Is Islam a socialist religion?

Is Islam a socialist religion?

One of the new debates in Turkey is the economics of Islam. Those who used to imagine an “Islamic economy” are growingly out of sight, but a new grassroots movement is on the rise which believes in “Islamic socialism.” Some of them marched in Istanbul’s Taksim Square this past Labor Day as “anti-capitalist Muslims.” One of their slogans eloquently read: “Allah, bread, freedom.”

For sure, all of those three words are invaluable for me — beginning with the first, ending with the second. But I doubt whether socialism would serve any of them. For there has been no socialist regime on earth which provided both bread and freedom to its people, let alone respecting God and His revelations. Quite the contrary, almost all socialist regimes proved to be tyrannical, pauperizing and theophobic. 

The second and even more significant argument against “Islamic socialism,” would be nothing but Islam itself, as a religion and civilization. As various scholars have demonstrated, the sources and history of Islam point to a free-market economy not a command economy. 

A classic work on this theme is Maxime Rodinson’s 1966 book “Islam and Capitalism.” Rodinson, a French Marxist, demonstrated that Muslims never had any trouble with economic freedom by appealing to the textual analysis of Islamic sources and the economic history of the Islamic world. “There are religions whose sacred texts discourage economic activity in general,” she wrote, “[but] this is certainly not the case with the Quran, which looks with favor upon commercial activity, confining itself to condemning fraudulent practices and requiring abstention from trade during certain religious festivals.”

It is true that the Quran also has a strong emphasis on social justice and this is what Islamic socialists always refer to. However, a careful reading of the Muslim Scripture would work against their view. The Quran takes it as a given that there will be rich and poor people in society, and in a sense, assures that disparity by actively supporting the rights to private property and inheritance. However it persistently warns the well-off to care for the deprived. “Zakat” is the institutionalized form of this compassion: Every rich Muslim is obliged to give a certain amount of his wealth to his poor brethren.

Yet “zakat” is at most a form tax, and more commonly a voluntary act of charity, not a collectivization of wealth by a central authority. According to scholars John Thomas Cummings, Hossein Askari and Ahmad Mustafa (who co-authored the academic paper, “Islam and Modern Economic Change”) “zakat is primarily a voluntary act of piety and a far cry from what most modern-day taxpayers experience when confronted with increased income levies or complicated regulations.” Moreover, they add, “there is no particular Islamic preference for Marxist emphasis on economic planning over market forces.”

Indeed, when Prophet Muhammad (a merchant himself) was asked to fix the prices in the market because some were selling goods too dearly, he refused and said, “Only Allah governs the market.” It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to see a parallel here with Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” The Prophet also has many sayings cherishing trade, profit-making, and the beauties of life. “Muhammad,” as Rodinson put it simply, “was not a socialist.”

In Turkey, the Islamic cadre of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government seems to have realized these facts, and that is why theirs is one of the most pro-market governments in republican history, whereas the Islamic socialists, despite all their goodwill and honesty, seem to be on the wrong side of history.