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Islam and Capitalist Modernity
Jan 1, 2018

There are some who say Islam and Western capitalism are at odds, but as with any faith or ideology, there are many different strains of Muslim thought on the West.

Capitalist modernity emerged in the West out of a conservative and religious past. Society in the Middle Ages of the West was highly influenced by the Church and feudal law, and was based on an agricultural economy (Kelley, 2002). After the Renaissance and the Enlightenment Era of free thinkers and new social theorists such as Locke, Bentham, and other Liberals, the West dramatically transformed into a highly individualistic and capitalist society. It is worth noting that not everybody agrees as to what modernity is (McPherson, 2015). Some of the values that come with modernity, such as dress codes and legal drinking of alcohol, do not comply with the way many Muslims practice their faith. Even when pushed, liberal capitalism has always been uncertain in the Muslim world, from ultra-conservative countries to more liberal ones. Locke’s social vision of ownership of property through applying labor and exchanging products (i.e. principles of capitalism) are not all against the economic principles of Islam. Islam allows for regulated capitalism with the permissibility of small businesses, dispersal of property, and trade (Dunning, 2003). Of course there are still limits, such as dealing with usury, but the problem today is that there is no Islamic country or state, but rather only Muslim-majority countries, which is the term preferred by many Muslim political academics, such as Tariq Ramadan (2001). After Western colonization of many of these Muslim-majority nations, there has risen many different political strategies and responses to capitalist modernity, whether they be in the West or in Muslim countries that have adopted secular-liberal principles.

Political Islam was born after the colonization of the Middle East by Western nations such as Britain and France, and after the establishment of Israel, supported by Western allies. Furthermore, the backing of autocratic rulers in the Middle East and the ongoing Western interference into Muslim countries, have ensured that even though physical colonialism has ended, it still survives in different forms. Some Muslim countries have completely rejected any Western ideals, such as liberalism or democracy; these include Khomeini’s Iran (Rubin, 2003). Others have rejected the Western way of life but allowed for trade with the West and allowed for some capitalist principles. These include Saudi Arabia (Martin, 1982). Turkey used to be an oft-cited example of how a Muslim-majority country could have capitalism in common with the West and also share a Western-style modernity, but recent developments have dramatically shattered this image.

Like any movement, Political Islam has spawned its share of thinkers and writers. Sayyid Qutb wrote extensively, arguing against modernism and capitalism having any place in Muslim societies. He believed that Muslims who welcome modernism are creating a state of “jahiliyya” (ignorance) and that they are committing “kufr” (disbelief), which has given rise to the very dangerous and politicized idea of “takfir” (declaring Muslims are apostates) (Terence & Dagger, 2009, p. 456-460).
Many radical movements, such as al-Qaeda, and their leader, Osama bin Laden, were heavily influenced by this idea. Bin Laden often expounded on his political ideology and his ambitions for a puritan Islamic state free from any Western influence. His arguments justifying the bombing of various American buildings in the Muslim world or on American soil were not so different from Qutb’s arguments in support of a global “jihad” as an offensive attack against modernity, capitalism, and other Western ideals which are seen blasphemous by their interpretation of Islam.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt in 1920s, has been an influential conservative movement. They sought political rule recognizing the Qur’an and Sunnah as the only reference point for social order. The Muslim Brotherhood eventually came into power in Egypt after the Arab Spring of 2011 and the overthrow of Egypt’s long-serving dictator, Hosni Mubarak. Their rule under the leadership of Morsi gave rise to much discontent among those who did not share the Brotherhood’s worldview, and eventually General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took over the government after a coup and promised to restore Egypt to a secular society.

In another part of the Muslim world racked by civil war, the Islamic State came to power (Gerges, 2015). Even though the majority of Muslims worldwide reject the group’s claim to Islamic polity, IS strongly believe themselves to be the heirs to the revival of the Islamic caliphate. Before going further, it is important to know that every political Islamic group, whether militant or not, dreams of returning to an Islamic caliphate. The political philosophy of an Islamic caliphate is the ultimate goal and social vision, any policy that achieves that goal is worthwhile. Of course what is necessary and what is not, differs from group to group. There are extreme groups utilizing terrorism and other fear factors, such as IS and al-Qaeda, and other groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, utilizing democracy as a process to achieve power and the implementation of the Islamic caliphate. There also are Islamic groups such as Hizb-ul-tahrir, who are completely non-militant but who propagate amongst Muslims globally, aiming to achieve the return of an Islamic caliphate (Butt, 2010).

There are also moderate political voices in the Muslim community, who also have a strategy for dealing with the challenges of capitalist modernity. According to the well-known Muslim preacher and writer, Fethullah Gülen, secularism should not be seen as at odds with Islam. He admits that secularism involves freedom of religion, writing “The freedom of religion is defined as for the individuals to believe in the religion of their choice and without the fear of being disturbed to be able to practice the requirements of the religion they chose freely” (Ergil, 2015). He sees this as being coherent with Islam, as the Qur’an states that “there is no coercion in religion.” He has always strongly believed that religion should not be used as a tool of politics, whether that be Christian politicians or Muslim politicians, who seek to gain political power.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a prominent Muslim thinker, makes a strong critique of modernity, arguing that modernity means that “which is cut off from the Transcendent, from the immutable principles which in reality govern all things and which are made known to man through revelation in its most universal sense.” This is a spiritual interpretation of modernity, which argues that traditional Islam rejects that definition of modernity and sees Islam as focused on spirituality in this world and not materialism, which is the Western way of living (Bilecen, 2014). Tariq Ramadan, a professor of Islamic studies at Oxford University, advances political Islamic thought in contrast to Western political thought. Ramadan contends that Muslims, especially in the West, must be equipped to respond appropriately to the challenges of modernity with a point of reference, one going back to Islamic ideals of ethics and spirituality (Ramadan, 2001). He argues there must be a meaningful and intellectual dialogue to occur between Muslims and the West in tackling modernity.

Many Muslims have adopted living in the West under secularism and in a capitalist society yet still remain critical of the challenges both pose. It is also clear that the majority of Muslims reject the atrocities occurring in isolated parts of the Muslim world and perpetrated by some militant Muslims responding to Western ideals of capitalism and modernity which they usually encountered in the form of colonialism. Muslims and non-Muslims alike have been critical for centuries and this critique should not be seen as an attack on society, but rather it should enhance society and open a dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims.