Islamic Approaches to Economic Problems

Paper with title above was eventually published with title “Islam Versus Economics”, as Chapter 2 of Handbook on Islam and Economic Life, Edited by M. Kabir HassanMervyn K. Lewis, Edward Elgar Press, 2014. This draft is longer and covers more topics with more details than the revised version which condensed this 15,000 word paper to 11,000 words. Below we present some excerpts from the paper, and also provide a link to the full paper at the bottom of the post:

ABSTRACT: This paper argues that scarcity is not the fundamental economic problem, but rather distribution is. It also shows that economic growth will not solve our economic problem. Islam offers a radically different perspective on human economic problems and how to solve them. The main difference is that Islam considers human behavior as changeable, and focuses on improving behavior as the key to all positive change.

INTRODUCTION: The most fundamental teaching of economics is that economics is the science of scarcity. Without scarcity, there would be no economics, since everything would be abundantly available to all. The way to remove scarcity is by increasing production of goods. Sufficient wealth will solve the problem of scarcity.  {…}

Several important beliefs … are widely shared by economists:

  1. Even though love of money is bad, it must be encouraged, for this will lead to the accumulation of wealth.
  2. Once enough wealth accumulates (which might take another hundred years), we will leave the tunnel of economic necessity, and emerge into the daylight of plenty for all.
  3. When everyone has plenty of wealth, then there will be a great change in the code of morals. People lie, cheat, steal, only because they do not have sufficient wealth. They will become kind generous and gentle when the problem of scarcity has been solved.

The object of this paper is to show that this conventional approach to economics is fundamentally flawed. Furthermore, Islam teachings on economics explain the flaws of this approach, and offer an alternative approach which is radically different. We will attempt to show that this alternative approach offers a more promising solution to the economic problems currently facing mankind.

Section 2: Does Growth Remove Scarcity? 

If scarcity – that is, insufficient goods available – is the fundamental economic problem, then it seems apparent that producing more goods via economic growth, should solve the problem. Instead of taking it as an article of faith that economic growth will remove the problem of scarcity, let us look at the empirical evidence which can be brought to bear on this matter. There is a wide variety of different types of evidence, all of which show quite conclusively that economic growth as such does not affect scarcity. First we examine this evidence; later, we will look at the reasons why growth does not remove scarcity.   {….see paper linked below for extensive evidence…} The most fundamental issue here is that there are ALREADY in existence enough productive resources to comfortably feed, house, clothe, educate and provide health services to all of the people on the planet. Acquiring MORE resources is NOT necessary for this purpose. When we do try to acquire more, the extra wealth only ends up with those who are already wealthy and does not help in terms of solving the problem of scarcity for the poor.

Section 3: Why Growth Does Not Remove Scarcity

The Quran teaches us that the reason for scarcity is not the lack of goods. Allah T’aala is bountiful in provision of resources, which are sufficient for all living creatures on this planet:

11:6 There is no moving creature on earth but its sustenance dependeth on Allah.

Allah T’aala has promised to provide food for all on the planet. Figure 4 shows that global per capita food supply has been increasing slightly – quite contrary to Malthusian predictions. This graph shows clearly that food is available for all, as promised by Allah. If scarcity was the problem, then a solution would be to increase food supplies, and this is the line being taken by economists. But if current food supplies are already adequate to feed the planet, then further increase in food supply clearly does not address the problem. We must look elsewhere to find the reasons why this food is not reaching the poor. Similarly, as we have shown earlier, resources being wasted on wars and destruction are enough to provide adequately for all human needs. Again seeking growth to add to these resources will obviously not solve the problem of scarcity – they are already present in sufficient quantities for our needs.

==Paper discusses how economists believe that economic growth will solve all problems, including poverty. Concentration of wealth at top is not their concern because they believe it will trickle down to the poor. This is why economists focus on increasing GDP per capita, and economic growth, and pay no attention to distribution===

Section 3.2: Quranic Explanation of Failure of Trickle-Down

Contradicting the economists views that growth is the solution to all economic problems, the Quran informs us that the opposite is true:
42:17 And if Allah were to enlarge the provision for His slaves they would surely rebel in the earth, but He sendeth down by measure as He willeth. Lo! He is Informed, a Seer of His bondmen.
If people get more than enough, they become rebellious and spread corruption on Earth. This is exactly what we see today, when the richest and most powerful countries of the world combine forces to exploit and bleed the poor and powerless. Over the past decade, the poorest countries in the world have made interest payments of over $500 billion to the richest countries, without making a dent in the principal of the loan. If we follow the Keynesian prescription of encouraging greed, then the rich and powerful will accumulate wealth. However, greed will prevent them from sharing the gains with poor.

Indeed, the Quran predicts that they will use this wealth and power in bad ways. This is clearly illustrated by the recent war history of USA. The wealthiest and most powerful country in the planet invaded and occupied poor and helpless countries to capture their natural resources. Trillions were spent on these wars, which would have been sufficient to solve the problem of scarcity. If wealth is further increased, it will not solve the problem of scarcity, since it will only increase the rebellious behavior of the wealthy. As an illustration, according to the data for 2005, the combined wealth of the top 125 persons was greater than the GDP of all the LDC’s put together. However, they were not
motivated to solve the problems of feeding the poor. The Quran points to a solution radically different from the Keynesian solution of the accumulation of wealth, which is currently being pursued with vigor all over the planet.

