, by DR. M. NEJATULLAH SIDDIQI
All is not well with Islamic economic research. The enthusiasm of the early decades has gone. The surge in enrolment in Islamic economics courses, especially at the post- graduate level, observed during the eighties of the last century, has all but subsided. In its place we have kids looking for appropriate qualifications in “Islamic Finance”, and sprouting of institutions offering such courses “on line,” to meet the growing needs of the ‘industry’. Nothing bad. No regrets. The question is what about the grand idea of providing an alternative to capitalism and socialism that is informed by moral purpose and inspired by a spiritual vision. Has it yielded to a desire to join the flock at its own terms? I suspect it is so, and that this is rooted, among other things, in the change of times. In the sixties and seventies of twentieth century the world of Islam was abuzz with all things Islamic: education, society and state. Currently, in the first decade if the twenty-first century, there is a collapse of grand agendas leaving a pathetic scenario in which everything is in a flux: education, society, state. As I proceed to discus the micro-causes of decline in Islamic economic research, I beseech you not to lose sight of the macro- framework in which the future would unfold it self. The grand Islamic agenda launched in the early decades of twentieth century has been pushed back due to its own shortcomings.
Lack of a sense of History
Islamic economics, insofar as its normative aspect is concerned, is based on divine guidance revealed in the seventh century Arabia to a desert people who later carried it to the fertile valleys in the north, west and east, and then across the mountains and beyond the oceans. People of all hues and colours, speaking different languages, and cherishing different traditions rooted in each people’s unique past, tried to live that guidance. Trying to do the same in the twenty-first century in a globalising world, we need to know everything about these trials before we can draw a plan of action.
That is where we failed. The source of most of the economics projected as Islamic has been fiqh, which is largely based on the historical experiences of the first four centuries, mostly in what we now call the Middle East and North Africa. Historical experiences over the next thousand years, especially those in India and South-East Asia, Turkey and Iran have neither been studied properly nor allowed full impact on fiqh. Among the very few attempts to sift through Islamic history for knowing more about such institutions and practices as waqf, zakat, mudaraba, suftajah, and such concepts as israf, infaq, etc., the sources covered are all in Arabic and from one particular region. This has deprived us of the variety of interpretation and diversity of experience in living according to Quran and Sunnah. Economic history of Muslim peoples is a very thinly researched area, and so is the economic thought of Muslims. This can hardly do, as living according to norms and concepts handed down centuries ago is a challenging task, especially in economic affairs. It would be some help to know how Muslims responded to technological changes, expanding markets and new sources of energy over the centuries. As it stands, most of Islamic economic literature treated Islamic norms and concepts relevant for man’s economic life to be above time and place, unaffected by increasing populations, urbanization, rising incomes, increasing trade and commerce, innovative ways of handling money and foreign exchange and faster means of transport and communication. That is unacceptable as even during the first few centuries of Islam, which did not witness any revolutionary change in sources of energy or technology, we have some variety of interpretation and diversity of practice. What we need is a closer look at what was going on in different regions at different times. That requires sifting through all available historical records, supplementing these by a study of stories (qisas, poetry and travelogues, court records, etc. This has to be done for all regions under Muslims, covering all the languages spoken by them and through all the 15 centuries that have passed between now and the days of divine revelation. Let us have it straight, history, even of Muslim peoples, is not a source of guidance for us. Divine guidance inheres only in Quran and Sunnanh of the Prophet, peace be upon him. We invoke history for the purpose Quran has recommended it to us: as ibar. There are lessons to be learnt, warnings to be heeded. We run a great risk in ignoring history. Knowledge of history may save us from repeating mistakes and encourage us onto following into footsteps of those who succeeded.
A greater risk inheres in focusing on only part of Islamic history and ignoring the rest. This elevates a particular history to a status it cannot claim and does not deserve. By committing this mistake we run the risk of alienating parts of humanity for no fault of theirs.’
Consider the current focus of Islamic economists on Islamic finance and dearth of Islamic economic literature on poverty removal, inequality and development. Among the billion plus Muslims of the world, how many are bothered about banking and finance? How many of the over six billion inhabiting the planet care about Islamic finance, considering the fact that Islamic economics is for all?
