Monday, October 31, 2005

Religio-economics, revelation and reality

Intriguing paper in the latest PAE Review by Mohamed Aslam Haneef of the International Islamic University Malaysia - Can There Be an Economics Based on Religion? The Case of Islamic Economics.

What Haneef discusses goes well beyond the now-familiar area of Islamic banking and finance, the design and study of various instruments that avoid riba (the paying or collecting of interest) and other forbidden acts. It's more to do with a new methodology for economics, based on the Islamic worldview and Islamic law (though the arguments are extensible to other religions and cultures).

It'd be easy to dismiss this as being on a par with Soviet (Lysenkoist) or Christian (Creationist) biology, but there's a clearer case for a culture-specific economics than for a culture-specific version of one of your actual sciences. At the simplest level, religious or social beliefs do affect behaviour, something overlooked in the neoclassical fetish of the rational agent - it's likely more than a matter of just re-bending the indifference curves.

More specifically and intriguingly, there's the question of 'revelation' as a source of economic knowledge, which could prove difficult to the western mindset. Haneef:
Revelation, being a legitimate source of knowledge, will certainly be a source of this vision and of modifying the vision. What revelation has to say about economic behavior and concepts including those related to man, nature, man’s relationship to nature and other humans, as well as those relating to consumption, production, distribution, finance etc. will form a preliminary conceptual framework of Islamic economics. This framework will have to be ‘systematized’ into principles, postulates, hypotheses, precepts and assumptions that will be investigated and validated or otherwise.
For religious based economics’, sense experience does not provide the absolute proof for “truth.” In Islamic methodology, facts must be distinguished from truth. While “proofs” from sense experience have certain authority, in Islamic epistemology, secondary sources cannot escape the criteria and proofs from revelation. ‘Reality’ will include revelation.

There's some tricky issues here, but Haneef aligns the case for a religious economics with the broader arguments in the West for an 'ethical' economics and a more pluralist approach to what can be easily painted as a doctrine-laden secular religion. But as he concludes:
While we hope that this paper has tried to show that there can be a religious based economics, whether or not there should be a religious based economics is another, potentially more sensitive question that I leave to another occasion.



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