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Fat Cats, Bigger Fish

January 7, 2006

We’ve all seen them. We know they exist. We might even know where they live. Mercedes, BMW’s, $500,000 houses, platinum watches, wads of cash, and tons of plastic have invaded our masajid. This, in of itself, of course, might not be a bad thing. Wealth is not forbidden in Islam. Prophet Sulayman (peace be upon him) was a wealthy king. Many companions of the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) acquired great wealth in the early caliphate, especially when the Muslims took control of Syria. What characterized most of the above people was the way in which they spent their money. It was distributed to the poor, to the masjid, to the community fund (bayt-ul-mal), and for the struggle (jihad) against injustice and evil.

It is reported that the Messenger of Allah said, “He who goes to sleep with a full stomach, while his neighbor is hungry, is not one of us.” Our situation today is much different from those bygone empires. The amount of poverty and extreme starvation in the world has gone far beyond what we could ever imagine. It is easy for us to turn to those few wealthy Muslims with scorn because they appear to be lavishing in their wealth. But the truth is that their wealth is minuscule. The truth is that some of them do give charity (sometimes in large quantities), but it is not our business to know that anyway.

As Muslims in the West, faced with the task of spreading Islam, it is laughable that we have not begun our da’wah programs (if you want to call them that) with an intense economic empowerment effort. I am not talking about a relief organization. We have plenty of those. I am referring to a serious effort to go beyond simple relief and to actually layout paths of success for people.

Over the past 10 years of my short Muslim life, I have seen numerous impoverished African Americans enter into the fold of Islam. “Islam has the answers,” they were told, “Not just the spiritual answers but the social answers, the political answers, and even the economic answers.” We were fed lines detailing how an Islamic economic system could revolutionize this capitalist society and bring equality and prosperity to the millions of underclass people. This is true. Our Islamic system, if it is properly understood and implemented, does offer this.

In “Essays on Iqtisad” (a commentary, of sorts, on the great work of As-Sayyid Muhammad Baqir As-Sadr’s, Iqtisaduna) Dr. Kadhim As-Sadr, Associated Professor of Economics at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, explains,

From the point of view of wealthy people of Quraysh, usury was the best way for gaining profit from their savings. Because a usurer without any toil and painstaking work of travel and transportation of commodity, which is a part of trade, could easily gain substantial profit. Since savings were limited among ordinary inhabitants of Hijaz, who generally were nomads, and because trade had created substantial demand for capital, large profits were to be made from usury. In addition to these, the usurers did not have to share in the risks which accompanied trading activities. The long distances in the unsafe deserts created numerous dangers for the merchant caravans, yet the capital, as well as the accumulated interest, of the usurers were immune from every risk, because if the borrower was unable to repay his usury loan, he became a slave of the holder…

…The Prophet (SA) condemned usury from the beginning of his mission, and always forbade Muslims from commission of this action. While teaching economic ethics and condemning usury, gradually he (SA) limited the scope of usury. After a while he (SA) prohibited compound usury; then, in the last years of Hijra, simple usury or even commodity transactions which were deemed usurious were prohibited, and commission of usury was declared to be among the greatest sins…

…The prohibition of usury, to a large extent, limited the scope of the savings’ usage. Except through partnership and creation of value-added, there was no other way for the owners of savings to make a profit. In effect, the prohibition of riba led owners of savings to become dependent on investors in order to obtain an income from their savings. This, and other changes, which were brought about merely as a result of alterations of economic rights and legal privileges in the economy of the early Islam period, along with other incentives provided for the producers and investors, created new legal privileges and prestige for them which in itself increased the participation in partnerships. These changes on the whole increased demand for investment in the early Islamic period and thus created coordination and balance between the circulation of money and production of commodities.” (pg. 212-213).

The western capitalistic system, in contrast, relies entirely on usury and offers “credit” as the solution to supposedly “equalizing” the playing field between rich and poor. In reality, this system only causes the poor to fall further into debt and the rich to increase profit on their stale savings, without lifting a finger (unless it is to call collection agencies, but they probably pay someone else to do that).

So, those of us who frown upon (or cheer) the apparent wealth of our minor Muslim elite, our talented tenth, fail to realize that they are only fat cats in a world of bigger fish. We must begin forming business alliances on a large scale so that we can offer more than just a “theoretical” solution to the new “Muslim underclass.” As people of all races and classes begin to embrace Islam, we cannot settle for imparting the “how Islam should be” speech.

Just as certain groups of people in western countries are known for their extreme wealth, exclusivity, and economic suppression of the masses, so should Muslims become known for our own wealth, unlimited scope, and economic empowerment of the masses. It is time for the world to turn to us, not simply for our economic, social, and political theories, but for our practical and ethical implementations of the verbiage we so frequently slide into da’wah pamphlets and interfaith round-table discussions.

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