The Economic in Religion and the Religious in Economics: A Qur’anic-Weberian Perspective

Basit Koshul
Concordia College


I will begin by drawing your attention to the anomalous character of this particular setting. We have a theologian, a philosopher and a sociologist of religion addressing what is essentially an economic issue (poverty and debt-release) at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion—something or someone appears to be out of place. It seems more appropriate that this topic be addressed by a banker, a macroeconomist specializing in development economics and a finance ministry official at the World Economic Forum or the annual meeting of the Economists. Given the disciplinary boundaries in vogue in the academy, it appears that Gibbs, Hardy and Koshul are leaving their areas of expertise and encroaching upon the turf of Milton Friedman, Alan Greespan and George Soros. Conversely, the traditional yeshiva, seminary and madrassah would also frown upon scholars of religion addressing such a topic. The reason for their objections could be summed up paraphrasing a question proposed by Tertullian, and answering it by paraphrasing a well known quote by Kipling. The response to the question “What hath religion to do with economics?” by the secular academy and the religious seminary is “Religion is religion, economics is economics and never the twain shall meet.” Consequently, both from the perspective of the academy and the seminary, there is something anomalous when scholars of religion discuss economics.

Very much cognizant of this anomalous situation, my paper will not so much focus on the topic of poverty and debt-release as it will seek to provide a scriptural and social scientific rationale that adequately redresses the aforementioned anomaly. The bulk of the paper will focus on a particular Scripture (the Qur’an) to challenge the seminary’s [1] position and demonstrate that there is an irreducible presence of the economic in religion. Then the paper will briefly turn to a particular corpus within social science and show the inadequacy of the attitude of the academy by demonstrating the irreducible presence of the religious in economics from the perspective of Max Weber’s social science. The paper will conclude with some remarks on the relevance (and perhaps necessity) of an investigation of the economic from a religious perspective—and vice versa—in the contemporary cultural milieu.

The Economic in Religion: A Qur’anic Perspective

The fact that the Qur’an sees an irreducible and inevitable presence of the economic in religion can be demonstrated from three different, but related perspectives — the structure, the language and contents of the Qur’anic narrative. As Ricoeur has noted, echoing both classical and modern Qur’anic exegetes, the structure of the discourse carries a message that complements and clarifies what the narrative words themselves explicitly state. The structure of the Qur’anic narrative shows a sustained discussion of “economic” matters accompanying and sometimes abruptly disrupting discussions of matter of great “religious” sensitivity and significance. This is best illustrated by looking at the structure of the narrative in Sura number two. This sura is titled “The Cow/Calf,”—the longest of the Qur’anic suras—and there is a hadith characterizing it as the “mini-Qur’an.” In this sura, ayah number 255 is called the “Ayah of the Throne” and it describes the attributes of Allah, His Throne, and His and its relationship to the created order, especially humanity. The Prophet described this ayah as the “Queen of the Ayaat” (pl. of ayah)—thereby highlighting its privileged spiritual/religious significance. The sura concludes with a passage consisting of ayahs 285-286. This passage is of special significance because it is the only part of the Qur’an that did not “come down” to the Prophet via the Archangel Gabriel—the Prophet received this passage directly from Allah in the course of their meeting during the Night Journey. The fact that the Prophet received this passage directly from Allah at a pivotal point in his career invests this passage with special spiritual/religious significance. The Ayah of the Throne (2:255) and the two ayahs directly received from Allah (2:285-6) can be seen as two markers of great “religious” significance in Sura 2. A survey of the subject matter that is discussed between these two “religious” markers reveals that “economic” issues are discussed in far greater frequency and detail than any other issue. After ayah 255, the “Ayah of the Throne,” the passage from 261-266 offers a parable describing the manifold increase that results from wealth being spent as charity. Ayaat 267-273 detail the ethics of charity-giving and identifies the groups in society who are entitled to economic assistance from society at large. 274-281 contrast charity and legal economic activity with usury and interest. The Qur’an describes the two as being mutually opposed, encourages charity and free economic activity and harshly condemns/prohibits usury and interest. 282-283 detail the ethics and norms of drawing up business contracts. The detailed discussion of economic matters between the two religiously significant markers is all the more remarkable in light of the fact that economic matters are mentioned only briefly prior to 255. The “economic” is in religion — the structure of the Qur’anic narrative in Sura 2 shows this to be the case in a very literal sense.

The close relationship between the economic and religious spheres intimated by the structure of the Qur’anic narrative is reaffirmed by the language that the Qur’an uses to describe the religious life of an individual. The Qur’an uses imagery from the social, natural and economic worlds to describe different aspects of the human being’s religious life. Symbolism from the social world is used to characterize the behavior of a life lived with (or without) faith—(i.e., 39:29 [2] , 67:22 [3] ). Symbolism from the natural world is used to describe the final result of actions accompanied by (or devoid of) faith. For example 48:29 [4] uses symbolism from the natural world to describe the final outcome of actions accompanied by faith and 3:117 [5] and 24:39 [6] of actions that are devoid of faith. Both of these ways of using symbolism from the natural world are juxtaposed in 2:265-6. [7] Whereas symbolism from the social and natural worlds is used to characterize the behavior and ultimate outcome of a life lived with or without faith, the actual act of either accepting or rejecting faith is described in explicitly economic language of buying, selling, trading, profit, loss, etc.

At the very beginning of Sura 2, the believer is described as someone who has willingly “sold” his/her soul: But there is [also] a kind of person who would willingly sell his own self in order to please Allah: and Allah is most compassionate towards His servants (2:20). The unbelievers are also described as having “sold” themselves, but their motives and fate are quite different:

Vile is that [false pride] for which they have sold their own selves by denying the truth of what Allah has bestowed from on high, out of envy that Allah should bestow of His favor upon whomsoever He wills of His servants: and thus they have earned they burden of Allah’s condemnation, over and over. And for those who deny the truth there is shameful suffering in store (2:90).

A little earlier, the unbelievers are depicted as having made an economic transaction in which they have “sold” the life of the hereafter and “bought” the life of this world. The unbelievers are All who purchase the life of this world at the price of the hereafter—their punishment shall not be lightened, nor shall they be succored (2:86). Besides the believers and unbelievers there is a third group, the hypocrites—and their choice of accepting/rejecting faith is also described using economic imagery: It is they who purchase error in exchange for guidance; but their bargain [lit. “business exchange”] brought them neither gain [lit. “profit”] nor have they found guidance [elsewhere] (2:16).

In addition to using economic language and symbolism to describe the religious life of the individual believer, the Qur’an draws attention to the impact that the economic sphere has had on the historical development of religious communities. The Qur’an identifies the pursuit of economic interests/goods as being a major factor in the development of religious ideas. The Qur’an notes that economic interests have influenced the manner in which certain aspects of religious scriptures have been emphasized and other aspects of the same scriptures neglected.

Verily those who conceal any part of the revelation which Allah has bestowed from on high and barter it away for trifling [monetary] gain—they but fill their bellies with fire… It is they who purchase error in exchange for guidance, and punishment in exchange for forgiveness: yet how little do they seem to fear the fire (2:174-5).

Besides influencing the interpretation of scripture, the Qur’an posits that economic interests have had an even more direct role in the “production” of religious ideas.

Woe, then, unto those who write down, with their own hands, [something which they claim to be] divine writ, and then say, “This is from Allah,” in order to acquire a trifling [monetary] gain thereby; woe, then, unto them for what their hands have written, and woe unto them for all that they may have gained! (2:79).

This passage establishes a direct link between economic interests and the production of religious ideas. Consequently, the language of the Qur’an does not establish a relationship between the economic and religious spheres merely at the symbolic or rhetorical level, it establishes a link between the two spheres at the concrete and historical level also.

