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Islamic Socialism: A history from left to right

February 21, 2013

Between the 1950s and early 1970s, a powerful ideology in the Muslim world galvanised itself from the minds and fringes of modern Islamic intellectualism and made its way into the mainstream political arena.

But this ideology did not have a single originator. Its roots can be found amongst the works of Muslim thinkers and ideologues in South and East Asia, Africa and in various Middle Eastern (Arab) countries.

Also, once it began being adopted by mainstream leaders and political outfits, it was expressed through multiple names. But today, each one of these names and terms are slotted under a single definitional umbrella: Islamic Socialism.

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Roots and Trees

Though one can struggle to pinpoint the exact starting point (or points) from where the many ideas that became associated with Islamic Socialism emerged, historians and intellectuals, Sami A. Hanna and Hanif Ramay – who specialised in critiquing and compiling a dialectic history of Islamic Socialism – are of the view that one of the very first expressions of Islamic Socialism appeared in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th century.

A movement of Muslim farmers, peasants and petty-bourgeoisie in the Russian state of Tatartan opposed the Russian monarchy but was brutally crushed.

In the early 2oth century, the movement went underground and began working with communist, socialist and social democratic forces operating in Russia to overthrow the monarchy.

The leaders of the Muslim movement, that became to be known as the Waisi began explaining themselves as Islamic Socialists when a leftist revolution broke out against the Russian monarchy in 1906.

During the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution that finally toppled and eliminated the Russian monarchy and imposed communist rule in the country, the Waisi fell in with the Bolsheviks and supported Russian revolutionary leader, Vladimir Lenin’s widespread socialist program and policies.

However, after Lenin’s death in 1924, the Waisi began to assert that the Muslim community and its socialism in Tatartan were a separate entity from the Bolshevik communism.

The movement that had formed its own communes became a victim of Stalin’s radical purges of the 1930s and was wiped out.

One is not quite sure how the Waisi defined their socialism in a country where (after 1917) atheism had become the state-enforced creed. It was left to a group of influential thinkers and ideologues in South Asia and the Middle East to finally get down to giving a more coherent and doctrinal shape to Islamic Socialism.

Islamic scholar, Ubaidullah Sindhi, who was born into a Sikh family (in Sialkot but converted to Islam), was also an agitator against the British in India.

Chased by the authorities during the First World War, Sindhi escaped to Kabul, and from Kabul he traveled to Russia where he witnessed the unfolding of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

He stayed in Russia till 1923 and spent most of his time discussing politics and ideology with communist revolutionaries and studying socialism.

Impressed by the chants of economic equality and justice during the violent revolution, Sindhi, who remained being a Deobandi Sunni Muslim, dismissed communism/Marxism’s emphasis on atheism.

From Russia Sindhi traveled to Turkey and it was from Istanbul that he began to give shape to his ideas of Islamic Socialism through a series of writings especially aimed at the Muslims of India.

He urged Muslims ‘to evolve for themselves a religious basis to arrive at the economic justice at which communism aims but which it cannot fully achieve.’

The reason he gave for this was that though he saw both Islamic and Communist economic philosophies similar regarding their emphasis on the fair distribution of wealth, socialism if imposed with the help of a more theistic and spiritual dimension would be more beneficial to the peasant and the working classes than atheistic communism.

Ubaidullah Sindhi.
Ubaidullah Sindhi.

During the same period (1920s-30s), another (though lesser known) Islamic scholar in undivided India got smitten by the 1917 Russian revolution and Marxism.

Hafiz Rahman Sihwarwl saw Islam and Marxism sharing five elements in common: (1) prohibition of the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the privileged classes (2) organisation of the economic structure of the state to ensure social welfare (3) equality of opportunity for all human beings (4) priority of collective social interest over individual privilege and (5) prevention of the permanentising of class structure through social revolution.

The motivations for many of these themes he drew from the Qur’an, which he understood as seeking to create an economic order in which the rich pay excessive, though voluntary taxes (Zakat) to minimise differences in living standards.

In the areas that Sihwarwl saw Islam and communism diverge were Islam’s sanction of private ownership within certain limits, and in its refusal to recognise an absolutely classless basis of society.

He suggested that Islam, with its prohibition of the accumulation of wealth, is able to control the class structure through equality of opportunity.

Basically, both Sindhi and Sihwarwl had stumbled upon an Islamic concept of the social democratic welfare state.

Building upon the initial thoughts of Sindhi and Sihwarwl were perhaps South Asia’s two most ardent and articulate supporters and theoreticians of Islamic Socilaism: Ghulam Ahmed Parvez and Dr. Khalifa Abdul Hakim.

Parvez was a prominent ‘Quranist’, or an Islamic scholar who insisted that for the Muslims to make progress in the modern world, Islamic thought and laws should be entirely based on the modern interpretations of the Qu’ran and on the complete rejection of the hadith (sayings of the Prophet and his companions based on hearsay and compiled over a 100 years after the Prophet’s demise).

After studying traditional Muslim texts, as well as Sufism, Parvez claimed that almost all hadiths were fabrications by those who wanted Islam to seem like an intolerant faith and by ancient Muslim kings who used these hadiths to give divine legitimacy to their tyrannical rules.

Parvez also insisted that Muslims should spend more time studying the modern sciences instead of wasting their energies on fighting out ancient sectarian conflicts or ignoring the true egalitarian and enlightening spirit of the Qu’ran by indulging in multiple rituals handed down to them by ancient ulema, clerics and compilers of the hadith.

Understandably, Parvez was right away attacked by conservative Islamic scholars and political outfits.

But this didn’t stop famous Muslim philosopher and poet, Muhammad Iqbal, to befriend the young scholar and then introduce him to the future founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Jinnah appointed Parvez to edit a magazine, Talu-e-Islam. It was set-up to propagate the creation of a separate Muslim country and to also answer the attacks that Jinnah’s All India Muslim League had begun to face from conservative Islamic parties and ulema who accused the League of being a pseudo-Muslim organisation and Jinnah for being too westernised and ‘lacking correct Islamic behavior.’

