Leiden Islam Blog

The interplay between ethics and economics in the work of Imam al-Ghazali

The interplay between ethics and economics in the work of Imam al-Ghazali

The writings of al-Ghazali on the role of ethics in economics is very relevant and meaningful for present-day economics. He already warned that money should not to be utilized for the sake of making profit, but rather for common good.

“Earning is not the aim of human life but it is a means to an end.”
                             (Al-Ghazali, Ihya, Vol. 2, 62)

Economic science as it is known nowadays is not older than a couple of hundred years, yet economic analysis dates back centuries, if not millennia. Various civilizations contributed to economic thought – Talmudic literature, Greek philosophers and medieval theologians, as well as Islamic scholars.

The interplay between economics and ethics as reflected in the writings of one of the most renowned scholars in Islamic history, namely Imam al-Ghazali (d. 1111), indicated the importance of those two fields. As is well known, Imam al-Ghazali, nicknamed ‘the proof of Islam’, contributed immensely to Islamic theology, philosophy and Islamic mysticism. Strikingly enough, al-Ghazali also made seminal contributions to the field of economics. But this contribution has been largely neglected, although al-Ghazali dedicated many chapters of his books to ‘just’ economic conduct within (Muslim) society. 

Al-Ghazali and the field of Islamic economics have been left out of the history. Several Western scholars (e.g. J. Schumpeter) claim that medieval Islamic scholarship did not offer any significant development in the field of economic thought in the Middle Ages. It is not assumed that al-Ghazali anticipated modern trends of Western economics; however, due to his importance and influence, he has impinged upon the fields of political economy and ethics.

Contemporary Islamic economics is predominantly concerned with what is lawful or unlawful according to the Islamic Law; how should economic transactions be incorporated into the commercial economic system; how does an Islamic banking system operate and other predominantly juridical-technical matters. Al-Ghazali’s writing on economy, however, is not only relevant for today’s analogous discussions, but also necessary in order to highlight the role of ethics in economics, since the latter are downgraded in commercial contemporary economics.

His ideas are embedded in the notion of din, in English translated as religion, and his economic philosophy basically related to the Islamic ethos of the Qur’an. Yet the content of his writings surpasses purely religious practice, and entails a rather broader meaning also related to social systems.

The main theme of his writings on economics consisted of the concept of maslaha, common good (or social welfare), related to the individual and to the society as a whole. All human conduct is framed in this term. Social welfare addresses human needs in relation to basic needs, i.e. food, clothing, shelter. Economic development is, according to the Islamic view of society, a requisite goal for all human beings, as understood from the Qur’an itself.

Al-Ghazali provided a thorough analysis of the role of trade, the evolution of markets and means of accumulation of wealth, as well as the role of ethical conduct. He warned that money should not to be utilized for the sake of making profit, but rather for common good.

Al-Ghazali does not directly discuss the characteristics of the modern economy as we know it nowadays, but he very profoundly elaborated on the notion of the public good and utilization of money. He already warned for two economic practices that are now widely present in contemporary economy – the concealment of sufficient quantities of goods and the deliberate utterance of false statements in order to gain profit. This, however, does not presuppose that his writings should be perceived through the lenses of modern economics.

The message of his work is also relevant and meaningful for the present-day economics. The ‘revival’ of al-Ghazali signifies another approach to the economic world, in which the spiritual dimension of economic activity is paid attention to.

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