Some Considerations on the Methodology of Islamic Economic Studies

Almost all of the scholars who talk about Islamic economy and finance nowadays refer mostly to the Quran and sometimes to the Sunnah. This approach may be deemed to be accurate at first glance when the dominant discourse of our time is considered and evaluated; however, it brings up serious problems when the details are fleshed out. In this study, I will firstly point out these problems in brief and then will proceed to focus on some matters as to how the Islamic economy needs to be approached. To that end, the theoretical framework of the study will be based on Tahsin Görgün’s approach to the nature and meaning of the Quran and the Sunnah (see Görgün 2013), and the Islamic economy will be evaluated on the basis of this approach.

To begin with, we need to look at the question of whether the Quran and the Sunnah are the only sources of knowledge for Muslims. This may sound meaningless to some, but for the author of this article, it is very meaningful and important for the subject to be understood. Its importance should be noticed when it is considered that there is an emphasis on the Quran and Sunnah in Islamic studies in general and in studies on the Islamic economy and finance in particular. It should also be considered that this emphasis has been repeated in similar conditions. It may be appropriate to focus on this issue with a question in mind: Is the relation between the Quran and the Sunnah and a Muslim person a relation of subject-object, or is it a relation of a different kind? It is very crucial to give an accurate answer to this question, as it will enable us to determine the reasons for the many problems encountered today.

Since the issue is the Islamic economy, a system that was once in operation and was successful to a certain extent, it is clear that there were and still are some sources that nurture this economic system. For this reason, we need to question what the values of the Quran and the Sunnah as sources were in the classical period, as well as what they mean today. In other words, if the Islamic economy was founded on these two primary sources, and if these sources still exist, why does this field lack a theoretical framework for an Islamic economy today, and why do the attempts to propose one end up failing? The answer to this question, together with the ones posed above, lies in the fact that the Quran and the Sunnah do not hold any meaning for Islamic economists aside from their value as sources of knowledge. To put it in clearer terms, the Quran and the Sunnah are seen as objects in studies conducted on the Islamic economy, and they are referred to as sources of knowledge without any regard for the constituent roles they have played. The possibility for deriving accurate results from these studies diminishes as these two sources, which are the constituent elements of Islamic societies, are objectified within studies on the Islamic economy.

Today, the existing economic models and concepts are taken as the basis of studies on the Islamic economy, and the knowledge found in the Quran and the Sunnah is evaluated accordingly. However, the opposite was true when the Islamic economy was being successfully implemented in the past; in this situation, the knowledge in the Quran and the Sunnah would be taken as the basis, and attempts would be made to fit the existing situation into the application of this knowledge. This approach does not indicate that the existing conditions would be disregarded in the classical period; on the contrary, they would be considered at any rate. It will be better to explain this with an example: when the concept of need is analyzed in studies on the Islamic economy, the dominant theories in today’s economy are taken into consideration, and the results obtained based on these theories are taken as the basis. Based on this process, examples of or equivalents of these results are sought out in the Quran and the Sunnah. Within this framework, human needs are deemed to be limitless, whereas the resources are taken as limited, and a theory is constructed accordingly. This approach seems to show a disregard for human beings themselves, as it assumes that the biological needs of humans are limitless and overlooks their fundamental psychological and moral properties. Furthermore, even though economics defines human needs in this way, it is known that economics and economic activities are structured mostly in a way so as to meet the needs of capital, such as profitability, growth, and competition. Certain concepts are sought out in the Quran and the Sunnah based on certain assumptions that are essentially foreign to the model of humans and society that the Quran and the Sunnah aim to establish. Since the basis on which the subject is handled is quite foreign to these two sources, the result of this search neither matches these sources nor has a chance to work.

The same applies to such concepts as commodity, profit, consumption, income and labor. To determine the meanings of these concepts in the Quran and the Sunnah, the social reality in which these concepts are to be found needs to be analyzed in the first place. For this reason, the meaning attributed to the Quran and the Sunnah needs to be seen as having a different nature beyond their function as sources of knowledge.
There is clearly no need to explain how problematic it is to deal with these issues without any regard for, or even without any knowledge of, the classical theories (sects) which emerged within Islamic society. It is quite obvious that the interpretation of such concepts as commodity, profit and benefit based on the meanings provided in the dictionary would lead to misunderstandings, which is the reason why it is even more problematic to disregard the social reality in which these concepts are to be found. If we may put it in classical terms, it may be claimed that the words to be found in the Quran and the Sunnah possess three levels of meaning comprised of their lexical, customary and ecclesiastical (shar‘î) meanings, and therefore the most common and biggest mistake made in studies of the modern Islamic economy is to approach the subject with an understanding different from these three meanings; namely, with the meanings that the modern economy attributes to these concepts. The economic model thus constructed is based on certain concepts that, in terms of their wording (they are allophones), are the same as the concepts in the Quran but that are very different in terms of their meaning and nature. This is the fundamental methodological problem of contemporary studies conducted on the Islamic economy. The main reason is that they provide recourse to the lexical meanings of the concepts found in the Quran and Sunnah (it is not possible to say that this is always done in proper ways, either) and disregard the customary and ecclesiastical meanings of these concepts. As a result, they overlook the social structure that gives life and soul to these concepts, making it quite difficult to consider the results of the studies thus conducted as part of the Islamic economy.

