Friday, February 01, 2013


In my speech at the 2nd International Conference on Islamic Economics and Economies of the OIC Countries the day before yesterday, I highlighted six challenges that have been faced and are still facing by contemporary Islamic economics.

They relate firstly to the Islamic economics framework (worldview); secondly to the unredefined western ethno-centric concepts used in Islamic economics; thirdly to the research methodology adopted in Islamic economics studies; fourthly to the extent of Islamic system established out of the execution of Islamic economics policies; fifthly to the ability to establish a real Islamic society from the implementation of Islamic economics programmes; and sixthly to the knowledge-practice dichotomy of the Islamic economics scholars themselves.

The gist of my speech is as follows.


Muhammad Syukri Salleh
Centre for Islamic Development Management Studies (ISDEV)
Universiti Sains Malaysia, Pulau Pinang
Tel: +6 04 6532656       +6 017400 2866


First of all, let me confess that my field of specialization is not in pure Islamic economics. Mine is in Islamic-based development, while my research interest is in Islamic political economy. My apologies if what I am going to say is not right according to the field of Islamic economics.

As all of us may agree, after decades of its introduction, Islamic economics has undoubtedly grown rapidly. But the growth is not a challenge-zero growth. Definitely Islamic economics has faced, and is facing, and likely to persistently face, challenges.

In this presentation, I would like to point out 6 challenges that I have observed, which I think, simultaneously, need further research. They may appear very basic and simplistic, but I think they are important.

The challenges are firstly pertaining to the philosophical framework of the Islamic economics itself; secondly, to the undefined western ethno-centric concepts used in Islamic economics; thirdly to the conventional research methodology that has been adopted in Islamic economic research; fourthly, to the development of the strength of Islamic system that could have been accomplished out of the realization of Islamic economics; fifthly, to the construction of Islamic society entailing from the execution of Islamic economics; and sixthly to the knowledge-practice dichotomy of the Islamic economic scholars themselves.

In a nutshell, the challenges relate to the framework, concept, research methodology, system, society, and the scholars of Islamic economics. The deliberations on these six challenges are as follows.

1.             Framework

In the first challenge that relates to the framework, we witnessed the growth of the accommodative-modification and methodologic eclecticism approach that eventually shapes the current mainstream Islamic economics as a fiqh-based neo-classical economics. We have compromised on the usage of the western ethno-centric framework and elements embedded in it, based on a stance that it is alright to be so as long as it does not contradict Islamic shari`ah and aqidah. So far this issue seems to be quite settled.

But in contemplation, it is still worth revisiting, for is it true that the western ethno-centric framework and elements which were adopted into Islamic economics do not really contradict Islamic shari`ah and aqidah? The answer could be positive if it is considered merely at operational level, as many do. But if epistemological and philosophical levels are taken into account, the answer might be different. This proof may lie in the deeds of Rasulullah SAW himself. Rasulullah SAW used to adopt some of the practices inherited from jahiliyah such as tawaf (circumbulation), marriage, zihar, qisas, inheritance, buying and selling, karam concept, war, social relationship, slavery and ‘aqilah. However, as found by Mohd Shukri Hanapi (2012) through his historiography study, they evolved only around their names and terms, while the structures and its roots have been reconstructed by Rasulullah SAW based on Islamic aqidah, ibadah and akhlaq.

In other words, the practices may look similar at operational level, but the whole worldview (tasawur) of the practices is different when they are based on Islamic epistemological and philosophical underpinnings, forming a new kind and meaning of the practices.

So is the case of Islamic economics. The stance that is in favor of the adoption of the western ethno-centric framework and elements into Islamic economics has to be revisited and re-contemplated. Could the western ethno-centric elements embedded in the western ethno-centric framework be called Islamic when their epistemological and philosophical underpinnings are different? The answer is definitely not. The other pivotal question is why could not an Islamic economics be constructed from within Islamic epistemological and philosophical underpinnings based on Islamic tasawwur (worldview) itself? The answer could only be given after a systematic and serious research.

2.             Concepts

In the second challenge, we observed a widespread use of western ethno-centric concepts in Islamic economics. The concepts have been used arbitrarily without redefining them according to Islamic teaching. Poverty for instance has been accepted in its original conventional form, despite the usage of Islamic institutions such as zakat and awqaf to alleviate poverty. So are the other concepts such as justice, growth, development, consumer behavior, civil society, quality of life, wealth management, asset management, corporate social responsibility, et cetera. The indicators used to measure their accomplishment are still the conventional indicators, not Islamic indicators. In consequence, the output or the end products of the so-called Islamic endeavor are judged according to the conventional definition, not to the Islamic definition.

The redefinition of all concepts in Islamic economics according to Islamic teachings therefore, to my opinion, should become one of the major projects for research. It is definitely unfair for us to highlight the importance and effectiveness of Islamic economic instruments, but basing the arguments on the concepts according to the exogenous western ethno-centric definitions.

3.             Research Methodology

The third challenge Islamic economics is facing relates to the research methodology that has been used in Islamic economics. In almost all cases, we have been using conventional research methodology, not an Islamic research methodology. In so doing, the scholars of Islamic economics are trapped within anti-dogmatic, value-free, and merely scientific modes of enquiries of the conventional research methodology.

