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PUCL Bulletin, February 2003

Religion and economic justice
-- By Asghar Ali Engineer

It is usually thought that religion is on the side of establishment and vested interests - economic as well as political and it can never become a resource for justice. It is weapon in the hands of vested interests rather than weaker sections of the society. It is rather simplistic statement though it has some historical truth in it.

Religion has been misused by not only the rulers but also by the priesthood. Every religious tradition has history of siding with the powerful ruling establishments. The religious leaders and priests, though pose themselves as pious or religious persons have all the weakness of flesh. They sell religion for their own benefits or side with ruling establishments in their anti-poor policies. No religion has been an exception in this respect. Even Christianity and Islam which stand by weaker sections of society, if we go by the scriptural text of these religions, have no different history. Both the Christian priesthood and Islamic 'Ulama' often sided with oppressive and exploitative ruling establishments. This has led to this simplistic belief that religion per se shares the blame. The priesthood in every religious tradition had, as pointed out above, its own weakness for power and pelf. They often use religion as a legitimising cover to fulfill their personal ambitions.

There is no dearth of such priests even in our own time, and in all religious traditions. Most of the religions began as protest movements against oppression and exploitation but were soon hijacked by vested interests in one way or the other. This is the history of political revolutions also. Even French and Russian revolutions succumbed to hegemonic or exploitative forces though their ideals inspire many even today. These ideals can help fight forces of exploitation even today.

Religion and its socio-economic role should also be assessed in the light of complex social, economic and political forces working in the society. An attempt should be made to study religion and religious ideals through scriptural injunctions and how they were interpreted and practised in the given socio-economic and political conditions. Also the role of priesthood has to be objectively judged whether it allows religion to be hijacked by vested interests or refuses to compromise.

The Biblical pronouncement that meek shall inherit the earth, is an indicator in this direction. Judaism too, lays great stress on justice and Islam of course treats equality and justice as fundamental value. In fact the prophets of these religious traditions belonged to weaker sections of society and they had to wage relentless struggle to liberate their people from the clutches of powerful vested interests both political and economic. These prophets were severely persecuted but they stood their grounds. During their lifetime religion indeed was an option for the poor and oppressed.

Let us examine the central teachings of some of the great religions of the world. Buddhism lays so much stress on compassion and middle path. It also makes its followers sensitive to suffering called dukkha. An engaged Buddhist intellectual Kuliyapitiye Prananda, laying stress on this aspect of Buddhist teaching succinctly puts it thus: "avoid improper investment; avoid improper treatment and avoid improper consumption." These are very religious attitudes. A truly religious person, will neither invest in improper way leading to exploiting the people nor will ever indulge in over or improper consumption. Many religious leaders lead life of great ostentation and their source of earning depends either on dependence on powerful vested interests and justifying their oppressive ways or on extorting money from their own followers in the name of religion. They, in order to perpetuate their power spread superstitions in the name of religion and induce in them fear of hell, if they do not obey their injunctions. This is, to say the least, most irreligious behaviour. Such behaviour of the priesthood should not be equated with religious teachings.

Christianity was also a great liberative force in its early history until it was adopted by the Roman ruling establishment. Christianity always laid stress on working for the poor. The Christ's companions were all from amongst the poor and he gave good news to them of their liberation. The liberation theologians of Latin America maintain that 'Kingdom of God' should be established here on earth - a Kingdom, which would liberate the poor. Enrique Dussel, a liberation theologian of Latin America believes in interpreting the Bible in a way that will establish justice for the oppressed. He, in his essay on "Domination - Liberation" says, "Biblical symbolism shows us through the prophetic tradition an argument or line of thought which we shall here set out briefly. In the first place "Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him" (Gen. 4.8) and Jesus adds the comment "innocent Abel" (Mt. 23.25). To say "no" to my neighbour is the only possible sin, it is the "sin of the world" or the fundamental sin.

The same "no" to my neighbour is said by the priest and the levite in the parable of the Samaritan (LK 10.31-2). Augustine, in the political interpretation of original sin, says clearly that "Cain founded a city, while Abel the wanderer did not". Historically and actually since the fifteenth century sin has taken the form of a "no" on the part of the North Atlantic centre to the Indian, the African, the Asian and to the worker, the peasant and the outcast. It has been a 'no' to the woman in patriarchal families, and a "no" to the child in the oppressor's educational system."

In the Jewish tradition delivery of Israel from bondage of Egyptian Pharaoh is an act of liberation. This liberation of children of Israel was led by Moses and it has pride of place in the Jewish history. At the time of the Passover Feast, which the Jews celebrate, the following is recounted so that succeeding generation of Jews may recognise and acknowledge the God who saved them from oppression: A wandering A ramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. Then we cited to the Lord our God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (Exodus 26/5-9).

