Talking about class today has been relegated in many ways to a form of antiquated analysis relevant only in Socialist circles clinging to Marxist Theory. In fact, concepts such as class struggle, class divide, or the working class, have been steadily expunged from our social narrative and our academic discourses. The great geopolitical shift of 1989/91 which led to the downfall of Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the USSR ended officially the partition of the world along Capitalist and Communist lines. For many, this was proof that Liberal Capitalism had unequivocally defeated Marxism both as an ideology and a socio economic system. This brave new Post-Cold War World heralded for the likes of Francis Fukuyama a world free from the yoke of the past and where history itself came to “an end”[1]. Specialists from both the right and the left were quick to declare that the advent of globalization had ended class struggle, thus making the debate around class obsolete.

It is often argued that the working class as defined in traditional Marxist theory no longer exists in Western societies. The manual workers of yesterdays represent a minority in a workforce dominated entirely by white-collar workers “enjoying middle-class living standards and lifestyles, while, contrary to Marx’s expectations, real wages have steadily risen in the past century ”[2]. The improvement of working conditions and the expansion of labor unions to all sectors of industry helped diffuse the confrontation between bourgeoisie and proletariat with the emergence of an “amorphous middle-class”[3]. Consequently, class as an underlying factor in shaping history has been gradually eclipsed in academia by a variety of other concepts tackling the very structural inequities addressed traditionally in class analysis.

What emerged from the ashes of the Cold War is an overtly simplistic understanding of the world. The onslaught of mass media served as a catalyst for the propagation of a superficial view of history emphasizing the works of politicians, artists, celebrities and a few intellectuals at the detriment of the “more fundamental patterns at work beneath the play of events”[4]. We have become mass consumers of a world history chronicled through the latest feats of celebrities and their scandals served up daily by glossy tabloids and reality shows, all the while denying the very idea that history has any pattern at all. Yet, underneath the veneer of change and the illusion of transformation lie the same old dichotomies.

The drastic change in the structure of our modern workforce and the shift in the conventional configuration of the working class hasn’t abolished class divide. Actually, low income and the working poor are terminologies used today to categorize those who (like the old working class) find themselves at the lower echelons in the relations of production. In-depth analysis of prevailing social, economic, and political concerns are obscured by shallow and misleading discourses that rely on a simplistic understanding of the structural and institutional nature of contemporary social inequities. Hence, rather than talking about class divide and class struggle in the current context, the conversation about economic disparity is now centered on the topic of poverty.

What is simply a symptom of a greater malady takes the spotlight and inspires a deluge of equally superficial efforts aimed at tackling the problem without ever questioning the system that leads to its existence. Despite the popularity of the notion of “social justice” and the string of activism it inspires, class divide and the struggle animating the dynamics of our class hierarchy are never encroached on. Politicians and activists alike promote the necessity of alleviating child poverty, elderly poverty, income poverty, or urban poverty as if these mere manifestations of poverty are not in fact the outcome of the same system of oppression. How can one eradicate poverty without ever changing the elements at the heart of our political, social and economic institutions that ascertain these economic disparities?

In Islam, the concept of justice is at the core of the values that define a Muslim nation. The rise of Islam helped establish a spiritually oriented worldview promoting socio-economic justice as a goal. In fact, one can notice upon an in-depth reading of the Qur’an how “the underlying tendency of the Qur’anic legislation was to favour the underprivileged”[5]. Ibn khaldun defined Muslim societies as goal-oriented, and with a keen interest in establishing social cohesion[6]. This was only possible according to him through a concerted effort by individuals and social institutions alike in promoting social solidarity. Thus, addressing the issue of economic disparity and poverty was not limited to individual acts of charity alone, but also encompassed moral and institutional reforms.

