The Socialism of Islam: Beyond “Islamic Socialism”

Mustafa Hosni Sibai (1915-64) was a Syrian Islamic thinker, considered to be one of the most important Islamic scholars of the twentieth century and the bridge that brought the call of the “Muslim Brotherhood” to the Levant. The contemporary Ashaarite scholar Shaykh Ramadan Al-Bouti describes him as a person who emerges in the minds of readers as the image of a mujahid who continues to conquer hearts with two weapons: a weapon from the fire of revolution and enthusiasm, and another from the light of knowledge, jurisprudence, and legislation (Al-Bouti 2014).

His magnum opus’ al-Ishtirakiyah al-Islamiyah‘ the Socialism of Islam, was used as the key ideological text by the Gamel Abdel Nasser government in Egypt,  who at the time had commissioned several “Islamic socialism” books that were published through the national publishing houses. Titles such as Ahmad Farraj’s ‘Al-Islam din al-Ishtirakiyya‘ Islam, the Religion of Socialism were published alongside other books such as Mahmud Shalabi’s series of hagiographies of the Prophet and early Islamic figures, which placed in their lives the early Islamic endorsement of socialist principles. Ishtirakiyyat Muhammad (The Socialism of Muhammad, 1962),  Ishtirakiyyat Abu Bakr (The Socialism of Abu Bakr, 1963), and Ishtirakiyyat ‘Umar (The Socialism of ‘Umar, 1964) (Beinin 1987). In 1966, Senior Egyptian official Kamal al-Din Rif’at, Secretary for Propaganda and Thought of the Arab Socialist Union, would write in the daily Al-Jumhuriyya paper that socialism is one of the principles of Islam (Beinin 1987).

Despite this, much of what we know about Islam and socialism today is conceptual at best and does not evolve past the acknowledgement of figures like Ali Shariati, Muhammad Siad Barre and Maulana Abdul Hamid Bashani. Amidst this, the question then becomes, theoretically, does this extend past placing two completely different domains on top of one another anachronistically and patiently waiting for convergences, or is there an essence and grounding to the discussion previously undiscussed? Indeed, in a dissertation titled ‘Against Capitalism and Colonialism: the ‘Existence of socialist proletarian Muslims’ researcher Muhammad-Amin Isat notes that a Google Scholar search of ‘Islam and Security’ provided ‘around 699,000 results while ‘Islam and Socialism’, under the same range, results in 34,300′ (Isat 2021). Decades of imperialist wars and interventions later, there is still no direction or formulation the West has on Islam and security.

So, in the quest to fill that academic blind spot on the topic of socialism and Islam, this essay will radically engage with the works of Dr. Mustafa Sibai and his key text al-Ishtirakiyah al-Islamiyah (Socialism of Islam), in which he gives ontological and epistemic justification for the commandment that socialism fulfils one of the many injunctions of Islam. As such, I will attempt to structure what the thesis is systemically. 

In light of the lack of primary source English language material from Dr Mustafa Sibai, I will be translating key parts of the original text from Arabic, as well as engaging with secondary source literature such as ‘Arab Socialism’ (1969) by Sami A.Hanna and George Gardner which have a chapter reviewing Sibai’s work as well as ‘The Islamic Impulse’ (1987) edited by Barbara Freyer Stowasser from Center for Contemporary Arab Studies Georgetown University, which has numerous references to Sibai’s political context and philosophy in different contributions.

In order to properly contextualise meaningful source text from the Socialism of Islam, we will look at ‘Islam in Economics’ as well as economics in Islam more broadly to demonstrate the breadth of the existing literature. 

In doing so, this will place those Islamic economic approaches within the world economy today, as both neo-orientalists and fundamentalists – hang Islamic economic theories outside of the space-time continuum. Grounding the status of Islamic economic theories today serves the task of then opening the opportunity for us to place Sibai’s contributions more concretely – what is he responding to, and what does that mean today?   

