(ISLAM AND MODERN AGE)
One might say what religion has to do with socio-economic perspective? Religion is, after all, a spiritual in orientation and looks after spiritual needs of people. Quite true. It is as true of Islam as of any religion. But any religion does not grow in vacuum. It also responds to circumstances in which it is borne and grows. It is more true of Islam as it does not approve of renunciation of the world and finds middle way between spiritual and material needs. There are several verses in Qur’an regarding life in this world and its needs.
If material needs also are to be taken into account socio-economic perspective cannot be ignored. Life in Mecca, at the time of birth of Islam both material as well as spiritual, was totally anarchic. Neither there existed any revealed scripture nor any standards of justice and morality. Also, Mecca was an important commercial and financial centre of international magnitude.
Socio-economic malaise was as much widespread as spiritual one and this vacuum had to be filled by some system which could do maximum welfare to the people. Islam emerged as a perfect response and its moral and ethical standards responded to the unsatisfactory situation prevailing there. However, soon powerful vested interests took over and while Islam was reduced to merely spiritual force on one hand, and, split worldly affairs from it, on the other.
Once it happened the balance was never restored. As far as worldly affairs were concerned Qur’an placed justice (‘adl) at the centre. The other word for justice used in Qur’an is qist. Justice is so important and central to the Qur’anic ethics and morality that one of Allah’s names is ‘Adil (Just). Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) also used to say that he would not give it up even if someone gave him hundred red camels in exchange (red camels were considered most precious in those days).
Thus one can understand the importance of a just system in Islam and any socio-economic system developed in Islamic society could not be devoid of justice. It was for this reason that many great thinkers, including poet Iqbal maintained that communism plus God is Islam as communism was thought to be godless. In a way Islam’s socio-economic perspective is most modern which no religion before it or after it had dev eloped.
What is most important is to note that Qur’an does not call it by name as ideologies can change and can be subject to changes. It does not call it communism or capitalism or any other ‘ism’ but simply puts justice at the centre and justice being value, can never change. This way one finds flexibility in the system i.e. one can take elements from different systems subject to retaining central value i.e. justice. Capitalism has seen its worst crisis and communism also collapsed in Russia but justice as a value remains unscarred. On the contrary it becomes stronger with human awareness.
One should see Islam’s socio-economic perspective in terms of justice. It is also to be noted that justice should be understood in all its comprehensiveness. It should not be limited to economic matters alone. The Qur’anic terminology for justice, as pointed out before, is ‘adl and qist and both mean a balanced system which avoids excesses on either side. Thus the system should be so balanced that it would not deprive anyone of his/her rights or what is due to him or her. Any deprivation of rights would amount to injustice.
Matters of justice has been dealt with at different levels in Qur’an: 1) ‘adl in shahadah (i.e. bearing witness). One should be very honest while narrating what one saw or knew about which one is called upon to bear witness. One should bear witness dead honestly even if it goes against oneself or ones parents or relatives (4:135); 2) economic injustice: The Prophet (PBUH) strictly prohibited any exploitation and even condemned share-cropping and required believers to give away the land to cultivators if one does not cultivate land; 3) prohibited speculative selling or buying, for example selling the crop which has not matured or unmatured fruits on tree or deals by throwing stones.
Fourth level is justice in payment of wages. Thus according to one hadith pay wages to the hired worker before his sweat dries up and it is not only question of payment but just payment. It is narrated in one of the hadith that an owner of the orchard brought a child to the Prophet (PBUH) accusing him (the child) of theft of fruit and requesting the Prophet to cut off his (child’s) hands. On enquiry the Prophet found that the child was under paid and hence was hungry and so he stole fruit to satisfy his hunger. The Prophet told the owner that not his (child’s) but your hands should be cut off as you have stolen his wages and asked him to pay proper wages and take care of the child giving him proper education.
Fifth level is profiteering hoarding and accumulation. Thus such practices have been strongly condemned both in Qur’an and in hadith literature. These practices are main causes of exploitation and hence injustices. One must avoid injustices at all these levels. Then sixth level is of honesty in measuring or weighing commodities while selling and buying (17:35; 26:182)
Also, the chapters 104 and 107 strongly condemn depriving poor of their small needs and accumulation of wealth. It is very strong denunciation indeed showing deep concern by Qur’an for socio-economic justice. This is precisely what was happening in Mecca while the Prophet was preaching there. The tribal chiefs were indulging in exploiting the poor and needy in order to increase their wealth and thinking wealth would give them eternal life and happiness.
It is important to note that Islam does not ban private property per se but strongly condemns private property acquired through exploitative means depriving others of their just rights and by indulging in unfair and unethical means. Islamic economy is essentially need based and not greed based. Luxury is disapproved of and believers are advised to give away in the way of Allah (i.e. to poor and needy) what is left after meeting ones own basic needs (2:219). Qur’an also condemns accumulation of wealth see verse 9:34.
All this leaves one in no doubt about the just socio-economic system of Islam. However, ideals and teachings are one thing and its implementation in practice some thing else. The real test comes in practicing what one preaches and Qur’an repeatedly says why don’t you do what you say. There is always clash between ideals and interests and more often than not interests win and ideas loose out.
