Dr Usaama al-Azami

Global Islamic Ethics in an Age of (Neo)liberal Inequality:

Preliminary Reflections on the Prospects for a Renewed Discourse[1]

Dr. Usaama al-Azami*

[This research paper was presented at CILE 7th  Annual International Conference – Doha, Qatar – March 23, 2019]


What does Islam have to say about the social and political implications of economic inequality? And who decides the terms of the debate as to what forms of inequality are a matter of ethical disquiet, and what forms are a natural or inevitable part of human existence? Contemporary Western discourses on the question of inequality reflect considerable philosophical sophistication often grounded in rigorous empirical research. This research is then made accessible to a broader audience through a well-developed institutional infrastructure for the dissemination of such knowledge through both rarefied channels, such as the academy, and more accessible channels, such as global media organisations using both traditional and new media such that they affect the policy spheres, both nationally and through international institutions like the UN.

Examples of this may be found in a person like Paul Krugman, an MIT trained economist who is both a Nobel Prize winner, a columnist for the New York Times, a bestselling author, and a frequent participant as a pundit on cable news shows. He is not altogether an isolated phenomenon, of course. His fellow Nobel Laureate MIT trained economist, Joseph Stiglitz, served in the White House economic team under the Clinton administration. In Europe, one finds an economist like Yanis Varoufakis, who spent a short period as the Greek finance minister, engaged in popular public advocacy in the form of writing books and think pieces for major newspapers. All of these scholars are noteworthy left-wing economists who have been engaged in a campaign against the increasing economic inequality being witnessed in powerful Western economies such as the United States and across the Eurozone.

These scholars, among many others, are driven in part by a genuine concern for the human suffering that they recognise to be a direct consequence of government decision-making in the economic realm that helps create and sustain the worker insecurity of the increasingly common phenomenon of the working poor and the enormous concentration of wealth at the top sliver of the population distribution. The distress suffered by enormous numbers of impoverished people around the world, surprisingly equally in advanced economies as in the developing world, is very real. Besides causing misery to millions around the world, it also can result in the loss of crucial components to human well-being, such as social cohesion, a sense of security, trust in other members of one’s society, while contributing to poor physical health, increased criminality, and of course, the loss of life.

These are meant to be matters of concern to Muslims, and especially the ulama, in modern times.[2] But their voice, at least in the Arabic and English languages, arguably two of the most important languages for Islamic scholarship in modern times, seems unusually muted on such issues. In contrast with the selection of activist scholars alluded to above, Islamic discourses on such issues in these two languages are vanishingly small in their output. One is hard pressed to find any noteworthy religious scholar who has written on such issues as economic inequality in the 20th Gregorian century in any sustained or scholarly fashion.

The proposition

This essay tries to argue the case for a contemporary Islamic discourse on economic inequality being one of the central pillars of Islamic thinking in the context of a neoliberal global economic order. On the level of global discourse, there appear to be few if any contemporary Muslim authors taking this concern on at any level of depth in recent years. Interestingly, this issue was a preoccupation of an earlier generation of scholars. Islamic economics is, of course, a recognised field of study as of the 20th century. From the 1940s onwards, and then during the cold war, a number of Muslim scholars wrote tracts and treatises on the topic of what could now be called Islamic economic theory.[3] So it is not as though there is no comment in modern times on the question of inequality under a Western-led economic order.

20th century Muslim scholars wrote about the sanctity of private property, but also demanded that the state ensure an adequate social safety net for the citizenry. During this period, some scholars, such as Sayyid Qutb wrote of Social Justice in Islam (1954) and Mustafa Siba‘i, wrote of the Socialism of Islam (1959).[4] In a later generation, scholars like Yusuf al-Qaradawi wrote of the Problem of Poverty and How Islam Addresses It (1985), and ‘Abd al-Sami‘ al-Misri wrote The Equitable Distribution of Wealth in Islam (1986).[5] The work of these scholars does not appear to have been advanced on significantly, since their writings many decades ago, in the area of inequality.[6] The field of Islamic economics did develop and become more specialised, professionalised, and financialised with time, but it appears to have tracked the tendencies of the mainstream field of economics in considering inequality a marginal concern until the early 21st century.

Historically, the field of economics has seen itself averse to studying inequality. Nobel Laureate Robert Lucas was arguably representative of the field’s self-image when, in 2003, he wrote:

Of the tendencies that are harmful to sound economics, the most seductive, and in my opinion the most poisonous, is to focus on questions of distribution. In this very minute, a child is being born to an American family and another child, equally valued by God, is being born to a family in India. The resources of all kinds that will be at the disposal of this new American will be on the order of 15 times the resources available to his Indian brother. This seems to us a terrible wrong, justifying direct corrective action, and perhaps some actions of this kind can and should be taken. But of the vast increase in the well-being of hundreds of millions of people that has occurred in the 200-year course of the industrial revolution to date, virtually none of it can be attributed to the direct redistribution of resources from rich to poor. The potential for improving the lives of poor people by finding different ways of distributing current production is nothing compared to the apparently limitless potential of increasing production.[7]

In light of subsequent research from the likes of Thomas Piketty and Jason Hickel, the self-serving consequences of such remarks are obvious. As Jason Hickel has contended, ignoring the question of economic redistribution has allowed Western technocrats to disregard the reality of an untenable state of affairs in which they have been engaged in the massive redistribution of resources from the colonial and postcolonial world to the advanced economies. Indeed, in some sense, not only was this how they were enriching themselves, but the field’s systematic disregard for studying such effectively redistributive practices undoubtedly served to veil the exploitative nature of the global postcolonial economic edifice that had been constructed, often with the assistance of professional economists. It is little wonder that the subjects of inequality and redistribution have not historically been popular among economists.

