Critical Theory and Islamic Thought


This is the first of a two-part article. Read the second part here.

Islamic thought and Critical Theory rarely meet, if ever. It is usually presumed that being a Muslim makes it impossible to also be a Critical Theorist.  A Muslim, by definition, is one who affirms tawhid (absolute monotheism), the Qur’an as the embodiment of tawhid, and Muhammad b. Abdullah (d. 632) as occupying a unique role in human history.  Finally and importantly, a Muslim would subscribe to the notion that human beings have a fundamental nature, an essence (fitra) to which Islam as a discourse, anchored in fundamental principles, corresponds. A Critical Theorist, on the other hand, generally rejects metaphysics, analyzes imminent material forces, and denies humans a fundamental nature. I would like to offer a theoretical contribution to bridge the gap between these views.

The Contours of Marxism

The history of Critical Theory associated with the Frankfurt School is complex and nuanced and for this essay I will be referring to Marxism broadly. There are three essential, interrelated paradigms associated with Marxism, one economic, one psychological, and one sociological: The Theory of Surplus Value, the Theory of Self-Alienation and the Theory of Dialectical Materialism.  To remove any one of these paradigms is to pull the rug out from underneath the feet of Marxism.

Marx’s Theory of Surplus Value draws on David Ricardo’s Iron Law Theory of Wages and John Locke’s Theory of Labor; according to Ricardo, as well as other economists such as Ferdinand Lassalle, wages tend to trend downward until reaching subsistence level. In other words, when there is an abundant supply of employees, wages go down, because employees compete with one another for limited jobs. Marx observed this trend in industrial societies and believed it to contribute to general misery and inequity.

But competition is only one factor in wage reduction; the other factor is the particular way we look at value.  It is perfectly reasonable, if not necessarily just, to say that the agent who invests capital into a project is entitled to the most profit. This is a Capital Theory of Value. If I invest my money into a company and hire you to carry out the work, I am entitled to the profit because I took on greater risk. I risked losing my money, even though you may have done most of the work.

The dynamic of wage competition in conjunction with a particular principle of value results in the out-leveraged worker; from this Marx developed his Theory of Surplus Value, which Engels considered his greatest contribution to economic theory. Marx observed that a worker’s labor paid for itself within a fraction of a work day, while the remainder of the work day’s production, many times larger than the aforementioned fraction, is rendered into profit enjoyed entirely by the capitalist.  The economics of this dynamic is evident but not our focus. Our focus rather is how this dynamic contributed to alienation. Alienation is a key concept and provides common ground for Islamic thought and Critical Theory.

The worker suffers according to Marx.  Those who would take on the neo-Marxist torch, such as the Frankfurt School thinkers, were committed to self-understanding in order to liberate; Marx’s Theory of Self-Alienation remains the cornerstone in this regard.  According to Marx, the average worker is alienated in three ways:

1) A worker’s labor belongs to someone else, even the products of that labor belong entirely to someone else, as the potential profit therein belongs entirely to someone else.

2) Since one’s labor belongs to someone else, the very act of producing reinforces the status quo and the worker’s subservience and someone else’s dominance.  To work is to oppress oneself.

3) A human being’s choices and actions do not contribute to a complete, coherent picture of the self; one’s labor, rented dirt cheap by another, contributes nothing substantive to one’s sense of self, I am merely a mechanized feature of the production line, dispensable and replaceable.  Does this principle posit a notion of human nature?  We will investigate that question momentarily.

Finally and perhaps most importantly is Marx’s broad conception of Dialectical Materialism.  Marx had roots in the Young Hegelian circles of Germany in the 1840s and ‘50s.  Hegel argued that history had a trajectory.  Since Hegel argued that history was progressive, Islam should have been interpreted as an advance on Christianity; but Hegel’s particular vision of the relationship between Christianity and European modernity made such an acknowledgement difficult.  In any respect, for Hegel, the forces of historical change were ideas.

Marx famously turned Hegel on “his head.”  He argued that it was not ideas that fostered change, but rather ideas reflected economic changes themselves.  In other words — and this is key to Critical Theory and progressive thinking generally — ideas, beliefs, even culture reflects material forces and economic interests.  We do not have space here to traverse Marx’s thoughts on imperialism, feudalism, the American and French Revolutions; but the values associated with these epochs reflect material contradictions and break downs.

Dialectical Materialism lays the groundwork for Critical Theory and the presumption that ideas, cultures, values, more extreme theorists would even argue “facts,” reflect social relations, predicated on material realities.  This idea is not entirely new. Rousseau articulated a similar philosophy, but for Rousseau, human beings had the capacity to reason and discover Natural Law.

Critical Theory and Marx

The aforementioned emphasis on material forces is the epistemic ground of Critical Theorists; in addition, there is a heavy reliance on Nietzsche’s masterful psychological insights, especially in regards to power and his genealogy of values.

This epistemic ground is shared by German thinkers like Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, even Heidegger (though not considered a Critical Theorist), Mannheim (originally from Hungary) and Habermas, French thinkers such as Foucault, Derrida (originally from Algeria), Deleuze, and Judith Butler (American, but deeply informed by the French school).  All these figures insist that to understand “reason,” in other words to engage in epistemology, one must initiate a socio-economic inquiry.  The classical conception of reason, developed by Descartes, challenged by Hume, modified by Kant and celebrated by Hegel was no longer viable.

