(Not so) Islamic land reforms

Are land reforms Islamic or not - when scholars can't make up their minds how are we expected to move forward?

Omar Yousaf October 02, 2010
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 necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


wajahat | 11 years ago | Reply 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.
Anwaar Shami | 11 years ago | Reply 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.
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