Muslims and Capitalism. An Uneasy Relationship?

  • Book Title:
 Muslims And Capitalism
  • Book Author:
Béatrice Hendrich
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Exalting the Past, Rebelling against the Present, and Struggling for a (Better) Future?

A Critical Approach towards Capitalist Modes of Production and Government by Islamically-Oriented Movements

What is the relation between Islam and Capitalism? Is there any at all?

Evidently, these very questions already contain pitfalls: In order to answer them in a conclusive manner, a fixed definition of ‘Islam’ and ‘Capitalism’ would be necessary as a first step. Obviously, those definitions could only be provided in the form of essentialist statements.

However, every now and then individuals and movements, academics and activists, endeavor to find an answer to these questions. In the 1960s, Maxime Rodinson published his Islam et Capitalisme (Rodinson 1966). Rodinson argued that the absence of a capitalist development in the Islamic world was a direct result of colonial exploitation and the structures of un-derdevelopment based thereupon.

 The main objectives of Rodinson’s book were a critical analysis of Max Weber’s Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus (1904) and of Marxist tenets regarding the reasons for eco-nomic (under-)development. It is telling that Rodinson based his work on an examination of outright Western concepts and authors.

 It tells us about the state of Oriental Studies in the 1960s—Rodinson was an Orientalist—, and it tells us about the related perspective taken even by a scholar who aimed to deconstruct “the argument attributed to Weber that the Islamic ethic is too antipathetic to rationality to have permitted the indigenous de-velopment of capitalism”1 and whose attitudes towards the Islamic world were basically positive. Rodinson quotes from the Quran and hadiths, and every now and then he refers to Muslim scholars, although what really mat-ters to him are Marx and Weber.

 As a matter of fact, when Islam et Capital-isme was published, ‘Alī Sharī‘atī (1933–1977) was only starting to become famous. But what about earlier Muslim reformers such as the Egyptian Say-yid Quṭb (1906–1966) and H. Oemar Said Tjokroaminoto (1882–1934) in Indonesia, or Muslim-socialist movements and parties in the early Soviet Union or colonial India? Rodinson himself mentions Quṭb in the “After-word”, added to the book’s first American edition in 1973; the very mode of the paragraph is however rather belittleling. Nor does it express further interest in Quṭb and the likes: 

I might have discussed more extensively the many contemporary Muslim writers who have taken up … the theme of the applicability of the ‘social’ principles of Islam to present-day society and to the ideal community. These writers are numerous, to be sure, but their arguments are always the same as those advanced by the two or three writers whom I did mention and criticize.

 In view of the influ-ence he had, and the important … role played by his life and his death, I might have analysed the work of the ideologist of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb, whom Nasser hanged for conspiracy in 1966.2

In the summer of 2013, in Turkey a movement called Anti-capitalist Muslims (Antikapitalist Müslümanlar, AKM) obtained a sudden and unexpected popularity. Without a doubt, this sudden popularity was to a broad extent the result of the technical means of modern mass communication. The AKM’s slogans, together with a particular visual appearance and an extensive use of social media, aroused the curiosity of the audience within and beyond the Turkish borders.

What is more important, however, is that their slogans and behavior obviously corresponded to the needs and expectations of those who had long since been asking and searching for a third way in (developing) Muslim countries in general, and in Turkey in particular.

The summer of 2013 was the time of the, as it would later be called, Gezi Resistance. The initial cause of the conflict was the planned destruction of the Gezi Park in one of the historical centers of Istanbul, in Taksim, as part an urban renewal plan. Environmental activists started sit-ins and other forms of protest at the end of May with the aim to save the trees.

Disinclined to discuss a compromise, the local government took violent measures against the protesters, thus transforming a demonstration into a pluralistic movement which then spread nationwide. During June 2013, Turkey experi-enced new forms of dialogue and social solidarity among the protesters and their sympathizers, but the toll exacted for this short period of hope was heavy, with seven people dead and hundreds affected by teargas or more seriously injured.3

Although the Anti-capitalist Muslims had not initiated the resistance, once they had set up their tents and banners in the protest camp, they turned into important actors in the resistance as they added, in every sense, an unexpected color to what had started as an urban, middle-class eco-protest.

With their key slogan “Property belongs to God” (Mülk Al-lah’ındır) they easily entrenched themselves in the protest against the brutal capitalism of the ruling class and their disrespect towards both nature and human rights and needs.

