Chapter 4: Islam and Historical Materialism

Does Islam accept the theory of historical materialism? Are the Quranic analysis and interpretation of historical questions based on historical materialism? Some people think that they are, and maintain that at least one thousand years before Marx Islam based its analysis of history on this idea. Dr Ali al-Wardi, a Shi'ah scholar of Iraq who wrote several controversial books, including the one entitled Manzilat al-Aql al-Bashari (The Position of Human Intellect), is one of them. Perhaps he is the first person who originated this idea. Now among a certain section of Muslim writers it has gained popularity and it is regarded as a mark of being broad-mindedness and a fashion of the day to analyze history in Islamic phraseology from this point of view.

But from our point of view those who think on these lines either do not understand Islam or historical materialism or both. In view of the five basic points of historical materialism mentioned by us earlier and the six conclusions drawn from them, it is easy for those who are conversant enough with Islamic thinking to conclude that historical materialism and Islam's way of thinking are diametrically opposed to each other.

The material conception of society and history, especially if it is given the false colour of Islamic authenticity, is a great danger to Islamic teachings and Islamic culture. Therefore we think that it is necessary to study carefully the problems which have given or may give rise to the notion that Islam regards the infrastructure of society as economic and the nature of history as materialistic in essence.

It may be pointed out that in our study of the subject we have used more points than used by the supporters of this notion. They have based their arguments on two or three verses of the Holy Qur'an and the traditions of the Holy Prophet, but we in order to make a full and comprehensive study, have included some other points also, which although not used by the supporters of this idea, may be adduced in its favour.

I. The Holy Quran has given various social conceptions to the world. In the course of our study of society we have counted about 50 terms having a social significance. A study of the social verses of the Quran and the use of these terms in them indicates that from the view-point of the Quran, societies consist of two diametrically opposite categories of people. The Quran from one angle suggests the existence of a bipolar state of society on the basis of material prosperity. It designates one pole as the Mala' (self-indulgent, ruling clique) Mustakbirun (the arrogant, oppressors, tyrants, the immoderate and the voluptuaries), and the other Mustaz'afun (the under-privileged, oppressed and deprived), Nas (the masses) Zuriyya (the plebeians, ignoble, the means and insignificant- as opposed to Mala').[18] The Qur'an puts these two poles or these two categories opposite each other. From another angle the Quran envisages the bipolar state of society on the basis of spiritual and moral conceptions, and divides society into two distinct groups. The first group consists of the infidels, the polytheists, the hypocrites and the wicked, and the second group consists of the pious, the righteous, the reformers, and of those who fight for a sacred cause and those who lay down their lives for it.

If we carefully consider the meaning of the Quranic verses signifying the existence of these two material and two spiritual categories, we will find a sort of conformity between the first material and the first spiritual category and similarly between the second material and the second spiritual category. The infidels, the polytheists, the hypocrites and the wicked are the same people as the self-indulgent, the arrogant, the immoderate and the voluptuaries. They are none else. Similarly the Mu'minun (believers and faithful), the Muwahhidun (the monotheists), the Salihun (the righteous, virtuous) and the Mujahidun (the warriors and fighters for a sacred cause.) are none but the under-privileged, the poor, the helpless the servile, the oppressed and the deprived. Therefore on the whole, society has only two and not more than two poles or diametrically opposite categories. The first category comprises the opulent, the exploiters, the tyrants and the oppressors; who are the infidels and disbelievers. The second category is that of the oppressed and the underprivileged. It comprises the believers and the faithful. From this it is clear that it is the division of society into the oppressors and the oppressed, which brings into existence the two categories of the believers and the disbelievers. It is oppressiveness that begets infidelity, hypocrisy, wickedness and depravity; and it is the state of being oppressed that gives rise to faith, piety and righteousness.

