Marxism & Islam

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This is a presentation that was given to an ICC Day of Discussion held in London on 23 June 2012, prepared by a sympathiser of the ICC

1. Why should revolutionaries study Islam?

Islam, as a religion, as a historical, revolutionary moment and as a political force in the modern world, has not been adequately dealt with by the Marxist and proletarian movement in general. This is true of all the religions of the world. Marxism with its ingrained and partly - largely in fact- justified distrust of religion has failed to really develop a clear perspective on the meanings and historical origins of religion. For none is this more true than Islam.

This lack of understanding of Islam has long been a tradition in the West, one which has certainly not been improved in recent years. Norman O. Brown author of Life Against Death, the psychoanalytical meaning of history states in Apocalypse that “to bring Islam into the picture (of the history of what he calls the prophetic tradition) is a Copernican revolution; our Copernicus still not sufficiently recognised is Marshall Hodgson (and his work ) The Venture of Islam.”[1] This may sound like hyperbole and Norman O. Brown certainly was fond of exaggeration as a writing technique, but it holds a lot of truth. The role of Islam in world history has long been overlooked by the West and Marxism. If we are to regain a sense of world history (free from Eurocentrist notions) then Islam is of great importance for many reasons, which we will come back to later, but I will outline some major points here.

The historical role of Islamic civilisation is such that without it the Renaissance would either never have happened or would have been completely different in form and content. The study of Islam can also shed a great amount of light on how we understand religion in general and monotheism in particular. We will also touch on another controversial issue within Marxism, the question of the ‘Asiatic’ mode of production and whether this is a helpful term or concept and what role this concept can play if any in our understanding of Islam and world history.

Islam is clearly of huge significance in the modern world and as ‘political Islam’ has become a by-word for terrorism and oppression, and for many people like Breivik, the EDL and others Muslims now play the role of the ‘new Jews’. That is, a new bogey man who is threatening to destroy western civilisation.

It also is a major source of inspiration and motivation for a huge proportion of the world’s population which we as revolutionaries need to understand if we are to build any serious dialogue with members of the international working class who follow the Islamic faith. In particular studying the historical origins of Islam will allow us to understand why it is still such an inspiration for many people and importantly from a Marxist perspective why Islam, or any other religion, is no longer a plausible solution to society’s problems.

2.What have revolutionaries said about the historical origins of Islam?

While Islam has been under-researched by the Marxist movement, there have still been numerous attempts to discover the ‘class basis’ for the emergence of Islam. Engels evidently had a significant interest in this question and this topic appears relatively frequently in correspondences between him and Marx. Unfortunately neither had a great deal of available information and neither dedicated a published work to the question. Nevertheless both Engels and Marx made a few observations which can serve as a useful starting point for further investigation.

Engels tended to see Islam as emerging from the division of Arabian society into sedentary and nomadic cultures, “it seems to me to have the character of a Bedouin reaction against the settled, albeit decadent urban Fellaheen whose religion was by then much debased.” He saw in this a cyclical pattern, a pattern interestingly noted by the Medieval Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun in Arabian society, for the settled elites to grow decadent: as Engels puts it “the townspeople grow rich, luxurious and lax in the observation of the ‘law.’ The Bedouins, poor and hence of strict morals, contemplate with envy and covetousness these riches and pleasures. Then they unite under a prophet, a Mahdi, to chastise the apostates and restore the observation of the ritual and the true faith and to appropriate in recompense the treasures of the renegades. In a hundred years they are naturally in the same position as the renegades were: a new purge of the faith is required, a new Mahdi arises and the game starts again from the beginning[2]

Apart from a few factual errors, such as the fact that the term Mahdi is misunderstood (‘Mahdi’ in fact relates to a character in Islamic eschatology, a character who will bring about a global reign of peace and prosperity in the Last Days). More important however is the fact that Engels’ argument fails to accommodate for the radical ‘newness’ and qualitative difference in the rise of Islam from any other changing of local elites in the area.

Engels himself however at other times seems to be aware of this. For example he sees the expulsion of the Abyssinians from Arab territory 40 years before Muhammad’s birth as “plainly the first act of the Arabs’ awakening national consciousness.”[3] Importantly this recognises the new historical situation which was emerging at this time, that is, a development of ‘civilisation’ and trade had brought about a growing sense of a larger community which transcended the tribal divisions of the old Arab society.