=== This solution involves creating compassion in the hearts, and inviting the wealthy to share their wealth with the poor, as strongly encouraged in the Quran. ===

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My Spiritual Father

We are all from Allah and to Allah we shall all return. My father made this journey towards his Creator on 10th Muharram in 1438 (see Remembering My Father). More recently, on 9 RabiulAwwal 1440, Haji Abdul-Wahhab, the head of the movement of Tableegh and Dawa, also returned to meet his Creator. Like millions of others, I consider Abdul-Wahhab Saheb as my spiritual father — The work to which he devoted his life, completely changed the life of my father, and later, the lives of his five sons — that is myself and my four brothers. It is impossible to exaggerate the influence of the work that he did. Everything I know about life and religion is the result of the extraordinary work for which he was the leader in Pakistan.

After the battle of Uhud, in which Muslims suffered heavy losses, there was much sadness and mourning in Medina. Even our Prophet Mohammad SAW was saddened by the Shahadat of his beloved uncle Hamza RA. Allah T’aala consoled the Muslims in the following amazing ayah of the Holy Quran:

(33:23) Among the believers are men true to what they promised Allah. Among them is he who has fulfilled his vow [to the death], and among them is he who awaits [his chance]. And they did not alter [the terms of their commitment] by any alteration

Instead of mourning their loss, Allah T’aala asks us to celebrate the fulfillment of their promise to Allah, and encourages those who await to follow their footsteps. There is no question in my mind that Haji Abdul-Wahhab fulfilled his commitment, devoting everything he had to Allah, and showing millions of people the path to leading meaningful lives as Muslims:

(6:162) Say: Lo! my worship and my sacrifice and my living and my dying are for Allah, Lord of the Worlds.

Even though I am sad that, soon after the loss of my physical father, I also lost my spiritual father, I am also happy that Haji Abdul Wahab lived a life which is an example and a model for all of us to follow. He was the source from which the amazing Deen of Islam reached me, and his teachings cleared away the cobwebs of cultural and traditional Islam, which had no attraction for me. Under his guidance, the efforts of the Tableeghi teams which wander the world, carrying the message of Islam in their lifestyles, and in their struggle and sacrifice, I came to understand the revolution that Islam brought to the world.

Indeed it is true that the message of Islam came as a stranger, and, as prophesied, has again become a stranger. Even though I was born and bred in an Islamic atmosphere, taught Quran, Namaz, and listened to sermons and read books, I had no understanding of Islam until I spent 40 days in Tableegh. Unlike the traditional Peer-Mureed relationship, the path of Tableegh is itself the teacher, the experience of travelling for the purpose of igniting the flame of the love of Allah in the hearts of the people, is the training. Whereas traditional Sufi methods develop the love and reverence for the Peer, as a stepping stone to the love of the Prophet SAW and the love of Allah, However, the method of Tableegh strongly de-emphasized personalities, and instead focuses on the WORK of the Prophet SAW, which was to spread the Deen of Islam to the entire humanity. There is so much that I have learnt from this work that it is impossible to encapsulate it in multiple volumes, let alone a short blog post. Perhaps the most important of these lessons has to do with the purpose of live.

How we should live our lives depends entirely on the purpose for which we live. Before I encountered Tableegh, my purpose was a successful career, sufficient wealth for comfortable living, good family life, acquisition of knowledge as a means to getting respect and recognition from my academic peers, as so on. The religion of Islam was a set of constraints — rules and regulations that I was supposed to follow, while I pursued goals set by myself. More accurately, the goals were those that my peers were following, and like a sheep, I was also following along with them.

The call by Haji Abdul-Wahhab to make this work the purpose of my life woke me up to the fact that it was possible to have a higher purpose than individual success.  The “Maqsad” towards which we were being invited was breathtakingly bold, unimaginably ambitious. We were being asked to devote our lives, every breath of it, to the mission of our Prophet to take the Message of Allah to all of humankind currently living as well as everyone who would come to the planet until the day of judgment. We were to do this work, utilizing all the gifts given to us by God — our energies, our health and our wealth — until the Deen was restored to the state that the Prophet Mohammad SAW left it in.

How can an insignificant, ignorant, and talentless person like me even THINK about such a huge goal? It was explained to us that we are completely powerless. Even when I want to lift my hand, the movement can only happen with the will and the power of Allah — I have no power at all. Once we understand that the effect of anything I do is created by Allah T’aala and is completely out of my power, then we understand that I can make the intention and undertake the actions required — the effect will be put in it by Allah T’aala, who is ALL POWERFUL. Just like the CALL towards the House of Allah issued by Ibraheem Alaihissalam was conveyed to all of mankind till the day of judgement, so Allah T’aala can choose to create the effects of our actions on a much larger scale than we can imagine.

Allah T’aala has said that man can have nothing but that which he strives for  (53:39). As explanation, Allama Iqbal writes that — you were the simpleton who settled for a few flower petals, when the Garden contained the secrets of life itself. I realized that I had settled for a very low goal, when much higher goals were possible. It was clear that the highest goal is the goal of our Prophet Mohammad SAW: —

(12:108) Say (O Muhammad SAW): “This is my way; I invite unto Allah (i.e. to the Oneness of Allah – Islamic Monotheism) with sure knowledge, I and whosoever follows me (also must invite others to Allah i.e to the Oneness of Allah – Islamic Monotheism) with sure knowledge.

