Give the Poor Man an Axe

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What is the future of Islamic economics?Considering all the emphasis that Islam places upon helping the poor and eradicating wealth inequality, it is surprising why Muslim countries, all throughout their contemporary history, have struggled with tackling the issue of poverty. Time and time again, the Qur’an has stated the high ranks of those who help the poor, clothe the beggar, feed the hungry and are kind to the orphaned.

What is the future of Islamic economics?Earlier this month, as world leaders and representatives gathered to discuss the progress nations have made on the path to achieving the Millennium Development Goals, the issue of poverty reignited heated debates amongst the movers and shakers of global policies.

Historically, economic growth has seen a fall in poverty; yet, with economies growing exponentially, a mere one percent of the world’s richest seem to own 40 percent of all global assets. The three richest people of our world possess more financial assets than the 48 poorest nations. The numbers are staggering. Even though the overall rate in global poverty has gone down in the past two decades, the number of poor remains unchanged: somewhere around the benchmark of 1.2 billion people. Due to corruption, instability, bureaucratic burdens, wars, natural disasters, (just to name a few) the Muslim world’s chunk of the poor is a significant one and on the rise.

Considering all the emphasis that Islam places upon helping the poor and eradicating wealth inequality, it is surprising why Muslim countries, all throughout their contemporary history, have struggled with tackling the issue of poverty. Time and time again, the Qur’an has stated the high ranks of those who help the poor, clothe the beggar, feed the hungry and are kind to the orphaned. We’ve been instructed to use our wealth to help those who are less fortunate and welcome the have-nots to our dinner tables. There are inspiring examples from the various traditions of our Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) and the Imams (peace be upon them). The story of the Ahlul Bayt giving their meal to the beggar even while fasting stands as a shining example for us. Imam Ali (peace be upon him), in his historical letter to Malik Ashtar, whom he appointed as governor of Egypt, regards the poor as such: “While the common men, the poor and apparently the less important section of your subjects are the pillars of Islam, they are the real assemblage of Muslims and the power and defensive force against the enemies of Islam. Keep your mind on their affairs, be more friendly with them and secure their trust and goodwill.” (Nahj al-Balagha) In the same letter the Imam went on to tell Malik Ashtar that it is absolutely necessary that the poor should be looked after, helped and well-provided for.

Islam – being not just a religion, but also a way of life – has provided us with answers to every problem and issue that the world has faced, even in our contemporary times. A lot of us would point to the Islamic practices of Khums, Zakaat and Sadaqa as Islam’s answer to poverty. But as our understanding of poverty and its underlying causes has developed, our grasp of the processes involved in poverty elimination has strengthened as well. Poverty reduction and its eventual elimination require a systematic approach, and thus the very practices we look towards achieving this need to be further analyzed.

Looking all throughout Islam’s history, what’s interesting is that even though the practice of Khums, Zakaat and Sadaqa are highly regarded and practiced (as should be), all we see are pious acts and individual statements regarding poverty. However, the systematic approach for its eventual elimination that probably was applied by the Prophet and the Imams has failed to be documented for further analysis and enlightenment. We are forced to stick to the paying of alms, setting aside a portion of our savings and considering it enough for the eradication of poverty.

These practices – as beneficial as they have proven to be for societies across time, and not taking away from the Thawaab itself – have not been institutionalized into our economies to produce the desired effect. The amount one sets aside for the obligatory Khums is divided into two parts: one given for Sehme Sadaat and the other for Sehme Imam. The way the two parts are used depends on the individual’s perception of who the poor is and on the Marja’s perception of where the money is best spent; be it for funding the construction of a mosque, paying seminary students, or buying land for an orphanage. These practices give rise to, at the most, some form of charity organizations without being properly institutionalized within the country’s economy. Moreover, looking closely at Khums, Zakaat and Sadaqa, the purpose is more inclined towards purifying one’s assets, material wealth and soul in the way of Allah than towards the goal of poverty eradication as a whole. These acts to this day remain extremely beneficial on individual levels, but on a higher national or even global level, they are simply just not enough.

What is of concern is that the Muslim world has failed to fully embrace and implement a comprehensive systematic approach to eradicate poverty. We are not living the lesson taught in the Prophet’s narration of giving the poor man an axe so that he can cut wood to sell, in order to provide for his family. With our belief in Islam having all the answers for the challenges we face today, we continue to look at the West to provide us with the solutions, ignoring the ones that have been alternately presented. In neither totally rejecting nor accepting the Western solutions to the challenge of poverty, we must turn towards Islam itself in providing us with a comprehensive working formula.

Islam has always stood for the elimination of poverty and wealth inequality, with justice as its basis. Unlike the prevalent economic models of today’s world – namely Capitalism and Communism – an economic model based on Islamic principles is what we have failed to give the importance it truly deserves.

Islamic economics was first conceived (in contemporary history) somewhere in the beginning of the twentieth century. Largely left as a theoretical field, it aims to provide answers to the challenge of poverty without the socialistic practice of unjustly robbing people from their properties in the name of equality, nor in the capitalistic exploitation of the weaker masses for the sake of profits. One of the most revered examples, and perhaps the most comprehensive of our times, is that of Martyr Sayyid Muhammed Baqir al-Sadr’s Iqtisaduna (Our Economy). (See this article for more details.) He conceived an Islamic political system to replace the existing political systems, ultimately creating a new socio-economic system to replace Capitalism and Socialism. He introduced a world of economics based on Islamic laws and principles.

Over the years, Islamic Financing has taken the world by a storm. Just a branch of Islamic economics, it has withstood the test of the recent global economic crisis that sent governments and banks scrambling to justify their profit-oriented, unsustainable practices. However, just as a banking system based on Islamic rules and principles can thrive with pride even as the world continues on its path of doomed capitalist practices, so can economies by large succeed if they are made to function within the parameters set forth by Islam.

If the Muslim world were to embrace an Islamic economic system in its totality, basing it on economic justice and public welfare, it would be achieving the goals of removing poverty, suffering, starvation and other hardships through this basic principle. Economic growth based upon the pressing tasks of poverty elimination and reduction in wealth inequality for the well-being of the society as a whole will automatically force development and prosperity into the Islamic world. It is a system that embraces an individual’s needs in both the material and spiritual realm, and also works for the development of society.

Most Islamic movements in modern history have focused on the implementation of socio-political ideologies of Islam, whilst the fundamental role that Islam can play in the economy – not just the banking sector – has usually taken a back seat and not been embraced completely. Islam has always stood for justice and elimination of poverty, and has proved to be the superior alternative to numerous Western-conceived ideologies, including Capitalism, Socialism, and Communism among others.

Even as Islamic banking and finance continues to gain acceptance and popularity, it is detached from the larger socio-economic prospects of the Muslim and non-Muslim world. With this practice disenfranchising itself from the social realities, it will not be able to achieve a purpose higher than plain old banking. What we need is a re-orientation of Islamic economics with banking and financing as a part of it – just as our economists like Martyr Baqir al-Sadr envisioned it to come into play – with the main objective of systematically eradicating poverty from the masses. Failure to fully integrate it will condemn Islamic economics to being that which does it no justice: a theoretical field.


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