A Just and Equitable Economy: Envisioning and Implementing Islamic Banking and Finance


In the contemporary Islamic world, many Muslims are actively trying to restructure their economic actions to in accordance with their Islamic values and ethics as part of an Islamic economics. This includes large-scale productive endeavors such as Islamic banking and finance as well as the regulation of charitable giving. It also includes the consumptive practices of Muslims. This article describes the history of thought behind Islamic economics, the methods and structural attempts at such endeavors in Islamic banking and finance, and the production and consumption of the ethics of a more fully Islamized economy by Muslim consumers. These actions represent the steps many Muslims take to both Islamize and inculcate the ethics of “acting rightly” in the economy. As a result, these ethics of “acting rightly” are transmitted through intermediate spaces within and between state and society, which are, in turn, incorporated and utilized in individuals’ lives in a variety of ways, rendering Islamic economics a highly variable public and personal affair.


In the early 2000’s, Coca-Cola reported that sales in Egypt fell by 10% after the belief spread that a Coca-Cola label, when held up to a mirror, spelled out “La Mohammed La Mecca” or “No Mohammed No Mecca.”1 The phenomenon became highly controversial, boycotts of Coca-Cola were enacted, and eventually the Grand Mufti of Egypt spoke out in an attempt to dispel the rumors. Nonetheless, a change had occurred: some Muslims branded Coca-Cola as “anti-Islamic.” Meanwhile, Mecca Cola entered the markets and introduced its product as the “authentic Islamic alternative,” replete with political messages against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and with promises of charitable contributions that would support both Palestinian humanitarian causes and local charities.2 By 2005, Mecca Cola was a competitor in 65 different countries, and by 2010 had developed plans to launch an Islamic alternative to Starbucks, the “Mecca Café.”

As this example demonstrates, many Muslims are engaging Islamic beliefs in their everyday lives and enacting the religious injunction to “command right and forbid wrong” (Cook 2000) in the economy. Islamic economics, or the intended transformation of the economy by way of commanding charitable giving, or zakat, and forbidding interest, or riba, in banking and finance transactions has emerged as the primary, systematic way of engaging the economy. Beyond attempts at institutionalizing charitable giving as well as banking and financing, Muslims are taking Islamic values and ethics to the economy in their productive work and also bringing these values and ethics into consideration in their consumption patterns as a way to define and practice Islam in the contemporary world of global capital.

Beyond zakat and prohibitions against interest in banking and financial transactions, there is surprisingly little consensus and a tremendous amount of diversity as to these Islamized economic practices. As a result, the links and points of overlap between the agenda of structural change in Islamic economics with the productive and consumptive actions of Muslim economic actors in an Islamized economy demonstrate that there are a variety of ways by which those interested in changing the economy are transferring Islamic values and ethics into society and how those values and ethics are then being interpreted and play out in actors’ lives.

This article will describe the history of thought behind Islamic economics, the structural attempts at Islamic economic endeavors in Islamic banking and finance, and the production and consumption of an ethics of an Islamized economy. These actions represent the steps many Muslims take to both Islamize and inculcate the ethics of “acting rightly” in the economy. As a result, these ethics of “acting rightly” are transmitted through intermediate spaces within and between state and society, which are, in turn, incorporated and utilized in individuals’ lives in a variety of ways, rendering Islamic economics both a highly public and personal affair.

Islamization of Knowledge: Making the Economy “Islamic”

Attempts to Islamize the economy initially grew out of an interest in Islamizing the sources of knowledge from which economics derives, along with other types of knowledge. The Islamization of knowledge, defined as the production of knowledge and the marking of it as distinctly “Islamic,” has been the subject of much attention and debate among social scientists for nearly 100 years, particularly with regard to issues of modernity and the economy (Abaza 2002, Euben 2002, Huff 1999). The project is undertaken in the hopes of extrapolating and integrating centuries-old Islamic ideas derived from Islamic law into a modern capitalist landscape in a systematic and productive way, and much of the debate involves contestations over what is “real” and what is “invented” in the interpretation of religious texts (Abaza 2002:10). The discourse and the search for authenticity by Islamizing various forms of economic knowledge, institutions, and practices have become part of the encounters with Western academia, and the social science of economics in particular (Abaza 2002:5).

