Sunday, August 14, 2005

Inconsistency with pietist views

A friend sent me the following question by email:

Salamu alaikum,

That is interesting. I have a pdf here that seems to indicate Prof. El-Gamal considers conventional loans non-permissible, by virtue of his discussion on permissible Islamic loans. Yet his blog asks the rhetorical question: is there really a difference? Am I missing something?

I replied as follows:


The primer was written from the vantage point of those in the Islamic finance industry. From that vantage point, interest-based loans are definitively a form of riba, and trade or lease-based alternatives are good "makharij shar`iyyah" (means of reaching a licit end -- in this case extension of credit -- without violating forbidden forms that were often used to harmful end -- i.e. usury).

In my academic writings (see, for instance the paper on economic explication of the prohibition of riba, and the paper on interest and the paradox of Islamic law and finance -- which discusses the Azhar fatwa, what constitutes a loan, what constitutes interest, and what constitutes riba), I alternate between this view and my view as an economist. That is, I alternate hats to uncover paradoxes in the classical juristic analysis.

I guess [name] is uncomfortable with this approach, since religious issues are usually discussed in "black and white" fashion, and we expect every religious legal question to have one correct answer. That is far from obvious, of course, given the analysis, e.g. of Al-Amidi, and the famous example of "do not pray `asr except in the village of bani Quraydhah".

To recap: the primer was written for a pietist ISNA audience, to explain how Islamic finance addresses their concerns, and thus written from that vantage point. The bulk of my writings, on the other hand, tend to focus on substance rather than form, and to question the legitimacy of the pietist viewpoint adopted by Islamic finance, its jurists and its customers...

It is interesting in this regard that the pietist-minded exposition in the primer is widely read, but the critical analysis of its content isn't nearly as widely read. That would be like reading Al-Ghazali's _Maqasid al-Falasifa_, without reading _Tafafut al-Falasifah_, the latter part requiring the former and requiring its writing.

As for what I "consider permissible" or "consider non-permissible", that is totally irrelevant. For one thing, I am not a jurist, and therefore my opinions carry no juristic weight. Rather, I try to dissect the issue from different angles, challenge the assertions made by various parties, and hope that readers will make up their own minds... In most cases, those issues are best presented in the form of paradox, by switching from one vantage point to the other. That is a standard style, e.g. used by Martin Luther to communicate to his readers through paradoxes requiring resolution.

(Note: I do not mean to compare my meager contributions to those of Al-Ghazali or Martin Luther, only to suggest that their methodologies are useful to emulate).


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