During the 20s there were various Soviet attempts to characterise the social basis and historical context of the origins of Islam. Some seem to have been more valid than others; obviously this period is one in which the Soviet Union was losing its last vestiges of real Marxist thought so its theories have to be seen in this unfavourable context. However I will here simply run through the main trends which you can find in slightly more detail on wikipedia ‘Soviet Orientalist studies in Islam’[4]: the earliest theory put forward by Zinatullah Navshirvanov (at a time it must be noted when the Soviets were keen to build good relations with the Islamic world) basically declared Islam to have been a communist movement, citing ‘primitive communism’ in Muhammad and his companion’s dealings and more overt communist trends in later Sufi movements. This has some validity but overstates the case: Muhammad certainly harked back to Bedouin traditions which had there roots in primitive communism and there was certainly a strong emphasis on equality and caring for the poor and marginalised in society, particularly slaves, orphans and women. However he was not a ‘communist’, he was not against, trade, money or social class. This in itself is an interesting difference between him and Jesus and the early Christians, who came mostly from the urban poor, the ‘proletariat’ of the day, and therefore had a stronger sense of the inherent evils of money and trade, whereas Islam emerged among people in a completely different social setting and therefore had a different attitude, which aimed to make these things fair and to develop a morality which could deal with the new social circumstances.

So what was the social basis of Islam? Well, some, such as Mikhail A. Reisner, argued that Islam was in fact a movement of ‘trade capitalists’ and he saw the Koran, its Law and the tenets of monotheism itself as simply a means by which to unite Arab tribes under one law and religion which could help the weaker tribes and merchants to avoid the constant raids which trading caravans were prey to (the weaker families and traders being the most vulnerable and losing the most from these raids). While this again has a certain amount of truth to it and is certainly part of the story, it is a telling fact that Reisner believed that all the ‘mystical’ elements of Muhammad’s life and teachings were simply added later due to Persian influence; this spiritually blind and rigidly rationalist approach is patently ridiculous and stops such theorists from being able to understand anything of the true nature and source of religious movements.

There was also a theory put forward in 1930 by a Soviet scholar called Mikhail L. Tomara, which claimed that Islam was mainly led by the peasants. This seems at first to be unlikely but may have more validity than at first glance. I am not aiming to answer the question here, only to open the question up. While the peasantry may have played a key role, they alone cannot account for the rise of Islam.

What we can say for certain is that Muhammad and Islam (and the prophetic tradition in general) represents in essence an attempt to synthesise the old ‘primitive communism’ with the new world of ‘civilisation’. To create and establish an order of civilisation which does not offend the moral standards of people recently leaving the tribal community, even if those tribal communities have been degenerating for some time, while also seeing in civilisation on a profound level the possibility of peace and of the unity of humanity in one community which was the dream of Islam, and of Judaism, and represents in essence all that is positive about civilisation and ‘empire’.

In terms of the historical context of the rise of Islam we should look at a few main points of departure. Firstly as has been alluded to the Islamic idea of a Jahiliyyah (age of ignorance) has a lot of validity; that is, pre-Islamic Arabia was at a particular stage of development in which the old tribal customs no longer offered a viable model and faced with the new social environment of trade and private property had completely degenerated into a proud love of wealth, disregard of their neighbour, and the endemic violence of the vendetta.

3. Muhammad and the role of the individual in history: Mad, Mystic or Machiavellian?

There is a long held tradition in the West of denigration of Muhammad, stretching back to the time of Charlemagne. Karen Armstrong in her biography of Muhammad gives a good account of this tradition, showing how Muhammad has been used like a Jungian shadow, held up as an image of whatever vice or insecurity the western world happened to harbour most strongly at the time. Islam as a religion has subsequently been viewed for a long time as a mere hodge-podge admixture of Judaism/Christianity and Arabian paganism with nothing new or worthwhile in it al all, lead by a charlatan interested only in personal political power.