In addition to the structural and linguistic aspects of the Qur’anic narrative, the actual content of Qur’anic discourse evidences an irreducible relationship between the religious and the economic spheres. The content of the Qur’an does this by giving a place of privilege to the discussion of economic matters—a place of privilege that it does not give to any other subject matter. It is interesting to note that in a “religious” book often considered to be primarily concerned with “spiritual” matters related to the “world to come,” both the longest ayah in the Qur’an and the last passage revealed to the Prophet before his death explicitly deal with materialistic, worldly “economic” issues. It has already been noted that the “Ayah of the Throne” (2:258) has been called the “queen of the ayaat.” The “Ayah of Light” (24:35) [8] is considered of such significance that entire books have been dedicated to its exegesis—for example Ghazzali’s Mishkat al-Anwar . While the significance of these ayaat cannot be questioned, the longest ayah in the Qur’an is the “Ayah of Trade” (2:282)—this ayah is longer than approximately 24 suras at the end of the Qur’an. Just the fact that this ayah is longer than any other in the Qur’an suggests that the Qur’an considers the subject matter being discussed therein to be of special significance. The ayah makes it a religious obligation to draw up a written contract to finalize any type of transaction involving a loan — a most demanding and culturally anomalous obligation, because originally it is being promulgated in an oral cultural in which writing washardly known. The ayah also details the conditions that need to be met in order for a contract to be valid, and recommends (but does not require) that all cash purchases be recorded in writing.

In addition to the longest Qur’anic ayah addressing an economic issue, the last Qur’anic passage revealed to the Prophet before his death (2:278-81) [9] did not deal with matters of “religious” myths, beliefs or rituals. It dealt with the very worldly, and mundane “economic” matter of prohibiting interest. This passage states that while Allah has permitted economic trade/exchange, He has prohibited interest. Taken together with other passages (i.e., 30:39 and 3:130) a picture emerges which shows that from the Qur’anic perspective the giving and taking of interest is the antithesis of charity and free economic exchange—whereas the latter lead to “increase” and “growth,” interest finds no growth “in sight of Allah” (30:39). In 2:278-81 the giving and taking of interest is condemned in a language that suggests that it is a far more egregious offense than any “religious” sin. Those who continue to engage in this practice after it has been prohibited are warned that they are in a state of “war with Allah and His Apostle”.

Both the longest ayah in the Qur’an and the last passage revealed to the Prophet, though dealing with mundane economic issues, conclude with a reminder of the inevitability of death and the eventual resurrection and Day of Judgment. This could be interpreted as the Qur’anic way of expressing its view of the reflexive character of the relationship between the “economic” and “religious” spheres. After having established the “economic” dimension of the “religious,” the aforementioned passages conclude by offering a reminder of the “religious” implications of the “economic”?an implication whose full import will be manifestly apparent on the most important of all of the days that is yet to come, the Day of Judgment. In sum, the structure, language and content of the Qur’an all demonstrate that the Qur’an sees an irreducible presence of the “economic” in the “religious” or “religion.”

Having established the fact that the Qur’an sees a reflexive relationship between the religious and economic spheres, we are in a position to better address two second order concerns: a) Why does the Qur’an consider the charging of interest such an egregious offense? b) What is the vision of social justice that underpins Qur’anic legislation regarding economics? With respect to the first question, the answer seems to be pretty straight forward: the “calculus of recompense” underlying economic dealings involving interest is the antithesis of Divine Grace. Divine Grace is the Self freely sharing its abundance and surplus with those in need in order to enrich them. In contrast, economic dealings based on interest see the self using the abundance it “owns” [10] (its capital) to further enrich itself by taking advantage of the needs, difficulties and vulnerabilities of others. The Qur’an contains a detailed description of the calculus of Divine recompense – and this is not at all surprising, given the fact that one of Allah’s 99 Names is Al-Haseeb (The Accountant). The Qur’an repeatedly emphasizes the point that all individuals will die, be resurrected and then “called to account” or “called to give an account” of how they lived their lives. Each individual will be given a “book” containing precise and detailed entries of the individual’s “earnings” and “debts” accumulated in the world?i.e., a record of the individual’s good and bad deeds (84:7-10). Each individual will be asked to go over his/her book to assure the accuracy of the entries contained therein and get ready for the final “weighing” of the deeds (17:14)?the good deeds going on the right hand scale and the bad deeds going on the left hand scale. The One presiding over this balancing of the books and the weighing of the deeds will be none other than Al-Haseeb. The Qur’an offers a “calculus of recompensation”: the punishment of a bad deed will be meted out according to a 1:1 ratio, the reward of a good deed will be at least 10 times the value of the deed:

Whoever shall come [before Allah] with a good deed will [be rewarded] tenfold the like thereof; but whoever shall come with an evil deed will be requited with no more than the like thereof, and none shall be wronged (6:160).