Why should the ulama care?

In the foregoing, I have briefly argued that the question of inequality has not been given sufficient attention by modern Muslim scholars, whereas it should be an area of their considerable concern. One might counter that religious scholars are not economists. As ulama, they are better suited to addressing questions of more obviously theological purport. I would argue that such a remark simply reflects the orthodoxies of secular modernity in which religion is a private matter. As I have argued elsewhere, Islam has historically been viewed by Muslims as encompassing all matters of public interest.[8] Islam in this sense would be what American scholar of religion, Bruce Lincoln, would call a “maximalist” religion, i.e. a religion that rejects the post-enlightenment protestant view that has emerged in recent centuries that draws a relatively sharp distinction between the personal and private realm of religion and the public sphere with its concerns about the organisation of society, politics, and governance. According to the maximalist view, which neatly aligns with Islam’s historical self-image, some of the ulama are, in fact, required to research and reflect on the matters of public interest, including what modern specialisms may describe as economic and policy concerns. Such a view is not necessarily out of step with what large numbers of Muslims already believe today. The Pew Research Center has demonstrated that significant numbers of Muslims around the world feel that religious leaders should wield “large” or “some” political influence.[9]

This explains the popularity of Islamist movements throughout the Muslim world, i.e. movements that are eager to infuse public discourse and politics with Islamic norms. As I discuss elsewhere, this does not necessarily mean that such movements are calling for theocracy.[10] On the contrary, at least in the Middle East, where such movements have perhaps their largest following, they overtly reject theocratic government which they characterise as being based on the claim of having infallible access to the divine. Rather they advocate government based on consensus in line with democratic principles. In this context, in which large numbers of Muslims believe that Islamic scholars should help shape public discourse and comment on matters that affect the public interest, it is reasonable to ask where the Muslim equivalent of a Joseph Stiglitz or a Paul Krugman may be found. The reality is that they well-nigh do not exist. If there are scholarly works written on the issue of economic inequality this century, they do not appear to garner significant attention in their own societies, at least in the Arabic language, let alone in Western languages in a way that is comparable to what is available in English. This has arguably left Islamic discourses on such matters stunted and shallow.

The question of why Muslim scholars should be concerned about inequality, alongside other matters of social and global justice, goes to the heart of what it means to be a Muslim scholar or ‘alim. For the absence of Islamic scholarship from these domains is, one might contend, akin to the absence of Islamic ethics from them. That is not to say that there cannot be an Islamic ethics without Islamic scholarship. But it is to say that the very existence of Islamic ethics becomes extremely challenging in the absence of the ulama, at least in the context of the dominant understanding of ethics in Islamic history. This is for two key reasons.

Firstly, the ulama are, historically, the people who most influentially defined what constituted Islam, and concomitantly, Islamic ethics. As I have just suggested, given the ascendancy of Ash‘arism as the dominant theological school of Islamic history, one could argue that the role of the ulama is constitutive and coextensive with a soundly constituted realm of Islamic ethics. Ash‘arism, which remains one of the most influential Islamic theological perspectives to this day, holds that good and evil do not exist as categories independent of God and capable of being discerned by humans.[11] Rather, they can only be known through divine instruction, i.e. revelation. What people across the world, across cultures and epochs, considered to be right or wrong has, they assert, simply been the consequence of their contingent historical circumstances. This is arguably something of a relativist position on ethics, except that the Ash‘aris overcome this by appeals to God’s decisions with respect to what is right or wrong. These are accessed and deciphered by the ulama through the interpretation of what was revealed to Prophet Muhammad, and consequently, the ulama are essential to the process of knowing what is right and wrong, ethical or unethical. The Ash‘ari claim is not that ethical thought cannot take place in the absence of the ulama. Rather, it is a claim that anybody who properly speaking engages in ethical evaluation necessarily does so in light of revelation which, Ash‘aris contend, is our only way of knowing what is good or evil in any absolute sense. Such a person thus engages in a form of exegesis that has historically been the preserve of the ulama, whatever one engaged in such ethical reflection may wish to describe themselves as today. Thus, the dominant Islamic theological school cannot take seriously ethical claims unless they are grounded in scripture. Accordingly, unless the causes of social and global justice are so grounded, we cannot speak of these as ethical causes in any Islamic sense.