This contemporary endeavor is particularly challenging, however, because most of the early Islamic responses to the economy were to regulate consumption and promote ethics of life and lifestyle, including prohibitions against pork (Qur’an 6:125), alcohol and gambling (Qur’an 2:219), as well as rules guiding the purification of animals for eating and regulations in modes of dress. The early Islamic economy could be more accurately characterized as a “moral” or “ethical economy,” which provided for social and cultural solidarity among an otherwise socio-economically and geographically diverse group of Muslims, rather than a guide for a comprehensive, modern capitalist economy.

Nonetheless, academics and intellectuals undertook the endeavor. The phrase, the “Islamization of Knowledge,” was devised in 1977 at a conference of Muslim intellectuals in Mecca, which later branched off into a wide variety of projects, of which Islamic economics is but one of them, involving different claims of exclusivity and monopoly over the discourses and projects. The Egyptian variety, for example, took an inward-looking approach that has attempted to engage in dialogue and exchange with Al-Azhar University and its ulama, as well as other cultural and political institutions in a search of an alternative, authentic, and non-Western understanding of how knowledge, institutions, and practice can be distinctly “Islamic” (Abaza 2002:10). Parallels in the political realms, for example, were abundant during the Arab Spring and with the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood as the “Islamic alternative” in Egypt (Hamid 2011).

The economy, in particular, is subject to such debates and attempts at reform. Here, the Islamization of the economy asserts that the laws, institutions, and forms for organization put forth in the Qur’an, hadith and sunnah – in Islamic law – provide a “just and equitable model for economic growth,” balancing both the social justice and equality emphases of socialism with the emphasis on entrepreneurialism and the commercial traditions of Islam (Hefner 2006a, 2006b). In other words, contemporary capitalist practices have put the wind into the sails of a morally-oriented Muslim economics. This Islamization of the economy is more commonly known as Islamic economics.

Islamic Economics: Defining the Concept

Islamic economics is the intellectual, cultural and economic “invented tradition,” which upholds terms for an alternative economics to the predominant capitalist system. In accordance with the idea that Islam is a “total way of life,” Islamic economics began as an ambitious project of reform of all economy practices (Kuran 2004:2). This modern movement aims to address a mix of social and economic issues, and reframes lapses in market functioning as a result of moral forces rather than strictly economic ones. Begun as a social movement in the mid-twentieth century, but relying heavily – if not exclusively – on medieval Islamic thought, Islamic economics has set forth a variety of terms for a restructuring of the banking and finance sector, as well as almsgiving and taxation.

Initially, Indian Muslims in the 1940’s launched what became today’s Islamic economics, and did so from a desire to define an Islamic civilization different and apart from foreign cultural influences (Kuran 2004:39). The writings of the Pakistani ideologist, Sayyid Abul-Ala Mawdudi established the term “Islamic economics.” This new approach was envisioned as a vehicle for establishing and recentering Islamic authority in economics, a domain that was increasingly falling under the influence of Western ideas (Kuran 2004:39, Maurer 2005:29). Despite the conflations of the science of economics and the ideologies of Islamism, the cultural meanings in an Islamic economics were clear from its beginnings as an intellectual tradition and revivalist form of knowledge (Tripp 2006:103-118; Kuran 1997). That is, Muslims were thinking differently about what the economy could mean for Islamic practice and aimed to carve out a place for Islamic ethics. The movement pushed Islamic economics from an abstract, intellectual exercise into an Islamized social science, and it attempted to address the discipline’s rigors while meeting ideological, cultural, and political ends. Over the course of a few decades, Islamic economics and manifest itself in two distinguishing factors: the prohibition of interest, riba, and regulation of the religious injunction on almsgiving and taxation, zakat (Kuran 2004:39).