One of the most important things that Islam helped accomplish through its spiritually-oriented worldview was the realization of socio-economic justice. The status as well as the well-being of the weak and the downtrodden improved  drastically when the old social hierarchy based on tribal kinship was dismantled. This was primarily accomplished through moral and institutional reforms that reiterated the distributive nature of justice under Islamic law. It made every individual conscious of his obligations towards his fellow human beings, while the community was commanded to enjoy the good and forbid the bad. The government also played a crucial role in these reforms. It did everything it could to ensure the prevalence of law and order as well as justice. It established a judicial system in which the law applied equally to the rich and the poor.

The Islamic economic system is primarily based upon the notion of justice.  Justice in Islam is a multifaceted concept, and there are several words that exist to define it.  “The most common word in usage which refers to the overall concept of justice is the Arabic word “adl”.  This word and its many synonyms imply the concepts of “right”, as equivalent to fairness, “putting things in their proper place”, “equality”, “equalizing”, “balance”, “temperance” and “moderation.”[6]. An Islamic economic system is not necessarily concerned with economic statistics pertaining to income and expenditure, but rather with the spirit of the system itself.  Islam as a complete way of life brings all aspects of human activity (social, economic, political) under the dominion of a specific set of rules and regulations shaped by the Islamic ethos.

While such matters as financial performance are no doubt important, a society shaped by an Islamic ethos gives preeminence to the wellbeing of individuals and communities. The protection of an individual’s rights, needs, and dignity, irregardless of their race, gender, wealth, or religion, takes precedent over any economic considerations.  “Islam teaches that God has created provision for every person who He has brought to life.  Therefore, the competition for natural resources that is presumed to exist among the nations of the world is an illusion.  While the earth has sufficient bounty to satisfy the needs of mankind, the challenge for humans lies in discovering, extracting, processing, and distributing these resources to those who need them.”[7]

[1] Cohen, Claude. 1970. “Economy, Society, Institutions.” The Cambridge History of Islam. Vol. 2.Edited by P. M. Holt, Ann Lambton and Bernard Lewis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Ibn, khaldun (1377). Muqaddimah

[1] Fukuyam, Francis. (1982). The End of History and The Last Man

[2] Callinicos, Alex. (2010). The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx.

[3] Ibid. p.249

[4] Ibid. p.106

[5]  Cohen, Claude. 1970. “Economy, Society, Institutions.” The Cambridge History of Islam. Vol. 2.Edited by P. M. Holt, Ann Lambton and Bernard Lewis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[6] Ibn khaldun (1377). Al Muqaddimah

[7]  http://www.islamreligion.com/articles/277/economic-system-of-islam-part-1/

 

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9 thoughts on “Class, Social Justice, And Islam

  1. I was waiting for the Ibn Khaldun reference! 😉 It’s unfortunate that the global economic system is that of exploitation. I really wish the powers that be could understand that looking out for others is really in their best interest. But I suppose if you have no conscience, it doesn’t matter :/

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    1. Ibn khaldun was truly ahead of his time. So much of his work still applies to our current world. The fact that his work has remained relevant since the 15th century says a lot about the man’s genius. Greed often blinds people to the point of stupidity unfortunately. I’m afraid as long as some can horde most of the wealth on this planet, they will continue to do so. May Allah ‘aza wajal protect the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable. Ameen!

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      1. Geeky, you’ve gotten me so interested in anthropology. Can you recommend any good intro, readable books for someone like me who loves theory but has no expertise in the subject? Not necessary on this topic, but more generally. Thanks!

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      2. For Anthropology I would suggest the following books:
        1) Cannibals and Kings by Marvin Harris
        2) The interpretation of cultures by Clifford Geertz
        3) Modernity at large: Cultural dimensions of globalization by Arjun Appadurai
        4) Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

        For Sociology, I would recommend these ones:
        1) The sociological imagination by C.Wright Mills
        2) The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism
        3) Stigma: Notes on the Management of spoiled identity: Erving Goffman
        4) Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
        5) Madness and civilization by Michel Foucault

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