Is money dirty? Is it wrong to be rich? How can a Muslim build their wealth in a “halal” or “religiously permissible” way? These are some of the questions that Islamic finance companies, especially those that focus on wealth accumulation, seek to explain to their prospective and existing clients. One of the ways they do this is through public outreach events, where representatives explain how their work fits into Islamic understandings of money and wealth. In these spaces, money is not dirty to discuss, and Muslims are encouraged to learn how to manage their wealth.
Events like this have a significant role in making financial capitalism pervasive within and beyond US Muslim contexts, but many interpret these events in the context of making finance accessible to observant Muslims. Halal investment companies in particular are focused on making finance more accessible by offering halal portfolios that will meet the needs of their religiously observant clients (such portfolios do not invest in funds that are connected to religiously forbidden practices, e.g., gambling). Furthermore, these companies offer low fee accounts to encourage less well-off Muslims to participate in financial markets. Indeed, these companies see investing in financial markets as a way of addressing wealth inequality by helping everyday Muslims make their money work for them.
In this short essay, I draw on financial literacy events and programs by Islamic finance companies as well as commonly circulated materials about finance by US Muslims to demonstrate how Islamic finance utilizes an automated, reflexive language of virtue ethics to justify itself.
In this short essay, I draw on financial literacy events and programs by Islamic finance companies as well as commonly circulated materials about finance by US Muslims to demonstrate how Islamic finance utilizes an automated, reflexive language of virtue ethics to justify itself. In doing so, I aim to contribute to other essays in the forum that deal with interpretations and practices of virtue ethics, especially those that are concerned with socioeconomic inequality. While the main focus of this essay is financial literacy events specifically at Islamic finance companies, such events are ubiquitous across various American Muslim contexts. Local mosques and third spaces, including Muslim women’s gatherings convened to discuss ways to financially empower women, host similar events. The language used in financial literacy events is rooted in the concepts of virtue ethics, and brings evidence from the Qur’an, hadith, Sunna, and stories from Prophets and Companions to demonstrate the permissibility of wealth accumulation. Islamic finance companies use this language to justify their work of helping observant Muslims make their money work in line with the structures of permissibility in Islamic finance. I refer to this language of virtue ethics as “automated” because it provides a codified, easily-referenced approach to wealth that justifies its accumulation as long as money is a means rather than an end goal. Yet this “automated” language does not necessarily account for those subjected to racialized and gendered forms of domination.
The language used in financial literacy events is rooted in the concepts of virtue ethics, and brings evidence from the Qur’an, hadith, Sunna, and stories from Prophets and Companions to demonstrate the permissibility of wealth accumulation.
At one event I attended in 2019, questions about one’s proper relationship with wealth were at the forefront. The speaker, an employee of the finance company that hosted the event, enthusiastically mounted the platform in a large room in a convention center. His self-confident tone was designed to convince the participants that Muslims should feel no reservation investing their money in Islamic finance markets. He started by asking attendees to share concepts that come to mind when they think of investment. One attendee, who seemed hesitant to invest in financial markets, raised the concept of fitnah (“strife”), noting that he is afraid of being controlled by his money. The speaker suggested a solution to his fear: your nafs (“soul”) should interact with money in a way that it can overcome being overpowered by money. According to the speaker, if a person uses their money for good, or in permissible ways, then money is not bad. The speaker also encouraged the attendees to focus on their financial goals instead of their emotions, and fitnah, for the speaker, was a matter of emotions. In other words, seeking to control money for good would be a rational way to approach one’s financial goals. This juxtaposition of financial goals and emotions echoes debates about behavioral finance, which encourages investors to control their emotions to receive higher gains. It also demonstrates that concepts like fitnah and nafs in Islamic finance circles are frequently interlinked with modern, gendered ways of thinking about emotions. The question of rationality, as Zahra Ayubi demonstrates, also echoes classical Islamic texts on virtue ethics and their emphasis on rationality, which would create a hierarchical structure to the exclusion of some. Specifically, by making wealth accumulation a rational choice, financial capitalism conceals its injustices and makes the poor – who are oftentimes racialized, marginalized, and gendered – irrational.
The preceding scenario is not unique, but rather observable across a range of contexts. At another public outreach event by a different Islamic finance company, a participant questioned investing in financial markets in general. He referred to a hadith in which the Prophet mentions that the trial for his faith community is wealth and that competition for wealth will ruin his ummah (global Muslim community). In response, one of the speakers emphasized that this Prophetic report needs to be interpreted together with other hadiths that encourage wealth accumulation, especially noting the Prophet’s prayers that seek refuge from poverty. That same speaker also brought examples from among the Prophet’s Companions whose wealth would make them billionaires today. According to another speaker at the same event, money is a tool that is neither inherently evil or good, but part of the soul’s relationship with material life. The challenge, rather, is to keep one’s wealth from controlling one’s heart. Money can be used for good in society, but it can also work to disconnect one from the path of God. The Islamic finance companies were keen to prove that their financial work complied with an Islamic understanding of “responsible” wealth.
Religious authorities in US-based Islamic finance circles also utilize an automated language of virtue ethics to justify wealth accumulation.
Religious authorities in US-based Islamic finance circles also utilize an automated language of virtue ethics to justify wealth accumulation. For example, in his well-regarded book on zakāt calculations (in mainly Sunni contexts), Joe Bradford poses a rhetorical question: “Is it wrong to be rich?” His answer includes the example of a wealthy friend who asked the Prophet if he needed to donate all his wealth while being sick and afraid of breathing his last. In this narrative the Prophet advised this person to leave at least two-thirds of his money to his family. Bradford asks another rhetorical question: “Is poverty a virtue?” to which he responds, “poverty was something that the Prophet would consistently seek refuge from.” After describing poverty in the context of individual preferences, Bradford notes that “life is a test,” and wealth is “only a means helping us pass that test.” Bradford then cites a Prophetic report that notes that real “wealth is wealth of the heart, wealth of the soul.” Overall, Bradford’s comments about the “principles of Islamic financial ethics” bring together several verses and Prophetic reports that are used to justify not only monetary accumulation to take care of one’s family but also the importance of the soul’s cultivation. I connect his language to the automated language of virtue ethics in Islamic finance writ large because it makes no effort to connect poverty to intersecting structural issues in contemporary economic systems.
Virtue ethics is made to lie at the center of Islamic finance to support the industry’s existence. I argue that the frequent deployment of such language in Islamic finance circles is automated, not only because it appears as a reflexive response to those who question wealth accumulation, but because it also relies on an abstract conception of virtue ethics that is decontextualized from contemporary realities of deep socioeconomic injustice among Muslims in the United States and beyond. What is overlooked is the nafs’ engagement, or even entanglement, with capital and structural forms of domination. More crucially, these invocations of virtue ethics do not originate from the struggles of those who are directly affected by racial capitalism. Their voices remain altogether absent from the discourse.
Esra Tunc is an assistant professor in the Department for the Study of Religion at San Diego State University. She earned her Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research focuses on Islam, racial capitalism, and forms of relationality. Her book project, “Unjust Capital: Muslim Investing in the United States,” examines the innovation of financial capitalism among Muslim communities in the United States.
 Joe W. Bradford, Simple Zakat Guide: Understand and Calculate Your Zakat (Origem Publishing, 2015), 13.
 Bradford, Simple Zakat Guide, 14.