious text, but rather as a provocative and inspirational pamphlet, accessible to a wide audience. Its influence spread far beyond the borders of Libya into the rest of the Middle East, North Africa, and the Third World. [See the biography of Qadhdhafii.]

Islam also informed national liberation movements in other parts of the Maghrib (known as the Arab West or North Africa), and after nationalism triumphed socialist regimes typically were created. A proliferation of independence movements grew up in reaction to the harsh colonial policies of the French, who had gained control over most of the area in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. North African Arabs and Berbers deeply resented France’s sustained attempts to eradicate local political traditions and to undermine indigenous leaders. Like other colonized peoples at this time, they suffered humiliation in the face of France’s prejudicial attitudes, its contempt for local religious customs, and its rejection of indigenous culture. For North Africans a particularly sore spot was the requirement that French be used as the official language of the area.

In the post-World War I period, Islamic reformers in the Maghrib were small in number. They exerted influence, however, when they merged with nationalists who commanded large popular followings. Despite an orientation fundamentally different from secular nationalists, they maintained their focus on the Arab-Islamic heritage, which proved able to unite otherwise disparate political and tribal forces. Islam, in fact, contributed to the identity of the nationalist movement and helped it to triumph over the colonial power.

The longest and bloodiest battle for national liberation was waged in Algeria where colonization lasted from 1847 to 1962. The French strove to impose their culture on the Algerians, and in this crusade hoped to destroy Islam through the systematic closing down of Qur’anic schools and madrasahs (high schools) and by converting mosques into churches. A young generation of educated reformers and nationalists emerged in self-defense, appropriating Islam and using it as a unifying force in society. The reformers argued that Islam was compatible with the modern world and that Algerians would be best served by adapting Islam to their political and social struggles. Islam became an especially important component of the liberation struggle waged by a cross-section of Algerian nationalists.

In Tunisia, where the French had been the colonial masters from 1881 until the grant of formal independence in 1956, recognition of an Arab-Islamic heritage grew in the postindependence period. Tunisia tried to recast its national identity and image under Habib Bourguiba (b. 1903), leader of the Neo-Destour party (renamed in 1959 as the Socialist Destour party) and head of the one-party state until his removal in 1987. [See Destour.]

Influenced by the writings of al-Afghani and Muhammad `Abduh (1849-1905), leaders of the Arab East’s Salafiyah movement, Maghrib reformers emphasized the importance of their Islamic heritage. In analyzing their society, they were not only critical of the French, but of equal significance they denounced local Sufi leaders who were seen as reactionary and complicitous with the foreign occupation. Reformers also stressed the importance of understanding the modern world from a religious as well as scientific perspective and appealed for a renaissance in Islamic learning.

A section of the Iranian oppositional movement in the 1960s and 1970s, whose goal was to oust Muhammad Reza Shah from power, also linked Islam with change. Jalal Al Ahmad, who had been a secular intellectual with connections to the Iranian Communist (Tudeh) party, called for reshaping the nation’s purpose, its identity, and its destiny. In his highly acclaimed work Gharbzadegi (Weststruckness), published in 1962, he decried the westernization of Iranian society, with its destructive glorification of foreign culture and its resulting surrender of true national identity. Jalal Al Ahmad came to believe that Islam could inspire the mass of Iranian society to rise up against the shah’s rule. His theme of Islam and socialism motivated many to reflect on their society and take action against the status quo.

Among the intellectuals and activists who shared an Islamic vision of change in the 1960s and 1970s were Mehdi Bazargan (b. 1907), who became the provisional prime minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, `Ali Shari’ati (1933-1977) and the ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-1989).

`Ali Shari’ati’s influence on Iranian society in the 1970s, particularly among the students and young people who read his work, took his classes, and listened to the provocative lectures he delivered, was profound. Shari`ati’s followers were galvanized by his stirring calls for social justice and Islamic revivalism. Joining together in religious groups and secular political organizations, they participated in revolutionary activities which altered the direction and orientation of Iranian society.

Shari’ati was influenced not only by original religious texts, but also by the interpretive works of al-Afghani and the Pakistanian Islamic reformer, Muhammad Iqbal. He drew also from the corpus of revolutionary theory articulated by such Third World activists as Frantz Fanon and Che Guevara. Calling for a renaissance within the Islamic community, Shari’ati advocated modernization and scientific change informed by Iranian culture and Muslim religious tradition. Shari`ati’s teachings were anathema to the shah, who imprisoned him, then put him under village arrest. Shari’ati was eventually allowed to travel to England, where he died of suspicious causes. Mehdi Bazargan, on the other hand, appealed to a different audience consisting mainly of merchants, civil servants, and other members of the middle class. He popularized a modernized view of Islam that incorporated the themes of justice, science, and faith. In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini capitalized on the prevailing revolutionary spirit that had been produced by the initiatives of Jalal al-Ahmad, Mehdi Bazargan, and `All Shari`ati and established the Islamic Republic of Iran. [See the biographies of Bazargan, Shariati, and Khomeini.]

The synthesis of socialist thought with Islamic theology has been complex and irregular. Although often in conflict, the schools of thought have sometimes mutually informed one another. Politically, nationalist movements have been vitalized by Islamic thinking, although the independent governments produced by such movements have regularly relied on socialist principles for the structuring of society. One would expect this fusion and crossfertilization to continue in the Muslim world.

[See also Arab Socialism; Communism and Islam.]


Primary Sources

Al Ahmad, Jalal. Gharbzadegi: Weststruckness. Translated by John Green and Ahmad Alizadeh. Lexington, Ky., 1982. Harsh critique of Western influences on Iranian civilization.

Al Ahmad, Jalal. Iranian Society. Edited by Michael C. Hillman. Lexington, Ky., 1982. Anthology of Al Ahmad’s writings.

Musa, Salamah. AI-ishtirakiyah (Socialism). Cairo, 1913. Famed work on socialist thought and practice.

Qadhdhafi, Mu’ammar al-. The Green Book. London, 1976.

Shari’ati, ‘All. On the Sociology of Islam. Translated by Hamid Algar. Berkeley, 1979.

Shari’ati, `Ali. Marxism and Other Western Fallacies. Translated by R. Campbell. Berkeley, 1980. Stirring discussion of Islamic accomplishments in twentieth-century Iran, with a critique of leftist dogma.

Siba’i, Musiafa al-. “Islamic Socialism.” In Political and Social Thought in the Contemporary Middle East, edited by Kemal Karpat, pp. 123-126. London, 1968.

Taleqani, Mahmud. Islam and Ownership. Translated by Ahmad Jabari and Farhang Rajaee. Lexington, Ky., 1983.

Interpretive Works

Binder, Leonard. Islamic Liberalism. Chicago, 1988. Wide-ranging discussion of major “development ideologies” in the modern Islamic world.

Donohue, John J., and John L. Esposito, eds. Islam in Transition. New York, 1982. Translations of selected Muslim thinkers and their responses to the challenges of modernity.

Esposito, John L. Islam and Politics. Syracuse, N.Y., 1984. Concise overview of Islamic thinkers and practitioners in the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia.

Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck. “Sayyid Qutb: Ideologue of Islamic Revival.” In Voices of Resurgent Islam, edited by John L. Esposito, pp. 67-98. New York and Oxford, 1983.

Keddie, Nikki R. Sayyid Jamal al-Din “Al-Afghani”: A Political Biography. Berkeley, 1972.

Said, Abdel Moghny. Arab Socialism. New York, 1972. Good description of the major socialist movements from a sympathetic perspective.


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

  • writerPosted On: August 12, 2017
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