This problem applies to all of the concepts that are taken as the basis of studies conducted on today’s Islamic economy. Some studies find that there are similar concepts to those found in today’s economics in the Quran and the Sunnah, and although analyses are made on their lexical meanings, it would be quite difficult to claim that their ecclesiastical and customary truths were also revealed. The reason is that the social reality in which these concepts emerged needs to be considered in the first place. Although very rarely, some studies on the contemporary Islamic economy try to establish the ecclesiastical truth; however, since they are very far away from the customary truth, they cannot properly present the meanings of the fundamental concepts in the Islamic economy. After all, instead of examining the concepts and issues presented by the existing economic system based on the Quran and the Sunnah, the studies conduct a search in the Quran for the concepts and issues imposed by the existing economic system.

As was mentioned above, the fundamental reason for this approach is the fact that the Quran and the Sunnah are regarded as sources of knowledge. This indicates that the perspective of the modern period is completely different from that of the past. In the classical period in which the Islamic economy was used as a system, the Quran and the Sunnah would be approached with the practice (‘amal) of being regarded as central, and this would have a transformative function. As a matter of fact, when the present is compared with the classical period, it is seen that this perspective constitutes the most fundamental difference between the two periods. For this reason, as long as the communication of the Lawgiver to the Muslims remains a source of knowledge and is not turned into practice (‘amal), it will be quite difficult to claim that the proposed, contemporary theories are theories of Islamic economy. To overcome this situation, the Quran and the Sunnah must be seen as existential sources, not merely as sources of knowledge.
Starting from this view, it needs to be said that for the Quran to have an effect on the economy as in other fields, it firstly needs to be handled beyond an approach that objectifies it. The Quran needs to be seen as the existential reason of Muslim society. To ensure its applicability in social life, the Sunnah—namely the founding role of the Prophet (pbuh)—needs to be considered. This would only be possible if one submits (ittiba‘) to the Prophet (pbuh), which is the founding principle of Islamic society. Consequently, it is seen that the Quran and the Sunnah are inseparable, and one cannot function without the other (Görgün, 2013: 209-235). For this reason, the people who work today on theories about Islamic economy and finance have no chance to be successful, since they focus on the Quran and propose various assumptions based on certain principles mentioned in the Quran. Hence, they overlook the constitutive character of the Sunnah. In addition, it is not possible to name an economy that claims to rely on the Quran and the Sunnah and be based on them as an Islamic economy, unless the Quran is regarded as the existential reason of the Islamic society and unless submission (ittiba‘) to the Prophet (pbuh) is regarded as the constitutive principle of this society.
Having established the position of the Quran and the Sunnah for Islamic society and sciences in this way, we have come to the question of the method to be followed by economics as a science. First of all, it would be proper to consider the meaning of sciences in Islamic societies, how the science of economics is related to other sciences, and what this science means on its own. It is possible to claim that the various sciences which emerged throughout history—such as linguistics, hadith, history, Quranic exegesis ( tafsir), Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) and ‘aqidah—have been referred to as methods by Islamic society throughout its existence (Görgün 2013, 228). Economics is a science that Islamic society uses to handle economic problems and through which it tries to solve these problems (in line with the method, the framework of which was given above). For this reason, economics possesses an identity similar to the other sciences. As this is the case, we see that the science of economics is a science with specific premises, as is so with the others (these premises are the principles that emanate from the fact that Islamic society has submitted to the Sunnah). Therefore, it is possible to talk about an economic thought that has certain aspects particular to Islamic civilizations. However, this does not mean that it is a completely different science. Instead, it means that it is a discipline the distinctness of which lies in its submission (ittiba‘) to the Sunnah and its difference from other systems.