The change of purpose and IDENTITY created a revolution in my life. From thinking of myself as a professor with a mission to teach economics and econometrics, I learned to think of myself as an ordinary person, but one who belongs to the extraordinary Ummah of the Best of the Prophets, tasked with the mission of taking the Message of Allah T’aala to all of mankind.

The consequences of this transformation ramify in all dimensions of my life. The central problem of life was how to convert all of our actions into worship, and how create the best of deeds, ones which will receive the greatest weight on the scales on the day of judgment. How to transform my work into worship was a difficult task. Learning how to teach courses as an Ummati, how to make it an act of worship, created a transformation in both the subject matter and style with which I taught statistics and econometrics  (See: Statistics: An Islamic Approach?. I hope discuss some of these dimensions in later posts.

Let me end with the prayer that Allah T’aala may grant His special favors, blessings, and mercy to the soul of Haji Saheb, and all others whose lives were touched by Haji Saheb, and who have returned to their Creator. As for those who remain behind, let us pray that Allah T’aala transforms our struggles and sacrifice, our living and dying, and accepts them as part of the mission of the Prophet Mohammad SAW to convey the message of Islam to all of mankind.

Conversion Story: Imran Khan

My Generation grew up at a time when colonial hang up was at its peak. Our older generation had been slaves and had a huge inferiority complex of the British. The school I went to was similar to all elite schools in Pakistan, despite becoming independent, they were, and still are, producing replicas of public school boys rather than Pakistanis. I read Shakespeare which was fine, but no Allama Iqbal.

The Islamic class was not considered to be serious, and when I left the school I was considered amongst the elite of the country because I could speak English and wore western clothes. Despite periodically shouting Pakistan Zindabad at school functions, I considered my own culture backward and Islam an outdated religion. Amongst our group if any one talked about religion, prayed or kept a beard he was immediately branded a Mullah. Because of the power of the Western media, all our heroes were western movie or pop stars. When I went to Oxford already burdened with this hang up from my school days, things didn’t get any easier. In University not just Islam but all religions were considered anachronism. Science had replaced religion and if something couldn’t be logically proved it did not exist. All supernatural stuff was confined to the movies. Philosophers like Darwin who with his half-baked theory of evolution was supposed to have disproved the creation of men and hence religion.

Moreover, the European history had an awful experience with religion, The horrors committed by the Christian clergy in the name of God during the Inquisition had left a powerful impact on the western mind.

To understand why the west is so keen on secularism, one should go to places like Cordoba in Spain and see torture apparatus used during Spanish Inquisition. Also the persecution of scientists as heretics by the clergy and convinced the Europeans that all religions are regressive. However, the biggest factor that drove people like me away from religion was the selective Islam practised by most of its preachers. In other words, there was a huge difference between what they practised and what they preached. Also, rather than explaining the philosophy behind the religion, there was an over emphasis on rituals. I feel that humans are different; to animals whereas the latter can be drilled, humans need to be intellectually convinced. That is why the Qur’an constantly appeals to reason. The worst of course, was the exploitation of Islam for political gains by various individuals or groups. Hence, it was a miracle I did not become an atheist.

The only reason why I did not was the powerful religious influence wielded by my mother on me since my childhood. It was not so much out of conviction but love for her that I stayed a Muslim. However, my Islam was selective, i.e. I accepted only parts of the religion that suited me. Prayers were restricted to Eid days and occasionally on Fridays, when my father insisted on taking me with him. If there was a God I was not sure about it and certainly felt that he did not interfere with my life. All in all I was smoothly moving to becoming a Pukka Brown Sahib. After all I had the right credentials in terms of the right school, university and above all, acceptability in the English aristocracy, something that our brown sahibs would give their lives for. So what led me to do a lota on the Brown Sahib culture and instead become a desi? Well it did not just happen overnight. Firstly, the inferiority complex that my generation had inherited, gradually went as I developed into a world class athlete. Secondly, I had the unique position of living between two cultures. I began to see the advantages and the disadvantages of both the societies. In western societies, institutions were strong while they were collapsing in our country. However, there was an area where we were and still are superior, and that is our family life. I used to notice the loneliness of the old-age pensioners at Hove Cricket ground (during my Sussex years). Imagine sending your parents to Old Peoples’ Homes! Even the children there never had the sort of love and warmth that we grew up with here. They completely miss out on the security blanket that a joint family system provides. However,I began to realise that the biggest loss to the western society was that in trying to free itself from the oppression of the clergy, they had removed both God and religion from their lives. While science can answer a lot of questions, no matter how much it progresses, two questions it will never be able to answer: One, what is the purpose of the existence and two, what happens to us when we die? It is this vacuum that I felt created the materialistic and the hedonistic culture. If this is the only life then one must make hay while the sun shines and in order to do so one needs money. Such a culture is bound to cause psychological problems in a human being, as there is going to be an imbalance between the body and the soul. Consequently, in the USA, which has shown the greatest materialistic progress and also gives its citizens the greatest human rights, almost 60 per cent of the population consult psychiatrists. Yet, amazingly in modern psychology, there is no study of the human soul. Sweden and Switzerland, who provide the most welfare to their citizens, also have the highest suicide rates; hence, man is not necessarily content with material well being he needs something more. Since all morality has it roots in religion, once religion was removed, immorality has progressively escalated since the 70’s. The direct impact of it is on the family life. In UK, the divorce rate is 60 per cent, while it is estimated that there are over 35 per cent single mothers. The crime rate is rising in almost all western societies, but the most disturbing fact is the alarming increase in racism. While science always tries to prove the inequality of man (recent survey showing the American Black to be genetically less intelligent than whites) it is only religion which preaches the equality of man. Between ’91 and ’97, it was estimated that total immigration into Europe was around 520,000, and there were racially motivated attacks all over, especially in Britain, France and Germany. In Pakistan during the Afghan war, we had over four million refugees, and despite the people being so much poorer here and in the NWFP, they suffered a considerable loss in their standard of living as a result of the refugees yet, there was no racial tension, No wonder, last year in Britain, religious education was reintroduced into schools.