Secondly, even without this distinctly Ash‘ari reading of ethics—which many modern Muslims may consider to be out of step with their own ethical and religious intuitions—the development of a robust religiously grounded discourse on global ethics is necessary for these causes to have any staying power in the Islamic scholarly tradition.[12] The persistence and robustness of such ethical norms, qua Islamic ethical norms, is necessary to prevent Islamic global ethical activism from simply dissolving into a generic form of activism that is more concerned about human rights as a secular discourse than it is in human rights as a divinely inspired one. For modern Muslims concerned with global social justice, if they are not equipped with vocabularies and discursive frameworks that systematically situate their activism within Islamic norms as their primary locus, rather than as an afterthought, such activism may within a short period of time no longer be meaningfully characterised as Islamic. This could result in any developments and gains made through such activism not enriching the Islamic tradition, or vice versa, the Islamic tradition not guiding developments and directing the focus of areas where gains must be made. Without Islamic scholarly engagement in the realms of global ethics, Islam will not have a place in major public debates of the global order. It will fade into irrelevance rather than be the guide for global ethics its traditional self-image would demand. This will impoverish both the Muslim activists who will struggle to characterise their activism as ‘Islamic’, assuming that this is something they desire; and it will impoverish the modern Islamic tradition by depriving it of the energetic engagement with current issues that is essential to the preservation of any vibrant living tradition.

In many respects, a generally sclerotic condition has been the unfortunate reality of the Islamic tradition and Islamic activism in recent decades, if not centuries. Much of the realm of the ulama’s scholarship has been prevented, by a combination of political corruption and economic dispossession, from having the level of political and financial independence to contribute to these areas substantively.

Why do the ulama not seem to care?

There are a number of possible reasons there is no serious discourse on economic inequality among current Islamic scholars. There is nothing on the scale of the writings of prominent Western economists such as Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, Anthony Atkinson, Yanis Varoufakis, and Thomas Piketty.[13] The reason for this appears to be two-fold. Firstly, these scholars are responding to a situation that has become increasingly acute in recent decades in the West due to the rise of Thatcher and Reagan on either side of the Atlantic. The so-called rise of Reaganomics since the 1970s has created what is referred to as the “U-shaped curve” of income inequality, bringing the levels of inequality in the United States back to the levels that existed during the Roaring Twenties that precipitated the Great Depression.[14] Given the Western-centric nature of the debate and the circumstances that give rise to it, it is perhaps not altogether surprising that these concerns have not translated to the Middle East even though such Western disruptions have created palpable ripple effects in Muslim lands. However, this only explains part of the state of current Islamic discourse on these questions.

This leads us to the second reason, or more properly speaking, complex of reasons. These may be described as the ‘postcolonial’ condition of the Muslim world. Not all the countries just cited were colonised, of course. My use of the term postcolonial here is temporal as well as geopolitical. The disruption of the colonial period and its aftermath have given rise to a complex set of circumstances that, I would argue, have resulted in less attention being directed at such questions as income inequality as might otherwise have been the case. The postcolonial context has led to either marginalisation (due to secularisation), or co-optation (alongside loss of independence) of the ulama classes in many societies from such debates. In the case of marginalisation, this has been a general trend in the colonial and postcolonial periods when religious scholarship has suffered a kind of planned obsolescence with the waning of importance of the scholarly classes from positions of influence in wider society. With the power centres of society often no longer interested in religious scholarship, most scholars became marginalised and increasingly out of touch with major social debates except, perhaps, in a tokenistic form.

An alternative was co-optation. Scholars who had been dispossessed of their traditional income sources, the endowments that supported the Azhar University in a place like Egypt, were now converted into scholars on the state payroll which, in the kleptocratic context of many postcolonial states, meant rubber stamping state policy with religious arguments in order to ensure the continuity of one’s own survival. To cite the 20th century American essayist Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”[15]

Finally, next to marginalisation and co-optation, there was a diminishing third group of scholars who did not accept either of these options. These scholars could be the source of an informed and independent voice that could put forward religious proposals that carried an economic argument against inequality. In countries where such scholars were not persecuted in what were often unfree societies, and when these scholars had a degree of financial independence from the state, they could contribute to burgeoning new discourses of an Islamically inflected economic theory. This third group of scholars historically gave rise to a number of writers on economic issues, particularly during the period of the Cold War when popular Muslim scholars often engaged discourses of the West and the Communist bloc to try to carve out a third way as already noted above.

A systematic and critical evaluation of the socio-historical bases for the present scholarly malaise is, however, a separate concern than the core one addressed in the present paper, even though it is one of fundamental importance to the overall enterprise of developing a modern Islamic ethical discourse. Although it deserves its own extensive treatment, the foregoing should be sufficient in briefly presenting theological and pragmatic reasons for Muslim scholars to care about such matters.

What are Muslim scholars saying now?

As suggested above, the current discourse on inequality appears unusually thin at a time when the issue of economic inequality is particularly urgent in Western nations, most notably in the USA and the UK. Furthermore, the global impact of this inequality has been significant over the last decade. The past decade has witnessed the Arab Spring, a partial cause of which was the widespread economic privation found in many Arab societies.[16] In more recent years, the leaked Panama papers revealed that many Arab monarchs and wealthy business people had been hiding away vast amounts of wealth off shore unbeknownst to the populations they ruled over.[17] Indeed, the scandal that erupted from the Panama leaks caused major protests leading to the fall of the Icelandic Prime Minister, but not much of a stir in the Arab world.[18] It is suggestive that Iceland has one of the lowest Gini coefficients in the world—indicating low levels of economic inequality—and also consistently ranks among the happiest nations on the planet.

