Archive for April, 2012

Immanuel Wallerstein writes in his book “World-Systems Analysis” that, “to the extent that we each analyze our social prisons, we liberate ourselves from their constraints to the extent that we can be liberated.”

I am a citizen of the United States, the most economically and militarily strong country in the contemporary world. I am a participant in global capitalism – everytime I go to the ATM or buy something at Whole Foods, I am linking up with organized firms that provide a service in pursuit of a profit. I am bound by the system of taxation, a unique confluence of political power and economic production, which means that whatever I have that is defined as “income” by the government of the United States can be taken from me, and used by people other than me.

Such economic and political forces (including many others not sketched out for the sake of brevity) were in place before I was born, and I participate in them because I have no other choice. The world-system is pervasive. As such, my real choices are bound by these social realities.

As a Muslim, I do not lament this characterization of the world, because I believe that God is ultimately in control of history. But it is upon me to analyze the world properly so that my choices within it can be justified before God after I die. To what extent am I required by God to struggle against this capitalist world-system? To what extent do my ethical choices as a Muslim contribute to acquiescence or resistance to the larger forces of wealth and power which deeply influence the lives of all living human beings?

In many respects, Islam provides a form of resistance to these realities. Ritual prayer, for example, is a central tenet of Islam, and a defining characteristic of Muslim cultural systems. Ideally, Muslim men (who historically have been the primary economic actors within the economies of Muslim societies) are supposed to be in the masjid five times a day. While this does not prevent economic activity from taking place, it does limit its scope in the social life of the Muslim. One can see this most clearly in the places where shops close at the time of prayer; in short, the pursuit of profit must stop repeatedly during the day in order to re-focus oneself on the pursuit of intangible spiritual rewards. Perhaps this is why economic imagery is so common in the Qur’an and hadith, for human beings in general are inclined towards productive economic activity, yet must learn to limit the amount of time and energy they devote to such concerns.

However, what this example does not take into account is a number of things. First, women are not required to be in the masjid, and so as capitalism seeks out people willing to devote their time and energy to economic pursuits, it will increasingly draw upon women to replace any man who refuses to subordinate their mosque-centered life of ritual prayer to a 12 hour workday in an office space. Secondly, as those who work within the capitalist system accumulate their own capital and thus increase their power in society, the mosque-going man becomes an increasingly peripheral social actor. He cannot abandon the capitalist system completely, and therefore often must rely on wage labor in order to make enough money to survive.

We see in Muslim socieities that the two most common groups of mosque-going men are peripheral laborers, and those who are wealthy enough that they can determine their own work schedules. This is not to say that others do not attend the mosque as regularly, but that these are the two most conspicuous social groups that are in the mosque five times a day around the world. Those in the middle, the cadre of professionals that keep the capitalist system functioning smoothly, are more beholden to the mores and attitudes required for maintainence or advancement of one’s position in the capitalist world-system. Academics, lawyers, business people, and technocrats are the most conspicuous of these groups. These people are either unable or unwilling to resist the demands of global capitalism at the risk of their own economic disenfranchisement, nor are they so wealthy that they can remain significant actors within the system while disavowing some of its claims to universality. Perhaps the most potent symbol of this are the pictures from the G-20 where the only leader dressed differently is King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. All the other leaders wear the dress of capitalism (the dark European suit), but King Abdullah wears his traditional clothing. The Saudi royal family can resist some of the cultural demands of global capitalism because it controls a quasi-monopoly on an essential good for the functioning of the global economy. The enormous income that the sale of oil produces means that Saudi Arabia has more room to negotiate the ways in which it deals with global capitalism without necessarily becoming more peripheral to the world-system. Part of the reason that Saudi Arabian society is able to control women so much more intensively is because their productivity is not necessary for the creation of surplus-value.

From this analysis, we can see that global capitalism has a way of eroding the social bases of daily congregational prayer for the most economically productive members of society. So what does this mean for me? It means knowing that capitalism as a social force is resistant to the formation of the day around congregational prayers in a mosque. A mosqued life is not obsolete, but it is threatened by the requirement that one’s productive activities be as economically productive as possible. Going to the mosque is like scheduling a meeting – it takes time and commitment, and means that there is less time in the rest of the day to do other things. As such, the usual compromise by practicing Muslim men who must compete within the rules of the system is to pray in their workplace or school, with the common exception of jumu’ah. After all, according to most interpretations it is not required for the Muslim man to be in the mosque for all five prayers. But what is undeniable is that it was the sunnah of the Prophet (may God bless him and his family and grant them peace) that was well established in the city-state of Madinah. The Madinans’ pursuit of capital accumulation was constrained by a belief system which encouraged them to devote considerable time and energy to activities which were primarily for their spiritual, not economic, benefit.

Muslims in the United States, almost all of whom have access to all their daruriyat (absolute necessities of life like clean water) and many hajiyat (beneficial things like access to transportation), need to resist the temptations and demands of global capitalism that might erode the social bases of their faith-system. The ritual prayer in congregation is one such example; the re-orientation of daily life during Ramadan is another. This resistance is not a direct challenge to the supremacy of global capitalism, but rather a personal and communal negotiation with its pervasive nature. But the more that people make these conscious choices, the easier it will be for more Muslim men (and women if they so choose) to make congregational prayer an important part of daily life. And as the hadith literature informs us, the spiritual rewards for doing so, are enormous. Put in terms a capitalist would understand, the return on one’s “life capital” is greater than 2000%!

wa Allah al-musta’an – and it is God’s help which is sought

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