The Essential and the Peripheral
Islam is for all times and all places, and so are its teachings that are relevant for the economic life of man. It was, however, revealed in seventh century Arabia. The time and place in which the Prophet, peace be upon him, gave Islam’s first concrete exemplification was bound to have its stamp on that example. But what was local and specific to those times cannot form part of the universal and eternal Islam. We who are engaged in living Islamically in the twenty-first century in a globalising world have the responsibility of sifting the eternal and the universal for implementation now and here, implementation that is bound to bear the stamp of a changed locale in a changed time. The record of Islamic economic research so far has not been very promising. Islamic economists hardly did any better than those without any learning of social dynamics, specializing only in traditional Islamic sciences developed more than a thousand years ago. Hopes of getting better results by bringing the two expertise together by housing them in the same institution and/or seating them around the same conference table have not been very encouraging. The result is a kind of intellectual paralysis. What is worse is the exploitation of this situation by a section of the market to offer conventional goods in superficial Islamic wrappings in the name of Islam.
The remedy lies in focusing on the vision of a Muslim and that of an Islamic society before we attend to rules of conduct and ways and means for their implementation. The better method is to perceive and conceptualize the totality from out of the primary sources, the Quran and the Sunnah. All the rest should follow and not lead, insofar as Islamic economic research is concerned.
What I am lamenting is a failure to accept anything that does not fit in the old mould despite its obvious wisdom. In trying to abide by derived rules we have distanced ourselves from the very source of rules. We have already noted the anomaly of Islamic economic research relegating poverty removal to the backburner and bringing investing rich peoples’ surpluses for making them richer to the fore. That is how the essence is overwhelmed by the peripheral.
The Human Element in the Islamic Heritage
The need to distinguish what is human from what is divine in our Islamic heritage. The Prophet, peace be upon him, brought the word of God and explained it by living it and guiding a whole generation of men and women organize their lives, including their economic affairs, in accordance with divine guidance. The word of God is preserved in its originality, un-adulterated by word of man. But the same is not true of anything else. As the Prophet leaves the scene and his companions are left to fend for themselves, the problem gets more complicated. It is no longer a matter merely of authenticity of reports. We are now dealing with men like us, without any direct link with divinity. Facing new challenges, they no longer had the Prophet to ask how to meet them. All they had is the Quran and what they had heard from the Prophet or, seen him doing in different situations. Building on that, they had to decide for themselves, and they did. Times moved on. The second and third centuries of Islam brought new challenges and explored new solutions. It is during these times that most of the recorded Islamic heritage took shape.
In exercising ones own judgment in the enterprise of Islamic living; it is good to have so much to fall back on. It is a great help. But one should not be constrained by the sayings and doings of other humans. The divine is binding but the human is not. Additional constraints thwart fresh thinking and innovation. Sacralization of the non-sacred has been a great source of degeneration in human history. It is one thing to treat history as help and inspiration. It is very different when we try to recreate it in a changed world, and that too in economic affairs. History, even Islamic history, is not sacred. We run a great risk by giving it that status.
This situation has to be rectified before it goes out of hand. There is no better area for making a beginning than economics. I say this because the need to focus on the divine in human heritage and treat the human only as efforts in implementation from which lessons can be drawn is most obvious in economic matters. It is the economic affairs of man that bear the brunt of technological change and are often harbingers of change in other aspects of life. It is in economics more than in other areas that our focus should be on Maqasid al-Shriah (the objectives of Islamic Law) rather than what is commonly perceived as Law.
Regaining Self Confidence
A shrinking from independent thinking and total reliance on Islamic heritage came to Muslims after the first five hundred years of their history gradually and due to many factors. Things have been changing after the coming of Muslim peoples from out of the yoke of colonialism during the last century. The intellectual scene of the ummah is humming with activity, the emergence of Islamic economics being one of its fruits. But it takes time. There is no justification for despondency. Nevertheless speed matters in this age of rapid change. The obstacles to progress in Islamic economic research are all removable.
The status quo cannot sustain itself. If we do not change in a well-considered manner, change will be forced onto us in haphazard manner. I already see it happening in an area so dear to us Islamic economists, the area of Islamic finance. The remedy lies in getting rid of the fear psychosis, the fear of committing mistakes in matters of religion, thereby inviting the wrath of Allah. That is too dumb a view of God to be taken seriously. Did the Prophet not tell us there is a reward awaiting even the mujtahid who errs? We have faith in God that needs to be buttressed by confidence in ourselves. The chances of making a mistake today are less, not more, than the chances of a Muslim thinker making a mistake in the third century of Islam. We have better access to Quran and Sunnah, more works on other Islamic sciences within easy reach, and better, faster means of mutual consultation and discussion than was available to our fore runners.
 Abu Dawood in his Sunnan has the following report: …Amr Ibn al-Ás reports that the Prophet, peace be upon him, said, “When a ruler decides and exercises his judgment and gets it right, he is rewarded twice. When he exercises his judgment to decide and errs, he is rewarded once.” Hadeeth # 3574 . Kitab al –Aqdiy