But despite recent developments in global events and economic research, one finds few Islamic scholars discussing economic inequality, or the fact that unfettered capitalism is out of step with both healthy societies and Islamic norms. Indeed, one can find state-sponsored scholars saying quite the opposite. Thus, one finds the state-owned Saudi television broadcasting in 2017 an economist who is part of the Saudi Crown Prince, Muhammad b. Salman’s economic team, discussing the positive benefits of economic inequality, arguing that it is not only natural, but sanctioned by God. The format of the show, with the prominent display of a Qur’an at its start, and the prayer with which it begins, suggests to the viewer that the presenter is speaking with the authority of the religious scholar.[19] Indeed, the arguments presented are backed up with scriptural citations, but appear designed to do little more than justify economic inequality and the prevailing order. The show appears to be an attempt to enact the Marxist conception of religion as an opiate that would inure the masses to a less than optimal condition of potentially extreme inequality. Modern economists like Yanis Varoufakis have argued that this was the historical function for religion, presumably drawing on Marx.[20] However, this may be more reflective of popular (Whig) perceptions of the forms of religion that are assumed to have been present in Europe during the Middle Ages rather than that of the Islamic world over the same period.[21]

Yet, these are not the only voices one finds in recent years. One also finds scholars like the Saudi-based Salih al-Munajjid, now imprisoned under the regime of the aforementioned Crown Prince, arguing in 2012 that such inequality is not in keeping with Islamic norms, and that the excesses of income inequality that one finds in modern times need to be confronted.[22] Al-Munajjid highlights how the Qur’an critiques the circulation of wealth only among the rich of a society, thus imposing mechanisms of redistribution to combat the deleterious effects of such tendencies in economic systems.[23] He describes one particular verse as exemplifying the paradigmatic norm of an Islamic economic order, namely the verse in which God calls for the distribution of war spoils in a way “so that [wealth] does not only circulate among the wealthy among you.” (59:7) Al-Munajjid views this verse alongside other verses and hadiths as providing general rules for the economic norms of society. Central to this, in his view, is the need for a more equitable distribution of wealth. The primary vehicle for this in his assessment appears to be the Islamic wealth tax known as zakat, which he argues would be sufficient, if it were actually paid by Muslims as required by Islamic law, to eliminate poverty from the Arab world.[24]

There are, however, gaps in his arguments. When asked about the source of the statistics on which he bases his arguments, al-Munajjid appears to stumble somewhat and is not able to provide exact sources.[25] It is also unclear how he proposes to persuade the 85% of zakat payers he asserts are not fulfilling their Islamic payment obligations to pay their zakat as required by Islamic law. Given that this point forms the basis of his argument for the ability of the Arab world to overcome poverty, his contention seems undermined by the absence of any practical way of realising his proposed solution. It would appear that the problem he is confronting is not so much a conceptual one—that zakat is an obligation on Muslims—but rather a pragmatic one of possessing the necessary mechanisms and legal tools for compelling wealthy Arab Muslims who are engaged in “zakat evasion.” Yet there appear to be no answers provided to these fundamentally structural challenges faced by the contemporary Arab world. Finally, his discussions of the Arab world do not appear to reflect a consideration of the non-Arab contingent of the Muslim world that makes up more than three quarters of the world’s Muslims. All in all, the relative dearth of serious Islamic scholarly treatments of the question of inequality in the 21st century appears to reflect a general disinterest among Muslim scholars in such issues.

The simple reality is that the West leads the Muslim world in nearly all fields of scholarship today. As already noted, there are important historical reasons for the present state of affairs, although this is an observation rather than an argument for the inevitability of such a condition. There have been small and isolated exceptions to the condition of postcolonial malaise, such as Singapore. The reality for most postcolonial states is that the titanic scale of the historical expropriation of resources from colonies led inevitably to considerable suffering. As modern scholars have highlighted, in the case of colonial India, from the year 1765 to 1938, Britain is believed to have effectively dispossessed Indians of $45 trillion, equivalent to 17 times the UK GDP today.[26] Notably, the postcolonial condition has contributed in our own day to the evisceration of independent Islamic scholarly bodies that could serve as the type of civil society institutions that could confront such intellectual challenges seriously.

Inequality from a health perspective

A major contribution to the Western inequality debate was made in 2009 by two British epidemiologists, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, in their book The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. Wilkinson and Pickett point out that a misguided obsession with economic growth at the cost of other important considerations such as the amelioration of extremes of economic inequality has resulted in potentially fatal consequences in many modern societies. They present a compelling portrait, based on an extensive survey of the evidence, of how greater inequality leads to shorter, less happier lives, poorer health, less free time, and less trust for others in one’s society. Societies more concerned about the GDP than how it is distributed in society  are liable to have higher rates of teenage pregnancy, greater levels of violence and obesity, higher prison populations and higher levels of drug abuse. Inequality, the contend, has a pernicious impact on social relationships between individuals born into different social classes within the same society. The norms of consumption that underlie such economic growth models are also causing the degradation and depletion of the planet’s natural resources.[27]

Much evidence is marshalled to show that “[t]he relationships between inequality and poor health and social problems are too strong to be attributable to chance.”[28] This extends specifically to mental health where the more unequal the society, the higher the incidence of mental illness. As one reviewer of their work put it, “[c]onsumerism, isolation, alienation, social estrangement and anxiety all follow from inequality, [Wilkinson and Pickett] argue, and so cannot rightly be made a matter of individual management.”[29] The neoliberal individual is conceived of primarily as a consumer. But our mental well-being is, they argue, intimately tied to our membership in communities and societies.

