This essay is part of the Islamic Moral Theology and the Future (IMTF) Project, generously supported by the John Templeton Foundation, and co-led by Maria Dakake and Martin Nguyen. It is specifically part of the roundtable discussion that is responding to Nguyen's second lead essay for the project. See Dakake's second lead essay for a parallel line of inquiry. Click here to read all past contributions to Dakake and Nguyen's respective lines of inquiry.
In my previous contribution to this forum, I proposed a dialogical approach to understanding Muslim virtue ethics that put Islam’s textual tradition into conversation with the lived practices of Muslims. Since virtue ethics is concerned with character formation and the processes of learning and self-discipline through which a person cultivates particular virtues, the question of how those processes play out in practice must form an integral part of the study of virtue ethics. I also argued that the practices and interpretations surrounding Muslim virtue ethics were subject to historical change and contestation as they were part of a discursive tradition. An account of Muslim ethics that derives solely from its theorizations in doctrinal texts could be helpful in giving us a conceptual anatomy of virtue ethics and its various components—including, for example, the precise virtue being sought by the practitioner of ethics; the exemplary model embodying that virtue; and the set of practices by means of which one may acquire that virtue, etc. This anatomy, however, is an abstraction that is lifeless and motionless. A more dynamic and complex understanding of virtue ethics emerges when we trace its anatomy through the working mechanisms of a living body. In my contributions to this forum, therefore, I have tried to understand the tensions and transformations in Muslim virtue ethics as experienced in the Deobandī tradition of orthodox Sunnī-Islam in South Asia.
The Deobandī community has experienced several historical upheavals since its emergence in British India. Colonial governance, decolonization, industrialization, postcolonial development, and financialization are all forces that have shaped the political economy of Muslim South Asia, producing new disciplines and ways of life. The disciplinary landscape of Muslim virtue ethics, in other words, has undergone significant changes just in the past century. Learning from the predictive failures of secularization, scholars of religion understand all too well that religious traditions do not simply die or fade away in the face of modernity’s structural transformations. Instead, these traditions evolve and mutate through their migration into newer domains of discourse and practice. Depending on the relations of power that configure these domains, religious traditions can not only absorb change but also become the vehicle for affecting it.
Instead of formulating a theoretical response that either frames the Deobandīs as victims of false consciousness or celebrates them as agents of resistance, I try to foreground their own perspectives regarding their religious agency in a world dominated by capitalism.
Over the past three decades, the Deobandīs in Pakistan have successfully paved a religious path for pious Muslims to enter the domains of modern banking and finance. This migration of religion into an avowedly secular economic domain has been facilitated by “Sharī‘a Compliance,” an elaborate legal code that reconciles Islamic commercial law with the practical needs of modern finance. How has this migration into capitalist modernity transformed Islam itself? Should we read the emergence of Sharī‘a Compliance as evidence of the subsumption of religion into a universal logic of capitalist expansion? Or, conversely, should we understand Sharī‘a Compliance as a strategic subversion of capitalist forms by organized religion? Instead of formulating a theoretical response that either frames the Deobandīs as victims of false consciousness or celebrates them as agents of resistance, I try to foreground their own perspectives regarding their religious agency in a world dominated by capitalism. As part of my second installment in this forum, I want to offer an ethnographic account of Deobandī experiences of, and responses to, capitalist hegemony in South Asia. I contrast two competing strategies of engagement with capitalism by the Deobandīs and outline their respective justifications.
Pakistan’s Deobandīs are amongst the primary legal architects of Sharī‘a Compliance. As I described in my previous post, the creation of Sharī‘a Compliance has embroiled the Deobandīs in an internal conflict over the limits of extending Islamic law to accommodate capitalist technologies and institutions. During my ethnographic fieldwork in Pakistan’s Deobandī seminaries (madrasas) and Islamic banks in 2016-17, I interviewed several Deobandīs affiliated with the Islamic finance industry as well as their critics. Muftī Imtiyaz was a senior Deobandī scholar who operated a mosque-university (jāmi‘a) at the outskirts of Karachi. He commanded wide respect owing to his prolific scholarship and a prestigious pedigree; he had studied directly with some of the elders (akābir) of Deoband. Muftī Imtiyaz, however, was a vociferous critic of Islamic finance and had written several tracts refuting its ethical and jurisprudential foundations. I drove to his remote establishment through broken roads overflowing with sewage—a common site in Karachi’s humble neighborhoods. The jāmi‘a was still under construction and packs of stray dogs loitered on the road facing the mosque entrance. Muftī Imtiyaz welcomed me graciously but did not conceal his sense of betrayal by fellow Deobandīs in service of Islamic finance. For him, Sharī‘a Compliance was a form of Islamic law designed to serve capitalist power. Its entire edifice was supported by legal fictions and stratagems (ḥiyal) designed to circumvent the Sharī‘a’s moral and regulatory vigilance against capital accumulation.