There was a sequence of events in the 80’s that moved me towards God. As the Quran says: “There are signs for people of understanding”. One of them was cricket. As I was a student of the game, the more I understood the game, the more I began to realize that what I considered to be chance was, in fact, the will of Allah, the pattern which became clearer with time. But it was not until Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses that my understanding of Islam began to develop. People like me who were living in the western world bore the brunt of anti-Islam prejudice that followed the Muslim reaction to the book. We were left with two choices: fight or flight. Since I felt strongly that the attacks on Islam were unfair, I decided to fight.

It was then I realised that I was not equipped to do so as my knowledge of Islam was inadequate. Hence I started my research and for me a period of my greatest enlightenment. I read scholars like Ali Shariati, Mohammad Asad, Iqbal, Gai Eaton, plus of course, a study of the Holy Quran.

I will try to explain as concisely as is possible, what “discovering the truth” meant for me. When the believers are addressed in the Quran, it always says, “Those who believe and do good deeds.”

In other words, a Muslim has dual function, one towards God and the other towards fellow human beings. The greatest impact of believing in God for me, meant that I lost all fear of human beings. The Quran liberates man from man when it says that life and death and respect and humiliation are God’s jurisdiction, so we do not have to bow before other human beings. As Iqbal puts it:

Wo aik Sajda jisay tu giran samajhta hai,

Hazaar sajdon say deta hai aadmi ko nijaat.

Moreover, since this is a transitory world where we prepare for the eternal one, I broke out of the self-imposed prisons, such as growing old (such a curse in the western world, as a result of which, plastic surgeons are having a field day), materialism, ego, what people say and so on. It is important to note that one does not eliminate the earthly desires, simply that instead of being controlled by them, one controls them.

By following the second part of believing in Islam, I have become a better human being. Rather than being self-centred and living for the self, I feel that because the Almighty gave so much to me, in turn I must use that blessing to help the less privileged. By following the fundamentals of Islam rather than becoming a Kalashnikov-wielding fanatic I have become a tolerant and a giving human being who feels compassion for the under-privileged.

Instead of attributing success to myself, I know it is because of God’s will, hence humility instead of arrogance. Also, instead of the snobbish Brown Sahib attitude towards our masses, I believe in egalitarianism and strongly feel against the injustice done to the weak in our society according to the Quran, “Oppression is worse than killing.” In fact only now do I understand the true meaning of Islam, if you submit to the will of Allah, you have inner peace. Through my faith, I have discovered strength within me that I never knew existed and that has released my potential in life: My education programme that I intend to announce in March is far more ambitious than the cancer hospital project.

I feel that in Pakistan we have selective Islam. Just believing in God and going through the rituals is not enough one also has to be a good human being. I feel there are certain western countries with far more Islamic traits than us, especially in the way they protect the rights of their citizens, or for that matter their justice system. In fact some of the finest individuals I know live there. What I dislike about them is their double-standards in the way they protect the rights of their citizens and yet consider citizens of other countries as being somehow inferior to them as human being, e.g. dumping toxic waste in the Third World, advertising cigarettes that are not allowed in the west and selling drugs that are banned in the west. One of the problems facing Pakistan is the polarisation of two reactionary groups. On the one side is the westernised group that looks upon Islam through western eyes and has inadequate knowledge about the subject. It reacts to any one trying to impose Islam in the society and wants only a selective part of the religion. On the other extreme is the group that reacts to this westernised elite and in trying to become a defender of the faith, takes up such intolerant and self-righteous attitudes that are repugnant to the spirit of Islam.

What needs to be done is to somehow start a dialogue between the two extremes. In order for this to happen, the group on whom the greatest proportion of our educational resources are spent in this country must study Islam properly. Whether they become practising Muslims or believe in God is entirely a ;personal choice; as the Quran tells us that there is “no compulsion in religion.” However, they must arm themselves with knowledge as a weapon to fight extremism. Turning up their noses at extremism is not going to solve the problem.

