Capitalism and Islam: Where Two World-Systems Meet

“Which is better, our present condition, or the proposed new order of society?” Aristotle posed this question more than two thousand years ago in a treatise titled “On Politics”, and this question remains pertinent even in this day and age. Answering this question should also be concomitant to an analysis of John Voll’s article titled “Islam as a Special World-System”.

Voll’s article begins with the statement of the intent behind the article, which was to conduct a world-system analysis of Islam but more specifically to conduct an analysis of a social and geographical unit that Voll identifies as the Islamic world. Voll sees the Islamic world as being the equivalent of a world system that stands in contrast to the prevailing world system known as capitalism. But before conducting the analysis of what he calls an Islamic world, Voll states Immanuel Wallerstein’s argument which is that a “world-system” can be one of two things: 1) a world empire, or 2) a world economy. Wallerstein continues by stating that a world economy usually turns into a world empire, but Wallerstein also demonstrates his astonishment at the fact that capitalism, as the world’s economic system, has not turned into a world empire.

After stating Wallerstein’s argument in relation to world systems, Voll provides a quick overview of the political history of what he identifies as the Islamic world. Voll notes that this Islamic world within the Middle East and Asia cannot be truly labeled as a civilization because it lacks the “coherence” that civilizations in a traditional sense possess. Yet the people across various Islamic localities shared common elements and characteristics that made it valid to label them as a unified Islamic entity known as the “Islamic World.” There is indeed a common notion among Islamic peoples of what is known as “Dar-al-Islam”, which in English means “the lands of Islam”.

What made Islam become a world system was not the traditional material or economic forces that are common in typical world systems, according to Voll. Rather, the coherence within the Islamic world system comes from what Voll identifies as a common mode of communication and discourse amongst Islamic peoples. Voll, based on the experiences of Ibn Battuta, perceives that there is a common culture amongst Islamic peoples despite their linguistic differences. The hallmark feature of the Islamic world, according to Voll, is the pervasiveness of Sufism throughout the various Muslim territories.

Sufism, in turn, is characterized as the search for knowledge that leads a Sufi to travel various parts of the world. Voll senses towards the end of the article that despite the world organization brought about by capitalistic western nations, the spread of Sufism and Islamic discourse throughout the world is enabled even further by the worldly organization brought about by western nations. Nevertheless, Voll ends the article by stating that the interpretation of both Islam and capitalism as world systems is a difficult task.

Voll is not wrong in asserting that the interpretation of Islam as a world system is a difficult task. When reading the Holy Qur’an, which is the foundation for everything Islamic, one quickly finds that the Holy Qur’an itself proclaims its exclusivity in the sense that the Holy Qur’an proclaims that it is a book intended only for people of knowledge and thought. The clear exclusivity demonstrated by the Holy Qur’an automatically brings into question one’s ability to turn Islam into an answer for the question of both societal and world order. Despite the fact that there are Muslim nations and countries in the world, it is hard to conclude that the material and economic organization and ordering of these Muslim countries are based on Islamic principles of a Qur’anic source.

World Order in general, according to Richard Haass in a book titled A World in Disarray, has six dimensions: economics, diplomatic efforts, strategy, politics, legal structures, and enforcement through military means. There is also a criterion for world order that encompasses the six different dimensions of world order, according to Haass. For one, there needs to be a widely shared definition of international rules and principles. Secondly, there has to be a process for setting, adjusting, and applying these rules and principles internationally. And thirdly, there has to be what Haass calls a balance of power that enables world order to materialize. But more important than the means towards the establishment of world order is internal peace within the countries that seek to establish world order, according to Haass.

The criterion, dimensions, and the internal conditions for the establishment of world order are virtually non-existent within Muslim countries and nations. Therefore, it is correct for Voll to assert that the interpretation of Islam as a world system is a difficult task. One can argue that the Holy Qur’an contains both the criterion and the dimensions for world order, but the conditions are not ripe for world order and thus there is no world order according to theorists like the late Kenneth Waltz, the late Hans Morgenthau, and Henry Kissinger.

