Some academics from Indiana University have recently published the results of a survey of seven Muslim-majority societies. The researchers found a strong correlation, in every country surveyed, between a stated belief in shariah as the system of state governance and a set of egalitarian principles.
In research based on survey data from seven predominantly Muslim nations, the authors found that Islamic orthodoxy — identified as the desire to implement Islamic law (shari’a) as the sole legal foundation of their nation — is associated in every country with support for such progressive economic reforms as increasing the responsibility of government for the poor, reducing income inequality, and increasing government ownership of businesses and industries.
The importance of this study should not be understated because it highlights what is one of the more fundamental problems with the contemporary Islamic revival: that it is has drunk so deeply from the well of socialism that it can no longer distinguish Islamic principles from the faddish proscriptions of ‘progressive’ politics.
That some Muslims would oppose ‘income inequality’ is one such example. As Muslim blogger Tariq Nelson observes, this is not an idea that is unique to the Muslims of the Middle East but is an intellectual feature of even our own Western Muslim communities.
I have met Muslims who think that the Islamic system is like that, inspite of the fact that Islamic History is replete with entrepreneurs who were very wealthy and gave much of that wealth willingly (not forced by the government) in charity. These Brothers would resent wealthy, highly educated Brothers who were not giving them what they thought was their “fair share” of what the wealthy Brothers had earned. This is why you will find some cases brothers that think the masjid owes them a car, for example. And not just any car, but a car that the wealthy brothers drive because afterall “None of you truly believe until you love for your brother what you love for yourself”.
Whilst it may hold some attraction, for the reasons that Tariq describes, the equalisation of income is not an Islamic principle. It is, instead, an idea whose pedigree is communism with it’s mantra of, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
As Ibn Khaldun noted in his al-Muqaddimah, differences in the value of labour are natural and are a function of differences in skill, location, occupation, and demand. As demand for a particular skill increases relative to supply, so does the price by which that skill might be offered. And, as the community becomes aware of the high earnings to be found in a particular occupation, so will others be drawn to it: thus increasing supply and eventually lowering the cost.
Labour, Ibn Khaldun found, was the source of value. It could only be achieved through the expense of human effort and this was the principle reason for the wealth of a society: the more effort expended overall in labour the more prosperous that a society becomes; and, as humans expended less effort, so would a society become less prosperous.
Anything that therefore discouraged humans from expending effort (as labour) would eventually lead to the decline in the overall prosperity of the society and a subsequent decline of that civilization. Income equalisation naturally reduces the incentive for people to be productive, innovative or improve their competitiveness as employees because it collapses the distinction between excellence and mediocrity. Why would someone invest the time and tolerate the subsequent stress to excel when they could, for marginally less money, invest less time and suffer less stress by engaging in menial or other such work?
Nobody should be under any illusions that a system that enforces some notion of ‘income equality’ would be genuinely egalitarian. It simply means that the state, as opposed to the market, has the authority to decide who are the superior people in the society. Income equalisation will not eliminate the distinctions between people in society but simply place the power to make such distinctions in the hands of the rulers. Even in Soviet Russia, there was always a distinction between the ruling classes and the majority of people; with the ruling classes having access to the best schools, best medical treatment and the like. There is no reason to believe that it would be any different in the Middle East. In fact, with many of these societies steeped in tribalism, there is every reason to suspect it may be far worse.
In any case, it is also unclear how ‘income equalisation’ can be achieved through Islamically-lawful means. Would the incoming Islamic government confiscate property from the rich and redistribute it to the poor? Would it legislate that a surgeon should be paid no more than a taxi driver? Or would it, as seems most likely, impose a progressive income tax on the citizens so as to aggressively confiscate the income of those who earn more? If so, then this could only done whilst ignoring the fact that the only legislated ‘tax’ on Muslims is the zakat: 2.5% off savings that a person has held for one year and which exceed the minimum needed for subsistence and excluding the tools of one’s occupation.
The idea that increasing government ownership of businesses is somehow a good thing and part of the ‘Islamic agenda’ is equally misguided. There seems to be no evidence that the Prophet Muhammad advocated the nationalisation of private industry but contrary evidence that he was opposed to the state interfering in the market — of which government engaging directly in trade is an extreme example. The reasons for why the state should refrain from engaging in commerce were powerfully articulated by some of the early Islamic scholars of economics who warned that when the state enters the private sphere there is a tendency for corruption and monopoly to occur, and for there to be little incentive for private enterprise.
Indeed, many of the economic and social problems in the Muslim world are exactly because of the very proscription that these groups are advocating: the involvement of the state in commerce. It is not uncommon for presidents, kings and princes to be engaged in trade; using their positions and the position of their family members to unfair advantage. At its most benign, this manifests itself in the petty corruption where businesses acquire ‘connected’ silent partners from the ruling classes so as to further their commercial aspirations; and, at its most extreme, this manifests itself in the blatant perversion of property rights where property is confiscated by the rulers with no recourse available to the victims.
It has often been said by opponents of Islam that Islam is the new communism; but if this report is any indication, for some so-called Islamists, communism is the new Islam.