Apart from continuing to author books and commentaries on the Qu’ran, Parvez wrote a series of articles in Talu-e-Islam that propagated a more socialistic view of the holy book.

In a series of essays for the magazine he used verses from the Qu’ran, incidents from the faith’s history and insights from the writings of Muhammad Iqbal to claim:

The clergy and conservative ulema have hijacked Islam.

They are agents of the rich people and promoters of uncontrolled Capitalism.

Socialism best enforces Qur’anic dictums on property, justice and distribution of wealth.

Islam’s main mission was the eradication of all injustices and cruelties from society. It was a socio-economic movement, and the Prophet was a leader seeking to put an end to the capitalist exploitation of the Quraysh merchants and the corrupt bureaucracy of Byzantium and Persia.

According to the Qur’an, Muslims have three main responsibilities:  seeing, hearing and sensing through the agency of the mind.  Consequently, real knowledge is based on empirically verifiable observation, or through the role of science.

Poverty is the punishment of God and deserved by those who ignore science.

In Muslim/Islamic societies, science, as well as agrarian reform should play leading roles in developing an industrialised economy.

A socialist path is a correction of the medieval distortion of Islam through Shari’a.

Parvez joined the government after the creation of Pakistan in 1947, but after Jinnah’s death in 1948, he was sidelined until he resigned from his post in 1956.

An issue of Talu-e-Islam featuring Muhammad Iqbal on the cover. Many essays written by Ghulam Ahmed Parvez for the magazine included arguments for the propagation of Islamic Socialism and fiery polemics against conservative ulema.

An issue of Talu-e-Islam featuring Muhammad Iqbal on the cover. Many essays written by Ghulam Ahmed Parvez for the magazine included arguments for the propagation of Islamic Socialism and fiery polemics against conservative ulema.

A 1935 illustration of Ghulam Ahmed Parvez.
A 1935 illustration of Ghulam Ahmed Parvez.

Another scholar at the time who was using Iqbal’s writings on Islam and the Qu’ran to formulate Islamic Socialism in South Asia was Dr. Khalifa Abdul Hakim.

A philosopher, author and a huge admirer of Muhammad Iqbal, Khalifa ventured into the ideological territory of Islamic Socialism later than Ghulam Parvez.

A keen student of Islam (especially Sufism), Khalifa, after getting his PhD from the Heidelberg University in Germany, authored a number of books on Iqbal’s philosophy, Islamic thought, Jallaluddin Rumi (Sufi poet and writer), and also translated the Hindu holy book, the Bhagwat Gita, into Urdu.

It was after the creation of Pakistan that Khalifa began to seriously study Marxism and what it meant to a young ‘third world’ country like Pakistan.

In his 1951 books, ‘Islam and Communism’ and ‘Iqbal Aur Mullah’, Khalifa saw Islamic Socialism as harnessing the freedom of thought, action and enterprise characteristic of Western democracies by creating opportunities for all.

Like most Islamic Socialists of his era, Khalifa too was basically explaining Islamic Socialism to be a kind of spiritual and theistic concept of the social democratic welfare state enacted in various Western countries.

In ‘Islam and Communism’, Khalifa sees land as being the principle source of economic wealth and thus the moral basis for agrarian reforms in Pakistan.

Dr. Khalifa.
Dr. Khalifa.

Apart from Ghulam Ahmad Parvez, most other Islamic Socialist thinkers discussed above, though thoroughly critiquing Marxism/Socialism on the basis of Qu’ranic teachings and listing similarities and differences between the two, say little about exactly how much a role should a government and state play in matters of faith in societies run on the ideology and economic system prescribed by Islamic Socialism.

Parvez quite clearly suggests that an Islamic Socialist society run on the laws and economics derived from rational interpretations of the Qu’ran and modern scientific thought would inherently become responsible, law-abiding, egalitarian and enlightened and would not require the state to play the role of a moral guide.

In other words, Islamic Socialist policies guarantee a progressive and non-theocratic (if not entirely secular) Muslim majority state where the citizens are enlightened enough to make their own moral choices, and where the state sticks to looking after the citizens’ economic interests and needs and delivering justice.

It is within these two main areas where the state can evoke rational and modernistic interpretations of the Qu’ran, especially those verses dealing with property rights, Zakat, justice and the rights of women.

In the Middle East, Islamic Socialism evolved into becoming a more nationalistic and revolutionary idea, mainly due to the creation of Israel (in 1948) and the expulsion of thousands of Palestinians from the area.

A Christian Syrian philosopher and Arab nationalist, Michel Aflaq, is remembered to be the originator of the Middle Eastern strain of Islamic Socialism that expressed itself as Arab Socialism and Ba’ath Socialism.

Born into an Arab Christian family, Aflaq became a communist at college and university, but broke away from the communists to formulate a radical and new Arab nationalist philosophy with another young Syrian, Salah ad-Din al-Bitar.

After studying the steady economic and political decline of the Arab peoples around the world, Aflaq and Bitar advocated the creation of a united Arab state.

For this they recasted Arab nationalism by infusing into it a heavy dose of socialist economic ideas, progressive cultural and social outlook, and by reworking the idea of Islam inherent in it by evoking ‘Qu’ran’s revolutionary spirit’ to counter injustice and inequality but separating Islam (as an organised faith) from the matters of the state.

Aflaq and Bitar claimed that this would lead to a renaissance in the Arab world, turning it into an economic and political power.

Michel Aflaq.
Michel Aflaq.

Their emphasis on the word renaissance (which in Arabic is ‘Al-Ba’ath’), gave birth to the term ‘Ba’ath Socialism,’ and soon both Aflaq and Bitar set out to define exactly how this form of socialism works.

Ba’ath Socialism appealed to the unity of all Arab nations on the basis of language/culture (Arab) and on the faith most Arabs followed (Islam).

It suggested that the Arab nations were being undermined by five forces: European colonialism (driven by capitalism); Soviet Communism; ‘decadent monarchies’ in Arab countries; Islamic conservatism within Arab societies; and the clergy and the ulema who were keeping these societies in the clutches of backwardness.

