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Synthesis/Regeneration 29   (Fall 2002)

Islam and the Greens

by Larry Rinehart, Green Alliance

“Islam stays with the dream life of the masses, the eschatological imagination of the lowly and oppressed.” —Norman O. Brown (1, p. 92)

The lines of thought I am attempting to synthesize in this article were stimulated by Patrick Eytchison’s two pieces in the Winter 2002 issue (#27) of this magazine. Eytchison argues that to understand the motives of the ruling class’s “war on terror,” we have to see Islam as a geopolitical opponent of the dominant West, equal or greater in magnitude to the specter of communism, especially in light of the approaching peak of oil production. In general, he focuses on the more reactionary forms of Islam which have sustained armed militancy in recent times, and which have reverted to conservative interpretations of medieval Islamic law (Sharia) under the intense pressure from Westernized elites to secularize Muslim cultures. But in speculating on how Islamic geopolitics might play out, he mentions the intriguing possibility of a “progressive fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence] moving towards some form of socialism from inside the tradition itself.” (S/R 27: 17)

This got me to thinking. If Islam is potentially a movement of liberation from the dominance of capital, with socially progressive possibilities of evolution; and if the Greens are also such a movement, what might two such movements learn from each other?

It is probably fair to say that the cultural genealogy of most Green political and economic analysis has been Western-secular, framed by disciplines of post-Enlightenment European thought. Although spirituality and a sense of the sacred are clearly of vital importance to many Greens, the customary secularity of our critical discourse may lend an air of strangeness to the comparison of the Green tradition, still in its historical infancy, with a religious tradition nearly 1500 years old.

A quick check against the key values, however, is immediately suggestive. Social justice, as relative economic equality and caring for the poor, is not only a central Islamic value, it is one of the major themes repeatedly stressed by Allah in the Quran. Ecology, not of course in the sense of the secular science, but in the sense of the underlying wisdom calling for balance between human and nonhuman parts of creation, is equally important to Islam. Sustainability in the mercantile aspects of civilization follows from the ecological attitude of the tradition. Islam in its expansion fostered cultural diversity in the lands it united, and opened new prospects for individual achievement, both economic and spiritual. In principle there is no religious hierarchy: every individual is equal before Allah, and vast geographical territories were ruled according to a common body of sacred law (Sharia), differentiated by local interpretations, with no overarching imperial polity—in short, decentralization is an Islamic trait. The sense of global responsibility is implicit in the missionary tendency which Islam shares with other prophetic traditions. Just for a start, that makes 6 of the 10 key values shared by Greens, which can reasonably be attributed to Islam from its historical record.

…6 of the 10 key values…can reasonably be attributed to Islam from its historical record.

The development of a culture of non-violence, the exploration of forms of gender equality, of culturally-differentiated democracy and community economics, will require precisely the kind of “progressive fiqh” suggested by Eytchison. Or the kind of collective remembrance implied by the observation of Andrew Shanks, that “there is nothing in Islamic tradition which necessarily prevents the development of a vigorous civil society…The great Islamic empires of the past were, after all, home to a very vigorous and free-spirited civil society. It is just that people forget.” (2, p. 132). Muhammad Mashuq Ibn Ally, in his “Theology of Islamic Liberation,” argues that “Islamic liberation must not simply be treated as an angry outburst against the West. It represents a rebellion against imposed heterogeneous, political, economic, and cultural models, and more fundamentally it reflects the Muslim people’s search for a new order which ensures justice for all human beings.” (3, p. 45). He adds that the “unity of prophethood enables Muslims to regard the liberation movements in other faiths as sharing a common heritage.” (4, p. 54). Presumably this could include several varieties of secular faiths which have inspired and motivated liberation movements. Anouar Majid, in Unveiling Traditions, proposes a reform of Islam based on the core Meccan Revelation, to empower an Islamic critique, not only of the Western, secular, capitalist order, but of the reactionary interpretation of a medieval Sharia as well. He proposes:

Islam is expansive enough to allow for different interpretations and genuine democratic contestations...A Muslim...doesn’t have to be ‘secular’ to believe in the universal virtues of social justice and the inviolability of human dignity…How then do we conceive of a millennial epoch in which Islam is redefined as a progressive culture actively participating in the building of a multicultural and more egalitarian world civilization? (5, pp. 1, 12)

