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Intellectual brokerage in economic theology: Methodological and theoretical reflections from Islamic banking and finance


You have found yourself reading a handbook on economic theology, and I have found myself writing for it. In this prosaic academic activity, we are co-developing the contested and emerging field of economic theology — a field so nascent that as I 'll argue even its name is contentious. This chapters main strategy is to use the anthropological gaze to make two empirical economic theological projects strange: that of the co-production of this Handbook, and that of the co-production of Islamic banking and finance. Both projects are economic theologies if we follow Stefan Schwarzkopf’s (in this Handbook) lead in defining economic theology as “theorizing the economy around the role that theology played in shaping economic concepts” or in “the social presence of the sacred in economic life”. Let us enter this dialogue by way of a vignette — a genre popular in anthropological writing.

As part of a research project on Islamic banking and finance in Malaysia, I interviewed “Lee”1, a non-Muslim Chinese-Malaysian employed as a financial engineer in a transnational investment bank. He spends the majority of his time at this bank’s Islamic subsidiary, designing wholesale Islamic financial instruments such as sukuk, a financial product that is perceived by many to be theologically distinctive from conventional sovereign or corporate bonds because it is structured so that investors do not receive interest payments. In our interview focused on Lee’s work, we discuss many third parties, but one third party that is raised by neither of us is Allah as a transcendent agent. In contrast, 1 conducted another interview with “Mustafa”, a Muslim Malay-Malaysian with a career as a sharia scholar, employed as a part-time independent consultant on this same bank’s shari’a committee. In the course of our interview focusing on Mustafa’s daily work, we discussed many third parties, and one such third party was Allah and His actions and requirements on Earth. How does a researcher reconcile informants with two different epistemic perspectives as to whether there is a transcendental third party named Allah potentially acting at this worksite? This is not only my puzzle as a researcher. This is also a problem for Lee and Mustafa, both of whom work with one another to co-produce innovative Islamic financial instruments. How do two people living in such different ontological worlds work together to create a new economic theology?

In this chapter, I argue that a philosophical commitment to critical realism, coupled with conventional social science methodology, provides a useful solution for developing empirical research in economic theology'. This chapter also describes how practitioners like Lee and Mustafa are engaged in intellectual brokerage to develop Islamic banking and finance. With well over $2 trillion held in Islamic banks and financial instruments, 97 per cent of which is located in Muslim-majority countries (Pitluck and Adhikari 2018), Islamic banking and finance may be the worlds largest ongoing project of economic theology — the reshaping of economic relationships using religious and sacred theorizing. In doing so, I’ll softly suggest that my practitioners appear to be assuming a critical realist perspective (or at least some form of realism). Social science researchers can learn from these practitioners in Islamic banking and finance in two senses — not merely how they are building one of the world’s largest project in economic theology, but also how to engage in intellectual brokerage to co-develop the contested and emerging academic field of economic theology.

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