Ba’ath Socialism offered a path between Western capitalism and Soviet communism by suggesting that all Arab nations come together as one state under a single ‘vanguard party’ of Arab nationalists who would impose socialist economic policies, modernise society through education, science and culture, separate religion from the state but continue being inspired by the egalitarian concepts of Islam that would remain to be the faith of a majority of citizens in the united Arab state.

In spite of being staunchly secular, Ba’ath Socialism celebrated Islam as proof of ‘Arab genius’, and a testament of Arab culture, values and thought.

Song and Dance

The Middle East and Africa 

Ba’ath Socialism seemed to have arrived at a ripe moment in modern Arab history because from 1940s onwards a number of anti-colonial movements in Iraq, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen and Syria were all being lead by outfits declaring themselves to be adherents of Arab Socialism.

In 1948, a young military Colonel in Egypt, Gammal Abdel Nasser, formed the clandestine ‘Free Officers Movement’.

The group consisted of Egyptian army officers driven by the ideas of Arab Socialism/Ba’ath Socialism.

In 1952 the movement overthrew Egypt’s pro-British monarchy in a coup and declared Egypt to be an independent Arab Socialist Republic.

Leading members of The Free Officers Movement soon after overthrowing the Egyptian monarchy in 1952. Gammal Abdel Nasser is third from right (sitting).
Leading members of The Free Officers Movement soon after overthrowing the Egyptian monarchy in 1952. Gammal Abdel Nasser is third from right (sitting).

Egyptian army tanks move in on the roads of Cairo during the 1952 Free Officers’ coup.
Egyptian army tanks move in on the roads of Cairo during the 1952 Free Officers’ coup.

Interestingly, the Free Officers Movement and coup were initially supported by the anti-colonial right-wing religious group, the Muslim Brotherhood.

But once Nasser began unfolding his policies ‘to modernise the Egyptian economy and society,’ and claimed that Islam was best served when practiced in private, the Muslim Brotherhood turned against his regime.

In 1954 it tried to assassinate Nasser who responded by unleashing a brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and the conservative clergy.

Inspired by Nasser, a group of young officers in Iraq successfully overthrew the Iraqi monarchy in 1958. Though the new regime at once declared Iraq to be a republic, it did not form an Arab Socialist Party like Nasser.

That changed when in a counter coup (in 1963) another group of officers took over and formed the Iraq Ba’ath Socialist Party. But the situation remained fluent and by 1966 the Ba’ath Socialists were ousted in a coup only to return and stabilise their power in 1968.

Ba’ath Socialism became Iraq’s central ideology and the Ba’ath Socialist Party the country’s ruling outfit. This party and ideology in Iraq would last till 2003 until the fall of its last main man Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Members of Iraq’s Ba’ath Socialist Party holding a press conference after taking over power in 1963.
Members of Iraq’s Ba’ath Socialist Party holding a press conference after taking over power in 1963.

Ever since its independence in 1949, Syria had been in turmoil and witnessed a number of coups most of which were backed and planned by the Syrian Ba’ath Socialist Party.

In 1956, Syria also became one of the first Arab countries to enter the ‘Soviet camp’ as opposed to the ‘American camp.’ Nasser’s Egypt soon followed Syria’s lead and signed various defense, economic and cultural pacts with the Soviet Union.

To fully realise Arab/Ba’ath Socialism’s main doctrinal thrust of enacting a united Arab nation, in 1958 Syria and Egypt merged to become the United Arab Republic (UAR).

The experiment was a disaster as the Syrian side thought Nasser was undermining Syrian interests. The union was dissolved when the Ba’ath Socialist Party in Syria engineered another coup in 1961.

Till 1970, Syrian politics was caught in a tense tussle between the radical and moderate factions of the Ba’ath Socialist Party until the party and government were taken over by Hafizul Asad, an Army General.

Asad, an Alawite Muslim – a breakaway Shia Muslim sect – would go on to stabilize Syria and rule as dictator till his death in 2000.

Under him the Ba’ath Socialist Party and regime became the most stable, as well as radical in any Arab country.

Hafizul Asad talks to foreign media in Damascus after becoming Syria’s new head of state and leader of the country’s Ba’ath Socialist Party in 1970.
Hafizul Asad talks to foreign media in Damascus after becoming Syria’s new head of state and leader of the country’s Ba’ath Socialist Party in 1970.

A 1970 poster of the Young Socialist Alliance, an international group of leftist student outfits allied to Ba’ath/Arab Socialist parties and regimes in Egypt, Syria and Iraq and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO).
A 1970 poster of the Young Socialist Alliance, an international group of leftist student outfits allied to Ba’ath/Arab Socialist parties and regimes in Egypt, Syria and Iraq and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO).

In Algeria during that country’s nationalist struggle against French colonialism that began to peak in the 1950s, the movement’s main outfit the Organisation Spéciale (Special Organisation) began to be drawn towards the ‘liberation philosophy’ of Arab/Ba’ath Socialism.

In 1954 The Special Organisation merged with various small left-wing nationalist groups and guerilla organisations to form the National Liberation Front (or the FLN – Front de Libération Nationale) that became the largest nationalist outfit during the Algerian liberation movement against French colonialists.

Thousands of Algerians and French died between 1954 and 1962 in the war. When the French finally agreed to leave Algeria in 1962, the FLN became the first ruling party of independent Algeria.

Right away tensions emerged between FLN’s radical leader, Ahmed Ben Bella and the more moderate, Houari Boumedienne. In 1965 Boumedienne, with the help of the newly formed Algerian army, toppled Ben Bella in a coup and became Algeria’s second head of state.

He outlawed all other political parties, made FLN the sole ruling party of Algeria, initiated a number of socialist economic polices, and cracked down on Islamist and conservative religious groups.

But unlike Arab Socialists in Iraq, Syria and Egypt, Boumedienne did not aggressively push his country into the Soviet sphere of influence. He was, however, equally vocal in his criticism of pro-US Arab monarchies, Israel, Islamists and capitalism.

A female fighter of the FLN posing with her gun during the Algerian War of Independence against the French.
A female fighter of the FLN posing with her gun during the Algerian War of Independence against the French.