Islamic resurgence – common misplacements

The heterogeneity of Islamic economic approaches shows that neither doctrinally nor historically has there been a cohesive, universalising system of Islamic economics, construct form of institutions or governance. The methods, practices, and approaches differed regionally and theologically (and on jurisprudence), let alone the different centuries (Alatas 2021). The Fatimid were different to the Mamluks, who had differed completely from the Umayyads, who were also different from the Abbasids in all modes of operation. The multifaceted interpretations of nearly all complex issues within Islamic thought, particularly jurisprudence (Fiqh), which encompasses economics (and its current iteration of world economics), has long been the hallmark of the nature of Islam, openness and elasticity, perhaps best summarised in the verses:

“So it is by mercy from Allah that you were gentle with them. And had you been harsh, hardhearted, they would’ve dispersed from around you” The Noble Quran  (3:159 (Soliman 2020))

Tafsir Ibn Kathir and Maarif ul Quran by Mufti Muhammad Shafi’i (Deoband) historically contextualise the verses: as the Prophet Muhammad, on a key occasion, did not admonish some companions after a strategic error in battle. However, what the grounding principle was is that the Islamic approach had a positivist, unwavering love for humanity, even if it had gone wrong (Al-Mubarakpuri 2003)(Shafi 2009). Within the contemporary context of Islamic thought and the genesis of political philosophy. Both the structure and social orientation must align with this dynamic as opposed to reactiveness and one-dimensionality. 

Since the 1960s and responding to the needs of a global Islamic awakening, Barbara Stowasser describes as ‘a visible regeneration of the Islamic ethos and intensified role of Islam in politics to make sense of this phenomenon (Stowasser, 1987) from the perspective of Euro-American epistemic various times have been used to describe the emergence of political Islam.

In light of this Islamic resurgence, what are the most pressing modalities of engagement within the Euro-American spheres of influence? Firstly, there are popular trappings that avant-garde groups (see the United Kingdoms Hizb-u-Tahrir, etc.) fall into that lack this socio-historic framework. A call for a ‘return into the abyss’ that requires no serious examination or investigation into the social, political, or economic status of the Muslims that refuses to transcend rhetoric. These are short on real proposals and long on criticism.

Secondly, from an anthropological perspective, it is necessary to untangle from the simple categorisation of such phenomena as Wahhabi (hardline fundamentalism reformist – see Mohammad ibn Abdul Wahhab), but instead, we must lift the mask on the nature of this “anti-intellectual anti-modern anti-mystic” form of misanalysis and understanding. It is much more of a post-industrial, postcolonial psychosocial phenomenon rather than a legitimate, theological grievance. Clearly, it much more resembles a consequence of a frustrated, modern Muslim in a world of isolation. But as Fazl-ur-Rahman states, we must rediscover the original meaning of Islam. The Muslim world, since before and after Rahman’s words, has done exactly that and grappled with this idea. 

Economics in Islam vs ‘Islam’ in Economics

The idea that Islam could not be reduced to its ontic manifestation was first expanded on by a new wave of young intellectual muslims in Egypt 1900s. For the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood Shaykh Hassan al-Banna this had existential consequences. In his criticism of what Sufism or the transcendental Islamic practices of Tassawuf had led to, Banna harshly rejects the isolated spirituality (Ruhaniyya Itizalya) that had fostered social quietism amidst political turmoil – in fact, Banna advocated for a direct and conscious spirituality (Ruhanniya Itjimaaiya) – this very foundational maxim would be the heartbeat of the Muslim brotherhoods activism and resistance. Building upon a tradition of sufis had historically rejected the transactional and mechanical routines of worship (see Abu Hamid al-Ghazali’s – inner dimensions of Islamic worship). Linking this to contemporary modes of governance and economics Banna would say: “The prayer that we offer five times a day is nothing more than a daily exercise on a practical social systems which contains the best of communism and democracy” (Al-Banna 1997)

Palestinian theorist and revolutionary Ghassan Khanafani succinctly puts: “Imperialism has laid its body all over the world, the head in eastern Asia, the heart in the Middle East, its arteries reaching Africa and Latin America. Wherever you strike it, you damage it, and you serve the world revolution “(Kanafani et al., 2023,). Clinical describing the dire status of both Muslim and non-Muslim third-world people.

