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New book examines religion, capitalism in Malaysia

​Patricia Sloane-White is a social anthropologist who has studied Islam, capitalism, entrepreneurship, corporate culture and gender in Malaysia for over two decades.

As an anthropologist who once worked on Wall Street, Patricia Sloane-White knows that businesses are about culture as well as capitalism, and she says that’s particularly true in Muslim Malaysia.

“In school [studying finance] I learned that economics was about the rational pursuit of money,” said Sloane-White, now an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Delaware. “But, working in corporate America, I realized that it was also about networks, social engagement, power, hierarchy, gender and identity.

“I became fascinated by the idea that corporations were profoundly cultural institutions.”

Today, more than two decades after returning to school to earn her doctorate in anthropology and then beginning her long-term professional interest in Malaysia, Sloane-White examines the Muslim culture of that nation’s businesses in a new book. Corporate Islam: Sharia and the Modern Workplace, published by Cambridge University Press in April, has been described as offering “compelling and original” insights into modern Islamic corporations.

In the book, Sloane-White focuses much of her research on the concept of sharia — a term that many Westerners might define simply as “Islamic law” but which Muslims consider a “path” to follow and an entire way of life, in private and at work.

“In the businesses I studied, sharia doesn’t just guide how you deal with money,” she said. “It also guides corporate culture, and it has a profound effect on everything.”

For example, she said, sharia principles influence how a company’s human resources department operates, the benefits that employees receive and the policies they must follow, the products the business may or may not produce, how those products are marketed, corporate governance, investor relationships and social responsibility.

During her research, Sloane-White sat in on numerous business meetings of all types. In job interviews, in contrast with American companies’ procedures, prospective employees were asked whether they prayed five times a day and if they could recite a prayer in Arabic, she said, because companies want to hire “employees who are deeply pious, people they feel they can trust.”

As Malaysia has become more religiously traditional and conservative in recent years, Sloane-White said, she’s observed how women’s roles in business have changed. Women still hold jobs, she said, but they identify much more strongly with their roles within their families than with their careers.

“The Muslim people I study in Malaysia believe there is no part of their lives that shouldn’t be sharia-compliant, and the workplace has become a place where their compliance is increasingly evident, just as it is in their public and private lives,” she said.

“We spend more active time at work than we do at home, and that’s just as true in Malaysia as it is here. But in the Muslim businesses I studied, Islam plays a significant role in determining what happens at work and how people there understand their roles and obligations.”

One of the issues Sloane-White wanted to explore in the book was the relationship between Islam and capitalism.

“I wondered: Did Islam encourage economic dynamism or, as social scientists had long believed, did it inhibit economic growth?” she asked.

In Malaysia, she found a robust, growing and productive economy where, she said, “power, relationships, individual identities, gender roles and practices — and often massive financial resources — are mobilized on behalf of Islam.”

The country is “racing ahead” as it becomes one of the top Islamic economies in the world, she said.

Sloane-White noted that the business leaders and workers she interviewed in Malaysia almost universally agreed that following Islamic principles avoided the problems that can plague Western capitalism.

“People I interviewed believe that corruption, bribery and malfeasance are impossible in sharia, in contrast with what happens on Wall Street, but that doesn’t match up with what I observed,” she said. “My book says the opposite, that these corporations treat people like any other capitalists.”

About Patricia Sloane-White

Patricia Sloane-White is a social anthropologist who earned her doctorate at the University of Oxford.

In addition to her position as associate professor of anthropology at UD, she is chair of the Department of Women and Gender Studies and a member of the Asian Studies and Islamic Studies programs. 

She has researched Islam, capitalism, entrepreneurship, corporate business and gender in Malaysia for over two decades and was a recipient of a Fulbright Research Fellowship to Malaysia in 2008-2009 and a Fulbright Specialist Scholar to Malaysia in 2014.

She is the author of an earlier book, Islam, Modernity and Entrepreneurship Among the Malays, and numerous articles on the Malay middle class, gender, sharia and the Muslim workplace.

Article by Ann Manser; photo by Evan Krape

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In a new book, "Corporate Islam: Sharia and the Modern Workplace," anthropologist Patricia Sloane-White examines the Muslim culture of businesses in Malaysia.

​Patricia Sloane-White's new book, "Corporate Islam," examines the relationship between religion and corporate culture in Malaysia.

5/12/2017
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