(Not so) Islamic land reforms

Published: October 2, 2010

Land reforms hold the key to unleashing our agricultural potential.

There is no doubt that agriculture is the backbone of Pakistan. Forty three per cent of our labor force depends on it for its livelihood and it constitutes a sizable portion of our GDP and exports. We have often heard that land reforms are desperately needed and how they hold the key to unleashing our agricultural potential and will play an important role in raising the living standards of the poor of our nation. The argument could not be more right.

The last time an effort was made to rock the boat was by Ayub Khan in 1959 and then by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1972 and 1977. The idea was simple – take the land from the rich and distribute it amongst the poor free of cost. This broad based “Land Reforms Act” affected one Qazalbash Waqf with large tracts of land near Lahore. The Waqf, which had been in place for centuries doing good for people in the name of God, approached the courts.

The Qazalbash Waqf argued that Islamic laws provide broad protection from expropriation to the property owners if their property was acquired, in the first place through legitimate means. However, the courts in December 1980 found nothing un-Islamic in the case and ruled against the Waqf.

Meanwhile, much was changing as Ziaul Haq had come into power in 1978 with his Islamization agenda. After he took control, it was  announced that firstly no law in Pakistan may be repugnant to the Holy Quran and the Sunnah and secondly that federal Sharia courts were to be established. In parallel, the martial law government picked up the heat and advised the deprived:

“It is not for employers to provide roti (bread), kapda (clothes) aur (and) makaan (homes). It was for God Almighty who is the provider of livelihood to his people. Trust in God and He will bestow upon you an abundance of good things in life.” – Zia ul Haq

The Waqf didn’t give up and filed a review petition and decided to wait it out. During the next decade, 1980-1990, much changed on the political and societal front.  Renowned Islamic scholars like Taqi Usmani and others argued the case on the premise that “the expropriation of land, or any property, by the state without paying compensation is un-Islamic.”

It was finally in 1990 that he was able to swing the court’s ruled in favor of the Waqf. Whether it was strength of Taqi Usmani’s argument or the weakness of the opposition, land reforms were declared un-Islamic.

Fast forward 20 years and we are still where we were – not an inch forward. In the past half a century scholars have interpreted the Islamic law both for and against the land reforms but the way forward remains in limbo with much to talk about but little to do. We have a great deal too gain and lose from an economic, social and human perspective. What we choose to do with this will determine our future and define our history.


Omar Yousaf

A management accountant currently based in Hong Kong working for a multinational corporation.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Waqas

    Very interesting, this should be seen like affirmative action, would be interesting to know what Islam says about that. But I do agree that the issue is very real and always has been. Too many variables to consider….Recommend

  • faraz

    Nobody can challenge this formidable Mullah-Military-Feudal Alliance. Recommend

  • Hassan

    Very true, had we done these reforms 20 yrs back. Pakistan rural areas especially would have had much less deprivation and the gulf between rich and poor would not have been this wide. Well written piece.Recommend

  • http://dreamsbecomedestiny.wordpress.com/ Fatima

    Theirs one authentic Hadith that I am aware of as regards land reforms. The context is who ever sows the land, the crop belongs to him (no matter who owns the land). If you concentrate on this 1 Hadith, u,ll realize the anti-feudal context.
    If you know how the feudal culture operates, u will realize, large estates owned by feudals is not as much a problem as bullying of tenants and small farmers is.That is why, in-spite of repeated land reforms in Pakistan resulting in taking land from rich & handing it over to the poor, significant results couldn’t and can never be achieved.
    To begin with, even if this one hadith is endorsed fully, exploitation of poor farmers by feudals and landlords can be controlled to a great extent.Recommend

  • Khuram

    This is indeed a very interesting note on land reforms Omar. Although I have limited knowledge on this subject but I will share a few things.
    First of all land reforms was “buzz-word” during the cold war period. A lot of countries, including Pakistan, did it to get Soviet’s blessing. Although I have a lot to say on that, but I will concentrate on the topic that whether or not land reforms are Islamic. I think they are Islamic and non-Islamic based on the intentions.The act done by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was not just, and not Islamic in my view. Islam doesn’t prohibits land ownership. In fact, this was a big point of contention between Hazrat Fatima and Hazrat Abu Bakar when Hazrat Abu Bakar “nationalized” Hazrat Mohamad’s small piece of land in Madina. So much so that Hazrat Fatima refused to see Hazrat Abu Bakar’s face till death because she thought it was an unjust action and Prophet(PBUH) never said anything like that.

    Historically speaking, Arab never had a concept of land ownership until the advent of Islam. This concept was known as Himma’—land kept as a preserve in the collective interest of the community and they use to share the benefits by some agreements. This changed when Muslims started winning lands from their enemies and gave them different land ownership options. But one of the fundamental principles that prevailed through out Muslim history of landownership through the 8th and 9th century and afterwards was, it has to be used for community development and if that is not happening then the land should be confiscated. This concept was not far from ‘Himma’, the previous concept in Arabs.
    Coming to point of Land ownership in Socialist or Marxist economies, I do not agree to such land reforms eiher. These reforms negate not only the concept of ownership but also defy the laws of inheritance. These were the result of cold war times and the so-called socialist states. In some countries where Marxist land reforms were changed in a much better way, where land was taken from big owner and the owners were compensated or they had and obligation to improve land(unlike Marxism), these reforms worked. Korea and Taiwan are some examples of such reforms. But when this action was taken by a corrupt government just to get some popular support and the land was taken by force from rich, as in the case of Zimbabwe, it resulted in a disaster. So it really depends how you bring in the land reform.

    In the case of Pakistan and current political conditions, I dont think a radical land reform is possible until we have government that doesnt has a conflict of interest. Even if we have such a government in place, land reforms will be a very fragile issue as it always has been. Finding a right mix between utilitarianism and liberalism, and “Islamism” will not be easy. Recommend

  • Anwaar Shami

    Land reforms is an often-controversial alteration in the societal arrangements whereby a government administers the ownership and use of land. Land reform may consist of a government-initiated or government-backed property redistribution, generally of agricultural land,

    Throughout history, popular discontent with land-related institutions has been one of the most common factors in provoking revolutionary movements and other social upheavals. To those who work on the land, the landowner’s privilege of taking a substantial portion —in some cases half or even more— of production may seem unfair.

    Consequently, land reform most often refers to transfer of ownership from the more powerful to the less powerful: from a relatively small number of wealthy (or noble) owners with extensive land holdings (e.g. plantations, large ranches, or agribusiness plots) to individual ownership by those who work the land. Such transfer of ownership may be with or without compensation; compensation may vary from token amounts to the full value of the land.

    History is replete with examples of countless numbers of nations and governments initiating Land Reforms for the equitable redistribution of agrarian land and in most cases for improved yields from the land. This has been designed to ensure improved food security.

    If any one would like to compare or make reference to historical precedents and/or experiments there is enough public information available. I have a more basic question here, why should land reforms be connected to religion?

    One of the biggest impediments in running the affairs of any state is to run them in context with Religion, that is perhaps why the Quaid e Azam also had a vision to make Pakistan a secularly governed state. This in my view must be looked at with the perspective of what is best for the largest number of people and in the interest of sustainable and secure food harvesting.Recommend

  • wajahat

    Islam calls for social reforms, a 360 degree reform that can bring vital change in the society. Industrial reforms are also much needed? socialist parties like MQM must also present an Industrial Reform Bill for equal distribution of wealth among the industrial workers, can’t it see the humungous Industrial Empires in Pakistan, can’t they figure out the gulf between the industrialist and the worker? widening day by day.Recommend