Contrary to popular belief, Islam is well suited to economic, social and personal development, says Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, as long as we interpret it correctly

There is a popular view, especially in the West, that Islam has not come to terms with the modern world. This view holds that whereas Christianity “secularized” itself and shed supposed spiritual or religious constraints on material development, Islam did not. Further, unlike Christianity, which focuses on the individual, Islam, with its emphasis on the community, is said by these critics to be ill-equipped for modern economic development built on the idea of individual enterprise.

Within the Muslim world itself there are some groups that see Islam as a religion that is solely involved with salvation in the hereafter. Mankind’s primary purpose on earth, they say, is to fulfil the obligations of religious rituals and to equip itself with knowledge for the hereafter; knowledge and advancement in this world are of lesser importance or completely unimportant. As a result of these ideas, many Muslim communities are economically underdeveloped, and their depressed state adds to non-Muslim perceptions of Islam as a religion that is not suited to material progress in this world.
Both views could not be more mistaken.

Worldly duties

Islam preaches a holistic and comprehensive notion of development in this world and for the hereafter. It does not negate the pursuit of material development in this world, nor in any way render it subservient to spiritual development for the hereafter. In fact, Islam’s message is the direct opposite: it is no less than a religious obligation for Muslims to pursue and excel in all spheres of material development in this world, along with religious and spiritual development for the hereafter. This is reflected in the binary set of obligations that Muslims fulfil in their daily lives – individual duty to Allah (fardhu ‘ain) and a collective duty to society (fardhu kifayah). Thus the imperative for developing and modernizing our societies must be regarded as nothing less than a divine commandment for Muslims.

The teachings of Islam are also eminently suited to development in the modern, knowledge-based economy. The very first Koranic injunction from God to the Prophet Muhammad was Iqra – “Read”. In Surah Al-Zumr, verse nine, of the Koran, the importance of knowledge is underscored by the divine rhetorical inquiry: “Are those equal, those who know and those who do not know?”

Besides its emphasis on knowledge, Islam also enjoins a work ethic that equips the individual to excel in economic pursuits. Economies require an environment of good governance if they are to thrive. Islamic teachings also provide for this. Islam specifically enjoins practice of the highest standards of governance. Moral leadership, integrity, ethical conduct, the rule of law and a passion for justice, and a high degree of accountability, are all fundamental precepts of the religion. If Islam is understood and practised as enjoined, the environment for business and economic pursuit could not be better, for Islam provides a powerful religious imperative for the enactment and implementation of laws and regulations that foster good economic governance. Islam is inimical to corruption, deception and fraud.

The Golden Age

Islamic civilization and economies thrived during the 8th and 11th centuries because of a better understanding of the religion and more faithful adherence to its teachings, as well as the burst of industry and creative energy that accompanied the revelation of the teachings of Islam. While Europe was still in the Dark Ages, Muslims reached the heights of culture and learning. They sought the learning that had been accumulated in the Graeco-Roman civilization and enriched it before passing it on to Europe and the rest of the world. The Muslim world excelled in the sciences, mathematics, medicine, literature, philosophy, architecture, and sculpture.

Today, there are many wealthy Muslims in the more affluent Islamic countries. But many parts of the Muslim world are underdeveloped, and millions of Muslims are desperately poor. Illiteracy is high in some Muslim countries. Problems associated with poverty, such as a lack of safe drinking water, disease and short life spans abound in many areas. If Islam is not just conducive to development but is in fact a powerful catalyst and enabler of it, why do so many Muslims lag behind?
The answers are complex and many-faceted.

Many of them have nothing to do with Islam or religion. Poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa include those that are non-Muslim as well as those that adhere to Islam. The millions of poor in India or China are not just Muslims, but also Hindus, Buddhists and Confucians. But religion does play a role in the economic underdevelopment of some Muslim societies. The fact that Islamic teachings have been misinterpreted by some religious teachers has already been referred to. They preach that the purpose of life on Earth is essentially to imbibe fardhu ‘ain and to perform religious rituals. They treat fardhu kifayah as inferior in status or as unimportant. Striving to advance oneself in the material world is considered un-Islamic, or is even actively discouraged.

Islam has played a role by omission too. Muslim leaders and societies have failed to harness fully the powerful incentives for development that are inherent in the teachings of Islam. If Muslim societies could marshal this power and use it to productive effect, Islam could help galvanize development in the Muslim world, including among non-Muslims.

Islam Hadhari

With this in mind I have introduced in Malaysia the concept of Islam Hadhari, meaning literally “civilizational Islam”. It is not a new religion or sect or denomination. It is an interpretation of Islam that I deem to be correct, for it goes back to the basics and fundamentals of the great religion. Its practice will not harm or endanger other religious groups and communities. Indeed, development according to the principles of Islam Hadhari will promote their interests too.

Islam Hadhari is a concept that emphasizes comprehensive development according to the principles of Islam – the complete development of the individual, society and the nation. It affirms religious practice and spiritual development of Muslims as central for salvation in the hereafter. Indeed, “faith and piety in Allah” is the very first of the 10 principles of Islam Hadhari. But its main focus is the development of the human person, society and the nation, for which purpose faith and piety in Allah is also integral.

The nine other principles are: a just and trustworthy government; a free and independent people; mastery of knowledge; balanced and comprehensive economic development; a good quality of life; protection of the rights of minority groups and women; cultural and moral integrity; safeguarding the environment; and strong defences.
All the principles contribute to comprehensive development and quality of life. The principles most directly pertinent to development are “mastery of knowledge” and “balanced and comprehensive economic development”. But the pursuit of the other principles is equally important to foster development based on Islamic principles. Among them, it is important to stress that development must be ethical. It must be just and must protect and develop the rights and interests of the minorities as well. The rights of women should be fully protected and advanced. The environment must be safeguarded, and not undermined in the name of development. And while we pursue economic development, the moral and spiritual dimension of development must never be neglected.

Instead of perpetuating our state of denial or, worse, blaming everyone but ourselves for the lack of development in the Muslim world, we need to admit our mistakes and look to our religion for solutions. We have too many misguided people looking to our religion to justify retribution, revenge and conflict and not enough finding inspiration in our great faith to overcome the many complex challenges of the modern world.

This latter approach starts with a recognition that the teachings of our faith are relevant for all ages and provides us with a broad range of first principles from which we can derive practical solutions for human development in our societies. If we realize that the real challenge at hand is to combat poverty, illiteracy, backwardness and ignorance, we will have a solid foundation upon which to build.

CV Abdullah Ahmad Badawi

Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has been prime minister of Malaysia since October 2003.