Bolsheviks and Islam part 2: Sharia law

Submitted by AWL on 5 March, 2004 - 10:28

Click here for Part 1.
Click here for Part 3.

Gerry Byrne continues an examination of the relationship between the Russian Bolshevik Party that made the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the Islamic subject states of the Tsarist empire they inherited. What, if anything, can it teach us about socialists' relationship to Islam today?

The issue of Sharia law, religious education and the veil is a highly charged one currently, so for socialists to be able to point to the actions of the first workers state on the issue can be a powerful argument in support of whatever position they put. But here, as I argued earlier, context is all.
I'll quote at length from the Socialist Review article, because it's the only way to show how something can be true but misleading:
'A parallel court system was created in 1921, with Islamic courts administering justice in accordance with sharia laws. The aim was for people to have a choice between religious and revolutionary justice. A special Sharia Commission was established in the Soviet Commissariat of Justice.

Some sharia sentences that contravened Soviet law, such as stoning or the cutting off of hands, were forbidden. Decisions of the sharia courts that concerned these matters had to be confirmed by higher organs of justice.

Some sharia courts flouted the Soviet law, refusing to award divorces on the petition of a wife, or equating the testimony of two women to that of a man. So in December 1922 a decree introduced retrials in Soviet courts if one of the parties requested it. All the same, some 30 to 50 percent of all court cases were resolved by sharia courts, and in Chechnya the figure was 80 percent.

A parallel education system was also established. In 1922 rights to certain waqf (Islamic) properties were restored to Muslim administration, with the proviso that they were used for education. As a result, the system of madrassahs - religious schools - was extensive. In 1925 there were 1,500 madrassahs with 45,000 students in the Caucasus state of Dagestan, as opposed to just 183 state schools. In contrast, by November 1921 over 1,000 soviet schools had some 85,000 pupils in Central Asia - a modest number relative to the potential enrolment.'

On the face of it, these seem astonishing claims. The Bolsheviks supported or tolerated a parallel legal system based on Sharia law. They established a parallel system of religious education, and religious education, as opposed to state education, flourished under Bolshevik rule. What on earth is going on?

Before that, it is worth explaining why one would be inclined to make the opposite assumption, that the Bolsheviks opposed Sharia law and religious education.

What is Sharia law?
It is loosely described as Islamic law, as if these rules and institutions are prescribed in the Koran. In fact, Sharia law is the local historical interpretation of the Koran into legal systems, Islamic common law if you like. This is why many devout Muslims oppose Sharia law and are for the separation of church and state. Indeed some Islamic scholars point out that the Koran grants more equality to women than Sharia law. There have been reform movements within Islam that have opposed the veil and Sharia law. Indeed those were the currents that could ally with the communists and produce the current known as Muslim communism.

Sharia law, and there are different interpretations even within Islamic states, represents a particular social historical level of development. People now, under the influence of cultural relativism, are inclined to worry about calling certain societies and their institutions 'backward', as if saying that Sharia law represents a more primitive level of development was the same as saying that Muslims are backward, primitive or retarded. In fact, all that's being said is that society and the productive forces move forward, develop increasing complexity, and that these institutions reflect a previous stage of the process. Sharia law is essentially feudal and reflects feudal relations of production.

Feudal idea of women
The most obvious difference between feudal Sharia relations and those of capitalism, not to mention socialism as a higher level still, is in the treatment of women. Both in the Muslim East of its empire and in Christian Russia, feudalism defined a woman as less than a man, as his property, as testified by this Russian proverb: "I Thought I Saw Two People Coming, But It Was Only a Man and His Wife".

Capitalism has no need of such distinctions. The rule of profit is impersonal: it will exploit everyone equally. In this sense capitalism is progressive: it increasing equality among human beings and creates the basis for a fully equal society. Capitalism in Russia drew women as well as men into the cities as workers in the new factories. The conditions of life created the basis for the demand for women's equality, and Bolsheviks were foremost in organising women workers. It was women workers on International Women's Day 1917 who sparked off the February Revolution (according to their calendar) and the downfall of the Tsar.

So it would be very odd indeed for the Bolsheviks to condone a legal system based on relations even more reactionary than the system they overthrew.

And the Bolsheviks did campaign particularly around the inequality of women. 'Complete equality of rights between men and women' had been part of their programme since 1899, on Lenin's insistence.

One of the issues they campaigned on most vigorously was the bride price or kalym, which represented clearly the status of woman as commodity, and was also associated with child marriage, and abduction-rape where the man's family was too poor to pay the bride price.

