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The volatile fusion: Origins, rise & demise of the ‘Islamic Left’

The volatile fusion: Origins, rise & demise of the ‘Islamic Left’

Between the late 1940s and late 1970s, some powerful ideologies that merged Marxism and Socialism with some innovative Islamic scholarship emerged in the Muslim world, prompted from the minds and fringes of modern Muslim intellectualism.

The roots of these ideologies can be found in the works of Muslim thinkers and ideologues in South and East Asia, Africa and in various Middle Eastern countries. Also, once such ideologies and fusions began being adopted by mainstream leaders and political outfits, they were expressed through multiple names.

Historians and intellectuals such as Sami A. Hanna and late Hanif Ramay are of the view that one of the very first expressions of the fusion of the Islamic concepts of egalitarianism and socialism, appeared in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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

In the early 20th 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 came to be known as the Waisi, began describing themselves as ‘Islamic Socialists’ when a 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 Tatarstan were a separate entity compared to Bolshevik communism.

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

Muslim fighters from Tatarstan join the Bolshevik Red Army in 1918.
Muslim fighters from Tatarstan join the Bolshevik Red Army in 1918.

One is not quite sure how the Waisi defined their socialism in a country where (after 1917) atheism had become the state credo.

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 the emerging ideological fusion.

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

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

He stayed in Russia till 1923 and spent most of his time studying socialism and discussing politics and ideology with communist revolutionaries. Though impressed by the chants of economic equality and social justice during the revolution, Sindhi dismissed communism/Marxism’s emphasis on religious non-belief.

From Russia, Sindhi travelled to Turkey and it was in Istanbul that he began to give shape to his ideas of Islam and Socialism in a series of writings 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 despite the fact that he saw both Islamic and Communist economic philosophies similar regarding their emphasis on the fair distribution of wealth, Sindhi believed that 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 irreligious communism.

Ubaidullah Sindhi.
Ubaidullah Sindhi.

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

Hafiz Rahman Sihwarwl saw Islam and Marxism sharing four elements in common:

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

In the areas that Rahman 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.

It can be suggested that basically, both Sindhi and Rahman had stumbled upon an Islamic concept of the modern welfare state.

Building upon the initial thoughts of Sindhi and Rahman were perhaps South Asia’s two most ardent and articulate supporters and theoreticians of the fusion of Islam and Socialism: 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 modern interpretations of the Qu’ran.

After studying traditional Muslim texts, as well as Sufism, Parvez claimed that many works of Islamic scholarship were constructions by ulema serving ancient Muslim monarchs who used these works to give divine legitimacy to their tyrannical regimes.

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

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 state in South Asia.

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 faith.

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:

Another scholar at the time who was using Iqbal’s writings on Islam and the Qu’ran to formulate Islam-Socialism fusion 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 Islam and 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 Bhagavad Gita, into Urdu.

It was after the creation of Pakistan in 1947 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 the fusion of Islam and Socialism as a concept that harnesses the freedom of thought, action and enterprise characteristic of Western democracies by creating opportunities for all.

Khalifa too was basically explaining the fusion to be a kind of spiritual and theistic concept of the social democratic welfare state enacted in various Western countries from the 1930s onwards.

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.

However, most thinkers discussed above say very little about exactly how much of a role a government and state should play in matters of faith in societies run on the ideology and economic system prescribed by the fusion of Islam and Socialism.

But Parvez does clearly suggest 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 in delivering justice.

Parvez continues by suggesting that it is within these two main areas where the state can induce modernistic interpretations of the Qu’ran, especially through those verses dealing with property rights, Zakat, justice and the rights of women.

In the Middle East, the Islam-Socialism fusion tendency 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 considered to be the modern originator of the Middle Eastern strain of this fusion 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 economic and political decline of the Arab people, Aflaq and Bitar advocated the creation of a united Arab state.

For this they recast Arab nationalism by infusing into it a heavy dose of socialist economic ideas, progressive cultural and social outlook, and by evoking the ‘Qu’ran’s revolutionary spirit’ to counter injustice and inequality.

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

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 worked.

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

It suggested that the Arab nations were being undermined by five forces:

1 European colonialism (driven by capitalism).
2. Soviet Communism.
3. Decadent monarchies’ in Arab countries.
4. Religious conservatism within Arab societies.
5. The clergy and the ulema who were keeping these societies in the clutches of backwardness.

To Aflaq and Bitar, 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 a ‘proof of Arab genius’, and a testament of Arab culture, values and thought.

Ba’ath Socialism seemed to have arrived at a ripe moment in Arab history because from 1940s onwards, a number of anti-colonial movements in Iraq, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen and Syria were all being led 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 a republic.

