The Embrace of Islam by the Communists

Though the common factor in Islam and Communism, for many political pundits is violence in the name of compassion, there have been many attempts to merge the two in an absurdity called Islamic socialism.

Islamic socialism is said to be a political philosophy that incorporates Islamic principles into socialism. It was coined by various Muslim leaders to describe a spiritual form of socialism. Islamic socialists often use the Quran to defend their positions.

Muslim socialists believe that the teachings of the Quran and Muhammad—especially the zakat—are compatible with principles of socialism and are very supportive of them. They draw inspiration from the early Medinan ‘welfare state’ established by Muhammad. Muslim socialists found their roots in anti-imperialism. This can especially be seen in the writings of Salama Moussa, who wrote extensively both about socialism and Egyptian nationalism against British rule.

Muslim socialist leaders believe in the derivation of legitimacy from the public and wish to implement a government based on social welfare and the concept of zakat. In practice, this has been seen through guaranteed incomes, pensions, and interest. These practical applications of Islamic Socialism have a history going back to Muhammad and the first few Caliphates to modern political parties founded in the 1970s.

Abū Dharr al-Ghifārī, a companion of Muhammad, is credited by Islamic left scholars as a principal antecedent of Islamic socialism. They argue that he protested against the accumulation of wealth by the ruling class during Uthman’s caliphate and urged the equitable redistribution of wealth. The first Muslim Caliph Abu Bakr introduced a guaranteed minimum income standard, granting each man, woman, and child ten dirhams annually—this was later increased to twenty dirhams. If so, Marxism was implemented by Islam, first!

According to Marxist Islamic scholars, one of the first expressions of Islamic socialism was the Wäisi movement in Tatarstan, Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The movement opposed the rule of the Russian Czar Empire and was supported by Muslim farmers, peasants, and the petite bourgeoisie. It suffered repression by the Russian authorities and went underground in the early 20th century when it started cooperating with communists, socialists, and social democrats in anti-government activity and started identifying itself as an Islamic socialist movement in the wake of the 1905 Russian Revolution. The movement aligned with the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution of 1917, during which the movement also established the first experimental Islamic commune. The Muslim Socialist Committee of Kazan was also active at this time. After the death of Lenin in 1924, the Wäisi movement left the Communist Party. However, Stalin suppressed it during the Great Purge in the 1930s.

Influenced by Soviet revolutionary practice and radical nationalism in British India, the Communist Party of India (CPI) operated under conditions not provided for in Marxist theory because Indian values are rooted in Hinduism. A classic example is Gandhi, though initiated into public life by western values, ultimately turned into Hinduism to lay the foundation for his political ideas in a Rama Rajya. All the Indian leading Communist leaders have been vocal about their indebtedness to Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who mentioned Marx’s name in an article in India for the first time. In India the Hindu firmament is strong and the atheism of Communism is anathema to the believers.

Sadly, from its very inception, the Communist Party of India embraced the tenets of Islam and the paraphernalia of violence that came along with it. The Party was formed in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, a concentrated Muslim region in the erstwhile Soviet Union. After the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the Soviet Party searched for revolutionary material in Islam and Sharia.

The Bolshevik thrust to accommodate Central Asian Islam resonated among the latter. After the October Revolution, several reformist-minded movements emerged to set up a kind of ‘Muslim communism.’ They proclaimed and proceeded to give theoretical substance to, fundamental compatibility of Communism and Islam. The group around Volga Tatar strongman Mirsaid Sultangaliev (1892–1940) played a pioneering role. Their “Muslim national communism” could do without most tenets of Marxism. Instead of the workers, the suppressed nations formed a class on a global scale. Therefore class struggle took place on an international plane only: “Muslim peoples are proletarian peoples.”

Sultangaliev enjoyed considerable prestige as the pre-eminent Muslim communist in the CPR(B) and served as Stalin’s leading expert on Muslim questions for some years. He was also a professor at the Communist University of the Toilers of the East and edited a journal on nationality questions. Many of his tenets were easily connected with Bolshevik ones. Though Sultangaliev’s 1923 expulsion from the CPR(B) did occur on the grounds of his Islamophilia, Stalin denied it. Stalin executed him during the Great Purge.