Police surround the body of a French military officer assassinated by FLN members in the Algerian city of Algiers in 1959.
Police surround the body of a French military officer assassinated by FLN members in the Algerian city of Algiers in 1959.

Houari Boumedienne (right) in 1972. He ruled Algeria and headed the FLN from 1965 till 1978, putting Algeria ‘on the socialist path.’
Houari Boumedienne (right) in 1972. He ruled Algeria and headed the FLN from 1965 till 1978, putting Algeria ‘on the socialist path.’

During the height of a civil war (between Egypt-backed nationalists and Saudi-supported monarchists) and anti-colonial movement (against the British forces) in the northern part of Yemen, the two main outfits leading the nationalist movement were the Yemeni National Liberation Front (NLF) and the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY).

Both the political and guerilla groups were steeped in Arab Socialism and were being led by Marxists.

When the fighting spilled into the South of the country it intensified, so much so that the NLF and FLOSY began to attack each another in spite of the fact that both were inspired by Nasser’s Arab Socialism and were being operated by Marxists.

In 1967, NLF and FLOSY defeated the monarchists and drove out the British from the south. NLF then went on to crush the FLOSY and declared the south as an independent republic.

In 1970, NLF named South Yemen as the Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen and formed the country’s sole ruling party, the Yemeni Socialist Party.

The party right away signed defense, cultural and economic pacts with communist regimes in Soviet Union, China and Cuba.

North Yemen fell into the hands of forces being backed and funded by Saudi Arabia and the US.

British soldiers pin National Liberation Front (NLF) sympathisers to the wall in Aden, Yemen, 1967.
British soldiers pin National Liberation Front (NLF) sympathisers to the wall in Aden, Yemen, 1967.

Three leading members of Yemen’s NLF: Salim Rubai Ali (who became President of South Yemen), Abdul Fattah Ismail, and Ali al-Nasir Muhammad al-Hasani.
Three leading members of Yemen’s NLF: Salim Rubai Ali (who became President of South Yemen), Abdul Fattah Ismail, and Ali al-Nasir Muhammad al-Hasani.

In Libya another admirer of Arab Socialism and Nasser, Colonel Muammar Qadhafi, replicated Egypt’s Free Officers Movement and overthrew the Libyan monarchy in a coup in 1969.

In 1971, he formed the Arab Socialist Union (to be Libya’s sole ruling party), unleashed various radical socialist policies, and signed defense and economic pacts with the Soviet Union.

Though vehemently opposed to pro-US Arab monarchies (especially Saudi Arabia), and a close ally of the Soviet Union, Qadhafi’s Libya, unlike other Arab Socialist regimes of the time, began tempering Libya’s version of Islamic Socialism by paralleling an anti-Islamist policy with certain puritanical initiatives that saw the outlawing of the sale and consumption of alcohol, closure of nightclubs and a crackdown on Marxists in universities and colleges.

In 1976 he published a book (called the ‘Green Book’) in which he described his understanding of Islamic Socialism. The book became a compulsory read for school and college students.

A young Libyan college student blushes after shaking hands with the then 29-year-old Qadhafi in 1970. Also seen in the picture is Egyptian leader, Abdel Nasser, who was on a visit to Libya.
A young Libyan college student blushes after shaking hands with the then 29-year-old Qadhafi in 1970. Also seen in the picture is Egyptian leader, Abdel Nasser, who was on a visit to Libya.

Two opponents of the Qaddafi regime hanged in public in 1977.
Two opponents of the Qaddafi regime hanged in public in 1977.

After engulfing Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Libya, versions of Arab/Ba’ath Socialism made their way into other Muslim countries like Sudan and Somalia as well.

Sudan gained its independence from Britain in 1956. Between 1957 and 1969, the country experienced a turbulent period of democratically elected right-wing coalition governments and one military coup (1958).

In 1969, a military coup shaped on the dynamics of Nasser’s Free Officers Movement took power.

The movement and coup were led by Gaafar Nimeiry, a self-professed Arab Socialist and Nasser enthusiast.

On assuming power, Nimeiry announced his plan to base the country’s society, politics and economics on ‘independent Sudanese Socialism.’

The Nimeiry regime’s first cabinet included a number of communists who helped him devise and implement a series of socialistic economic policies.

He also devised policies to restrict intervention and influence of conservative Islamic elements in the workings of the mosques and educational institutions, suggesting that Islam was best served when practiced in private.

Nimeiry struck strong relations with Arab Socialist regimes in Libya, Egypt, Syria and Iraq and with the Soviet Union.

Perturbed by the Nimeiry regime’s strong socialist and secular orientation, various right-wing Islamist outfits merged to form the Ansar. After failing to dislodge the regime, the Ansar (in 1971) took up arms and went to war with government forces.

In a bloody battle that followed, the Ansar were routed and its leader escaped abroad. In 1971, Nimeiry formed the Sudan Socialist Union (SSU) that became Sudan’s sole ruling party.

Gaffar Nimeiry lights a cigarette after taking over power in Sudan, 1969.
Gaffar Nimeiry lights a cigarette after taking over power in Sudan, 1969.

He described Sudan to be a ‘Socialist Democracy’ in which Islam played a central but private role and was not to be mixed with politics and government.

Somalia gained independence from European colonial rule in 1960. In 1969, the military under Major General Mohamed Siad Barre pulled off a military coup and dissolved the parliament and suspended the Supreme Court.

Barre at once rolled out a series of socialist economic policies and a literacy program that dramatically increased the country’s literacy rate.

Apart from taking Somalia into the ‘Soviet camp,’ Barre also forged strong links with Arab Socialist states. He then formed the Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party and based its manifesto on ‘scientific socialism and the egalitarian tenants of Islam.’

Apart from putting large agrarian and industrial interests in the hands of the state, the Barre regime also took control of the mosques and actively discouraged the mixing of Islam and politics.

An Islamic Socialist tendency in the politics of Iran had also begun to develop from 1950 onwards. The secular and democratic National Front founded by Mohammad Mossadegh consisted of a number of Islamic Socialists.

