While the outside world hardly noticed, a significant and rapidly growing amount of money is now being managed in accord with Islamic law, the Shari'a. According to one study, "by the end of 2005, more than 300 institutions in over 65 jurisdictions were managing assets worth around US$700 billion to US$1 trillion in a Shari'ah-compatible manner."
Islamic economics increasingly has become a force to contend with due to burgeoning portfolios of oil exporters and multiplying Islamic financial instruments (such as interest-free mortgages and sukuk bonds). But what does it all amount to? Can Shari'a-compliant instruments challenge the existing international financial order? Would an Islamic economic regime, as an enthusiast claims, really imply an end to injustice because of "the State's provision for the well-being of all people"?
To understand this system, the ideal place to start is Islam and Mammon, a brilliant book by Timur Kuran, written when he was (ironically, given heavy Saudi backing for Islamic economics) King Faisal Professor of Islamic Thought and Culture at the University of Southern California.
Now teaching at Duke University, Kuran finds that Islamic economics does not go back to Muhammad but is an "invented tradition" that emerged in the 1940s in India. The notion of an economics discipline "that is distinctly and self-consciously Islamic is very new." Even the most learned Muslims a century ago would have been dumbfounded by the term "Islamic economics."
The idea was primarily the brainchild of an Islamist intellectual, Abul-Ala Mawdudi (1903-79), for whom Islamic economics served as a mechanism to achieve many goals: to minimize relations with non-Muslims, strengthen the collective sense of Muslim identity, extend Islam into a new area of human activity, and modernize without Westernizing.
As an academic discipline, Islamic economics took off during the mid-1960s; it acquired institutional heft during the oil boom of the 1970s, when the Saudis and other Muslim oil exporters, for the first time possessing substantial sums of money, provided the project with "vast assistance."
Proponents of Islamic economics make two basic claims: that the prevailing capitalist order has failed and that Islam offers the remedy. To assess the latter assertion, Kuran devotes intense attention to understand the actual functioning of Islamic economics, focusing on its three main claims: that it has abolished interest on money, achieved economic equality, and established a superior business ethic. On all three counts, he finds it a total failure.
1) "Nowhere has interest been purged from economic transactions, and nowhere does economic Islamization enjoy mass support." Exotic and complex profit-loss sharing techniques such as ijara, mudaraba, murabaha, and musharaka all involve thinly disguised payments of interest. Banks claiming to be Islamic in fact "look more like other modern financial institutions than like anything in Islam's heritage." In brief, there is almost nothing Islamic about Islamic banking – which goes far to explain how Citibank and other Western majors host far larger Islam-compliant deposits than do the specifically Islamic banks.
2) "Nowhere" has the goal of reducing inequality by imposition of the zakat tax succeeded. Indeed, Kuran finds this tax "does not necessarily transfer resources to the poor; it may transfer resources away from them." Worse, in Malaysia, zakat taxation, supposedly intended to help the poor, instead appears to serve as "a convenient pretext for advancing broad Islamic objectives and for lining the pockets of religious officials."
3) "The renewed emphasis on economic morality has had no appreciable effect on economic behavior." That's because, in common with socialism, "certain elements of the Islamic economic agenda conflict with human nature."
Kuran dismisses the whole concept of Islamic economics. "[T]here is no distinctly Islamic way to build a ship, or defend a territory, or cure an epidemic, or forecast the weather," so why money? He concludes that the significance of Islamic economics lies not in the economy but in identity and religion. The scheme "has promoted the spread of antimodern … currents of thought all across the Islamic world. It has also fostered an environment conducive to Islamist militancy."
Indeed, Islamic economics possibly contributes to global economic instability by "hindering institutional social reforms necessary for healthy economic development." In particular, were Muslims truly forbidden not to pay or charge interest, they would be relegated "to the fringes of the international economy."
In short, Islamic economics has trivial economic import but poses a substantial and malign political danger.
June 21, 2010 update: The above account reflects the conventional understanding that Shar'i-compliant fiinance is going from strength to strength. At least in the United Kingdom, thiings appear to be otherwise, according to Katherine Griffiths in the Australian, "Sharia-compliant banking products a 'huge flop' in Britain."
Islamic bank accounts and other financial products have failed to take off in Britain, according to industry insiders. ... Junaid Bhatti, part of the team that set up Islamic Bank of Britain, the first Sharia-compliant bank approved by the Financial Services Authority, says that the sector has been a big disappointment. "As we now approach the sixth anniversary of IBB's launch, I'm sad to finally have to admit that Islamic finance in the UK has been a huge flop," he said. "IBB may still be limping on as probably the last bastion of the cause, but it's difficult to imagine it holding out for much longer."
Competitors have fared even worse and many had closed or scaled back their operations significantly, Mr Bhatti said. Established banks that launched Islamic banking products are also believed to have fared poorly. HSBC and Lloyds were seen as having made the biggest efforts to make inroads, but without much success, Mr Bhatti said.