Before we delve into the study of the genus of Mustafa Sibai’s Ishtirakiyah amongst its historic contemporaries systematising socialism and Islam, we must understand it as a process “beyond politics,” as Jacques Berque put it, and “towards completeness”. Secondly, in this internal and external struggle of self-assertion, we must refer to this phenomenon as Hanna and Gardner suggest by its own name, Ishtirakiyyah to give it its full length (Hanna, 1969)

Within the third world, namely, African and Asian socialism, theorist Manfred Halpern suggests that consideration must be given to sociological analysis rather than Marxian theory – again, Hanna and Gardner assert that this must include cultural anthropological analysis  (Hanna, 1969). Put simply, it is a humanist ambition that would not be done justice if understood in abstraction or mechanically. Sociology informs fiqh or the ways in which legalist conclusions are derived and that Aqeedah or theological creed is often self-justified.

The transfusion that the Islamic call for social justice was now embodied in socialism, responding to the problems of mercantile and industrial capitalism, was, in fact, quite popular within the ranks of the most distinguished 19th-century Islamic reformers – Jamal al-din Al Afghani (1838-1897) was the first to make philosophical defence of socialism arguing that it was not a Euro-American philosophy by locating it within the pre-Islamic Bedouin social formation (Esposito 2004,), and thus that early Ishtirakiya (socialism) was is absorbed into the first Islamic state by the Prophet which adopted structural bases of those traditions, and decided for it to be regulated. This is an epistemic justification of socialism, which argued it was culturally from the early Muslim Arabs to begin with. Afghani’s position emerged right as the debates between Marx, Engles, and Kautsky were raging in Europe, opening up Islamic engagement with a ‘foreign’ cultural identity. 

Revolutionary Pan-Africanism in the late 1970s similarly had a radical engagement with realigning the orientation of the philosophy of socialism. Pan-African thinkers like Kwame Ture (previously Stokely Carmichael) had similar polemics in redefining one’s own epistemology. In the era of heightened rediscovery of black historical and civilisational revivalism, this was crucial. Kwame Ture, in his engagement with a new wave of young African cultural nationalists which had classified socialism as ‘something European’ originating from the West and nothing but a clone projection of solutions to the problems they had infected (Carmichael 2007). Yet both Afghani and Ture had responded to this, by stating that socialism was both indigenous African and indigenous Arab. 

What this indigeneity meant was that the terms of engagement, i.e., the basis of understanding the material condition and the historic economic modes of production, were not to be orientated from the outside but from within. But it also meant that it was a scientific project. Indeed, most people have been using other key scientific disciplines, such as medicine and engineering. Another scientific approach to the economy was exactly just that.

In the introduction to the book Socialism of Islam,  Mustafa notes that he hopes the book ‘will serve the honourable reader, “spiritual, and scientific interest.” The merging of the imminent and the transcendental is a glimpse into the task he is undertaking. Sibai’s cosmology is shattering the new post-enlightenment dichotomy with religion on one side and science on the other, a defining feature of imperial scientism, which dominated economic analysis within the Western intellectual and academic circles. This exemplifies Sibai’s ontological turn, whereas the previous “Marxized” Arab intellectuals and critically accepted as a priority of European theorists. Mustafa placed great emphasis on new theoretical convergences that the analysis involves theology.

Mustafa Sibai, Salafiya and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood 

At first glance, it may be surprising that a Salafi scholar may be writing what polemicists, like Abdul Hakim Murad, call the extracting a ‘Marxist manifesto’ from the Quran. Contemporary Salafism, which might be conflated with Madkhalism (a subsect within Salafism – now the predominant one), is characterised by antagonism to Sufism, hypercriticism of all non-Salafi adherents to Islam, strict adherence to dogma and uniformity of interpretation of Quran and Sunnah.

