ISLAM AND PRIVATE OWNERSHIP
Is private ownership a natural propensity?
Communists and their likes insist that it is not. They claim that there was no private property in the earliest societies where the "first communism" prevailed. All things, they say, were public property shared by all people who were guided by a spirit of affection, co-operation and brotherhood. They sadly regret that such “an angelic era" did not last because the discovery of agriculture involved disputes over the cultivated land and the means of production. This inevitably led to war. The Communists allege that humanity can put an end to this dreadful evil only by returning more to “the first Communism" where no one had a property or one's own and all production was equally shared by all people. They believe that this is the only way to restore peace, affection and harmony to the world.
On the other hand, psychologists and sociologists do not agree upon a clear distinction between natural and acquired human emotions, concepts and manners. Likewise they differ regarding private ownership. Some psychologists and sociologists maintain that private ownership is a natural propensity born with man regardless of the conditions of his environment. Others believe that it is acquired through man's environment. A child, they say, refuses to part with any of his toys either because they are too few or because he fears that another child may take them. When there is just one toy for ten children, quarrel is sure to break out, but, they say, where there are ten toys for ten children everyone will have a toy of his own and there will be no conflict.
Our answer to the arguments put forward by communists and other psychologists and sociologists is as follows:-
- No scientist has been able to prove beyond all doubt that private ownership is not the outcome of a natural instinct. All that the leftists could say in this regard is that there is no conclusive evidence available that it is the outcome of a natural instinct. But that is another question.
- The example-about children and their toys-which the communists give in support of their stand cannot lead to the conclusions they aim at. That quarrels do not break out when ten children are given ten toys does not rule out the existence of a natural desire for ownership. It means that the desire for ownership may, in healthy cases, be satisfied by absolute equality. The aforesaid example does not rule out the existence of such desire but it may help to define its nature. Besides, no one can deny that many children would not hesitate to usurp the toys of their friends unless they are prevented from doing so for reasons beyond their control.
- As to "the angelic era" which the communists suppose to have accompanied the earliest societies, it may be said that there is no real evidence that such an era did really exist. Even if there had been such an era, there could have been no means of production at the time. How could disputes arise over something that did not exist? At that time people got their foodeasily and directly from trees. When they went hunting they had to go in groups for fear of wild animals. It was impossible to store slain animals for they would soon go bad. So they had to be eaten up as soon as possible. The absence of conflict in that case does not rule out the existence of a natural desire for ownership. As a matter of fact, absence of conflict is due to absence of anything worth the strife. This is why the discovery of agriculture brought about conflict. The said discovery stimulated a hitherto dormant tendency which till then lacked the incentive for action.
- No one could firmly deny that at such an early era a conflict could have existed among a number of men for the possession of a particular woman. In spite of the existence of sexual communism in that era no one can say for sure that it was prevalent throughout society or that its existence prevented men from fighting each other for possessing a woman whom they considered very attractive.
This leads to an important conclusion: where all things are equal and similar the possibility of a conflict may be ruled out. But as long as things are different, conflict and struggle are bound to break out even in the imaginary "angelic society" upon which communists build their future prospects.
- 5.Finally, no one could rule out the fact that some men who lived in that early era desired to achieve personal distinction either by showing their bravery and physical strength or by any other means. Some primitive tribes-examples of the so-called "first communist society"-do still refuse to give their daughters in marriage except to those men who would endure a hundred lashes without showing any signs of weariness or pain. There is no doubt that the only reason that invites young men to set out for such a painful ordeal is their desire to achieve personal distinction.
If it is true that all things follow a state of absolute equality, we must then search for a reason that leads some people to assert that they are not equal to but even better than others. This leads us to the conclusion that if private ownership is not the outcome of a natural tendency it must be closely connected with another natural tendency namely the desire to achieve personal distinction present in man from time immemorial.
The communists allege that private ownership has been coupled throughout the ages with injustice and, therefore, if humanity wants to maintain peace and rid itself of bitter conflicts it must abolish private ownership.
But communists seem to forget two important facts: that individual efforts contributed to the progress of humanity and that do progress had been achieved during the so-called "angelic era" of "the first communism". It can be said that humanity started to make any progress only after the existence of conflict over ownership. This means that such conflict is not after all an absolute evil. On the contrary its existence, within reasonable limits, is a psychological, social and economic necessity.
