A peculiar feature of “Muslim activism” in the postmodern West is the disorienting alliance some “Muslim leaders” generally uphold with representatives of the political Left and particularly Marxism.
How can it be possible to re-conciliate between such diametrically opposed worldviews?
Well, you can’t. This is something the “Muslim activists” themselves seem to reluctantly admit when they say that it’s all about political equations and not really anything ideological – as if short-term gains in the dunya are worth your eternity in the akhirah.
However, there actually was an individual who truly believed in a form of “Islamic Marxism.”
His name was Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev (1892-1940).
He remains pretty much an unknown entity to the wider public despite his significant legacy. In one of the few books written about him, Alexandre Bennigsen (who was considered the main Soviet specialist of Islam in Central Asia) called him “the father of the Third-World revolution” since Sultan-Galiev’s ideas about “national liberation” were wedded with revolutionary socialism, and anti-colonial rhetoric influenced the likes of Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara and others.
But his “international” relevance isn’t our focus here. Rather, we will be looking at what his project of “Islamic Marxism” meant and how its failure still yields lessons for us today.
A Product of Modernist-Reformism
Sultan-Galiev was born into a Tatar family during 1892 in what was still the Russian Empire.
The Tatars are a Turkic group constituting the largest ethnic minority in Russia after Russians themselves. They form around 4-5% of the Federation’s population today and are predominantly Muslims.
But what’s relatively interesting about Sultan-Galiev’s early life is how much he was influenced by the modernists-reformists of the Russian Empire: the “Jadids.”
As Adeeb Khalid wrote, “Jadidism” is in fact a heterogeneous group so the dynamics among Tatars aren’t the same as the Jadid dynamics among other ethnicities of the Russian Empire, such as the Uzbeks. The common denominator was a sense of “renewal” (what “jadid” implies in Arabic), which in practice meant attacking traditional or normative Sunni Islam in the name of modernity and secularization.
More recently, academics such as Nathan Spannaus and Devin DeWeese have tried to curtail the old Soviet myth of the proponents of Jadidism being fanatical atheists, yet this doesn’t change the fact that the very premises of the Jadids were inherently problematic.
One author who looked at the understated Jadid influence on Sultan-Galiev is Vanja Hamzić in his 2016-article “Mir-Said Sultan-Galiev and the idea of Muslim Marxism: empire, Third World(s) and praxis.”
On p. 2049, the author writes how the Jadids built thousands of schools, and how Sultan-Galiev was educated in one of them, with the following consequences:
Mir-Said’s particular passion was Russian literature, which he was able to read in its original language from an early age, as well as Muslim folk stories and customs. The jadīdist schooling taught him critical thinking, however, and some of his earliest contributions to the Muslim press were directed against customary practices that he thought repugnant to modern Muslim culture, such as the ḥudūd punishments for the offence of zina. His further education, directed towards his becoming a teacher himself, as well as his literary and journalist work, quickly gained support from the Tatar jadīdist intelligentsia
You know you’ve succeeded as a modernist-reformist when the “critical thinking” you instill into the minds of people makes them view the commands of Allah as being “repugnant.”
Like the Jadids brainwashed Muslims of the Russian Empire, the “Compassionate Imams” of today seem to share in their mission. It is thus no wonder that one of their own products, Ilhan Omar, deems the Shari’ah to be barbaric and consequently fights against it.
Sultan-Galiev was to the Jadids what Ilhan Omar and others are to the “Compassionate Imams.”
Executed With His Own Weapon
Being a modernist-reformist movement, Communism was the natural ally of the Jadids. Communism was another modernist ideology which emerged after the triumph of the Bolsheviks in 1917. Adeeb Khalid notes in The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia (p. 288) that:
“the Jadids thus rapidly transformed themselves into Muslim Communists.”
The transformation of Sultan-Galiev was in a similar context – that of lazy fascination and awe towards a triumphant ideology. This is analogous to how the Compassionate Imams and their tools wish for an alliance with the political Left. They perceive the political Left as an invincible force within the West.
It’s an obvious and evident form of intellectual surrender and political inferiority complex.
But what exactly was Sultan-Galiev’s “Islamic Marxist” ideology?
Matthieu Renault, a French academic who wrote a book on the early Soviet approach to Islam, summarizes it in an article as follows:
The second point refers to the relations between the socialist revolution and Islam. Sultan-Galiev argues that, “like all the other religions in the world,” Islam “is doomed to disappear.” But he also says that “among the ‘great religions’ of the world, [it] is the youngest, thus the most enduring and strongest in terms of the influence it exerts.” He asserts that Islamic law contains some “positive” prescriptions such as the “mandatory nature of education…the obligation to work and trade,” and “the absence of private property rights to lands, waters and forests.” In addition, Islam’s singularity relies on the fact that “during the last century, the whole Muslim world has been exploited by Western Europe’s imperialism.” Islam was and is still “an oppressed religion forced to be on the defensive.” Such a permanent oppression is the source of a deep “feeling of solidarity” among Muslims as well as of a powerful desire for emancipation. According to Sultan-Galiev, Communists should not strive to eliminate Islam, but rather work at its de-spiritualization, its “Marxization.”
Surely no faithful Muslim would wish for the erasure of Islam nor its “de-spiritualization” through Marxism?
It’s because Sultan-Galiev, the highest-ranking Muslim in the Soviet hierarchy, was in fact an atheist.
He was executed by the Soviets in 1940 because Stalin felt he appeared too “nationalistic” due to the emphasis he gave to his Turkic ethnicity and a watered-down form of Islam.
So, here’s the irony:
Sultan-Galiev embraced “Islamic Marxism” as a form of revolutionary and internationalist socialism. Yet his Soviet buddies considered him not to be revolutionary enough to keep a secularized Islam. Nor was he internationalist enough to keep “nationalist” tendencies since he deemed the Soviet Union as a new form of Russian imperialism against minorities such as the Tatars.
Don’t the “Compassionate Imams” think how the same thing might happen to them?
When their “allies” from the political Left – the Marxists in particular – earn a definitive victory against the Western conservatives, won’t Islam be the obvious next target for simply not being Marxist enough?
Especially as Sultan-Galiev, as mistaken as he was, still retained some level of “sincerity” unlike their own purely political calculations?
They probably aren’t familiar with Sultan-Galiev, but haven’t they heard of the Uyghurs? They are the greatest living proof for what practical Marxism looks like for Muslims.