“It is clear that we should be self-sufficient and not rely on debt. That we should live more simply, consume more wisely, think of generations to come, and wonder what desires we want to plant in children?s hearts…..Bringing decency back into debates, normalcy into pay rates [checking greed], and ancient truths into temples is going to take a fight.” At first look, these words appear to be from a long-bearded, fanatic mullah sitting in the Yemeni desert or “lawless region” on Af-Pak border. But these views are expressed in a 2010 Newsweek column by a young, blonde American journalist/writer Julia Baird. Her message is crisp and clear: the whole world is dying for a change. Not change of names; not change of faces; and not change of titles. But a change of the present system that the “civilized world” has practiced for about four centuries and is now committed to impose, even by force, on the “uncivilized world”!
History tells us that more or less similar gloom prevailed in the 6th century Arabian Peninsula. Human values were completely absent. Greed and selfishness was at its peak. Among others, two of the seven social sins listed by India?s founding father Gandhi (i) wealth without work and (ii) commerce without morality were particularly rampant. But one individual changed all this. His name was Muhammad – the last Prophet of God. It is impossible to understand the relevance of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him and his family) without grasping the core of Islamic ideology that he successfully practiced and then preached within a short span of 23 years, to almost one third of humanity of his time. This core (accountability), is briefly discussed in the “Pre-solution” section below. This piece remains focused on the economic aspects of Islam.
A handful of financial whiz kids, through opaque algorithmic magic, are minting money while hundreds of millions of hard-working, skilled and honest individuals are loosing jobs, further affecting many more millions in their families. In spite of the downturn, in the US the rich are indeed getting richer, according to an analysis of new data by economists Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics and Emmanuel Saez of the University of California, Berkeley. Their report revealed that two-thirds of the US?s total income gains from 2002-07 went to the top 1 per cent of households, with this top tier holding a larger share of income in 2007 than at any time since 1928.
The findings released by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities show that during those five years the inflation-adjusted income of top 1 percent of households increased more than 10 times faster than the income of the bottom 90 percent of households. Please read once again. It is bottom 90 percent households and not any specific faith group. These households most certainly include Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims and followers of other religions. The system is almost equally cruel to all faiths. The last time such a big share of the income gain went to the top 1 percent – and such a small share went to the bottom 90 per cent – was in the 1920s! This proves that depression, recession, contraction etc. are meant to hit ordinary folks only while rich get richer during these economic downturns.
The world had 1,011 billionaires in 2010, up from 793 in 2009, according to the Forbes list of March 2010. The US had 403 billionaires, the most in the world. But in just 3 years, the billionaire population has doubled. The Wealth-X and UBS World Ultra Wealth Report released on 10 September 2013 identified more than 2,000 billionaires globally with a total net worth of US$6.5 trillion. Not just this, despite ongoing economic and geopolitical uncertainties, the world?s ultra wealthy population reached an all-time high of 199,235 individuals with a combined fortune of nearly US$28 trillion in 2013. They grew by more than six percent in population size from the previous year and adding US$2 trillion to their combined wealth, greater than the GDP of India! This also presents hard evidence that the figure in rich and poor debate of 99% versus 1% is inaccurate. In fact, if we divide 199,235 individuals by the present global population, it becomes 0.00003% versus 99.9999%!
Our incredible India – home to the largest humans living under poverty line in the world – has 10 of Asia’s top 25 billionaires! China is no different. It has the second highest number of billionaires in the world while urban Chinese earn an average of US$ 1,800 and rural Chinese US$ 758 per year only! Wall Street Journal reported in April 2010 that the worldwide sale of super yachts – toys for rich boys – was up in 2009 compared to 2008. The collective wealth of Britain?s 1,000 richest people also increased by 30%, the Sunday Times Rich List said. Their combined wealth rose by more than GBP 77 billion since 2009 to GBP 333.5 billion, the biggest annual rise in the list?s 22 year history.
