Islam, The Misunderstood Religion

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  • Islam, The Misunderstood Religion



    Recently when I heard that a student wrote a thesis wherein he "proved" that Islam was a feudalistic system and received his Master's Degree, I was deeply surprised. The performance of both the student as well as the professors awarding him the degree was equally mystifying. But the student might well be excused on the plea that he was either ignorant of what he was writing about or did so out of ill-will towards Islam, but what about the learned teachers? How are we to account for their conduct, their knowledge of the socio-economic system of Islam, and their understanding of history?

    But I no longer wondered as I remembered who these learned teachers were. Weren't they the members of a community enticed by the foreign exploiters and fashioned after an intellectual pattern serviceable to them? Aren't they the people in whom Mr. Dunlop[1] was particularly interested? They were sent abroad ostensibly to acquire knowledge, but, in fact, it was just a part of a conspiracy to turn them into complete strangers to their own culture and civiliza­tion; to make them look down upon their religion, their own selves, their history, their faith, and, instead, follow in the footsteps of their western teachers. No wonder then that they allowed such a mon­strous perversion of history and truth!

    Let us, however, see what the word feudalism means in fact and what are its characteristics. For this purpose we reproduce below extracts of a book, "Communism" by Dr. Rashid-al-­Barawy, that has recently been published in Europe. Speaking about feudalism, the author says: "Feudalism is a way of production, the distinguishing mark of it being the existence of a perpetual system of serfdom. It is a system wherein the landlord or his representative is entitled to receive a fixed share of production and enjoys certain specific economic rights, carrying with them the privilege to make their tenants serve them or, instead thereof, receive payments from them in cash or kind. As an explanation of this, we may say that the feudal society is divided into two classes of people: (I) the owners of feudal lands, and (2) the tenants, who may again vary in their grades, farmers, agricultural workers, and slaves, the number of some of them dwindling off more rapidly than that of others. It is the farmers, the direct producers, however, who enjoy the right to possess land and have a share in the produce that is so necessary for them to support their families and themselves, besides the right to build farm-houses on the tillage. Against these benefits, they are required to serve the landlord every week by render­ing free services in his fields working with their own cattle and instruments, along with performing for him a number of other services at the time of harvesting and reaping, and offering him on the occasion of festivals whatever gifts and presents they can. They are also expected to get their food-grains and grapes milled and pressed in his flour mills and pressing machines.

    "The landlord also exercises full executive and judicial powers over his tenants living within the bounds of his feudal lands.

    "The real producer in feudalism did not enjoy freedom in the sense we know at present; he did not own the land, nor could he sell, inherit or give it as a free gift to others. He was compelled to a forced labor in the lands of his master even at the expense of his own material gains or considerations thereof. Moreover, as a mark of his obedience to the master he had to pay him taxes that were unlimited in amount as well as extent. With the land he too changed masters passing from one to the other, for he did not have the right to shift of his own free will from one fief to another in search of work or even join the service of still another master. As such, the feudal villain forms the connecting link between the slaves of olden times and the free tenants of the modern times.

    "It was the master who fixed the extent of the land to be given by him to the peasant. He also decided about the services that he expected his tenants to render him without being under any obliga­tion to have a consideration for the rights of the other landowners or the needs of the peasants while making such momentous decisions"

    The writer goes on to say: "In the thirteenth century there ensued the great illegal migration movement that finally ended with the emergence of agricultural workers. This movement known as "the running away of peasants" caused the landowners to claim back their fugitive tenants, they among themselves agreed that every landowner would be fully authorized to capture all the workers happening to transgress into his feudal domain. But as the phenomenon-the running away of the peasants-was fast be­coming a common feature of the times the landowners were forced to depend on and consequently engage more and more of hired labor for the tilling of their lands, Their mutual agreements gra­dually lost all significance which meant a steady decrease in their co-operation. From this proceeded still another inevitable result: wages to the workers were paid in cash in place of exacting forced labor out of them without any payment.