A parable in Sura 2 suggests that the reward for a good deed in the form of giving in charity is 700:1:

The parable of those who spend their possessions for the sake of Allah is like that of a grain out which grows seven ears, in every ear a hundred grains: for Allah grants manifold increase unto who He wills, and Allah is Infinite and All-Knowing (2:261).

The following passage goes even further—while repeating that the ratio of bad deed and punishment is 1:1, it suggests that the ratio of good deed and reward is 1:infinity:

Anyone who has done a bad deed will be requited with no more than the like thereof, whereas anyone, be it male or female, who had done righteous deeds and is a believer withal—all such ones will enter paradise, wherein they shall be blessed with good beyond all measure/limits! (40:40).

The calculus of Divine recompense facilitates growth and relationality among the parties who are part of the exchange—in the cases cited above the parties are human-God.

In contrast, interest-based transactions are an inversion of the Divine calculus of recompense—the party that already “has” gets even more, the party that does not have has to give up a whole lot more than he/she has in order to get something. The ratio of principal to interest on credit cards and standard 30 year mortgages varies between 1:2 or 1:5. Some of thecountries of the South caught in the debt trap have paid back upwards of 30 times the principal they originally borrowed in interest—and they still have not gotten to the point of paying back the principal that they borrowed. Whereas growth and relationality are the outcome of the Divine calculus of recompensation, interest-based transactions appear to be a “mortgage” indeed (i.e., grip of death) in terms of fostering mutual growth and relationality. The fact that interest-based transactions have an acerbic affect on human relations is documented by Nelson in his study of the development of the idea of usury. [11]

Besides the inversion of Divine Grace, a question can be raised regarding the “economic” status of an interest-based transaction. The Qur’an challenges the claim that the giving and taking of interest is comparable to economic activity:

Those who take interest will rise up on the Day of Resurrection like someone tormented by Satan’s touch. That is because they say. “Trade and interest are the same,” but Allah has allowed trade and forbidden interest (2:275).

Commenting on the ayah, Mawdudi notes that in considering the lending of money on interest to be an “economic” activity, a fundamental aspect of “economics” is lost sight of?risk:

… in every economic activity that is known, whether it is related to the market, industry or agriculture, and irrespective of whether an individual engages in such activity on the basis of his labor or invests capital alongside his labor?in all such activity, there is not a single example where the individual is not taking a risk and in which he is guaranteed a pre-determined profit. [12]

Given the fact that there is no known economic activity in which one party is free from all risk and guaranteed a pre-determined profit, it is a peculiarity to consider an interest-based exchange to be “like trade.” The element of risk is as much a part of an economic exchange as is the hope of profit. In an interest-based transaction only one party takes all the risk—the one taking the loan. The lending party has no interest in the success or failure of the borrowing party in repaying the loan. It may be actually more profitable if the borrowing party defaults on the loan, if the collateral that has been put up for the loan is more valuable than the loan itself. If risk has been eliminated for one of the parties in the transaction and a pre-determined profit guaranteed, one can legitimately question whether that party is engaged in “economic” activity.

