Posted by: admin | December 20, 2009

MS09.5 – Protection of Wealth [Part 2 of 2]

This post forms the second and final part in our discussion of Hifdh al-Maal and we look at those things which threaten the maintenance and permissible growth of Wealth.

From the Perspective of That Which Threatens al-Maal

Those things which threaten al-Maal are discouraged, prevented and prohibited. Some examples of how is achieved are as follows:

1) Prohibition of Usury (Ribaa)
Ribaa is translated as usury, a slightly archaic term that is not much used today; a more common translation is ‘interest’. Ribaa is an Arabic word coming from the verbal root ra-baa which literally means ‘to grow’ or ‘to increase.’ This is the linguistic meaning, but does it imply that any form of growth or increase is categorised as ribaa?

The short answer is no, and is clarifed in Surah al-Baqarah: “Those who devour usury will not stand except as stand one whom the Evil one by his touch Hath driven to madness. That is because they say: “Trade is like usury,” but Allah hath permitted trade and forbidden usury. Those who after receiving direction from their Lord, desist, shall be pardoned for the past; their case is for Allah (to judge); but those who repeat (the offence) are companions of the Fire: They will abide therein (for ever).” [Qur’an 2:275]

This verse refers to a group from Bani Isra’eel at the time of the Prophet Muhammad (s) who were attempting to blur the distinction between the usury and trade by saying that they were one and the same. In the above verse, Allah makes clear this distinction and concludes by mentioning the severe punishment for engaging in such financial transactions and attempting to justify them. An interesting point to note here is that this group of people were able to confuse the two and present them to others as the effectively the same thing, implying that the distinction may at times not be absolutely clear to all.

Even today, many Muslims find themselves unsure as to what the actual difference between ribaa and profit is. Even linguistically, in Arabic, the words sound similiar. As mentioned above the increase from a usurious loan or transaction is referred to as ribaa, and the increase from profit is termed ribh (which comes from the verbal root ra-bi-ha, meaning ‘to gain’ or ‘to win’). As believers in Allah and the Last Day, we must keep this distinction clear in our minds. There are very few things prohibited in Islam so absolutely and with such severity. In the verses following the one above, Allah declares war on those who engage in such transactions: “O ye who believe! Fear Allah, and give up what remains of your demand for usury, if ye are indeed believers. If ye do it not, Take notice of war from Allah and His Messenger. But if ye turn back, ye shall have your capital sums: Deal not unjustly, and ye shall not be dealt with unjustly.” [Qur’an 2:278-279]

In today’s world, the entire global banking system is based on the lending of money at interest, therefore to keep oneself safe from such a serious transgression is not always easy. The age we live in seems very much like the one foretold by the Prophet Muhammad (s) in a famous hadith: “There will certainly come a time for mankind when everyone will take ribaa and if he does not do so, its dust will reach him” [Related by Abu Dawud and Ibn Majah].

What exactly is the problem with ribaa though and how can we understand the distinction between profit and usury? Interest is defined as a set return on a loan, and as such implies a profit based on no risk or effort – a principle completely against Islamic ideals. Financial profit is a result of effort or risk (or both), and interest seeks to undermine the risk-based nature of trade. Furthermore, in many instances interest is exploitative – it is typically used as a means of deriving profit from the financially weaker members of society by a wealthy class in whose hands the lent money is concentrated. Further information regarding the wisdom behind the prohibition of ribaa can be found herehere and here.

The previous post looked at the development of Islamic Economics in recent years as an attempt to offer an alternative model of doing business. In the current global financial crisis (explained here in very simple terms) which has exemplified one of the core problems with a system based on usurious lending, some were hopeful that the nascent Islamic banking sector would provide a real ethical alternative. The reality however has proved difficult and some are questioning the path that this new field has taken.

