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The Concept of Islamic Socialism

By:
A. K. Brohi
Document type:
Articles and Essays

The Concept of Islamic Socialism

A. K. Brohi

Commentary

A leading lawyer and statesman, A. K. Brohi held numerous posts in Pakistan's government, among them Minister of Law and Religious Affairs. He oversaw the establishment of the Sharī‘a College in Islamabad.

Written in an iconoclastic tone, Brohi’s essay (1967) finds the concept of Islamic socialism contentious; indeed, he calls it “spurious.” If, as those responsible for the use of the phrase “Islamic socialism” believe, Islam has within it the principles of modern socialism, why should “Islam” be devalued into a mere adjective? On the other hand, Brohi maintains, socialism means “ownership and control of the means of production . . . by the community . . . and their distribution in the interests of all” even though this definition contradicts Islamic principles because “we are asked to believe in the primacy of economic categories.” Brohi’s conflation of socialism with Marxism differs from the approach of Shaykh Mahmud Shaltut and Mustafa al-Siba‘i, for whom socialist principles are defined in terms not of an “avowedly materialistic approach” but of a humanistic one.

One of the terms which nowdays so frequently appears in the daily Press, or is heard ad nauseam within the so-called intellectual circles, is that of Islamic Socialism. It is claimed that “Islamic Socialism” if we could only realise it as a practical possibility is a panacea for all our ills. Speaking for myself, I find much difficulty in understanding precisely what is meant by the concept of Islamic Socialism. The term “socialism” one can understand; and, to some extent, I suppose I understand what “Islam” is. But it is, if I am permitted to so put it, the spurious concoction of these two concepts which creates complications for the rational mind. The dilemma posed to normal human intelligence by this hybrid expression “Islamic Socialism” can be presented as follows: If “Socialism” is precisely what Islam enjoins us to accept, then Socialism by itself should be acceptable to us as our national ideology. If, however, it is not the conventional type of Socialism that Islam enjoins upon us to accept, then in what essential particulars, one may ask, has Islam modified this concept so that it must be designated as Islamic Socialism to distinguish it from its non-Islamic varieties. Why is the word “Islam,” which is substantive, being degraded into becoming an adjective of “socialism” is a question that no one that I know of in this country can, consistently with logic, honestly answer. On the one hand we say (do we not?) that Islam provides a comprehensive code of life bearing upon questions related to the economic, political and social organisations of mankind; yet, on the other hand, we are called upon to say that there is an ideology called “Socialism” which is what we need provided we could somewhat modify it: thus it is said, not Islam simply, but Islamic Socialism will redeem us and will help us to organise our lives much more meaningfully than we are able to do so at present.

If Islam is a universal religion, that is to say, a way of life which is valid for all time, for all people, and for all geographical habitats, then why does it not also have an adequate answer to those specific economico-political problems with which we are confronted in Pakistan—so that we are forced to borrow our “model” from an alien culture and civilization? If Socialism may be defined as a theory or a policy of social organisation which advocates the ownership and control of the means of production, capital, land, property etc., by the community as a whole and their administration or distribution in the interests of all, it is clear that Islam cannot have much to say in the matter. If you think that is the only way to secure justice, you may subscribe to the theory or the policy of Socialism; but on the other hand, if you think that it will not advance the cause of justice but frustrate it, you may not subscribe to its doctrine. But what has that got to do with Islam, anyway! This strategy of Socialism may be of some importance today to realise the ideal of justice but tomorrow it may not—it is no use, therefore, implicating Islam in this manoeuvre.

By “Socialism” one ordinarily understands an economic philosophy which enjoins upon its votaries the necessity of regarding the instruments of production and the questions relating to the distribution of wealth to be matters exclusively for state's ownership and concern. In the context of the Marxian philosophy, which necessarily is a part and parcel of the materialistic interpretation of history, we are asked to believe in the primacy of economic categories. Contrary to this view, within the framework of a Muslim view of life, this avowedly materialistic approach must be rejected, since it is in conflict with the contention of the Qur'ān, that it is the moral and spiritual categories which are primary and fundamental.

There is, accordingly, no place in Islam for the materialistic interpretation of history so that you might, with some justification, be able to argue for the primacy of the economic factor. Therefore socialism, as an offspring of materialistic interpretation of history, cannot be acceptable to a Muslim. Hence, no wonder, efforts are afoot to suggest that “socialism” can be spiritualised—and this is sought to be achieved by the simple device of labelling it as “Islamic.”

I suspect that the word “Islam” is in Pakistan constantly being utilised as a cloak for importing alien stuff—be these ideologies or institutions. By this device, ideologies and cognate principles of social organisation which have been sanctioned by the growth of atheistic, nihilistic, and materialistic philosophies of the West in our time are given an air of plausibility, an appearance of respectability. I have often heard it said: if you add God to Communism the product becomes equal to Islam. Although I am a philosopher by training, I confess, I do not know much about this “dialectical arithmetic” and I will not therefore venture to say anything about it. But what I can say with some authority is this: that God is too all-comprehensive to be added to anything, and Communism which is assuredly based on the cult of Godlessness cannot survive for you to accept it, if you are to be a believer in God. You cannot have both together: you have to make up your mind as to what you want and then you have some choice in the matter. “Theistic Communism” is absurd—as is “Islamic Socialism” or “Islamic Capitalism.”

To the age-old question: “What is the state to do for the individual where the individual is not able to provide for himself those bare necessities of life which he is to have if he is to survive?” Islam has its own answer to return. It is the responsibility of the State to provide conditions upon which not only the mind and character of its citizens must develop but also the conditions upon which its citizens are to win by their own efforts all that is necessary to full civic efficiency. It is not for the State to feed, house or clothe them. It is for the State to take care that the economic conditions are such that the normal man, who is not defective in mind or body or will can, by useful labour, feed, house, and clothe himself and his family. The “right to work” and “the right to a living wage” are just as valid as the rights of persons or property—that is to say, they are integral conditions of a good social order. This was the concept of social order upon which “liberalism” of the nineteenth-century European politics was based. Man's pre-occupation with the task of founding a just society is as old as the hills. This was long before Socialism—or, as a matter of fact, long before any “ism” was born. What could you say of the economic and political system of Abū-Bakr, or ‘Umar or ‘Uthmān or of ‘Alī? Were they socialists? The instruments of production were not owned by the state of their day nor had they the type of control which a socialist state claims to have on the means of distribution of wealth. And yet they were, I suppose, consistently with conditions that obtained in their times, practising the Gospel of Islam by founding society on justice.

Bibliography references:

From Islam in the Modern World (Lahore: Publishers United Ltd.), pp. 93–98.

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