It is clear that the Islamic economy is not a completely different economic system with all of its institutions and concepts. As people engage in various kinds of commercial relations that have been similar for the most part across all geographies and periods, it would not be accurate to claim that their difference lies in their functions. Economic systems are differentiated not on this basis but on the basis of the different properties they possess. For this reason, the fundamental properties of the Islamic economy that distinguish it from other systems constitute its authentic aspects as well. In other words, what make the Islamic economy authentic are the points on which it differs from other economic systems. For instance, the suggestion of an interest-free economic system is the most important matter in this respect. The negative impact of indeterminacy on the contract may be mentioned within this framework as well. For this reason, even though Islamic economics possesses certain aspects that are similar to other economic systems, considering its sources of inspiration and the differences it presents makes it possible to talk about the existence of a specifically Islamic economy. This brings up the question of certain concepts that are dominant in the contemporary Islamic economy.

The leading concepts that are emphasized most or mentioned frequently in contemporary studies on the Islamic economy and finance are concepts such as maqasid and maslaha, which are borrowed from fiqh. In the vast majority of the studies in question, these concepts are not used properly, and the results obtained based on the meanings attributed to these concepts are not to the point as a result. The reason why these concepts are used more frequently today compared to the classical period is that they establish the grounds so that the Islamic economy, which is a part of the theoretical and practical system proposed by Islamic civilization, may be easily separated from its roots. In other words, these kinds of concepts that are emphasized more in modern times enable the scholars who are interested in the science of economics to think freely without being restricted by the methods proposed in the classical period. This is a mistake made especially by researchers who do not have any idea about the nature of the meaning these concepts possess in usul al-fiqh. These researchers mostly act based on the knowledge they have gained from secondary sources.

To give an example of the shift in the meaning of a concept used today, we will briefly mention the meaning attributed to the concept of maslaha—including the maqasid as well—by the classical thinkers, and we will content ourselves by saying that a comprehensive discussion of the subject will be made somewhere else. While defining maslaha, al-Ghazâlî (c. 505/111) mentions the lexical meaning of the concept and defines it as the case in which one affords an advantage and prevents a loss. However, he immediately claims that this kind of maslaha is not the same as the maslaha in fiqh, since this definition was made with respect to the purposes of the human being. Then he claims that maslaha means the preservation of the objectives of Shariah. On the other hand, the goal of Shariah is the preservation of the religion, lives, minds, lineage and property of the people (al- Ghazâlî 1413, 481-482). As it is seen in this example, the concepts of maslaha—and thus, of maqasid—possessed different meanings in the classical period (in which the Islamic economy enjoyed a lively field of application) from the meanings they possess today: while maslaha indicates the objectives of Shariah in one context, it encompasses the purposes of the people in the other.

As al- Ghazâlî points out, maslaha may be used only in lexical terms to mean the prevention of harm to gain an advantage, while this definition does not provide a framework to be referred to when the issue is Islamic sciences. For this reason, when maslaha is the issue in the science of fiqh, it does not have this meaning. As will be explained below, if maslaha is mentioned in the science of economics, which is a sub-branch of fiqh, it should not be defined based on its lexical meaning. Instead, the framework provided by the classical theory should be taken as a basis. Otherwise the result obtained will be false, since it will proceed based on a false premise.
As explained above, if the ecclesiastical and customary meanings of the concepts are not taken as a basis, and if these concepts are used only with regard to their lexical meanings, grave problems will emerge in Islamic thinking and, consequently, in various disciplines. This is one of the most prominent problems encountered by a large number of contemporary studies on Islamic economy and finance.

In addition to false meanings attributed to concepts, various methodological mistakes add intricacy to the debate. Namely, one of the most important matters that is overlooked by academic and professional studies conducted on economic practices and banking is that they do not emphasize the necessity of following a method in this field. In any study to be conducted, either in the contemporary social sciences or in the physical sciences, the approaches that provide a theoretical framework for that study are to be followed. Many scholars overlook the fact that this also applies to the Islamic sciences in similar terms. As it is seen in contemporary studies on Islam, approaches that do not employ a method and theories that are developed regarding issues in the Islamic economy based on these approaches become established rules. These rules then block the real issues or become the biggest obstacles to the adoption of the proper approach. For this reason, if an Islamic economy is at stake, it means that there are certain fundamental constants on which this discipline is based and that it is a science that needs to follow a methodology. Therefore, if studies on the Islamic economy do not follow a methodology and the issues are not studied within the framework of a specific system, it is not possible to see a considerable degree of progress, nor is it possible for the Islamic economy, despite its crucial potential, to become an economic system that may exist on its own.