It is definitely illogical to study about Islam and Muslims using such an exogenous research methodology. Moreover, the conventional research methodology also suffers from a lack of tools of analysis. Its tools of analysis are meant only for the tangibles, not the intangibles, hence the emphasis on the “scientificity” of the findings per se. Efforts in understanding Islam and Muslims to the best therefore confines only to the efforts in “tangiblizing” the intangibles through a process of all sorts of quantification available in the conventional models and formulas, or through proxies that are considered able to reflect the so-called real socio-economic and political realities.

Worst still, the conventional research methodology that is born out of the western social sciences is actually endangering the aqidah of the Muslim researchers. The anti-dogmatic nature of the conventional research methodology questions all the dogmas of Islam; the value-free stance of the conventional research methodology direct or indirectly insists us to detach ourselves from our Islamic values in the name of objectivity; and the scientific nature of the conventional research methodology locks us up with observable matters while direct or indirectly denying us from the mechanisms prevailing in the unseen world.

In such a situation, it is high time for scholars of Islamic economics to construct an Islamic research methodology for the purpose of studying Islam and the Muslims. Such an effort has yet to become a serious endeavor in the real sense. Undoubtedly, there are already dispersed writings on the critiques of conventional research methodology and on the deliberations on the philosophy of Islamic research methodology, but a concrete construction of systematic Islamic research methods and techniques is much to be desired. This is another area that I think needs an urgent further research.

4.             System

The fourth challenge relates to the question on how far the realization of Islamic economics has actually strengthened the Islamic economic system. In fact, the earlier espousal of the Islamic framework, redefinition of concepts, and adoption of Islamic research methodology actually aims to ensure a strengthening of the Islamic system. This is based on the observation that the execution of Islamic economic theories and policies seem to have not been adequately strengthened the Islamic system.

In contrary, the endeavors of Islamic economists in actuality have been directly or indirectly strengthening the western ethno-centric system because of their western ethno-centric framework and undefined concepts, as well as because of the adoption of the conventional research methodology. For instance, zakat and awqaf have been said to be able to alleviate poverty, but the concept and theoretical framework of poverty themselves have not been deconstructed. Entrenched in them are still those of the western-ethno centric concepts and theoretical framework. In consequence, the alleviation of poverty through zakat and awqaf are confined to profit-oriented capitalistic commercialization, hence strengthening capitalism instead of the Islamic system.

It is therefore probably not unfair to conclude that Islamic economics so far has not been able to establish a strong economic system, let alone in prescribing solutions to economic problems such has been raised by western economists themselves. Perkins (2006) for instance has exposed the problems of the maneuvering of the first world’s economic hit men. There is also the issue of `false economy’ as has been exposed by Beattie (2010), that leads certain countries to decide their path to be found later on that it is wrong. Also there is a challenge of a rather more open and tactical economy as put forward by Harford (2011) which suggests that in order to build up a rich and rapidly growing country, one has to fight scarcity power and corruption, correct externalities, maximize information, get the incentives right, engage with other countries, and most of all, embrace markets. The Islamic economics so far has not been seen addressing such an issue as yet.

In short, a revisit to the impact of Islamic economics on the establishment of an Islamic economic system vis-à-vis the dominant liberal capitalist system is necessary. There is a huge room for research in this area.

5.             Society

Another challenge, the fifth one, pertains to the establishment of Islamic society out of the realization of Islamic economics. How far the target groups of the Islamic economics become more Islamic than before?

Observations have shown that the society that is developed out of the execution of the so-called Islamic economics system does not differ much from the exogenously cultured society, characterized by merely consumer and producer-oriented behavior. So was the society that has been developed by contemporary utilization of zakat and awqaf and halal institutions, for instance. These institutions as well as the institutions relating to Islamic finance and banking, in reality have not so far contributed much to the development of a real Islamic society that is characterized by Islamic lifestyle. Instead, some members of the society related to these institutions could be said to have been characterized more by capitalistic and profit-seeking attitude rather than the Islamic attitude.

Research on how could an execution of Islamic economics entails with an establishment of a more Islamic society therefore is pertinent.

6.             Islamic Economic Scholars

The sixth challenge, lastly, is the challenge posed by the scholars of Islamic economics themselves. Undoubtedly, some scholars have successfully come up with in-depth and high quality knowledge of Islamic economics. But to what extent the knowledge is being practiced by them?

The possibility of seeing an Islamic economic scholar suffering from a knowledge-practice dichotomy is not difficult. One who writes on Islamic consumer behavior for instance is not necessarily the one who consumes on the principle of wasatiyyah  (moderation). So is the one who writes on Islamic economic ethics is not necessarily unethical-free; the one who writes on tazkiyah an-nafs (self-purification) is not necessarily free of evil attributes; et cetera.

So far, some researchers have studied the thinking of some Islamic economic scholars, but rarely a study has been undertaken on the behavior of these Islamic economic scholars. It is high time, I think, to balance the study by relating the thinking of the Islamic scholars with their behavior, so as to allow a fair analysis that could really contribute to the sacredness of Islamic economics.


Those are the six challenges to contemporary Islamic economics that to my opinion necessitates attention, hence further research. If these challenges could be faced successfully, the Islamic economics that we endeavor to uphold to its peak would become a reality, InshaAllah.

1 comment:

Nurbani Md Hassan said...

I totally agree with what you said Professor. No wonder there are predicaments in my research, as I was following the 'wrong path'. My research on zakat micro finance is totally based on western theory, methodology and this explains why I am struggling to develop my framework as it was western centric all this while which merely focused on tangibles rather than intangibles.