On the Progressive Core of Islamic Economics

September 3, 2011 by Ahmad Fuad Rahmat


On the Progressive Core of Islamic Economics

By Ahmad Fuad Rahmat, Research Fellow, Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF).

In recent years, Malaysia has been commonly acknowledged by most observers and visitors as a relatively wealthy Muslim country. This, however, does not necessarily mean that it is in any way a relatively wealthy Islamic country. The intersection of wealth and Islamic faith is a very complicated issue that cannot be reduced to the presence of infrastructural development, commerce or mere charity. As Ramadhan ends, Malaysian Muslims will be returning to a life of regular consumption after a month of reflection and moderation.  Incidentally, Malaysia is also in the midst of debating the possibilities and moral necessity of a minimum wage policy, ostensibly to put an end to, if not address, the unrealistic and oppressive poverty level which is currently set at RM500 for a family of four.  There is then an urgency to pause and consider how Islam views wealth and property and how we, in good Muslim conscience, ought to think about them.

Property

The Qur’an has many explicit statements for the right of property (An-Nisaa: 2, 4-6, 10, 29, An-Nahl: 71).

Notice in each case that the ownership of property is never explained simply in terms of the unconditional individual right for the private accumulation of things. Notice also, how the Qur’anic statements for property rights were always formed as commands on how to best view and distribute property to, or in relation with, others.

There are two things to note here. The commands to redistribute property are directed exclusively to the wealthy and powerful. Secondly, as Sait and Lim explain, the commands are often framed in terms of the “sacred trust based on Tawhid, Khalifa and Amana”.1

Why sacred trust? Because only God is the proper “owner” of anything on earth. To God everything originates and to God everything returns (Al-An’am: 136, An-Nahl: 71). The human being is at best a guide to the rightful use of property based on the assumption that he or she is a representative (Khalifa / vicegerent) of the earth who is bound by the divine trust (Amana / contract) to live justly and play his or her part to safeguard society from harm and evil.

The right to own things then is an ethical responsibility. The right itself is not something one acquires to possess (as one would in the liberal free-market framework, whereby allthings qualify for acquisition and possession). “Ownership” is an attitude towards what one owns. Furthermore, that attitude of responsibility must be oriented towards the Muslim’s obligation towards Allah. Ownership, even when “private”, is simply a means towards achieving a greater good for society. Ownership is not an end in itself.

As an example, consider the following passage: “Allah has bestowed His gifts of sustenance more freely on some of you than on others: those more favored are not going to throw back their gifts to those [slaves] whom their right hands possess, so as to be equal in that respect. Will they then deny the favors of Allah? (An-Nahl: 71)” Notice how the privilege of sustenance is explained as a favor from Allah. When wealth is viewed positively it is still nonetheless described as “the bounty of God.” (Al-Jumu’ah:10, Al-Muzzammil:20) At the heart of the Qur’an’s concern is not so much the right to those favors but how those favors are to be used responsibly towards those who are less advantaged.

A literal reading of the Qur’an will not suggest anything like the liberal conception of ownership of things as the enclosure of things accumulated and owned, or property as an extension or reflection of our personal identity. Amazingly, the Qur’an even addresses the problem of free competition at (Al-Ma’un: 1- 6). At best then, there is as Muhammad Abdul-Rauf says “a concept of dual ownership (human-God) under Islamic Principles.”2 In fact one would be hard pressed to find any conception of solely individual wealth in the Qur’an. Humans are only to use and develop their property towards some ethos of sharing and redistribution.

Wealth

The Qur’an does not regard wealth as a sin. Nor does it see an inherent problem in class differences (“but bestow on them, the wealthy according to his means, and the poor according to his means” – Al-Baqarah: 236.) Regardless, the Qur’an does view wealth as a potential risk of sorts. Time and time again we find the Qur’an stating how wealth can distract and obscure us from the essential truth and justice of Islam.

The Qur’an views this matter with such concern as to even show how prayers could be rendered completely meaningless in the absence of proper welfare for the oppressed: “Woe betide then those who pray, yet are neglectful of their prayers – those who pray for show and even deny the use of their utensils [to the poor]” (Al-Ma’un:1-7). The right and wrong in wealth then depends on one’s attitude towards it and the extent to which it is viewed and lived out in the Islamic spirit of just redistribution.