Two years before the Bolshevik revolution, Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi had travelled from India to Afghanistan in 1915 at the advice his teacher, Sheikh al-Hind Maulana Mahmudul Hasan. Ubaidullah was one of the prime movers of the reshmi rumal or ‘silk letters’ conspiracy to overthrow the British. At the urging of Hasan, he had written letters to the governor of Russian Turkistan and the Czar asking them to join forces with Turkey and declare war on the British. The letters provide minute details of the proposed organisational structure of an army called Hezbollah and recruiting Indians for it. The letters were concealed in silk scarves to escape detection. However, they were found, and the British clamped down the draconian Rowlatt Act limiting civil freedom. Ubaidullah remained in Kabul for seven years, working closely with the revolutionaries who had formed a provisional independent government for India and the Hindustan Ghadar Party before moving to Moscow and many of his comrades in October 1922.

 

During his stay in Moscow, he keenly observed the principles of Communism and the attempts to bring these principles to practice in the Soviet Union. When he reached Istanbul nine months later, he published a draft of a constitution for Free India in Urdu in 1924, which closely resembled the Soviet one in its economic character, emphasizing peoples’ welfare, nationalisation, abolition of feudalism, and landlordism. Ubaidullah understood socialist teachings to be directly in conformity with Islam. He also formed a Mahabharat Swarajia Party party to advance the political programme his constitution envisaged. The British confiscated copies of the document and Ubaidullah was forced to remain in exile – in Turkey, Italy, and Arabia. After his return to India in 1939, he continued expressing these views.

 

In the preface to the ‘Constitution’, the Maulana said while describing the impressions of Moscow:

We had the opportunity to witness the results of the Russian Revolution in Moscow with our eyes. Some members of our Committee learned the Russian language to study the revolution. We had good opportunities to exchange views with important persons from Russia. To study the influence of the Russian Revolution on other countries of Europe, our committee members went to these countries…(but) we feel this reality with sorrow that the present generation of our country has gone very far away from understanding the nature of the region.

Arguing about the national problems of India, Ubaidullah said:

Class complexity is present in every nation. The mutual struggle of the rich and laborer, landlord and peasant, the capitalist laborer can easily divide every Indian country into competitive and opposing ranks. That is why resolving Islamic socialism, all Indian problems, and especially resolving slight differences on a purely religious basis cannot produce any permanent path to salvation. Therefore we do not deem religion to be the basis to resolve these problems in our programme, but present a solution to these problems on national and class division and economic and political principles.

As an opponent of the capitalist system, he wrote about the future of India:

By breaking the present capitalist system in our country, we establish the foundations of such a system which is the guarantor of the welfare of the working class, meaning the majority, and remains under the rule of this working class. Our independence movement can become certainly successful from this.

The Maulana praised the Soviet Union, thus:

India reduced its greatness to dust by overlooking the French Revolution. By shutting our eyes to this revolution (the Russian Revolution) of global importance, we do not want India to sign its own death warrant. Russia meets us just a few steps further from the meeting of the Himalayas, Karakoram, and the Hindu Kush. Our conclusive opinion is that if we give away all that we have achieved in the sixty years of this slavery and buy the friendship of the nations from the northern passes to the North Pole even while remaining hand-to-mouth, we will not be at a loss.

Sindhi was Deobandi and an avowed follower of Shah Walliullah, the 18th century Delhi theologian who is the father of a rigid and puritanical Islam. In his exegesis of the Quran, Sindhi argued that the kafirs mentioned in Surah 2, v.4, actually represent ‘reactionary conservatives’!

At the same time, Moulavi Barakatullah also turned to the Soviet Union to find solace. The muhajirs like Shoukat Usmani and Muzafar Ahmad, after returning to India, laid the foundations for the Communist Party in Bengal. For them, the hijrat was a turning point.