Maxime Rodinson (a Marxist of sorts) in his biography of Muhammad makes a good case against such a view, While it is undoubtedly true that some of Muhammad’s later revelations have an air of being suspiciously convenient for Muhammad, as his wife Aisha is in fact recorded as saying, there seems little evidence and little reason to doubt Muhammad’s fundamental sincerity or that he did experience the major revelations he claimed to have experienced. While we may argue about their exact source - God, the unconscious etc, the experiences themselves seem genuine, for many reasons. Firstly as Rodinson points out, Muhammad’s personality seems to conform to a man perfectly suited to a prophetic or mystical career: “Muhammad’s psycho-physiological constitution was basically of the kind found in many mystics”[5] Also, we have to take into account the way in which his experiences themselves conform to universal motifs and characteristics. This is especially true of his famous Night Journey which is extremely similar to many reports of visions from shamans across the world.

Rodinson also insists that the role of Muhammad was of vital importance for the course of history and argues against “some kind of primitive determinism or an elementary form of Marxism (which might say that) ‘if Muhammad had never been born, the situation would have called fourth another Muhammad in his place.”[6] A good example of this view with regard to a Marxist analysis of a founder of a world religion is Kautsky in his Foundations of Christianity in which he takes the view that the origins of Christianity can be explained without regards to “this person” (Jesus). This view is clearly ridiculous. If Trotsky (in his History of the Russian Revolution, vol 1 chapter 16) could say of Lenin that his personality had a decisive role in the triumph of the October Revolution, then how much more true is this of founders of the great religions, which gained so much of their impetus and force from the personality of great individuals who seemed to offer an embodied answer to the question of ‘how man should live’.

This should be qualified by saying, Muhammad was not Jesus, he was not a saint (it is telling that among many Sufis there has been a certain kind of preference for Jesus over Muhammad: one saying goes “Muhammad was the seal of the prophets, Jesus was the seal of the Saints”) and was definitely nothing other than a human being. He was a prophet in the mould of the Old Testament, that is one capable of great extremes of emotion and action, given to anger, joy, love, compassion, ruthlessness, desire and asceticism, also a prophet armed, ready to die and kill for his vision of a better world.

4. What was the Islamic civilisation?

This is a question I can only pose. I would need years to research and answer this accurately. It has been called a form of the ‘Asiatic’ mode of production, it has been called a form of Feudalism and there are many other theories besides, none of which I have had time to really get to grips with.

Marx spoke less about Islam than Engels did, Marx’s main comments were in answer to Engels and in particular he urged Engels to focus on the question which he felt was central to the whole history of ‘the East’; the lack of private property in land. Marx seems to have over generalised about the ‘East’, and the mode of production in Islamic civilisations seems to have been significantly different to say China and India.

It was clearly an extremely dynamic mode of production for a while. From a Marxist perspective its forward looking view of history would suggest a basis in a civilisation that was not as closely tied to the primitive communist view of the world as civilisations that kept to a purely cyclical view of history. Norman O. Brown sees Islam as a synthesis of the western historical mode of thought and the Eastern cyclical view. In the Islamic synthesis, history is a series of cycles in which prophets are sent, their knowledge is lost or corrupted and a new revelation is necessary. However in these cycles their is progress, not only in that Muhammad brings the final and most perfect revelation but also because there is a view of a definite end to history in the Hour of Judgement. Whether this means that Islamic civilisation can be said to be a synthesis of Feudalism and Asiatic despotism may be a step too far in mechanically applying Marxism to what I know.

5. How should Revolutionaries relate to Muslim workers?

What a real study of Muhammad brings to the attention is the truly revolutionary nature of early Islam. In fact we can see that historically all three Abrahamic religions began as a revolutionary movement of some strata of the oppressed. Norman O. Brown says: “to apply the term ‘revolutionary’ to the politics of Islam is to suggest that the origins of modern radical politics lie in the transformation of prophetic radicalism into a political movement prepared to seize power”[7].

This reiterates and expands what Engels said about early Christianity - that we as communists are the heirs to the Early Christians; we are also the heirs of the Old Testament Prophets and to Islam and Muhammad. This is the starting point for any dialogue with religious workers.

We obviously would say that we are unique, in that it is Marxism and the proletarian movements which alone can carry forward the search for ‘how man should live’. Only the proletarian movement can allow the dreams of the past to be made flesh.  

Jaycee 23/6/12


[1] ‘The Prophetic Tradition’ in Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis, University of California Press, 1991, p46

[2] Engels, On the History of Early Christianity, 1894.

[3] Engels to Marx, 6 June 1853

[5] Maxime Rodinson, Mohammad, New York, 1971, p 56

[6] ibid, p 298

[7] Apocalypse, p 52