What about inequality across national borders?

Much of the foregoing has been focussed no domestic inequality. However, as has been well-known for much longer, and as scholars such as Jason Hickel have documented exhaustively, problems of inequality between the so-called developed and developing nations must also be a great cause for concern for those of us who take the idea of social justice seriously. It is worth rehearsing some of the historical and current data on this topic.

Historians point out that the massive expropriation of wealth from around the world to Europe during the colonial era is what set in motion the initial processes that resulted in inequality between the global north and the global south. Like discussions about inequality within nations, the massive plunder that constituted Europe’s colonial activities has also gained attention in the media in recent years. In 2017, Indian politician Shashi Tharoor published Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, documenting the deliberate death and destruction that colonial Britain visited upon the second most populous region on the planet. In particular, his declaration that Winston Churchill was “no better than Hitler” given his response to the Bengal Famine of 1943 gained much attention in the British public sphere.[30] More recently, another Indian writer, the economic historian Utsa Patnaik has argued that the wealth expropriated by Britain from India during the colonial period came to roughly $45 trillion as has been mentioned above.[31] Such an observation tallies with the carefully documented work of anthropologist Jason Hickel of the London School of Economics.

Hickel argues with a combination of great passion and scrupulous evidence that the prevailing notions of international development promoted in the West since the middle of the 20th century are self-serving myths. This myth goes something like this: the West has developed into advanced nations by dint of creative ingenuity and good old fashioned elbow grease. The developing world, by contrast, suffers from an acute lack of these qualities, and thus has fallen desperately behind the levels of prosperity enjoyed in Western nations. But Western nations, out of pure benevolence, have decided that they would like to assist developing nations with aid. Furthermore, over many decades, this aid has succeeded in ameliorating the poor economic condition of developing nations, though much work still remains.[32]

Hickel argues that this narrative is effectively a grand falsehood that allows the West to enjoy gross advantages in perpetuity. Rather than Western nations helping develop the developing world, he persuasively argues that Western development has taken place on the back of poorer nations. They have effectively been providing aid to the Western world which has resulted in conferring massive economic advantages on advanced nations.

Hickel highlights the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report from 1999 which states:

World inequalities have been rising steadily for nearly two centuries. An analysis of long-term trends in world income distribution (between countries) shows that the distance between the richest and poorest country was about 3 to 1 in 1820, 11 to 1 in 1913, 35 to 1 in 1950, 44 to 1 in 1973, and 72 to 1 in 1992.[33]

But his explanation for this shift, which is happening despite significant aid sent from Western nations to the developing world since the mid-20th century, is based on structural disadvantages imposed upon developing nations by many of the same countries that are sending them aid. During the colonial period, the significant outflows of wealth to the colonising nation are understandable as being in keeping with the purpose of colonialism. However, the doubling of the distance between the income levels of the poorest and richest nations between the mid-20th century and the late 20th century in an era that was ostensibly one in which aid was being sent constantly to the developing world is what is so counterintuitive at first sight. By 2017, he argues that the distance has tripled in the past six decades.

Hickel argues that the structural problems that beset the global economic system include the following.[34] While there is an annual inflow of aid to the developing world of roughly $130 billion, the simultaneous financial outflows from poorer to richer nations may amount to as much as 25 times that figure. These outflows include the illicit activity of multinational corporations known as “trade misinvoicing” which is estimated to cause roughly $875 billion in annual losses to poorer nations.[35] Legal forms of such activity include the repatriation of profits, estimated at roughly £475 billion. Poorer countries also repay debts to banks in major Western financial capitals amounting to roughly $200 billion. In many cases, this is a case of servicing the compound interest of debts that have been repaid many times over. Other more modest outflows include $60 billion annually for access to medicines and other products protected by intellectual property laws.[36]

Further to the above, there are estimated losses that result from the international economic order being structurally stacked against the developing world so that developed nations can systematically take advantage of, say, labour cost differentials between them. Thus, for example, Western nations can take advantage of extremely cheap labour in other parts of the world in order to buy clothes at disposable-level prices in the West by taking advantage of the prevailing inequities of the global economic order. Hickel argues that rules of international trade established by the WTO, which, in turn, he contends, have been designed by richer nations to work to their advantage, cause up to $700 billion annually in lost revenue. Furthermore, the “structural adjustment programs” that had been imposed by the World Bank and the IMF in the 1980s on developing nations that had been bailed out by these Western institutions cost these countries roughly $480 billion in losses of potential revenue. Finally, Hickel highlights that the cost of climate change is overwhelmingly borne by poorer nations, although it is a historical consequence primarily of the activities of economically advanced nations. These, he says, are estimated as causing as much as $571 billion in damage to developing nations.[37]

All of the above indicates that these areas too need their Islamic response if Islam and Muslims are to have any relevance in one of the key global justice concerns of our times. Indeed, there is a telling moment in an interview of Hickel by the British actor and social commentator, Russell Brand, when Brand asks how we are to achieve Hickel’s aspirations in trying to remedy the titanic challenges of global inequality as part of a global solidarity movement. Brand argues that this could be achieved through an appeal to spirituality and a recognition on a global level for our need to transcend the dehumanising consumerism that is aggressively promoted by neoliberal capitalism as the essential economic norm of our time.[38] Arguably, Brand’s appeal to a vague New Age spiritualism is a response to the reality that the major religious traditions of our time, most notably, Christianity and Judaism, have largely capitulated to the norms of neoliberal capitalism without putting up a meaningful fight. Pope Francis’ occasional pronouncements in favour of the poor may be seen as an honourable exception to this. Islam’s response to global neoliberalism seems sadly no better than Christianity at the present moment. The tragic irony is that Muslims are overwhelmingly based in poorer nations.

