Setting a Maqasid-Driven Development Agenda for Islamic Finance – I

With an expanded scope we propose to examine the alignment or misalignment between MaS and SDGs further down the hierarchy of goals. Highlighting areas of alignment are no less important than areas of misalignment.

Our last publication on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) from a Shariah Perspective was motivated by the observed reluctance of Islamic financial institutions to look beyond a compliance perspective. It argued in favor of a shift to an impact-driven approach with a focus on the objectives of the Shariah. To the extent there is an alignment between the objectives or maqasid of the Shariah (MaS) on one hand, and the development goals of the global community, captured in the SDGs on the other, Islamic financial institutions can participate in the UN-mandated development agenda as responsible global actors.  

A comparison between goals that have divinity attached to them, derived from revealed moral principles and that are based on faith and religion on one hand (e.g. the MaS), and goals that are set by UN, a global body representing societies with diverse religions and cultures (e.g. the SDG) is bound to raise several questions. We received several responses from the readers, which enabled us to examine the broader canvas more closely.

Some learned readers pointed out that while the former have a clear moral and spiritual dimension, the latter are rooted in materialistic considerations, and are borne out of repeated market failures to address societal concerns. Therefore, it is perhaps a case of comparison of apples with oranges. As articulated by an acknowledged scholar of Islamic economics and finance, SDGs address development indicators that represent one type of reality, that is material and quantifiable. A rather more paramount reality is about Ruh (pious spirit) which is not quantifiable. These comments obviously raise some interesting issues and points of discussion.

Let us consider the maqasid or objectives of Shariah. Notwithstanding the various classification schemes available in Islamic literature, we opt for something that every believer knows and understands. The broad and holistic mission of Shariah is to make humans the vicegerents of the Almighty on earth. Under this unified broad mission, Shariah has identified various objectives to be pursued, objectives that bring in benefits and prevent harm for the people and the planet. The faithful and the believers seek the pleasure of the Almight by seeking to act in furtherance of these objectives. Spirituality and morality are inherent to such pious and benevolent acts.   

It is obvious that for practical considerations, the UN-mandated SDGs must be and must appear to be faith-neutral. These are not identified with revealed guiding principles as dictated by any particular religion or faith. However, it would be wrong to assert that these seek to achieve material gains that do not have a moral dimension. When a poor receives some cash assistance or a morsel of food, this is perhaps a material gain for him/her. But the hands that help the poor or feed the hungry, most certainly, cannot be seen to pursue material gains. Such behavior rooted in altruism and benevolence are, but examples of moral actions. It is rightly asserted that SDGs owe their origin to market failures. The market, governed by greed, avarice and hubris never fails to fail in providing a range of public goods, taking care of the poorest or the poor, preventing strife and conflicts, preventing cruelty towards animals, taking care of what is on earth and what is beneath the seas. To say that SDGs do not have a moral dimension would be grossly incorrect.

To say that SDGs do not have a moral dimension would be grossly incorrect.

At the same time, the purpose of such an exercise that examines the alignment or otherwise between MaS and SDGs has its own merits in ushering in concerted and coordinated actions aimed at achieving the moral societal objectives. Initial evidence points to a great degree of alignment (must not be confused with equivalence) among the global goals under both the framworks. The MaS framework as enunciated by Al-Ghazali presents five global goals – protection and nurturing of deen (religion), nafs (self), aql (intellect), nasl (progeny) and maal (wealth). Islamic scholars have expanded the framework to identify many sub-goals under each of the five global goals and have also sought to underline their mutual interdependence. Similarly, there are a multitude of sub-objectives under each of the seventeen objectives in the SDG framework. In an on-going research initiative, we propose to expand the scope of our study to examine the alignment or misalignment between the two frameworks as one moves down along hierarchy of goals and sub-goals.

