Islam and the class system
Before we discuss Islam's attitude regarding the concept of classes it may be useful to try to understand what is generally meant by a "class system". In medieval Europe, for instance, there were three distinct classes: the nobility, the clergy and the common people.
The clergy had their own distinctive clothes. In those ages the power of the church was equal and at times opposed to that of kings and emperors. The Pope claimed that it was he who conferred power on kings but they strove to get rid of his influence in order to rule independently. Owing to the property donated by the religious people and the exactions imposed on them, the church became so rich that at times it could have armies of its own. On the other hand, the nobility inherited nobleness from their forefathers and passed it on to their descendants. A man belonged to the nobility by birth and remained as such until his death regardless of whatever noble or mean actions he might have done in his lifetime.
In the feudal age the nobility exercised absolute powers over the common people who lived in their estates. All the legislative, judicial and executive powers were in their hands. Their whims and fancies were the laws by which they ruled over the people. Since representative councils were composed of members belonging to this class, it was only natural that the legislations they made would aim at protecting themselves, safeguarding their own privileges and interests which they surrounded by an air of inviolability.
As for the common people, they had no privileges or rights. They inherited poverty, slavery and humiliation and passed them on to their descendants.
The significant economic development which took place afterwards led to the emergence of the bourgeoisie: the new class which aspired to displace the nobility and to assume their privileges and prestige. It was under the leadership of this emerging class that the common people launched the French Revolution which seemingly abolished the class system and declared in theory, the principles of liberty, fraternity and equality.
In modern times, the capitalist classes have replaced the old nobility. It will be noticed that such replacement took place in a disguised manner and was accompanied by certain changes necessitated by economic development. But the basic principle has never changed. The fact is that the capitalist class still has the property, the power and the ability to steer the government's machinery into the direction they desire. Despite the appearances of freedom manifested in democratic elections, capitalism knows how to sneak into parliaments and government offices in order to achieve its shady ends by crooked means and under various names.
It is to be remembered that a country like Britain-the patron or democracy as we are often told-still has a House of Lords or the Upper House as they call it. Moreover, Britain still applies an ancient feudal law by virtue of which all the property of a dead man passes to his eldest son alone. It is quite clear that such a law aims at keeping estates and properties in the hands of a limited number of people. In this way families' fortunes will not be distributed and such families will retain the old prestige and influence which the feudal classes had in the Middle Ages.
The class system is based on the wrong assumption that property means power and that the class which owns property has the power as well. Such a class will exercise an influence over the legislative power. Consequently such a class will, by direct or indirect means, make legislations which protect it and subject the common people to its own authority, thus depriving them of their legal rights.
In the light of the above-mentioned definition of classes, it may be truly said that there has never been a class system in Islam. This can be clearly seen from the following facts:
There are no laws in Islam which aim at keeping the property in the hands of particular persons. The Holy Qur'an plainly says: ''In order that if may not merely be a perpetual distribution between the wealthy among you" (Quran 59: 7). Therefore, Islam made laws that ensured continual fragmentation and redistribution of wealth. According to the Islamic law of inheritance, inherited property should be distributed among a large number of persons.
An inheritance is never passed on to a single person except in the very rare case where such a person has no brothers, sisters or any other kindred. Even in such rare cases, Islam took the necessary precautions by prescribing that a portion of the inheritance should go to the deprived people who are not related to the dead man. This provision may be regarded as a predecessor of modern inheritance tax. The Holy Qur'an prescribed that "if at the time of division (of inheritance) other relatives or orphans or poor are present, feed them out of the (property) and speak to them words of kindness and justice" (iv : 8). It was in this way that Islam solved the problem resulting from the accumulation of property. Property goes to individuals as such and not as members of a particular class, because when they die the property will be redistributed according to new proportions. History bears witness that property in the Islamic society was constantly changing hands without being confined to a particular faction of the nation.
This leads to an important conclusion: Legislation in Islam is not the prerogative of a particular class. In the Islamic state no one is allowed to make the legislations he desires because all people are treated according to the same Islamic laws which were revealed by God and which hold no distinctions among people.
It follows that the Islamic society is a classless society. It will be understood that existence of classes is closely connected with the existence of a legislative prerogative. Where such a privilege is non-existent, and no one can make legislations which safeguard his own interests at the expense of others, there will be no classes.
Now let us explain how two relevant verses which, if read carelessly might lead to some doubts.
"And Allah has favored some of you over others in provision" (Al Quran 16: 71).
" We raised some of them above others in ranks" (Al Quran 43: 32).
Do such verses mean that Islam recognizes the class system?
These two verses merely describe what is actually taking place on earth, be it under Islamic rule or otherwise. They state that people differ in rank and livelihood. Let us take Russia for example. Do all people get the same wages or are some people more privileged than others in livelihood? Are all the conscripted people made officers or soldiers or are some of them raised above others in rank? The existence of differences among the people is an inevitable fact. The two verses do not give a Particular reason for such differences. They do not even state that such preference is based on capitalist, communist or even Islamic considerations. They do not say that such preference may be just or unjust by our standards. The two verses merely say that such preference exists everywhere on earth. But, of course, all that takes place on earth falls within the sphere of God's will.
It must have become clear by now that the Islamic society is a society without classes or legislative privileges. It will be noticed that the existence of differences in wealth and property should not be confused with the question of classes unless such property and wealth conferred upon their owners any legislative and individual privileges. Differences in wealth will not lead to the emergence of classes so long as all people are-actually, not in the theory only-equal before the law.
It should be pointed out that the ownership of land under Islam did not confer upon landowners any special privileges or rights by which they might enslave or exploit others. The same thing would have happened if capitalism had existed in a truly Islamic society, especially because the ruler does not derive his power from the propertied class but he is elected by the nation and is carrying out the law of God.
In addition to the above-mentioned, there can be no community wherein wealth can be equally distributed among all individuals; surely not in the communist society which, truly or not, claims to have abolished the class system though in fact it has left one ruling class which suppresses all other classes.
By Muhammed Kutub