Jason Hickel’s work is a helpful counterpoint, and perhaps corrective, to the thesis of Timur Kuran’s writing on the so-called ‘Islamic’ roots of economic underdevelopment in the Middle East.[39] Redolent of a neoliberal triumphalism, Kuran more or less completely discounts the historical colonial, and present day imperial activities of major powers in the region. Like the work of other economists, such as the aforementioned Robert Lucas, such interpretations are self-serving, a tendency symptomatic of much of economics as a field.

An Islamic response to the neoliberal order?

The global neoliberal order operates as an integrated whole composed of numerous institutions, both national and transnational, governed by norms that are frequently presented by Whig historians and their popular advocates as universal, although they often have their roots in Western history. The order’s claims to universality are in tension with its historical contingency—a tension that is arguably overcome in the global war of ideas through the threat of violence, whether real or perceived. Although this order has been undermined by the erratic presidency of Donald Trump, the United States remains overwhelmingly the most powerful military force in the world, and remains the backbone of the global neoliberal order. Its high Gini coefficient is, with cruel irony for the bottom decile of its income distribution, only a testament to its upholding the values of neoliberalism.

However, neoliberalism may also be viewed as falling under a variety of post-enlightenment ideological lenses which lay down the operating assumptions of a given discourse. Perhaps the most dominant lens in the present is the capacious liberal tradition that has, through its history, learnt from alternative ideological systems such as socialism, Marxism, and conservatism. Neoliberalism is arguably a development of the liberal tradition, though one that is cast out as an aberration from authentic liberal values by scholars such as Michael Freeden.[40] But how should Muslim scholars respond to such ideologies as neoliberalism that have proven so overpowering of other economic and political models for organising society? Does Islam have anything to say about such matters besides superficially critiquing them? The foregoing discussion would, I hope, suggest that it does.

An Islamic case for high taxation?

Tax has a bad reputation in the Islamic tradition. The only canonical taxes recognised in the Qur’an and hadith appear to be zakat for Muslims and jizya for non-Muslims. Both of these, with some variation on the latter according to madhhab, are relatively small payments by the standards of modern taxation in the developed world. But modern scholars have argued for the legitimacy of the forms of taxation that are today the norm in most of the world. [WHO???] Hadiths that condemn non-canonical taxes (maks, pl. mukus) are viewed as applying to arbitrary and unjust taxes rather than those that are grounded in a socially accepted understanding regarding the public interest (maslaha) of having higher than, say, a 2.5% tax levied against people’s wealth.

As some of these scholars note, the basis for such extra-canonical taxes may be found in the practices of the second Caliph, ‘Umar b. al-Khattab. If ‘Umar was imposing taxes in accord with what was viewed as the maslaha of his context, it is presumably the prerogative of modern states and scholars to argue that their raising of taxes are in line with public interest in an analogous manner. In this regard, I would contend that meaningful arguments must be put forward to justify such a move on the part of a state, such that the populace consents to such a raise in taxes. The state should not exercise such power on an arbitrary basis as it would likely need to do in the remaining non-democratic modern Muslim states.[41] But assuming a state has popular support for a programme that calls for Nordic levels of taxation, there appears to be no indisputable Islamic legal reasons to oppose it. In some sense, this could emerge as a madhhab on such questions, i.e. a legitimate legal viewpoint, though one that appears to have few if any advocates in the current Islamic world. However, Pickett and Wilkinson also highlight that what really matters for societal well-being is that there be an absence of severe inequality, whether it is achieved through high taxation as is the case in Nordic countries, or through the absence of significant differences in income levels to begin with, as is the case in Japan. They argue that the deleterious effects of severe inequality are considerably ameliorated in both contexts.[42]

Having said the above, I should point out that the Gini coefficient for much of the Middle East would appear to indicate that the countries of the region do not exhibit the high levels of inequality exhibited in the UK and the United States. This, in turn, may explain the relative paucity of scholarship on such matters in recent years. However, as Facundo Alvaredo and Thomas Piketty has argued in the wake of the Arab Spring, such an assessment of a low Gini coefficient may in fact reflect gaps in the data, rather than the actual realities of many Arab countries.[43] It is also obvious that the region as a whole exhibits acute disparities in wealth between states owing to the fact that oil rich and relatively sparsely populated nations are neighbours of resource-poor populous nations.

