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Planning an Islamist State

Samih El-Zein has unwittingly done a great service to those who argue that Islamism the modern ideology has little to do with Islam the traditional religion. His long tract makes this very point in many ways, in detail, and with color and verve.

"Hajj Samih," as he is known, is a Shi`a from Lebanon in good standing with Sunnis, the author of dozens of books on Islamic subjects, and an advocate that Islam is not only compatible with science but that it is the source of many modern scientific discoveries. Though El-Zein is not an original writer, nor a particularly major one, his ideas carry some weight among fundamentalist Muslims. Islam and Human Ideology, originally published in Arabic in 19891 and translated into English by an enthusiast, offers a summation of economic and political themes common in recent fundamentalist thinking.2 As such El-Zein's book provides a useful and most interesting entry into this intellectual world.

Because the book's disorganized presentation and many digressions make it something of a challenge to read, the following review concentrates on a presentation of his thoughts, followed by some reflections.


El-Zein sees Islam as not merely a faith but as an explicit rival to the world's great ideologies: "There are three types of principles in the world: the capitalist-democratic, communist-socialist and Islamic." With unconditional certainty, he declares the superiority of Islam: It

presents the most gracious system of solidarity in a society. Under such a system, the honourable do not fall, the honest do not perish, the needy do not suffer, the handicapped do not despair, the sick do not die for lack of care, and people do not destroy one another.

Given the poor showing of the communist system, he wastes little ink on it, but instead concentrates his attack on the capitalist-democratic foe. Ironically, he denounces it in ways vaguely reminiscent of Moscow's. Capitalism he dismisses as an "erroneous approach" that makes "production the basis of the economy while completely neglecting the question of the distribution of wealth among the individuals of the society." In El-Zein's rather primitive (or is it bookish?) understanding, "the capitalist system does not concern itself at all with providing funds necessary for fulfilling their necessary needs such as housing, food and clothing, as this is not relevant at all to those who are in charge of the system." He paints the capitalist countries as suffering from a great number of economic woes-cheating, lying, gambling, monopolizing, and the charging of usury. Most basically, El-Zein finds that in the West, "the purpose of life is profiteering." Ruthless materialism naturally causes Westerners to ignore all moral, spiritual, and human values. He concludes that Western civilization "should not be adopted, because it is in total contrast with Islamic culture." Quite the reverse: the West (and the rest of the world) would do well "to emulate this lofty, Islamic ideology."

And what precisely is this lofty ideology? A body of ideas and precepts that derive from the Shari'a, the sacred law of Islam. "No problem can occur or event take place for which there is not an explanation in Islamic law." In common with other fundamentalists, El-Zein extends the Shari'a far beyond its traditional bounds to find in it a vast body of alleged precepts that pertain to economic and political issues.


El-Zein makes many high-minded statements of a general nature about Islam and economics: "The economic viewpoint in Islam is summed up by saying that the economy is for the benefit of humanity not the individual." But the main interest of his book lies in the detail. To begin with, he pronounces on those practices that an Islamic economy rejects and those it accepts. On the negative side, all forms of insurance are illegal, as are cooperatives, monopolies, and any form of price-fixing by the state. Selling short is out, as is speculation in gold and silver.

In contrast, El-Zein accepts private property but within strict limits. Humans "are appointed as Allah's deputies in the ownership of items," implying that they must behave in accord with divine wishes. In particular, both "wastefulness and parsimony are prohibited." Fortunately for the suq tradition, bargaining is legal. Somewhat unexpectedly, he finds certain credit arrangements legal, as well as the practice of setting different prices for cash and for deferred payment. El-Zein deems corporations legal, though severely condemning joint-stock corporations. By virtue of collecting capital (and not labor) these contradict Islamic law: "labour or personal effort is the basis for developing property and for obtaining funds."

Islamic law famously and emphatically prohibits usury; El-Zein interprets this to mean a proscription on all forms of interest. But, he quickly assures the anxious capitalist, that presents no problem for "a society in which Islamic laws are implemented will have no need for usury." Indeed, eliminating interest has the happy result of rendering banks unnecessary, except for a single state-run bank which offers interest-free loans "for the common good of the community." The ban on interest has another positive consequence: no more foreign loans, the accepting of which El-Zein sees as "the most dangerous course a country may take." He even sees American loans as a conspiracy by which the United States hopes to "take control" over other countries.

Alms (zakah) are integral to the system. In contrast to traditional Islam, which left alms up to the individual, El-Zein would have the state organize and administer these contributions; in the course of which he transforms what had once been a pious, voluntary offering into a compulsory payment-a tax. The advantages of this appropriation are great indeed; alms not only redistribute wealth from those who do not need it, but they even (rather magically) provide protection against inflation.

In El-Zein's pie-in-the-sky view, an Islamic system means "injustice is nonexistent due to the State's provision for the well-being of all people;" this in turn implies there is "no need" for trade unions. And should employer and worker disagree on compensation, what happens? Here El-Zein seems to contradict himself. In one place, he decides that "the experts" will determine the proper compensation; in another, he declares that the state "determines wages for all employees." This casual inconsistency points to a larger consistency-that some authority, and not the negotiating process-will make this decision from an Olympian height. And once workers receive their just rewards, El-Zein sees "no need" for retirement benefits, bonuses, or other supplements to the basic wage, nor does he see any role for annual raises, which he scorns as "part of the capitalist system" and "a form of deception." To sum up, "in Islam there are no labour problems."

