Guest post: Islam and the left – against secular fundamentalism and philo-Islamism, for Islamic communism!

This is a guest post by Ali H

"I am going to give you such a weapon that the police and the army will not be able to stand against it. It is the weapon of the Prophet, but you are not aware of it. That weapon is patience and righteousness. No power on earth can stand against it." - Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan

“O you who have attained to faith! Do not deprive your charitable deeds of all worth by stressing your own benevolence and hurting [the feelings of the needy], as does he who spends his wealth only to be seen and praised by men, and believes not in God and the Last Day: for his parable is that of a smooth rock with [a little] earth upon it – and then a rainstorm smites it and leaves it hard and bare.” – Al-Qur'an 2:264

“To live like a tree in solitude and free
and like a forest in solidarity,
this yearning is ours.”
-          Nazim Hekmet

The left and Islam

In general, the left takes one of two positions towards Islam. For me, as a Muslim and as a communist, both are completely inadequate.

Since 9/11, the dominant position on the left has been one I call “philo-Islamism”. This is an uncritical orientation towards the conservative ideologies that currently shout the loudest (although are far from representative) in Muslim communities. There are at least three motivations for this, and only one of them begins to take the content of Islam at all seriously. The first motivation is the most honourable. Many leftists see Muslims as a locus of resistance against the capitalist governments which took us to war in the Middle East, against racism and state racism, and against Western imperialism. Especially since the “war on terror”, if Muslims are attacked as Muslims, it is right to defend them as Muslims. Therefore, quite understandably, leftists orientate towards what they imagine Muslims to be. As Hakim Bey has written, “in the context of the new One World it now constitutes by definition one of the very few existing mass movements which cannot be englobed into the unity of any would-be Consensus. Unfortunately the spearhead of resistance – ‘fundamentalism‘ -- tends to reduce the complexity of Islam into an artificially coherent ideology -- ‘Islamism‘ -- which clearly fails to speak to the normal human desire for difference & complexity.”

Less honourably, this can take the cynical, opportunistic form of seeing Muslims as recruitment-fodder, as naive receptacles for party ideology - so long as the party ideology comes packaged in a form our sensitive Muslims stomachs can digest. In a tiny handful of cases, as with George Galloway or Lauren Booth, or some of Galloway’s former allies now involved in Counterfire, they are actually attracted to Islam and seek to engage with it. But this engagement is hampered by the romantic, Orientalist ideas they have of Islam, and by their reduction of Islam to its most conservative elements. (Hakim Bey again: “But Islamism will never provide the dialectic negation of [capitalist] Empire because Islamism itself is nothing but an empire of negation, of resentment and reaction. Islamism has nothing to offer the struggle against Globalism except desiccated theofascist spasms of violence.”) Whatever their motivation, none of these leftists take seriously the real, radical, emancipatory content of Islam as a faith.

The second position the left takes towards Islam was dominant up until 9/11. It is what I call “secular fundamentalism”. Secular fundamentalists see all religion as oppressive, out-dated, patriarchal and otherwise generally politically incorrect – but for some reason it is Islam they hate the most. Secular fundamentalists come from the centre left (“muscular liberals” and “decent leftists”), where it veers close to neocon positions. But they also come from the ranks of orthodox Marxists and orthodox anarchists. All these stripes are over-represented in this blog’s links. This approach is strategically limited, because it can never win over the Muslim masses who make up an ever-growing part of the Western working class. But it is intellectually inadequate, because it refuses to see that Islamic thought might be a source of original, progressive, left-wing ideas. Why is it that Islam is viewed as the most barbaric of religions by those who profess to hate all religions?

Engaging with religious communism

There are plenty of leftists who take other spiritual traditions seriously. Michel Lowy, a French Trotskyist, wrote a book called Redemption and Utopia Redemption and Utopia: Jewish Libertarian Thought in Central Europe, which looks at some of the Jewish thinkers who have fused Judaism with anarchist and socialist thought – such as Gustav Landauer, Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem. Other examples include Henri Polak, leader of the Dutch diamond workers union; Jacob Israel De Haan, the gay rights advocate who was the first Jewish victim of Zionist terrorism; and British Orthodox Rabbi Yankev-Meyer Zalkind, a Talmudic scholar involved in East End radicalism. Wikipedia gives more examples, like Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag, kabbalist and follower of what he called altruist communismIsaac Nachman Steinberg, a Russian revolutionary and Orthodox Jew; and Rabbi Abraham Yehudah Khein, a Hasidic anarchist.

