Revisiting Muslims Economic Vision
“Increase in worldly things is to a man but diminishment; and his profits in other than sheer goodness are but loss.”
– Abu’l-Fath Ali ibn Muhammad Busti (d. 401 AH)
Economics as a discipline of knowledge has lost its purpose due to its fragmented vision of existence. It has become purely mechanical and its purpose has become obscured. It has also become a science that is detached from our cosmological and psychological reality as it continues to lead to environmental degradation, a widening gap between the haves and have-nots, and human misery.
This is also a deviation from the understanding of economics of the earlier figures in the Western economic tradition such as Adam Smith whose vision for economics is framed within a larger “civilizing project” designed to create a more decent society.
The conceptual restrictions of economics have conditioned the minds of millions of people across the globe into thinking that our task in this world is to figure out how to allocate the limited resources in the world in order to meet the so-called ‘unlimited wants’ of human beings; and that the way forward for us to succeed is by pursuing endless accumulation of wealth through the idea of economic ‘growth’—devoid of broader purpose and meaning.
As a result, the original conceptual meaning of economics held for centuries by great thinkers and sages of the past was gradually overlooked and people forgot the original purpose of economics, which is to bring order in the personal, family and communal lives leading to tranquility of the soul.
This seamless relationship has been lost in modern economics, which is highly insular and presents itself as an ethics-free, positive science. This understanding was supplanted by what became the technical definition of economics, which does not contribute to the aforementioned purpose.
Thus in reality, the modern economic spirit and vision is against human nature and purpose (if you understand man as the Progeny of Adam, assumed in the term ‘insan’, endowed with a divine responsibility of stewardship), and goes against order in the environment (or cosmos) as it is causing irreversible harm to the natural world.
The remedy is therefore to return to the original spirit and vision of ‘economics’ as understood in the worldview of Islam which includes that as household stewardship at the personal, family, and communal levels of social organisation (tadbīr al-manzil); as a study of organisation of livelihood (ilm al-iktisāb wa al- infāq); and as the science of judicious management of resources (ilm al-iqtisad)—which reflects how learned Muslims throughout the ages understand the universe (‘alam), human beings (insan), happiness (sa’adah), and justice (‘adl), and ultimately, God.
The economic life envisioned in Islam is based on self-restraint (zuhd) and aims for tranquility of the soul (sa’adah), which is informed by the Muslim’s belief system and perception of reality and truth, driven by their ethics and spiritual aspirations, and guided by the Divine Law. So by implication, the believer would for instance, instead of buying second or third car for luxury purposes, re-circulate his or her surplus to the community with due considerations to cultural and spiritual profit for he is free from his bestial nature (nafs al-hayawaniyyah).
It is also unnecessary for the Muslims in the present-time to travel for the purpose of ‘vacation’ or ‘holiday’ excessively, or even to perform Umrah or Hajj more than once, when there is a greater need for the Ummah to support aforementioned projects that would also gradually solve many economic woes in the Muslim world.
The discerning believer throughout the ages also pays careful attention to divine blessings (barakah). This sensitivity to divine blessings leads to an active desire in the believer to achieve prosperity with the goal to give and purify his soul; which ensures none is left out or marginalised in a society. Thus, wealthy believers serve as centres of circulation in the civilisation of Islam through various means such as charity (ṣadāqah and zakāt), endowments (awqāf), gift-giving (hibah), and bequests (wasiyyah).
In the present time, the greatest profit for Muslims and mankind would be if the wealthy apportioned some of their wealth towards supporting the renewal projects of few visionary scholars within our midst who have the discretionary intelligence to solve modern problems. This would unlock the civilisational potential of Muslims globally—by the grace of God—which has been greatly hampered by an intellectual and spiritual decline, and error and confusion in knowledge.
In the past, even animals in the Muslim world for example, had dedicated rivers by means of awqāf so that old donkeys, mules, and horses can go to graze and rest. This is profitable from the perspective of the believer because it wins the pleasure of God.
It is also reported that by the end of the 18th century in Istanbul, whose estimated population of 700,000 made it the largest city in Europe then, up to 30,000 people a day were being fed by charitable complexes (imarets) established under the waqf system. In addition, there were always creative ways Muslims would figure out to ease the burden of the have-nots.