The Quran calls Muslims “the middle nation”, i.e. not of extremes. The Holy Prophet (PBUH) was told to simply give the message and not worry whether people converted or not, therefore, there is no question in Islam of forcing your opinions on any one else. Moreover, we are told to respect other religions, their places of worship and their prophets. It should be noted that no Muslim missionaries or armies never went to Malaysia or Indonesia. The people converted to Islam due to the high principles and impeccable character of the Muslim traders. At the moment, the worst advertisement for Islam are the Muslim countries with their selective Islam, especially where thereligion is used to deprive people of their rights. In fact, a society that obeys fundamentals of Islam has to be a liberal one.

If our westernised class started to study Islam, not only will it be able to help our society fight sectarianism and extremism, but it will also make them realise what a progressive religion Islam is. They will also be able to help the western world by articulating Islamic concepts. Last year, Prince Charles accepted that the western world can learn from Islam during his speech at the Oxford Union. But how can this happen if the group that is in to best position to project Islam gets its attitudes from the west and considers Islam backward? Islam is a universal religion and that is why our Prophet (PBUH) was called a mercy for all mankind.

POSTSCRIPT: This story of Imran Khan resonates with me because I too became deeply westernized first, and then returned to Islam. This process gave me a much deeper understanding of the inner sides of Western culture — unlike most of our westernized elites who only see the superficially attractive front. or a brief autobiography, see Insight Interview:

Two more stories about westerners who converted to Islam:  A Conversion Story, and  Finding Islam: An Atheist’s Story

Appreciating God’s Greatest Gift to Mankind

The central problem addressed by the Islamic WorldView Blog can be presented starkly as follows:

The Quran gives us  COMPLETE and PERFECT guidance: This day have I perfected for you your religion and completed my favor on you and chosen for you Islam as a religion. Qur’an, 5:3

Quran tells us that what we have been given is far better than anything that they can gather: “In the Bounty of Allah, and in His Mercy (i.e. Islam and the Quran) let them (the Muslims) rejoice.” That is better than all that they (the non-Muslims) gather. (Quran 10:58)

So this central question is “Is this true?” – Of course, anyone who is a Muslim MUST answer yes – to reject the Quran is Kufr.  But if we answer YES, as our FAITH requires, we are immediately faced with a VERY DIFFICULT set of problems.

According to the first Ayah, the Quran provides us with complete and perfect guidance, which would be suitable for us until the day of judgment. There is no question of this guidance becoming obsolete, being incomplete.  And yet, today, the vast majority of Muslims – both those deeply religious, as well as those with more secular mindsets – believe that the only way to rise up out of the darkness and ignorance is by absorbing the knowledge generated by the West over the past three centuries.

This leads to a deep and difficult conundrum, puzzle, and paradox – if it is really necessary for us to learn what the West has to teach, then how can the Quran be complete and perfect guidance? Our faith in the Quran requires us to believe that the Quran is perfect and complete. BUT our rational minds tell us that progress today requires us to master the mountains of complex and sophisticated knowledge which the West has acquired over the past few centuries.   This creates an apparently impossible-to-resolve conflict between the head and the heart.

The GOAL of this blog is to resolve this conflict – to explain why the Quran continues to be complete and perfect, sufficient for our guidance today. But finding the answer is not at all an easy job. It requires a lot of effort. Many different types of knowledge are needed to come an understanding of this. Here I will just list some of the required topics, with links to posts which explain them in further detail.

  1. Radical Paradigm Shifts: Changing the way we see the world is very difficult, and yet this is required to understand the revolutionary message of Islam. This post explains why it is difficult shift our paradigms, which provide the framework using which we understand the world around us.
  2. What is Development? Before we ask whether Western Knowledge or the Quran is more useful for our progress today, we must consider the question of What is progress and development? As this article/video lecture explains, what the West means by development is acquisition of riches and power, while the Quran talks about Human development in terms of growth of our spiritual potentials. Obviously, if we make acquisition of riches the goal, then Qaroon would be considered more developed than Moosa AS.
  3. The Conquest of Knowledge. Although Muslims as a whole are unaware of it, the global domination of the West has shaped our ways of thinking about the world and our religion. In particular, many Western concepts have been absorbed into our conceptual frameworks, without the realization that these concepts are anti-Islamic. When we try to understand and appreciate the Quran, using the conceptual frameworks of Qaroon, we are bound to fail.
  4. The Search for Knowledge. Perhaps the most important difference between Western and Eastern concepts is the definition of “Knowledge” itself. What is understood as knowledge by the West is very different from what the Quran calls knowledge. Our Western education teaches us to value scientific knowledge of the type produced by the West. We do not find scientific formulae and technological tools in the Quran, so by Western standards, Quranic knowledge is valueless. However, the Quran teaches us how to live, how to develop our human capabilities, how to learn to be a true human being, connected to his Creator. This knowledge is not available in West.
  5. Secular Knowledge: The idea that some domains of human knowledge and action are outside the scope of religion is at the heart of a Western education. A western education teaches this concept to us by practice – teaching us for years without mention of God and Religion. So we learn that religion has nothing to do with most of the knowledge we need to learn. Unfortunately, Islamic religious education today usually re-inforces the same lesson – by not making strong connections between the traditional Islamic subjects and modern Western fields of knowledge, the impression is created that these modern disciplines like economics, political science, etc. are outside the scope of religion. This a very dangerous mistake.
  6. The Modern Mu’tazila: Extraordinary respect for West generated by their technological and scientific achievements, as well as their global conquest, has led many Muslims to blind adoption of their social sciences. This is similar to an earlier episode in Islamic history, where Muslims were extraordinarily impressed with Greek Philosophy, to the extent of putting it on par with the Wahy. Today, many Muslim intellectuals respect Western knowledge to the extent that when they see conflicts between the Quran and Samuelson, they re-interpret the Quran to put it in conformity with Western theories. As discussed in “The Origins of Western Social Sciences”, these sciences arose in Europe after rejection of religion as a basis on which to organize society. To accept this body of European knowledge as objective reality, and to attempt to synthesize it with Islamic ideas is like the attempt to mix fire and water.
  7. Today, the Crisis in Islamic Economics is the result of the blind acceptance of Western economic theories such as utility maximization, which are in direct conflict with Islamic teachings. Similarly, practitioners have failed to recognize the capitalist spirit of greed and accumulation of wealth, and have constructed “Islamic Banks” which have an Islamic form and a conflicting and contradictory capitalist spirit. My paper on Building Genuine Islamic Institutions explains these conflicts and shows how we can create different types of institutions with Islamic spirit  and form.
  8. The Western education we receive poisons our minds, and makes us unable to recognize and absorb the revolutionary message of Islam. My post on Re-Learning Islam explains that first we must unlearn Western concepts, in order to open our minds and hearts to the true message of Islam. When we do this, we will find that the message still has the same power that it had 1450 years ago, when it lifted ignorant and backwards Arabs to the heights of World Leadership. The message retains its power and vitality, but because Islam has become a stranger to most Muslims, they are unable to appreciate this greatest gift of God to mankind, and to use it to launch a revolution like the one launched centuries ago.