In the Christian tradition, too, we have similar examples. Cornel West’s books Black Theology and Marxist Thought (1979), Prophesy deliverance!: an Afro-American revolutionary Christianity (1982), and Prophetic Fragments (1988) set out the basis for a Christian Marxism. Liberation theology is respected across the West, and has influenced mainstream socialist thinkers like Paolo Freire.

But, as far as I know, the only significant Western Marxist or anarchist who has really expressed interest in the radical content of Islamic thought is the rather marginal Peter Lamborn Wilson (aka Hakim Bey), although a handful of bloggers, such as Eugene Plawiuk and the convert Yakoub Islam, have done so.

With the exception of Ali Shariati, most who preach “Islamic socialism” have been far from communists. With Gaddafi  as the most baleful example, what they mean by “socialism” is the same as what Stalinists mean: dictatorial state control.

However, from the days of the Prophet Muammad, founder of Islam and considered by Muslims as a messenger of God, emancipatory ideas – of social justice, of freedom and of direct democracy – have been at the heart of Islam.

Islam as a religion of social justice

Equality (`adl), mutually beneficial economics (mudarabat), and sharing and giving (sadaqa wa zakat) are central concepts in Islam. Just as the prophet Jesus turned the money-lenders out of the Temple, Muammad would allow only tents and no permanent structures in the market place of Medina. Justice is a central theme of the Koran, and this includes social and economic justice. The insistence on zakat, taxation or giving, and interdiction of riba, interest, blocks capitalist accumulation and redistributes from the wealthy to the poor. God alone is the owner of all matter and humanity holds it in trust (amanat). In particular, the fruits of the earth are held to the common treasury of humanity, and private ownership of them prohibited: according to sunnah (the Prophet’s recorded sayings), “All Muslims are partners in water, pasture and fire."

Abū Dharr al-Ghifārī, a Companion of Prophet Muammad, preached against the greed and nepotism of the rulers and for redistribution of wealth. Abū Dharr formed an Islamic commune at Al-Rabathah, refusing gifts and possessions and holding all in common: “We have a house yonder [i.e. in the life to come], to which we send the best of our possessions." Some left of centre Muslim scholars have claimed that Islam, and specifically the early Rashidun Caliphate under the “rightly guided” Caliph Umar, pioneered the welfare state through institutions such as the Bayt a-mal and Waqf. Later Caliphates (with some exceptions, such as the Ismaili Fatamid Caliphate in Cairo, sometimes known as the anti-Capliphate) tended to leave the rightly guided path and serve the aggrandisement of rulers, but the seeds of a polity based on social justice were sown. Bedouins, who evade the authority of the Caliphate, practise a form of primitive communism based on the rule of hospitality (abad), a sacred economy of the gift.

Later, the labour theory of value – the foundation of Marxism, by which communists divine the objective antagonism between capital and labour and assert that profits are unpaid wages – is anticipated in Islamic thought. Ibn Khaldun, in his great work Muqaddimah (1377), writing at the dawn of capitalist primitive accumulation, described capitalists (al-mutamawwiluun), their participation in the ruling class and their accumulation of dead capital (ar-riyaash). He argued that if profit “results from something other than a craft, the value of the resulting profit and acquired (capital) must (also) include the value of the labour by which it was obtained. Without labour, it would not have been acquired.” Ibh Khaldun, unlike the classical economists but like Marx, takes the next step: “Whoever takes someone's property, or uses him for forced labour, or presses an unjustified claim upon him, it should be known that this is what the Lawgiver had in mind when he forbade injustice.”

Within the Shi’ite tradition, social justice sometimes designated the “sixth pillar” of Islam. In the contemporary period, some Islamic thinkers have taken this line of thinking further, and been directly influenced by the Marxist tradition. Ali Shariati, a major influence on the Iranian revolution but whose legacy was suppressed under the Ayatollahs, preached a classless society. He argued for a “red Shia” way, calling on followers to hasten the utopian moment associated with the coming of the 12th Imam "even to the point of embracing martyrdom": "everyday is Ashoura, every place is Karbala."

