Luv Puri is a journalist who has reported on the Jammu and Kashmir conflict from both sides of the Line of Control for The Hindu newspaper. Now in New York, he writes to explore how Muslim-American entrepreneurs reconcile the economic guidelines of their faith with the capitalist system in the U.S.
Shabir Mohammad Aziz came to New York City in 1988, with a burning ambition to become an entrepreneur in the United States. He was 22 years old, with a wife and two kids. Aziz’s family business had suffered huge economic losses and crumbled.
Aziz had a liking for perfumes and wanted sell perfume products. To become an entrepreneur in the United States, it was essential for him to follow the rules of a capitalist system — but some of the regulations were at odds with his religious beliefs. He was a devout Muslim and his religious beliefs prevented him from borrowing money on interest. Islam forbids all forms of interest; it is believed that interest involves both oppression and exploitation.
After a decade of hard work as a tailor in Brooklyn, Aziz almost had the seed capital required to buy a store on lease. In 1999, he spotted a store on sale for $100,000 in Brooklyn. A childhood friend living in the city agreed to pool the half of the sum. Even then, Aziz was short of $25,000. He could borrow the money on interest, but the religious stricture prevented that. As a last resort, he contacted his brother, who told him that he could give him the money without interest in three week’s time. On that assurance, Aziz borrowed money from a bank. He purchased the store and within a month returned the borrowed money to the bank without interest. His store, Dream Land, brought him a profit of nearly $200,000 in a year’s time.
Aziz’s story is emblematic of American Muslim entrepreneurship, successfully blending Islamic beliefs with the core capitalist system and free market economy. Even then, there is a widespread perception that Islam is at odds with the American economic system. Some view Islamic beliefs as medievalist and, therefore, not in conformity with that of the modern economic system.
Forty-eight-year-old Zafar Iqbal, a Pakistani immigrant who employs over 100 workers in his company, Carpet City, represents the successful blending of capitalism and devout Muslim faith. The son of a poor farmer, Iqbal’s company has become one of the most popular carpeting enterprises drawing clients from New York City and New Jersey.
“What I achieved here financially I could never dream anywhere else,” he says. “But more than that, my example demonstrates that it is possible to abide by Islamic principles and do business in a capitalist society. The two concepts are not antithetical.”
Islam has a social and economic code for its followers, and the Qur’an is their guidebook. Iqbal avoids lending money on interest. He possesses a checking account, but no saving account. This distinguishes him from many of his competitors. He even does not have a stock portfolio. But Islam also stresses the concept of equality and dignity of labour.
“My organization’s work ethics are based on Islam and therefore I lead by example. Many a time people in the organization are surprised when they see me doing hard labour just like any other co-worker,” Iqbal says. “But this is what my religion teaches me and I have no shame doing any sort of work even though I am the owner.” A fiercely competitive merchant, Iqbal incorporates the religious teachings of Islam in his business.
Islam also encourages charity, a concept popularly known as Zakat. “It is incumbent on every Muslim to make contributions to the needy,” Iqbal says. “Besides making direct contributions to the needy, I have devised an organizational strategy which directly serves the purpose. For instance there are many within my organization that I have given employment not because of their ability but their respective need. This is my contribution to Zakat, though to other people it may seem to be an unwise business strategy.”
“Religions do not choke — it’s the follower’s interpretation which chokes. The very fact that Islam and American business ethics are not contradictory concepts clearly illustrates this,” he adds.
– Luv Puri
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