Besides its being a direct antithesis of the Qur’anic notion of Grace and running counter to the Qur’anic conception of “economic” activity, a key principle within an interest-based economy makes the Qur’anic notion of social justice unattainable. There is an assumption underlying all interest-based transactions—an assumption that is rarely noticed or ever questioned. The “owner” of principal (or property) assumes that in some real and absolute sense, he/she is truly The Owner. The Qur’an recognizes “ownership” of wealth and property, offers legislation protecting it, and encourages the pursuit of economic wealth. [13] But at the same time the Qur’an offers a critique of ownership that is even more radical than the Marxist critique. Whereas Marxism critiques the principle of “private ownership” and argues in favor of “collective ownership,” the Qur’an rejects the very notion of “human ownership.” On a spiritual plane, the Qur’an considers Allah as the “True Owner.” All that is owned by human beings is nothing more than a “trust” ( amana ) and all human beings are nothing more than vicegerents or trustees ( khulafa ) of what Allah has temporarily put in their charge. At the legal and legislative level, private property is not only recognized and protected, free and fair trade is encouraged. On this level freedom in the sense of free economic activity with minimal intervention from the outside is the highest ideal. But at the same time, on the spiritual level, human beings are encouraged to aspire to the ideal of “from each accordingto his ability, to each according to his need”—because only Allah is The True Owner of everything. At the legal, public level, freedom of economic exchange and material accumulation is promulgated as the highest ideal. But at the spiritual, personal level, individuals are encouraged to embody the ideal that “if someone asks for your coat, give him the shirt off your back.” [14] The differentiation of ideals between the “worldly” and “spiritual” domains that the Qur’anic narrative intimates allows the “religious” and the “economic” spheres to maintain their respective distinctiveness but at the same time remain intimately related to each other. [15] The Qur’anic prohibition of interest and notion of social justice further illustrate the link between the economic and religious. The link between the two is such that engaging in a particular type of economic activityeither facilitates or hinders the possibility of salvation. This suggests that the Qur’an sees a direct link between economics and salvation. Even though he presents the point from a different angle, there appears to be significant overlap between the Qur’anic narrative and Weber’s social science.

The Religious in Economics: A Weberian Perspective

Weber noted that the concern for salvation is a central issue in all religious traditions. In the most general terms, salvation is a state in which there is no gap between the “what is” and “what ought to be.” Every religious tradition has a conception of such a state even though (or perhaps because) the empirical reality in which human beings live is far removed from this ideal. In spite of the common concern for salvation, each religious tradition has its own unique understanding of the “from what,” “how” and the “to what” of salvation. Far more than any other religious tradition, including other variants of Christianity, the “how” of salvation in Protestantism is inextricably tied to worldly toil and effort. For the Protestant labor in a worldly vocation “existed only as an expression of [the believer’s] striving for other-worldly salvation.” [16] As Kalberg notes, the Protestant understanding of salvation created the conditions for the emergence of the Protestant ethic (i.e., “a methodical-rational organization of life” [PESC, xxxviii]). This in turn made possible the emergence of an industrial firm separated from the family, rational accounting techniques and free labor—the three fundamental prerequisites for the emergence of modern capitalism (PESC, 156). Consequently, the relationship between capitalism and Protestantism is deeper than the link between the “ethic” of Protestantism and the “spirit” of capitalism—there is a similar link between the “spirit” of Protestantism (expressed in its unique understanding of and concern with salvation) and the “ethic” of capitalism (expressed in the unique character of the structures, institutions and procedures that characterize the capitalist mode of production.)