Zakat

In Islam, as we all know, the practice of rightful redistribution is applied and sanctioned through the practice of Zakat.

Zakat is often translated to English as “alms” or “charity, but we must not confuse Zakat with Sadaqah, another word which is also often translated as “alms” or “charity”. As a practice, Zakat is compulsory practice whereas Sadaqah is strongly encouraged. The Qur’an, more often than not, mentions Zakat alongside the five daily prayers (Al-Baqarah: 43, 110, 177, An-Nur:56, Luqman:4-5). Note though that while Sadaqah is optional (although strongly encouraged) charity but that option only makes sense given the assumption that Zakat is already enforced in society.

The main purpose of Zakat is “so that wealth does not circulate only in the hands of the rich among you.” (Al-Hashr: 7) Note that what is to be redistributed is wealth (not the occasional free meal or the giving away of unwanted things which is how charity is typically thought of by Muslims today). The explicit mention of wealth also indicates that zakat aims at social-structural changes and not just feeding the poor or the sharing or giving away of things already in abundance.

Consider how the Qur’an is specific on those it considers to be worthy of Zakat: The poor, those who cannot sustain their families, recent converts, prisoners of War held under Muslim rule, people in debt, those who perform Jihad and travellers in need of material assistance and refugees. The gamut then extends far beyond simply “the poor” or materially deprived. To use a more contemporary term we can even say that Zakat is meant especially for the oppressed and marginalized in society.

That is not a far-fetched claim. Consider, as an example, the following passage whereby the Qur’an once again expresses its care for the oppressed and marginalized: “Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west, but [true] righteousness is [in] one who believes in Allah , the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets and gives wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveler, those who ask [for help], and for freeing slaves; [and who] establishes prayer and gives zakah; [those who] fulfill their promise when they promise; and [those who] are patient in poverty and hardship and during battle. Those are the ones who have been true, and it is those who are the righteous.” (Al-Baqarah: 177) or “For the poor emigrants who were expelled from their homes and their properties, seeking bounty from Allah and [His] approval and supporting Allah and His Messenger, [there is also a share]. Those are the truthful.” (Al-Hashr:8)

In discussing this very topic Fazlur Rahman reminded us that the Qur’an was addressing the Meccan wealthy class at the time when Mecca was the thriving commercial city of the Arab peninsula. The oppressed (the poor, slaves, orphans and refugees) were those relegated to “the subterranean world of exploitation” that emerged as a result of the “charitable and boastful conspicuous consumption” of that wealthy class.3 It is with precisely with this acute sensitivity to the suffering of the oppressed that the Qur’an commanded that “in [the riches of the wealthy] there is a definite right of the indigent and deprived.” (Al-Ma’arij:25)

Why redistribution?

The Qur’an’s reason for aiding the oppressed is justice.  Following Mohammad Hashim Kamali we can posit, broadly, that justice means “placing something in its rightful place where it belongs”.4 But what does that mean? In considering the points on property and wealth we have made earlier we can say, at the very basic level, that the poor and indigent have the right to the property of the wealthy because the property of the wealthy actually belongs to God.

But we must ponder further, for it doesn’t seem likely that economic justice was demanded simply for the sake of the subsistence of the poor. For if wealth is to be shared so that people would have just enough to eat to live, there would be no need for the Qur’an to command us to come to the aid of refugees or to free slaves. This point should not be taken lightly. The Qur’an and Hadith are replete with explicit calls for manumission. Slaves are to be freed, not just clothed or fed.

Hashim Kamali and Ayatollah Murtaza Muttahari suggest, rather convincingly, that the repeated concerns over exploitation that one can find even upon a glance at the Qur’an and Hadith is due to Islam’s firm conviction that spiritual freedom is essentially connected to social freedom. Or put simply, there is no difference between them. “Social liberty is sacred”.5

This position is worth stating in more detail: “Only a person in whose heart and conscience there is a heavenly call can truly have respect for people’s rights and liberties. But when a person becomes slave to wealth, that person is in fact a slave to his or her own mental characteristics. For inanimate things like money and land have no power to enslave a person”6. Islam then presents a rather robust notion offreedom. Redistribution frees the wealthy from the shackles of lowly desires and material attachments. Thus he or she would then come closer to Islam in a less burdened and distracted emotional and psychological state.