All this is by way of suggesting the possibility that Greens and Muslims might somehow collaborate as parallel, overlapping movements of liberation from the dominance of capital. But perhaps it is time to ask, what can we mean by “liberation movement” in the advanced stage of capital formation we inhabit, in these early years of the third millennium of the West? For any number of Islamic communities, it is a matter of urgency to regain their independence from the system of globalized capital. Green governance within the neocolonial power centers of the West would presumably assist in this accomplishment by dismantling the dominance of capital from within. Green discourse does not generally tend toward scenarios of overthrow. The predominant approach remains electoral: we shall educate the electorate, gain access to power through elections, and transform the system from within. Yet Immanuel Wallerstein (6, 7) argues persuasively that this approach has failed repeatedly in the history of the last century and a half (Are the German Grune not its latest casualty?)—failed in fact to reduce the gap between richest and poorest. Electoral politics, in this view, is at best a sort of holding action, an effort to mitigate the worst of late capital’s social effects, to achieve relatively minor, yet sometimes lifesaving ameliorations of the harshest human destitutions and ecological devastations. In the long run (and how long, we have no way of knowing) Wallerstein argues, again persuasively, that the world system of capital which arose about 500 years ago has entered a phase of irreversible breakdown from which, out of the ensuing chaos, a new world system will emerge. He thinks the breakdown could take as long as a half century, but admits it could be concluded much sooner.

…Greens and Muslims might somehow collaborate as parallel, overlapping movements of liberation from the dominance of capital.

I’d like to consider quickly a couple of implications of this scenario for Green strategy. First, as Wallerstein himself repeatedly stresses, the phase of chaos between the breakdown of an old order and the stabilization of a new is extremely sensitive to causative actions of apparently minor magnitude—small causes can produce large effects. This notion should be of enormous encouragement to Green (and other) activist groups, who must always hope to produce effects disproportionate to our numbers. The other implication of this hypothesis is that liberation from late capitalism has nothing to do with overthrowing it, for it is already in the process of irreversible breakdown. It is really a matter of building institutions and networks to facilitate human survival through this breakdown while using the electoral front to resist the worst excesses of the plutocratic state, so long as its apparatus is still functioning.

By way of placing Islam in this context, consider this observation by Marshal Hodgson: “In the sixteenth century of our era, a visitor from Mars might well have supposed that the human world was on the verge of becoming Muslim…Already by the end of the sixteenth century, basic transformations were beginning in Occidental economic and scientific life, transformations that were to result, within two centuries, in the unquestionable supremacy of the Christian European powers throughout the world. During these two centuries, largely as a result of changes in the Occident, the economic and cultural life of Muslim peoples was to be denatured and undermined.” (8, pp. 97, 100)

Islam will be a major ingredient in the ferment from which the next world system will emerge. Hopefully, the Green movement will also make a significant contribution to this ferment and its outcome.

This 1500-year old spiritual, political and economic tradition, originally rooted in a “bedouin resistance to imperialism,” (9, p. 49) has been more or less effectively subjugated, for the past 3 or 4 centuries, by the imperial order of Western capital, which is now in its terminal phase. Clearly Islam will be a major ingredient in the ferment from which the next world system will emerge. Hopefully, the Green movement will also make a significant contribution to this ferment and its outcome.


1. Norman O. Brown, Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis, U California Pr: Berkeley: 1991.

2. Andrew Shanks, God and Modernity, Routledge, New York: 2000.

3. Muhammad Mashuq Ibn Ally, “Theology of Islamic Liberation,” in Dan Cohn, Sherbok, World Religions and Human Liberation, Orbis Press: Maryknoll NY: 1992.

4. ibid.

5. Anouar Majid, Unveiling Traditions, Duke U Pr: Durham NC: 2000.

6. Immanuel Wallerstein, Utopistics, The New Press: New York: 1998.

7. Immanuel Wallerstein, The End of the World as We Know It, U Minnesota Pr: Minneapolis: 1999.

8. Marshal G S Hodgson, Rethinking World History, Cambridge U Pr: Cambridge, UK: 1993.

9. Norman O. Brown, op. cit.

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