Islamic concepts of the just economy
Toward a synthesis of the Left and the Right
Introducción a la Cosmovisión del Islam [Introduction to the Worldview of Islam] by Mulammad Husain Beheshti and Muhammad Yauád Bahonar1 provides a thorough and excellent introduction to Shiite Islamic thought with respect to philosophy, religion, and society. It includes concluding sections on Islamic guidelines for the economy and for a just social system, which provide interesting insights that combine ideas that we in the modern and post-modern West normally associate with the Left as well as the Right. It thus offers reflections useful for a possible synthesis of leftist and rightist ideologies, which is a task that intellectuals of the West ought to undertake, in order to transform debate from the terrain of ideological war to the much more productive terrain of consensus-seeking civility.
Beheshti and Bahonar dedicated their lives to the study of Islamic theology and to the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and both arrived to occupy high positions in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Both were martyred by explosions set off by enemies of the Revolution; Beheshti on June 28, 1981, and Bahonar on August 30, 1981.
I have drawn upon their work in a previous commentary. See “The spiritual worldview: A traditional wisdom necessary for our times,” December 27, 2022.
Beheshti and Bahonar maintain that the teachings of God, revealed to the prophets, stress the principle of justice. Therefore, Islamic teachings focus on the sustaining of justice and equity and on the struggle against injustice and corruption.
They maintain that, in Islamic teachings, the earth and all that pertains to her belong to all persons and not to any particular class or group. The concentration of wealth in a particular social class causes social problems. Wealth ought to be distributed among all the social strata so that its members will have vigor and energy; economic benefits ought not be monopolized by a particular class.
Islam is opposed to the accumulation of wealth for its own sake, for exhibitions of vanity, or for the attainment of power. Money should be used for human wellbeing and for the satisfaction of human desires; it should be used as a means to attain the objectives of a noble life. When wealth is used to accumulate power or for vane exhibitionism, God and permanent human values are forgotten.
The predominant tendency in human history is movement toward justice. When it deviates from this tendency, our duty is to walk toward the normal course, on the basis of a correct knowledge of Islam (under the guidance of competent religious authorities), taking into account the needs of the epoch and persistent social struggles under an appropriate leader.
The sharing of the divine gift of natural resources
All the natural resources of the earth, sea, and outer space, including subterranean minerals and the treasures in the depths of the oceans, are public property. They pertain, Beheshti and Bahonar explain, to persons in general.
Islam respects private property to a certain degree, on the basis of respect for the rights of individuals and their aspirations to develop business enterprises. But this right does not permit domination of others or depriving others of the fruits of their labor. In Islam, private property is respected, but it cannot be the foundation of a society.
In Islam, property cannot be acquired in a form that damages others, nor can property be acquired by illicit means. Property acquired in such ways ought to be impeded or left without effect. I note that in this teaching, Islam provides justification for the nationalization of property without compensation by newly independent formerly colonized states, a practice defended by Fidel at the General Assembly of the United Nations.
Beheshti and Bahonar stress that land possessed by the society is for the benefit of all, in the present and the future. It cannot be sold by the state. It can be rented to a person or society for the purpose of cultivating it or constructing buildings on it, with resulting funds obtained through the collection of rent deposited in the public treasury.
The government, they maintain, is the custodian of the interests of the universal community. Money collected from the rent of lands that are the property of the society should be used to protect said interests.
All unused land and all the fields and forests are the property of the state. The government should use them in accordance with the interests of present and future generations. They can be rented to a person, association, or group, in accordance with social utility.
A government can judge it in accordance with national interests to assign a portion of land to an individual or association. In such cases, the land becomes private property, but with all Islamic moral limitations on the rights of private property. In general, important natural sources of wealth ought not be the property of persons.
The duty to use natural resources for the satisfaction of human needs
God has entrusted human beings with the task of cultivating the land and utilizing the earth, Beheshti and Bahonar maintain. Raw materials that can be used for the production of goods needed by the members of the society ought not be left unattended. Those who cultivate previously uncultivated or unused lands, or who construct economically useful buildings on such land, have a claim to ownership of the land, because they are improving the productivity of the society.