How will this be possible? Whether this question may be answered depends on our ability to determine the role played by the Islamic economy up until the colonization of the Islamic world. In other words, the Islamic world possessed an established economic system of its own until it encountered the hegemonic invasion of the West, and this economic system was being successfully applied in a region in which the most important economic activities of the world were carried out. This illustrates that it is not impossible to implement an Islamic economy or the economic principles it proposes; on the contrary, it is quite possible, and this possibility has enjoyed important success in the past. For this reason, instead of focusing on such concepts as maslaha and maqasid, those who talk about the Islamic economy and finance today need to analyze the dynamics/principles of the Islamic economy (which was once successfully applied as an economic system in the past) and must develop theories based on their analyses. Other approaches have no chance for success. The studies done by some economic historians illustrate that the Islamic economy as a system had been applied with success.1 Aside from these studies, it is not possible to think that the Muslims who lived in various geographic areas for many centuries did not engage in commercial activities. Thanks to the resources provided to us by historical archives, we know that Muslims engaged in intercontinental economic activities successfully. Therefore, the first thing that needs to be done through studies on the Islamic economy is to analyze the system that was applied in the past and to determine the factors that brought success to the economic system applied by Muslims. Although quite a big issue is at stake here, the right thing to do is to point out some of the reasons for this success, or more precisely, the reasons that established the ground for this success and concluded the subject.

As it is known, the Ottoman Empire survived through the economic policies it applied for some centuries, and this continued until the 19th century. The classical approach that the Ottoman Empire relied upon began to change in this century, and this change brought with it the dissolution of the Empire. The economic view of the Ottoman Empire, which was spread across wide continents, was based on three principles— provisionism, fiscalism and traditionalism--which were referred to as the three coordinates by the famous Ottoman economic historian Mehmet Genç (Genç 2000, 43-52). The fundamental source of the main principles of the Ottoman economy was without doubt the religion of Islam. In this context, adherence to the fundamental sources of religion, the theoretical framework of which was given above, defined the traditionalism of the Ottoman Empire. The economic structure of the Ottoman Empire adhered to it for quite a long time and achieved considerable success in this way. However, this situation began to change in the 19th century. It is possible to observe this change through the concept of qadîm (ancient). While the history of the concept of qadîm was not known by anyone until this century, it came to be used to mean “unknown, old -fashioned, and worn out” as of this century (Genç 2000, 92). This shows that the concept was reduced to its lexical truth and came to be perceived in this way. However, even though no serious problem seems to be at stake right now, this approach is an important sign of a change in the mentality of society.

Here, the relation of the qadîm with the custom is of a legal nature on the one hand and means undergoing tradition with obedience on the other. Therefore, the qadîm values that determine the commercial ethics and reflections correspond to the founding principles of Islamic society. On the other hand, the emphasis placed on the cedîd (the new) in the 19th century when the qadîm came to have a negative meaning indicates that the function of these founding principles for directing the social structure had changed. Therefore, the qadîm came to mean “worn out,” instead of referring to that whose history is not remembered by anyone. In other words, while qadîm used to have a definitive place previously, as of this century, it became a word that is only looked up in the dictionary. For the most part, this is also the case for contemporary studies on the Islamic economy, most of which make various conclusions based on the lexical meanings of certain concepts.

Even though studies on treasury, tax and economics are conducted in separate works throughout Islamic history, issues related to economics in particular had been examined within the science of fiqh for the most part. The science of fiqh is a science that belongs to the Muslims due to its properties, and it is one of the most important reasons for the successful application of the economy in Islamic society. Therefore, although some of the researchers who work on the Islamic economy criticize the perspective of fiqh, the theoretical framework through which the Islamic economy should be approached as a discipline cannot be thought of without fiqh. In other words, the Islamic economy, which had been applied successfully in history, may be approached and applied as a system again only if it benefits from the theoretical framework of fiqh. However, this is not enough on its own; the historical practices that concretize this theoretical framework will also provide guidance to the studies on the Islamic economy to a large extent. In conclusion, the approaches of the legal (fiqh) sources, in which the Islamic economy developed as a discipline and found its framework of reference, need to be determined properly in the first place; then, the historical experiences need to be considered. The historical experiences that are overlooked in contemporary studies on the Islamic economy can provide very crucial clues for us to be successful today.

Al-Ghazâlî, A. H. 1413. Al-Mustasfâ min ‘ilm al-usûl. Vol. II, ed. Hamza Ibn Zuhayr Hâfiz. Medina: Sharîkat Medina al-Munawwarah.
Genç, M. 2000. Osmanlı İmparatorluğunda Devlet ve Ekonomi. İstanbul: Ötüken Yayınları.
Görgün, T. 2013. İ lâhî Sözün Gücü, Varlık ve Bilgi Kaynağı olarak Kur’ân. İstanbul: Külliyat Yayınları.