If we take this Weberian perspective into account in the analysis of our own cultural situation we would have to give an account of the religious implications of novel economic trends/actors. Weber posited that the emergence of modern “rational” capitalism could not have been possible without three important prior developments: 1) the separation of the industrial company from the household/family, 2) the development of rational methods of accounting (especially double-entry bookkeeping) and 3) the availability of wage laborers freed from ties to land by law or tradition (PESC, 156-7). It is interesting to note that with the emergence of global capitalism we are witnessinga fundamental transformation of the three basic factors that Weber identified as having created the conditions for the emergence of modern capitalism. The process of rationalization has seen the industrial company divorced from the family or sib, evolve into “a family of companies” in the form of multinational conglomerates aspiring to complete horizontal and vertical integration. In the place of rationalized accounting by means of double-entry bookkeeping, we see the emergence of entering the accounts of the company in two different sets of books?the accounting techniques of Enron, WorldCom, Parmalat, etc.?with these accounting techniques being certified and approved by some of the leading accounting firms in the world. In the place of free labor in the sense of workers not bound to the land by tradition or law we have the emergence of free labor in the sense of the employer being able to pay the laborer virtually nothing for his (and more likely her) labor. From a Weberian perspective, the emergence of these novel economic factors/actors brings with it, or follows in the wake of, a new theological/philosophical understanding of salvation—an understanding that might very well be implied and a latent possibility in other cultural settings, but is actualized only in post-industrial capitalist culture. Originally the Protestant industrialist valued economic gain because he saw such gain as a sign of salvation. It appears that under the conditions of global capitalism economic gain is not seen as a sign of salvation, it is seen as salvation itself—salvation that is to be forced upon the unwilling heathen for their own good. The shift from viewing economic gain as a sign of salvation to considering it as salvation itself is subtle yet profound. This shift not only marks the complete divorce of the economic from the religious, it heralds the ascension of the economic to the status of the religious. Weber saw this shift taking place before his eyes and he was deeply distressed by the implications it would have for the health and well-being of modern culture.

Weber notes that modern capitalism, though originally rooted in religious soil, now finds its nourishment from another source:

Victorious capitalism, …, ever since it came to rest on a mechanical foundation, no longer needs asceticism as a supporting pillar. Even the rosy temperament of asceticism’s joyful heir, the Enlightenment, appears finally to be fading. And the idea of an “obligation to search for and then accept a vocational calling” now wanders around in our lives as a ghost of beliefs no longer anchored in the substance of religion” (PESC, 124).

In short, Weber’s analysis of modern economics shows the economic to have become completely separated from the religious. But at the same time there is deep unease on Weber’s part about this state of affairs. He notes that in the contemporary cultural setting economic activity has become an external compulsion rather than an “inner calling”:

Tied to the technical and economic conditions at the foundation of mechanical and machine production, this cosmos today determines the style of life of all individuals born into it, not only those directly engaged in earning a living. This pulsating mechanism does so with overwhelming force. Perhaps it will continue to do so until the last ton of fossil fuel has burnt to ashes (PESC, 123).

Weber is clearly concerned about the “steel-hard casing” (or “iron cage”) that has resulted from (or has led to) the complete separation of the economic from the religious. He notes:

No one any longer knows who will live in this steel-hard casing and whether entirely new prophets or a mighty rebirth of ancient ideas will stand at the end of this prodigious development. Or, however, if neither, whether a mechanized ossification, embellished with a sort of rigidly compelled sense of self-importance, will arise. Then, indeed, if ossification appears, the saying might be true for the “last humans” in this long civilizational development:

Narrow specialists without mind, pleasure-seekers without heart; in its conceit, this nothingness imagines it has climbed to a level of humanity never before attained.

He acknowledges that by characterizing the capitalist-mechanistic cosmos as a “steel-hard casing” and describing those who are at home in this cosmos as a self-deluding “nothingness” he has “fallen into the realm of value-judgments, and judgments rooted in faith” (PESC, 124). In other words, his critique of modern economics is a faith concern, even though it is informed by a social scientific analysis of modern economics. Similarly, his hope and desire for an alternative possibility can only be described as a “faith” concern rather than a “social scientific” concern. This desire can be interpreted as a quest for “salvation”—a desire to move from the “what is” to the “what ought to be.” There is obviously a difference between the “worldly” quest for salvation that Weber appears to be after and the “other-worldly” salvation promised by religion.