Indeed, the Salafism which groups like the Ikhwaan al Muslimeen had adopted did not hinder them from reaching across the religious and socio-political aisle and working Muslims and non-Muslims alike from completely different methodologies both simpler reformers and those even with revolutionary ambitions – throughout the latter half of the turn of the 19th century this has been the case in several different dynamic merging of religious conservatism and political progressives:

In Morocco, Salafi Shaykh Taqi-ud-Din al-Hilali was a councilman of the UNFP, the Moroccan socialist party. Shaykh al-Hilali taught and worked with Third Worldist socialists like Ben Barka, the revolutionary leader of Morroco who was assassinated by Mossad (Lauziere, 2008).  In Algeria, two influential Salafis scholars, Shaykh Abdel-Hamid ibn Badis and Bachir Al-Ibrahimi, worked closely with the socialists and nationalists in FLN in the armed struggle against the French occupation against colonial rule (Abu-Lughod 1974). In Turkestan, the conservative Ahl al-hadith scholars promoted Islamic Socialism – with their rigorous theological seminars in Tashkent (Bennigsen 1979).

Dr Mustafa Hosni Sibai (1915-64) would be among this generation of progressives who rose from the ranks of the Salafis. Born into a family of religious scholars with prestigious positions in the Grand Mosque of Homs. His father, Husni al-Sibai (1889-1961), would be notable in his support of the struggle against the French colonial mandate in Syria. At fifteen, Mustafa Sibai co-founded an underground society to counter foreign missionary influence. At sixteen, was arrested for the first time for agitating against French colonial policy in North Africa. Later on in Egypt, al-Sibi joined the newly growing Muslim Brotherhood and cultivated close personal ties with its leader, Shaykh Hasan al-Banna and later on the enigmatic Sayyid Qutb. Unsurprisingly, Mustafa was the founder and first leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria whilst also professor of Islamic law at the Syrian University in Damascus. There, he would develop the encyclopaedia of Islamic law, and a grand project pursuing an ecumenical approach and aimed at combining the four Sunnī schools of law—as well as the Shī’a, Ibadiyya, and the declining Zahiriyya—and adapting them to the conditions of the modern world. 

Jahiliyah and brotherhoods genealogies

Sayyid Qutb’s transfer of sovereignty to the toiling Muslim masses and the construction of a ‘Brotherhood of pure Muslims’ (usba or al-u’usba al-mu’mina) was monumental. His influential work Ma’alim fi al-Tariq “Milestones” had already broken down that the period of pre-Islamic ignorance known as Jahiliya had not just returned but was encompassed in the systems and structures of unjust governance. Already, the tide of that human agency and extension of power given by God had been levelled against the tyranny of the state. Qutb argued that a vanguard will prevail in reawakening people except those who are Muslims in name alone. 

In highly influential commentary In the Shade of the Quran (Fi Zilal al-Qur’an) Qutb says:

‘These vanguards (tala’i’) must begin from the very beginning in calling humanity to reenter Islam and to leave this miserable Jahiliyya to which it has reverted.’ (Quṭb et al., 2001)

While Sibai would diverge in what the rentering into Islam constituted (for Qutb it was the reaffirmation of Tawheed), both agreed that the world Jahiliyya system of ignorance had infected the Muslim world and the hope to keep in mind were those educated or awoken from within the ranks of the Muslims, an historical example of which I shall present later on. Qutb and Sibai would agree on the following: that the current status of the Muslim world was at breaking point. As Qutb explains:

 The white man crushes us underfoot while we teach our children about his civilisation, his universal principles and noble objective … We are endowing our children with amazement and respect for the master who tramples our honour and enslaves us.” (Walters, 2013)

The antithesis to this enslavement, as Jack Walters cites in his quotation of ‘The America That I Have Seen’:

“Let us instead plant the seeds of hatred, disgust, and revenge in the souls of these children. Let us teach these children from the time their nails are soft that the white man is the enemy of humanity, and that they should destroy him at the first opportunity.” (Walters, 2013)

A similar solution is offered in Frantz Fanon’s reading of colonialism being a totalising project that left stains on the human psyche and soul (Fanon, 2004). Mustafa Sibai, in turn, reaffirms the urgent need for a new pedagogy and ties this into both colonialism and the degradation of postcolonial other Muslim nation-states. 

