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
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
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