Islam & Econometrics?

Although I was educated at the best universities in the West, my real education began when I put in four months in the work of Tableegh and Da’wa. For the first time, I began to understand what life was all about. After a long time of trying to think about the nature of KNOWLEDGE, I came to some surprising and startling conclusions.
1. What West calls Knowledge, and what Islam calls Knowledge are entirely different things.
2. It appears to us today that Western knowledge is extremely useful for our lives today, while Islamic Knowledge is only helpful for the Akhira. This is a huge illusion.
3. Just as Islam created a revolution in the lives of people 1450 years ago and changed the course of history, so Islam has the SAME potential today to create a revolution.
4. Unfortunately, Muslims have become hypnotized by the spell of Western knowledge and believe that it is superior to the traditional knowledge of Islam, even though Islamic knowledge is FAR MORE VALUABLE.
5. By using Islamic conceptual frameworks, we can re-examine the stock of Western knowledge and find that a large proportion of it is just nonesense, while that parts which make sense require substantial modification to be made useful and to be made compatible with Islam.
6. What this means is the Islamic knowledge is relevant in ALL domains — it is not that some areas of knowledge are outside the reach of Islam.
On the basis of these understandings, I have re-created courses in Micro, Macro, and Econometrics, taking advantage of the unique insights that Islam Offers. My econometrics students asked me to explain how Islam has any relationship to the econometrics they are learning. My lecture to them, linked below, was meant to answer this question — This lecture is in Urdu — for a similar lecture in English, see “Re-Learning Islam”, which deals with the same questions addressed in the Urdu Lecture.

The lecture starts by noting a paradox. The message of Islam created a revolution 1450 years ago, taking ignorant and backwards Arabs to world leadership within a short span of time. The KEY question is: Does this message have the same power today?
The Ummah as a whole has said “NO” by their actions, if not by their words. As an illustration,  recently, at a gathering organized by the Jamaat Islami in Islamabad, the topic of discussion was the current day economic problems facing Pakistan. Nearly all speakers spoke about pragmatic issues of raising taxes, increasing exports, misguided economic policies, governance, and other issues, just like any secular group would. On my turn I raised the question that if Quran provides us with perfect and complete guidance, can it offer us some guidance on our modern economic problems of today? People listened politely to my sermon, and ignored it completely, as they continued their discussion of current issues.
This lecture asks the question WHY does the message of the Quran seem irrelevant to the solution of modern problems, when, 1450 years ago, it created a revolution in the world? Has it become obsolete, outdated?
The answer that is offered is that it seems obsolete because OUR EYES have been dazzled by the brilliance of Western knowledge — and they have become blind to the eternal truths of the Quran. Our hearts have been poisoned by the Western education we have received, and we are no longer able to appreciate the wisdom of the Quran, even though the message remains just as powerful and just as revolutionary today, as it was 1450 years ago. A detailed explanation of this position requires a deep study of the nature of Western education, and ALSO a deep examination of the nature of the message of Islam — this is because, it is indeed true that Islam came as a stranger and has become a stranger. The lecture goes on to examine both of these aspects in greater detail — how did Western knowledge get deeply distorted, and what were the revolutionary aspects of the message of Islam that we have forgotten today.

Transforming Knowledge

Published as “The Higher Goals of Education” in The Nation, on Nov 21, 2018. This article explains how character building, values, and morality were removed from the syllabus in Western Universities in the early 20th Century, and how we are blindly imitating their system without being aware of this deep deficiency. The contrast between the knowledge provided by Islam, and Western knowledge, could not be greater. Islam gives us the knowledge to create an inner spiritual transformation which is the source of an external revolution — God does not change the condition of a nation until they change their (inner) selves. Western knowledge is about learning to earn money.

