Islamic Perspectives

Islam and Economic Justice

Justice is one of the central Islamic values and any economic system which is not based on justice cannot be acceptable to Islam. The Qur’an greatly emphasizes distributive justice and expresses its full and unqualified support for weaker sections of society which the Qur’an calls Mustad’afun and condemns arrogant ruling classes (called Mustakbirun) who suppress the weaker sections.

I was inspired to write this piece by the movement launched in America which has spread to other parts of the world, especially Europe. This movement raised an interesting slogan “we are ninety nine per cent” since, leaders of this movement maintain, one percent Americans have cornered all the wealth, depriving 99% people of America of their just rights. Hundreds of people wearing badges “we are 99%” and carrying placards with similar slogans gathered in Wall Street which is the financial hub of America and also occupied other strategic places.

 In America, which is the fortress of capitalism, profit is the only sacred word and distributive justice almost a dirty word. In America, freedom is considered a very fundamental right and value but this freedom was hardly inclusive of freedom to be socialist, much less communist. It is from this same America that a movement has started which is supporting socialism and distributive justice and is opposing concentration of wealth and such heavy concentration that one percent Americans have amassed almost the entire wealth of the American people.

It would be very interesting to compare what was happening in Mecca before the rise of Islam. Mecca was a centre of international trade and finance and various tribal chiefs had formed inter-tribal corporation to monopolise this trade and were accumulating wealth and neglecting the tribal morality to look after weaker sections. In other words, like in our own times, globalization and liberalization of economy allowed few people to accumulate wealth in Mecca too, before the rise of Islam, polarization between the rich and poor had greatly increased leading to social tensions. Social tensions had become very explosive and has been very vividly described in Surah no.104 of the Qur’an.

This Surah says man accumulates wealth and counts it again and again and thinks that this wealth will make him eternal. But surely he will be thrown into ‘Hutumah’. What is ‘Hutumah’? It is burning fire which will engulf his heart…Yet in another Meccan surah the Qur’an says, “ Don’t you see the man who belies Deen. It is this man who pushes away the orphans and does not exhort people to feed the poor and deprives people of their small needs. (Surah 107).

Before the rise of Islam, Mecca had become the centre of world trade and finance as most of the international caravans laden with luxury goods passed through that town and tribal chiefs, who first acted as guides for crossing the vast desert between Mecca and the border of Roman Empire, slowly became expert traders themselves and they became greedy for more wealth and kept on reinvesting their resources in trade to make yet more profit.

This dynamics of trade and profit kept them so engaged that in Surah 102, the Qur’an says that “your riches have made you quite negligent of your duties till you visit your graves”. While this dominant section of Meccan tribal chiefs were becoming super-rich, the poor, the orphans, widows and slaves were being totally neglected and exploited to accumulate more riches. They were leading lives of poverty and deprivation. Nothing moved the rich whereas there was earlier no concept of poor in a tribal society.

It was in this background that such verses were revealed in the Qur’an. Justice is so central in Qur’anic ethics that Allah’s name is ‘Adil (Just). The Qur’an says, “Do Justice, it is closest to piety” (5:8). Thus there was complete absence of distributive justice on one hand, and concentration of wealth, on the other. Compare this with what is happening in America now. Wealth has got so concentrated in the hands of 1% that 99% people are feeling the heat, losing jobs and homes, and living a life of starvation in a country where in the midst of plenty people had forgotten what a life of poverty is.

It is under these circumstances that this movement was started and thousands of people are demonstrating on Wall street or at many other strategic places. Of course the media is not interested in such movements which expose the weaknesses of the capitalist system and hence does not report much. Only occasionally it is compelled to write about it without making it very prominent in print as well as the electronic media. I need not say much about who controls the media.

In those days in Mecca there was neither democracy, nor awareness about one’s rights, nor any democratic movements and so only way to make people aware of their rights was divine revelation and hence the Qur’an, an instrument of divine revelation through Muhammad (pbuh) these verses were revealed condemning concentration of wealth and deprivation of people. These verses created awareness among the faithful about distributive justice.

It is also important to note that the Qur’an is in favour of need-based life and opposes the concept of greed-based or luxurious life. It clearly says give away what is left with you after fulfilling your needs (what is called by the Qur’an (‘Afw). However, Muslims, except a few followers of the Prophet (pbuh) during his life and for a few years thereafter, never practiced it. In fact, many companions of the Prophet (pbuh) considered it sinful to drink water in gold or silver vessels. But this was short-lived.

 If Muslims had taken these verses seriously and put them into practice, they would have been the role model to the world of distributive justice and a conflict-free world, a world without wars and bloodshed, a peaceful world where everyone would have felt secure and peaceful, a real paradise on earth. But America, in order to make the lives of its own people a life of plenty made the whole earth a hell.   

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 February 2012 on page no. 21

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