    "Many of the peasants gradually prospered as against the needs of the nobility and landowners that were greatly multiplied and hence became a great burden on them economically. The circumstances favored the peasants and they bought off their freedom. This continued till the fourteenth century when the freedom of the agricultural workers was at last recognized as such by all. However, the important change that came over the times was that the basis on which the whole feudal structure rested was beginning to give way; the following centuries witnessed its com­plete abolition".[2]

    These are the characteristics of feudalism, we have reproduced these extracts above in detail as we want that we should become clear-headed about feudalism and its characteristics and not confuse them with other seemingly similar manifestations. Bearing all these characteristics of a feudalistic society in mind, may we ask: when and where was such feudalism ever witnessed in the history of Islam?

    Perhaps the outward semblance that has proved a stumbling block for many a research worker or has given the opportunists an excuse to cast aspersions on Islam, is the fact that in the beginning, the Islamic society for the time being consisted of two classes of people: the landowners and the peasants who worked in their lands. But this was nothing more than a mere .outward semblance. It in no wise justifies the confusion of Islam with feudalism. In order to facilitate a comparison between Islam and feudalism we may sum up the basic characteristics of feudalism as follows:­

    (l) A perpetual serfdom.

    (2) The duties which the peasant discharged towards his master consisted of:

        (a) a whole day's free and forced labor in the lands of his feudal lord once a week;

        (b) free and forced services rendered by him to his master in special seasons of         harvesting, etc.;

        (c) presenting gifts on religious and other similar occasions of festivities, notwithstanding his poverty or the opulence of the recipient rich landlord;

        (d) an obligation to get his food-grains milled in the mills of the landlord. (We pass over his obligation to get his grapes pressed for his feudal lord as wine is prohibited in Islam).

    (3) The right of the landlord to decide as his whims or desires might dictate as to the extent of the land to be held by the peasant, the services required of him and the taxes to be paid by him.

    (4) The exercise of all judicial-cum-executive powers by the landlord not in accordance with a fixed law of the land but according to his own whims and desires;

    (5) The obligation of the peasants to buy off their freedom with cash payments when in the end feudalism gave way and a process of its degeneration set in.

    Let the readers first look at these and then glance over the whole history of Islam to find similar characteristics therein. They will surely be disappointed, for Islam has nothing to do with them.

    There is no serfdom in Islam as it recognizes no other form of servitude save that of slavery, the causes and conditions whereof and the means or freedom from which we have already dealt with in the preceding chapter. Islam admits of no bondage arising out or a tenant's being bound to the soil. The only slaves that we know of in Islam were those captured in wars which are quite sufficient to prove that in the early Islamic society the number of slaves was far less in comparison with the total numbers of its free citizens. They worked on the soil of their masters till they were freed voluntarily or they themselves took the initiative and demanded as writing of (Mukatabah) their freedom of their masters. But there exists no such parallel in the history of the European feudalism as it primarily aimed at the subjection of the peasants as well as the agricultural workers rather than encourage them to demand freedom. That is why the peasants in Europe were looked upon as serfs bound to and transferable with the land from one master to another. As such, they could neither leave the soil they worked on, nor free themselves from the obligation devolving upon them towards their landlords.

    Islam is not at all familiar with this type of serfdom or villains as it is in principle opposed to all forms of servitude save that ren­dered by man unto his God, the Creator of all life. There is no pro­vision in it for the subjection of some creatures to other creatures like them. Whenever such an abnormal state-subjection of some men to others is found due to certain external causes without any initiative from Islam, it always is a temporary or a transitional phenomenon, which it strives to do away with, with all the possible resources at its disposal, encouraging the slaves to earn their freedom besides holding the state responsible to render to them all possi­ble help towards that end.

    In economics too Islam does not recognize any bondage of man to other men like him. The system of slavery to which we have alluded above is an exception as there was no other economical alternative before Islam at that time. Islam tolerated it till the slaves were freed spiritually and till the time they were able to shoulder their responsibilities as free members of the community, whereupon Islam actively helped them in winning back their lost freedom.