It is not just daddies (and few mommies) who are hungry for money. Their kids are naturally following their footsteps. The evangelical author Jim Wallis cites a 2006 study, in his new book Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street and Your Street. The study found that in 2006, 66% more high-school students thought “having lots of money” was “extremely important” than just a generation back said the same in 1976. This rapid descent to the culture of greed i.e. wealth at any cost has brought us to the brink of disaster. Today’s high-school kids are tomorrow’s teachers, doctors, lawyers, civil servants, corporate and political leaders. They are our future. What kind of a society will they sculpt, is a critical question that must be addressed forthwith.
The feelings of disgust at this state are not restricted to only “thinkers”. Even some members of showbiz are realizing the gravity of crime prevailing system is facilitating. American comedienne Joan Rivers recently blasted Victoria Beckham, the celebrity wife of soccer star David Beckham saying “I am not a fan of outrageous consumption. I think it is vulgar. No one should flaunt that they have a 100 Hermes 6,000 pound bags. Not when people are starving.” 6,000 Pound means approximately INR 5.4 lacs per handbag. And she is not the only one who has them in hundreds. But a criminally extravagant lifestyle is a natural outcome of too much and too easy money that the present system allows a handful of us to earn. At a new year party at a gutkha (chewing tobacco) baron’s farmhouse near Delhi, bollywood czar Shah Rukh Khan reportedly charged INR 5 crore for a 30 minute leg shaking appearance. Yes, almost one million Dollars for a 30 minute dance!
The issue is not that we have less wealth in the society. We have plenty. The problem is its massive concentration in too few and too selfish hands.
Sense of accountability to our Lord on the Day of Judgment for every single deed is the centerpiece of the ideology Muhammad was chosen by God to practice and preach. This ideological belief is meant to shape our behavior in this world. Just 30-40 years back we would laugh away at the suggestion that a time would come when every move of ours will be recorded and all matters will be decided on the basis of this hard evidence. But security cameras all around us do not leave any doubt in our minds now. Muhammad said exactly this about 1,400 years back that there are video cameras all around us. They are recording every single act of ours. Be watchful of your behavior. Based on this life-long recording, there will be reward or retribution when our lives come to an end.
In the context of economic challenges the world is facing today, let?s pick-up the cornerstones of Muhammad?s philosophy. If practiced sincerely by Muslims first and then followed by non-Muslims, will help make this world a better place. In my view, these are broadly four and are inter-connected; more so because they originate from the same centerpiece. And these are not based on rocket science that only Harvard or MIT graduates can practice. The Prophet established the golden principle: “Make it easier, not harder” (Bukhari). These are simple, yet difficult, “inner engineering” or behavioral solutions to current economic challenges. They do not require super computers; they only need super determination that motivates us to think of others.
The reason why most of us do not do good is: “what is the point?” And: “no one cares.” Very true; if we take a pedestrian view. However, Muslims are supposed to have a deep sense of accountability that there will be a Day of Judgment when all good deeds will be rewarded by our God. On the contrary, there will be retribution for a behavior lacking compassion. This belief is the core or centerpiece of an Islamic life. Without religiously practicing this belief, one cannot be a Muslim.
Muhammad challenged the establishment of his time. Ruling elites – like today?s – attempted to buyout the person who wanted to change the system of exploitation; the system of nepotism; the system of corruption. He was offered all the wealth of his home town Makkah – a thriving city like Dubai or Hong Kong of today. He refused. He was threatened and persecuted for 13 long years. He was forced out of his town empty-handed, in the dead of night! Declining a “lucrative deal? was possible only due to his strong belief in accountability on the Day of Resurrection.
After migrating to the present Saudi city of Madinah, he laid the foundation of the first Islamic state in modern history. His mission was so simple; so pure and so appealing that the state grew from less than a 100 square kilometer in size to over a million square kilometer within a decade. It is clearly recorded in history that the total loss of human life in expanding justice-led (not force-led) governance from both his side and his adversaries’ was little over 1,000. He knew that political and social justice will remain only dreams in the absence of economic justice. Like a prudent economist, under the direct guidance of our Creator, he crafted an economic policy on the basis of four self-sustaining and value-driven cornerstones namely, Zakah, Sadaqah, Waqf and Tarakah.