The Higher Goals of Education

Currently, syllabi in Pakistani universities follow those of the educational institutions of the west, and are oriented towards providing students with the job-skills they need to earn money. This trend has become even more extreme over the past few decades as the burden of debt on students in USA has risen to nearly a trillion dollars, due to increasing commercialization of the education sector. Pakistani university students’ families also assume a huge economic burden in the name of equipping their children for the demands of the increasingly specialized job market. In all of this rush towards progress, morality plays no role in the curricula of educational institutions, a state of affairs that seems natural to those of us who have grown up under amoral educational regimes.

On deeper examination, it becomes clear that morality was in fact deliberately excluded from western curricula in the early part of the 20th Century. The reasons for this shift, and its consequences, have been detailed by Julie Reuben in her book: “The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality.” According to Reuben, in the 1920s the college catalogs of even the most prestigious western universities opened with statements about their mission to build character among students. The purpose of education was understood by all as developing and grooming personalities, creating leadership skills, and instilling cognizance of civic and social responsibilities. This mission was increasingly abandoned since the 1960s, and today, no official documents speak to the responsibility of providing students with moral guidance.

To make the same point on a more personal level, I recall my experience as a freshman at MIT in 1971. It was an exciting time, leaving home for the first time to drink from the fountains of knowledge at the source. We were all innocent and young, enthusiastic about the infinite possibilities and pathways open before us.  One night, a group of us spent all night discussing the meaning of life and other deeper questions – which path should we choose? What were the most worthwhile directions where we should spend our efforts, using the precious moments of our youthful and boundless energies? As morning dawned, it became clear to all of us that we did not have a clue regarding this most important of questions that we all face in our lives. Accordingly, we decided to consult one of our professors — surely the knowledge that we sought would be available from the deep wells of wisdom to be found at one of the world’s leading universities.

Accordingly, a small group of students went to one of our professors and asked him about how we could learn the answers to the bigger questions that life poses — what we should be doing with our lives? The answer he gave us satisfied us at the time; it was only much later that I realized that we had been deceived. He told us that experience shows that we must first learn the answers to the small questions, and only later would we be able to tackle the big questions. It seemed like a perfectly sensible answer, and we were satisfied to learn our calculus, chemistry, and computer programming, as the small steps we needed to take, in order to prepare for the bigger ones. It was much, much, later that I realized that he did not have any answers for us — the bigger questions were no longer on the syllabus of a Western education.  Because the goods we were looking for were not in available in the shop, we were sold an inferior bill-of-goods, marketed as the pathway to what we were looking for. But in fact, regardless of how much math, chemistry, physics, biology, or economics, politics and social science you study, you will not learn the answer to the questions about how we can make the most of our few precious moments on this Earth.

The deep damage that this kind of education, expunged of morality and values, is inflicting on society can be gauged by many measures. A Western education trains students to build bombs, to calculate costs and benefits, but does not train them to understand that the best that life has to offer cannot be quantified or measured in dollars or pounds. In fact, human life is infinitely precious, and every baby is born with the potential for extraordinary achievements. However, because they were not trained to understand the value of life, the graduates of the finest educational institutes in the West designed bombs and machinery for mass murder of innocent civilians, did scientific research on torture, and many other kinds of inhumane experiments on human subjects. I can personally testify to a loss of idealism and moral values that I and my fellow students experienced in the strongly amoral atmosphere prevalent at campuses throughout USA. Our conversations as first year graduate students in the Economics department at Stanford University revealed that all of us were motivated by the desire to improve the economic conditions of the poor, and to create prosperity for the people. However, the Economics program taught us that rational behavior is selfish, and survival of the fittest in the jungle of cut-throat competition creates the maximum welfare for all. Accordingly, by the end of our Ph.D.s, we abandoned our idealistic dreams, and became focused on personal advancement through careers and jobs.

Today, our most urgent need as educators is to focus on building the character of our students. There is no doubt that values should not be imposed on others, and the meaning of life cannot be conveyed in a lecture. Nonetheless, this does not mean that we should sterilize our classrooms of meaningful discussion about the most important questions we face in life as human beings. There is a rich intellectual tradition, both in the East and in the West, of philosophers, mystics, and thought leaders who have grappled with the bigger questions. We fail our students if we only provide them with a technical education without exposing them to deeper knowledge about how to live, and how to excel as a human being. The Western education that we seek to imitate trains the minds, but not the hearts. What our students achieve depends very much on the greatness of the visions we can inspire them with. In this quest, our poets Iqbal, Rumi and others will be of far greater value than the conventional textbooks.

For a video lecture on the deep differences between Islamic and Western conceptions of knowledge, and the practical importance this in terms of carrying out “research”, see “The Search for Knowledge”.

