Islamic Socialism: A history from left to right

DAWN.com 22 February 2013
By Nadeem F. Paracha

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. (continue reading...)