September 27th, 2014

Justice and circulation of one’s wealth

Man has a temporary right to enjoy the profits of wealth that ultimately belongs to God without damaging the property.

IN our world view, originally nothing belongs to man. To quote Ibn al-‘Arabi, “man is destitute at root”.

It is God who makes him resourceful: by creating all things that are beneficial for mankind, God makes him the possessor of those things.

All that man possesses, therefore, is but held in trust from God, as the following Quranic verse implies: “Believe in God and His Messenger, and spend on others’ welfare, out of the property He has made you trustees” (al-Hadid, 57: 7). Man is allowed only its usufruct; as far as ownership is concerned, “all that is in the heavens and on earth belongs to God” (al-Baqarah, 2: 284).

Muhammad Asad points out that this is a significant notion: of man’s temporary right to the use, enjoyment and profits of wealth that ultimately belongs to God, without damaging the property. The terms and conditions of use – that the property itself must remain undiminished and uninjured in any way – ensure sustainability for future generations, “those who came after them” (al-Hashr, 59: 10).

If all that man possesses is but held as a sacred trust, the management of human affairs must be bound to God’s guidance, concerning whereto should he expend or not expend the wealth.

Indeed, the religious law was revealed to explain just this, so that the servant will spend according to certain knowledge (basirah) as to the view of God, the One who has made him trustee. Should the individual expend in what God has not commanded him to, the former must bear the cost of what he has wasted from the latter’s property.

A just circulation of wealth is emphasised throughout the Quran: “wealth should not circulate solely among the rich” (al-Hashr, 59: 7).

While promoting an ethical social order, God severely denounces the condition of economic disequilibrium. Fazlur Rahman, in his work Major Themes of the Quran, views that gross economic disparities are most persistently criticised because it is the most difficult issue to remedy at the heart of social discord. It signifies a pernicious divisiveness of mankind and a major cause of the decay of societies.

Even if the wealthy rightfully earn something, they could not spend it just as they wished. Not all wealth earned rightfully belongs to them; the needy, the indigent and the deprived also have a right in it.

God rebukes the act of hoarding wealth and heartless uncharitableness. The Quran referred to those who hoard their wealth without spending anything thereof on righteous causes in the following poignant words, “those who amass gold and silver and spend not in the way of God” (al-Tawbah, 9: 34).

Those who lead selfish lives have also been severely reprimanded. Even as they perform religious rituals, they fail the test of “little acts of neighbourly help, the thousand little courtesies and kindness of daily life, the supply of needs which cost little but mean much”.

God censures their hypocrisy in the Quran: “Have you observed him who gives lie to Religion? It is he who treats the orphans (the helpless) with contempt and feels no urge to feed the needy. Woe, then, to those who pray, yet are neglectful of their prayers – those who pray for show and deny all assistance [to their fellow-men]” (al-Ma‘un, 107: 1-7).

One aspect of an abuse of wealth refers to those who are economically strong and resourceful but acquire their wealth wrongfully, through exploitation of the weak. They commit a variety of fraudulent commercial and monetary practices.

God contrasts the acts of spending in His cause (i.e., to expend on the needy) and investing money in usury in order to suck the blood of poor people: “The wealth you invest in usury so that it should grow at the expense of other people’s wealth, does not grow in the sight of God, but whatever wealth you spend in welfare [zakat proper] – supporting sincerely the cause of God – it multiplied several fold.” (al-Rum, 30:39).

The purposes of welfare spending are well-defined in the following details: “Public welfare spending is [not for the rich but] only for the indigent and the poor, officials who collect and administer zakat funds (wages for the administrative service), those whose hearts are to be won over for Islam (diplomatic expenditure), for the freeing of man from bondage, for the relief of those who are in chronic debt [which they contracted in good faith], for the cause of God (every kind of struggle for social welfare purposes like education, health, defence and communications), and for the wayfarer (facilitating travel)” (al-Tawbah, 9:60).

Such categories of public welfare expenditure are so broad that they comprise all the needs of a society and state.

When the Companions asked the Prophet Muhammad how much they were to spend in public welfare, the Prophet was commanded to answer: “What is left after your due expenditure” (al-Baqarah, 2: 219).

As to those who did give alms, but kept back the good things they had and parted only with the useless and worn-out articles by way of so-called charity, they were admonished thus: “You will not attain righteousness until you spend of that despite you love it for yourselves” (Ali ‘Imran, 3: 92).

One’s faith in God cannot be considered complete unless it makes him conscious of the material needs of one’s fellow-beings.

It is a prerequisite of true believers that they “spend of their wealth – despite their love for it – for needy kinsmen, orphans [or the helpless], the poor, the wayfarer, those who ask [and entitled to ask for financial help], and for the freeing of human beings from bondage” (al-Baqarah, 2: 177).

In applying this principle of distributive justice, it must be emphasised that it must not lead to idleness and easy living.

As observed by Shibli Nu’mani in his analysis of Caliph Umar’s statesmanship and justice, society’s generosity must not lead to a race of lazy beggars, who feel no inclination to earn their living with their own hands and live merely dependent on the bounty of others.

Referring to Umar’s way of action, al-Mawardi states in al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyyah: “It is the duty of the official to censure and reprimand those who accept charity though they are quite fit to earn their living.” Umar used to say: “Work, however low, is better than asking charity of others.” Dr Mohd Sani Badron is Principal Fellow/Director of Ikim’s Centre for Economics and Social Studies. The views expressed here are entirely his own. The STAR Home News Columnist 23 September 2014