Money and Faith: Contradictory or Complementary in Islam?

6 Jun, 2018

.. Mir Baiz Khan

Money is a cash form of material resources which individuals within families and communities earn, accumulate and spend in order to meet their individual and communal needs and the needs of those that they care for as fellow human beings. This is not unique to those who are Muslims, but rather common practice among all faith communities. In fact helping others is a human value which transcends both religious and secular boundaries. What is different is that in faith communities, it is a practice which is integral to the faith itself and its use for the good of others is an ethical and spiritual obligation.

In Islam, religious practices are underpinned by the principles derived from the noble Qur’an and interpreted by the concerned authorities. Right from the onset of the divine revelation received by the Prophet, peace be on him and his family, interpretation was a necessary aspect of the Faith. Hadith literature is replete with narrations how the Prophet’s companions would ask him to understand the context and meaning of the revealed verses. In case of wealth and its use, there exists a vast literature, both jurisprudential and interpretative. No Muslim school of jurisprudence or interpretation has propounded that wealth or money itself is a bad thing or prohibited in Islam or in contradiction to its principles provided it is acquired legitimately, ethically and used for good purpose.

Two Muslim ethical values are directly related to how wealth is acquired and for what purpose it is used. These two values are respect for human dignity and generosity in helping those who need help. When people are poor, illiterate, unhealthy, hungry and dependent on the goodwill of others, their dignity is wounded. It is then the faith, in this case Islam, which makes it incumbent upon those who possess wealth to separate a portion of which in order to help the needy and restore their dignity.

Here is one of the many verses of the glorious Qur’an which remind those of us who have the means of life to be generous with it to share with those who don’t. It says: “يَسْأَلُونَكَ مَاذَا يُنفِقُونَ قُلْ مَا أَنفَقْتُم مِّنْ خَيْرٍ فَلِلْوَالِدَيْنِ وَالأَقْرَبِينَ وَالْيَتَامَى وَالْمَسَاكِينِ وَابْنِ السَّبِيلِ …” (سورة التَّوبة) “They ask you (the Prophet) what they should spend. Say: ‘What you spend of wealth goes to parents, near kin, orphans, the poor and the needy, and wayfarer.’ If wealth is looked down upon and refrain from working hard to acquire it and accumulate it to a level where personal needs are taken care of and religious dues are paid, then, Islam would be a faith of begging mendicants, all with expectation to receive and no one to give.

Through the religious dues and devotional offerings that faith communities, Muslims or non-Muslims alike, provide services to its members and build institutions to serve them. In case of Islam, believers, rich and not so rich even poor according to their capacity, participate in charitable acts purely on voluntary basis. It is through this willingly offerings which have enabled Muslims to build institutions and create civilizations. If it was not for the money given as a critical aspect of religious practice, there would be no dignified space to pray, to social, to learn and engage in economic and cultural activities. Institutions in Muslim societies historically have flourished because of the alms of the believers and additional generosity of those believers who shared their good fortune for the good of all. Great institutions of learning, of health, of culture, of communal gatherings, of prayers and many more were created through these means unleashing the collective strengths of the community. Individuals and families, inspired by the Faith, supported these institutions through generous endowments. They have left a lasting legacy of service in Muslim history.

The noble Qur’an encourages Muslims not only give alms regularly but also go beyond and be more generous. Believers are constantly reminded to be regular in giving alms (zakat), and unconditional gifts (sadaqa, nafqa and nazr). The noble Qur’an goes even further to ask of Muslims to present a gift before conversing with the Prophet, peace be on him and his family. Allah, the glorious, commands: (يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا إِذَا نَاجَيْتُمُ الرَّسُولَ فَقَدِّمُوا بَيْنَ يَدَيْ نَجْوَاكُمْ صَدَقَةً ذَالِكَ خَيْرٌ لَّكُمْ وَ أَطْهَرُ… سورة المجادلة)) “O believers, if you wish to converse in privacy with the Messenger, offer a gift in charity before your intimate conversation, for this would be better for you and more pure.” It is narrated that the Prophet, peace be on him and his family, said about Hazrat Abu Bakr: مَا نَفْعَتِي مَالُ أَحَدٍ كَمَالُ أَبِي بَكْرٍ “The funds of no one benefited me like those of Abu Bakr.” The Prophet’s own career began as a business man and worked for a rich business woman, married her and when received the revelation, he spent the collective wealth in strengthening the nascent Muslim community consisting of a handful individuals at the time. There is nothing either in the Qur’an or its interpretative literature that prohibits a Muslim to earn or create wealth through legitimate means.