A Final Word

An analysis of the language, structure and content of the Qur’anic narrative reveals that the Qur’an sees the irreducible presence of the economic in the religious. Furthermore, the Qur’anic narrative intimates that certain economic practices endanger the Qur’anic understanding of salvation and salvation requires the practice of particular economic activity. A summary discussion of Weber’s view shows that there is an irreducible element of the religious in the very roots of modern economics—both in terms of the origins of modern capitalism and its ultimate ossification into a “steel-hard casing.” Weber’s analysis shows that a certain understanding of salvation is the ultimate outcome of capitalist economic activity. Modern social science has largely affirmed Weber’s observation that during the course of history a “naïve piety” repressed the development and rationalization of the economic impulse. The contemporary cultural condition could be considered a reversal of fortunes where a “naïve acquisitiveness” is repressing the development of the religious impulse. If this is indeed the case then the fact that economic issues such as poverty and debt-release are being discussed at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion by scholars of religion is not only not anomalous, it might actually be a response to the need of the times. If Weber’s thesis is correct then the emergence of novel economic factors/actors implicitly means the emergence of a new conception of salvation. This is as much a “religious” concern?and of equal concern to Jews, Christian, and others?as it is an “economic” trend. Consequently, this issue requires that it be addressed by scholars of religion. This exercise marks the breaking with the naïve understanding of the (non)relationship between religion and economics that is prevalent in the academy and seminary. The shattering of naïvet? is as much an economic activity as it is a religious activity. The emergence out of naïvet? puts into question what had been taken for granted. If a seminarian claims that “religion is religion and economics is economics, and never the twain shall meet” then he/she is actually demonstrating a naïve understanding of religion and an uninformed understanding of economics. If there are economists claiming that “religion is religion and economics is economics and never the twain shall meet” then they are demonstrating a naïve and partial understanding of economics as well as an uninformed understanding of religion. The Qur’anic narrative and Weberian social science present a challenge to both the contemporary religious seminary and secular academy. In their own ways, both of them require that the naïve understanding of the (non)relationship between religion and economics be put into question, because such an understanding distorts the identity of both the religious and the economic.


[1] The word “seminary” should be understood in a non-faith-specific sense—as it is used here it also refers to the yeshiva and the madrassah.

[2] This ayah uses a parable comparing the believer to a slave/servant who has only one master and an unbeliever to a slave/servant who has a number of masters. The Qur’an asks the rhetorical question as to whether or not the two individuals can be considered “equal” in terms of the consistency and purposefulness of their actions:

Allah sets forth as parable: A man who has for his master several partners [all of them] at variance with one another, and a man depending solely on one person: can these two be deemed equal as regards to their condition? [Nay] all praise is due to Allah [alone]: but most of them do not understand this(39:29).

[3] This ayah compares the behavior of an unbeliever to an individual who grovels about on his/her face and that of the believer to the purposeful gait of an individual whose manner of walking evidences an intentional directionality:

And is there any, besides the Most Gracious, that could be a shield for you, and could succor you [against danger]? They who deny this truth are but lost in self-delusion. Or is there any that could provide you with sustenance if He should withhold his provision [from you]? Nay, but they [who are bent on denying the truth] stubbornly persist in their disdain [of Allah’s messages] and in their headlong flight [from Him]! But then, is he that goes along with his face to the ground, better guided than he that walks upright on a straight way? (67:20-22).

[4] This particular passage is of special interest because it states that the parable that is being used to describe the believer is also to be found in the Torah and the Gospels:

Muhammad is Allah’s Apostle: and those who are [truly] with him are firm and unyielding towards all deniers of the truth, [yet] full of mercy towards one another. You can see them bowing down, prostrating themselves [in prayer], seeking favor with Allah and His goodly acceptance: their marks are on their faces, traced by prostration.This is their parable in the Torah as well as their parable in the Gospel: [they are] like a seed that brings forth its shoot, and then He strengthens it, so that it grows stout, and [in the end] stands firm upon its stem, delighting the sower. [Thus will Allah cause the believers to grow in strength,] so that through them He might confound the deniers of truth. [But] unto such among them as may [yet] attain to faith and righteous deeds, Allah has promised forgiveness and a reward supreme (49:28).

[5] [But] behold, as for those who are bent on denying the truth—neither their worldly possessions nor their children will in the least avail them against Allah: and it is they who are destined for the fire, therein to abide. They parable of what they spend on the life of this world is that of an icy wind which smites the tilth of people who have sinned against themselves, and destroys it: for, it is not Allah who does them wrong, but it is they who are wronging themselves (3:116-7)

[6] But as for those who are bent on denying the truth, their deeds are like a mirage in the desert, which the thirsty supposes to be water—until, when he approaches it, he finds that it was nothing: instead he finds Allah with him, and He will pay him his account in full—for Allah is swift in reckoning (24:39).