There is no question that the soviet government was opposed to these institutions. They certainly didn't take the cultural relativist view that anything goes within a particular culture and socialists had no right to intervene. What they did do was look at how best they could undermine traditionalist reactionary practices. As 'Women and Revolution' describes it:

'Soviet government waged a campaign to build the authority, of the Soviet legal system and civil courts as an alternative to the traditional Muslim kadi courts and legal codes. Although the kadi courts were permitted to function, their powers were circumscribed in that they were forbidden to handle political cases or any cases in which both parties to the dispute had not agreed to use the kadi rather than the parallel Soviet court system. As the Soviet courts became more accepted, criminal cases were eliminated from the kadis' sphere. Next, the government invited dissatisfied parties to appeal the kadis' decisions to a Soviet court. In this manner the Soviets earned the reputation of being partisans of the oppressed, while the kadis were exposed as defenders of the status quo. Eventually the kadis were forbidden to enforce any Muslim law which contradicted Soviet law. Two Soviet representatives, including one member of Zhenotdel-the Department of Working Women and Peasant Women-were assigned to witness all kadi proceedings and to approve their decisions. Finally, when the wafks (endowment properties), which had supported the kadis, were expropriated and redistributed among the peasantry, the kadis disappeared completely.'

So while the bare fact of the existence of parallel legal systems is true as Socialist Review describes it, the meaning is the absolute opposite of the one that is conveyed. The parallel legal systems were a way of undermining and replacing Sharia law, and soviet law always had the final say.

It was not just a counter-reaction to the 'soviet colonialism' but also reflected the material realities of the soviet state.

The civil war had left the soviet economy devastated. Production fell to less than half that of the pre-war Tsarist system. Even if you have a more equal distribution of goods, if there's substantially less produced, then the majority of people are going to be worse off. In addition, there was massive social breakdown. The most class-conscious workers who'd made the revolution were often the first to volunteer and therefore disproportionate were killed off. Orphan and abandoned children roamed the street. Famine was never far away.

This was the context for the NEP (New Economic Policy) which relaxed the militarisation of the economy and created incentives, in effect a controlled re-introduction of capitalist elements into the economy. The expected revolutions in the West, in Germany, Hungary, etc. had been crushed. Revolutionary Russia was isolated and starving. Lenin argued this as a stop-gap policy, to put bread in the mouths of the hungry and begin to rebuild the material basis for socialism.

In the Muslim East, this accommodation meant recognising that whatever the soviet state might wish to do ideally, it could not completely do away with institutions which performed necessary social functions without the wherewithal to replace them. As Socialist Review concedes:

'However, efforts to guarantee religious freedom and national rights were constantly undermined by the weak economy. The isolation of the Russian Revolution meant that desperate poverty dragged the regime down. Already in 1922 Moscow's subsidy to Central Asia had to be cut and many state schools had to close. Teachers abandoned their jobs because of failure to pay salaries. This meant Muslim schools were the only alternative. 'When you can't provide bread, you don't dare take away the substitute,' said commissar for education Lunacharsky.

Sharia courts had all their funding removed in late 1923 to early 1924. But economic factors already obstructed Muslims from bringing their grievances to court. If a young woman refused to enter an arranged or polygamous marriage, for example, she had a slim chance of being able to feed herself because there were no jobs and nowhere else to live.'

Sharia law represented feudal relations but those relations expressed genuine economic realities. Kalym was not some sinister plot against womankind, but an institution which was central to the organization of production, integrally connected to land and water rights. Payment of kalyin, often by the whole clan over a long period of time, committed those involved to an elaborate system of debts, duties and loyalties which ultimately led to participation in the private army of the local beys (landowners and wholesale merchants). All commitments were thus backed up with the threat of feuds and blood vengeance. Poor peasants who stood to gain by the equalization of wealth, hid the property of their rich relatives threatened with expropriation. Blood vengeance enforced vows of silence.

In order to neutralise the social benefits provided by feudal relations, the soviet government attempted to win support for their egalitarian policies by linking them to real material benefits for women.

At the 13th Party Congress in 1924 an offensive was launched in Central Asia which was designed to bring women into production and political life. Funds were allocated from central and local budgets for assemblies of women's delegates and for associations to combat kalym and polygamy. Plans were also made to form producers' and consumers' cooperatives and to establish literary and hygiene circles and medical dispensaries.

Stalinism destroyed the progressive potential of these moves, as I will show next time, but there was a clear commitment on the part of the soviet government to eliminate these feudal relations which impacted so horribly on women.

So it is true that the Bolsheviks tolerated Sharia courts for a period and that religious education did expand at the expense of secular state education. But to draw the lesson for today that socialists should somehow go easy on the reactionary aspects of Islam (or any other religion) or support religious education in order to win the support of Muslims is utterly opposed to the spirit of freedom and equality that Lenin stood for. There is a difference between recognising the constraints of the real material world in preventing a socialist state from acting as it would ideally wish, and adopting or adapting to the reactionary policies which that state utterly opposed.

There is all the difference in the world between modern-day political Islam and the politicised Muslims whom Lenin and Bolsheviks allied with. They stand at completely opposite ends of the historical, political spectrum.

  • Part three: alliances, Muslim communism, and the rise of Stalinism

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.