Persons who leave arable land uncultivated can lose the right to the land. Land marked and occupied can be claimed as property only when it is worked in a productive or economic manner. The occupation and marking of boundaries are not in and of themselves sufficient for claiming the land as property; there has to be some work on the land of an economic and productive nature. Anyone who claims unused land has a right to it only insofar as the land is made economically productive. Accordingly, Beheshti and Bahonar write that “all the lands belong to God and to whomever makes it productive.” I would like to observe that this is a principle that has been used in land reform programs in Latin America, in which states seized lands claimed by large-scale corporations but were not being used for productive purposes.
In this vein, Beheshti and Bahonar note that it is illegal to occupy unused land only for the purpose of selling it for profit. It must be acquired with the purpose of constructing or cultivating.
Water is a precious natural resource, and accordingly is public property, Beheshti and Bahonar maintain. Anyone who digs a well or builds an irrigation canal is the proprietor of the water, but only in the sense of priority in using it; once the water is used to satisfy the needs of the proprietor, others cannot be impeded from using it. Water cannot be sold, even when work is involved in attaining it; water so attained is for the satisfaction of needs, and beyond that it is freely available.
Minerals cannot become personal property; they are social property. Many prominent Islamic jurists, and the majority of Shiite jurists, maintain that even minerals that require large-scale work for their extraction are social property. All jurists agree that minerals that do not require large-scale work, such as gold attained through panning, are social property.
Beheshti and Bahonar emphasize that God has placed abundant natural resources at the disposition of humanity, to make the best use of them, not simply to admire them.
The duty of work
To live from the work of others is not pleasing to God, Beheshti and Bahonar maintain. Work is the source for obtaining the benefits necessary for life. No one has the right to live off the work of others, which occurs to some extent in socialism and in welfare state capitalism. The Islamic economic system is opposed to any benefit that is not the product of work. The lack of work damages the individual and the society.
I would observe here that such notions with respect to work are central to traditional American values. They need to be incorporated into a synthesis of the ideological Left and Right, keeping in mind that such notions cannot justify that some persons are left without fundamental human needs.
Beheshti and Bahonar have an ample conception of work that includes not only the production of goods but also the distribution of goods and the providing of services. All forms of work, they maintain, should receive just compensation. This conception makes artificial any distinctions among the manufacturing worker, the domestic service worker, the merchant, and the professional. All are doing useful work for which they have the right to receive benefit. I continually insist that the Left would be able to expand its reach if it would cease basing its appeals in this artificial distinction. The Left could expand its influence by appealing to the natural sentiments of people, rooted in their own lived experiences, convoking the “people,” as against the “workers,” to revolutionary social movement. “Workers of the world, unite!” is a powerful and historically important proclamation; but it is not the best formulation in the current historic moment.
The real distinction, according to Islamic teaching, is between activities that are useful and those that are vane. Only useful activities are work. Commercial intermediaries, for example, who do not contribute usefully to the distribution of the product are engaging in a useless activity that merely has the function of elevating the price. I would deduce from their writing that Beheshti and Bahonar also consider the production and distribution of alcoholic beverages and unclean foods to not be a useful activity.
The duty to work is central. The application of work to natural resources converts them into exclusive personal property, but always with appropriate moral restrictions, including the restriction that the proprietor cannot exploit others.
The condemnation of usury
Islam is strongly opposed to usury, which Beheshti and Bahonar define as the lending of money with interest. The usurer contributes nothing, and the activity increases the spirit of avarice in the society. In contrast, making loans without interest is a virtuous activity.
Money should not be taken from productive activities, they maintain, for the purpose of financial speculation. Money ought to be used to increase economic productivity and create new employment.
Many banking functions are legitimate, in that they facilitate commercial transactions. However, Beheshti and Bahonar note, most loans for production, commerce, and service seek the acquisition of power, and only secondarily do they seek economic wellbeing and progress in industry and knowledge.
Large sums of money necessary for agricultural and industrial projects and for scientific and technological advancement can be attained without big banks and large capitalists and usurers, Beheshti and Bahonar maintain, through the formation of cooperative societies. This alternative approach prevents the concentration of wealth in the hands of a limited number of self-indulgent capitalists.