What is prohibited is its hording, misusing, and earning it through illegal and unethical means or spending it in ostentation. Allah says: يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لَا تُبْطِلُوا صَدَقَاتِكُمْ بِالْمَنِّ وَالْأَذَى كَا لَّذِي يُنْفِقُ مَالَهُ رِئَآءَ النَّاسِ…سورة البقرة) “O believers, nullify not your alms-giving by demanding gratitude or causing offence, like one who spends his wealth in order to flaunt it before people…” Usury is another act related to the use wealth which is prohibited as the verse Qur’an states: يَمْحَقُ اللهُ الرِّبَوَاْ وَ يُرْبِي الصَّدَقَاتِ… (سورة البقرة) “Allah will deprive usury of all blessing, but will increase for deeds of charity.” Those believers who create wealth through hard work, frugality and discipline within the ethics of Islam are not only allowed to spend but encourage to spend for the good cause. Allah, the glorious, says: الَّذِينَ يُنْبِقُونَ أَمْوَالَهُمْ بِالَّيْلِ وَ النَّهَارِ سِرَّاً وَ عَلَانِيَةً فَلَهُمْ أَجْرُهُمْ عِنْدَ رَبِّهِمْ وَ لَا خَوْفٌ عَلَيْهِمْ وَ هُمْ لَا يَحْزَنُونَ…(سورة البقرة) “Those who spend their wealth, night and day, in secret or in public, shall have their reward with their Lord. No fear shall fall upon them, nor shall they grieve.”
Why wealth is a necessary component and a means of expression of one’s commitment to the Faith and adherence to its principles? Since all communities of interpretations within the Muslim Ummah situate the basic principles of the faith in the Qur’an and elucidate them for their respective communities as to how they are translated into practice. In fact, the Prophet is urged to take offerings from the believers in order to purify them and bless them with his prayers. خُذْ مِنْ أَمْوَالِهِمْ صَدَقَةً تُطَهِّرُهُمْ وَ تُزَكِّهِمْ بِهَا وَ صَلِّ عَلَيْهِمْ إِنَّ صَلَواتَكَ سَكَنٌ لَهُم…(سورة التوبة) “Take from their wealth freely given alms, to cleanse them therewith and purify their acts. And pray for them, for your prayers will give them peace of mind…”

Wealth, whether cash or kind, is a vital aspect of the practice of Islam and it is inseparable from the Islamic beliefs, principles and rituals in all their diverse forms and expressions. During the life time of the Prophet, peace be on him and his family, wealth creation or accumulation through religious dues was necessary to create a civil society within the Islamic framework. As Islam phased out or replaced or retained several pre-Islamic Arab practices, creation of a civil society was one of the most important objectives of the social transformation at the time. Arab tribalism and patriarchy had to be replaced, of course in a piecemeal manner through generations, by a society in which people of diverse backgrounds, of diverse means of living and social status live together in peace creating wealth and institutions to serve all. A society in which wealth generated through legitimate commercial activities would replace practices like trade caravan robbery and war spoils as means of living. Individual, family and communal wealth had to be created within the ethical framework of the faith of Islam. Thus, foundation of civil society in Islam was laid by the Prophet himself, peace be on him and his family, as per Allah’s command.

Civil society needs institutions which could not have been possible without wealth and its spending in the way that the Islamic principles of ethics encourage Muslims to pay. It is with this objective that in the course of history Muslims created civilizations with institutions of religious practices, social development, institutions of learning and many more.

Recently, an infantile analysis of the Ismaili community’s transformation during the past hundred and fifty years or so, the disgruntled author belittled the authority of the Imam and described the community in pejorative language labelling it of being exclusively concerned with money in matters of faith. A serious study of the traditions of Ismailis will indicate that they have been under constant threat and struggled to survive until the world entered the modern era. Time and again its infrastructure was destroyed whether it created and developed under the Fatimid Caliphate with capital in Egypt or the Nizari State in the mountainous region of Iran. Historian al-Maqrizi informs us when the Fatimid court library, possibly largest in the world at the time, was looted, one vizier by the name Abu Faraj took books worth of 100,00 dinars which is hundred trillion dollar of today. The fine leather book covers were made sandals and leafs were burnt because they contained the religious doctrines of the Ismails. This same vandalism was repeated when the Mongol hordes destroyed the Ismaili citadels of the Alamut State in Iran.