    Islam bases its economic structure on freedom of action coupled with a relationship of a complete co-operation and exchange of mutual services among all individuals. The Islamic government as such acts as a guardian and custodian of all such people as happen to lag behind in the struggle of life for some reason and are denied all amenities of a decent living. Thus with all the resources of the state at his backing in an Islamic community no man needs let himself become a bondsman to the landowners. Islam pro­vides for all his basic needs without degrading him or making him lose his independence, self-respect or honor.

    Thus both spiritually and economically Islam is opposed to feu­dalism. It brought to men freedom from feudalism even before they were caught up in the shackles of serfdom.

    So far as the obligations of the peasant towards his feudal lord are concerned there is no evidence whatever of their existence in the whole range of Islamic history.

    It is quite free of such nonsense. In this respect, Islam stands quite unique. In case a peasant is found guilty of some crime, it allows the owner of the land to discard him and give away the land to another one. But this is not to encourage oppression; it is rather a step towards the eradication of serfdom. Islam aims at the establishment of a free relationship between the landlord and the tenant.

    The only relationship that Islam recognizes as lawful between the peasant and the landlord is either that of contract or that based on tenancy. In the former case, the peasant is required to pay to the landlord a fixed amount as the rent of the land proportionate to its produce and after that he remains quite free in his cultivation and expenditure as well as in the acquiring of all the produce of the land for his own personal consumption. If he happens to be a tenant he will share the produce of the land at the end of every year with the landlord. In such a case all the expenses are borne by the landlord; the peasant provides the labor only. In both of these cases there is no place for forced labor, dictatorial privileges or any other obligation incumbent on the peasant to serve his master without getting anything in return. Both parties rather enjoy full equality in freedom, in their rights as well as duties with a reciprocity of mutual give-and-take relationship. The peasant is, in the first place, quite free to choose the land he would like to hire or the landlord he would prefer to work with as a tenant. Secondly, he is on a par with the landlord and enjoys as much freedom to decide or agree to the amount for the contract to be paid by him to the landlord. If he does not find the bargain profitable he is free to back out of it and not agree to the contract, the landlord having no power or right to take him to task for that. As a tenant the pea­sant enjoys as much legal privileges as his landlord. They divide the profit thereof equally between themselves.

    Besides this, we also find that contrary to what happened in the history of European feudalism, the practice commonly prevalent in Islam was quite different. It was the rich landlord and not the poor peasant who gave presents and bestowed bountiful gifts upon his tenants on the occasions of Eid and other festivals. This is specially true about the months of Ramadhan, a month of great importance and religious significance in Islam. During this month, friends and relations paid visits to each other and were entertained with feasts along with bestowing bountiful gifts upon the poor and needy ones of their community. It means, in other words, that the rich and well-to-do people were wont to spend their riches on others rather than exact costly gifts from the poor people as was the cus­tom in "civilized" Europe.

    From this it is clear that the duties that the peasants were encumbered with in feudalism and which degenerated into forced labor have no place in the Islamic system of life. It established rather a free relationship between the landowner and the peasant with a reciprocal respect and perfect equality. As regards the duties discharged by the feudal lords in Europe towards their tenants as a recompense for their unjustifiable forced labor and abject slavery to them in the form of defending them from others and safe­ guarding their rights, in Islamic society the rich people discharged voluntarily similar duties with regard to their tenants without expecting anything from them in return. In rendering these services to their fellowmen they sought nothing save God's pleasure. This is what distinguishes a system of life based on a lofty creed and the one devoid of it. In the one the social services rendered by a man towards others assume the character of a worship whereby he is brought closer to his God, whereas in the other they are nothing more than a commercial enterprise, each party striving hard to get hold of the lion's share and anxious to yield to the other nothing but that which is beyond its power to hold longer, with the result that in the end the most powerful party rather than the one rightfully deserving emerges victorious and gets away with all the profits.

