The Rise of the Islamic Economy, Part II: Defining the Islamic Economy

September 28, 2022

4 min read

The term “Islamic economy” is vague enough a term to mean rather different things to different people. For financial analysts around the world, the phrase is often employed to represent little else than the aggregate of Islamic countries’ economic output or just the activities of Muslim-run businesses.

For politicians and businessmen in countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia, meanwhile, the Islamic economy appears a more explicit global project to encourage Muslim entrepreneurs and financiers around the world to develop the next generation of business and technology – providing homegrown Muslim competition to Western industries.

Plenty of Muslims in the West have signed on to this effort, with a considerable array of startups established across Europe and America over the past few years. However, Islamists around the globe have also latched onto this second definition, but are taking it to new extremes.

Radical Islamic forces have long considered a concerted Islamic economic effort to be an important component of Islamist ideology, and key to the spread and imposition of Islam.

During the 1980s, Alex Alexiev notes, the Islamist regimes of Iran, Pakistan and Sudan, as part of their much-studied programs of “Islamization,” generated “a veritable explosion of Islamic banks and affiliated institutions across the Muslim world.”

In Saudi Arabia, institutions such as the Islamic Development Bank were long used as vehicles for the financing of Islamism across the globe.

In Bangladesh, analysts claimed in 2016 that 15 banks were under the control of Jamaat-e-Islami, a violent South Asian movement founded by Islamist ideologue Abul Ala Mawdudi and which was responsible for acts of genocide during Bangladesh’s 1971 Liberation War. Abul Barkat, a professor of economics at the Dhaka University, accused the movement of creating a “state within a state” and an “economy within an economy.”

Meanwhile, for modern authoritarian Islamist leaders such as Türkiye’s President Erdoğan, Islamic finance has long been a key component of his own party’s ideological platform. Citing Islamic proscriptions on usury as justification, Erdoğan has (disastrously) attempted to reduce interest rates and implement other curious economic measures – only, as a result, to exacerbate inflation.

It is perhaps of little surprise, then, that Türkiye has also been keenly involved in the efforts to build the new global Islamic economy, including in the West.

Indeed, Türkiye considers itself a leading voice of the movement, establishing initiatives such as the “UK-Turkey FinTech for Islamic finance project,” which highlights the growing importance of “Islamic fintech” in both Türkiye and the UK, and encourages the growth of “sharia compliant” banking in London.

The Erdoğan regime has also established academic departments and chairs in Türkiye devoted to the advancement of the Islamic economy.

Türkiye has also sponsored conferences to which advocates of the global economy from around the world are invited. “Islamic economics,” Erdoğan has told these conferences, is the key to rescuing the world from “crisis.”

The Islamic economy, various Islamists argue, and Erdoğan seems to believe, is not just another component of global industry, but an opportunity to replace other economic systems entirely – including capitalism or communism – with a set of Islamic economic ideas derived from divine law.

The academic Hans Visser – reviewing Islamic thinkers’ writings and commentary on the idea of an Islamic economy – concludes that many Islamists regard the Islamic economy as “one means for the umma, the global community of Muslims, to reassert itself.”

Islamist ideologues in the 19th and 20th centuries, Visser argues, were frustrated over the fact that modern Islamic economic power was a “shadow of its former self,” in contrast to the powerful, wealthy Islamic empires and caliphates of centuries past.

The basis for the Islamist-imagined modern Islamic economy, Visser and others reckon, can be found in the writings of key Islamist thinkers such as Abul Ala Mawdudi, Sayyid Qutb, among others, who emphasized the importance of establishing a separate Islamic economy as a key component of revived Islamic global power.

However, they offered little detail about how such systems would actually function, and did little to fix or explain the dearth of Quranic advice on the subject.

Alex Alexiev writes that Mawdudi and Qutb “knew very little about economics, but saw clearly its utility in mobilizing support for the cause of Islamism. … And so through the writings of Mawdudi, Qutb, and a few others the concept of Islamic economics became firmly established in Islamist discourse despite the obvious fact that there was no substance to it and that Islamic economics made no more sense logically than Christian physics or Buddhist biology.”

Notwithstanding their lack of clear ideas, the aim of these proponents of the Islamic economy, says Mehmet Asutay – an academic at Durham University and a speaker at Turkish conferences on the Islamic economy – is “completing the [Islamic] identity in every aspect of life.”

Such rhetoric around the Islamic economy is similar to that expressed by advocates of the “Islamization of Knowledge,” a key Islamist idea in the latter half of 20th century – adopted by many Western Islamist educators in Muslim schools across North America. The Islamization of Knowledge holds that Islamic teachings can be extended to every aspect of educational curricula, even the most secular of subjects.

Indeed, the two ideas overlap. One leading North American business, Noor Kids, is often referred to as a member of the new “Islamic economy.” It produces “Shaykh approved” books and courses providing an “Islamic education” for young children. Some of these books, as well as Noor Kids’ partners, are the product of Islamization of Knowledge programs in the United States.

Both the Islamic economy and the Islamization of Knowledge fit neatly into Mawdudi’s pledge to “instill” in the “Muslim intelligentsia” the “fact that Islam has a code of life of its own, its own culture, its own political and economic systems and a philosophy and an educational system which are all superior to anything that Western civilization could offer.”

The new global trillion-dollar Islamic economy is quickly becoming a vehicle for these Islamist designs.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Middle East Forum

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