Exploding Myths Which Block Our Minds

Every moment of our brief and transient lives is precious beyond price. Why then do we keep wasting this time in trivial and meaningless pursuits which do not bring us any benefits in this world or the next? The barriers to success lie in a thousand myths that we have swallowed in the course of our so-called education — (see link to “Getting A Real Education” to understand the difference).
Liberating our minds requires, as a first step, understanding the difference between our friends and enemies. We must look beyond the smiling faces and attractive gifts to understand the purpose and intentions hidden in the hearts. The capitalist market economy within which we all live, is based on money — Businesses are run for profits, and human beings are trained to think of money making as the purpose of life. The purpose of our education is to turn us into cogs of a machine to manufacture (products for) money. Our individuality, personality, history, and unique talents must all be suppressed in order to convert us all into inter-changeable parts which can function together smoothly within the capitalist machine. See my post on “Recovering from a Western Education” to recognize and counteract myths planted in our minds by a Western education.
The Primary Myth of Capitalism is that everything (including human lives) is a commodity for sale, and the value of a commodity is what people will pay for it — that is, the market price. Although it affects all minds, economists are especially vulnerable to this myth. When we talk about the labor market, human capital, human resource, and many other similar terms, we are thinking of human lives in terms of their ability to produce goods for sale.
Myths function by placing block on our minds to prevent us from thinking certain thoughts. Exploding myths requires removing these blocks by imagining the opposite truth. To help this process, we must understand that human life is built on paradoxes — two things which are opposites of each other, but are both true.
The first paradox is that our human lives are trivial, insignificant, “dust in the wind”. There are billions of people among which I do not count for much. My life started a few moments ago, and will end very soon. Within the mechanics of the mighty and massive universe, and the momentum of history created by the actions of millions of people, my efforts can only be feeble and insignificant. BUT there is also another truth which we can use to counter this. For me, the universe exists only in the picture of it that I have created in my mind. This universe will cease to exist when I do. The Quran testifies to the preciousness of our human lives — If you save a life, it is as if you have saved the entire humanity. So my life is worth a billion lives in the eyes of God. Every action that I take can make an immense difference — remember the “butterfly effect”, a very small action, the flapping of wings of a butterfly, can cause a chain reaction eventually leading to a huge thunderstorm. Ultimately, my life is all that matters — even if all other people find the path to paradise, if I fail to do so, then my life is wasted. On the other hand, I can find the way, then even if all the remaining billions of human fail to find the path, it makes no difference. As Rumi puts it:
You are not a drop in the ocean, You are the ocean within a drop.
A capitalist education works to convince us of the first truth, that we are trivial and insignificant, because once we accept this, we will be prepared to sell our lives for a few dollars to the highest bidder. We will be proud if we can earn higher salaries than our fellow students, not realizing that we have been deceived into selling a product precious beyond price for pennies. If we wake up to the opposite truth, that our lives are so valuable that all the gold in the world cannot pay for one moment of our time, this realization will enable us to escape the mind-traps created by capitalism. To break free, we must meditate on the following undeniable truths.
My life is a completely unique event — there has been no one else born like me, ever before or ever after. I have been exposed to an environment, history, circumstances, which no one else has ever seen. My Rabb has put me through a specially designed test, completely and perfectly personalized, to see if I can find my way to Him. The whole world is a distraction and a temptation — all that exists, all that matters is the relationship between Allah T’aala and myself. If I can learn to recognize my Rabb, then I have achieved complete success, and if I fail to recognize him, then the wealth of Qaroon cannot save me from failure.
Every human being is like a seed — within him or her, there is the potential to grow into a majestic tree, a rare and beautiful creation of Allah, with roots firmly planted in the Earth, and branches spreading out to the skies. Just as the seed is insignificant and trivial, and does not give any hint of the amazing wonders hidden inside it,  so the seeds of recognition of God, contained within our hearts, can produce spectacular results when watered with our blood. This is the job, to achieve spiritual growth, and the Ma’arifat of God, for which we have been sent to this Earth. If we succeed in this task, we will be rewarded in ways that we cannot imagine. Failure also carries a dreadful cost.
The purpose of this blog is to wake up the youth to the infinite potential that lies within them. Do not sell yourself to the capitalist machine.  Some posts which provide an idea of how you can realize the potential within you are listed below:
1. The Ways of Eagles — explains how we have been raised among crows, and made to forget our ability to soar majestically like the eagles.
2. Reaching Beyond the Stars — How we can learn to set high targets, in order to achieve great results.
3. Unlock Your Infinite Potential. (9m Urdu talk to graduating student, with English summary)
As this post clarifies, we need to take TWO steps towards knowledge. The FIRST step involves shaking of all of the false knowledge that we have been given by our Western education, which teaches us how to become commodities for sale in the Capitalist labor market. The SECOND step involves understanding what it means to be human, and how we can develop our hidden potentials by learning to communicate with our Creator. Some posts which deal with the first step of UNLEARNING what Western education has taught us are given below.
4. Shifting Paradigms: The West teaches us one way of looking at the World, while Islam teaches us a radically different way. Moving from one paradigm to the other is not easy. How to do this is discussed here.
5. Countering European Myths about Knowledge:  According to the Western education, the only type of valuable education is what the West offers. This is true if we want to learn how to become cogs in the capitalist machine for making money. But if we want to learn how to achieve our hidden potential, how to become human beings, Western education has nothing to offer.
6. How to Inspire and Motivate Students: Practical tips for educators on how we can reach the hearts of our students, which is the basis for an Islamic education, while Western education is based on reaching their minds.