    The third characteristic of feudalism, that is, the right of the feudal lord to decide as to the extent of the land to be given to the tenant and prescribe the duties to be discharged by and expected of him, is a thing peculiar to the European concept of lordship and serfdom only. Such concept had never existed in the history of Islam which does not recognize the over-lordship of the feudal lord or the serf-hood of the peasant to him. The only factor which does restrict the choice of a peasant with regard to his acquiring a lease of land in Islam is his own free will and financial potentiality. The lesser enjoys no privileges against this save that of claiming the agreed upon rent of the land from the peasant. Similarly in tenancy the extent of the land to be farmed by a tenant is determined by his own physical ability or the number of the helping hands (consisting of his sons generally) he can get hold of. The duties imposed on him in tenancy are no more than what the rehabilitation of the land acquired by him may necessitate. The land in such a case is considered as a common property of the peasant and the landowner till it brings forth its produce. As to the land of the landlord other than that held by the tenant in tenancy, the tenant is not supposed to have anything to do with that, nor is he under any obligation to work therein whatever the form or nature of such a work or service might be.

    The most striking point of difference between Islam and feudal­ism, however, is the judicial-cum-executive prerogative enjoyed by the landlord in feudalism. He alone in feudalism controls and regulates all social and political life within the bounds of his fiefs. Islam is diametrically opposed to such a prerogative as it aims at the abolition, rather than its retention, in the world of human relation­ships.

    The European nations did not possess any law of the land in the real sense of the word with regard to the above-mentioned landlord-tenant relationship. The Roman Law, which later on formed the basis of all subsequent European legislation, conferred upon the feudal lords the right to become virtual dictators in their respective areas, make laws for the people, hold judicial powers among them, and enforce their decisions as they might think fit. Thus they held in their persons legislative, judicial and executive powers all in one and at the same time. Each one of them formed a govern­ment within a government. The government did not interfere with the internal affairs of the feudal monarchies so long as they con­tinued to carry out their financial and military obligations towards it at the hour of need.

    Nothing of the sort is to be found in Islam, It had its own cen­tral government with its own law of the land which it strove to en­force in the lives of all those living within its boundaries, Judges were appointed to enforce the law of the land in all parts of the country. All were made equal before law, None enjoyed any priority over others. The individual was called to account only when he committed a mistake or acted wrongly. Later on when contrary to the teachings of Islam, the government degenerated into a here­ditary monarchy it still retained some Islamic characteristics. Thus, for instance, the government continued exercising a supervisory authority over all the different peoples and individuals that lived within its sphere of influence. The law of the land was one and the same for all people living within its vast territories. The only excep­tion appears to be differences of the jurists among themselves on certain legal points, which is no more than what is met with in al­most all the systems of law found on the face of the earth. It was this rule of the law that provided a safeguard for the peasants against the oppression of the feudal lords as well as their greed, lust or whim. They were ruled in accordance with the divine law rather than the whims and wishes of the feudal lords. It held not only the landlords and the tenants as equals as both of them were now made free men but also treated all men alike and in the same manner.

    Of course there are found certain unfortunate Incidents in the history of Muslims as well, wherein we see that judges gave judg­ments contrary to their own conscience as well as in contravention of the spirit of the law in order to win favor with the feudal lords or the rulers, but these incidents were no more then certain stray instances. They are merely exceptions as is shown by the historical facts to the veracity of which even the European scholars bear witness. As against these few stray case of injustice there are a great many instances in Islamic history which show that judges gave judgments in favor of extremely poor men against not only landlords, governors or ministers but even against the caliph himself-the caliph who wielded absolute authority and power. But, in Spite of this, neither any judge was dismissed from his post, nor did the ruler seek any revenge against him.

    Similarly, there is not any escape movement of the peasants met with in the Islamic history as was witnessed in Europe. This was so because the peasants enjoyed not only the rights to move freely from one farm to the other but also from one country to another within the boundaries of the vast Islamic Empire. Nothing prevented them from shifting from place to place except their own fondness for or attachment to a particular tract of land as was, for instance, the case with the Egyptian farmers. The peasants in other parts of the Islamic world, however, fully availed themselves of this freedom of movement as they did not happen to be so attached to their particular areas as their Egyptian counterparts were and as no obstacles were hurled in their way to prevent their movement such as blocked the way in the case of the European peasants in the form of serfdom and the various obligations they were encumbered with.

