From Muhammad to Marx: Re-Mapping Political Constellations

“Do not wrong [others] and you shall not be wronged.” – Qur’an 2:280

“And all that believed were together and owned all things in common; and sold their possessions and gave everyone what he or she needed.” – Acts 2:44-2:45

“From each according to her ability, to each according to her need.” – The communist programme

Ever since Marx declared religion to be the opium of the people, there has been an unfortunate suspicion between many religious people and the movements for radical social change. Luckily for us, this distance has occasionally been punctuated by moments of brilliant, cohesive struggle. The most obvious of which has been Liberation Theology throughout Latin America. The movements for justice have seen their goals in the soul of religion – the soul of the prophets. Abraham, Joseph, David, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad (peace be upon all of them) established not only a religious legacy, but also a political legacy.

What is the political legacy of these prophets?

A state-less, class-less society.

In other words, communism.

This may sound absurd to those of us who have been raised with religion often being taught (manipulated) in order to fit a certain worldview. Listening to some people, you’d think that Jesus was a rich white guy who spent all of his time talking about abortion and homosexuality (rather than spending exactly 0% of his time talking about abortion and homosexuality). Other people contend that Muhammad was more focused on which way your toes pointed when you pray than showing people to take care of each other.

It’s a really silly concept. And it’s an absurd notion that religion is more about these tiny, fragmented acts than it is about essentially being a good person.

Prophets never came to a people and said, “Yo, you’re doing everything right.” They always came with a radical message of change. They called out the rich, corrupt, thieving parasites at the top of society – the Pharisees, the Quraysh, the Babylonians.

Do you think they would be cool with neoliberal capitalism?

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Does it make sense at all that some people are rich and some people are poor?

Does it make sense that some people are starving and some people are throwing food away?

Seriously – think about it.

Many people with whom I’ve spoken over the years have told me that they left their parents’ religion due to the hypocrisy and seeming ridiculousness of the fundamental beliefs. The purpose of religion is lost on them.

And why shouldn’t it be?

If you associate Moses with genocide, Jesus with racism, and Muhammad with female genital mutilation, then why would you ever embrace the core of religion?

It takes a great deal of effort to move beyond these distorted images.

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.  It is the opium of the people.”  – Karl Marx, 1844

Rarely is the first sentence included in the quote. However, it is the first sentence that ought to be emphasized in order to understand the true place of religion in the world. Marx knew what his later followers did not.

However, Marx was also subject to his time and place. He couldn’t have imagined the socialist elements of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam shaping world politics as much as they have since the 19th century. In his time, capitalism was not yet a global force and anti-colonialism was not yet married to religion throughout the world.

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“Certainly we disagree with the Communist Party, as we disagree with other political parties who are trying to maintain the American way of life.” – Dorothy Day

Archbishop Romero infused his call for socialism and freedom with Christ’s message. The Algerian uprisings against the French were sharpened with the spirit of Muhammad. The Jewish communists of the early 20th century relied upon the principle of justice from the Old Testament as they fought the fascists and racists in the streets. These people used the message of the ancient prophets, but there have been important modern prophets as well: Ali Shariati, Desmond Tutu, Malcolm X.

Let’s not forget that Martin Luther King Jr. was a democratic socialist, anti-imperialist, black revolutionary Christian.

 

My favorite story about Jesus is one that I’ve only heard in the Islamic tradition.

Isa, as he’s called in Arabic (and probably Aramaic), only had three possessions. He had a comb to brush his hair, a bowl to drink water, and a garment to cover himself.

One day he was walking past a river and saw a man combing his hair with his fingers. Isa thought, “What do I need this comb for?” and immediately gave it away.

A few days later he saw a women drinking water directly from the river with her hands. He thought, “What do I need this bowl for?” and he gave it away.

From then on he lived with no possessions but his cloak.