Islam is opposed to speculative sales, that is, the purchase of goods and stocks merely with an orientation to sell them at a profit. Speculative sales contribute nothing to production or distribution; they merely increase the price.
The active role of the state in the economy
For Beheshti and Bahonar, state investment also is a legitimate form of making available large sums of capital. However, the government ought to involve itself directly only in special projects. In general, it ought to facilitate investment in activities that benefit the nation, and not merely special interests. The government should intervene in economic activities in order to enhance production and distribution, making corrections that deviate from moral norms.
I should note that this Islamic teaching coincides with the practice of socialism as it evolved in the Third World and China during the twentieth century. Initially emphasizing state ownership of economic activities (with exceptions made for practical reasons), the countries constructing socialism later turned to direction of the economy by the state, in accordance with a plan that includes defined space for private capital, with an emphasis on the elevation of productivity to increase the general standard of living and to elevate the capacity of the state to provide for social needs. Thus, Islam has been teaching an appropriate relation between the state and the economy that coincides with the theory and practice to which the states constructing socialism have arrived on the basis of their experiences.
Beheshti and Bahonar observe that merchants and industrialists make important contributions to production and distribution. But the government should carefully observe their activities, because they have a tendency toward avarice, egoism, and the accumulation of wealth.
In general terms, Beheshti and Bahonar maintain that a just government ought to administer the economy in a form that cares for the public interest, especially the needs of the poor, and does not protect the illicit benefits of the rich.
Eliminating artificial inequality and limiting natural inequality
Beheshti and Bahonar maintain that there are natural mental and physical disparities among human beings, independent of disparities caused by socioeconomic injustices and deprivations. The society ought to eliminate artificial inequalities caused by injustices. In addition, in order to attain a more equitable distribution than what emerges naturally even in a just society, it ought to take something from the high-income groups and give it to the low-income group. The society ought not let natural inequalities stand; it ought to develop a more equitable distribution of wealth.
They write that “in an Islamic society, no one ought to be left without the necessities of life. The rich ought not think that all their income belongs to them. . . . A society where there are two classes, one that has and another that does not have, is not an Islamic society.” Public funds ought to ensure the continuous flow of the resources of the rich to the poor in order to ensure the provision of social needs.
Consistent with the progressive tendencies of the social democratic parties of the West, Beheshti and Bahonar maintain that the government has the responsibility to establish and maintain health and educational institutions, national defense, salaries and pensions of government officials, subsidies for the poor, and assistance to all in need.
Just laws in nation-states seeking social justice
Beheshti and Bahonar emphasize that laws ought to serve the real interest of all and create a favorable atmosphere for the prosperity and material and spiritual development of all. Laws are impersonal or not, according to the extent that they protect the general interests of humanity. In an advanced society, national laws seek to cover the greater quantity of the interests of the society. But most national governments do not seek to foster the desires of humanity as a whole.
Beheshti and Bahonar noted that majority opinion in many cases does not represent the real interests of the nation. The claim of the majority of governments that they are national governments is false and deceitful, masking the despotic character of the government.
But in contrast to this reality, there is universal law, which originates in the interest of all the persons of the world. I should note that Marx also identified such an interest, which he called the common interest, distinguishing it from the particular interests of determined social classes and from a fictitious general interest with a supposedly eternal character.
The miracle of the Koran
Like many Islamic theologians, Beheshti and Bahonar maintain that the Koran is the literal word of God, revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, who did not have formal or informal education. The surprising content of the Koran is the evidence for this claim: its fluid expression, its consistency, its comprehensible character, and its valuable teachings. Islamic theologians note that, with these qualities, the Koran stands in contrast to the sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity.
In A Brief Illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam,2 I. A. Ibrahim describes several facts mentioned in the Koran, which were unknown at the time when the Koran was written, but which have been demonstrated to be true by modern scientific knowledge. These include scientific facts with respect to: human embryonic development; the formation of mountains; the origin of the universe; the underwater currents of the rivers and seas; and the clouds and rain. Inasmuch as these facts, today demonstrated by modern science, were not part of human knowledge or speculation fourteen centuries ago, Islamic theologians maintain that these scientific facts constitute evidence in support of the belief that the Koran is the literal word of God, revealed by God to Mohammad.