To comprehend this equation clearly it is enough to study the Surah al-A'raf, 7:59 - 137. In these verses the stories of Prophets, like Nuh, Hud, Salih, Lut, Shu'ayb and Musa have been briefly recounted. In all these stories, with the exception of the story of Lut, it may be observed that the class which joined with the Prophets was that of the underprivileged and the class which opposed them and resorted to disbelief was that of the arrogant and aristocratic gentry. This equation can have no explanation other than that of class conscience, the existence of which is essential and natural according to the theory of historical materialism. Therefore from the view-point of the Quran the confrontation between faith and infidelity is only a reflection of the confrontation between the oppressors and the oppressed.

The Quran expressly says that property, described by the Quran as 'riches', is the cause of oppression and arrogance, the qualities which are totally against the teachings of the prophets, who preach piety, modesty and peace. The Quran says:

"Remember that man is rebellious when he thinks himself independent and rich." (Surah al-Alaq, 96:7)

In order to underline the evil effect of property the Quran has recounted the story of Qarun (Korah). He was an Israelite, not a Copt and belonged to the tribe of Prophet Musa. He was one of those underprivileged people whom Fir'awn (Pharaoh) considered to be inferior and of low cast. But as he acquired great amount of wealth, he misbehaved with his own people and looked down upon them. The Quran says:

"Qarun was a man from the people of Musa, but he oppressed them. (Surah al-Qasas, 28: 76)

Does this not make it clear that the Prophets' opposition to oppression was in fact a confrontation with the property, the proprietors and the proprietorship? In some of its verses the Quran itself says expressly that the chief opponents of the Prophets were those who were deeply sunk in ease and luxury. In the following Quranic verse this point has been expressed as a general rule:

"We did not send to any township a warner, but its pampered ones declared: Lo! We are disbelievers in that which you brings to us." (Surah as Saba 34:34)

All this shows that the mutual confrontation of the Prophets and their opponents and the mutual confrontation of faith and infidelity are a reflection of the confrontation of two social classes of the oppressed and the oppressors.

II. The Quran calls its addresses the 'Nas' or the masses that is the underprivileged common people. That shows that the Quran believes in class conscience and thinks that only the downtrodden masses are fit to give ear to its call to Islam. That (also shows that Islam has a class bias. It is the religion of the weak and the underprivileged. Islamic ideology is addressed only to the masses suffering deprivation. That is another proof of the fact that according to Islamic point of view economy is the infrastructure of society and the nature of history is material.

III. The Qur'an declares that the leaders, the reformers, the martyrs and even the Prophets rise from among the masses, not from among the aristocratic and well to do class. In respect of the Prophet of Islam the Quran says:

"He it is who sent among the masses of people (people belonging to the ummah) a messenger of their own." (Surah al Jumu'ah, 62:2)

These masses could be none other than the underprivileged masses. Similarly in respect of those who sacrifice their life for a right cause, the Quran says:

"We shall raise from every people a witness and then ask them to produce their proof."

Here also the word people refer to the deprived masses. It is because of the necessity of harmony between the ideological and social basis in the one hand and the economic and class basis on the other, that the leaders of all social movements and revolutions invariably rise from among the underprivileged masses. This necessity cannot be explained except on the basis of the materialist conception of history and the prime importance of economy.

IV. The nature of the movement conducted by the Prophets and their confrontation as described in the Quran, is infrastructural, not super structural. The object of the Prophets' mission has been to establish justice, fair play and social equality and to pull down the walls of class distinctions. The Prophets always paid their first attention to infrastructural matters and only subsequently turned to the super structural matters such as doctrines, beliefs, and the reform of morals and behaviors, which have been their second objective.

The Holy Prophet said:

"He who has not the means of living, cannot prosper in the Life Hereafter".

In other words there can be no spiritual life without a material life. This maxim leads to the conclusion that the material life has precedence to the spiritual life and that the spiritual life is the superstructure and the material life the infrastructure of society. Similarly the Holy Prophet has also said:

"0 Allah! Bless our bread with abundance; for had there been no bread, we would have given no alms, nor would we have offered our prayers."

This saying of the Holy Prophet also leads us to believe that spirituality depends on materiality.