The worst of all adversities was that the Ismaili Imams’ lives were constantly at peril and some were actually assassinated. The Imam’s regular contact with his followers in various regions was disrupted for an extended period of time. Regardless of the political circumstance, the forty sixth Imam Hasan Ali Shah had already started to reconnect with his followers before moving out of Iran and finally settling in Indian subcontinent. His successor Imam, Ali Shah introduced several modern education programs which were then developed into institutional forms by his successor, 48th Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah. Ismailis everywhere were poor villagers, uneducated and most of them living in subsistence farming, be they in Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Central Asia or in the then British India in Gujrat, Kuch or Sind in the South and Chitral, Ghizr, Gilgit and Hunza in the north. With the guidance and support of the Ismaili Imamat, the Ismailis in South Asia emerged as a dynamic, prosperous and educated segment of the community. They even crossed the Indian Ocean to Africa and became a successful business community. With their education, economic strength and institutional experience, it was possible to create community institutions. While Ismailis in other regions were still living either under the communist Central Asia or monarchic political systems in Iran, Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, Ismailis in South Asia were getting the valuable experience of institutional development.

By mid-twentieth century, the world began to change rapidly. The present Imam, Shah Karim al-Hussaini Aga Khan IV developed the existing institutions from local level to national level and created new institutions of global scope and functions. In 1967, he created the Aga Khan Foundation and today there are ten global agencies under the Aga Khan Development Network and recently added to the list are five Ismaili Centres, the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat, Aga Khan Museum and the Global Centre for Pluralism. The services of these institutions are not restricted to Ismailis, in fact they are much less available to Ismailis than others. If Ismailis today were poor and uneducated as they were until the mid-twentieth century, they would not be able to support these institutions either with material resources or intellectual capacities. It is their generosity and their love and loyalty to the Imam that enables these institutions to function and develop. Whether one gives one cent or one million dollar, is out of free will and in return, he or she will receive same prayers on behalf of the Imam. In short, like other religious obligations in Islam, earning money through ethical and legitimate means and giving part of it for the good of those in need or building capacity through institutional development is a necessary part of the faith in Islam.
In addition to the obligatory and non-obligatory generous offerings, all Muslims regardless of interpretations, express their faith based value of kindness in their daily lives including sending food to the places of devotion to feed the hungry and the traveller. In the past and in many rural villages even today hotels, motels, lodges, guesthouses and the like do not exist. The devoted villagers share the little that they have to feed themselves with the travellers and strangers and provide shelters to spend their nights either their homes or at their places of prayers and devotion like mosques, khaneqas, Jamatkhanas, zawiyaz and so on. They take offerings to places which are for them have spiritual significance such as mazars, ziyaratgah, qadamgah and more.

What has been described above is inspired by the faith of Islam and rooted in its ethical value system. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims go beyond their normal daily life in sharing their material means with those who need them. In Canada where I live, the Ismaili community along with all Muslims of other interpretations to express their devotion and contribute to the society in which they live. They collect the offerings in cash and non-perishable food items which will be handed over to the local charitable organizations on the eve of the Eid. For the generosity that the faithful Muslims give to their fellow human beings who are needy, marginalized, unable to work for health reasons, poverty stricken due to other multitude of causes, Allah the Compassionate and Merciful says: ‘وَ مَا أَنْفَقْتُم مِّن نَّفْقَةٍ أَوْ نَذَرْتُم مِّن نَّذْرٍ فَاِنَّ الَّلهَ يَعْلَمُهُ (البقرة) “And whatever you spend in charity or devotion, be sure Allah knows it all.”

If money and wealth in general is rendered irrelevant to the expression of and devotion to the faith, then, Islam will be neither a faith of material prosperity nor of spiritual happiness. Bagging is a need not a virtue in Islam. The Ismaili Muslim community wherever it has its presence is fortunate to have the central authority of the Imam-of-the-Time who has the absolute prerogative to interpret the faith for his followers. It is this centrality of authority which enables the Ismailis to generate their collective strengths to be used for their own good and for the good of all amongst they live. It is totally uninformed and unacceptable when individuals for their wishful thinking label Ismailis to be exclusively concerned about money. It is the passion for the faith not the greed for wealth that drives the Ismaili Muslims to create wealth and to be generous with it. .. Mir Baiz Khan, Canada 06 Jun 2018.

2 Comments

  • Arif says:

    What is the point of defending an article which does not exist anymore?

  • Mahmoud Aziz says:

    A truly profound article on the concept of wealth in Islam. The fact is that no religion can survive without money to build and sustain its institutional framework, administration and operations. Priests, rabbis, gurus and imams need to be supported for their services to their flocks and do the churches, synagogues, temples and mosques. Anyone who believes otherwise needs a reality check. The Isma’ili Muslim community worldwide voluntarily contributes money to the Imamat and AKDN institutions, in keeping with the ethics of Islam, to help and contribute to the betterment and improved quality of life of millions of less fortunate people in the developing world. Religion is not about oneself but about helping one’s brothers and sisters attaining self-dignity and self reliance.