Islamic Banking and Finance: Understanding the Methods

The most vital elements of Islamic economics that the banking and finance reforms adhere to is the Qur’anic injunction against riba’, which is literally “increase” but most frequently understood as “interest” and interpreted as a prohibition against both usurious and non-usurious rates of lending (Hefner 2006a, 2006b, Kuran 2004, Maurer 2005, Tripp 2006), as well as a prohibition against profit without risk (Kuran 2004:8). Such prohibitions and interpretations have resulted in four primary forms of banking and financial services, which fall into varieties that closely resemble venture capitalism and lease financing. There are, of course, other forms, which vary from country to country and even from bank to bank.

The first form is mudaraba, which is a form resembling venture capital in which an investor or group of investors entrusts an entrepreneur with financial capital, who invests the capital in a particular productive or trade venture, and then returns the principal and a pre-specified share of the resulting profits back to the investors (Kuran 2004:8). This form is modeled after the earliest known economic arrangements at the advent of Islam, especially the financial endeavors of the Prophet Mohammed and his first wife, Khadija, including the trade expeditions she sponsored and the employment framework with which she hired and paid the Prophet Mohammed.

The second form, musharaka is similar to mudaraba, except in this form, the entrepreneur exposes her own capital for loss and profit. This form is modeled after the relationship between the emigrant Meccans and the ansaar, or helpers, in Medina in shared economic and fictive kin relationships that were established after the Hijra, or movement of early Muslims out of persecution in Mecca. These two forms of early economic partnering were recognized in classical Islamic law and refer to relationships between individuals, rather than businesses or corporations (Hefner 2006b).

The third and fourth forms involve lease financing. Despite their wide prevalence, the Islamic underpinnings are less clear than the prior two examples. They appear to be financial arrangements that existed prior to the advent of Islam, and then were folded into Islamic practice and justified in Islamic law and the hadith. The third form, murabaha, is a “cost-plus” form of ownership transfer for goods, which is the most popular financing mode in Islamic banks (Kuran 2004:10). Again, following the idea that profit should not be had without taking on some risk, a producer or trader submits a list of goods that she is interested in purchasing. The bank purchases the item(s), marks up the price(s) and then transfers ownership over to the client, who pays the elevated amount at some set time in the future. This transaction becomes legitimate from an Islamic standpoint because the banks have taken on ownership for sometime, even a fraction of a second can legitimate this, thereby exposing the banks to a measure of risk.

The final, predominant form includes ijara, in which the bank will lease an asset to a user for a specified period of time, at the end of which the user may have the option to purchase the asset. In this form the bank bears a risk during the leasing period, and the resulting damage or loss would be borne by the bank. Beyond these four types of financing, there are a growing plethora of deposits and savings accounts and processes, but all do adhere to some interpretation of the prohibitions against interest and against gaining a profit without sharing risk.

Commanding Right: Reforming Charitable Giving

Beyond banking and financial services, Islamic economics has also been utilized in the reformations of the tax and welfare systems of Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the Sudan through the idea of zakat (Kuran 2004, Maurer 2005). Zakat, one of the 5 pillars of Islam, is a mandatory “tax” on income and wealth and generally considered a means to redistribute wealth from high income earners and the wealthy to the poor, handicapped, travelers and promoters of Islam (Kuran 2004:19). Zakat is mentioned nearly 50 times in the Qur’an, and verses such as 2:277 impress upon Muslims its importance:

Indeed, those who believe and do righteous deeds and establish prayer and give zakat will have their reward with their Lord, and there will be no fear concerning them, nor will they grieve.

Most recently, zakat has manifest in national, obligatory systems, such as that of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, as well as Malaysia (Kuran 2004:21-22). Many Islamic banks will send out notices to customers as to what their anticipated zakat contributions would be, based upon the balances of their accounts. Zakat has also been locally implemented as a voluntary and additional payment by employers to workers, over and above their wages and in a fashion similar to a “bonus,” as a way to gain loyalty and also fulfill employer understandings of zakat (Kuran 2004:23).