    The peasants in the history of the European feudalism towards its final phase had to buy off their freedom. This too has no parallel in the history of the Islamic peoples for the simple reason that among them peasants enjoyed as much freedom as any other section of the community did. They as such had no need to buy off the freedom they already possessed,

    Moreover, it may also be added that in the Islamic world a large number of small states existed throughout its history. These states provided livelihood to their possessors, helped them carry out various kinds of sea or land trade and support the various industrial crafts. But in Europe all of these were completely swept away by the upsurge of feudalism. It was then that a dark night of spiritual ignorance and intellectual darkness settled on Europe. It was shown light by Islam, first when it came into contact with the Islamic world during the crusades, and again, when the two encountered each other in Spain. These encounters set Europe onto the path of the Renaissance and so Europe gradually climbed out of that dark night of intellectual and spiritual stagnation.

    Thus we find that feudalism as such did never exist in the world of Islam so long as Islam remained dominant in the Muslim lands because its spiritual and economic system as well as its basic creed, principles and laws are all opposed to feudalism. Not only this but it also does away with all the causes conducive to its growth. Whatever semblance of feudalism was witnessed during the Ommayad and Abbaside periods was limited in its sphere, besides the fact that it never flourished so as to become a common feature of the social life of the Muslims.

    Of Course we do find feudalism in the Islamic countries in the modern history towards the end of the Ottoman Empire when headsprings of Islamic faith had dried up in the hearts of Muslims and the political power had passed into the hands of those who knew nothing as regards Islam save its name. The picture became all the more dark when the Godless, materialistic and aggressive European civilization marched in triumph against the Islamic world. It staged military occupations, destroyed all spiritual values and put an end to the spirit of co-operation, replacing these with the most hideous forms of capitalistic exploitation and a life-long misery to the poor. This feudalistic system imported as it was from Europe still continues to linger in some of the Muslim lands with all those features that characterized its parent-the European feudalism. It is quite clear that Islam owes no apology for the presence of it in the contemporary Islamic world, nor is it in any way responsible for its emergence or existence. It could be held responsible only if it were a ruling power in the Muslim lands. Some Muslim rulers are at present ruling their peoples in accordance with the constitu­tions and laws imported from various European countries rather than according to the Islamic laws. They remain the most faithful followers of their western masters that were ever witnessed on the face of the earth.

    From the above discussion certain facts stand out clearly that have become a centre of the ideological conflict raging in the modern World. Of these the following facts may be pointed out:­

          (1) It is not the factor of ownership as such that inexorably paves the way for the growth of feudalism with human will having no part in its enhancement. It is rather the manner of possessing and the nature of relationship between the owners of the land and those who have no land in their possession that favor its growth. That is why ownership was there in the Islamic world and yet feudal­ism did not exist because the ideology of Islam as well as its various applications to practical life establish between the individuals such relationships as do not favor the growth of feudalism.

    (2) If Europe was condemned to feudalism it was not because feudalism is an essential stage of evolution on the path of evolution that can never be bypassed by mankind even if it should so desire. Europesuffered from it rather because of the fact that it did not pos­sess any system or creed such as might have regulated human relationships and offered a sound intellectual guidance. Had there been present such a creed and ideology as was the case with the world of Islam, to guide and organize their socio-economic relation­ships, no feudalism could ever have sprung up or flourished in Europe.

    (3) The different stages of economic evolution-first com­munist society, slavery, feudalism, capitalism and then the final com­munist society-which the dialectical materialists describe as a common phenomenon in the history of mankind, really have no existence whatsoever outside the European history. These stages were never passed through by any people outside Europe. The world of Islam never in its whole history passed through the stage of feudalism; it has never also as such till now come to the stage of communism, nor will it ever reach that stage.



    [1] Dunlop was the British official entrusted by British colonialist authorities to plan and supervise educational policy in Egypt.


    [2] An-Nizam-ul-Ishliraki "Communism"-pp, 22-23.

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