“From our long neglect, we accepted the noise of modern Western civilisation, its inventions, and its progress, and we found ourselves living, the inhabitants of the Arab and Islamic East, with a standard of living that is lower than what a decent human life requires, and lower than the standard of living in the nations of Western civilisation. Al-Banna led the stream of reformist ideas that have arisen in the West for two centuries, intensified in the middle of the nineteenth century, and became legislative facts from the beginning of this century until the middle of the century in which we live.” (Sibai 1964 p5)

Here we not only see the cut-off margins of what is not Jahiliyyah, but there are the fine tunings of postcolonial pedagogy and a critical historical method, undoubtedly with systematising of Qutb’s spark, that these modes are narcotic to the people, serving capitalism and feudalism and strengthening the foundations of colonialism.

Four Realities – Structure of his thought

When Mustafa Sibai proclaims the thesis of Ishtirakiyah al-Islam, The Socialism of Islam, what he is explaining is a four-fold reality:

1) Islam in its various permutations and arrivals within the economic epochs of feudalism, capitalism, and other early communal agrarian societies and economic arrangement had worked to accelerate civilisational progression through the flattening of tribal, caste, ethnic differences and hierarchies: “it took the Arabs from deteriorating paganism. separate tribes, rough life, and lonely isolation. And gave them sublime unification. And a good life. And one nation. And leadership of the processions of light in the history of humanity as a whole.” (Sibai 1964 p231)

 2) That the Ishtirakiyah al-Islam, as evident and implied etymologically, had arrived in other pre-Islamic communities through the mission of prophets and reformers of all times, most prominent of which were those in Europe during the Middle Ages and was to call for justice for the miserable, mercy for the poor, and the removal of social injustice from them. As such, the text of Isthrikiyya al-Islam has direct links- appeals, and references to both the continuity of Christianity (In the Old Testament Ecclesiastes 5-8-10, Exodus: 22-25. Job 24-2-12) and Judaism (the New Testament Matthew: 5-6, Luke: 12 – 33 John: 6-26) In which Mustafa Sibai explains how their original message had been corrupted (Sibai 1964). 

Not only on their stances on private property, almsgiving, wealth monopoly, etc. But on the hypocrites in the synagogues, the boastful who hide behind possessions, and the righteous among man who value the lives of the most oppressed on the earth. As such, Sibai is referencing a prisca theologia (ancient theology).

3)  That liberation of the economy from the vestiges of land-holding and economic monopolies and capitalism was part of a broader struggle to fight social backwardness and to ensure the foundations of a just society additionally and more importantly:

“the claim was never ‘the primary aim of Islam is socialism’ but socialism is fulfilling one aspect of the many injunctions’ (Sibai 1964, p. 5)

Here, Mustafa Sibai would argue for a civilisational procurement of something beyond the material to fulfil the spirit:

“neglected the spirit… In building its civilisational foundations, it has deprived man of a great immunity against anxiety and disorder, and communism has added to that that it has deprived man of his ideals that go beyond the limits of material life, such as food, clothing, and housing. I have become convinced that humanity seeks a civilisation of another type in which it can find psychological stability and not lose its ideals” (Sibai 1964, p. 12)

4) Finally, Sibai presents the conceptual counter-act because the Socialism of Islam manifested in the national struggles, the democratic struggles, and the class ones and opponents of these divine manifestations of God’s reality not only served their own exploitative interests but had not only misunderstood God- fortifying the arguments from the spiritual, theological lens as well as political. Laying out the decisive conclusion that those against the essence of socialism were also against the essence of Islam, even more dangerous, those argued otherwise (that Islam was accommodationist to capitalism) were the modern hypocrites and danger from within the Muslims that the religion had warned about. 