However, conflict in understandings of appropriate forms of zakat can arise when corporations, as legal persons, enter the scene. That is because Islamic law recognizes relationships of individuals but not corporations (Hefner 1998). No consensus has yet been reach as to how to reconcile corporations as legal persons and their charitable requirements, particularly when Islamic law does not characterize them as such. In comparison to banking and financial services, the Qur’anic explications of zakat also lack clarity on contemporary types of wealth as well as the appropriate body for its administration. Such a gap has also resulted in much contest and debate on issues of hermeneutics between jurists and on issues of contemporary applicability of Islamic law to zakat as well as in banking and finance. Nonetheless, Islamic economics, banks and financial institutions, as well as state apparatuses have employed these popular measures, among others, in order grow into a global movement, which has brought forth prominent Islamic institutions, including the Islamic Development Bank.

Prompted by these productive examples, the attempts at Islamizing the economic spaces around and with individuals can be met with demand and enthusiasm as well as uncertainty and cynicism simultaneously, even – or especially – after attempts are made to work within restrictions such as government regulations. Ultimately, the transference of certain Islamic values and Islamization of the whole economy in general is a subtle and implicit process rather than an overt and obvious alteration of spaces, symbols, meanings, and knowledges. It is complex and meanings and knowledges are not directly produced and consumed in the same ways. Not everyone is excited or interested in seeing the entirety of their economic practice dictated by a bank or government, and Muslims everywhere express variation in the ways by which they believe such practices can and should be conducted. One avenue by which we can better identify this variation is at the level of consumption.

Consuming Islam

As the example of Coca-Cola at the beginning of this article presents, consumption is about symbolic meaning in the knowledge you absorb, the services, materials and goods you take in, and the ways in which those practices are reproduced in society. Consumption is not strictly an economic “bottom line.” Rather, it is a form of social communication that links both producers with consumers, and conjoins consumers with co-consumers that are engaged in production and exchange, be it social, cultural and/or material. Therefore, consumption becomes an arena for debates over different understandings of social and economic relations (Rutz and Orlove 1989:13), as well as understandings of practicing Islam “rightly,” because it links the material world of production and exchange to the cultural realm of valuation (Rutz and Orlove 1989:14). It is therefore subject to a whole host of competing powers and interests both within the milieu of the social relations as well as prior to and outside of them. Consumption is a component of the processes of production and exchange (Rutz and Orlove 1989).

Because consumption prioritizes social communication and is the arena for ideological debates, it can also take on a certain degree of autonomy from production and exchange (Appadurai 1986, Rutz and Orlove 1989:23). At other times, because social and cultural practices are not always singularly motivated or impact the social environs in a singularized way, boundaries between production, exchange, and consumption often become blurred and difficult to parse out. One could argue that such boundaries are primarily artificial to begin with (Appadurai 1986, Rutz and Orlove 1989).

Therefore, it is important to conceptualize consumption as an economic process and also seek out the fullest implications of its role within social processes. Once the recognition that consumption serves vital social and cultural roles is established, a wider understanding of the complexities of consumption and its implications emerges. Identity politics, including establishing and altering religious identity, is one arena in which the lens of consumption grants a more comprehensive understanding of the cultural processes than would not otherwise be brought forth. As Kandiyoti (2002:16) expresses:

Social identities are not merely lived, but are the object of redefinition, display, manipulation and contest. Gaining access to arenas in which these cultural contests may be played out – such as markets for the circulation of commodities, or the media in which images are circulated – forms an intrinsic part of the politics of identity.”

In other words, in order to access the processes of social identifications, looking at the locations where people are playing out these processes, including consumption, becomes important. To further add justification for such kind of perspective, the context of globalization “changes the ground rules of many of the definitional debates” of identity politics (Haugerud 2000:9). In conditions of social change, such as those that globalization prompts or provides, consumption becomes a realm in which identities are being enacted, negotiated, navigated, and hybridized.

Oft-overlooked sites of both opportunity and negotiation for the aims of Islamic economics – and the potential sites for the widespread structural reformation Islamic economists hope for – are not only in the banking, finance, taxation and zakat, or “production side” of the economy. The Islamization of the economy must also involve reshaping consumption practices in which actors use goods and services to create and sustain their own identities as a certain type of “Muslim” and to communicate that identity with others (Hefner 2006a, 2006b). There are three primary areas of consumption that are subject to Islamization but are currently not being included in the overall structural agenda of Islamic economics: knowledges, services, and products (Starrett 1995, 2003). Knowledge-based modes of communication include print media, multi-media advertisements, internet-based resources and their content such as notions of appropriate correct religious practices, and prophetic traditions. Services may include conferences, social services, ministries, poverty relief, pedagogical tools for children’s education, as well as education more generally, among others. Products include religious commodities and signs of the body, such as dress, hairstyles, cosmetics or tattoos, and other visual symbols of identity.