As to why the conditions are not ripe for world order, two explanations immediately come to mind. For one, corruption undermines the political dimension for the establishment of world order. The goal of politics, according to Aristotle, is justice, and one can argue that Scandinavian countries like Norway and Sweden are more socially just than countries that we conventionally consider as being Islamic or Muslim. Corruption can arguably be defined as the deviation from natural law, and Muslims believe that the Holy Quran is a manifestation of natural law that establishes the natural order of things. Deviation from natural law is a deviation from the Holy Qur’an, and deviation from the Holy Qur’an leads to corruption, based on Islamic logic.

Also, the social and economic inequality resulting from growing debt and economic factors undermine the economic foundations for world order. Odd Arne Westad, who is a professor of US-Asia relations at Harvard University, wrote in the conclusion of The Cold War: A World History, that the main conflict of the present day will be between what he called the haves and the have-nots. Wealth, according to Aristotle, is provided by nature to all and the more important point is that the acquisition of wealth has its limits. But human desires and greed have no limits, and thus the acquisition of wealth is guided by human desires and greed and as a result disorder arises.

Many people want what others have and what they don’t have. That is a useful definition of desire and greed. One can legitimately argue that the unbounded desire, greed, and the pursuit of wealth while going against the grain of what is called the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith is the main cause for disorder in the international system today. But all people, whether Muslim or not, are subject to the forces of desire and greed. Ibn Arabi, who is considered to be the “Seal of the Sufis”, is said to have told his society of Muslims about a thousand years ago in Damascus that the God that you worship is underneath my feet. Upon further investigation, the people found that there was gold and silver buried underneath the spot where Ibn Arabi stood. It is precisely because of these material and economic factors that prompt Sufi thinkers to conclude that the nature of the material world is one based on war rather than peace, yet Islam remains the antidote to war by being nothing other than “peace”, thus making Islam the lone alternative to world systems that are based on nothing other than war.

The war between the “haves and the have-nots” resulting from corruption and inequality is the main reason why Erdogan and the AKP continuously get elected in Turkey, one can argue. But there are other forces or factors that will determine the sustainability of any political system not only in the Muslim World, but also in all parts of the world. In the conclusion of his book titled Islam and Politics, Dr. Peter Mandaville mentions four major factors or forces that will influence the manifestation of Islam and politics. For one, there is the issue of geopolitics that has imposed itself upon smaller countries all throughout the world. Second, there is the issue of globalization that has turned the globe into a community. Third, there is the issue of pluralism, which is in short supply in Muslim countries. And fourth is the issue of identity, which arguably comes under the influence of the three previously mentioned factors and forces.

Right off the bat, Aristotle notes in his treatise titled “On Politics” that there are two types of people: those who rule and those who are ruled. Ideally, according to Aristotle, those who rule are masters of philosophy and politics, and everyone else carries out the errands of the masters. If looking at philosophy as the fundamentals of knowledge, and with the divine or God being the source of all knowledge, then it is safe to say that the Holy Qur’an is a book of philosophy and thus a book containing the fundamentals of knowledge that is teleological in the sense that it addresses first causes.

Stemming from first causes is inevitably things such as world-systems and notions of world order, and thus Islam can be viewed as a conduit of things such as world systems and world order that stem from first causes. Hegel points to a phenomenon known as dialectical development, where the push and pull of opposite forces eventually lead to the greater good, or to the conquering of the absolute spirit (Geist) over nature. After all, everything that is or takes place is of necessity, according to Aristotle. Hegel’s view of the evolution of history is arguably an optimistic view.

Because the rapid breakthroughs in technology and communications have facilitated the rapid spread of ideas and reforms, Hegel’s time may in fact be this day and age. And as Voll noticed, the material and economic organization of the world based on capitalism and technological advancement will only facilitate ideas and natural laws that are advanced by the Holy Qur’an and Islam in an asymmetric but successful manner. However, people will not credit Islam for future reforms. As the Prophet Muhammad stated, Islam began as a strange and obscure thing in Mecca and it will return to Mecca as a strange and obscure thing in the latter days.

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