[7] And the parable of those who spend their wealth out of a longing to please Allah, and out of their own inner certainty, is that of a garden on high, fertile ground: if rain falls upon this ground its yield is two-fold and [even if] no rain falls upon it, it still brings forth [its expected yield.] And Allah sees all that you do. Would any of you like to have a garden of date-palms and vines, through which running waters flow, and have all manner of fruit therein—and then be overtaken by old age, with only weak children to [look after] him—and then see everything smitten by a fiery whirlwind and utterly scorched? In this way Allah makes clear His ayaat unto you, so that you might reflect [and pay heed] (2:265-6).

[8] Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His light is, as it were, that of a niche containing a lamp; the lamp is [enclosed] in glass, the glass [shining] like a radians star: [a lamp] lit from a blessed tree—an olive tree that is neither of the east nor of the west — the oil whereof [is so bright that it] would well-nigh give light [by itself] even though fire has not touched it: light upon light!Allah guides to His light him that will [to be guided]; and [to this end] Allah propounds parables unto humanity, since Allah [alone] has full knowledge of all things (24:35).

[9] O you who believe!Remain conscious of Allah, and give up [your claim to] all outstanding obligations [owed to you resulting] from interest. If you are [truly] believers; for if you not do it, then know that you are at war with Allah and His Apostle. But if you repent, then you shall be entitled to [the return of] your principal: you will do no wrong, and neither willyou be wronged. If, however, [the debtor] is in straitened circumstances, [grant him] a delay until the time of ease; and it would be for your own good?if you but knew it?to remit [the debt entirely] by way of charity. And be conscious of the Day on which you shall be brought back to Allah, whereupon every human being shall be repaid in full for he has earned, and none shall be wronged (2:278-81).

[10] As will be detailed shortly, the Qur’an challenges the very notion of”ownership” in a manner that is even more radical than the Marxist critique of “private ownership.”

[11] See, Nelson, B. (1949) The Idea of Usury: From Tribal Brotherhood to Universal Otherhood . Princeton University Press.

[12] Mawdudi, A. A. (1980) Tafheem-ul-Qur’an. Maktaba Tameer-e-Insaniyat: Lahore, Pakistan. Vol. 1, Fn. 317, pp. 211ff.

[13] This is the Qur’anic injunction regarding Friday?sometimes called the “Muslim Sabbath”:

O you who believe! When the call to prayer is sounded on Friday, hasten to the remembrance of Allah, and leave all worldly commerce [behind]: this is for your own good, if you but knew it. And when the prayer is finished, disperse freely on the earth [return to your worldly commerce] and seek to obtain [something] of Allah’s bounty; but remember Allah often, so that you may attain salvation (62:9-10).

In contrast to the Jewish and Christian understanding of Sabbath, the Muslim weekly holy day does not mark a radical departure from the daily “worldly” routine that has been established during the week. The Muslim understanding of “Sabbath” calls for re-adjusting one’s relationship to or understanding of that same “worldly” routine, and heightening one’s consciousness of Allah as a result ofthis readjustment.

[14] From the Qur’anic perspective, the poverty of some and the wealth of others are but a means to test both—the charitableness of the rich and the patience of the poor. All the while keeping in view the fact that economic fortunes can and do change — which in itself is among the ayaat of Allah, no less than the fact that the verses of the Qur’an are the ayaat of Allah:

Are they, then, not aware that it is Allah who grants abundant sustenance, or gives it in scant measure, unto whomever He wills? In this, behold, there are ayaat indeed for people who will believe (30:37).

[15] This understanding of the Islamic conception of social justice is articulated by Israr Ahmad in a number ofspeeches that he delivered in the early 1980’s. These speeches have were transcribed and published under the title Islam ka Ma’ashi Nizam in 1985 by Maktaba Anjuman Khuddam-ul-Qur’an, Lahore.

[16] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Scribner, 1958) (hereafter PESC), p. xxxix.