Islam and the Distribution of Wealth
At a time of global advancement in various fields such as science and technology: communication across the seven seas has become instant, the duration of transcontinental journeys has reduced from months and years to a matter of hours and the world has been reduced to a global village. However, an issue of great importance that faces humanity at large is that of global poverty; a dark stain on the civilised world of the 21st century and its people.
A recent Global Monitoring Report published jointly by the World Bank and the IMF (1) predicts that an approximate 900 million people were living on less than $1.90 a day in 2012. The report also highlights the increasing concentration of poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa where the depth and breadth of poverty remains an overriding challenge whether in relation to income-poverty or non-income deprivations resulting in a lack of access to quality education, basic health services and access to clean water. It is suggested that in recent years, increasing land degradation, deforestation, extreme weather events and pollution have endangered progress of eliminating poverty. Irrespective of the contributory factors, the figures for those living below the poverty line are staggering and emphasize the growing need to take a practical approach to decrease poverty with a vision to eventually eliminate poverty altogether.
Fundamentally, Islam is comprehensive, complete and balanced in nature and practice and thus is not limited to theological scripture but extends to socio-political and economic principles to name but a few disciplines. These principles are intended to form the basis of frameworks throughout the ages whilst considering the requirements of the respective time and place. As Islam is comprehensive, the Qur’an and the Traditions of the Prophet (Peace be upon Him!) emphasise on the voluntary distribution of wealth that is surplus to individual need. This is the basis of providing a solution to global poverty. The Qur’an states:
“…..and they also ask you about what they should spend. Say: “(spend) whatever is in surplus to your needs.”, thus does Allah make His commandments clear to you so that you may meditate.” (2)
Without pondering much upon the circumstances of the revelation behind the verse or the exegetical technicalities, some points are nonetheless necessary to be elaborated upon in further detail. Primarily, although it is incumbent upon every Muslim to give 2.5% of his wealth annually for distribution amongst the needy as a tenant of Islam, no limit has been placed on how much one may give as a maximum hence the Qur’an states “(spend) whatever is in surplus to your needs”. (3) That is to assert that spending 2.5% is a requirement yet more could and indeed should be spent from that which remains as surplus. If adhered to the Qur’an, the world would go a long way to witness the eradication of global poverty.
Also, by elucidating the importance of spending that which is in surplus to ones needs, the verse does not condemn the accumulation of wealth to the extent of meeting ones needs whilst concurrently advocating a modest lifestyle whereby the needs pertaining to the life of an individual are reduced. The verse also indicates the separation of ‘needs’ and ‘wants’, thus accumulation to meet needs are permitted but so far as ‘wants’ are concerned, these are considered surplus to ‘needs’ and in this case the distribution of wealth is preferred than pursuing such surplus ‘wants’.
In touching upon the spiritual element of wealth distribution in Islam, importantly, virtue is not attached with the quantity of wealth that is possessed by an individual rather piety is attributed to an individual who distributes wealth amongst the creation of Allah – wealth that has been granted to man as a trial that one is ultimately accountable for in the court of the Almighty. In this regard, the Qur’an states:
“And He is the One Who has made you vicegerents in the earth, and exalted some of you over others in ranks, so that He may test you by means of (things) which He has bestowed upon you (as a trust). Surely, your Lord is swift in awarding punishment (to those who deserve it), but He is indeed Most Forgiving, Ever-Merciful (towards the aspirants to forgiveness).” (4)
“And indeed, We have made whatever is on earth a means of its beauty (and adornment) so that We test (the inhabitants of the earth) as to who is better in deeds.” (5)
Furthermore, the act of distributing wealth has been closely linked with belief in the context of both commanding the believers to distribute excess wealth as a practical act in addition to the spiritual effect of the act which is manifested in the world in the form of God-wariness (Taqwa) and also in the hereafter. The distribution of wealth is therefore not viewed solely as an act of charity in Islam but incorporates a broader twofold dimension. The first is the aim of practically eradicating poverty through the act of distributing and circulating wealth and the second is the spiritual benefit of the individual who gives thus preventing the accumulation of wealth. The Holy Qur’an states:
“You can never attain to piety unless you spend (in the cause of Allah) out of that which you like the most; and Allah surely knows well whatever you give away.” (6)
“O believers! Shall I advise you a trade which will save you from a painful torment? (It is that) you have (perfect) belief in Allah and His Messenger (blessings and peace be upon him) and strive hard for the cause of Allah with your human and material resources. That is better for you if you know.” (7)
In assessing the distribution of wealth, the social perspective on the matter is one that cannot be neglected. In essence, the existence of classes in society is not a new phenomenon. Classes have existed since the dawn of civilisation and have even been the cause of various historical events such as the French Revolution which had a large element of social class movement and change. Essentially, whilst advocating wealth distribution, Islam gives due heed to society at large. Islam has never considered wealth in negative light so far as the method of acquiring wealth is not unlawful. Likewise, Islam has not declared wealth in itself as a moral or legal wrong but rather has declared the love and pursuit of wealth in negative light as this forms the basis of various social ills prevelant in society. The Holy Prophet (Peace be upon Him) said:
“…I will pave the way for you as your predecessor and will be a witness on you. By Allah! I see my Fount (Kauthar) just now and I have been given the keys of all the treasures of the earth (or the keys of the earth). By Allah! I am not afraid that you will worship others along with Allah after my death, but I am afraid that you will fight with one another for the worldly things.” (8)
In regard to the organised nature of the circulation of wealth, Islam is a clear proponent of a three-tier structure of priority:
a) The Household
b) The Kinfolk
c) Other Members of Society (orphans, the widows, the needy and the wayfarers)
Thus, the primary beneficiaries of the distribution of wealth are those closest to an individual in relation- the household. By spending on those who are nearest in relation, Islam promotes the eradication of poverty from those nearest to an individual by placing upon him a responsibility to maintain and develop their well-being via financial assistance. This is the demonstration of individual responsibility to eradicate poverty that could potentially remove many from the depths of plight if implemented upon in a thorough and sincere manner by every individual.