Prophetic Solution I
The institution of zakah is the core of Islamic economic system. It is a micro economic solution to deal with macro economic challenges i.e. unemployment and poverty. Zakah literally means purification. When applied on wealth annually, it is meant to purify our earnings/assets. A fixed percentage payoff is mandatory for every Muslim having his/her networth above a certain threshold (which is not very high). Zakah is deeply rooted in the Islamic scheme despite an economically fragile state of Muslims in general. Prophet Muhammad and his successors used force against affluent Muslims if and when they refused to pay the share that the underprivileged and the weak had in their wealth. Almost all the seven categories of zakah recipients are needy and underprivileged (Chapter 9:60).
In Islamic states, the authorities are allowed to force high networth individuals/corporates to pay annual zakah. This economic self-help system eliminates utter poverty and starvation leading to a morally and socially healthier society. Wealthy non-Muslims do not pay zakah, even in an Islamic state. However, economically deprived non-Muslims may receive zakah in both Islamic and non-Islamic states.
Zakah increases money circulation in the society. It gives purchasing power to those who are unable to generate it on their own. It is important to note that zakah is not meant to be used up on consumption alone. The preferred use of zakah is to economically empower the recipient so that s/he soon becomes a contributor to rather than remaining a recipient of zakah. It is the responsibility of the contributor to ensure that the recipient becomes economically self-reliant at the earliest. For optimum results, it is better to distribute zakah in an institutionalized form rather than individually. For responsibilities like these, a large group of efficient and ethical persons is needed. If there is shortage of such folks, our priority should be to develop human capital from grassroots level. Yes, I mean through top quality schools which produce more ethical and efficient generations than ours. Sitting back and waiting for such people to emerge out of the blue is not an option.
Prophetic Solution II
Life and death is routine. Every moment, thousands of humans are entering and exiting this world. The second micro economic solution to the present economic challenges relates to prompt and fair distribution of property/wealth left behind by the deceased. This is called tarakah in Qur’an. Unlike zakah, there is no minimum threshold of assets for inheritance distribution. Every bit should be shared among the wife, children (not just boys) and other inheritors of the deceased. The Qur’an commands us to divide the smallest of assets (Chapter 4). This is another effective mechanism to discourage concentration of wealth in fewer hands. In reality, the “smartest” or the most powerful in the family walks away with all or most of the assets left by the family head. This not only leads to economic deprivation for others, but also results in enormous social and legal costs.
However, sticking to this rule requires love for justice and fair play rather than love for money and power. This is again directly connected to having a strong faith in the Day of Judgment when all violators will be punished for their greed and injustice. But it will be too late for them to regret. There is a graphical punishment mentioned in Qur?an for those who delay or do not distribute the inheritance as per the detailed guidance of Muhammad (Chapter 4).
Prophetic Solution III
Zakah is fixed charity. The third solution relates to sadaqah. This is voluntary and unlimited charity. This solution is very strongly connected to the Islamic worldview: this world/life is just a transit point. This philosophy dictates our behavior in almost every aspect including economic matters. More than two-thirds of humanity is barely surviving on 1 dollar a day or even less. On the contrary, about 1% super-rich control almost 2/3rd of the global income and wealth. This level of economic disparity is driving some of us nuts. Human beings are usually not greedy. Although the „civilized world? makes us believe that we are inherently greedy. But I can say with certainty that most of us in the „uncivilized world? are not! We are content with a respectable life if most of our needs and few comforts are met with dignity. But when hundreds of millions of dollars (thousands of crores of Rupees) of illegally earned wealth is recovered from Ministers and bureaucrats – this is proof enough that our governance system (from which flows the economic system) is rotting and requires a surgical solution.
