Of economic justice

05 Jan 2012

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JUSTICE is one of the central values in Islam, and any economic system not based on justice is unacceptable. The Quran emphasises distributive justice and lends unqualified support to weaker sections of society, whom it calls mustadifun; it condemns the arrogant ruling classes (mustakbirun) that suppress the weaker sections.

I was inspired to write this piece by the recent Occupy Wall Street protests in America for economic justice, which also spread to Europe. They have raised the slogan, ‘We are 99 per cent’, and leaders of the movement say that just one per cent of Americans have concentrated all the wealth in their own hands, depriving 99 per cent of their rights. People wearing badges with the slogan gather at Wall Street in New York and financial hubs in Europe.

In America, a fortress of capitalism, profit is the only sacred word and distributive justice a dirty one. Freedom there is considered a fundamental value but it is hardly inclusive of freedom to be a socialist, much less communist. It is from this milieu that this movement has started demanding distributive justice and opposing the concentration of wealth in a few hands.

It is interesting to compare the present-day economic situation with what was happening in Makkah before Islam. As a centre of international trade and finance, Makkah was where tribal chiefs had formed a monopoly over trade to accumulate wealth, neglecting all morality and the weaker sections of society. Much like in our own times, when globalisation and economic liberalisation have allowed a few people to accumulate wealth, in pre-Islamic Makkah polarisation between the rich and the poor had increased, leading to social tensions. These were explosive, as very vividly described in the Quran.

Surah 104 points to ‘one who accumulates wealth and counts it again and again and thinks that this wealth will make him eternal. But surely he will be thrown into hutumah.’ What is hutumah? ‘It is burning fire which will engulf the heart…’ In another Makkan surah, the Quran says, ‘Don’t you see the man who belies Deen? It is this man who pushes away the orphans and does not induce people to feed the poor, and deprives people of their small needs’ (107).

Pre-Islamic Makkah was a centre of world trade as most international caravans laden with luxury goods passed through that city. The tribal chiefs, who first acted as guides for crossing the vast desert between Makkah and the Roman Empire, became expert traders. They were greedy for more and more wealth and sought more and more profit.This obsession with profit-making kept them so engaged that in Surah 102 the Quran says, ‘Your riches have made you quite negligent of your studies till you visit your graves’. While this dominant section of Makkan tribal chiefs was becoming super rich, the poor, the orphans, the widows and the slaves were totally neglected and exploited to accumulate more riches. The victims of the traders’ greed were leading lives of abject poverty and deprivation. Nothing moved the rich whereas there was earlier no concept of the poor in a more equitable tribal society.

It was against this background that such verses were revealed in the Quran. Justice, moreover, is so central in Quranic ethics that Allah’s name is Adil and the Quran says, ‘Do Justice, it is closest to piety’ (5:8). The complete absence of distributive justice and concentration of wealth in pre-Islamic Makkah can be compared with what is happening in America. Wealth has become so concentrated in the hands of one per cent that 99 per cent are feeling the heat, losing jobs and fearing starvation — in America, where people had forgotten what a life of poverty was.

It is under these circumstances that this movement has started and people are protesting on Wall Street and at other such financial hubs. Of course the western media is not too interested in such movements, which expose the weakness of capitalism. Only occasionally are a few compelled to write about it, without making it too visible in the print or electronic media.

Compared to this state of affairs, pre-Islamic Makkah had no democracy nor awareness about one’s rights; neither did it have a democratic system in place, and so the only way to make people aware of their rights was through divine revelation. Hence the Quran, an instrument of divine revelation through Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), was revealed. It condemned the concentration of wealth in a few hands and large-scale deprivation of people. The cited Quranic verses created awareness among the faithful about distributive justice.

The Quran is in favour of leading a need-based life and opposes all greed or a luxurious lifestyle. It clearly enjoins to give away what is left with one after fulfilling one’s needs (the Quran calls it afw). However, Muslims, except the followers of the Prophet (PBUH) during his lifetime and a few thereafter, never practised it. Many companions of the Prophet (PBUH) considered it sinful to drink water in a gold or silver vessel. But such scruples were short-lived in Muslim history.

If Muslims had taken the Quranic verses seriously and put them into practice they would have been the role model for the world for introducing a distributive justice system and a conflict-free world; a world without wars and bloodshed, a peaceful world where everyone would have felt secure, a living paradise on earth. But capitalism, in order to make the lives of a few plentiful and wasteful, has made it a living hell for many today.

The writer is an Islamic scholar who also heads The Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai