Review of The Islamic World-system: a Study in Polity-market Interaction by Masudul Alam Choudhury Routledge

The Islamic World-system: a Study in Polity-market Interaction. Masudul Alam Choudhury. London: Routledge Curzon, 2004.  ISBN: 9780415613156

Masdul Alam Choudhury is a professor of economics at Sultan Qaboos University, in Oman, where a number of scholars are working on economic models that operate through a Shuratic process, in harmony with the basic principles of Islam.  The Shuratic process involves input from stakeholders on both sides of all economic transactions, transforming such interactions into opportunities to advance – at least in theory – the economic, social, and spiritual welfare of the entire society.  This Islamic economic model seeks to establish a just distribution of economic benefits without resorting to what Choudhury sees as the forced, artificially constructed, and ultimately incorrect assumptions and models of Marxism, on the one hand, or the myopic and narrow-minded models emanating from neoclassical Western economics, with its emphasis on Pareto-optimality.  It also seeks to establish a socio-economic order that reflects the Oneness of Allah and the relationship between Allah and creation.  The Shuratic process is viewed by Choudhury as being in sync with Allah’s dynamic role in the universe, which he describes as IIE – “interaction, integration, and creative evolution.”  Allah is the origin-point of knowledge, with all creation responding to the divine outward flow of knowledge in creative ways.

A historian is apt to be misled by the title of this work, which alone might suggest an intriguing exploration of trade in the Islamic World during the medieval and early modern periods, but this is a study of theoretical economics, and the “World-system” it concerns is an a-historical, theological one.  For historians, perhaps the most significant section of the book is Choudhury’s critique of Immanuel Wallerstein’s World-system model (pp. 72-76), which he demonstrates to be incompatible with the Islamic world-view, and, by inference, with almost every other theological world-view.  Chapter 5, which concerns Ibn Khaldun’s theories of historical change, laid out in the Muqaddimah, also may be of interest to historians of the Islamic World, and possibly to those interested in comparative world history, as Choudhury discusses the ideas of Hegel, Marx, Schumpeter, Keynes, and other well-known economic theorists, both classical and modern, in relation to Ibn Khaldun’s arguments.

Readers should be forewarned that this is not a text that is easy to understand.  Although Choudhury does an excellent job of explaining the many Islamic terms he employs – some of which may be obscure even to Muslim readers who are not jurists – he assumes a quite advanced knowledge of both economic theory and advanced mathematics.  For all of these reasons, this book is unlikely to be of use to most professors, in their classrooms, unless their students happen to have a solid understanding of Islam, economics, and advanced mathematics.  Nevertheless, the central idea underlying the book is both intriguing and important, and might serve as an interesting point of departure for classroom discussions.  Can a market system accommodate the moral imperatives and social policies of a theological world-view?  Can a credit system operate without the possibility of exploitation inherent in interest-accumulation?  Can finite resources be allocated in a just way by a market system, or must all market systems move toward a model of efficiency that favors the few at the expense of the many?  These are all questions central to Islamic economic thought and, –in this age in which both capitalism and socialism have lost their way – questions that should be asked by all people who seek to understand both how economic systems work, and how they might be made to work for the betterment of all.  Choudhury quietly makes the radical proposal that the Islamic world may offer a third alternative to the market and state-oriented economic models of the West.

Reviewed by James W. Frey, University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh
Edited by Martin Pflug

(c) The Middle Ground Journal, Number 5, Fall, 2012. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]