Three Islamic economic themed conferences, including the Global Islamic Finance Awards, took place in Dubai this week. Delegates from across the world flocked to network, listen, speak and receive praise. Is this the rarefied level that the Islamic Economic Ideology (IEI) wished to reach when activists in early to mid 20th century aspired for when contemplating the alteration of the conventional financial system? The nomenclature alone indicates that IEI scope has widened from a localised phenomenon. “Global”, “International”, “World” – words that extenuate its remit, capturing the spread of IEI which is embracing all nations and countries. In fact the conferences were a catchment of Muslims and non-Muslims coming from around the world from different sectors all congregating in the desert paradise. They arrived to grandeur and pomp, bright lights in the Shangri-La with luxurious platters arranged with fine foods, exquisite in presentation, a cuisine délicieux. The buzz reached fever pitch when it was announced that Dubai would host the World Expo 2020. Fireworks glittered the night sky, that orgasmic ritual of celebration and delighted triumphalism. IEI has today reached a level of sophistication and refinement that Bedouins could only dream of and conquering kings of old could not fathom.
Can this be a form of dawa, that ambitious drive to spread the religion to the jahils? It certainly seems more expansive (and more efficient) than the hoards of armour wearing, sword wielding, horse riding, bearded Arabs that bombarded the modern Middle East and conquered most of the Byzantine space within 30 years in the 7th Century. IEI finds presence in almost all nations of the world though not necessarily in terms of institutional presence. There is interest in trading halal goods (mostly food but there has been an increase in interest in tourism, pharmaceuticals, hospitality – Islamic hotels anyone? – and cosmetics) and obviously Islamic finance continues its inexorable growth. The spread of IEI is not a coercive one. States were conquered through the submission of the vanquished; IEI based products are procured willingly.
Moreover, there is no hidden agenda to proselytise. The procurer by his procurement accepts the existence of the principles of the product and in purchasing allows its perdurance. For instance, when a non-Muslim buys halal meat, he accepts the Muslim way of slaughtering. He may not necessarily care how the meat he consumes is slaughtered but his purchase shows affirmation regardless of whether it is conscious or non-conscious. It does not mean he should become a Muslim. The buying and selling continues as a religiously neutral endeavour. And this is what trade should be because trade is about the transfer of goods, not the transfer of aqidah.
So the appendage of Islamic or halal to create neologisms is not meant to strengthen or spread religiosity or spirituality. Rather, they are indicators of legal/fiqh thinking, which contrary to traditionalist opinion is about the mundane and is quite arcane. Muslims are taught that this is God’s Law, so should hold sacredness. But the feeling of standing in front of the Kaaba or spending nights in worship is far different to buying halal chicken. Trading is about living in this world.
However, there is a problem with this line of thinking. Any law is intended to guide behaviour whether it is secular or religious law. Textual commands as well as omissions in law have a certain effect on the way we act in the world. Law, which should not be confused with morals, gives the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. The problem with law, any law, is that the boundaries are often porous. Law can be used to justify the very behaviour it is attempting to control.
Take for instance the bevy of US lawyers hell-bent on legally justifying the deadly drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, or the numerous tax evaders that accumulate much of their income in one country but pay little to no tax because the company is not ‘legally domiciled”, or the individuals in banks that speculate with other people’s money on risky but potentially high return transactions. All this is supposedly within law’s boundaries yet the effect is pernicious and can have negative contagion effects for society.
Islamic law can suffer from similar anomalies. Being (estimations of) God’s law does not necessarily mean it is socially conscientious, something that early ideologues were keen to emphasise IEI encompassed. Rather, the human element of the law’s derivation can spread values that may be antithetical to what one thinks the spirit of Islam should be. Hence, the elephant in the room debate about the spirit of Islamic finance consistently rears its head. Unfortunately, the debate has been framed poorly. Spirit gives law efficacy; what that spirit should be is human determined although Islamic history does give indicators.
Why is this theme recurring? Because the majority of Muslims think that Islam should be about spiritual enlightenment and not about worldly gain. So they step back from the current institutionalisation of IEI while still being caught up in that capitalistic mind set of material gain. This thinking is ironic but understandable. With current IEI and capitalism, they simply see two sides of the same coin.
Should IEI be about spirituality and poverty alleviation? By my own words, I have argued that trade is not about spirituality. But law of trade does evoke values. If we see pomp and splendour, high profits and an encouragement to spend, then values will be about material gain. If on the other hand we see the opposite, then the values will be about frugality. Really then we need to ask which IEI spirit do we truly want?