In addition to this, it should also be borne in mind that Islam does not take it for granted that private ownership underlies all the injustice which afflicted humanity. The serious injustice that accompanied, private ownership in Europe and other non-Islamic countries in general was due to the fact that the propertied classes in those countries were themselves the legislators as well as the rulers. It was only natural that such a class should make the legislations that safeguarded its interests at the expense of the other classes. Islam does not recognize the existence of a ruling class. In Islam laws are not made by a specially privileged class; these had been made by God who created all classes. It is beyond imagination that God should favor some individuals or classes at the expense of others. What reasons could He have for such favoritism? According to Islam, the ruler is freely elected by all the Muslims. He is not nominated to office by virtue of any class consideration. After assuming the duties of his office, the ruler must follow a law which he did not make, a law that was revealed by God Himself. In this connection we may quote a saying by Abu Bakr, the first Caliph: "Obey me as long as I obey God in my rule over you but where I disobey God you shall not obey me". A ruler in Islam has no legal power authorizing him to confer upon himself or others any legislative privileges. He has no power to prefer one class to another or to act in response to the political influence of the propertied class by enacting legislations which safeguard its interests while oppressing other classes.
It should be pointed out that when we talk about Islamic rule we refer to that period in Islamic history wherein the principles and instructions of Islam were fully applied in their true sense. We do not refer to the periods when corruption changed the system of rule into a monarchy. Islam does not recognize such governments nor can it be held responsible for such rule.
That Islamic rule with all its justice and idealism remained in force only for a brief era should not mean that it is an imaginary system unfit for practical application. After all, what was successfully applied once may be applied again, and it is the duty of all people to work hard for the restoration of such an era. The present time, however, is more propitious than ever for the re-establishment of Islamic rule.
Under Islamic rule, the propertied classes will not be given the chance to make laws which serve their interests only. Islam prescribes that all people must be treated according to the same laws without any discrimination regarding human rights or dignity. In case of any differences as to the interpretation of some provisions of law-which happens with respect to every law on earth-the jurisprudents will have the last word. It is to be recorded with pride that the great Muslim jurisprudents did never interpret any law in a manner which might serve the interests of the propertied classes at the expense of the poorer ones. On the contrary, they have always been especially inclined to satisfy the basic demands of the working classes and to give them their full due. In fact, some Muslim jurisprudents went so far as to regard the workman or the peasant to be in partnership (as far as profits are concerned) with his employer.
On the other hand, Islam does not rate human nature so low as to take it for granted that ownership will always inevitably lead to injustice and oppression. In the field of refining and educating human nature, Islam achieved an unmatched success. Some Muslims owned property yet "they entertained no desire in their hearts for that which hath been given them but give preference to others over themselves though poverty become their lot" (Iix: 7). So they willingly shared their own property with others without expecting any return save forgiveness and recompense from God.
We should always try to remember such noble and lofty examples-rare as they may be. They should be regarded as a ray of light that guides our future steps and unfolds to us the noble achievements which humanity may aspire to realize in future.
It should be understood that Islam never wants us to live in a world of dreams nor does it make the public interests wholly dependent on uncertain "good intentions". Despite its excessive care for the purification and refinement of souls, Islam never forgets practical considerations. Islamic legislation ensures a fair distribution of wealth. By not only concentrating on the purification of the soul but also enacting just legislation, Islam lays the proper foundations for a healthy society. Perhaps this was what Othman Ibn Affan, the third Caliph, had in mind when he said: "God restrains by power what He does not restrain by the Quran."
To return to the question of ownership, it can be said that ownership existed in certain ages without leading to injustice. Islam permitted ownership of land but never allowed it to lead to feudalism as it did in Europe. Islam took the necessary precautions by enacting economic and social legislations which precluded feudalism and ensured a respectful standard of living even for those who did not own any land. It was such a guarantee that protected the poor class from exploitation by the propertied one.
On the other hand, granting that capitalism might have existed in Islam, it must be understood that Islam would have permitted only such type of capitalism as would serve the public interest. By purifying and refining human nature and at the same time making the necessary legislations, Islam would not have allowed capitalism to grow into an oppressive and exploiting force. By so doing Islam would have relieved the world from the evils which plague the present western world. Besides, the permission of private ownership under Islam was subject to certain restrictions. It was prescribed, for example, that public resources are public property. Where principles of justice required it, Islam prohibited private ownership and permitted it only when satisfactory guarantees had been made against injustice and oppression.
