Islam and the end of oppression: The example of An-Nahl: 71

November 5, 2012 by Ahmad Fuad Rahmat

In the age of Islamic finance and Islamic fashion it is often easy to forget that Islam is a faith that spoke for the liberation of the oppressed: slaves, the poor, women and refugees – indeed, those who sought freedom from injustice. They formed a significant portion of Islam’s earliest community, and their concerns shaped the principles that were to eventually constitute Islam’s elan.

Compare on one hand, the four highly conditional Quranic verses that are commonly referenced to justify the demand for Hudud punishments – which we should recall, were only revealed later, during the Medinan period – and on the other, the countless verses that speak for the poor.

The latter is glaringly present from even among the Meccan surahs, but in the age of post-colonial globalization, when Muslims scramble for the slightest vestige of authenticity, power and relevance they can grasp, justice has been construed largely in terms of corporal punishment than redistribution.

At any rate, the fact that the Meccan phase marked a time of grave oppression and tribulation for the Prophet (PBUH) and his earliest companions,  when Islam’s most foundational ideals were being propagated in a hostile environment, shows the extent to which economic justice has constituted a serious part of Islam’s ethical worldview from its very onset.

Islam and economic injustice

Verse 71 of surah An-Nahl is a good example of this

And on some of you God has bestowed more abundant means of sustenance than on others: and yet, they who are more abundantly favoured are often unwilling to share their sustenance with those whom their right hands possess, so that they [all] might be equal in this respect. Will they, then, God’s blessings [thus] deny?

At first glance, this can be taken for granted, or in today’s case brushed aside and reduced, as a typical Quranic call for charity (which even the most heinous of corporations do without much hesitation).

But a closer look at the textual context suggests more: “those whom their right hands possess” is a phrase used in many other occasions in the Quran to refer to slaves, servants and in some instances even women. The phrase refers to a hierarchy of power that is problematic.

The lesson here is clear: Islam goes beyond neo-liberalism. Whereas neo-liberalism merely emphasizes freedom in terms of individual choices at the market place, Islam goes deeper by defining freedom as liberation from the structures of oppression and exploitation.

We should note too, that the goal stated in the verse is sharing and “equality” which suggests more than the temporary relief that charity can offer. The basis of this goal is that all wealth and power is ultimately God’s blessings and thus should not be claimed by any one individual or class.

Choice is of course important, but one must choose in conditions of respect and dignity, which is a luxury not available to those who live under the duress of poverty and exploitation.

To grasp the radicality of this logic, we shall consider Muhammad Asad’s interpretation of the verse:

The placing of one’s dependants on an equal footing with oneself with regard to the basic necessities of life is a categorical demand of Islam; thus the Prophet said: “they are your brethren, these dependants of yours (khawalukum) whom God has placed under your authority. Hence, whoso has his brother under his authority shall give him to eat of what he eats himself, and shall clothe him with what he clothes himself. And do not burden them with anything that may be beyond their strength; but if you [must] burden them, help them yourselves” … However, men often fail to live up to this consciousness of moral responsibility and this failure amounts, as the sequence shows, to a denial of God’s blessings and of his unceasing care for all His creatures.

The centrality of this message can be grasped further when we consider how An-Nahl was not at all a Surah about law or economics. Instead, it is a discussion on theology: it presents a thorough critique of the logic and belief system of Mecca’s pagan polytheist elites at the time.

It speaks of how the offerings and objects of nourishment that are available in abundance in nature – water, earth, flora and fauna and whatever wealth and sustenance converted or extracted from that – ultimately originate from God. The Meccan polytheistic elite class’ denial of this was a simultaneous denial of Islam as they believed that the source of all life laid in the fictional powers of their idols which they worshiped in hope to secure their wealth and material advantage.

The goal of placing one’s dependant’s on an equal footing with one’s self, in other words, is about ending exploitation altogether.

The poor and slaves of early Islam

But submission to God is not as simple as leaving others alone as isolated individuals, as libertarians tend to idealize. Freedom is important but there is a larger goal.

Taking the above passage once again as an example, we see that liberation is a social process: The Quran demands those who are already in power to relinquish their mastery of others towards elevating the lives and dignity of the less fortunate on a level of equal dignity.

This explains the appeal that Islam’s conception of God and justice had over the poor and downtrodden. The list of ex-slaves and the poor among the men and women who constitute the Sahabah (the Prophet Muhammad PBUH’s earliest companions) is long indeed: Abu Dhar al Ghifari, Abdullah Ibn Masuh, Rabiah Ibn Kab, Abu Fakih, Al Nahdiah, Ammar Ibn Yassir, Amir Ibn Fuhayra, Barakah, Bilal ibn Rabah, Harithah bint Al Muammil, Jafar Ibn Abi Talib, Julaybib, Khabab Ibn Arrat, Lubaynah, Miqdad ibn al-Aswad al-Kindi, Salman Al Farsi, Salim Mawla Abu Hudayfa, Suhayb Al Rumi, Thuwaybah, Umm Ubays, Wahshy ibn Harb, Yasir ibn Amir, Zayd ibn Harithah, Zunairah Al Rumiyya are just a few among countless others.

Islam is about Justice

But beyond the fact that it is mentioned and urged in the Quran, why is the redistribution of wealth and the end of oppression such a priority in Islam? For this we must return to consider the fundamental conception of belief in Islam.

Human beings are a part of nature, that is to say, the larger world of God’s creation. Nature is imbued with purpose, and the purpose of all Muslims is to submit to Allah.

Submission, in the case of the human person, is not to be mistaken with pure ritual. There is worship, which expresses the spiritual dimension of our submission, muamalat, which represents our obligations as God’s vicegerents in this world to establish a just society. Both of these aspects of faith are interrelated.

Thus piety is meaningless without a social dimension, if the lessons and wisdom behind the ritual is not translated to good conduct towards others towards establishing a just society.