As suggested above, the silence of the ulama regarding the plausible existence of very real inequality may, in fact, reflect the co-optation of many scholars by repressive states creating a class of scholars who are unlikely to engage in discourses perceived as subversive to the status quo. Examples of these may be found in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. More independent scholars in less repressive contexts who are able to speak out against more repressive states may still be beneficiaries of aggressively capitalist states such as Turkey or rentier capitalist states such as Qatar. Such scholars may wish to avoid speaking out against their host states, that allow them to criticise regional autocracy, because they feel that the fight against autocracy is far more significant for the region than the issue of economic inequality. Indeed, given the discourse of some such scholars, one would think they were oblivious to the question of inequality, so overwhelming is their comparable focus on critiquing autocracy. In a sense, this is understandable. There are of course many other states in the region beyond these broad generalisations, but the foregoing may explain part of the reason that economic inequality is not generally viewed with disfavour in modern Muslim states.

Conclusion: A Way Forward?

In the foregoing, I have engaged in a preliminary reflection on what Islamic discourses on inequality might look like if they were afforded the infrastructural resources available to Western discourses of reflection on inequality. I have suggested that the aspiration for Islamic responses to major modern challenges such as income inequality require the engagement of the ulama in a way that has been largely absent in recent years. There are plenty of reasons for Muslims to be troubled with the present Islamic order. In the course of this paper, I have highlighted some extreme cases of how income inequality divides societies and adversely affects human well-being. There are certain responses that Muslim ulama and scholars could begin to propose, and I have proposed the introduction of higher taxes in Muslim societies, although I recognise that there is a serious need for more accountable and representative governments for Muslims before this becomes practicable.

There is a need to take income inequality seriously. The non-Sharia sciences need to be systematically studied by the ulama so that they better understand the predicament precipitated by inequality. On the basis of this understanding, and in partnership with scholars from other fields that are not strictly part of the Sharia sciences, they can develop a discourse in contemporary idiom that is firmly grounded in the Sharia sciences but seriously and substantively grapples with the issue of economic inequality in the context of the neoliberal order.

There is also a need to find a distinctly Islamic voice in global social justice movements. This is not because we need a less unified discourse behind the cause of social justice, but so that greater numbers of Muslims, who make up roughly a quarter of humanity can be better integrated into this global cause by virtue of their religious convictions. But there is also a theological concern here. The dominant discourses of global social justice movements fall into a number of paradigms, most notably liberal and leftist ones. Muslims do not see eye to eye with their liberal and leftist partners on a number of issues, including on conceptions of equality, notably in the realms of gender and sexuality, but also in other areas. In these arenas, an Islamic theological discourse needs to develop that is at once not reactionary against potential partners in social justice causes, nor simply assimilates wholesale the values of liberal modernity without reflecting on potential conflicts that exist with explicit and definitive aspects of the Islamic tradition.

The left-leaning and liberal ethical social justice movements that campaign for and defend the rights of Muslims in Islamophobic context should expect to find Muslim partners on shared causes. Yet the ulama need to clearly delineate a theologically acceptable space for Muslim activism that, for example, would not argue for sexual liberties for Muslims outside of an Islamically acceptable marriage. While this would be acceptable for most Western social justice movements, it would not be from a scripturally-grounded Islamic perspective—something that is reflected in global Muslim attitudes towards such an issue.[44] The development of Islamic scholarship that is cognizant of the needs of contemporary social justice movements and movements against inequality is essential for modern Islam to make a meaningful contribution to global ethical debates in this arena. The handful of issues on which Muslims disagree with liberal global justice advocates cannot be a basis for turning away from partnerships with them on causes on which we agree. This is all the more important in light of the scale of global ethical challenges we face in an age of populism, environmental degradation, and human trafficking, among so many other areas that should be of equal concern to Muslims as others pursuing global justice.

Video of the lecture


* Dr. Usama al-Azami is a Lecturer in Islamic studies at the Markfield Institute of Higher Education, based in the UK. He read his BA in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Oxford University, and his MA and PhD in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. His dissertation explores Islamic political thought in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Alongside his university studies, he has also pursued Islamic studies in seminarial contexts across three continents. In addition to academic writing, he is a frequent commentator on public affairs pertaining to Muslims in outlets such as Middle East Eye, HuffPost, Muslim Matters, and TRT World. He is currently working on a book that explores the political engagements and discourses of ulama who have opposed democracy and supported autocracy after the Arab revolutions.


[1] I would like to thank the scholars at the Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics (CILE) who kindly invited me to present this paper at their 7th Annual International Conference in Doha, Qatar, in March 2019 entitled: “A Global Ethical Approach to Social Justice and Environmental Issues.”

[2] I generally use the expressions Muslim scholars interchangeably with ulama in this paper.

[3] Perhaps the seminal contribution in this regard was a lecture by Abu al-A‘la Mawdudi (d. 1979) in 1941 that would later be translated into English and published as the Economic System of Islam.

[4] The Arabic titles are al-‘Adala al-ijtima‘iyya fi al-Islam and Ishtirakiyyat al-Islam.

[5] The Arabic titles are Mushkilat al-faqr wa-kayfa ‘alajaha al-Islam, and ‘Adala tawzi‘ al-tharwa fi al-Islam.

[6] A brief early example of Western Muslim reflections on the question of inequality may be found in a lecture by Hamza Yusuf from the 1990s. In it, he comments on Qur’anic verses (55: 7-9) that speak of a divinely established balance in the world. Yusuf states that the verse: “Uphold the balance with justice, and do not disturb the balance” is undermined in modern times in which there is an imbalance between the global north and the global south in terms of wealth. One might add to Yusuf’s remarks, in light of recent scholarship on inequality in the West, that the divide is now also highly visible within some developed societies today. For the original clip, see: https://youtu.be/MDAHd8nTiz4?t=3472.