“There are those who say Islam is a “capitalist” religion! And these are the ignorant of Islam with suspicion on their love for it” (Sibai 1964, p. 6)

and:

‘There is no encounter between the socialism of Islam and capitalism – as a political reality, because Western capitalism is polluted with the blood of peoples, and it is the primary impetus for colonialism. Its will smells of exclusion, banditry and exploitation.’ (Sibai 1964)

Regarding the Post-Jahiliyya awakening on these tendencies of capitalism:

‘We thank God that this reprehensible voice, which indicates blatant scientific and historical ignorance, has begun to fade little by little since the culture in our country began to be liberated from the influence of colonialism and its direction and control over the educational curricula in our liberated countries, and we began to search into our beliefs and heritage, searching for the enlightened mind that trusts in its ability.'(Sibai 1964)

What made these assessments a theoretical leap from Sayid Qutb is that Qutb’s critique of Soviet communism was limited to its ‘materialism’, not its philosophical and political character. Therefore, it can be seen as a simple copy of his criticism of capitalism on the basis of a crude understanding of ‘materialism’. On the contrary, Mustafa Sibai offers something new. He had not only visited the Soviet Union but had engaged in debates and dialogue with them. In 1957, the Syrian University sent him to Moscow University, where he met with the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Middle East Department in the Ministry and explained to their amazement how the early Islamic community indeed practised a form of socialism. (Sibai 1964)

Example of Sibai’s Ishtirakiyah in praxis – the red sun rises 

One can only estimate what Qutb’s judgement of Asian and African socialism would have been, which diverged philosophically from the Soviets. However, the third world is what I suggest can be looked towards as an embodiment of the Ishtirakiyah al-Islamiyah. I argue the successful application of Mustafa Sibai’s radical reformation and view of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political economics can perhaps be best seen in the genealogies of the Yihewani movement or the Chinese Muslim Brotherhood and Azhaarhites – in the farthest corner of the earth.

The first batch of Chinese Muslim students arrived at Al-Azhar University in Cairo in the 1930s. Their political and intellectual legacy would not only be part of the dynamic history of Sino-Middle East relations but would have a profound influence on the practice of Islam in continental China and Taiwan. One of these figures included Ma Jian or Muhammad Ma Jian, a Hui Chinese scholar who, upon his arrival to Cairo, worked effortlessly to translate the anti-imperialist and Islamic modernist revivalist works of Shaykh Muhammad Abduh and the Lebanese scholar Husayn al Jisr into standard Mandarin (Cieciura 2015).

Shaykh Ma Jian was key in spearheading the United Front for Anti-Fascism (Fan Faxisi Tongyi Zhanxian). Unveiling a colonial-era Japanese plan to divide and rule China by offering superficial support to establishing a separate Hui-Muslim nation (Huihui Guo) in northwestern China. This would be another successive leap in the anti-fascist Muslim struggles against imperial Japanese oppression in Indonesia. The nature of this work would prove to be critical as it was the start of the Japanese invasion of China and the subsequent war, which had begun a mass transformation that would change histories (The Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution).

Although not all of the Chinese Muslim students who returned from their mission in Cairo were part of the United Front (some had joined the nationalist movement, others had chosen to stay in Egypt and teach). What they had displayed was an Usba-al M’umin (vanguard) from among the Muslims who had chosen to be educated and were aware of the true nature of Jahilliya – in this case, it was Japanese imperialism and, later on, Zionism. They present a group of youth who constructed their mode of thought and being, and what Sibai argues political theological position and its far-reaching consequences include the following:

Ma Jian would return and co-found the Islamic Association of China, a group that was part of the United Workers Front, which would be the supervisory committee for Islam in the new People’s Republic. Internally, within mainland China, Ma Jian would also work to unite all Chinese Muslims of all ethnicities. Shaykh Jian would also be their representative at the opening People’s Republic Congress (Cieciura 2015). Ma Jian would also work on increasing the new Chinese public awareness of Islam and Muslims by translating key Islamic/Arabic texts into Mandarin for the workers’ press, as well as improving Chinese Islam knowledge production through the establishment of key schools. Prior to the return of the Chinese Muslim Azharities and Yihewan, there had been just a few Muslim schools that only taught in Persian and Arabic (Cieciura 2015).

Elsewhere, other Chinese Azhaarhites, such as Shaykh Na Zhong, would attend a historic World Conference of Arab and Islamic Countries for the Defense of Palestine. Zhong, as a representative of China and its large Muslim population, would denounce the Zionist colonial policies of settlerism and killing, giving the famous “Kalimatu as-Sini,” or word of China that 50 million Chinese Muslims were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for Palestine (Mao 2015). A key testament to an Islamic ethos for a world duty.

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