This piece is a response to the initial query of the project on Virtue Ethics and the Cultivation of the Moral Self by Martin Nguyen.
In this first response essay, I briefly analyze the state of affairs of contemporary Islamic economics and discuss the foundations of premodern Islamic economic thought, which I argue was rooted in a moral cosmology. Specifically, I hold that the “economic” was part and parcel of broader human engagements to attain loftier ends. In my subsequent essay, I will offer new vistas for analyzing economic thought in Islamic tradition as a polyvalent endeavor rooted in multiple epistemologies based on ethical reasoning. Ideas in both pieces are based on my recent book Ethical Teachings of Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī: Economics of Happiness (Anthem Press, 2021), and my forthcoming book The Making of Islamic Economics: Islamization, Law, and Moral Discourses (Cambridge University Press, 2022). The questions that I am specifically interested in are: “What do Islamic religious virtues and principles look like in our present economic realities?”; “What are we to make of these spiritual traditions that valorize poverty?”; and “What does a commitment to spiritual poverty and ascetic modes of life have to offer today’s world, one driven by consumerism, mass production, and cultures of conspicuous consumption?”
Economic science as a purely objective branch of knowledge neither existed in the classical Islamic tradition, nor in pre-Enlightenment Europe. Historically, the Muslim community was well versed in trade as well as barter exchange, and established various forms of taxation. The evolution of economic thought in Muslim societies can be traced back to the earliest period of Islam, as economic issues had been raised already by the Prophet Muhammad and the rightly guided caliphs. In the first centuries, various economic issues were discussed in light of the Qurʾan, such as the prohibition of usury, the institution of zakāt, and pursuing economic activities for human welfare in line with Divine law. Economic purchases are expected to be conducted in a fair and truthful manner, meaning securing channels of cooperation between a buyer and a seller with honest description of the product. The maintenance of justice in economic affairs has also been upheld by the Qurʾanic maxim ʿamr bi al-maʿrūf wa al-nahi ʿan al-munkar (allowing what is right and forbidding what is wrong). Yet, as important as the Qurʾanic epistemology is as the bedrock of economic thought, its substance lies with the human interpretation of the early scholars who attempted to produce and apply it in everyday life. For classical Muslim scholars, the term “economics” is equated with al-iqtiṣād as the science of earning and provision (‘ilm al-iktisāb wa al-infāq), and specifically understanding and analyzing how one acquires wealth and distributes it according to moral measures. Iqtiṣād means seeking and realizing what is judicious, in that the worldly and the material are interrelated with the transcendent and the moral. That which is economic, which includes trading, acquiring wealth, consumption, etc., entails wider social and moral derivations.
“The moral cosmology of Sharīʿa entails economic teachings that are regarded as part of wider metaphysical considerations, whose ethical foundations ultimately function as a technology of self-examination pertaining to human behavioral patterns.“
The moral cosmology of Sharīʿa entails economic teachings that are regarded as part of wider metaphysical considerations, whose ethical foundations ultimately function as a technology of self-examination pertaining to human behavioral patterns. Those ethical standards extend not only to barter exchange, but also production processes and their spiritual significance. While the concept itself did not exist in classical Islamic milieu as such, I aim to show that the classical scholars were cognizant of Sharīʿa’s ethical patterns in and of economic behavior, in that those patterns form part of one’s daily-life obligations and religious duties, and are hence closely associated with both kasb or acquisition of wealth and zuhd or renunciation of the world. Some of these economic teachings and ethical behavioral stipulations can be found in the works of al-Shaybānī (d. 805), al-Muḥāsibī (d. 857), Ibn Abī al-Dunyā (d. 894), al-Isfahānī (d. 1108/1109), al-Ghazālī (d. 1111), Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 1350). These figures underwent different forms of training and lived in different geographical regions, which indicates the multivalent legal, sociopolitical, and cultural landscape of these thinkers, as well as the complexity of economic history in Islamic tradition. They discussed economic mechanisms, the function of money, the role of ḥisba (supervision of markets), price control, the value of goods, barter exchange, and the role of governmental authority. While their works can be perceived as an ethical ideal on perfect economic life, nonetheless they write about righteous economic behavior that has also practical consequences. Concepts such as common good (maṣlaḥa), charity (ṣadaqa), and alms-tax (zakāt), and institutions such as charitable trust funds (waqf), supervision of markets, purchases and commodities (ḥisba), fiscal policy (bayt al-māl), and others, were analyzed not only in legal works but also within the fields of theology, philosophy, Islamic mysticism, and policy-oriented governance (siyāsa sharʿiyyā), rooted in a moral cosmology of the Qurʾanic conceptions of ʿadl (justice), ʿilm (knowledge), and ʿamal (righteous deeds), and their human exposition. Consequently, such economic concepts were not understood exclusively as commercial laws or transactions (muʿāmalāt), but rather these commercial laws were embedded in an ethical understanding of the economic world.