Islam as a religion of freedom

Islam means submission: submission to God. No other form of submission is recognised as legitimate in Islam, which means there is a strong libertarian tradition within Islam. At its most radical, this has been reflected in a strong antinomian current within Islam. In fact, one of the great dialectics of Islamic history has been between antinomian movements and the centralising powers of successive Caliphates which have sought to crush them, just as the Ayatollahs negated the communist Islam of Ali Shariati, and just as Gaddafi suppressed the real socialists. The dialectic is between law (shariah) and the spiritual path (tariqah), between submission to human rulers and submission to God.

This antinomian current has acted as constantly revitalised Islam in every age. The Shi’ite tradition, which often fought under the black flag, contested the line of descent from the Prophet established by the statecraft of the dominant Sunni tradition; based on heterodoxy and secession, it was inevitable that “Revolution, or at least the hope of revolution, became a Shi'ite principle.”

This story starts from the time of the first Kharijites in the decades after the Prophet’s death, who refused the authority of the Caliph and believed any Muslim could be an Imam. Kharijites means “those who walk out”, and refers to the right (indeed obligation) of sedition against an illegitimate ruler, with some Kharijites seeing all rulers as illegitimate. The right of sedition is for them was focused on the notion that God rules through deciding the outcome of a battle, whereas rulings made in courts or parliaments are made by man and therefore insufficient; hence disobedience should be expressed through violence and regicide.

A later antinomian moment was the Zanj Rebellion against the Abbasid Caliphate in 9th century Iraq, led by the preacher ʻAlī b. Muhammad, who espoused an inflammatory doctrine of absolute social equality. The rebellion involved thousands of slaves (black, white and Indian), Bedouin Arabs and poor citizens. The Qarmatian movement a couple of decades later was another antinomian revolt against the Abbasids. Qarmatians established armed communes across the Islamic world, from Yemen to Transoxiana, awaiting the coming of the Mahdi. They rejected the institution of Hajj, and destroyed pilgrimage sites, burned religious texts, and practised vegetarianism. Small Qarmatian communes existed in mountain regions for decades and possibly centuries after the movement was crushed.

On 17 Ramazan 559/August 8, 1164, Hassan II, a mysterious Ismaili preacher, proclaimed the Qiyamat, or Great Resurrection, at Alamut in the mountains of Iran, breaking the Ramazan fast, and declared Shariah redundant: “the chains of the Law have been broken”. The Nizaris or Assassins, the Ismaili sect of Alamut, declared a non-state, an anti-Caliphate, a web of fortified communes in the mountains.

The antinomian current has flourished too within the Sunni tradition, in Sufi Islam. Some Sufi orders – the Indian Qalandars, who preach spontaneity, use cannabis and refuse work; the Nematollahis of 19th century Persia, who stretched Islam to the borders of heresy – refuse all authority.

Others have specifically refused monarchic and imperial rule. Sheikh Bedreddin led a rebellion against the Ottoman Empire in 1416; he preached no taxation without representation, direct action, direct democracy, international and interfaith human solidarity, equality and communal life. The 20th century poet Nazim Hikmet claimed that Bedreddin and his companions emphasize that all things must be shared "except the lips of the beloved." Later, Emir Abdel Kader, a sheikh who followed Sufi master Ibn Arabi, led a Algeria in a failed revolt against French colonialism. Exiled to Damascus, he worked for Muslim-Christian reconciliation. In Libya, Sufi dervishes of the Sanussi Order led revolts against Italian imperialism. Abdel Kadar and the Sanussis were part of the neo-Sufi movement, which sought to present an alternative to the puritan hyper-Orthodox modernism of Salafi Islamism (the tradition that led to al-Qaeda). Later, neo-Sufism would become routinised and form a religion of state in postcolonial North Africa, the dialectic of Caliphate and antinomy continuing to unfold.

