Islam and socialism II
Dr. Shari’ati’s work brought a socialist and anti-colonial lens to the history of Islam, primarily through his re-interpretation of Shi’a Islam and Ahlul Bayt.
In my previous post regarding Islam and socialism, I cited historical examples of interactions between the two. From Muslims in the USSR gaining a plethora of rights under the red banner, to Sukarno’s writings about Islam and socialism in Indonesia, there is a rich overlap between the Muslim faithful and those fighting for a better world.
In this second installment, I would like to focus on interactions between Islam later in the 20th century and their implications and continuation in the 21st century. I will do this by focusing on the work of Ali Shari’ati and Martyr Muhammad Beheshti - early ideologues of the Islamic revolution in Iran. I will also explore the writings of Fathi Al-Shiqaqi, Muhammad Al-Bahays, Basim Sultan Al-Tamimi, and Munir Shafiq to demystify the Maoist origins of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ).
Ali Shari’ati was born in 1933 in Kahaz, Iran, and studied in Mashhad before pursuing graduate studies at the University of Paris. In Paris, Shari’ati was introduced to the work of Frantz Fanon and translated a collection of Fanon’s work into Farsi so that revolutionary Iranian circles at home and in the diaspora could engage with this work. Shari’ati was politically active with the FLN of Algeria and was also arrested during his participation in a protest honoring the life of the fallen martyr Patrice Lumumba. Dr. Shari’ati’s work brought a socialist and anti-colonial lens to the history of Islam, primarily through his re-interpretation of Shi’a Islam and Ahlul Bayt.
Here, Imam Al Hussain is positioned as a martyr who died fighting for justice and thus became synonymous with justice itself. It was Shari’ati who popularized the phrase "every day is Ashura, every land is Karbala." By this, he meant that all of us have a duty to fight against oppression wherever it may rear its ugly head. Shari’ati wrote a critique of Marxism, titled Marxism and Other Western Fallacies, in which he encourages a break from the state atheism of the Soviets in order to build a sort of Islamic socialism that gives primacy and delicate consideration to the human condition. In agreement with socialists, Shari’ati argues in this piece that capitalism contains within it a Promethean dynamism and logic that claims to innovate and raise living standards, but what it really does is consume resources at an alarming rate, pushes people further into alienation, and strip us of our divine qualities in the name of consumption. “But what hands were to build this paradise on earth? Those of colonized nations, exploited human beings with the assistance of scientific technology” (1). This focus on capitalism’s degradation of humanity dovetails nicely with Marx’s focus on alienation from our ‘species being’. As Marx argues in his 1844 Manuscripts: “On the basis of political economy itself, in its own words, we have shown that the worker sinks to the level of a commodity and becomes indeed the most wretched of commodities."
Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti was another ideologue of the Islamic revolution. Fifteen months after the revolution, in a speech to the people of Iran, he lamented, “it is not acceptable for us for the governance of society to be in our hands and in this country a person to go to sleep hungry…we must bring an end to this hellish gap in the standard of living in the Islamic Republic of Iran." In another speech, recorded in the Lectures of Ayatollah Beheshti, the martyr goes on to highlight the Cold War mentality of the world at the time which created two major spheres of influence: a capitalist one and a socialist one. Beheshti argues that the socialist one aims for the redistribution of wealth and an end to class domination, which is compatible with the view of the Islamic revolution that he describes as follows:
In our ideal society, although a prosperous material life is encouraged and considered essential for man's growth, it is not regarded as the ultimate objective of the society. From this (Islamic) view, a progressive and prosperous material life is merely a means of improvement; it is a means of helping man to develop his capabilities and talents and is not, therefore, a goal in itself. Once free from economic pressure man can truly work in a spiritual sphere to assume the exalted position as "God's vicegerent on earth" as stated in the Holy Quran. (2)
This idea of undergoing economic, social, and political development while subordinating it to the spiritual development of society ideologically reminds me of Walter Rodney’s dictum that socialism has aimed and should aim for the creation of plenty (3). In the Quran as well, in Surah Al Ma’un, we are instructed as follows:
1. Have you seen him who denies the day of judgment? 2. It is he who pushes the orphan away 3. and does not induce others to feed the needy 4. Woe to those who pray but are oblivious of their moral duties 5. who dissimulate. 6. And withhold things of common use from others (4)
While these ideologies from Iran formed their agreements and disagreements with socialism based on Islamic teachings, in Palestine, it was an understanding of Marxism-Leninism and Maoism, which encouraged individuals and groups such as PIJ to splinter off from Fateh and pursue their own redefinitions of revolution, jihad, and martyrdom.
After the 1967 Naksa and the waning of Arab Nationalism led by Nasser, there was a shift toward Marxism and socialism within the Palestinian left. The PLO contained within it different strands of socialism. There were the Marxist-Leninists of PFLP and Maoists in Fateh, for example. A little-known fact is that some of these Maoists went on to found PIJ and other political Islamic groups, namely Munir Shafiq and Fathi Shiqaqi. According to German scholar Manfred Sing:
Shafīq founded the political wing of the Islamic Jihad Brigades, the Fighting Islamic Tendency (al-Ittijāh al-Islāmī al-Mujāhid), which was instrumental in forming the liaison to Fatḥī Shiqāqī’s Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine.
Sing goes on to argue that it was precisely the Maoist concept of the ‘mass line’ through which the likes of Shafiq would undergo a process of “reformulation of armed struggle in Islamic terms” (5). By starting from the concept of fitra, Muhammad Al-Bahays and Basim Sultan Al-Tamimi – two other Maoists who turned toward a synthesis between Islam and socialism – argued against the spiritually corrupting consumer society of Europe and America. From this standpoint, we can make sense of Shafiq’s statement “pour moi, il y a aujourd’hui des Islamistes qui sont bien plus politiques et matérialistes, en un sens, que nombre de marxistes” (6). Islam was not then only the frame of reference for much of Palestinian society, but also provides a materialist and spiritual understanding of life on this earth. For Shiqaqi, Shafiq, Tamimi, and Bahays, they felt as if they started from Marx, Lenin, and Mao and moved to new frontiers.
Yet, it was not just the mass line that influenced them, but the power of sabr while they languished in Zionist prisons. They became genuine believers through their struggle against zulm. They felt as if Islam can answer questions and pose questions that socialism cannot.
This essay has served as a continuation of another essay I wrote about interactions between Islam and socialism. In part 3, I hope to write an analytical piece expressing my own views on this history and what socialism could look like in an Islamic society.
1. Shari’ati, Ali Marxism and Other Western Fallacies.
2. Beheshti, Muhammad Husayni, Lectures of Ayatollah Beheshti. The Islamic Propagation Organization. 1986.
3. Rodney, Walter, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Howard University Press. 1972.
4. Quran 107; 1-7. Translated by Ahmed Ali
5. Sing, Manfred, Brothers in Arms: How Palestinian Maoists Turned Jihadists. Die Welt Des Islams. 2011.
6. Quoted in Sing, page 41