In 1951, the National Front that was voted in as the leading party in the Iranian parliament (Iran was a constitutional monarchy), managed to form a government, nationalise Iran’s oil industry and eventually ousted the Shah of Iran and declared the country to be a democratic republic.

A 1973 poster showing Said Barre rallying supporters of the Third World Socialist movements.
A 1973 poster showing Said Barre rallying supporters of the Third World Socialist movements.

However, in 1953, the Shah, with the help of British and American intelligence agencies, the Iranian military and sections of Iran’s Islamic clergy, engineered a coup and toppled the Mossadegh government.

After Mossadegh’s fall, Islamic Socialism in Iran took a more radical turn. In 1965, a group of leftist students at the Tehran University formed the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MK).

Taking its inspiration from Iranian intellectual and author, Ali Shariati, MK advocated an ideology that fused Islamic imagery with Marxist concepts.

Shariati was a sociologist who had studied in Paris and was jailed for his anti-Shah lectures and writings when he returned to Iran in 1964.

Shariati’s writings and talks became popular among university and college students when he began to express revolutionary Marxist concepts with the help of traditional Shia Muslim imagery and language, intensely attacking not only the Iranian monarchy, but the Shia clergy and the communists as well.

Dr. Ali Shariati delivering a lecture in Tehran in 1972.
Dr. Ali Shariati delivering a lecture in Tehran in 1972.

By 1971, the Shah’s regime had begun to denounce him as an ‘Islamic Marxist’ and a Soviet agent. He was arrested and forced into exile in 1975 where he died of a heart attack (in 1977) aged just 43.

The MK expressed Shariati’s ideas in a violent manner and began an urban armed guerilla campaign against the Shah.

The organisation also played an active role during the 1979 Iranian Revolution that toppled the Shah – so much so that forces supporting Iranian Islamist leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, relied heavily on the armed cadres of MK to confront the Shah’s soldiers and police.

But after the revolution when the Iranian Islamists and the clergy managed to seize the government and impose strict ‘Islamic laws’, the MK began an urban guerilla movement against the Islamic regime.

Denouncing the regime as being autocratic and reactionary, the MK fought the regime’s Islamic guards and the police. Hundreds died in the battles and dozens of MK members were executed.

Logo of the Mujahidin-e-Khalq (MK) fusing Islamic and revolutionary Marxist imageries.
Logo of the Mujahidin-e-Khalq (MK) fusing Islamic and revolutionary Marxist imageries.

MK activists take over a building at the Tehran University as a protest against the Islamic regime in 1981.
MK activists take over a building at the Tehran University as a protest against the Islamic regime in 1981.

East and South Asia

In Indonesia the groundwork for Islamic Socialism was undertaken by former communist, Tan Malaka.

During the Indonesians’ movement for independence from Dutch colonialists (mainly led by Kosno Sukarno), Malaka argued strongly that communism and Islam were compatible, and that, in Indonesia, revolution should be built upon both.

Tan Malaka also saw Islam as holding the potential for unifying the working classes.

At the time of Malaka’s death in 1949 (the year Indonesia became an independent country), its first head of state, Kosno Sukarno, adopted many of Malaka’s ideas by granting patronage to Indonesia’s communist party (the PKI) and Islamic Socialists inspired by Malaka.

Sukarno ruled Indonesia till 1967.

Former Indonesian communist turned Islamic Socialist, Tan Malaka. His ideas influenced the country’s first ruler, Kosono Sukarno, who ruled between 1949 and 1967.
Former Indonesian communist turned Islamic Socialist, Tan Malaka. His ideas influenced the country’s first ruler, Kosono Sukarno, who ruled between 1949 and 1967.

Another Asian country where the idea and concept of Islamic Socialism managed to seep into mainstream imagination was Pakistan.

As mentioned earlier, two of the earliest scholars who had theorised about this concept (in South Asia) were Ghulam Ahmad Parvez and Dr. Khalifa Hakim.

There was also a string of Islamic Socialists in Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League that became Pakistan’s first ruling party after the creation of the country in 1947.

However, this section in the party remained on the fringes.

In the early 1960s (during the secular and pro-US military dictatorship of Ayub Khan), a group of intellectuals led by poet, painter and author, Hanif Ramay, emerged in Lahore and began working on giving a more focused look to the Islamic Socialist ideas of Parvez and Khalifa, and to also fuse in elements from Ba’ath Socialism in the context of a non-Arab Muslim country like Pakistan.

The project also included the publishing of a monthly Urdu literary magazine called ‘Nusrat’ that, apart from publishing Urdu poetry, short stories and literary commentaries on the works of Urdu poets and writers, also ran pieces on the works of Ghulam Ahmed Parvez, Dr. Khalifa and Michal Aflaq.

After the 1965 Pakistan-India war ended in a stalemate, Ayub Khan dismissed his young Foreign Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (for showing dissent).

Bhutto befriended a retired bureaucrat and veteran Marxist ideologue, J A. Rahim, and both decided to form a populist left-wing party to challenge the Ayub dictatorship.

In 1966, Bhutto also came into contact with Hanif Ramay who presented him his group’s work on Islamic Socialism.

Bhutto and Rahim formed the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in 1967. A number of Marxist and progressive intellectuals, journalists, student leaders and trade unionists joined the party, but it was Ramay’s Islamic Socialist group who prevailed when the time came to author the party’s manifesto.

In a series of articles (by Ramay and Safdar Mir) in ‘Nusrat,’ the writers explained (the PPP’s) Islamic Socialism as meaning:

  • Elimination of feudalism.
  • Elimination of uncontrolled capitalism and the encouragement of a system based on freedom of opportunity and/or an economic system closely monitored by the government and the state.
  • Nationalisation of major banks, industries and schools.
  • Encouraging the workers to participate in the running of factories.
  • Promoting democracy and the building of democratic institutions.
All this was then explained to be a modern, 20th Century extension of the principals of equality and justice as practiced by the first Muslim regime in Madina and Mecca headed by Islam’s Prophet, and of the many egalitarian economic and social proclamations found in the Holy Qu’ran.