But what of the oppressed? Their social freedom, in turn, would mean they could approach Islam peacefully without an existence that is burdened by the search for basic needs to survive. In the case of slaves, once freed, they would be able to come to Islam on their terms, rather than their master’s.

Islam weds the notions of social freedom and spiritual freedom because the ultimate symbiotic goal of both is the liberation of ill desires and anxieties. But being creatures with an animal nature with bodily and physical needs, spiritual freedom – that is, the capacity to come to Islam and God with meaningful control and clarity of mind and spirit – cannot be possible without the security of social justice, of which the redistribution of wealth, as we’ve just seen, is very much an essential a component in Islam. It is much more meaningful for us to worship in a state of peace rather than a state of physical desperation or hunger. It is much more meaningful to turn to God while living in a society of security and stability rather than a society of war and injustice.

Concluding Remarks

The Qur’an does not call for the simple sharing of wealth through charity or occasional donations. Nor does the Qur’an believe that the ownership of property is a simple matter of individual accumulation and consumption. It is not compatible with the classical liberal conception of personal wealth and free competition that has dominated the imagination of the majority of Malaysian Muslims today.7

Ownership and wealth is always discussed as a responsibility to end the suffering of the oppressed. Even the most superficial glance at the many Qur’anic rebukes against the wealthy will reveal the Islamic demand for (1) progressive change from the widely held attitude that wealth is a self-evident personal and natural right, and (2) progressive change in the power structure that privileges the wealth of the few at the expense of meaningful aid to the oppressed. The Qur’an then demands change at the level of social structure and spiritual worldview, not just the occasional instances of goodwill from the wealthy class.

The Qur’anic statements against riba, often translated as “usury” or “interest”, are obvious enough (An-Nisa: 161, Al-Baqarah: 275-280, Al-E-Imran: 130, Ar-Rum: 39). But once viewed in a wider context, that is, in light of how wealth is thought about more consistently in the Qur’an, we can see the fundamental reason against riba more clearly: Interest from lending money is wrong basically because it encourages profit and monetary incentive for assisting others.

That the Islamic moral compass is not in line with liberal capitalism should not mean to suggest that it is socialist or Keynesian at heart. Islam emerged under different concerns and historical circumstances than that which motivated modern Western economic though. That said, since the globalized world is still essentially capitalist, Muslims should not shy away from dialogues with other possible progressive alternatives to capitalism to suit whatever particular Muslim context that is being addressed.

We must be careful at any rate, to search for any fixed blueprint. Islam is always understood and lived within particular cultural and historical contexts which are constantly evolving in their interactions with other new contexts. Tariq Ramadhan reminds us that in searching for economic alternatives, Islam offers us “a set of higher goals and means that calls for fundamental reflection about the meaning and essence of economic activity today”8. Islam provokes us to constantly “question our consciences” rather than to seek any permanent solution to changing times.9

Some things, however, remain clear: The overall Islamic attitude to wealth and redistribution is more left than right, more committed to equality than inequality and more oriented towards redistribution than personal accumulation. Its concerns are rooted in the social and spiritual development of all, not the crude numbers that make the GDP.10

References

[1] Jait, S. and Lim, H. (2006) Land, Law and Islam: Property & Human Rights in the Muslim World. Zed Books: London and New York. Pg. 10.

[2] Sait and Lim , 1.

[3] Rahman, F. (1999). Major Themes of the Qur’an. Islamic Book Trust: Kuala Lumpur. Pg. 39.

[4] Kamali, M.H. (1999) Freedom, Equality and Justice in Islam. Ilmiah Publishers: Petaling Jaya. Pg 140.

[5] Kamali, 21.

[6] Kamali, 22.

[7] For an example, see www.ideas.org.my

[8] Ramadhan, T. Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation. Oxford University Press: New York. 244 – 245.

[9] Ramadhan, 245.

[10] The conception of this article benefitted greatly upon insights from Fadiah Nadwa Fikri.