By Nadeem F. Paracha
Published in Dawn on June 30, 2024

Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore and the architect of the tiny country’s giant economy, first visited Pakistan in 1988.

According to the celebrated columnist Ardeshir Cowasjee, when Yew was leaving, a Pakistani journalist asked him if he had any advice to offer to Pakistanis. Yew stated his inability to do so in the case of a nation that was more interested in the afterlife than life on Earth.

Within this short exchange between Lee and the journalist is a question that sociologists have long been exploring: does the way in which a society practises religion have any bearing on how it approaches economic activity?

The German sociologist Max Weber was one of the first prominent scholars to investigate this. In 1905, after studying the rapid rise of capitalism, modernity and secularism in Europe, Weber posited that the rise was due to the ‘Protestant work ethic.’

Weber wrote that the Christian Protestant sect (which broke away from Catholicism in the 16th century) treated economic activity as a ‘calling’ and a religious duty. According to Weber, this developed a highly productive work ethic that facilitated the growth of capitalism. And since the Protestants were also in favour of reforming the relationship between the Church and the state, this contributed to the secularisation of Europe’s political economy.

The religious attitudes of a people can greatly influence a nation’s economic behaviour. While Protestantism’s work ethic might have been tied to the rise of capitalism in Europe, in Pakistan ritualistic piety often trumps practical application

Weber provided examples in which European regions where Protestants were in a majority enjoyed better economic conditions and growth, compared to regions where Catholics were in a majority. The slowest economic growth was in regions in which the more orthodox variants of Christianity were dominant, because these variants were averse to change and less likely to tolerate religious freedoms and limit the role of the Church.

But how can one explain the phenomenal economic growth witnessed in countries such as Japan and, more recently, China, or in countries where Christianity was never strong?

Sociologists who have expanded Weber’s thesis suggest that these countries adopted the ‘Protestant work ethic’ because it became intertwined with the ‘modernisation’ zeitgeist of the early and mid-20th century. Various non-Western scholars find this to be an ‘orientalist’ take, but they do agree that in countries where religion is flexible and ‘modernised’ or, in the case of China, strictly kept at bay, economic growth is more likely to emerge than in regions that lack religious freedoms, or where inflexible variants of faith influence laws and policies.

These latter discourage innovative thinking, risk-taking and an enterprising disposition. Stories and perceptions that portray the rich as people who have no peace of mind compared to the poor who do (because, apparently, they are more likely to land in heaven) are common in such societies.

Weber understood religion as a positive force, though — especially Protestantism. He praised it for being flexible, personal, enterprising, less ritualistic than other Christian sects and, thus, the source of economic and social modernity. Interestingly, various Muslim scholars, too, had understood Islam in a similar manner years before Weber shaped his thesis.

One such scholar was Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, who proficiently worked towards promoting modern education among India’s Muslims and to modernise Islam. In fact, to him, Islam was inherently modern. Sir Syed’s aim was to use this to create an enterprising Muslim middle class in India. One of the books he got translated into Urdu was Principles of Political Economy by the liberal British economist John Stewart Mill.



Then there were Muslim organisations who tried to formulate the concept of an Islamic work ethic. Examples of this can include the Tableeghi Jamaat (TJ), formed in the late 1920s. Indeed, there is no evidence that TJ’s founders were reading Weber. But TJ’s core aim was/is to propagate the ‘proper’ practice of Islamic rituals by explaining them as tools through which one could discipline one’s life and, therefore, enjoy the resultant successes, both spiritual and material.

But TJ’s strand of work ethic did not evolve in the manner in which the Protestant work ethic did. The Protestants did not monopolise it like TJ does. For example, it was the devout Protestants whose beliefs facilitated early modern economic growth in the West but, according to the political scientist Pipa Norris, the Protestant work ethic “escaped from the cage” and became a cultural ethos benefitting believers and non-believers alike.

TJ has had in its ranks many successful business persons, sporting stars, and show business personalities. It encourages them to achieve material prosperity. Like Protestantism, TJ too sees disciplined hard work as a Divine calling. But one has to follow a particular dress code and certain interpretations of the sacred texts for this. To most members, following these also means being able to use TJ’s vast economic and social networks. Those who don’t, lose out. This anxiety can lead to ‘guilty’ members compensating by vigorously taking part in the more ritualistic practices encouraged by TJ.

During the 2007 Cricket World Cup in the West Indies, more than half of Pakistan’s squad belonged to the TJ. Pakistan exited early from the tournament. What’s more, Pakistan’s coach Bob Woolmer passed away in his hotel room. Between 2004 and 2006, Woolmer and cricket commentator Ramiz Raja had praised TJ’s influence on the team, claiming that it had fostered a sense of unity and discipline. However, after the team’s unceremonious exit from the 2007 World Cup, it became clear that things were not that great.

The team’s media manager, PJ Mir, wrote a scathing report, in which he claimed that Woolmer had become distraught by the behaviour of many players, who were putting more effort and time in trying to convert non-Muslims to Islam than in attending team meetings and practice sessions.

The work ethic brought to the team by TJ might have worked, but since this ethic is tightly tied to overt exhibitions of piety, the players began to invest more on the rituals that were supposedly fostering this ethic than on applying it to the work that they were actually picked and paid to do.

The former Pakistani opener Saeed Anwar, who was one of the first cricketers to join the TJ, is said to have quipped that his achievements as a cricketer are of no use in the afterlife. According to Weber’s Protestant work ethic though, these achievements would have been viewed as a way to use the talent and resources gifted by God and, thus, would have been commendable.

So, what possible advice could Lee Kwan Yew have given to Pakistanis?

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