It is absolutely wrong to say, as most of the people now think, that the activities of the Prophets were confined to the super structural matters, that they were keen only to reform people and improve their moral conduct, and had nothing to do with infrastructural matters or at the most attached a secondary importance to them. It is also wrong to say that the Prophets thought that when the people should embrace faith, everything would be all right automatically, justice and equality would be established and the exploiters would of their own accord restore the rights of the underprivileged to them. In short most of the people have the wrong notion that the Prophets pushed forward their objectives with the weapon of faith and therefore, their followers also should go along the same path. This idea has been fraudulently invented by the exploiting class of the religious leaders in order to make the teachings of the Prophets ineffective and has been imposed on other people in such a way that it has been accepted almost unanimously. In the words of Marx, those who issue material goods to society, issue intellectual goods also to it. As a matter of fact those who are the material rulers of society are its spiritual rulers also and control its thinking.

The working method of the Prophets was contrary to what most of the people believe now. The Prophets first delivered society from social polytheism, social discrimination, tyranny and behavioral polytheism. They only later paid attention to the belief in monotheism and practical piety.

V. The Quran mentions the arguments adduced by the opponents of the Prophets all over history along with the arguments of the Prophets and their followers. The Quran clearly points out that the logic of the opponents has always been that of conservatism, conventionalism, and looking to the past, whereas the logic of the Prophets and their followers has been unconventionalism and looking towards the future. The Quran makes it clear that from sociological point of view the opponents of the Prophets used the same arguments which in a society divided into the exploiters and the exploited were usually used by the class of the exploiters. On the other hand the Prophets and their followers used those arguments which had throughout history been used by the sufferers and the deprived.

The Quran carefully recounts the; for and against arguments of the opponents and the supporters of the Prophets and shows what kind of logic they had. Like these two groups their two sets of arguments have existed side by side all over history. The Quran has recounted these arguments in order to set a standard by which the theories of even today may be adjudged. In the Quran there are many scenes where the arguments of the Prophets and their opponents stand side by side with each other.19 As an example we quote here some Qur'anic verses with short explanation of them:

" And they say: If Allah had so willed, we would not have worshipped the angels. (As we now do, and our worship of the angels means that Allah has willed so. Doctrine of predestination.) They have no knowledge whatsoever of that. (Of what they say about predestination. What they say is not based on any logical argument.) They do nothing but guess. Did We give them any Scripture before the Quran, so that they were holding fast thereto? (There is no such thing. They have no revealed Book to support their idea of predestination.) In fact they say only: We found our fathers following a way, and we are guided by their footprints. And even so we did not send a warner before you (Holy Prophet) to any township, but its luxurious ones said: Surely we found our fathers following a way and we are following their footprints. The Prophet said to them: Even though I bring you better guidance than that you found your fathers following? (And you know for certain that logically the guidance I have brought is better, but you stiff follow in the footsteps of your fathers.) They answered: In any case we reject what you have brought."(Surah al Zukhruf, 43:20-24)

We see that the opponents of the Prophets often use the argument of predetermination and fatalism. As sociology points out, this is the logic of the beneficiaries of the existing situation, who want to maintain the status quo, and use predetermination as a pretext to prevent any change. They often use the practice of their forefathers as a plea to justify their action and describe the past as sacred and worth following. To them it is enough to prove the propriety and validity of a thing that it has some connection with the past. This is nothing but the logic of the conservatives and the beneficiaries of the existing situation.

In contrast, the Prophets instead of supporting predetermination and conventionalism, advocate that which is more logical, more scientific and more beneficial. That is the logic of the revolutionaries who have suffered under the existing situation. When their opponents lose in their arguments against the Prophets, the last thing they say is: Whether predetermination is or is not a valid theory and whether conventional practice is or is not to be respected, we are against your message, your mission and your ideology, because your message is against our existing social and class interests.

VI. Most significant is the Quran's orientation in the conflict between the underprivileged and the arrogant. Just as historical materialism predicts on the basis of its dialectic logic, the Quran also believes that in this conflict the final victory must be of the underprivileged. In this connection the Quran underlines the inevitable direction of the course of history, and points out that the class which possesses the quality of being revolutionary invariably gains victory in its persistent conflict with the class which by its nature has the quality of being reactionary and conservative and that the former succeeds the latter in the possession of the land.