From start to finish, Prophetic life is an example of selfless and compassionate character. Despite heading a rapidly expanding and increasingly rich state, he did not leave behind fat bank accounts; big chunks of real estate; gold and jewelry; industries or businesses. He lived like a traveler. He gave away whatever wealth came to him. This is one of the reasons why he is fondly remembered as a Prophet of mercy by over 1.5 billion Muslims every day. Non-Muslims admire his simplicity and humility even after 1,400 years of his departure from the scene. How many billionaires are remembered with love and respect after they die? On the contrary, most of them are either hated for all the wrong means they used in accumulating their wealth or they are cursed by their own offspring/inheritors for „not leaving enough?!
Prophet Muhammad created enormous sense of love for eternal life, after death, among his followers. They would go out of the way to spend their rightfully earned money generously on others. He once asked his companions “Who among you love his wealth more than the wealth of his inheritors?” Everyone replied, “all of us love our own wealth over our inheritors”. He said “your wealth is only what you have remitted to the life after death i.e. given away to the poor and needy” (Bukhari). His teachings and his own practice created a society where wealthy competed with each other in keeping for themselves as little as possible and give away to poor and needy as much as possible.
Prophetic Solution IV
Muhammad was acknowledged as Amin (trustworthy) by even his non-Muslim adversaries. In line with Islamic belief, he used all resources at his disposal as a responsible trustee of God and not as an absolute owner. This approach fundamentally shifts the direction of economic affairs. Whatever one “owns? is to be utilized within a framework of rights and obligations; fulfilling one?s own needs, and of the family, the society, the state and the humanity in general.
A hardworking, selfless and honest society always creates surplus wealth. We witness this even among individuals and smaller groups around us. When such a society is not into indulgences of life (buying 6,000 Pound handbags or spending one million Dollars on a 30 minute dance show) then the only way they can use their wealth is by helping less privileged human beings. Islamic history is full of tangible evidences where numerous endowments, schools, hospitals and other social infrastructure were created through waqf i.e. donation of large properties or businesses for general welfare of the society (not just Muslims). Worldwide waqf assets (including in India) are worth tens of billions of Dollars. If managed honestly and efficiently as a proper trust, they can generate enough regular income to meet many genuine needs of the lower-rung of the society.
Let us bear in mind that these present waqfs (awqaf properties) are only indicative of our past glory. But our present is gloomy; and future no brighter. For a vibrant present and future, it is essential to persuade our millionaires and billionaires – in the light of the statements and practices of Prophet Muhammad – to give away as much as possible before they return empty-handed to their Lord.
Prophet Muhammad was not a socialist or a communist. He was not against private ownership. Nor was he adverse to profit making. His focus was economic justice. He knew the reality of life that human beings are not equal in talent, energy, skills and knowledge. Some have a right to earn, and also spend, more than others. But earnings must be rightful and spending must be judicious. Muhammad presented a strong, categorical and permanent moral filter for sourcing and using funds. Extravagant lifestyle is not in sync with Islamic values when millions are starving.
The same Prophet who sought God’s refuge from poverty, also prayed: “O God, grant me life as a poor man, make me die as a poor man and resurrect me [on the day of Resurrection] in the company of the poor.” He was asked why?
He replied: “Because (the poor) will enter Paradise (before) the rich.” He continued “Do not turn away a poor man even if all you can give is half a date. If you love the poor and bring them near you, God will bring you near Him on the Day of Resurrection.” (Tirmidhi)
Over the past decades, Muslim political “leadership” has mastered the art of blaming “others” for our state of affairs. This is designed to mislead Muslim masses so that they do not question internal deficiencies. However, the religion of Islam seeks internal solutions, to the maximum possible extent. All the above economic solutions are purely internal. No demonstrations, agitations or begging for job reservations are required. Already an economically fragile community must not be turned into parasites. The government should only be asked to set-up fast track courts to release the encroached waqf lands all over India, in a time-bound manner.
Internally, through counseling and setting right examples, economic empowerment can be achieved. It is impossible to attract non-Muslims towards Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him and his family) and his philosophy, if his own followers are in deep economic mess as a result of ignoring the above principles of Islam.