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Robert V. Robinson
Indiana University Bloomington Department of Sociology

Nancy J. Davis
DePauw University Department of Sociology & Anthropology

Tracy James
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Wednesday, May 3, 2006

The "egalitarian face" of Islamic orthodoxy?

New study finds religious orthodoxy associated with support for progressive economic reforms

May 3, 2006

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The portrayal in the West of Islamic traditionalists or fundamentalists often emphasizes their relegation of women to lower status in the home and family, restrictions on sexual expression and reproductive rights, and harsh punishments for crimes, but a new study by Indiana University and DePauw University sociologists found that Islamic orthodoxy has an "egalitarian face."

In research based on survey data from seven predominantly Muslim nations, the authors found that Islamic orthodoxy -- identified as the desire to implement Islamic law (shari'a) as the sole legal foundation of their nation -- is associated in every country with support for such progressive economic reforms as increasing the responsibility of government for the poor, reducing income inequality, and increasing government ownership of businesses and industries.

"While it is common to associate traditional religious beliefs with conservative political stances on a wide range of issues, this is only partly true," said Robert V. Robinson, Chancellor's Professor and chair of IU's Department of Sociology. "The Islamic orthodox are more conservative on issues having to do with gender, sexuality and the family, but more liberal or left on economic issues."

Robinson and Nancy J. Davis, professor and chair of DePauw University's Department of Sociology & Anthropology, attribute the economic progressivism of the Islamic orthodox to the "communitarianism" that they have found among the orthodox of all the Abrahamic faith traditions or "religions of the Book." Orthodox Christians, Jews and Muslims, they argue, are theologically "communitarian" because they see themselves as part of a larger community of believers and as subject to the timeless laws and greater plan of God.

"The theological communitarianism of orthodoxy entails watching over community members, which involves both a controlling side and a caring one, and inclines its adherents toward cultural authoritarianism and economic egalitarianism," Davis said. "The orthodox tend to feel that everyone in the community should be subject to what they see as eternal divine laws on the position of women, sexuality and the family. But they also tend to believe that the community and society should look out for its members' economic well-being."

The authors also found widespread support in the Muslim world for the establishment of Islamic law.

Their findings appear in the American Sociological Review. The article, "The Egalitarian Face of Islamic Orthodoxy: Support for Islamic Law and Economic Justice in Seven Muslim-Majority Nations," is the lead article in the current issue.

Davis and Robinson's finding that religious traditionalists or orthodox in Islam are more supportive than modernists of progressive economic reforms follows up on their earlier studies of the United States, a number of European countries and Israel, which found that orthodox Christians (Protestants, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox) and Jews tend to be more economically egalitarian than modernists in these faith traditions, belying the notion in many countries that the orthodox constitute a "Religious Right."

The data for their latest study came from national surveys in Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, where altogether just under half of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims live. The surveys were conducted from 2000 to 2003 as part of the fourth wave of the World Values Survey, conducted by the University of Michigan and a consortium of investigators in over 80 countries. Some other key findings include:

  • Fully 88 percent of Saudi respondents in the study considered establishing Islamic law as the sole basis of the state to be "important" or "very important," as did 82 percent of Egyptians, 80 percent of Jordanians, 72 percent of Algerians, 62 percent of Pakistanis and 53 percent of Indonesians. Only in Bangladesh did less than a majority (45 percent) support establishing shari'a as the sole law of the land. Robinson observed that "The strong popular support in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Algeria and Pakistan for implementing Islamic law suggests that were these countries to become more democratic, the democracies established might not adopt the economic policies or relations with the United States that President George W. Bush would envision."
  • In the poorer Muslim countries they studied, Davis and Robinson found that orthodoxy is more strongly linked to a desire for progressive economic reforms than in the countries with medium or high standards of living. Also, within all of these countries, the poor and less educated are more supportive of economic reforms than the rich and well educated.
  • Davis and Robinson see further evidence of the economic progressivism of the Islamic orthodox in the welfare networks that they have established throughout the Muslim world. Building on the mosque-centered model established by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during the 1930s, other Islamist groups, such as the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria, Laksar Jihad (Holy War Brigade) in Indonesia, Jamaat-i-Islami (Party of Islam) in Pakistan, and Hamas in Palestine, have created in their countries safety nets of welfare agencies, clinics and hospitals, factories paying good wages, day care centers, youth clubs and unemployment agencies. This "welfare Islam," according to the authors, has often shown Muslims that Islamist organizations can outperform corrupt or callous secular governments of their countries in providing much-needed social services.

Davis can be reached at 765-658-4518 or Robinson can be reached at 812-855-2569 or For a copy of their article, contact Johanna Olexy at 202-247-9871 or