Interestingly, many of El-Zein's dicta reflect Marxist-Leninist thinking. He holds that the state must own mines, oil wells, pastures, city squares, seashores, river straits, and other properties; it must guarantee work for all who seek it; and it must provide to all both basic subsistence (food, clothing, accommodation) as well as free medical care and education. Should the state lack the means to pay for these many obligations, it may "appropriate those funds that exceed the basic and luxury needs of the population." In plain English, it may seize whatever it likes. Unlike traditional Islamic notions, which gave the state almost no role in private commerce, he grants near unlimited powers to government officials. Again, this reflects far more the customs of twentieth-century authoritarianism than the precepts of traditional Islam.

Also in a quaintly socialist vein, El-Zein believes that the only way to industrialize is to establish a heavy equipment industry, as though Stalin pursued the only possible method of economic growth and the East Asian model has no validity. "There is no way the country can be industrialized except through giving heavy industrialization priority over everything else and establishing no new factories except with equipment manufactured in the country." El-Zein even finds in the Islamic holy books a precept requiring industrial self-sufficiency. (Which might remind an American of the Supreme Court finding in the U.S. Constitution a right to abortion.)

Summing up, a devout Muslim may not join a trade union, put his money in a bank or buy stocks, speculate in the commodity markets, own seashore property, or buy any form of insurance. In return for giving up these rights, he gets no inflation, no poverty, perfect equity, and an abundance of material goods.

All of this, it can hardly be overemphasized, has little to do with Islam as understood by the faithful over the many centuries. Very broadly, traditional Islam is indeed hostile to materialism and to usury, but it has no faith in governments, much less an ambition to micro-manage the economic life of Muslims.


El-Zein takes up political issues almost as an afterthought to his lengthy discussion of economics. Consistent with fundamentalist ideology, he declares that "there are no minorities in Islam." Muslims are one people, under a single ruler; he waves away all differences that do exist-cultural, linguistic, ethnic, national, doctrinal-as irrelevant. El-Zein envisions a single Muslim polity stretching from Morocco to Indonesia, though he does not explain how this huge state will be achieved or maintained.

In contrast, he does focus on the question of who is to rule this monster state. No kings, presidents, or emirs need apply; the caliph, or vice-regent of God, is the only legitimate Islamic ruler. That the last caliph who truly ruled lived about a millennium ago poses no obstacle to our author, who fantasizes in some detail about resurrecting a caliphal system. Nominees for the top position are to be selected by a council of wise men (majlis ash-shura) and then voted on by the population. The caliph then rules for life, on the condition that he personally lives by the Islamic law and enforces it throughout his universal Muslim domain. So long as the caliph fulfills his duties, he is proof against coups d'état, for Muslims "are enjoined by a divine decree to obey the government." Those who revolt will rot in hell. El-Zein envisions the caliph in a paternal role highly reminiscent of fascism: "the prince of the believers will act as father to children when their father is away from them."

Do not count El-Zein among those mealymouthed apologists who claim that jihad means moral self-improvement; he's a red-blooded sort of fellow who sees jihad as a mandatory military obligation on all Muslim men and (showing his modernity) women. Nor does he pretend to support democracy. Instead, he candidly subordinates the popular will to God's: "the Islamic religion with its texts and evidence does not require that the opinion of the majority be respected unless it is in agreement with the law."


El-Zein's study prompts three thoughts. First, his is a sure prescription for poverty and dictatorship, if not totalitarianism. Secondly, the fundamentalist Islamic outlook he espouses contains hardly an original thought, but derives in its near-entirety from the corpora of Marxism-Leninism and fascism. Even the ban on interest leads to a monopolistic state banking system that sounds very similar to that which existed in the People's Democracies. Thirdly, El-Zein writes in apparently complete ignorance of modern history. He dismisses the successes of the West (capitalism, the separation of powers) as blithely as he ignores the tragedies of totalitarianism (for example, he assumes that a better society can be constructed by glossing over rivalries and self-interest).

Although El-Zein is but an intellectual theorist with little chance of becoming a Lenin or Hitler who applies his own ideas, he is part of a wave of thinkers who cumulatively have enormous influence on politics in the Muslim world; for example, the government of Necmettin Erbakan in Turkey closely followed the economic ideas laid out by El-Zein. In other words, the hypothetical nature and shoddy quality of El-Zein's thinking does not diminish its potential importance. As the twentieth century has already many times witnessed, stupid minds can do extraordinary damage.

Daniel Pipes is editor of the Middle East Quarterly.

1 Islam wa Aydiyulujiyat al-Insan (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-Lubnani, 1989).
2 For more original and consequential, but less pointed, versions of these ideas see two studies by the Iraqi scholar, Muhammad Baqir as-Sadr (1935-80), Lamha Fiqhiya Tamhidiya 'an Mashru' Dustur al-Jumhuriya al-Islamiya fi Iran (Beirut: Dar at-Ta'awun li'l-Matbu'at, 1979) and Iqtisaduna, 2 vols. (Najaf: Matabi' an-Nu'man, 1961-64). On Sadr's writings, see Chibli Mallat, The Renewal of Islamic Law: Muhammad Baqer as-Sadr, Najaf, and the Shi'i International (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1993).