Is the Islamicity Index really about Islam?
Once again, we are told that Ireland, Israel and South Korea are more Islamic than Malaysia, Brunei and Turkey.
A six year old study that measures economic activity based on specific moral and religious standards known as the Economic Islamicity Index (EI2) was recently re-shared on social media.
According to this study, North Ireland is the most Islamic country in the world. Singapore is 7th.
Malaysia is the top rank Islamic country at 33, followed by Kuwait (42) and Kazakhstan at 54.
The reappearance of this index has, as is expected, brought with it excitement and criticism.
It is used to criticise the Malaysian government for being unIslamic.
And to show how Islamic Western countries really are.
But what does the index actually measure? Does it actually show how Islamic a country is? What are the data and criteria they use?
It is about the economy
The Index is actually about the economy and how economic resources are used in a country.
It was created by two International Business Professors at George Washington University: Hossein Askari and Scheherazade Rehman.
What they attempt to measure is the degree of rules copliance and equitability in economic activity.
Some of the areas they identified as “Islamic economics” are social infrastructure, poverty eradication and development of economic prosperity.
Data was gathered from the UN, World Bank and economic think tanks.
The authors argued that an Islamic system is rules and market based and aid equitable social development.
The focus on a market based, socially equitable economy explains why most of the top 30 are developed countries with social infrastructure that have been developed for decades if not centuries.
Most of the countries have never been colonised. For those that were, most of them benefitted from being the economic focus of colonial activity.
The Asian countries in the top 30 (Singapore at 7th, Hong Kong 12th and Japan 21st) have had substantial socio-economic infrastructure since before the mid-20th century. According to data from the Maddison Project, by the 1950s, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore had the top three per capita GDP in Asia.
At Merdeka, Malaysia was on a similar economic position with Philippines. But according to the Islamicity index, Malaysia is almost 50 spots higher than the Philippines which is ranked at 81.
That the three strongest economies in the 1950s are now more able to provide social development, infrastructure and eradicate poverty is quite understandable.
What is also important is to understand how a country that began at a lower trajectory is able to catch up with its historically more developed counterparts in providing socio-economic opportunities and mobility.
It is not about Islam
Even though the index is positioned as an Islamicity index, Islam is not part of the study.
The authors admitted that they developed the index based on their perception of developmental needs. Of particular importance for them is the development model that was proposed by the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen.
Not only was the level of religiosity not part of the index, the Maqasid Shariah (Objectives of the Shariah) was not included.
In fact, Hossein Askari, writing for the Huffington Post argued that the Shariah should be rejected in Islamic societies.
With Islam not part of the criteria or forming the standard, to refer to the index as measuring Islamicity is problematic. The elements used to measure “Islamicity” are the same elements the authors could have used if the index was simply about ethical socio-economic development.
But why refer to Islam?
And it is about politics
An important part of the Islamicity index is the advocacy for change in Muslim countries.
According to Askari, the main purpose of the index is for Muslims to learn Islam by themselves instead of referring to clerics, rulers and governments.
And to create political change in the Muslim world.
That there is an objective external to the research means that we need to assess how much of the methodology and data collected is influenced by the authors’ political objectives.
If the index is about Islamicity, then why is the Maqasid not used as a reference?
If it is about socio-economic standard, then why advocate for political change?
There is value to the economic Islamicity index.
It helps us recognise the very real need for greater development of social infrastructure and equitable economic distribution in the Muslim world.
But as an index to measure the adherence to or state of Islam in a country, it is insufficient at best.
And quite possibly, highly suspect.
About the author:
Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff is a final year PhD candidate at La Trobe University, Australia (International Relations). He researches International Institutionalism with a focus on ASEAN.