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Mazhar Farid Chisti

Religion and Economics—I

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By Mazhar Farid Chishti

Harmonizing moral and spiritual values with the economic ones may bring the peace the whole world needs. Economic science focuses on our material activities, studying how we can get maximum satisfaction through material goods and services. Religion, on the other hand, draws humanity’s attention in the opposite direction: towards God, who is above and beyond all matter and is indivisible and untouchable. If religion is about mankind’s inner life, economics is about our outer life.
This antinomy expresses itself in different forms in the great religions and has naturally often been an impediment to economic progress.

In Buddhism there is a strong emphasis on the transient character of material life. Birth and death, growth and decay all is Samsara: an illusion.Peace and salvation can only be found in truth, which is eternal and everlasting. The truth is realized in Buddha. The gospel of Buddha therefore admonishes the faithful to extinguish in them every desire that antagonizes Buddha. By achieving spiritual evolution, the followers too will become like Buddha. To come to this end, where all sorrow ceases, they are instructed to follow the eightfold path of right comprehension, right resolution, right speech, right acts, and right way of earning a livelihood, right efforts, right thoughts and the right state of peaceful mind.

In Hinduism, for example in the Bhagavad-Gita, there is a clear recognition that action in the world is necessary. But work should be done without attachment to the fruits of the work. We are all forced to act, but we should act with self-control and the results of the action should be renounced. Mankind’s aim should not be satisfaction of its own needs, as is assumed in economics, but in doing one’s duty. This duty is seen as given for every individual according to his or her situation in life, and is worked out in the caste system which has been a serious impediment to economic development.

In Islam, the believer is told that life hereafter is preferable to the life in this world. This again draws the attention and longing of the faithful in a direction opposite to worldly life.

Recently some writers have tried to develop ‘Islamic economics’. Drawing from the Quran and other Islamic sources, they are trying to restructure economic thought and practices on the basis of Islamic teaching. Many economic practices like the payment of interest, insurance, arbitrage, speculation and indexation are considered un-Islamic. But the injunctions to avoid these economic activities will either impede economic growth or these injunctions will not be followed, creating hypocritical arrangements as in Islamic banking where interest on deposits is disguised as a ‘mark-up’ or ‘commission’.

Christianity also teaches that humanity’s aim should be a heavenly, not an earthly, treasure. Medieval Christianity imposed some restrictions on economic activities.

There were injunctions for just prices and interest on loans was forbidden. Economics was subordinated to religion, just as science, ethics and aesthetics were. This was a serious hindrance for the development of market capitalism.
Seeing how religion guided mankind in a direction opposite to the striving for the satisfaction of material needs, the question arises as to how the breaking of these religious barriers came about in the West.
The great German sociologist Max Weber has shown that crucial support for this breakthrough came from Protestantism, and notably from its Calvinist version, developed by John Calvin in the 16th century. That was the beginning of the modern area of economics.
But Roman Catholic Church reconciled itself, with certain qualifications, with market capitalism only in the late 20th century. The different influences of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism on economic growth have also been statistically confirmed in a research paper. Bradford de Long, an economist and econometrician, has carried out a striking study of some nations comparing their performance during 1870-1979. He discovers that Protestant nations show higher growth rates than the Roman Catholic ones. (To be Continued)

(The author teaches Finance and Economics at Lahore Garrison University and can be contacted at al-farid@hotmail.com)

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