Islam also met with the same fate. Initially there were strongly committed Muslims who tried to implement Islamic ideals with ruthless honesty. But these companions of the Prophet were also confronted with strong political and economic interests. Companions of Prophet like Hazrat Umar, Hazrat Ali and Abu Dhar Ghifari were determined to implement Islamic concept of justice, particularly in eliminating poverty and distribution of wealth.
Hazrat Umar, for example, used to say even if a dog goes hungry in my regime, I will be responsible to Allah on the day of judgment. He would often go out at night to see whether anyone is going hungry. He also refused to change land policy allowing fertile lands of conquered regions with that of Mecca and Madnia which would have created very powerful vested interests in land depriving future generations of an important resource.
However, Hazrat Uthman gave in to such pressure and changed the land policy which upset the economic balance maintained during Umar’s rule. Similarly, Abu Dhar Ghifari did not spare anyone who acted against the Qur’anic ideals of justice and distribution of wealth. It is said he refused to shake hand with anyone who hoarded wealth and did not live need based life. A person was often judged by the fact that whether Abu Dhar shook hands with him or not. Such was his honesty and character.
Abu Dhar was strongly opposed to accumulation of wealth and would cite the Qur’anic verse “And those who hoard up gold and silver (i.e. dinar and dirham) and spend it not in Allah’s way – Announce to them a painful chastisement.” (9:34). Even Mu’awiyah with his diplomacy and money power could not win over Abu Dhar.
Hazrat Ali’s commitment to Islamic justice was so strong that Hazrat Umar used to say had there been no Ali, Umar would have perished. Hazrat Umar would consult him in all such matters of just economic policies and try to implement them. Hazrat Ali’s letter to Malik Ashtar on governance is a classic one and is as valid as it was when he wrote to Malik after appointing him as governor of Egypt.
Among other things he writes in this epistle about the poor as follows:
“Beware! Fear God when dealing with the problem of the poor who have none to patronize, who are forlorn, indigent and helpless and are greatly torn in mind – victims of the vicissitudes of time. Among them are some who do not question their lot in life notwithstanding their misery, do not go about begging. For God’s sake, safeguard their rights; for on you rests the responsibility of protection. Assign for their uplift a portion of the state exchequer (Bait al-mal), wherever they may be, whether close at hand or far away from you. The rights of the two should be equal in your eye. Do not let any preoccupation slip them from your mind; for no excuse whatsoever for the disregard of their rights will be accepted by God. (emphasis added)”
Continuing further he writes, “Do not treat their interests as of less importance than your own, and never keep them outside the purview of your important considerations, and mark the persons who look down upon them and of whose conditions they keep you in ignorance.” Further Ali gives instructions to Malik Ashtar as how to select officials to take care of the poor.
All this shows deep concern of Ali for the poor and not only this but he also suggests various steps too, to take care of poor and weak. Qur’an itself is partisan to the weaker sections of society and despises the powerful and arrogant and wants to make the weak inheritors and leaders of this world. (28:5). That is why those strongly committed to Allah’s desire were so careful about the plight of the poor and did everything possible to mitigate their plight.
However, few are sincere in their commitment and more those who serve their interests. In every successful movement three categories of people swell its ranks: 1) those who are sincerely attracted towards its ideals and values; 2) those who see an opportunity in it for their own success and 3) those who join the movement just because it is being joined by others, they simply surrender before the inevitable. But those who see an opportunity for themselves represent vested interests and try to hijack the whole movement for their own interests.
All these categories of people happen to join Islamic movement also which was one of the most successful movement within few years of its origin. It swept large parts of the world within thirty years of its origin. We have already talked of those who were very sincerely committed to Islamic values and ideals like Umar, Ali, Abu Dhar Ghifari and several others. These names are only representative, not exhaustive.
Many Bedouin tribes first resisted Islamic movement but joined it when they saw there is no other way and even tried to renounce Islam after the death of Prophet (PBUH). They refused to pay zakat and Hazrat Abu Bakr had to fight what was known as war of Riddah in Islamic history. But when they lost they became part of Islam never to return back. Had the war of Riddah succeeded, most of the tribes would have renounced Islam. But that was not to be.
Then there were those who saw an opportunity in exploiting Islam for their own benefits. A section of Umayyads belonged to this category. For their own interests they captured Islamic movement and undid all that Islam had stood for. With Umayyads capturing power the institution of khilafat ended and institution of monarchy began. Yazid was thus first monarch in the history of Islam.
Imam Husain, another person strongly committed to Islamic ideals tried to resist this attempt to exploit Islam for ones own vested interests giving birth to people who paid lip service to Islam but behind it fulfilled their own lust for power. Yazid, Mu’awiya’s son, was hardly interested in Islam and violated all Islamic values and ideals. Husain himself was not after power but tried to resist what he thought un-Islamic practices. But unfortunately the people of kufa, who had invited him to lead them in insurrection against Yazid betrayed him and Husain was martyred in Kerbala along with his 72 followers.
