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By Daromir Rudnyckyj


The Montréal Review, April 2011


Spiritual Economies: Islam, Globalization, and the Afterlife of Development (Cornell University Press, 2010) by Daromir Rudnyckyj


Recent events in the Middle East and North Africa have prompted renewed interest in the work of Max Weber, the great German sociologist who documented the correlation between Protestantism and economic development in Europe and North America. Unfortunately, some of references to Weber's work have been somewhat misleading. In contrast to some common interpretations, Weber did not assert that Islam was inimical to capitalism. Furthermore, Weber's approach is instructive in helping to comprehend contemporary movements in the Muslim world that are reinterpreting Islam as conducive to capitalism.

Much of the confusion about Weber's argument centers around the common misconception that he argued that capitalism was found only in the West. This is not the case. In fact, Weber asserted that what he called capitalism, by which he meant the ongoing pursuit of profit through enterprise and exchange, had existed throughout history in places as diverse as China, India, Babylon, and Egypt, in addition to the West. However, according to Weber capitalism in the West had features that were not found elsewhere: the separation of business from the household, rational book-keeping and accounting, the rational organization of formally free labour, and, most importantly, what he saw as a distinctive "spirit." Weber was most interested in this spirit of capitalism - a particular ethical disposition in which making money is considered an ethical duty and a moral act. These values are visible today in the common belief that hard work is a moral good and in the view that people who are unemployed or homeless are lazy and morally bad. It is also visible in the United States where economic liberals have demonized those who receive government support as indolent and, therefore, morally suspect.

The central problem for Weber was the origin of what he called this "peculiar" ethic. Although Weber is sometimes (mistakenly) read as celebrating the superiority of the West for the fantastic economic growth that it created, Weber was far less sanguine about the effects of the spirit of capitalism. In fact, he saw it as ultimately creating what he ominously referred to as an "iron cage" in which people were alienated from one another and trapped inside an insidious calculative rationality. Thus, far from being an account of the triumph of the West, Weber is better read as a critic of the cold reason that inhabits the world that the Protestant ethic produced.

Furthermore, Weber's question was not so much addressed to why Islam was a "poor foundation for capitalism," as Nicolas Kristof recently put it in the New York Times. Rather Weber was interested in why certain religious practices that emerged in the West were conducive to the emergence of capitalism. Kristof's recent interest in the compatibility of Islam and capitalism was prompted by The Long Divergence, a new book by the eminent Duke economist Timur Kuran. Kuran seeks to understand why most of the Middle East has suffered from underdevelopment in contrast to neighbouring countries in Europe. He argues that aspects of Muslim legal practice placed certain institutional constraints on economic growth in the region. Centrally Kuran argues that Islamic law hindered the emergence of large-scale firms and the ability of entrepreneurs to mobilize the volume of capital essential to building the enterprises characteristic of modern capitalism.

While Kuran's historical account of what he terms the "long divergence" is instructive, a contemporary view of the relationship between Islam and capitalism might yield a radically different picture. Today in many Muslim countries a growing number of self-styled "spiritual reformers" see the relationship between capitalism and the West less in terms of divergence and rather more in terms of convergence. In many Islamic countries spiritual reformers are reinterpreting the Qur'an and other facets of Islamic history and discourse as endorsing ethical dispositions strikingly similar to those Weber identified as pivotal to capitalist behaviour: hard work, self-discipline, and individual accountability. In demonstrating how devout Islamic practice can be conducive to capitalism, these movements create what I call "spiritual economies."

One example of these spiritual economies is the movement started by the influential Muslim televangelist Amr Khaled, who may run for president of Egypt. Khaled preaches a message of "faith for development" to millions of followers on a range of satellite television networks throughout the Middle East. With a preaching style evocative of Billy Graham and a following as devoted as Oprah's, this stylish former accountant for KPMG urges his admirers to enhance their Islamic piety and use it as a platform for development. His pop theology has been compared to American evangelist Dr. Rick Warren's notion of a "purpose driven life."

Similar figures, preaching a market-friendly message of Islamic devotion, are increasingly common across the Muslim world. In Indonesia (which contains the world's largest Muslim population) I have been tracking the exploding popularity of another such figure. Ary Ginanjar, a charismatic former business executive, started the Emotional and Spiritual Quotient (ESQ) program which advocates Islamic piety as a key to commercial success. ESQ has spread like wildfire across the Southeast Asian tiger economies and has been offered as far afield as Egypt, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.

ESQ combines the measured prudence of the management guru Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People with an Islamic version of the fire-and-brimstone oratory characteristic of American televangelists. Ginanjar, a former business executive and entrepreneur, instructs participants in his seminars and training sessions that the five pillars of Islam contain a formula for commercial success.

These elaborate spiritual training programs mix the latest human resources management theory with collective prayers and lessons in Islamic history. Ginanjar asserts that a work ethic conducive to business success is present in the five pillars of Islam. For example, the fourth pillar, the duty to fast during Ramadan, is recast as a directive for self-control and individual accountability. The third pillar, the duty to give charity, is taken as a divine endorsement of "synergy" and exercising "win-win" approaches in both business transactions and relations with co-workers. Ginanjar describes the prophet Muhammad as the model for a successful corporate executive and participants are encouraged to emulate his example in business and trade.

The highly engaging, interactive ESQ sessions have attracted over one million participants. Ginanjar uses the latest high-tech media centered on a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation. His presentations feature graphs, charts, tables, and those ubiquitous bullet points, as well as entertaining film clips, vivid photographs, and popular music with a driving bass line and catchy lyrics. Ginanjar uses a diverse array of popular media, web sites, and academic journals, drawing as much on Hollywood blockbusters as the sage scholarship of Harvard's business school.

The gripping climax of Ginanjar's program includes a simulation of events that take place during the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Most compelling for participants was a recreation of the circulation around the kaaba, the central shrine in the main mosque in Mecca. An SUV-sized replica of the kaaba is placed in the center of the room and participants rotate around it chanting in Arabic "there is no God but Allah." Participants also reenacted the stoning of jamrat al-aqabah, in which pilgrims hurl rocks at three representations of the devil, by hurling small wads of paper at three demonic images elaborately drawn and posted on flip charts. These reenactments were designed to intensify the Islamic piety of corporate employees and, by so doing, to increase both their own motivation and ultimately corporate productivity.

ESQ is just one example of initiatives throughout the Muslim world that seek to remould Islam to make it conducive to capitalism. In addition to Ary Ginanjar’s ESQ and Amr Khaled's Life Makers organization, examples include movements spawned by Fethullah Gülen in Turkey Asia and Abdullah Gymnastiar in Indonesia. These initiatives demonstrate that Muslims are responding to the problem of underdevelopment by drawing on Islamic virtues. In so doing, they emphasize that some of the same values that Weber recognized in capitalism are central to Islamic religious practice. Thus, far from seeing Islam as holding back economic development, reformers today throughout the Middle East and Southeast Asia see the everyday practices of Islam as conducive to capitalist success.


Daromir Rudnyckyj is Assistant Professor in the Department of Pacific and Asian Studies at the University of Victoria.


Spiritual Economies reveals how capitalism and religion are converging in Indonesia and other parts of the developing and developed world. Daromir Rudnyckyj offers an alternative to the commonly held view that religious practice serves as a refuge from or means of resistance against modernization and neoliberalism. Moreover, his innovative approach charts new avenues for future research on globalization, religion, and the predicaments of modern life.


"In anthropology, the value of inspiring ideas in any period depends on their realization in convincing ethnographic achievements. In this regard, Spiritual Economies is a bravura performance: at the site of Krakatau Steel, it shows the power and kinship of experiments in neoliberal economy, religious revival, ethnography-and para-ethnography-all in the same frame."

-George E. Marcus, author of "Ethnography Through Thick and Thin"

"In the clearly written and strongly argued Spiritual Economies, Daromir Rudnyckyj brings together the anthropology of development and globalization and the anthropology of the rising Islamic piety movement to show that religious resurgence can be part of globalizing economic development, not necessarily a refuge from it. He traces many of Indonesia's recent political and religious transformations from the vantage point of a steel factory, where the ESQ spiritual training program combines spiritual guidance, business success training, and a vision of Islam as predictive and encompassing of science and technology."

-John Bowen, Dunbar-Van Cleve Professor in Arts & Sciences, Washington University in St. Louis, and author of Can Islam Be French?


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