It has become commonplace these days to present religions — particularly Islam — as entities which are possible to categorize and place in a box, whose souls are determinable, whose aims and goals can be deduced through a “careful reading” of their relevant religious texts. City Journal, in its summer publication, continues this unfortunate trend with the title of its recent essay, “Is Islam Compatible With Capitalism?“*
It’s hard to know what to make of such a question. It certainly seems valuable to consider whether or not Islamic religious beliefs have played a role in economic development (or stagnation) in a particular area of the world. But the question that frames this essay does not (as it should) inquire as to how different groups of Muslims have historically conceptualized capitalism and how those beliefs might have affected economic outcomes. Instead, it asks the essentialized question of what Islam, ‘at its core,’ says about capitalism. But religion does not speak and therefore cannot be essentialized. To talk of Islam as though it has a correct interpretation, i.e. “Islam says…”, is to begin from a poor understanding of religious hermeneutics. It is human beings who subjectively, and in a continuously changing way, interpret religious texts and provide accounts as to “correct” religious dogma and practice.
We often witness this attempt to essentialize Islam in contexts like this one: “What does Islam say about killing apostates?” This is a nonsensical question. “Islam” says nothing about the issue. Rather, the different schools of Islamic jurisprudence say something, groups of Indonesia and Saudi and Pakistani Muslims say various things, classical Sufis say other things, and so forth. We cannot speak about a definable essence — or correct meaning — of a religion with 1.2 billion adherents. We can only speak about the diversity of its interpretation and practice. Some might respond to this view by adopting a literalist perspective: Islamic texts do appear to say some things directly and therefore it is possible to definitively determine what Islam says on a particular subject. Yet there can be no obvious interpretation of any religious text, any line, any passage, or any word. Muslims read the Quran and the Hadith — as do believers of other faiths with their holy texts — in a huge diversity of ways. Some read passages as literal, others as metaphorical, others as historically contingent, others in a sort of mystical way.
Of course, many religious people themselves attempt to essentialize their own religions. A Christian will tell you what the Bible “says,” just as a Jew or a Muslim will do the same with their own religious texts. But it is important that academics, in their dispassionate writings about religion, avoid going down such a path. So the question that frames this essay should not be, “Is Islam Compatible with Capitalism?” but, rather, “How Have Groups of Muslims Historically Conceptualized Correct Religious Practice With Regards to Economic Activity and How Has This Affected Regional Economic Outcomes?” Ha, okay, okay, that’s a bit long, but you see what I’m getting at.
*I am speaking here of the title of the essay rather than of the author’s content, which seems to do a somewhat better job of not essentializing religion.