In Islam too, as pointed out before, there is great emphasis on justice both social and economic. The Qur'anic text is full of such verses which exhort believers and non-believers to avoid concentration of wealth. Islam was basically the religion of justice and equality. It wants to do away with all forms of oppression and establish a just society right on this earth. Islam came into existence in Mecca, which was city of international finance in those days as all trade caravans used to pass through Mecca and all transaction took place there.
There was great deal of concentration of wealth in few hands in Mecca and the poor were neglected and exploited. Thus there was a great economic malaise in Mecca and all tribal norms were neglected. Even the near relatives were not taken care of. The Prophet of Islam was greatly disturbed by these conditions. He was greatly disposed towards a just society and no wonder Islam exhorted the Meccan rich not to exploit the poor and distribute wealth. It was distribution of wealth which could lead to establishment of just society. Islam never favoured concentration of wealth in few hands. There are several verses in the Qur'an to this effect.

Thus in an early Meccan surah (chapter 104) the Qur'an says: "Woe to every slanderer, defamer. Who amasses wealth and counts it. He thinks that his wealth will make him abide. Nay, he will certainly be hurled into the crushing disaster. And what will make thee realise what the crushing disaster is? It is the Fire kindled by Allah. Which rises over hearts…." From the verses above it will be seen there is strong denunciation of accumulation of wealth as this accumulation in few hands in Mecca was causing great suffering to the poor and needy in that town. It was indeed for this exhortation for distributive justice that the rich and powerful leaders of Mecca became so hostile to the Prophet of Islam. Some of the scholars of Islam from Egypt have maintained that the hostility of the Meccan kafirs was not so much because of doctrine of tawhid (unity of God) as for uncompromising attack of the Qur'an on concentration of wealth. If the Prophet had ceased attacking riches of Meccan tribal leaders they would have accepted Islam in all probability. But that was not to be. The Prophet refused to compromise on that count.

Again in chapter 107 it is said in the Qur'an, "Hast thou seen him who belies religion? That is the one who is rough to the orphan, and urges not the feeding of the needy, so woe to the praying ones, who are unmindful of their prayer! Who do (good) to be seen, and refrain from acts of kindness."

This chapter is quite self-explanatory. The Qur'an says that hose who do not take care of orphans and needy are in fact those who belie religion. Real religion is to be compassionate to the suffering of the needy and to help them. Those who pray and neglect the needy and poor are in fact praying to show off. Their prayer is not real prayer. The Prophet (PBUH) is reported to have said that feeding a hungry widow is more meritorious than praying whole night. The Prophet passionately believed in economic justice. Whenever he received some food he would invite others who were hungry to partake of that food. He always distributed the zakat amount received from well off Muslims equally among his followers. He never favoured even his own daughter Fatima in this respect. She was in great need of a servant as she had to grind grains herself and her hands had developed blisters but Prophet strictly refused to oblige her. There were more needy than her and they had to be taken care of.

These were the exacting standards of the Prophet (PBUH) as far as distributive justice was concerned.

Some people came to the Prophet and asked him what to spend in the way of Allah, the Allah required the Prophet to say that spend what is surplus after meeting your essential needs (2:219). A philosopher-poet from India Muhammad Iqbal even saw in such verses the real alternative to communism. In a just society one should not have more than what is needed for ones basic needs. The surplus left thereafter should be given away to those whose basic needs are not fulfilled.

The concept of basic needs of course might change from time to time and in each epoch there can be consensus about common minimum needs. The state can also determine the level of common minimum needs. In any case there should not be conspicuous consumption when many others are dying of hunger. Islam totally disapproves of conspicuous consumption.
Islam prohibits man from wearing gold ornament (except a gold ring in one finger) and eat and drink from golden or silver vessels and to wear silken clothes. The early Muslims followed this strictly. Even the early Caliphs used to wear patched clothes though they were rulers of great empire. They led exemplary simple life like the Prophet. It was during the Umayyad period that ruling classes began to lead life of utter luxury and built palaces for themselves in flagrant violations of Islamic teachings. The Abbasids even surpassed the Umayyads in their life style.

It was during these times that rituals became more important than the Islamic values of equality, justice and alleviation of poverty and working for upliftment of weaker sections of society. Islam does not approve of tyrant and exploiting rulers. The Holy Prophet is reported to have said that real jihad is to speak truth in the face of a tyrant. His companions like Abu Dhar Ghifari had this quality.
However, once Umayyad rulers like Yazid renounced all pretensions of following Islam and began to indulge in all pre-Islamic practices based on conspicuous consumption and ridiculed Islamic teachings the real spirit of Islamic revolution was lost. Then the 'Ulama who wanted to be on the right side of these rulers gave a fatwa that any ruler who enforces Islamic prayer (salah) must be obeyed even if he happens to be a tyrant and exploiter. This was total negation of true Islamic spirit of early period. Thus empire builders hijacked religion for their own purposes. Also, there were some 'ulama who refused to compromise and had to face severe persecution at the hands of rulers.

It is interesting to note that Imam Ghazzali, a great Islamic thinker and a sufi-cum-philosopher maintained that it is prohibited (haram) to look at the face of a tyrant ruler and if it be necessary to talk to him one should turn ones face in other direction and talk to him. Ghazzali wrote this during the last days of the Abbasid rule when the Abbasid caliphs had become very weak and Turkish dynasties ruled as sultans using them as mere symbols. These sultans hardly ever cared for Islamic norms. Their only interest was in political power.