A section of Umayyads, who tried to hijack Islam for their own political ambitions, began hyper-active since Hazrat Uthman’s time taking advantage of his leniency. Hazrat Umar and Hazrat Ali were very strict in enforcing Islamic value of justice but Hazrat Uthman was of very different nature and did not prevent his relatives and co-tribesmen from lenient nature of Hazrat Uthman.
In fact Ahmad Abbas Salih, a scholar of Egypt, maintains in his book Al-Yamin wa al-Yasar fi’l Islam (The Right and Left in Islam) that Hazrat Umar and Hazrat Ali, in today’s political terminology belonged to the left and Hazrat Uthman to the right. He also says that had Umar and Ali come together in earlier phase after the death of Holy Prophet, forces of justice would have been much stronger and Hazrat Umar’s land policy was based on his foresight.
Hazrat Uthman changed this land policy under pressure from vested interests and that created class polarization and hence led to deep unrest and rebellion against Hazrat Uthman’s regime. He was ultimately assassinated. This turmoil was created because the conquests which brought unimaginable amount of wealth on one hand, and fertile land, on the other and thus powerful vested interests developed who sought to sabotage forces of justice in early Islamic society.
This also shows that it is not easy to bring just change in any society as few vested interests acquire so much power that they can stop any meaningful change. All the great religions in the world like Buddhism, Christianity, Islam etc. came with this mission and soon were hijacked by powerful vested interests and these religions became powerful establishments and to protect establishment became more important than religion itself and the establishment was obviously controlled by these interests.
Islam was no exception to this rule. Then all these religions are ritualized i.e. perform certain rituals, celebrate certain festivals and you are judged to be religious whether you imbibe those basic values or not becomes absolutely secondary or unimportant. The Qur’anic values also lost their significance once Umayyads took over power. Yazid himself had gone back to pre-Islamic period i.e. days of ignorance (jahiliyyah).
The whole life style of the ruling class changed. Mu’awiyah was governor of Syria and Yazid changed the capital to that city, far away from Islamic centres of Mecca and Madinah. It not only went away physically from centre of Islam but also spiritually from Islamic values. Islam never returned to its Prophet’s days and caliphate period in terms of rigorous following of Islamic teachings and values.
Kerbala was the last attempt to restore Islamic values but it did not succeed as the whole structure of power had decisively shifted in favour of monarchy and a ruling hierarchy had dev eloped. Some attempts later here and there were too insignificant and now major players were Umayyades and Abbasids and both were not interested in value system of Islam but in grabbing power.
It is interesting to note that Umar bin Abdul Aziz tried to restore Islamic values but had he succeeded the vested interests would have lost their grip over power and hence they quietly poisoned him. He was becoming an obstacle for the ruling classes in promoting their interests. The earliest respondents to Islam were some youth like Hazrat Ali, women, slaves, other weaker sections of society and of course some rich merchants like Hazrat Abu Bakr and Hazrat Uthman.
These people were attracted by Islamic values and hence became strong followers of the Prophet (PBUH). They had no vested interest and Islam had nothing to offer them materially but, on the contrary, demanded sacrifices which they readily offered. Islam was, it will be seen, a movement for empowering weaker sections of society and all the initial surahs (chapters) of the Qur’an strongly condemned accumulation of wealth and neglecting of poor, needy, widows and orphans. It is indeed very powerful denunciation.
Persons like Abu Dhar Ghifari further strengthened revolutionary spirit of Islam by deeply imbibing Islamic values as pointed out above. But as Islam began to succeed some people began to join it not because they were attracted by its value system but saw an opportunity to enhance their own interests in one way or the other. When number of such people began to increase, the quality of believers was also affected.
During the Prophet’s lifetime despite some such elements who have been described by Qur’an as hypocrites (munafiqun) Islam never swerved from its revolutionary path and quality of believers was far superior. But with conquests of far flung territories wealth flowed on one hand, and, on the other, it attracted converts who had not spent their time with the Prophet and were alien to the original spirit of Islamic values.
These people from Syria, Egypt, Iran and Central Asia entered Islam for their own convenience, not for conviction and hence quality of believers began to go down in ever larger number. Now no one had to sacrifice in order to join Islam but only to gain materially. Thus it was now very difficult to recapture the early spirit of Islam. Also, Islam was structured into tribal equality but Iranian and Byzantian social structures were feudal and hierarchical and hence quite alien to equality as a value.
When Islam came to countries like India it also acquired its caste system in addition to values of ruling classes who distanced themselves from poor and low caste Muslims. The regional civilizational and cultural values became part of Islam in that region. Without studying these deeper influences one cannot understand Islam in proper socio-economic perspective.
After conquests of vast territories of Iran and Byzantine Empires wealth unseen before began to flow in. Arabs, especially Bedouins had never seen so much wealth. Such excessive flow of wealth in a short period of time, greatly affected the programme of social justice. The very structure of society began to change. As per the tribal rule the wealth taken from conquered territories was distributed among soldiers who participated in the military campaign. As the wealth was looted from kings and governors and army generals, it was much in excess of even what rich merchants of Mecca on the eve of emergence of Islam had not seen.