2) Prohibition of Theft with its associated Punishment
Stealing is by consensus a capital crime in Islamic Law and the prescribed punishment is severe. Taking the belongings or wealth of others in any society is considered a crime; following on from our discussion in an earlier post, there are several “motivating forces” keeping us from committing wrong actions, such as stealing, the most basic of which is the fitra, or human disposition.

Whatever the factor preventing people from taking the property of others, the prohibition of such an act serves to protect that which belongs to others, namely their possessions and wealth (maal). The Qur’anic punishment for theft is the cutting of the hand of the thief. Allah says in Surah al-Ma’idah, “As to the thief, Male or female, cut off his or her hands: a punishment by way of example, from Allah, for their crime: and Allah is Exalted in power” [Qur’an 5:38].

This may seem harsh, however one cannot forget firstly, the seriousness of the crime and also that its application is not without strict conditions. For example, the item stolen must satisfy the following conditions:

  • Have a value greater than a pre-determined amount (analogous to nisab for Zakat)
  • Be kept under lock and key such that the theft required an act of breaking and entering to acquire it
  • Not be an item of food
  • Not be taken in a case of necessity

In addition the thief committing the crime must also meet some criteria:

  • Not be starving (i.e. stealing out of hunger)
  • Be legally responsible (e.g. have reached the age of maturity and not be clinically insane)

The criterion of legal responsibility is looked at in more detail later when we look at Usool al-Fiqh (Principles of Islamic Law). Any act of taking an item not belonging to oneself is categorised as theft however unless the above conditions are met, the prescribed punishment of cutting the hand of the thief would not apply. In such cases the punishment would be at the discretion of the judge overseeing the case. Interestingly from the above is the condition that the item must be kept under lock and key. This means that the act of theft must be pre-meditated and require the thief to overcome the obstacle provided by the locked barrier protecting the item, so an opportunistic thief while still by definition a thief, is not in the same category as say, an armed robber.

Finally, the point about “lifting” the prescribed punishment if certain conditions are not met, while being more in the realm of Usool, deserves a mention here. The second caliph in Islamic history, Umar (ra), during a period of famine famously ordered a temporary suspension of the punishment for theft. This was due to the fact that as it was the State’s duty to provide for the needs of its citizens, in a time of famine where this responsibility was not being fulfilled, the State did not then have the right to punish them if they act out of desperation. A similar reasoning has been recently employed by Tariq Ramadan in his call for a moratorium on all Hadd punishments due to the high levels of injustice and corruption in lands where they are applied, a move which has courted much debate amongst scholars.

3) Legislation of Compensation in the event of Vandalism / Accidental or Criminal Damage
Another way by which the possessions and wealth (maal) of people are protected is by the paying of compensation in the case that the item is damaged or vandalised. This differs from theft where the item is physically taken; in the event of damage or vandalism, the item remains in the possession of its owner, however it is damaged thereby rendering its satisfactory use difficult or impossible.

In the simplest scenario, if one person was to damage any possession belonging to another, he or she would be liable to compensate the claimant for the loss incurred. Collectively this can be achieved through mutual or collaborative efforts, one modern manifestation of which is the concept of insurance which is defined as “the equitable transfer of the risk of a loss, from one entity to another, in exchange for a premium”.

There is disagreement amongst Islamic scholars as to the permissibility of such insurance, with some claiming that it is akin to gambling. Others maintain that there is nothing wrong with the concept per se, rather it is the particular form of application that makes it halal or haram.

4) Looking After The Wealth of Certain Categories of People
To protect wealth, i.e. to preserve it and prevent waste or squandering, at times it may be necessary to withhold monies and/or possessions from those persons who are deemed unable to manage their own financial affairs, even though they may be the rightful owners.

