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Focaal: Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology

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credit, cultural economy, debt, equity, finance, interest-free banking, Islam, riba


A recurring theme in academic, moralizing, and religious discourses laments the individual and societal perils of debt and praises equity. Contemporary Islamic banking and finance is one conspicuous example. Th is article recontextualizes this conversation by demonstrating that since the 1980s financial practitioners have been interpreting debt and equity as increasingly illegible cognitive schemas that nonetheless retain their historical and moral connotations. Th is line of argumentation suggests that normatively contrasting debt and equity is a red herring— a literary device and theoretical construct that misleads and distracts from the fundamental discussion of what constitutes salubrious or odious finance. Little will change in social life if we seek to replace “debt” with “equity.” Rather, since all financial instruments describe social relationships, our conversation should turn to normatively proscribing the kinds of financial instruments that match our normative values for contractual relationships.


First published in Focaal—Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 93 (2022): 60–74.

This article is available open access under a CC BY-ND 4.0 license as part of Berghahn Open Anthro, a subscribe-to-open model for APC-free open access made possible by the journal’s subscribers.

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