All knowledge, according to Critical Theorists, is embedded in social relations, language, custom, and power.  It is impossible to transcend society to investigate some “autonomous” form of knowledge. This was the view of Marx and Nietzsche. Even Foucault, so revered, only questions social relations, values, and power in new form. Nothing about his claims as to the material and psychological origins of these forms added anything to Marx and Nietzsche.  Generally speaking, religion, sacred texts, and beliefs on the transcendent are seen as simply vacuous reflections of social-relations and power; thus, at face value, these theorists seem to offer little to Muslims.


Tawhid is the core tenant of Islam.  What are the implications of tawhid?  To borrow from Frithjof Schuon, tawhid is an “Absolute Truth” and an “Absolute Presence.”[1]  As Absolute Presence, tawhid is reality most present.  It is unnecessary to ruminate on the essence of tawhid and Islamic theology has generally shied away, as opposed to Christianity, from the attempt to delineate the nature of tawhid; but tawhid when remembered as Absolute Truth, by the Muslim (or others) evacuates material forces, of any absolute character; the individual becomes free, the law and culture, seen as by-products of material forces, are likewise rendered relative.

Material forces possess no value in themselves in an absolute sense and such forces include culture, as culture enfolds the trajectory of material production, sustains it, and is sustained by material production.  What tawhid empowers is the distinction between what is relative, contingent, and what is Real. Thus in everyday experience, the esoteric (batin) dimension of reality is available, at least as Truth (for some Sufis, as experience).  In many ways, Kant made this distinction with his designation of noumenal and phenomenal realms; Hegel collapsed the distinction and sought universal meaning in the phenomenal realm only, neglecting the inherent contradiction of searching for universal meaning in relative relations.  Hegelianism was to inevitably result in Marxism, a more coherent philosophy, where material forces, as contingencies, are analyzed for contingencies such as culture.

Tawhid as Truth means the Muslim is constantly free of material forces through active awareness (taqwa); it is an unfortunate byproduct of poor “translations” of the Qur’an that taqwa is rendered “God fearing.”  Taqwa, in fact means the Muslim is fearless of anything relative and this should be considered both an epistemic principle and spiritual knowledge as opposed to simply emotional courage.  To remember tawhid is to constantly assemble one’s psychological referents so that no material forces, power, money, popularity, are taken as Absolute in themselves.  The true Muslim is thus absolutely free.  The premise that tawhid liberates is the cornerstone of Sayyid Qutb’s political theology, which, though lacking development and sophistication, is inspirational in its instincts.  In fact, tawhid is the fountainhead of fitra and fitra is the organizing principle of sharia. It is what makes sharia necessary; without fitra there is no need for sharia.

Evidence of tawhid’s liberating effects is found in the sharia itself.  Muslims do not possess sharia, but fiqh, which is the human interpretation of sharia.  And this is where the critical aspects of Islam, long standing and wholly organic, begin to emerge.  Since human beings are historical and relative, the human understanding of the sharia is likewise understood and delimited as such.  This is an oft-overlooked premise of Islamic thinking; fiqh is a good faith human effort, imperfect and mutable by definition; tawhid orientates this effort.

Tariq Ramadan explores the social aspects of fiqh in Radical Reform. It is the premise that a distinction exists between fiqh and sharia that makes his exploration possible.  When the history of fiqh is examined, other contingencies, recognized as such, boldly stand out as principles of fiqh, including consensus (‘ijma) and culture (‘urf). Social scientists like Nasir al-Din al-Tusi and Ibn Khaldun were never alien to their surroundings or colleagues.  The idea that belief and values were socially embedded was common knowledge to Muslim intellectuals a thousand years ago.

The distinction between fiqh and sharia derives from tawhid; the Absolute Truth, unknowable in its essence, liberates humans from having to claim, to their own detriment and wholly in ignorance, Absolute knowledge.  Humans can and should, continue to explore and attempt to provide answers to the balanced life, but fiqh is not wholly relative either.  Fitra, human nature, which corresponds to Truth, disciplines relativity.  Fitra does not mean all humans are the same; it means there is a balance (mizan) between cultural production (which is understood as production in the Islamic sense) and human happiness or peace.  Interestingly Qutb and Muhammad al-Ghazali interpret fatiha in their respective exegeses (tafsir) as guiding to “happiness.”  Fitra refers both to the individual’s liberty to strive for peace and justice above and beyond material forces, including cultural and political ones, while acknowledging that social relations, defined through cultural values and the law must sustain balance available to all.


In this essay, the basic concept of Critical Theory was laid out to demonstrate the methodology of inquiring into material forces.  It has been pointed out that the notion of material forces is not strange to Muslim thinkers and in fact, the theology of Islam requires one to be aware of the material forces that inform belief (the concept of jahiliyya is the example, par excellence, of this paradigm).  In the second part, we will take up the question of why Muslims should bother with Critical Theory at all and consider the future of Islamic thought.

[1] Schuon, Frithjof, Islam and the Perennial Philosophy, (N.C: WIFPC, 1976)

Read the second part of the article.

Laith Saud is a Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University and co-author of An Introduction to Islam in the 21st Century.