On August 14, 1920, roughly 7,000 people moved from the small frontier town of Landi Kotal to the Khyber Pass bent on crossing the border from India into Afghanistan to fulfill their religious duty of emigration from the Land of the infidels, Dar-ul-Harb, to the Land of Islam, Dar-ul-Islam, Afghanistan. These Muslims were called muhajirs (migrants) and the journey hijrat. M N Roy founded the Communist Party of India at Tashkent, with them as members. The muhajirs had nothing to do with Communism; they were hell-bent on reinstating the Sultan of Turkey through jihad against the British, who overthrew him in the aftermath of WWI, for aligning with Germany. Thus, CPI was a byproduct of Islam.

The primary standard works on the Khilafat movement mention the hijrat movement in passing only. The more extensive one is the article written by l.al Baha in 1979, which appeared in Islamic Studies, a publication of the Islamic Research Institute in Islamabad, Pakistan. It is short on evaluation. A better paper was done by M. Naeem Qureshi of the Qaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad in Modem Asian Studies of the same year. He, naturally, limited himself to one aspect of the movement, the position of the ulama. Hence the work of Dietrich Reetz, Hijrat: The Flight of the Faithful, is essential to the study of Islamic Communism. He wrote the thesis after unearthing a British file on the exodus of Muslims from North India to Afghanistan in 1920.

A practical example of a working arrangement between communist activists and the traditional life-world of Central Asia’s non-Russian inhabitants is provided by M. N. Roy. His Memoirs recount his participation in the Bolshevik conquest of Bokhara in September 1920. Roy had reasoned beforehand that without Bolshevik intervention “the Muslims masses would be the victims (of counter-revolution) …The purpose of the revolution would be … to protect the Islamic masses throughout Central Asia against the … feudal ruling class.” Because of the repeated emphasis on the population’s dominant religion, it seems that even the Muslim-ness of the “Muslim masses” had to be protected from corrosive influence. Indeed, the prevailing outlook infused a considerable dose of religion into the Bokharan Revolutionary Committee’s deliberations: Communists “were advised not to do anything which might offend the religious sentiments of the masses.” To win over the Muslim clergy, Roy even studied the Qoran to a point where he could “justify the Revolution on scriptural authority.”

Obviously, to Roy, as to Stalin before, ‘Muslim’ superseded nationality as the main feature of Central Asia’s non-Russian inhabitants, and was a quality that distinguished them from ‘colonial peoples.’ Under communist tutelage, it was not that the minds of Central Asian nationalities were to be ‘liberated’ from Islam, but that Muslims were to be ‘liberated’ from foreign influence. Having outgrown a primarily religious frame of reference, Islam acquired a national and ethnic dimension imbued with a vital component of essentialized resistance. Hence, Roy deemed it perfectly natural for Soviet Muslims to set out, as Muslims, to help other Muslims “liberate” themselves, also as Muslims. In a nutshell, this is the Eastern revolution, substituting ‘Muslims’ for ‘workers.’ Since Roy would be the pivotal figure in the CPI’s early years, it is difficult to see why fanatical religiosity should have been problematic for the first Indian communists.

M N Roy was expelled from Comintern and the Party in 1929. The Party in India tried to embrace Islam miserably till 1947. Though the Party was nonexistent in Malabar in 1921, it later described the Mappila rebellion aimed at the Hindus as a class war. The Party later even went to the extent of supporting Pakistan. Gangadhar Adhikari, its Politburo member, wrote a thesis recognizing Muslim League’s demand for Pakistan. During the bloody riots of 1946 in Bengal, the Party stood with the Muslim League that ruled Bengal, unleashing state-sponsored terrorism culminating in a Hindu genocide. Thus, the Party got isolated from the multitude. For the remnant Muslim League in Kerala, the Communist Party in power gifted a Muslim majority district Malappuram in 1969.

This book tries to tell the story of the bonhomie of the Communist Party with Islam. This book is an extension of the work of Reetz and Patrick Hesse, two German academics who tried to view the subject differently from Indian pseudo-secular historians.

Reetz introduced a file on the hijrat available at the India Office collections and published it in his thesis. I am also grateful to Patrick Hesse, who researched the impact of Islam in Indian politics and wrote the thesis, To the Masses: Communism and Religion in North India, 1920-1947. 

Courtesy – Hamlet in Monsoon )

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