Measurability of Goals:

Next, we consider the issue of measurement. The 17 SDGs have set 169 targets for global development set to be achieved by 2030. Progress towards these targets is agreed to be tracked by 232 unique Indicators. Thus, measurability of goals, targets and achievement is critical in the SDG framework for its success. This is in line with the well-known words of Peter Drucker: What gets measured gets managed. More recent scholars however, warn against an overemphasis on measurability, for instance, when we say What can’t be measured can’t be managed. They cite examples of ethical qualities, wisdom, prudence and judgment that are hard to measure and consequently are routinely underemphasized. Human values, such as, love and altruism etc. are hard to measure. At the same time, there seems to be agreement on the view that we ignore them as critical factors in organizational life at our own peril.

Are there instances of measurability of actions in the spiritual life of a believer? Are there examples of quantifiable outcomes of actions that are undertaken to earn the pleasure of the Almighty? The answer is in the affirmative, even in the context of ibadah or other acts of piety.

Ibn Mas’ud reported: The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) said, “Whoever recites a letter from the Book of Allah, he will be credited with one good deed, and one good deed gets a ten-fold reward. I do not say that Alif-Lam-Mim is one letter, but Alif is a letter, Lam is a letter and Mim is a letter.” (Tirmidhi).

Ka’b bin ‘Ujrah reported: The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) said, “There are some words, the reciters of which will never be disappointed. These are: tasbih or saying ‘Subhan-Allah’ (Allah is free from imperfection) thirty-three times, tahmid or saying ‘al-hamdu lillah’ (praise be to Allah) thirty-three times and takbir or saying ‘Allahu Akbar’ (Allah is Greatest)] thirty-four times; and these should be recited after the conclusion of every prescribed prayer.” (Sahih Muslim)

Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) as saying: Allah created one hundred parts of mercy and He distributed one amongst His creation and kept this one hundred excepting one with Himself (for the Day of Resurrection). (Sahih Muslim)

Narrated Abu Sa`id Al-Khudri: The Prophet (pbuh) said, “The prayer in congregation is twenty-five times superior to the prayer offered by person alone.” (Sahih al-Bukhari)

Abu Hurairah narrated that the Messenger of Allah said: “The poor are admitted into Paradise before the rich, by five hundred years, (i.e.) half a day.” (Tirmidhi)

Ali bin Abu Talib reported: I heard the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) saying, “When a Muslim visits a sick Muslim at dawn, seventy thousand angels keep on praying for him till dusk. If he visits him in the evening, seventy thousand angels keep on praying for him till the morning; and he will have (his share of) reaped fruits in Jannah.” (Tirmidhi)

There are instances of both cardinal and ordinal comparisons in ajr, hasanah, thawab (units of spiritual reward) in Shariah

There are numerous ahadith which tell us about certain acts that are better than others or X times better than others. There are instances of both cardinal and ordinal comparisons in ajr, hasanah, thawab (units of spiritual reward) in Shariah, even while these are clearly acts of piety, benevolence, subjugation to Almighty and are about purification of spirit (ruh). In line with the above methodology used to incentivize actions of believers, the objectives, targets and indicators must be developed to operationalize the MaS framework.

In line with the above methodology used to incentivize actions of believers, the objectives, targets and indicators must be developed to operationalize the MaS framework.

Material and/or Spiritual Gains

We must recognize the fact that Muslims are motivated by spiritual as well as material reward, often by a combination of the two; sometimes doing a trade-off between the two. If SDGs mandated by UN are pursued for material rewards alone, it should come as no surprise. It simply does not matter. Indeed, if some economic unit is seeking material gain alone, or if another is seeking spiritual gain alone, or if a third one is seeking a combination of two, they all can be accommodated in the equation – in the broader canvas. It doesn’t have to be an “either-or” kind of scenario calling for a “paradigm shift”. (1)

To be continued


  1. The fact remains however, that the current Islamic finance sector needs a “reform”. Most players seem to be too much inclined or oriented towards material gains with the minimum level of Shariah compliance that would justify their Islamic label. They need a push towards and closer to the spiritual dimension by focusing on Maqasid of Shariah.

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  1. I think major players in Islamic finance & economic field should come together & see the lens of change in Shari’ah compliance.
    Moreover, UN and other agencies like that are driven humans toward materiality alone and to enjoy world.
    I am of opinion that AAOIFI and other Islamic agencies should set standards and ethics that Shari’ah compliance always