Beyond the most obvious legal loopholes that even proponents of Islamic finance wouldn’t deny, Muftī Imtiyaz lamented that Deobandīs working to promote Islamic finance were motivated by their envy of the capitalist West.
Beyond the most obvious legal loopholes that even proponents of Islamic finance wouldn’t deny, Muftī Imtiyaz lamented that Deobandīs working to promote Islamic finance were motivated by their envy of the capitalist West. They had fundamentally misconstrued the purpose of Islamic legal guidance. The Sharī‘a’s emancipatory promise, he argued, did not lie in offering a religious alternative to everything enjoyed by the West. “Muslims have mistaken capitalism as a necessity of life and now expect the Sharī‘a to furnish a religious equivalent to it,” he complained. I asked Muftī Imtiyaz how he thought he could escape capitalism when he used fiat currency and consumed products manufactured and sold by corporations. He retorted by saying that a Muslim was only liable to actions within their power. If the purpose of creating Sharī‘a Compliance was to eliminate interest from financial transactions, a Muslim could simply do that by not putting their savings in a bank account. “Why do you need a bank to invest your money when you still have birādarī funds?” The funds he was referring to are community operated associations where people can pool their money for investment—similar to the “friendly societies” found in industrial era England. For Muftī Imtiyaz, Muslims weren’t stifled by lack of capital or opportunities for investment. The problem arose when they fell for gimmicks like Sharī‘a Compliance that achieved capitalist outcomes in the name of Islam. He was convinced that ordinary Muslims could live without Islamic banks as long as they learned to satisfice with the necessities of life. Instead, he saw that pious Muslims who would previously make do with a used car, purchased using their own capital, were now financing brand new sedans through Islamic banks. Sharī‘a Compliance, according to Muftī Imtiyaz, was promoting unsustainable consumerism in a poor society by creating a culture of permissibility around capitalist desire. How did proponents of Islamic finance view this cultural change?
Muftī Dilshad was a younger Deobandī scholar who worked for the Islamic finance industry. Like many others of his repute, he had heard of Muftī Imtiyaz’s scathing criticisms. Muftī Dilshad came from a humble background but worked up the ranks of the Islamic finance industry as a Sharī‘a Advisor. In addition to his training in the traditional dars-i niẓāmī curriculum at the madrasa, he studied finance and received an MBA from a prestigious business school in Karachi. I met Muftī Dilshad in his air-conditioned corporate office, where he sat behind his L-shaped desk on a bonded leather executive chair. His elaborate workplace was a far cry from Muftī Imtiyaz’s humble establishment. Still, Muftī Dilshad wore a skullcap, sported a long beard, and donned the same traditional attire that is the custom of Muslim religious scholars (‘ulamā) in Pakistan. I asked Muftī Dilshad what he thought of his co-religionists’ critiques of Sharī‘a Compliance, its weak legal foundations, and its complacency in promoting consumerism. His immediate response to these criticisms was that critics of Islamic finance first needed to realize that as Muslims they were not living in a world of their own making. The financial infrastructure of modern capitalism and its supporting legal architecture were fashioned over two centuries and implanted in Muslim lands through colonialism. When you open your eyes in a capitalist world, Muftī Dilshad argued, you cannot just wish the system away. The ethical question then becomes: how do I live my life as a pious Muslim in this world? Sharī‘a Compliance was an attempt to build a Muslim future by acknowledging its path dependency with capitalism.