“Even though Sufis, for instance, sought to attain a higher level of knowledge through kashf (unveiling), faqr (both spiritual and material poverty), and zuhd (asceticism, renunciation, or extramundane detachment), they also sought to exercise earning a livelihood (kasb).“
Even though Sufis, for instance, sought to attain a higher level of knowledge through kashf (unveiling), faqr (both spiritual and material poverty), and zuhd (asceticism, renunciation, or extramundane detachment), they also sought to exercise earning a livelihood (kasb). The classical Muslim scholars’ ethico-juristic and spiritual-moral treatises on economic thought offer the idea of the spiritual significance of work and, even more importantly, of production processes – as organizational processes, facilities, and techniques that are utilized in order to convert raw materials into finished products. The spiritual significance of production processes does not only mean that any type of work can be spiritual in itself (as vocation), despite its dehumanizing conditions, but also that the profession is integrated into higher orders of knowledge and that the very relations of production are not based on inherent antagonisms but communal recognition and value of labor.
“For instance, Abū Yūsuf (d. 798), a pupil of Abū Ḥanīfa (d. 767) and a court-appointed judge, believed that only through justice can overall development of society take place, since justice increases income…“
For instance, Abū Yūsuf (d. 798), a pupil of Abū Ḥanīfa (d. 767) and a court-appointed judge, believed that only through justice can overall development of society take place, since justice increases income. Ibn Qayyim, trained as a jurist and a theologian, discussed economic philosophy, riches and poverty, the prohibition of usury, and market mechanisms. He maintains that “anything contrary to the notion of justice that can turn the matter from blessing and welfare into a curse or destruction, and from wisdom into disutility has no correlation with the Sharīʿa.” Al-Shaybānī, who studied law under the guidance of Abū Yūsuf, also dedicated his book on earning and livelihood, Kitāb al-Kasb, to more traditional (āthārī) rather than legal (fiqhī) analysis of economic engagements. Imām al-Sarakhsī (d. 1090) informs us that Kitāb al-Kasb defines zuhd (renunciation) as detachment from worldly endeavors, merging Islamic mysticism with Sharīʿa injunctions. Zuhd, together with waraʿ (prudence), is the subject of al-Shaybānī’s analysis on safeguarding from corruption and maintaining an honest acquisition of wealth. For him, earning a living is a service to public good, by providing for one’s own needs and the needs of one’s family and also for the community. In other words, ‘ibādāt (worship) is closely intertwined with muʿāmalāt (transactions). Kasb is acquiring wealth by legal means (taḥṣīl al-māl bimā yaḥillu min al-asbāb), and earning (makāsib) a living in a licit way corresponds to expression of one’s faith: “Permissible earning is in the category of cooperation in acts of devotion and obedience.” Sales, accumulation of wealth, and value of money are analyzed with the parameters of piety, renunciation, and asceticism.
Ibn Abī al-Dunyā’s Iṣlāḥ al-māl (The Emendation of Wealth) is also concerned with licit acquisition of wealth, savings, craftsmanship, commerce, investments, and the notion of poverty. A close reading of his work reveals the twofold perception of wealth, namely, the material and the moral. Iṣlāḥ al-māl can be analyzed within the parameters of Sufi terminology and moral predicaments, for it addresses the spiritual reverberations of human economic behavior, a genre that was systematically commenced by al-Shaybānī. The cultivation of the innermost goes hand in hand with the challenges of everyday life and earning a livelihood. Since wealth also has beneficial functions, those who indulge in solitude and asceticism are denounced, for they neglect the mundane realm.
“Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī who discussed in detail the role of money from jurisprudential and Sufi points of view, is considered one of the forerunners of economic thought in the Islamic tradition…“
Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī who discussed in detail the role of money from jurisprudential and Sufi points of view, is considered one of the forerunners of economic thought in the Islamic tradition. The bulk of his economic ideas is found in volume 2, book 3 of Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn (Manners of Earning a Livelihood); volume 3, book 6 (Evils of Wealth and Miserliness); and volume 4, book 4 (Poverty and Asceticism), as well as partially in Kīmīyā-yi sa‘ādat (Alchemy of Happiness) and in Mīzān al-ʿamal (Criterion of Action). His approach to economic affairs expounds ethical views embedded in the notion of saʿāda as eternal happiness, which is associated with the moral cosmology of Sharīʿa in providing economic analysis as part of an all-encompassing socio-spiritual worldview. Al-Ghazālī’s spiritual economics presents one component of the revival of Islamic sciences, whose ultimate aim is the alchemy of happiness, based on the notions of justice and the Hereafter. Similar to many other scholars, his psychological account on economic thought is rooted in spiritual ethics. One can engage in economic activities by making a livelihood or by investing in one’s wealth in order to increase it. However, one’s true capital is one’s religion and matters pertaining to the Hereafter. Al-Ghazālī has emphasized that wealth (māl) “is not a desire for its own sake,” but it was invented only as a medium of exchange, since gold, due to outstanding qualities and high value, ought to be a common source for transactions. Therefore, the level of consumption must range between necessity and extravagance. While necessity has to be met by the consumer, since it is perceived as a religious obligation, extravagance is forbidden (harām). All economic activities that are meant to meet human needs in that they seek to improve one’s living conditions – such as food, clothing, and shelter – are in accordance with the Divine law. This means that utilization of wealth is consistent with Islamic jurisprudence, which is for al-Ghazālī embedded in his overall ethical system of the path of the Hereafter.
In my next piece, I will discuss how to conceptualize contemporary Islamic economics through a polyvalent lens based on the moral cosmology of Islam. This reconceptualization would have repercussions for contemporary Muslims societies.
Sami Al-Daghistani is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society in Oslo, an Associate Faculty Member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research in New York, and a Research Scholar at the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. He is the author of Ethical Teachings of Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī: Economics of Happiness (London/New York: Anthem Press, 2021) and The Making of Islamic Economics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2022), and translator to Slovenian of Ibn Ṭufayl’s Ḥay ibn Yaqẓān (Ljubljana: Kud Logos, 2016) and Ibn Baṭṭūta’s Riḥla (Ljubljana: Publishing House of the Faculty of Social Sciences, 2017).
 Qurʾan, 7:10, 7:32, 34:15. The Qurʾan emphasizes the notion of ʿadl (justice) in all dimensions of one’s life, including the economic. See Qurʾan, e.g. 4:58, 11:84, 16:76, 43:15
 Qurʾan, e.g. 5:39, 6:152, 7:85, 11:84, etc.
 Qurʾan, 7:152, 9:71.
 Iqtiṣād from qaṣda, meaning “purpose,” “justice,” “aim,” direction,” “objective.”
 Adi Setia, “The Restoration of Wealth: Introducing Ibn Abī al-Dunyā’s Iṣlāḥ al-Māl,” Islamic Sciences, vol. 13, no. 2 (2015): 93. For a translation in English, see Adi Setia, Restoration of Wealth (Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Banking and Finance Institut Malaysia, 2016).
 Adi Setia, “The Meaning of ‘Economy’: Qaṣd, Iqtiṣād, Tadbīr al-Manzīl,” Islamic Sciences, vol. 14, no. 1 (2016): 120–121.
 The material (worldly) is not sought on its own but rather as a moral endeavor of eschatological proportions. In this regard, the Qurʾanic model is per se theological and moral, transcending the purely material and techno-pragmatic realm.
 Abū Yūsuf, Kitāb al-Kharaj (Cairo: Dār al-Matbaʿah al-Salafiyyah, 1972), 120, in Islahi, Contribution of Muslim Scholars to Economic Thought,(Edward Elgar Publishers (Cheltenham: 2014, 65).
 Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, Zad al-Maʿād (1982), 15; Islahi, “Linkages and Similarities between Economics Ideas of Muslim Scholars and Scholastics,” Wednesday Dialogue, (2010–2011), 11.
 Adi Setia, “Imam Muhammad Ibn al-Hasan al-Shaybānī on Earning a Livelihood: Seven Excerpts from His Kitāb al-Kasb,” Islam and Science, vol. 10, no. 2 (2012): 103.
 For al-Shaybānī, al-kasb can be obligatory (farḍ al-ʿayn), recommended (mandūb), or permissible (mubāḥ) (al-Shaybānī, Kitāb al-Kasb, 70).
 Al-Shaybānī, Kitāb al-Kasb, 164; see also 136.
 See Adi Setia, The Book of Earning a Livelihood.
 Ibn Abī al-Dunyā, Iṣlāḥ al-Māl (Beirut: Muʾassasa al-Kutub al-Thaqāfiyya, 1993), 33.
 Al-Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn (Beirut: Dār al-Nadwah, n.d.), 2:62.
 Ibid, 4:114–115.
 Ibid, 2:1.
 Al-Ghazālī, Mīzān al-ʿamal, 377.