With regard to job creation, believers throughout the ages understood that earning one’s livelihood must not disrupt the livelihood of others. Careers or businesses that create more problems—direct or structural—for the Ummah and humanity at large are not careers or businesses; they are crimes that destroy the order of the world. Today one gets more money in working for entities that destroy the world. Whereas in the worldview of Islam, the best of people is he who is most beneficial to people (khayr al-nasi man huwa anfa’u lil-nas).
Any meaningful work is encouraged as per the Prophetic injunction: “An earning in which there is diminishment in status is better for you than to ask from people.” The idea of being a farmer or a shepherd is not considered “low” from the point of view of the Shari’ah. As a result, this leads to the modern phenomena of unemployment whereas in reality, those who are unemployed are not necessarily ‘unemployable’ if a person at the very least possess the strength to undertake any kind of task.
It would have been a golden opportunity for job creation that is agreeable with the aforementioned vision in a place like present-day Malacca for instance, if the commercial life is built around the presence of the tomb of Shaykh Shamsuddin al-Sumatra-i (d. 1630)—one of the greatest Muslim scholars, spiritual masters, and warriors in the history of the Malay Archipelago—through social enterprises that would encourage more people to learn about the multifaceted religious, spiritual and literary contributions of a figure like Shaykh Shamsuddin, or goods that are expressions of the wisdom of this sage such as art and crafts, clothes, household products, or at very least, a book market. It is strange indeed that a place with such a rich history does not sell great books from the past.
The state government of Malacca could have emulated Konya in Turkey, whereby the presence of the tomb of Mevlana Jalaluddin al-Rumi (d. 1263) has continued to stimulate the economic activities of the city with roads, buildings, hotels, restaurants, shops and businesses throughout the old town named in Rumi’s honour – perhaps a sign of barakah by virtue of the people’s esteem for this man of God. Instead, what we see in Malacca is the growing presence of shopping malls which completely disjoints the entire character of Malacca.
Furthermore, how a believer pursues the personal good should be part and parcel of enhancing the common good (fard kifaya). An enterprise that destroys the common good is not really a business in Islam. Earning is supposed to lead to infaq (provisioning) to oneself, one’s family, and the community. There is a sense of personal responsibility—a clear moral direction as to what you do with your surplus (a moral economy).
By extension, the idea of competition and survival of the fittest as practised in modern capitalistic system has never really surfaced in the consciousness of the believer throughout the ages. Rather, the idea in place was mutual cooperation to suffice the community as a whole. This did not make Muslims lazy or less driven to succeed; rather they were able to lead their lives meaningfully and harmoniously in relation to themselves, others, and the environment. For example, up to mid-19th century, the Ottoman bazaars, which were guided by spiritual mentors, were characterised by indifference to profit, absence of envy in the successes of other traders, and a single and correct selling price.
It appears that in the 20th century when Muslim intellectuals begun to re-articulate what they considered to be “Islamic Economics”, many have not clearly defined, unpacked, and sifted through modern concepts such as ‘wealth’, ‘profit’, ‘competition’, ‘economics’, ‘growth’, ‘quality of life’, ‘development’ and thus were co-opted into existing secular, capitalistic economic thinking and systems whether knowingly or otherwise. We must therefore not repeat the conceptual mistake. If the vision is wrong, it will lead to implementation to what is disagreeable with our souls, or even co-opted to a vision or elements that runs contrary to the belief in the Oneness of God (Tawhid) and teachings of His Messengers (Anbiya’).
This does not mean that we should simply dismiss the contributions of Western economic tradition or those economists trained abroad (such as Royal Professor Ungku Aziz who was educated in Japan). Rather, the contemporary Muslim industrialists, economists, financiers, and researchers should consult those who are acquainted with the original meaning and intent of various discussions in the intellectual tradition of Islam that are connected to economic thinking as a whole in order to do justice to the practical knowledge that they already know.
We need to remember that the worldview of Islam, as elegantly articulated by Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas in his Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam which was agreed upon by great souls in Muslim history, has its own internal logic and network of internally linked concepts derived from Revelation that should broaden our understanding of “economics”. Without understanding our own worldview and heritage which gives us cognitive control, we can’t critically assess the dominant narratives and standpoint of the day—and that means that our economic decisions and practices will continue to serve the interest of the few at the expense of the larger community.