In order to make this point clear, we may borrow an example from non-Muslim countries i.e., the Scandinavian states. The English, the Americans and the French-staunch advocates of racial and national discrimination-admit that the Scandinavian peoples are the most civilized and affectionate peoples on earth. It is to be pointed out that such countries have not abolished private ownership but made necessary guarantees for a fair distribution of wealth. Such guarantees bridge the gap between the classes and at the same time prescribe that wages should be proportionate to work. It can be said that the Scandinavian states have in this connection come closer than any other state in the world-to a realization of some aspects of Islam.
It is impossible to separate any economic system from the social and intellectual philosophies underlying it. If we review the three doctrines that are currently propagated-capitalism, communism and Islam-we shall realize how the economic system and the theory of ownership in each doctrine are closely related to their social background. As previously mentioned, capitalism is based on the assumption that the individual is an inviolable being whose freedom must not be subjected to any social restrictions. It follows that capitalism tends to permit unrestricted private ownership.
On the other hand, communism is based on the belief that the Community is the base and that the individual has no separate existence of his own. Therefore, communism renders unto the state (as representative of the community) the ownership of all properties, thus depriving all individuals of such a right.
Islam holds a different social concept and, therefore, it adopts a different economic system. With respect to the individual-community relationship, Islam maintains that an individual has two simultaneous capacities: his capacity as an independent individual and his capacity as a member of the community. His response to either capacity may at times be greater than his response to the other one but he will finally combine and harmonize both.
The social concept based on such a belief does not separate the individual from his community nor does it regard them as two conflicting forces trying to overcome one another. Since an individual has an independent existence and is at the same time a member of the community, it is required of legislation to establish harmony between individual and communal propensities as well as between the interests of each individual and those of others. But such harmony must be achieved without sacrificing either interest for the good of the other. Legislation should not aim at the crushing of individuals for the sake of society nor should it allow society to disintegrate for 'the sake of one or more individuals.
The economic system of Islam is based on the above-mentioned concept of harmony which is some sort of a happy medium between capitalism and communism. It combines the merits of both systems without making the mistakes or deviations of either. It permits private ownership in principle but subjects it to such restrictions as would render it quite harmless. Islam authorizes the community and the ruler in his capacity as the representative of the community to enact the necessary legislation organizing ownership and to change such legislation whenever he deems that the public interest requires it.
Islam approves of private ownership since it has ti1e power to eliminate by various means any evils that may result from it. It will be remembered that permission of private ownership in principle while vesting the community with the power to organize and restrict it is a much better arrangement than outright abolition of ownership on the uncertain assumption that it is neither a natural propensity nor a human necessity. The fact that Soviet Russia has had to permit a certain (small) degree of private ownership is clear evidence that satisfying the propensities of human nature is the best thing for both the individual and public interest.
Why shall we abolish private ownership? For what ends shall we call upon Islam to do so?
Communism alleges that the abolition of private ownership is the only means to establish equality among people and to suppress the inherent desire for domination and power. Russia abolished ownership of the means of production but has it realized the objectives it hoped to achieve by such abolition? It will be remembered that Russia under Stalin had to introduce a voluntary overtime work shift for those who had the energy to do it in return for extra wages. By so doing Russia was creating differences in the wages paid to workers.
Do all people in Russia receive the same wages? Is it possible that doctors and nurses draw the same salaries? Communist propagandists often tell us that engineers get the highest wages in Russia and that artists collect the biggest income. By saying this they unwittingly admit the existence of differences in wages among the various classes in Russia. Such, differences are noticeable not only among members of the various classes but also among members of the same class.
Has communist Russia managed to wipe out the instinct of domination or the desire to achieve personal distinction? If so, how are trade union leaders, factory managers, senior administrators and commissars selected? How do they sort out active members of the ruling Communist Party?
Apart from the question of the abolition or approval of private ownership, should we not admit that the desire for domination and personal distinction is inherent in human nature?
Since the abolition of ownership could not rescue humanity from what communism regards as a great evil, why should we follow its example by taking a course that conflicts with human nature and thus attempt to realize an impossible end?
If the communists say that the differences among the classes and the individuals in Russia are too small to lead to luxury or deprivation we may say that-thirteen centuries before communism came into existence-Islam included among its principles the necessity of bridging the gaps among people, prohibiting luxury and wiping out deprivation.