The Quran says:

"We desire to show favour to those who are oppressed in the earth, and to make them leaders and to make them inheritors." (Surah al-Qasas, 28:5)

Similarly in the following verse it says:

"We caused those people who were despised to inherit the eastern parts of the land and the western parts thereof which we had blessed. And the fair word of the Lord was fulfilled for the children of Isra`il because of their endurance; and We annihilated all that Fir'awn and his people had done and that which they had contrived." (Surah al A'raf 7:137)

The view of the Quran that history advances towards the victory of the oppressed and the exploited, is in complete agreement with the rule we inferred earlier from the theory of historical materialism to the effect that reactionism and conservatism were the characteristics of exploitation. This quality being against the law of evolution, exploitation is bound to vanish sooner or later. It will not be out of place here to cite with some comments a part of an article published recently and written by some intellectuals who have passed from intellectualism to Marxism. The last quoted verse of the Quran has been used as the heading of this article. Under this heading the article says:

"What is more interesting is the support given by Allah and all the phenomena of the world to those who are despised. There is no doubt that according to the Quranic way of thinking these despised ones are the subjugated and oppressed masses who have no say in determining their destiny. In view of this position of the masses and the support given to them by Allah, who wills to favour them, the question arises: Who are the people who carry out this Will of Allah? The answer is evident.

When it has been admitted that society has been so organized that it is divided into the two opposite classes of the oppressors and the oppressed and it is also known that it is the Will of Allah that ultimately the oppressed should inherit the land and be its leaders and the oppressors should perish, it becomes clear that the Will of Allah is to be implemented by the oppressed themselves under the leaders and the intellectuals who rise from among themselves.

In other words, it is the Prophets and the martyrs from among the oppressed class who take the first steps to fight against the tyrannical and oppressive system, and pave the way for the establishment of the leadership and the supremacy of the oppressed. This whole idea is actually a reflection of what we know about the Quran's conception of religious revolutions and historical changes. As, from social point of view, monotheists' revolutions revolve round the leadership of the oppressed and their inheritance of the land, the leaders and the pioneers of their movement must rise from among themselves and their social ideology must be their own."

The above thesis comprises several points.

" From the point of view of the Quran society is bi-polar and has always been divided into the two opposite classes of the oppressors and the oppressed.

" The Will of Allah (or in the words of the above cited article the support given by Allah and all the phenomena) is directed to the establishment of the leadership and inheritance of the oppressed as a universal rule. In this respect there is no difference between the faithful and the infidels or between the monotheists and the polytheists. The above quoted verse lays down a general and universal rule. Allah always grants victory to the oppressed as such against the oppressors. In other words all over history there has always been a conflict mainly between the oppressed and the oppressors and the law of evolution requires that the former gain a victory against the latter.

" In society Allah's will is realized through the oppressed themselves. The leaders, the pioneers, the Prophets and the martyrs rise from among the oppressed class, not from among any other class.

" There is always a sort of harmony between the intellectual and social basis of society on the one hand and the class basis in the other.

Thus we see how from the above quoted Quranic verse several Marxist principles about history have been derived, and how the Quran has been made to reproduce the philosophy of Marx 1,200 years before Marx was born.

As this idea about history has been allegedly derived from the Quran, let us see what conclusions are drawn from its application to contemporary history. The gentlemen, who have derived this so-called Quranic idea, have immediately and without any delay applied it as a test case to the analysis of the present religious movement. They say that the Quran tells them that the leaders of any revolutionary movement must necessarily rise from among the oppressed. But today it is observed that the divines, who constitute one of the three dimensions of the system that corrupts history, have become revolutionaries. So how to solve this anomaly!

According to these intellectuals the answer is simple. There can be no doubt that there is a conspiracy. As the rulers felt that their existence was in danger, they in order to save their skin ordered the divines depending on them to play the role of the revolutionaries. This is the conclusion that is drawn from this Marxist idea (excuse me, the Qur'anic idea). It is obvious to whose advantage such conclusions are drawn.