Photo by Marc Campos
Religious Studies

Meet Sohaib Khan of religious studies, whose research and teaching lie at the intersection of Islamic legal studies, anthropology, postcolonial studies, and histories of capitalism in South Asia and the Middle East.

Sohaib Khan headshot

Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Sohaib Khan comes to Occidental from Pomona College, where he taught Islamic studies as a visiting assistant professor. While teaching at Pomona, he was also Charles Warren Fellow at Harvard University. Khan previously taught at Williams College and the Lahore University of Management Sciences and also served as an Islamic Law and Civilization Fellow at Yale Law School. He received a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies from Columbia University, an M.A. in religion from Duke University, and a B.Sc. in economics from the Lahore University of Management Sciences in Pakistan. Khan is a scholar of comparative Islamic studies with an interest in connections between religion, secularism, and economic life in Muslim societies.

What attracted you to Occidental?

Two things about Occidental College stood out to me: its urban campus in the middle of a bustling metropolis and the Equity and Justice Agenda. Los Angeles is a mini-mosaic of the Islamic world and home to a rich variety of Muslim communities. As a first-generation immigrant and a Muslim faculty of color, it was really important for me to live and work in a diverse environment. I am also an ethnographer by training and do “people-centered” research; Occidental provided the perfect opportunity to tap into L.A. as an extended classroom and fieldwork site. Every institution of higher learning in the United States now incorporates some iteration of diversity, equity, and inclusion into its mission—as it should! What I found unique about Oxy is the explicit orientation towards justice as reflected in the curriculum and course offerings. I couldn’t be more thrilled to work with students and faculty who’re actively invested in using knowledge to imagine and create a more just world.

I am an ethnographer by training and do “people-centered” research; Occidental provided the perfect opportunity to tap into L.A. as an extended classroom and fieldwork site.

Of the courses you’ll be teaching at Oxy, do you have a favorite?

I’m really excited about my course called Islam and Capitalism. It’s an interdisciplinary exploration of historical, conceptual, and material connections between Islam and capitalism—two avowedly “religious” and “secular” entities seen at odds with each other. The course examines how Muslim societies were shaped by interactions between religion and economic life through watershed moments in the history of capitalism, such as the birth of the joint-stock company and the corporation, European colonialism and industrialization, and the ascendancy of neoliberal financial capitalism. We critically examine Eurocentric narratives of capitalist development that fault Islam for contributing to the great economic divergence between ‘the West’ and Muslim societies in the global South. We also read anthropological works to understand what everyday religious and economic life looks like in Muslim societies from West Africa to Southeast Asia. Students build on this knowledge to tackle pressing questions about the entangled fortunes of religion and capitalism in the Muslim world. Can Islamic ideals of redistributive justice tame capitalism’s socioeconomic ills or curb its concentration of economic power? How do we explain the curious coalition between forces of conservative Islam and petrodollar capitalism in the Arabian Gulf? Can modern experiments in Islamic finance inspire efforts to combat racial capitalism and climate change, or are they simply capitalist gimmicks in religious disguise? 

How did you develop an interest in comparative Islamic studies?

My interest in comparative Islamic studies was perhaps an outcome of my own circuitous journey into the academic study of Islam. Growing up in Oman and Pakistan, I went through a mix of secular education and a seminary-style traditional Islamic learning. I studied economics as an undergraduate but developed an appetite for history and philosophy through courses taken outside my major. When my family immigrated to the US in 2009, I wanted to make sense of the disjuncture between my rich religious and cultural heritage and the racialized identity that was thrust upon me as a brown Muslim male. Religious Studies provided an interdisciplinary space that could feed my intellectual curiosity. But as I progressed in graduate school, I became interested in understanding the fate of religion under capitalist modernity. How were Muslim communities coming to grips with dramatic shifts in the legal and cultural landscapes of finance? My Ph.D. in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia allowed me to pursue these questions from an interdisciplinary lens of Islamic legal studies and anthropology. I did two subsequent fellowships at Yale and Harvard Law that also helped broaden my comparative perspective on capitalism’s economic power and inequities in global Muslim contexts.

Can you talk about your book project, Translating Capitalism: How Muslim Jurists and Bankers Invented Shari'a Compliance?

Translating Capitalism tells the story of Islam’s remarkable convergence with global finance through a history of “Sharī‘a Compliance,” a legal code that prescribes best practices for today’s rapidly expanding $3 billion Islamic finance industry. These best practices reconcile financial discipline with devotion to God by aligning Muslim ethics with the practical imperatives of finance. I offer an in-depth textual and ethnographic account of how Sharī‘a Compliance was crafted from Islamic law by the Deobandīs, a community of South Asian Muslim jurists straddling Pakistan’s religious seminaries and Islamic banks. As vociferous critics of capitalism’s colonial roots and socioeconomic injustices, the Deobandīs originally developed Sharī‘a Compliance to purge sinful interest from capitalism’s financial operations. However, in prioritizing efficiency as a means of survival in the global marketplace, they inadvertently refashioned Islamic law by eroding its traditional mechanisms of economic welfare and redistribution. Translating Capitalism thus presents a cautionary tale of how a religious community seeking to dismantle Muslims’ material and cultural imprisonment in capitalism ended up entrenching it through Islamic legal improvisation. My book also complicates functionalist readings of the Islamic resurgence as a reactionary form of identity politics against the march of financial globalization. Instead of asking why Muslim societies in the global South failed to transition to capitalism, I show how Muslim communities are creatively reconfiguring finance as a mechanism of Islamic reform.

What excites you about your research?

The most rewarding aspect of my research is that it allows me to indulge in my twin interests in religion and capitalism. I am fascinated by the many ways in which religion can serve as a means of resistance against capitalist exploitation but also become coopted and assimilated into capitalist projects. In particular, I am intrigued by indigenous struggles to craft alternative futures for capitalism in the global South. I am a firm believer in the notion that learning about non-Western societies and cultures happens best when we do the reflexive work of learning from them. To learn from Islamic history and culture is to listen to Muslims and take their knowledge traditions seriously as constructive sources of theoretical and ethical reflection. This is a tall order, especially given how the academic guild is structured in a way that entrenches white power and excludes marginalized voices, but it is one that I find worth striving for.