In the twentieth century, the antinomian current was reflected in the Wäisi movement in Tartarstan, an antinomian religious social movement which refused all state authority, including resistance to service in the Tsarist army and rejection of clericalism. Wäisi devotees formed a regiment in the Red Army and formed free communes on libertarian principles during the Russian Civil War, but were ultimately slaughtered in Stalin’s Great Purge.

Islam as a religion of democracy

Islam favours direct forms of democracy, and in particular the shura form. Shura (“consultation”) is a key concept in the Koran, and is the name given to deliberative bodies in the Islamic tradition, which involve face to face, dialogical decision-making rather than rule from above. In Sunni Islam, only decisions made by consensus of the shura are binding, and in Shia Islam shuras are characteristic of moments when corrupt ruling cliques are overturned in moments of religious revival.

The shura form is governed by an ethics similar to that of the consensus–based affinity group: Usul Al-ikhtilaf, or the ethics of disagreements.

In the twentieth century, Muslims in the Russian empire formed shuras, as well as Muslim Socialist Committees, after the February revolution, just as workers elsewhere were forming soviets, creating a system of dual power in which organic forms of direct democracy faced off against the emerging bourgeois state.

Similarly, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 saw shuras formed by workers which commanded large sections of the economy for a year before being forcibly dismantled by the new regime. And in 1991 Shia, Kurdish and other communities involved in the uprisings in Iraq at the close of war spontaneously formed local shuras as an alternative source of authority, another experiment in dual power, before being abandoned by the West and crushed by Saddam’s totalitarian secular state.

Against fundamentalist secularism and philo-Islamism: for an Islamic communism

The left needs to open its mind and heart to Islam. As Hakim Bey writes, “If a genuine anti-Capitalist coalition is to appear in the world it cannot happen without Islam... The ‘revolutionary potential’ of Islam is not yet realized -- but it is real.” This does not mean that non-Muslim leftists should capitulate to the most conservative currents in Islam – the apostles of new oppressive caliphates. Nor does it mean communists should cease to criticise anti-emancipatory teachings within Islam. It is part of the communist duty to reject all orthodoxy. Islam needs a communist revolution, but capitalism needs a communist Islam. 


Sarah AB said…
I suppose, generally, many religions focus strongly on social justice (or can be interpreted that way) and many on the left are thus inspired by their religion - I am most aware of this in the context of Christianity, but clearly Islam (and I assume Judaism) has just the same potential.

A few points about specific details in Ali's piece.

"Especially since the “war on terror”, if Muslims are attacked as Muslims, it is right to defend them as Muslims."

I just wondered what kind of examples you had in mind - sometimes Muslims are either criticised, or really attacked (in the case of a war) but not *as Muslims*. And sometimes they really are attacked (in racist incidents, or in the press) because they are Muslims. But I wasn't sure what you were referring to, so I wasn't sure if I agreed.

I agreed with your criticism of Islamism, and also agreed, of course, that that doesn't repesent all Muslims.

I'm a secularist, but I don't see secularism as being about hating religion, although I suppose 'secular fundamentalism' is a fair expression. (I'm against bans on religious dress or types of building, particularly when effectively used to target one religion, Islam)

It is perhaps a little disingenuous to say 'for some reason it is Islam they hate the most'. It seems undeniable - and this is not necessarily a reflection on Islam itself, but on other historical and cultural factors - that Muslim majority countries often have bad human rights records which seem connected to their interpretation of Islam. Clearly Christian countries have problems too - or have had them in the past. I think your piece might have been more rhetorically effective if you had acknowledged that concern, and also engaged with other points which are raised WRT Islam - women's rights, gay rights, religious freedom ... For example, you say that no submission is permissable in Islam, but from an outsider's perspective it seems that submission from a wife to a husband is required by some interpretations of Islam - and of course by some interpretations of other religions too. I think you could have done all that, and still have made your case that Islam and radical left wing thought are very compatible - after all, Christianity and Judaism can *also* be used in the service of both reactionary and progressive movements.