Members of the core group of the Free Officers Movement. Nasser is sitting first from left.
Members of the core group of the Free Officers Movement. Nasser is sitting first from left.

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 (allegedly) tried to assassinate Nasser who responded by unleashing a brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and the conservative clergy.

A 1965 poster eulogising the progress made under Nasser.
A 1965 poster eulogising the progress made under Nasser.

A 1956 poster propagating the growth of women’s education in Egypt under Nasser.
A 1956 poster propagating the growth of women’s education in Egypt under Nasser.

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 had in Egypt.

But that changed when, in a counter coup (in 1963), another group of officers took over power and formed the Iraq Ba’ath Socialist Party. However, 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.

Iraq Ba’ath Socialist Party poster (1979).
Iraq Ba’ath Socialist Party poster (1979).

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 defence, economic and cultural pacts with the Soviet Union.

To fully realise Ba’ath Socialism’s main doctrinal thrust of enacting a united Arab state, 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 (sitting first from left, front row) at his inauguration as Syria’s President in 1971.
Hafizul Asad (sitting first from left, front row) at his inauguration as Syria’s President in 1971.

Hafizul Asad on the cover of TIME magazine.
Hafizul Asad on the cover of TIME magazine.

In 1954, the Algerian nationalist outfit the Special Organisation merged with various small left-wing nationalist groups and guerrilla 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 policies, and cracked down on 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, highly vocal in his criticism of pro-US Arab monarchies, Israel, the clergy and capitalism.

1962 poster of famous FLN activist, Jamila Bouhir.
1962 poster of famous FLN activist, Jamila Bouhir.

1956 FLN poster (in French) denouncing ‘French fascism’ and demanding Algerian independence.
1956 FLN poster (in French) denouncing ‘French fascism’ and demanding Algerian independence.

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 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.

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 People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen and formed the country’s sole ruling party, the Yemeni Socialist Party.

The party right away signed defence, 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.

In Libya, another admirer of Arab Socialism and Nasser, Colonel Muammar Gadhafi, 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 defence 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, Gadhafi’s Libya, unlike other Arab Socialist regimes of the era, 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 of alcohol and a crackdown on Marxists in universities and colleges. The ban on alcohol was lifted in 1982.

In 1976, Gadhafi 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.

Gaddafi’s ‘Green Book’ that he authored in 1976 and which became compulsory reading in Libya’s educational institutions.
Gaddafi’s ‘Green Book’ that he authored in 1976 and which became compulsory reading in Libya’s educational institutions.

Gaddafi (right) meets his ideal, Nasser, in 1970.
Gaddafi (right) meets his ideal, Nasser, in 1970.

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 inspired by 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 socialist 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 orientation, various right-wing Islamic 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.

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.

Siad Barre with Gaddafi in the Somalian capital, 1971.
Siad Barre with Gaddafi in the Somalian capital, 1971.

A hoarding with Barre’s picture in Mogadishu, 1973.
A hoarding with Barre’s picture in Mogadishu, 1973.

An Islamic Socialist tendency in the politics of Iran had also begun to develop from 1950 onwards. The centre-left National Front (NF) founded by Mohammad Mossadegh consisted of a number of so-called Islamic Socialists.

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

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.

Mohammad Mossadegh (third from left) with some members of his National Front.
Mohammad Mossadegh (third from left) with some members of his National Front.

After Mossadegh’s fall, the concept of the Islam-Socialism fusion 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.

By 1971, the Shah’s regime had begun to denounce Shariati as an ‘Islamic Marxist’ and a Soviet agent. He was arrested and forced into exile in 1975. In 1977 he mysteriously died. He was just 43. Some believe he was poisoned by the Shah’s secret agents.

Dr Ali Shariati.
Dr Ali Shariati.

The MK began an urban armed guerrilla 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.

Mujahidin-e-Khalq activists demonstrate against the Shah during the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Mujahidin-e-Khalq activists demonstrate against the Shah during the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

But after the revolution when the Iranian Islamists and the clergy managed to seize the government, the MK began an urban guerrilla 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.

In Indonesia the groundwork for the fusion of Islam and Socialism was undertaken by former communist, Tan Malaka.

During the Indonesian 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 Socialists inspired by Malaka.

Sukarno ruled Indonesia till 1967.

A Sukarno rally in Jakarta.
A Sukarno rally in Jakarta.

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, both Pakistani.

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 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 contemporary shape to the ideas of Parvez and Khalifa. They also weaved in elements from Ba’ath Socialism in the context of a non-Arab Muslim country like Pakistan.