As a personal anecdote, I recall a time in Egypt when, at the television broadcast of the call to prayer, or adhaan, the 4 year-old daughter of a family that was hosting began belly dancing. She did the same thing during commercials, and when I asked the host family why Yasmine was belly dancing to the call to prayer as she did the commercials, I was told “She thinks the adhaan a commercial for Islam.” Commercials and advertisements throughout the Muslim world are also objects of consumption, where they promote the pleasures of consumption, definitions and redefinitions of desirable lifestyles, and acknowledge concepts of citizen, nation, and state (Abu-Lughod 2005:200-203).

Islam too is “consumable.” As a tradition of knowledge, Islam is an “intellectual commodity” (Barth 1993). Contemporary Muslims Islamize the economy and form communities of solidarity through “the cultural appropriation and consumption of intellectual goods” (Starrett 2003:81). The linkages between the economic and social realms require effort and work, and investing in the larger Muslim world can be accomplished by way of consuming certain knowledges and ideas in solidarity with others who share similar ideas and sentiments (Starrett 1995, 2003).

Then the question remains, what kind of Islam is being consumed and what kind of communities of an Islamized consumption are being created? More and more, Muslims around the world are consuming a global Islam that is conducive to and collaborative with everyday life in the contemporary, capitalist economy. Muslims consume an Islam that is reflective of the humanitarian ideals of popular preachers such as Amr Khaled and Hamza Yusuf, contemporary popular music rhythms of Muslim musicians such as Sami Yusuf and Outlandish, the economic hopes of Muhammed Yunis and the Grameen Bank, as well as the political aspirations of Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman. These popular Islamic figures all share in the ability to reach a global audience with a message of social justice, inclusivity, and diversity in an economic context that otherwise speaks to normativity in practice and belief. In the face of a homogenizing economy, these voices – among many others – give Muslims a diverse set of knowledge, ideas, services, and goods to engage the economy in ways that work in accordance with their own beliefs and practices.

In these ways, consumption reflects “a marketplace of ideas.” At the point of conjuncture for all kinds of influences and processes, the “marketplace of ideas” is as competitive, powerful, contested and negotiated as any market. However, to this we can add hybridized. With goods, a common outcome of these social processes is the consumption of an item or several items. However, unlike many goods, knowledge traditions – including Islam – and services can be hybridized and integrated in ways that are physically impossible for goods. Despite their similarities, becoming a customer of an Islamic bank – with all the possible social, political, and economic implications that it could carry – is ultimately not the same thing as engaging Islam in the economy by promoting inclusive and Islamized ethics and morals in consumption with the powerful potential for transformations, globalized changes, and localized, as well as hybridized, notions of the global Islamic community. This is because the capacities to carry meaning differ widely. “The ‘marketplace of ideas’ fractures, multiplies and ultimately dilutes” even as it hybridizes, engenders, reworks and underscores the implications of consumption in new and exciting ways (White 1999:81). Islamic banking and finance is necessary for Islamizing the economy; it is just not sufficient.


The Islamization of the economy is occurring throughout the Muslim world. Intellectuals and scholars have put forth an agenda to Islamize knowledge, including economics, and by extension the economy by way of economic actors. The Islamic banking and finance industry has become the foremost area for this economic and Islamic transformation. Through intermediary spaces between state involvement in banking and finance as well as zakat, Islamized ethics of “commanding right” becomes transmitted. However, where the ethics become concretized, enacted, and practiced is in the field of consumption. It is in consumption where the question of an “Islamized right” becomes considered against prevailing and counteracting interests in everyday life by the consumers. Things may be technically correct or “just Islamic enough” to be included in Islamic discourses. However, the efficacy of the product or knowledge or service is only expanded when the message appeals to a wider, and more diverse audience.