PPP’s Islamic Socialism denounced the conservative religious parties and the clergy of being representatives of monopolist capitalists, feudal lords, military dictators, the ‘imperialist forces of capitalism,’ and of being agents of backwardness and social and spiritual stagnation.

Poet, painter and author, Hanif Ramay, is claimed to be one of the main ideologues and theorists of modern Islamic Socialism in Pakistan. He was also one of the founding members of the PPP.
Poet, painter and author, Hanif Ramay, is claimed to be one of the main ideologues and theorists of modern Islamic Socialism in Pakistan. He was also one of the founding members of the PPP.

In spite of the fact that the right-wing Islamic party, the Jamat-i-Islami, managed to get over a hundred different Islamic ulema and clergymen to declare PPP’s socialism to be ‘atheistic’ and ‘anti-Islam,’ the party managed to sweep the 1970 elections in West Pakistan.

In 1972 (after East Pakistan broke away to become Bangladesh), the PPP became Pakistan’s first popularly elected governing party.

Z A. Bhutto speaking at a leftist students rally in Karachi in 1969. He became the first popularly elected Prime Minister in Pakistan and his party, the PPP, won a majority in former West Pakistan on a manifesto promising the imposition of Islamic Socialism.
Z A. Bhutto speaking at a leftist students rally in Karachi in 1969. He became the first popularly elected Prime Minister in Pakistan and his party, the PPP, won a majority in former West Pakistan on a manifesto promising the imposition of Islamic Socialism.

Afghanistan was the country where the last hurrah of Islamic Socialism echoed.

In 1978, the communist Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) of Afghanistan toppled the nationalistic dictatorship of Muhammad Daoud Khan with the help of sympathetic officers in the Afghan military.

The event was named the ‘Saur Revolution;’ or the ‘Spring Revolution’ (Saur in Dari means spring).

The PDP was an outright Marxist outfit that began to rapidly unfold a number of communistic social and economic policies.

But when the PDP regime began facing resistance and resentment from the Afghan clergy and landed elite in the country’s rural and semi-rural areas, its ally, the Soviet Union, asked the PDP regime to slow down its Marxist reforms.

PDP quickly began to shed off its revolutionary Marxist excesses and replace them with rhetoric being used at the time by Islamic Socialists and the Ba’ath Socialists.

For example, apart from constantly quoting Marx and Lenin, the PDP government also began talking about the similarities between the economic systems outlined by Marxism/Socialism and Islam.

Nevertheless, in December 1979, severe infighting in PDP saw the Soviet troops walking into Afghanistan and propping up a more moderate regime led by PDP’s Babrak Karmal.

Flag of the Khalaq faction of the PDP.
Flag of the Khalaq faction of the PDP.

Young women take out a rally in Kabul to welcome the 1978 ‘Saur Revolution.’
Young women take out a rally in Kabul to welcome the 1978 ‘Saur Revolution.’

Decline and Demise

The outbreak of a range of movements, coups and revolutions associated with various versions of Islamic Socialism in Asia, Africa and the Middle East not only attracted grave concern from Arab monarchies and the US, the economic maneuvers undertaken by regimes fusing socialism with certain aspects of Islam largely failed to achieve the kind of economic equilibrium they had promised.

One of the first examples of the above was played out in Indonesia. On the eve of Indonesia’s independence (from the Dutch) in 1949, Kusono Sukarno, had become head of state.

He moved Indonesia towards what he called ‘guided democracy’ that was largely dominated by his own party, the Indonesian National Party (PNI), and the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI).

Sukarno and his PNI offered and ran Indonesia on an ideology based on a ‘threefold blend’ i.e. nationalism, Islam and communism.

But on his way to translate this ideology into the economic and social spheres of the Indonesian society, he began to face stiff resistance from Islamic outfits and from those segments of the military that wanted Indonesia to have closer links with the US and the West.

From 1960 onwards, Indonesia’s economic situation began to worsen. In 1965 Sukarno’s communist supporters (the PKI) became disillusioned by his slow pace of reform.

The communists mobilised a pro-PKI faction in the military and attempted a coup against Sukarno.

The coup was crushed by the pro-West faction of the military and followed by a brutal crackdown against the communists and their sympathisers.

In the ensuing violence, over 50,000 people were slaughtered, mainly by the military and the Islamic outfits that it used to purge the left.

In 1967 Major General Suharto disposed Sukarno and took over the reigns of power.

Though PKI was outlawed, and Suhartho navigated Indonesia towards the ‘US camp,’ he eventually came down hard on the Islamic outfits as well that had been mobilised by the military to crush the communist uprising.

A communist student at the Jakarta University being roughed up by soldiers and Islamic student activists during the military’s purge against leftists in Indonesia in 1965.
A communist student at the Jakarta University being roughed up by soldiers and Islamic student activists during the military’s purge against leftists in Indonesia in 1965.

Major General Suharto (in fatigues) with members of the Indonesian military’s anti-communist faction. Suhartho toppled Sukarno and went on to rule Indonesia till the early 1990s until he was himself overthrown by a popular democratic movement.
Major General Suharto (in fatigues) with members of the Indonesian military’s anti-communist faction. Suhartho toppled Sukarno and went on to rule Indonesia till the early 1990s until he was himself overthrown by a popular democratic movement.

The second major setback that Islamic Socialism experienced was in Egypt.

Nasser had ruled supreme as a popular head of state since 1952’s Free Officers Coup and had rung in a number of sweeping socialist reforms.

His regime also became an inspiration and backer of various Arab Socialist movements in the Middle East, offering a socialist and secular Muslim alternative to Arab peoples under pro-US but puritanical Arab monarchies.

However, Nasser lost much of his influence and clout when the Egyptian armed forces were routed by the Israeli army and air force in 1967.

Millions of Egyptians gathered to mourn Nasser’s death in 1970.
Millions of Egyptians gathered to mourn Nasser’s death in 1970.

But Nasser’s regime remained largely popular till his death from a heart attack in 1970.

His successor (and former comrade), Anwar Sadat, became the head of Egypt’s Arab Socialist Union and the country’s new head of state.

Sadat continued Nasser’s socialist policies and also kept up Egypt’s financial and moral support for radical Arab Socialist regimes and movements and the PLO.