The Qur'an requires wealth not to be hoarded; but spent on the poor and needy. In verse 9:34 the Qur'an says, "And those who hoard up gold and silver (dinars and dirhams, which was currency of those days) and spend it not in Allah's way - announce to them a painful chastisement."

It is quite clear from this verse that the Qur'an wanted social and economic justice to be promoted and opposed injustices resulting in turmoil and violence. This is possible only when all sections of society can fulfill their economic needs. But if wealth is concentrated in a few hands this will not be possible and, the rich would spend their wealth on ostentation.

As pointed out Islam discourages life of ostentation. And it was on the basis of such Qur'anic verses that the Holy Prophet even prohibited men to wear silken clothes and to eat and drink from golden or silver vessels and to wear gold ornaments. These were the signs of ostentation. Islam cannot at all brook situation in which while the rich indulge in ostentation, the poor and needy starve in the society which cause imbalances and disturbances. The Prophet's closest companion Abu Dharr used to recite the verse 9:34 quoted above and exhort the Muslims who began to indulge in luxurious living. He would not even shake hands with those who led the life of ostentation. He would demand that all Muslims should lead life of simplicity as the Prophet did.

In the changed environment persons like Abu Dhar found no support for his campaign. He was looked upon as a nuisance by the newly emerging rich. He was exiled to the desert of Rabza where he died a lonely death. His wife did not have even money for buying shroud for him. He was buried in his clothes he was wearing at the time of his death. He paid a heavy price for his Islamic idealism.

It is interesting to note that the Qur'an maintains that the whole social dynamics is determined by struggle between what it calls istid'af and istikbar i.e. struggle between the weak and those who have arrogance of power and that Allah is on the side of the weak. Thus we find in the Qur'an, "And We desired to bestow a favour upon those who were deemed weak in the land, and to make them the leaders, and to make them the heirs." (28:5). It is quite an important contribution of the Qur'an to humanity at a time when there was no concept of social justice and the weak and poor were looked down upon as of no consequence and having no rights.

Thus the message of the Qur'an, is clear. It is on the side of the weak and Allah's favour will be for them. There cannot be any compromise on this. According to the Qur'an this struggle will never cease until the weak (mustad'ifin) are empowered and since allah is on their side they will triumph one day. Hope and faith are most important weapons of the weaker sections of society and they should not give up these weapons. No struggle can be carried out without these weapons. The Qur'an clearly says "do not despair". Since the Qur'an wants to bring about just distribution of wealth it gave the concept of the institution of zakah a word which means purification. Thus it is only through distribution that social wealth can be purified. And it is only purified wealth, which can bring happiness to all on earth. The Prophet of Islam himself was a role model in this respect. He led starkly simple life and distributed whatever came to the state treasury among the poor and needy. He also instituted the concept of fitrah i.e. to spare something for the poor and needy on the occasion of Eid so that the poor also could share the happiness. Giving fitrah is the sunnah of the Prophet. Thus Eid cannot be celebrated by the rich without sharing its joys with the poor. Giving Zakah also is so important that every verse in Qur'an about salah i.e. prayer mentions zakah. Thus there cannot be real prayer without giving zakah on one's earnings. The poor tax is a must for every Muslim. Zakah thus has central importance in Islamic society. It is Islamic doctrine that no one should starve in a truly Islamic society.

The 2nd caliph Umar used to say I will have to account to Allah on the day of judgement even if a dog dies of hunger in my regime. Ali, the son-in-law and spiritual heir of the Prophet and heir to his knowledge also led, like the Prophet, starkly simple life and observed rigorous justice in distribution of wealth from state treasury.

Islam also stresses dignity of labour and forbids all forms of unearned income and stresses the concept of what is known in shari`ah literature as Kasb-i-halal i.e. legitimately earned income. It prohibits buying food grains unriped in the field and unripe fruit on trees as it amounts to exploiting the peasant. It prohibits all forms of speculation as it often leads to making easy money. There should not be any place for stock exchange operations in Islam as it is purely speculative. Islam also prohibits mukhabirah i.e. share cropping as it amounts to unearned income and the Prophet wanted land to be possessed only by actual tillers. No one should retain land if he cannot till it.

Ribah (which means not only usury) but all forms of unearned income has been strictly prohibited by Islam. Ribah actually means unjust growth and not only interest. Unfortunately it is used only for usury or interest and not all forms of unjust and unearned growth. Thus it will be seen that all religions in general, and Abrahamic religions, in particular, lay great stress on economic justice and are an option for the poor. It is in course of history that most of these religions were hijacked by vested interests and made them an integral part of ruling establishments. Thus religions were seen to be on the side of the rich and powerful. It seriously violated the spirit of religion. The capitalist, consumerist society of today has totally disowned religion. A religion, which stresses justice and compassion for suffering can only correct the wrongs of this society.


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