I submit that, just as the Koran anticipates subsequent human knowledge formulated by the natural sciences, it also anticipates human knowledge that is coming to light today in the study of history, political-economy, and society. Advanced knowledge in these fields is rooted in the analyses of Marx and Lenin, which emerged from participant observation in revolutionary movements in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth. Its subsequent development was stifled by Western universities through distorted conceptions of objectivity and through the fragmentation of knowledge, such that Western knowledge in these fields degenerated into ethnocentric myopia. As a result, advances in the fields of history and political-economy were obligated to continue their evolution in the terrain of political practice in the anti-colonial movements of the Third World and China. During the last thirty-five years, this knowledge has moved beyond the assumptions of Western capitalism and Eastern European communism, developing formulations that synthesize the insights of capitalism and socialism, under the guidance of socialist values.
Islamic conceptions on these questions not only approach coincidence with twenty-first century socialism in practice. They also have the potential to constitute the foundation to a synthesis of the notions of the Left and the Right, enabling the overcoming of the current ideological war and arriving to points of consensus.
Islam possesses the historic leftist orientation toward universalism, inclusion, equality, and social justice as well as opposition to the concentration of wealth. It is opposed to the pursuit of money for its own sake or for motives of vanity; money should always be used to sustain life and for noble objectives. Islam respects the rights of private property, and it sees private enterprises as central to productivity and to individual motivation, but it places significant restrictions on the right of private property, including the prohibition of domination or exploitation. Its approach to private property and wealth could not legitimate the historic worldwide process of European colonial domination and superexploitation of workers and peasants, nor could it justify the patterns of accumulation of wealth that have been central to the capitalist world-economy. On the other hand, Islam justifies the nationalizations of lands and companies practiced by Third World states, because of the immoral and illicit means through which they were acquired. Moreover, Islam maintains that the government has the duty to provide for health and education, and it has a special obligation toward the poor and those in need. Islam affirms that the earth and its natural resources have been given to humanity for the benefit of all, and not for a particular class.
At the same time, like conservatism, Islam affirms that humanity has the obligation to develop the natural resources of the earth for human use, but in a form that takes into account the rights and needs of future generations, in accordance with the principles of ecologists. According to Islam, big corporations can exploit natural resources, but as renters and contractors with states, and they can earn no more than just compensation for their investments and work, because natural resources belong to all humanity.
Like conservatism, Islam affirms individual human inequalities in capacities, and it recognizes that natural inequalities emerge, without the artificial inequalities that result from prejudice and discrimination. At the same time, Islam maintains that the society cannot let natural inequalities stand; states must intervene in the economies in order to reduce inequities, and it always must guarantee the provision of fundamental human needs.
Islam maintains that the state ought to direct and actively intervene in the economy, and it has the right to nationalize, but the priority ought to be the stimulation of private companies toward defined goals with respect to productivity and social needs. Like traditional conservatism and like twenty-first century Third World socialism, Islam gives high priority to economic productivity.
Islam embraces traditional conservative values with respect to individual responsibility and work. It maintains that the society should avoid taking away individual incentive to work.
Islamic conceptions of economy and society offer the potential to overcome the superficiality of the current debate, which is not a debate but an uncivil ideological war, in which truth is the first casualty.
I am not a Muslim. I am an intellectual who seeks to understand truth. Having read something of Islamic conceptions, I have arrived to appreciate their insight and their value. According to Ricardo Elía,3 appreciation of Islam by Western intellectuals who have encountered its thinking and practices is a common historic phenomenon.
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Mulammad Husain Beheshti and Muhammad Yauád Bahonar, Introducción a la Cosmovisión del Islam (Qom, Islamic Republic of Iran: Fundación Cultural Oriente, 1988).
I. A. Ibrahim, A Brief Illustrated Guide to Islam (Raliegh: IIPH, 2004).
Ricardo Elía, La Civilización de Islam, Segunda edición, (Qom, República Islámica de Irán: Editorial Elhame Shargh, Fundación Cultural Oriente, 2012).