Following the members of the household are those who are the kinfolk- other relatives that are not immediate family. This step extends the practical nature of actively eradicating poverty through the promotion of going beyond the four walls of one’s home to extent the net of those upon whom every individual has a responsibility towards.
In addition to the household and kinfolk, Islam encourage wealth distribution amongst the orphans, widows, the needy and the wayfarers at the third and highest level in a general sense to assist those in society at large who are most in need irrespective of any family ties on a humanistic level. Therefore, what is clearly evident is that Islam emphasises on poverty eradication through wealth distribution whether it is to those who are closely related or in the local community or whether it is in society at large on a domestic and international level. The Qur’an states:
“They ask you what they should spend (in the way of Allah). Say: ‘Whatever wealth you spend (is right), but the deserving ones are your parents and close relatives and orphans and the needy and the wayfarers. And whatever good you do, Allah indeed knows it full well.” (9)
However, in maintaining the balance between promoting the circulation of wealth and giving heed to those that possess a nature that is inclined to withhold spending, the Qur’an deters one from withholding from the distribution of wealth and thus increasing global poverty as the natural consequence of wealth accumulation is that the majority of wealth is concentrated amongst a very few individuals thus increasing rates of poverty in the world:
“(Woe to him) who accumulates wealth and keeps counting it!” (10)
In conclusion, as Islam is a comprehensive religion, yet balanced totality that extends beyond a theological and religious guideline for humanity, Islam provides the world with thorough and comprehensive principles that are formulated into frameworks by the Men of the time and age that are compatible with the needs and requirements of the day. As a result, Islam offers complete guidance into the socio-political and economic dimensions of life to name but a few.
Consequently, Islam recognizes the issue of global poverty and its prevalence in many parts of the world. However, Islam goes beyond the recognition of the issue and further to diagnose the root cause of the emergence of the symptoms in addition to providing practical solutions. These solutions are of benefit to those distributing wealth and thus prevising the accumulation of wealth whilst at the same time seeing to reduce the level of global poverty in a sustainable manner.
Firstly, although Islam requires every Muslim to give 2.5% of their wealth annually so that it may be distributed amongst the needy, Islam promotes the distribution of wealth beyond the 2.5% requirement to “(Spend) whatever is in surplus to your needs” so that one is encouraged to further practical steps that are feasible on an individual whilst also keeping into consideration the needs of the giver. Secondly, Islam correlates the reception of spiritual blessings as a direct consequential effect of the practical act of wealth distribution thus promoting the circulation of wealth amongst over a billion Muslims around the planet. Furthermore, a detailed system is expounded by Islam whereby neither the household, the kinfolk nor society at large are neglected consequently placing responsibility on every individual to prevent financial impoverishment and play an active role in poverty eradication.
If guidance is taken from Islam on the principles pertaining to wealth distribution, the world would indeed move a step closer to eradicating poverty. The following words of Dr Muhammad Iqbal serve as a fine conclusive summary of the discussion:
Quran Mein Ho Ghota Zan Ey Mard-e-Musalman
Allah Karey Tujh Ko Ataa Jiddat-e-Kirdaar!
Jo Harf-e-“Qul il Afw” Mein Posheeda Hai Ab Tak
Is Daur Mein Shayad Wo Haqeeqat Ho Namudaar! (11)
(O Muslim, dive deep in the Book, Which was revealed to Prophetsʹ Seal;
May God, by grace on you bestow politeness, for good deeds much zeal!
The fact concealed in words so far, “Spend what is surplus and is spare,”
May come to light in modern age and make the meanings clear and bare!)