Allah says in Surah an-Nisa: “And do not give the foolish their wealth which is in your custody – those for whom Allah has put you in charge to maintain (look after) – and feed and clothe them from it, and speak kindly to them” [Qur’an, 4:5]

The “foolish” as translated in the above verse, in the Arabic is “Sufahaa” which is a plural word coming from the root verb sa-fi-ha, which means ‘to be foolish’ or ‘legally incompetent’ and applies to those people who in the eyes of the law are not deemed legally responsible. By extension this logic applies to children, those below the age of discernment. Legally their wealth can be held until such time that they demonstrate that they are able to manage their own affairs. An example where this could occur and indeed does even in Western society is in the case that a child inherits a large amount of money, but this is held and managed in a trust fund until they are old enough to take full ownership of it.

5) Prohibition of Extravagance / Spendthriftness and Wastefulness
Muslims are encouraged not to be excessive in their material consumption; to live in the world, taking from it what they need while at the same time maintaining their faith and upholding its principles. Allah says in the Qur’an: “O ye who believe! make not unlawful the good things which Allah hath made lawful for you, but commit no excess: for Allah loveth not those given to excess”. [Qur’an, 5:90]

This is different from traditional Christianity and some Sufi teachings in Islam where a complete rejection of the material world is called for, there is no monastic tradition in Islam. What is desired is a balanced approach, a mindset where we realise our role in this world as travellers on a journey. The Prophet Jesus (as) is reported to have said “The world is a bridge; cross this bridge but do not build upon it.” The Islamic tradition also echoes this and in numerous Qur’anic verses and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (s) which advise us to have moderation in all things, be it food, clothing, building etc.

Allah says in Surah al-A’raaf: ““O children of Adam! Wear your beautiful apparel at every time and place of prayer: eat and drink: but waste not by excess, for Allah loves not the wasters.”“O children of Adam! Wear your beautiful apparel at every time and place of prayer: eat and drink: but waste not by excess, for Allah loves not the wasters.”” [Qur’an, 7:31] and in a famous hadith regarding excess in eating and drinking, the Prophet (s) said: “No human ever filled a container more evil than his belly. The few morsels needed to support his being shall suffice the son of Adam. But if there is no recourse then one third for his food, one third for his drink and one third for his breath”. [related byAhmad and Tirmidhi]

Interestingly however, no monetary limit is set on what defines the line between moderation and excess. It is relative to each society and age however there are some absolutes that are obvious to all. The overall wisdom in discouraging excess at a societal level is to minimise the gulf between the apparent lifestyles of the rich and poor, something that if not checked can lead to envy and an unhealthy class separation in a society. That is not to say that there will not always be those that are rich and those that are poor, but while acknowledging the reality, Islamic teachings focus on the rights and responsibilities of each group in an attempt to bridge that gap.

6) Prohibition of Hoarding and Miserliness
The opposite of the above is not to spend one’s wealth at all and this too is discouraged as something which does not circulate wealth in a society. It is interesting to note, that one may think that hoarding is the best way to protect wealth, however it is deemed a blameworthy quality as it does not realise the intended purpose of wealth, namely to circulate and benefit as many people as possible.

Allah says in the Qur’an regarding those who hoard and are miserly: “But as for him who is stingy and self-satisfied, and denies the Good, We will pave his way to Difficulty” [Qur’an, 92: 8-11]

It is important to note a subtle distinction between hoarding and miserliness. Miserliness is an attitude where one does not want to spend their wealth and hoarding is the act of physically concentrating wealth in the hands of a select few. Monopolising of resources, industry etc can also be seen as a type of hoarding as it concentrates the wealth and power in the hands of a few individuals in society, something that the Shari’ah deems undesirable for a healthy society.

Conclusion
Wealth and possessions (maal) are considered to be of the darooriyaat and as such their protection is from the maqasid of the Shari’ah. We have seen ways in which wealth is grown and spread around an economy with the aim of benefiting all its members and ways in which the maintenance and permissible growth of wealth is encourage and legislated for.

The next post will conclude our discussion of the darooriyaat where we will be looking at the concept of Freedom in Islam (Hurriyya) and how its protection is also one of the Maqasid al-Shari’ah.

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Responses

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