A closer examination of the intermediate spaces of attempted transmission of Islamic ethics is called for in this. Understanding how certain spaces become distinctly Islamized and yet fail to achieve full inculcation of the Islamized ethics – such as among those who bank at the Islamic bank, but do not find it convincing – would be beneficial. Further, new studies and projects would benefit from a determination as to why those particular elements have been “Islamized” and why other, less obvious aspects of society have not been. Why is it, for example, that banks may have been Islamized, but labor laws and environmental impacts of Islamic businesses have not? The criteria by which the various Islamic interests are understood and promoted in the economy is worthy of further examination, particularly if the aims are for more just and fair economic arrangements for all.


(Abaza 2002; Abu-Ghazzeh 2002; Appadurai 1986; Barth 1993; Euben 2002; Haugerud, et al. 2000; Hefner 1985; Hefner 1998; Hefner 2006a; Hefner 2006b; Huff 1999; Kandiyoti and Saktanber 2002; Kuran 1997; Kuran 2004; Malley 2004; Maurer 2005; Mintz 1985; Rutz 1989; Starrett 1995; Starrett 1998; Starrett 2003; Stratton 2006; Tripp 2006; White 1999; Wilson 1987)

Abaza, Mona

2002 Debates on Islam and Knowledge in Malaysia and Egypt: Shifting Worlds. New York: RoutledgeCurzon.


Abu-Lughod, L.

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Appadurai, Arjun

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Barth, Fredrik

1993 Balinese worlds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Cook, M. A.

2000 Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Euben, Roxanne L.

2002 Contingent Borders, Syncretic Perspectives: Globalization, Political Theory, and Islamizing Knowledge. The International Studies Review 4(1):23-48.


Hamid, Shadi

2011 “How Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is Already Winning.” The Atlantic. November 18, 2011. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/11/how-egypts-muslim-brotherhood-is-already-winning/248642/.


Haugerud, Angelique, et al.

2000 Commodities and globalization : anthropological perspectives. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield.


Hefner, Robert W.

1998 Market cultures : society and morality in the new Asian capitalisms. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

2006a Ambivalent Embrace: Islamic Economics and Global Capitalism. Visible Hands: The Changing Nature of Capitalism in Relation to Religious Culture, CURA, Boston University, 2006a.

2006b Islamic Economics and Global Capitalism. Society 44(1):16-22.


Huff, Toby E.

1999 Introduction. In Max Weber and Islam. T.E.a.W.S. Huff, ed. Pp. 1-52. new Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.


Kandiyoti, Deniz, and Ay se Saktanber

2002 Fragments of culture : the everyday of modern Turkey. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.


Kuran, Timur

1997 The Genesis of Islamic Economics: A Chapter in the Politics of Muslim Identity. Social Research 64(2).

2004 Islam and Mammon : the economic predicaments of Islamism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Maurer, Bill

2005 Mutual Life, Limited: Islamic banking, alternative currencies, lateral reason. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Rutz, Henry J. and Benjamin S. Orlove

1989 The Social economy of consumption. Lanham, MD: University Press of America; Society for Economic Anthropology.

Starrett, Gregory

1995 The Political Economy of Religious Commodities in Cairo. American Anthropologist 97(1):51-68.

2003 Muslim Identities and the Great Chain of Buying. In New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere. D.F.a.J.W.A. Eickelman, ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Tripp, Charles

2006 Islam and the moral economy : the challenge of capitalism. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

White, Jenny B.

1999 Amplifying Trust: Community and Communication in Turkey. In New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere. D.F.a.J.W.A. Eickelman, ed. Pp. 162-179, Vol. 1. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

1 Many popular magazines carried stories on this. See Forbes December 22, 2003 for an example. This story is also told and retold as a popular urban myth in contemporary business practices. Cf. http://www.businessinsider.com/the-biggest-brand-myths-and-urban-legends-2012-7?op=1

2 See http://www.mecca-cola.com/ for additional information.


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    • Saima

      This is fantastically written. I learned a great deal.