Muftī Dilshad was candid about the internal flaws of Sharī‘a Compliance and called it a work in progress. However, he scoffed at the objection that Islamic finance manifested various aspects of capitalism. “When the Chinese decide to build a military aircraft that can rival Boeing,” he proceeded to asked, “should they build upon existing features of Boeing, or should they just start from scratch out of a sense of Chinese exceptionalism?” He similarly argued that it was utterly unreasonable to expect proponents of Islamic finance to rebuild the wheel when an economic system was already in place. For Muftī Dilshad, constructive criticism amounted to suggestions on how to rectify capitalism from within. The idea that Muslims could simply dislodge or evade capitalism altogether was nothing more than an infantile fantasy. When I pushed Muftī Dilshad about the ascetic alternative to consumerism that was prescribed by Muftī Imtiyaz, he dismissed that as myopic thinking. He reminded me that even juristic definitions of the necessities of life were contingent on changes in history and custom (‘urf). In an almost Bourdieuan fashion, he claimed that what counts as a luxury and what counts as a necessity was contingent on one’s socioeconomic class and circumstances. Muftī Dilshad felt that many critics of Islamic finance were just not in touch with the masses: “Academics and ascetics removed from the economic entanglements of the middle-class can have their theories about capitalism as some abstract evil.” He continued, “But when a recently wed college graduate on a low paying government job comes to me and asks how he can get a roof over his family’s head, I need to offer a workable solution to an imminent need.” Muftī Dilshad feared that recommending asceticism to a struggling middle-class would simply drive them away from Islam. At least Sharī‘a Compliance provided them a second-best alternative that wasn’t explicitly violating Islamic restrictions on interest. For Muftī Dilshad, piety without pragmatism was as fatal to Islam as pragmatism without piety.
When Sharī’a Compliance summons conscientious Muslims as consumers into the global marketplace and conscripts them into circuits of financial capital, new concerns arise about the function of Muslim virtue ethics in a heavily commercialized and financialized domain. I am talking about that spectacular and highly simulated domain of the market where people’s desires, preferences, wants, and temptations are subject to constant manipulation and social engineering by for-profit corporations.
While much of the Deobandīs’ conflict over the legitimacy of Sharī‘a Compliance is couched in the technical language of legal hermeneutics, its ethical stakes couldn’t be higher. Islamic law, after all, is not simply a matter of interpreting doctrine; it is also concerned with matters of regulation and enforcement. By regulating behavioral norms and conduct, Islamic law prescribes correct practices that lead to the formation of ethical subjects. From the standpoint of Muslim virtue ethics, then, technicalities of the law become salient precisely because they sanction the techniques through which the legal subject internalizes a set of virtues and dispositions. The intensity of the Deobandīs’ conflict over Sharī‘a Compliance in part stems from their realization of its ethical predicaments. Today, however, the growing institutional power of Sharī‘a Compliance has marginalized the voices of its Deobandī critics.
What kind of a Muslim subject is fashioned in this disciplinary space where devotion to God becomes continuous with conspicuous consumption, financial discipline, and the pursuit of efficiency? These are questions necessitated by the technical expertise of many present-day certified experts of Islamic finance, but seldom asked.
I find it helpful to end my contributions to this forum by returning to the question of Muslim virtue ethics. When Sharī‘a Compliance summons conscientious Muslims as consumers into the global marketplace and conscripts them into circuits of financial capital, new concerns arise about the function of Muslim virtue ethics in a heavily commercialized and financialized domain. I am talking about that spectacular and highly simulated domain of the market where people’s desires, preferences, wants, and temptations are subject to constant manipulation and social engineering by for-profit corporations. What kind of a Muslim subject is fashioned in this disciplinary space where devotion to God becomes continuous with conspicuous consumption, financial discipline, and the pursuit of efficiency? These are questions necessitated by the technical expertise of many present-day certified experts of Islamic finance, but seldom asked.
Sohaib Khan is a scholar of comparative Islamic studies who studies connections between religion, law, and economic life in the Islamic Middle East and South Asia. Trained as an interdisciplinary historian and ethnographer, Sohaib received his Ph.D. (2020) from Columbia University’s Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies. He is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in Islam at Pomona College and a Faculty Fellow at the Warren Center for American History at Harvard University. Sohaib is currently working on his first book, Translating Capitalism: How Muslim Jurists and Bankers Invented Sharī’a Compliance. Illuminating a world of expertise in which religion, law, and finance are deeply entangled, Translating Capitalism shows how South Asian Muslim jurists are reconfiguring finance from the margins of global capitalism.
 All proper nouns are pseudonyms to protect the identity of my interlocutors.
 For a classic study of how socioeconomic class determines patterns of conspicuous consumption, see Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984). For a recent study on formations of piety amongst Pakistan’s emerging middle class, see Ammara Maqsood, The New Pakistani Middle Class (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017).