So to sum up - sure, it's an interesting polemic, bringing out intersections between Islam and the left. But religions can be used to back up completely oppositing points of view, depending on who believe or how you interpret scripture - eg Christianity has been used to justify slavery but was also part of what drove those who campaigned against it.
A complete lovely.. perfect information about Islam. covering all aspects and briefing people to choose for the right thing. Thanks friend.
socialrepublican said…
So it's soft headed Green Eagleton bollocks to "rectify" coy John Birch Society barfly bigotry
Benjamin H. said…
An interesting article from a unique perspective, to say the least. However, I've a few questions, due to my feelings on mixing religion and politics, i.e. oil and fire. The examples given are good ones, and offer a new interpretation for the world; however, there are several counter-examples regarding Islam that can be offered. Early Arab forces managed to spread Islam fairly widely in the Middle-East, even going so far as Southern Italy. The Islamic conquests of the Indian sub-continent is a point.

Likewise, the division of non-Muslims into 'People of the Book' and worse, is brought fourth as evidence that equality under Islam is more similar to tolerance. Bernard Lewis wrote on the matter, with Islamic mistreatment towards Jews was formulated due to stereotypes and religiously-justified bigotry. Christianity was different, due to the fact that there were Christian countries with Christian armies; with the formation of Israel, Jews were given the 'pleasure' of their status being upgraded from worthy of contempt to persons of mistrust and danger.

My next 'contribution' is on modern Leftists and Islam. If I had to make a guess as to leftists dislike and are intolerant of Islam to a greater degree then other religions, I'd hazard a guess that it's due to influence of Islam on modern states. It's false that a state with a Muslim majority is inherently undemocratic; however, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent Egypt and Pakistan attract more attention.

To sum it up, Islam is the most visible fundamentalist-active religion in modern times. Israel is a (somewhat) more tolerant mix of religion and secularism, and the 'Christian Taliban' (I use the term seriously and un-ironically) haven't achieved the amount of power fundamentalist Islam has (yet).

This long rambling post will end with my thoughts on religious belief and political ideology. I don't classify myself as a leftist or rightist, but my political orientation is probably 'social-liberal/classical liberalism'. I don't have a particular fondness for any religion for various reasons, and I think they should never be mixed with politics. However, I do realize that religion is important to millions, if not billions of people; if said people can find a way to peacefully and tolerantly integrate their beliefs into a healthy, liberal political ideology, then all the better.

Apologies for the length of the post.
Jim Denham said…
"Secular fundamentalists see all religion as oppressive, out-dated, patriarchal and otherwise generally politically incorrect – but for some reason it is Islam they hate the most":

the first part of that statement (up to the hyphon), is unquestionably correct. And I for one proudly put my hand up to that assessment of religion.

The second part (after the hyphon), not so. At least not in the case of Marxists like 'Shiraz Socialist', who's main target is Catholicism at least as much as Islam.
Excellent piece. Bottom line is that any revolutinary project that requires millions of proletarians to abandon their religion as a prerequisite of social change is doomed from the start.

Still, while you can identify a communist current in many (most?) religions the difficulty is that it often a 'communism of the elect', i.e. the believers are to inherit the earth, the rest can go to hell. Some of the antinomian Christian millenarian revolts committed anti-semitic atrocities for instance.

So an 'Islamic Communism' only makes sense if it runs into a stream with 'Christian Communism', 'Jewish Communism' and indeed 'Atheist Communism'.

Nathan of Gaza where are you now?
Andrew Coates said…
Possibily leftists don't take seriously the 'emancipatory' content of Islam because there is none - no more than emancipation, setting free, could come from any religion that serves a Book.

This post is delicate and interesting but doesn't discuss this book, its manufacture, and the role it plays in Islamic societies, or in Islamism.

'Social justice' can mean just about anything, but one assumes that the Way of God in the Sharia, has some specific content.

A serious discussion of this would be welcome. Specificially an explanation of how emancipation and social justice could be furthered by a Law which values Muslims above all other people to the extent of putting this inequality into the legal system.

And some look at favourable Islamic views on capitalism, backed by movements of the pious bourgeoisie - 'Islamism' - would be useful. Maxime Rodinson's books are important in this respect.
jogo said…
Is this the Moslem version of the Sokal Hoax?
bob said…
John Birch AND Terry Eaglefish. Ouch.