The project 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, 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 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:

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 (PBUH), 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, dictators and of the ‘imperialist forces of capitalism.’ It also accused them of being agents of backwardness and social and spiritual stagnation.

Poet, painter and author, Hanif Ramay, was one of the main ideologues and theorists of modern Islamic Socialism in Pakistan.
Poet, painter and author, Hanif Ramay, was one of the main ideologues and theorists of modern Islamic Socialism in Pakistan.

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 PPP 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 elected governing party.

A 1970 poster showing Bhutto as an egalitarian soldier of faith and the working classes.
A 1970 poster showing Bhutto as an egalitarian soldier of faith and the working classes.

Afghanistan was the country where the last hurrah of the concept of the fusion of Islam and socialism emerged.

In 1978, the communist Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) of Afghanistan toppled the nationalist 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 communist 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.

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 concern from Arab monarchies and the US, but the economic manoeuvres 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, 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 was 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 reins of power.

Though PKI was outlawed, and Suhartho navigated Indonesia into 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.

Soldiers guard a ditch full of leftist Indonesian activists. They were all shot (1965).
Soldiers guard a ditch full of leftist Indonesian activists. They were all shot (1965).

The second major setback that the Islam-Socialism fusion 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 Muslim alternative to the Arab peoples.

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.

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 to radical Arab Socialist regimes and movements; and the Palestine Liberation Organization (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 were 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 the move.

Though Egypt remained largely secular, and Sadat managed to gain the support of the Muslim Brotherhood (whom he used to purge opposing students and members of the intelligentsia), he ended up offending the Brotherhood as well when he decided to establish 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 too was toppled in 2011 in a widespread democratic revolution (the Arab Spring).

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 Arab monarchies.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

In 1991, the government decided to hold Algeria’s first multi-party election. However, when municipal elections were won by a group of radical Islamic parties, the military intervened and postponed the general election.

The military blamed Bendjedid for unwittingly strengthening the ‘Islamists’ and putting the country’s ‘progressive 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 by the military in 2002.

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.

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 aid.

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 the anarchy that followed.

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 an almost complete state of anarchy.

Following the Soviet Union’s decision to side with Ethiopia in the Somalia-Ethiopia conflict, the socialist regime of Gaafar Nimeiry in Sudan too 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 a concoction and impose Shariah laws.

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.

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 again.

In Afghanistan, the PDP regime was defeated by insurgents backed by US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in 1989. But the country plunged into another series of civil wars and chaos.

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

Both fell in the 2000s.

The modern fusions of Islam and Socialism concocted in the early and mid-20th century and then implemented in a number of Muslim countries till 1978, ideologically mobilised nationalist movements in Muslim regions that were caught between European colonialism, monarchical decadence and the conservative ulema.

The fusion offered a ‘third way’ between Western/American capitalism and Soviet communism. It also wrestled the initiative to interpret the socio-political aspects of Islam from the clergy and conservative ulema and radical Islamists, in trying to construct an Islamic version (and justification) for modern progressivism. The fusion co-opted various Marxist, socialist and progressive strands and entities operating in Muslim countries and got them all on a single platform.

It adopted modern social, political and cultural concepts in Muslim societies but but tried to discarded these concepts’ colonial/western legacies. It revived the idea of ‘Ijtihad’ (independent discussion on Islamic law and faith) that had been repressed in Muslim lands for centuries.

These fusions highlighted Islam as a progressive, dynamic and rational faith and eschewed differences in Muslim societies on the basis of clans, sects and tribes.

They showed creativity in designing economic and cultural policies and then expressed them with the help of progressive interpretations of sacred texts.

They also added newer, more progressive dimensions to commentaries and the study of Islam and its place in society and politics and encouraged the participation of women in the Muslim world play bigger roles in economic, cultural and political aspects of life.

These ideas emphasised the importance of having high literacy rates and gave the middle and working-classes a political and nationalist identity and a sense of economic and ideological participation.

However, these fusions remained autocratic and undemocratic in nature. They relied heavily on the military and undermined the people’s political sense and rights.

They were intolerant towards opposing political and economic ideas and too militaristic; and yet they failed over and over again in wars against foreign enemies.

Regimes based on such fusions regularly intervened in matters of other countries and their economic manoeuvres remained largely half-baked and carelessly managed.

Though they rejected American hegemony and political influence in the name of independent economic and political existence, they banked on Soviet expertise, aid and patronage.

They violently repressed Islamists and Islamic outfits but then turned supportively towards them when deciding to purge opposing leftists.

This unwittingly recharged radical right-wing forces who eventually emerged to offer the ‘Islamic option’ with the collapse of the Islam-Socialism fusions.


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)

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