work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

Futuwwah and the value of a penny

02.04.2013 · Posted in Uncategorized

When talking about a “Sufi ethics” which can be seen as impacting on more than just the committed practitioners, i.e. members of Sufi orders and individual wandering dervishes, one can’t get round Ibn al-Husayn as-Sulami’s collection of moral rules in what has been translated as The Book of Sufi Chivalry, (al Sulami 1983)the 312/1021 written Al-Futuwwa. Futuwwa  or in Turkish transliteration fütüvvet is a set of ethical expectations that set a moral standard for the behaviour not only of Sufis but generally of Sufi-led communities, such as the kızılbaş and Alevi in Anatolia and also Ottoman trade guilds (Ridgeon 2013).

Much of fütüvvet is intuitively good behaviour – one is to be generous, altruistic, unassuming and tolerant. Some rules add an aristocratic note, encourage nobility in spirit even in the absence of wealth and power. For example

‘Be content with little and accept your lot, so that you will not lower yourself in front of another.’ (al-Sulami 1983: 69)

So the next paragraph could be seen as a summary of the whole book

‘Wish for the conditions that Sari al-Saqati enumerates. Through Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Khalidi we learn that Sari said that man’s peace depends on five principles: avoid associating with evil people, be distant from ordinary people, and in this distance taste the taste of your own actions; at the same time refrain from blaming or finding fault with people even to the extent of ignoring their rebellion against Allah. There are also five faults from which one should cleanse oneself: hypocrisy, argument, affectation, artificiality, and love of property and rank; and five curse from which one should free oneself: miserliness, ambition, anger, greet, and gluttony.’ (al-Sulami 1983: 70)

As mentioned in an earlier post – Sufi ethics seem to have a similar impact on economic behaviour in Anatolia today, and seeing the commitment to work in the first statement of fütüvvet, this does not come as a surprise

‘Do not be idle, but work in this world until you reach the definite state of trust in Allah. As reported through Abu Bakr al-Razi and Abu ‘Uthman al-Adami, Ibrahim al-Khawwas said, “It is not right for a Sufi not to work and earn his livelihood unless his situation makes it unnecessary, or he is clearly ordered to abandon worldly work. But if he needs to work and there is no reason for him not to work, he must work. Withdrawing from work is for those who have attained a spiritual level at which they are freed from the necessity of possessions and the following of custom.’ (al-Sulami 1983: 44f)

But it was this little anecdote that caught my eye

‘ ‘Abdullah ibn Marwan dropped a penny into a dirty well by mistake. He paid thirteen dinars to some workers to recover the penny. When he was asked to explain this curious action, he said that the name of Allah was written on the penny. In respect for His Name he had to retrieve the penny from the dirt.’ (al-Sulami 1983:45)

Beyond the obvious: why is God’s name on the money? And what are the effects of the action? The latter may not intended, but is obvious: to keep money in circulation. Not only so the penny isn’t lost, but also because the dirhams are set free. This strikes me as a remarkable economic rationality emerging from the seemingly irrational motives of piety (don’t leave something carrying God’s name in the mud) and altruism (invest without material return). Both motives are, of course, in full accordance with the ethics promoted by the Futuwwah. Piety goes without saying – and the “putting money back into circulation” part is repeated again and again under the label of charity. The way it is promoted in some other episodes cited by as-Sulami anticipates Keynesian economic sense: divide larger sums of money that lie idle into small parcels and give it to those in need (e.g. al-Sulami 1983: 53) – i.e. those you can be sure will be spending it, so keeping it in circulation.

When – as I will do more extensively elsewhere – arguing that Sufism does not only inform the emergence of Islamic capitalism (as recently in the “Anatolian Tigers”) but also consumerism, it is important to acknowledge that this cannot be a conversion to materialism. To the contrary, the contribution of Sufism to economic development needs to be seen in its anti-materialism, its ascetic altruism and its commitment to the World of Imagination.



But why is the name of God on the penny? It would be easy to go along with those who construe, from the origins of money in the temple economy, in sacrifice substitution (Laum 1924) a direct line to the “In God We Trust” on the dollar bill (e.g. Desmonde 1962 for a typical archaicising case). While there is an argument to be had for the guarantor of money (i.e. the state) mustering up religion as a source of trust, I would suggest there is a further and maybe already in the Abbasid age more relevant reason. Money is a competitor to religion, and it is the inherently religious (and hence from any traditional religious perspective: heretic) nature of money that the Sufi is up against: Money as final value and ultimate purpose in itself (see e.g. Deutschmann’s 2001 synthesis of Marx and Simmel). Religion is under threat from the money economy, hence, if money is allowed to circulate, it needs to be marked as under the authority of religion. This, then, facilitates the altruistic commitment to circulation. In the end, of course, the mentioning of God on currency becomes farcical.



Al-Sulami, Muhammad ibn al-Husayn (1983): The Sufi Book of Chivalry: Lessons to a Son of the Moment (Futuwwah), translated by Sheikh Tosun Bayrak al-Jerrahi al-Halveti, New York: Inner Traditions International.

Desmonde, William H. (1962): Magic, Myth and Money, New York: Free Press

Deutschmann, Christoph (2001): ‘The Promise of Absolute Wealth: Capitalism as Religion’, in: Thesis Eleven Vol.66, pp. 32-56

Laum, Bernhard (1924): Heiliges Geld, Tübingen: Mohr

Ridgeon, Lloyd (2013): ‘Futuwwa (in Sufism)’, in Gudrun Krämer et al. (eds): Encyclopedia of Islam, Three, Leyden: Brill Online

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