Sokal hoax? That's a thought. This was an unsolicited e-mail, which I thought was really interesting, but I know nothing about the author.
bob said…
By the way, I used to use the phrase "secular fundamentalism" but went off it after reading the text of the note stuck into Theo van Gogh's body with a knife, an open letter to the "ongelovige fundamentalist" (unbelieving fundamentalist") Ayaan Hirsi Ali, from the killer Mohammed Bouyeri.
Sarah AB said…
I agree with Benjamin's point that many people are religious and it's good if such beliefs can be integrated into a healthy political system. For me, being secular means minimal crossover between religion and the state - but that means that I think the state shouldn't interfere with one's religious beliefs and practices (unless there are seriously good reasons to interfere) and that's as important as not imposing religion - the other extreme.

Although I think there are holes (or perhaps gaps would be a fairer way of putting it) in Ali's argument, I would surprised to learn it wasn't sincere.
modernity said…

[I'll ask the question again, as my last comment didn't make it thru premoderation**]


Have you had a problem with Muslim/Arabs for a long time? Or just recently?

Cos that's the impression that comes over from your comments.

(**ahh, the joys of freedom of speech!)
"Enlightenment fundamentalist" was how Timothy Garton Ash described Ayaan Hisrsi Ali:

"Having in her youth been tempted by Islamist fundamentalism, under the influence of an inspiring schoolteacher, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is now a brave, outspoken, slightly simplistic Enlightenment fundamentalist."

I suppose he found the argument presented by Leo Van Gogh's murderer quite persuasive.

FWIIW, I share jogo's scepticism. I would have liked the author to clarify and explain in better detail how he came to change his mind.
The hoax issue seems a bit of a sidetrack. Is the author of this piece truly a communist Muslim, or just someone who believes that such a thing is desirable and possible? Not sure, though they seem to be more au fait with current trends in Judaism than Islam. But I have certainly met people from a Muslim background with a broadly similar perspective to this, and indeed met religious Jews and Christians with the same kind of take on communism and religion. So why not?
Richard S. said…
Interesting article... I have myself, for some time, been very fond of a sort of tradition in communist-oriented music and poetry from Pakistan that has at least some Sufi connections or influences and also uses some religious imagery to convey the idea of communist emancipation.

I have become most familiar with the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz (based on as good an understanding of it as I can get when depending mostly on English translations) and the renditions of his poems by wonderful singers such as Noor Jehan (my favorite) and Iqbal Bano.

Faiz was considered by many to be an atheist, but I don't think he ever explicitly defined himself that way, and he also used images or references rooted in Islam and was a strong supporter of Sufism.

Admittedly, Faiz was allied with Soviet communists (a mistake that could be forgiven somewhat, given the time and context), but from what I've seen of his poetry, there isn't anything in it that would conflict with the most libertarian kind of communism. In fact, his poem "Hum Dekhenge," with its lines about toppling all thrones, etc., could easily work as an anarchist anthem.

In more recent times, the Pakistani communist band Laal has, at the same time as they've championed straightforward Marxism, also sung Sufi songs and praised the Sufis as the true "revolutionaries" of Islam's past.

Anyway, this is all to say that whether or not the genuine left can draw upon the content of Islamic religious texts to support the idea of communism, it is still certainly possible - and probably beneficial - to praise/support some Islamic cultural traditions while advancing the cause of communism. (And as has been pointed out, the same has been done at times with Christianity, etc.)

Hope that makes sense... I myself am no expert on Islam, and people who look at my full last name and ancestral background in NYC (and Russia/Ukraine) will instantly classify me as a Jew (though I know almost nothing about that religion either). But I have had experiences in my life that helped to give me certain affinities, opening my eyes to certain possibilities that I think people who are too conditioned with western prejudices (whether left or right) might not realize are possible.

P.S. By the way, I was wondering if Ali H or anyone else reading this is familiar with Sadia Toor's book The State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan. I almost went to a presentation on this and might pick it up sometime.
Learn Quran said…
Modernisation was seen as a legacy of European colonialism perpetuated by western-oriented elites who imposed and fostered the twin processes of westernization and secularization.
Unknown said…
Thanks for articel, let make ukhuwah (Social Solidarity)
I think Islam is a very good religion