[7] Robert Lucas, “The Industrial Revolution: Past and Future,” The Region, May 2004 Issue, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, https://www.minneapolisfed.org/publications/the-region/the-industrial-revolution-past-and-future.

[8] See Usaama al-Azami, “Modern Islamic Political Thought: Islamism in the Arab World from the Late 20th to Early 21st Centuries,” unpublished dissertation, (Princeton University, 2018), 38-42.

[9] Pew Research Center, “The World's Muslims: Religion, Politics, and Society,” April 2013, accessible at: http://www.pewforum.org/2013/04/30/the-worlds-muslims-religion-politics-society-religion-and-politics/#religious-leaders-role-in-politics

[10] See al-Azami, “Modern Islamic Political Thought,” 175f., 192ff.

[11] See Sherman Jackson, Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), esp. 75-98; Anver Emon, Islamic Natural Law Theories, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), esp. 90-122; Jonathan A. C. Brown, Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy, (Oxford: Oneworld, 2014), 52-57.

[12] For a modern Islamic rejection of Ash‘ari metaethics, see Shabbir Akhtar, The Qur’an and the Secular Mind: a philosophy of Islam, (London: Routledge, 2007), 300-304.

[13] For a sampling of recent Western scholarly interventions in these subjects that are written for an educated non-specialist audience, see: Yanis Varoufakis, Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: A Brief History of Capitalism, (London: Penguin, 2017); Paul Krugman, The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming America From The Right, (London: Penguin, 2009); Joseph Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality, (London: Penguin, 2013); Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014); Anthony Atkinson, Inequality: What Can Be Done?, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015).

[14] See Piketty, Capital, 30-35.

[15] Upton Sinclair, I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 109.

[16] Andrew Lilico, “How the Fed triggered the Arab Spring uprisings in two easy graphs,” The Telegraph, 04/03/2011, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/economics/8492078/How-the-Fed-triggered-the-Arab-Spring-uprisings-in-two-easy-graphs.html.

[17] J. Dana Stuster, “Shady Business Deals by Arab Politicians and Royals in ‘Panama Papers’ Leak,” Foreign Policy, 04/04/2016, https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/04/04/shady-business-deals-by-arab-politicians-and-royals-in-panama-papers-leak/.

[18] Jon Henley, “Iceland PM steps aside after protests over Panama Papers revelations,” The Guardian, 05/04/2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/05/iceland-prime-minister-resigns-over-panama-papers-revelations.

[19] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=24whYBYG6GY&feature=youtu.be.

[20] Varoufakis, Talking.

[21] That the Islamic could operate as a check on unfettered executive authority is discussed in Sherman Jackson, Islamic Law and the State: The Constitutional Jurisprudence of Shihāb Al-Dīn Al-Qarāfī, 185-229.

[22] https://youtu.be/j_pTv3KB6lE.

[23] https://youtu.be/j_pTv3KB6lE?t=52.

[24] Ibid.

[25] https://youtu.be/j_pTv3KB6lE?t=179.

[26] See Utsa Patnaik’s essay in Shubhra Chakrabarti and Utsa Patnaik (eds.), Agrarian and Other Histories: Essays for Binay Bhushan Chaudhuri, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018); Jason Hickel, “How Britain stole $45 trillion from India,” Aljazeera  https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/britain-stole-45-trillion-india-181206124830851.html

[27] Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010).

[28] Ibid., 187.

[29] Lynsey Hanley, “The way we live now,” The Guardian, 14/03/2009, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/mar/13/the-spirit-level

[30] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/world-history/winston-churchill-adolf-hitler-no-better-shashi-tharoor-indian-politician-post-colonialist-author-a7641681.html

[31] See n. 26 above.

[32] Jason Hickel, The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions, (London: Random House, 2017).

[33] Jason Hickel, “Is global inequality getting better or worse? A critique of the World Bank’s convergence narrative,” Third World Quarterly 38, 10 (2017), 5.

[34] Much of this section draws from here: http://blog.therules.org/update-global-inequality-video/

[35] This refers to the practice of siphoning off funds from such nations to tax-havens as a means of tax evasion.

[36] Hickel, The Divide.

[37] Ibid.

[38] See: https://youtu.be/GRyuM8KsMPo?t=3307.

[39] For his most substantive articulation of this, see Timur Kuran, The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).

[40] Michael Freeden, Liberalism: a very short introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 109-111.

[41] See the remarks of the Egyptian scholar, Muhammad Hassan on this issues: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ul4rdrd80bE.

[42] Wilkinson and Pickett, The Spirit Level, 236-238.

[43] Facundo Alvaredo and Thomas Piketty, “Measuring Top Incomes and lnequality in the Middle East: Data Limitations and Illustration with the Case of Egypt,” Working Paper Series, No. 832, May 2014, Economic Research Forum, available at: http://erf.org.eg/publications/measuring-top-incomes-lnequality-middle-east-data-limitations-illustration-case-egypt/.

[44] Pew Research Center, “The World's Muslims: Religion, Politics, and Society,” April 2013, accessible at: https://www.pewforum.org/2013/04/30/the-worlds-muslims-religion-politics-society-morality/#beliefs-about-morality.

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