However, though the 1973 Egypt-Israel War ended in a stalemate, the country’s economy was found reeling from the war’s impact.

Saudi Arabia offered to bail out Egypt’s economy by offering millions of dollars worth of aid and oil.

By accepting Saudi help, Sadat officially restored relations with the Saudi monarchy that had been severed by Nasser.

The Saudi monarchy then asked Sadat to rehabilitate thousands of members of the right-wing Muslim Brotherhood who had been jailed by Nasser or sent into exile (mostly to Saudi Arabia).

Sadat lifted the ban on the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In 1974, Sadat eventually decided to pull Egypt out of the ‘Soviet camp’ and ordered Soviet military advisors, technicians and citizens who had been stationed in Egypt to leave the country.

In 1976, Sadat finally announced the end of Egypt’s socialist experiment and in 1977 changed the name of Egypt’s ruling party from Arab Socialist Union to National Democratic Party.

He ousted the last remnants of Arab Socialism from the party and ordered a crackdown on students and members of the intelligentsia who opposed his move.

Though Egypt remained largely secular, and Sadat managed to gain the support of the Muslim Brotherhood (whom he used to purge leftist students and members of the intelligentsia), he ended up offending the Brotherhood as well when he decided to enact ties with archenemy, Israel.

Sadat was assassinated in 1981 for this by a militant faction of the Brotherhood. But his successor, Hosni Mubarak, continued his policies for the next three decades until he was toppled in 2011 in a widespread democratic revolution (the Arab Spring).

Sadat (fourth from left) with his family in Cairo in 1975. Sadat put an end to Egypt’s socialist experiment.
Sadat (centre) with his family in Cairo -AP Photo

Taking Sadat’s lead was Pakistan’s ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) headed by Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

The Bhutto regime had been elected (in 1970) on the appeal of the PPP’s socialist platform and chants of Islamic Socialism.

Overtaken by the economic crises that hit the world after the 1973 Egypt-Israel War, the Bhutto regime toned down its socialist reforms and rhetoric and entered into a number of agreements and pacts with oil-rich gulf monarchies.

Bhutto began by purging the radical left factions within the PPP and then dished out a number of constitutional concessions to right-wing Islamic parties that were close to Saudi Arabia.

He believed that this way he would be able to appease and neutralise these parties.

Z A. Bhutto (right) hosting a dinner for Saudi king, Faisal, in Karachi (1975). On the King’s ‘advice,’ Bhutto toned down his socialist rhetoric and smoothend his relations with Pakistan’s Islamic parties.
Z A. Bhutto (right) hosting a dinner for Saudi king, Faisal, in Karachi (1975). On the King’s ‘advice,’ Bhutto toned down his socialist rhetoric and smoothend his relations with Pakistan’s Islamic parties.

Just before the 1977 election, the words socialism and Islamic Socialism were only minimally used in the PPP’s new manifesto.

However, Bhutto’s new-found closeness to Middle Eastern monarchies, his purges against the left and his concessions to the Islamic parties failed to stem the emergence of a right-wing movement against his regime in 1977.

He was eventually toppled in a reactionary military coup led by General Ziaul Haq and then hanged in 1979 through a sham trial.

Men pray and women wail just outside the jail where Z A. Bhutto was hanged in April 1979. The picture was taken in May 1979.
Men pray and women wail just outside the jail where Z A. Bhutto was hanged in April 1979. The picture was taken in May 1979.

Algeria traded the socialist path till 1978 or till the death of Houari Boumédienne who had ruled the country since 1965.

Colonel Chadli Bendjedid became the head of the ruling FLN party and then the new head of state.

In the early 1980s, Bendjedid began to slowly reverse Boumedienne’s socialist reforms and started negotiations with FLN’s Islamic opponents who had been opposed to FLN’s Arab Socialism and secularism.

Though Bendjedid managed to rule Algeria till 1991, his economic reforms that saw Algeria opening up its economy could not curtail the country’s deteriorating economy and the resultant unrest largely led by Algeria’s newly emboldened Islamic parties.

In 1987, Bendjedid almost completely folded FLN’s socialist agenda and ideology and began to warm up to the US, the West and the gulf monarchies.

Wreckage of a government bus that was torched by protesters during the anti-government riots in Algeria in 1988. The riots confirmed the collapse of Algerian socialism.
Wreckage of a government bus that was torched by protesters during the anti-government riots in Algeria in 1988. The riots confirmed the collapse of Algerian socialism.

In 1991, the government decided to hold Algeria’s first multi-party election.

However, when municipal elections were won by a group of radical Islamist parties, the military intervened and postponed the general election.

The military blamed Bendjedid for unwittingly strengthening the Islamists and putting the country’s secular foundations in danger. He was ousted in 1991.

Between 1992 and 2002, Algeria witnessed an intense war between Islamists and the military in which thousands of Algerians were killed.

Brutalities took place on both sides. The military killed hundreds of Islamists and their sympathisers, whereas the Islamists slaughtered numerous civilians through suicide attacks, assassinations and beheadings.

The Islamist insurgency was brought under control and subdued (if not entirely crushed) by the military in 2002.

Algeria’s Islamist guerilla fighters holding a meeting in 1996. Groups of militant Islamists went to war with the Algerian military between 1992 and 2002. Thousands of Algerians were killed in the conflict until the Algerian military finally managed to subdue the militants.
Algeria’s Islamist guerilla fighters holding a meeting in 1996. Groups of militant Islamists went to war with the Algerian military between 1992 and 2002. Thousands of Algerians were killed in the conflict until the Algerian military finally managed to subdue the militants.

One of the Muslim countries where socialism did rather well as an economic and social initiative was Somalia.

The socialist regime there (that came to power in 1969), managed to guarantee a relatively stable economy and dramatically raised the rate of literacy.

In 1977, Somalia entered into a territorial conflict with Ethiopia, putting its main economic and political ally the Soviet Union in a quagmire.

This was because at the time the regime in Ethiopia too was in the Soviet camp. After failing to deescalate the conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia, the Soviets decided to side with the Ethiopians.

