Faith and Reason: Islam's virtuous way for the wealthy man: The series of articles on Dives and Lazarus concludes with an Islamic view from Dr Shabbir Akhtar, author of The Final Imperative, a recent study of Islamic liberation theology.
Saturday 22 August 1992
In the Koran there are several references, in edifying contexts, about amassing wealth. Chapter 104 (verse 3) refers to the pagan Meccan illusion that colossal wealth can ensure immortality. Elsewhere, the Meccan magnates boast of having 'wasted vast riches'. Hoarding is condemned as sinful and extravagance is described as satanic. But spending 'out of what we have bestowed upon you' is frequently encouraged; generosity is a cardinal virtue. The sinners in the Fire of Hell are often portrayed as regretting their niggardliness in their previous life. Predictably, the Traditions of the Prophet Mohamed paint a picture of a man who spent all his acquired wealth 'in the way of God the Exalted'.
He is said to have been particularly generous in the month of Ramadan - the month in which the Koran is held to have 'descended' and which is therefore marked by intensified devotion. 'By God,' one of his Companions reports him as saying, 'I would spend the whole weight of Mount Uhud in gold if God had bestowed it upon me.' Both the Islamic scripture and the Prophetic Traditions define piety partly in terms of the correct use of wealth.
One of the five pillars of Islam is an economic obligation imposed on those who claim membership of the community of the Arab Apostle. All believers must pay a tax of 2.5 per cent on their lawfully earned income. The Islamic state levies this tax in order to 'purify' (tazakka) the individual's wealth. This tax, zakat, is in addition to any voluntary alms and other supererogatory acts of charity that are expected of all Muslims but especially of wealthier ones.
For a rich Muslim, in the modern world of vast economic systems that are associated with sophisticated capitalist power structures, the practical problem is the purification of his or her wealth in accordance with Koranic dictate. It is easy enough to give the required amount to the authorities. But was the money justly acquired in the first place? The Koran lays a firm prohibition on usury and inordinate interest. Yet much Muslim Arab investment is in a Western economic system that is essentially based on usury. There is the odd Islamic bank run on economic principles approved by the classical jurists. But much Muslim economic genius, even in pre-capitalist eras, was exhausted by the casuistical attempt at an effective legitimisation of usury.
Matters are further complicated by the Islamic prohibition on investments in industries producing certain goods (such as alcohol and pork) or in businesses such as betting shops and casinos. But few of us know precisely where our money is invested by the banks where we innocently deposit our salaries.
In the face of these complications, it is tempting to conclude that the possession of great wealth is incompatible with the attainment of high standards of piety and justice. But orthodox Islam has an optimistic estimate of human nature: rich men and women are capable of using their wealth for the amelioration of the plight of the poor and dispossessed.
Admittedly, wealth is a facility that can be misused. But the mere fact that wealth is liable - is even particularly liable - to be misused is neither here nor there. For every important facility, including knowledge, power and sexuality, necessarily conceals a potential for misuse.
Admittedly, wealth, like knowledge and sexual potential, can be used for good or ill; and rich men are as capable of vice as of virtue. It is, however, morally truistic to hold that wealth should be used properly; but it is morally absurd to say that great wealth is intrinsically corrupting. Money is often enough used to further evil designs in our world. But it is not rare to use it to secure justice, equality, truth, and social compassion.
Philanthropy is one of those rare virtues that cannot be democratised, so to speak, for it presupposes the possession of immense wealth. Muslim history abounds with tales of generosity to the poor. The impulse derives from the Koranic directive to spend generously in the way of God. The believer spends his wealth to build orphanages, sink wells in arid deserts, release slaves, construct houses for widows, and give copies of the Arabic Koran to those whose hearts have only recently been won for Islam. He expects his reward directly from God. The Koran employs astonishingly frank commercial vocabulary to describe such philanthropists as men who have 'lent to God a goodly loan' on which interest - only not usurious - accrues. These men will have little difficulty in entering the divine kingdom.
Thare is, however, no room in Heaven for those whose wealth has made them arrogant oppressors. The Koran recounts, with characteristic clarity and directness of mood, the story of the biblical Korah - Qaroon in Arabic - whose treasures are described as heavy enough to weigh down a company of sturdy men. Qaroon's refusal to spend part of his fortune in the cause of God leads to his annihilation: the earth swallows him along with his hoards. One wonders how many Arab sheikhs would today suffer the same fate if God were to mete out openly the justice of former days.
Justice is the last thing one associates with modern Islam's fabulously rich men. Like all upstarts, they display their riches in a vulgar fashion - providing material for the tabloids. The late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, among Sunnis, and the charismatic Ayatollah Khomeini among Shi'ites, are probably the only Muslims to have combined a scrupulous adherence to the rules of Koranic piety with a reputation for spectacular wealth in the modern world. The list of rich but unjust Muslims is much longer. The dictator King Farouk of Egypt certainly has a place on it. Famous for his violent suppression of those omnipresent villains the Muslim fundamentalists, he spent his vast wealth to enhance his reputation for debauched sensuality. At the time of his death, he had amassed the largest collection of pornography in the world.
The Koran declares that wealth and poverty are ordained by God. So both are here to stay. Certainly, the eradication of poverty is an impractical political project - a lesson we learnt from the dramatic collapse of Communism. Equally, a religious veto on wealth is a poor tactic betraying an ignorance of the reality of human ambition. For a Muslim, wealth is a blessing; but the love of it for its own sake is a sin. The moralists have developed a calculus of the precise virtue of spending in the way of God - so that all of creation may attain a measure of prosperity in an imperfect order.
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