Beyond catchy slogans, the AKM catered to the need and longing for a rapprochement between culturally and politically di-verse segments of the society such as secular Kemalists, practicing Muslims, and all the other smaller or very small groups and communities in Turkey such as Alevis, queer people or non-Turkish ethnicities.

The sudden increase of the Anti-capitalist Muslims’ popularity was at least partly due to earlier activities aimed at dialogue between former ‘adversary’ groups, e.g. between Turkish and Armenian young people,4 or ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ women.5 These dialogical activities had demonstrated that it was possible to eliminate ideological borders (Entgrenzung6). The AKM who base their demand for social justice on a revised reading of the Quran became famous for their co-operation during the Gezi Resistance with groups detested by conservative Islam such as the queer community or leftist activists.

AKM is in the first instance a Turkish movement, the result of a distinctive national history of modernization and a recent massive socio-economical change which includes the emergence of a new, affluent and influential class of Muslim entrepreneurs coming from Anatolia instead of from established families in urban centers in the West.

The new ‘green’ capitalism did not go unprotested by those Muslims who attach more significance to societal equal-ity than to an economic growth which the masses do not profit from.

One may argue that it is inappropriate to compare Rodinson’s approach to the relation between Islam and capitalism with the approach of the Anti-capitalist Muslims because of the general differences between an academic treatise—like Rodinson’s—and the statements of a movement, such as the AKM. On the other hand, the main actors of the anti-capitalist and left-Islam field would also claim intellectual respectability, as it is demonstrated by their education and numerous journal and book publications.

 For this reason, a comparison between the two is not only possible but strongly recommended. The most significant difference we encounter in a comparison of the discourses is indeed that of the claimed cultural heritage of each. While Rodinson had explained away his omission of Muslim/Islamist re-formists and revolutionaries as the quote above has shown, saying that they only repeat each other’s words, it is precisely this modern chain of Islamic tradition which, in the eyes of the current Muslims of the third way, adds value to their teaching and activities.

This chain consists of numerous names from Muslim history and modern political movements, names which appear repeatedly in this edited volume, no matter which concrete geography or historical period the articles deal with: Abū Ẕarr al-Ghifāri, ‘the fourth con-vert to Islam’ (d. 652); the outstanding Sufis Manṣūr al-Ḥallāj (857–922) and Şeyh Bedreddin (1359‒1416), both executed by the state; or ‘Alī Sharī‘atī (1933–1977), the Iranian intellectual who introduced Islam in the leftist dis-course of his time, and the religious scholar Ayātollah Maḥmūd Tāleghānī (1914–1979). This is not to say that movements such as the AKM have lost sight of the examples of non-Muslim reformers and revolutionaries.

On the contrary, Karl Marx is a name one can refer to without hesitation, followed by that of Engels (and his Peasant War in German), accompanied by Walter Benjamin’s and Jean Paul Sartre’s, and other names drawn from the global history of religious-political movements, such as Jan Hus (1370-1415), Thomas Müntzer (1489‒1525), and Mahatma Gandhi.

The invocation of non-Muslim exemplars serves two ends: It emphasizes the cultural border-transgressing and global character of the AKM and simi-lar movements; more often, however, it opens up the opportunity to demonstrate the supremacy of the Muslim forefathers when it comes to the timeline: Şeyh Bedreddin and Thomas Müntzer share the same revolutionary vision, but the sheikh implemented his a hundred and fifty years earlier.

While Marx provides some interesting features for socialist Muslims, the struggle for shared property and social equality had already started during the early years of Islam. The invocation of the chain of Muslim exemplary figures and ideas drawn from the past is a familiar strategy of legitimizing one’s own behavior. It functions the same way as collecting the sayings of the prophet and his adherents, and the hadiths compilations do.

It expresses consensus inside the community and demands loyalty to the same.7 At the same time, to claim and appropriate this history as a genuine cultural herit-age means to locate one’s own movement in the contested field of Turkey’s historical memory in this specific way and to insist on this position.

The Anti-capitalist Muslims are an element of a broader field of societal movements in Turkey which is known by its exonym, İslami Sol, Islamic Left. The players in this field are diverse individuals, movements and groups which address so-called ‘classical issues of the political left’ such as the realization of social equality and rights while basing their arguments on the Quranic text. Many of them would avoid labeling themselves as “left” because of the traditionally tense relations between Turkish leftists and Muslim activists, while others explicitly endeavor to re-structure the rela-

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