Offended by the move, the Somalian president, Siad Barre, broke off ties with the Soviet Union and accepted American military and economic help.

In 1980, he disbanded the Somalian Revolutionary Socialist Party and reversed his socialist reforms, also loosening the curbs his government had imposed on the activities of liberal democratic parties as well as on Islamic groups.

With American aid, Barre was also able to build one of the biggest armies in Africa.

In the mid-1980s, the Barre regime began to face unrest and charges of corruption and totalitarianism.

In 1986, Barree got injured in a car accident and on his return could not stop Somalia’s slide into anarchy.

In 1991, his regime collapsed and Somalia erupted into a crippling civil war between various political and tribal factions.

Today Somalia remains to be in total anarchy.

Women members of Somalia’s paramilitary units march out to battle the Ethiopian army in 1977.
Women members of Somalia’s paramilitary units march out to battle the Ethiopian army in 1977.

Residents of Somlian capital, Mogadishu, ride a truck out of the city to escape the civil war that erupted in Somalia after the collapse of the Siad Barre’s regime (1991).
Residents of Somlian capital, Mogadishu, ride a truck out of the city to escape the civil war that erupted in Somalia after the collapse of the Siad Barre’s regime (1991).

The Soviet Union’s support to Ethiopia in 1977 also offended Sudan that too had a territorial grudge with Ethiopia.

The socialist Gaafar Nimeiry regime cut off ties with the Soviet Union and moved towards the Soviets’ communist rival, China.

Detecting a wobble in the government, and with the country’s economy under duress, the militant Islamist group, the Ansar that had been routed by Nimeiry in 1971 returned to trigger another armed insurgency.

Ansar tried to mobilise some anti-Nimeiry factions in the military to mount a coup but failed.

However, this time Nimeiry agreed to hold negotiations with the Ansar who demanded that he reverse his socialist policies, denounce Islamic Socialism as an atheistic concoction and replace secular rule with an Islamic one.

Nimeiry released hundreds of Ansar members, moved Sudan closer to the US and in 1981 announced a series of ‘Islamic laws.’

He was finally ousted in a military coup in 1985 that was backed by Islamic parties and other anti-Nimeiry outfits.

Famous Sudanese Islamist ideologue, Hasan al-Turabi.  Turabi opposed the Nimeiry regime across the 1970s, but became part of the regime when Nimeiry broke off ties with the Soviet Union and imposed a number of ‘Islamic laws’ in Sudan that were devised by Turabi.
Famous Sudanese Islamist ideologue, Hasan al-Turabi. Turabi opposed the Nimeiry regime across the 1970s, but became part of the regime when Nimeiry broke off ties with the Soviet Union and imposed a number of ‘Islamic laws’ in Sudan that were devised by Turabi.

In 1989, when the Soviet Union was bordering on the brink of disintegration and communism was in retreat, the socialist regime in South Yemen dissolved itself and joined with North Yemen to remake Yemen into a single country.

In Afghanistan, the PDP regime fell in the hands of US/Saudi/Pakistan-backed and funded Islamic forces in 1989.

The Ba’ath Socialist regime in Iraq and Qadhafi’s Islamic Socialist government in Libya began to roll back their socialist polices from the 1990s onwards.

Both fell in the 2000s.

Protesters tie ropes around Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad to pull it down, 2003.
Protesters tie ropes around Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad to pull it down, 2003.

Islamic/Ba’ath/Arab Socialism:

Achievements

- Ideologically mobilised nationalist movements in Muslim countries caught between European colonialism, monarchial decadence and conservative ulema. - Offered a ‘third way’ between Western/American capitalism and Soviet communism. - Wrestled the initiative to interpret the socio-political aspects of Islam from the clergy and conservative ulema and radical Islamists. - Tried to construct an Islamic version (and justification) for secularism. - Co-opted various Marxist, socialist and progressive strands and entities operating in Muslim countries and got them all on a single platform. - Adopted modern social, political and cultural concepts in Muslim societies but discarded these concepts’ colonial/western legacies. - Revived the idea of ‘Ijtihad’ (independent discussion on Islamic law and faith) that had been repressed in Muslim lands for centuries. - Highlighted Islam as a progressive, dynamic and rational faith. - Eschewed differences in Muslim societies on the basis of clans, sects and tribes. - Showed creativity in designing economic and cultural policies and then expressed them with the help of progressive interpretations of Islamic texts and imagery. - Added newer, more progressive dimensions to commentaries and the study of Islam and its place in society and politics. - Encouraged the participation of women in the Muslim world to take a direct part in economic, cultural and political aspects of life. - Emphasised the importance of having high literacy rates. - Gave a political identity to middle-class youth and a sense of economic and ideological participation to the working classes.

Failures

- Remained autocratic and undemocratic in nature. - Relied heavily on the military. - Undermined the people’s political sense and rights. - Was intolerant towards opposing political and economic ideas. - Was too militaristic and yet failed over and over again in wars against foreign enemies. - Regularly intervened in matters of other countries. - Its economic maneuvers remained largely half-baked and carelessly managed. - Though rejected American hegemony and political influence in the name of independent economic and political existence, it banked on Soviet expertise, aid and patronage. - Violently repressed Islamists and Islamic outfits but then turned supportively towards them when deciding to purge opposing leftists. - Unwittingly recharged Islamist and radical Islamic forces that eventually emerged to offer the ‘Islamic option’ with the collapse of Islamic Socialism.

 

Research papers and essays used:

-Islamic Socialism: NA Jawad - The Muslim World (1975) -The Sources & Meaning of Islamic Socialism: F. Rahman – Religion & Political Modernization (1974) -Islamic Economics & Islamic Subeconomy: T. Kuren – JSTOR (1995) -The Ba’ath Party: Rise & Metamorphosis: JA Devlin- JSTOR (1985) -Withered socialism or whether socialism? The radical Arab states as populist?corporatist regimes: NN Ayubi - Third -World Quarterly (1992) -Critical analysis of capitalism, socialism and Islamic economic order: M. Ismail (1982) -Arab Socialism: A documentary Survey: SA Hanna (1969)

 


Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com

 

 


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