Islamic perspective

Religion and poverty


I got an invitation from Union Theological Seminar, New York to participate in a seminar on 'Religion and Poverty' whose convener was Paul Knitter on the occasion of his installation as the Dean of the Seminary, a noted scholar in his field, yet very humble person with a pleasant personality.

I welcomed this opportunity to speak on this subject on which I had written a great deal in the past under the title Liberation Theology in Islam. The seminar was from 18 to 21 February. The very first day we visited a union office to understand issues of poverty in USA. It was indeed moving to see so much poverty in the land of plenty. It was all along known that there is poverty in the USA but it was different thing to experience it in the field. We were taken to an office of association of restaurant workers. We were told more than 40,000 restaurant workers were rendered unemployed when the two trade towers collapsed on 9/11 in which about three thousand people were killed.

Religion and poverty

We could hardly imagine that such a huge work force was rendered unemployed on 9/11 as entire focus was on those killed and on politics of terror and foreign policy of USA. No one ever referred once to woes of these restaurant workers who lost their jobs and continue to suffer till today in various ways. No one was ready to employ them firstly because they were unionized and secondly because many of them had no documents required by immigration. For years they continued to suffer until they came together to form their own association for their survival. We listened to the story of their suffering and survival and drew inspiration.

Many of these workers, as pointed out, are those who have migrated from other countries, some without valid documents. They are exploited most because of their legal vulnerability. It is for this reason that Qur'an considers ibn al-sabil (travelers, strangers) among the weak and on par with poor and needy and apportions a part of zakat (tithe) for this category. Thus a correct Islamic attitude can help this most vulnerable section in USA and other countries.

Same day the seminar began on 'Religion and Poverty'. Scholars and intellectuals of Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism took part in the debate. Speaking from Islamic viewpoint I spoke on Qur'an and its various verses deeply committed to eradication of poverty. Mecca, as I have pointed out in my writings on liberation theology, was passing through period of deep social malaise which disturbed Muhammad, the prophet of Islam (PBUH).

This social malaise was caused by extreme wealth on one side (from Meccan standards of those days), and extreme poverty, on the other. Interestingly, the Qur'an uses the word miskeen for poor and needy. Its root is sakana (he remained motionless) and a needy miskeen is one who is rendered immobilized due to state of helplessness. Thus Qur'an shows great sympathy with masakeen, the poor and needy.

In Mecca the rich traders were neglecting these sections of society including orphans and widows and there was no state structure to bring about proper distribution of wealth through taxation and no will on the part of the rich merchants to set apart a part of their wealth to mitigate the misery of these suffering sections. Also, tribal norms were being destroyed by the greed of wealthy merchants.

The Prophet of Islam (PBUH) was seriously disturbed by this state of affairs in Mecca. He could not tolerate this acute suffering of the poor, needy and orphans and widows in that international financial centre Mecca. He was extremely sensitive soul. He himself had suffered poverty in his childhood. He came from a respectable family of clan of Hashim but had very little means of survival. He was an orphan as his parents had died in his early childhood and was brought up by his grandfather and then by his uncle.

It is important to note that Allah chose Muhammad (PBUH), a poor, an orphan, for the prophethood. He did not choose a wealth or influential person of Meccan society for spreading His Mission. That is why the rich merchants of Mecca held him in contempt that a poor orphan is claiming to be the prophet of Allah. They thought it is below their high position to submit to a poor orphan who hardly had means of survival.

The message of Allah was clear: poor has as much human dignity and capable of spreading Allah's mission as anyone. Allah does not necessarily choose wealthy and socially influential for His mission. Thus prophethood was destined for the poor and poverty is a social condition, not a permanent status. Muhammad (PBUH) also showed to the world how one can maintain ones dignity despite straitened economic condition. He never adopted 'high style' of life even when able to due to his changed condition in Madina.

Throughout Qur'an one finds Allah's sympathy with poor and needy and Qur'an even declares that Allah is on the side of the poor and needy, the weak (mustad'ifin) and it is these weaker sections of society who will be made leaders of this earth and would inherit it (see 28:5). Thus no one can have any doubt that Allah is on the side of the weak and the poor and certainly not on the side of powerful and arrogant described by Qur'an as mustakbirun.

Nimrod and Pharoah are examples of power and arrogance and they perish by their own deeds of oppression and exploitation. And are challenged by Allah's prophets Abraham and Moses both again come from weaker sections of society. It is these prophet who liberate their nation from oppression (zulm). We all condemn to this day Nimrod and Pharaoh and salute Abraham and Moses.

Qur'an also condemns accumulation and hoarding of wealth which represents greed, not need. Qur'an upholds life based on need and condemns greed in different ways. Ideally Qur'an requires believers to retain only what is needed to fulfill basic needs and rest be given away in the way of Allah (2:219). Of course need is socially dynamic concept and may vary from time to time and place to place. What are basic needs in USA may not be necessarily so in India or African countries.

The American poor may possess car and car is not necessarily an indicator of prosperity as in India or other developing countries. Social needs of a particular society would determine the levels of need and greed. What the Qur'an condemns is greed and accumulation. In Mecca it came out with a concept of zakat as a charity but when a sort of state structure began to develop in Madina, it became an obligatory levy with a well defined nisab (slab). Though Qur'an did not fix any rate or slab but exhorted believers to give away what is surplus, Prophet (PBUH) took a practical attitude and required believers to take out at least two and half per cent of their wealth and income at the end of the year.

However, the Qur'an described the portions of zakat to be spent on the needy, the poor, orphans and widows, for release of prisoners, for travelers, for the indebted and for undefined category 'in the way of Allah (see 9:60). This verse on zakat embraces all weaker sections of society and is as much valid today as it was when revealed.

It is, however, very unfortunate that the so-called Islamic states give more importance to punishments than poverty reduction program of the Qur'an. Reason is very clear. Punishments help impose state's authority and protect the elite supporting the state while to undertake poverty reduction program amounts to hurting the rich and powerful. Islam lays great emphasis on social justice and justice in all its forms.

The Prophet never showed any favor to the powerful and rich and rigorously tried to impose justice as required by the Qur'an. There are several verses in Qur'an emphasizing qist and 'adl (justice and equity) like 49:9, 72:15, 5:42, 49:9, 60:9 and so on. However, all modern Islamic states have strayed far away from this Qur'anic ideal. The contemporary Islamic states are dominated by the powerful and rich and are oppressive and exploitative in nature and yet claim to be Islamic state by merely enforcing some Shari'at rules on punishment and personal laws.

In fact the Qur'an gives concept of a just social set up irrespective of nature of state structure) and to implement the Qur'anic punishment without fully implementing its just social system itself is zulm (oppression). If social structures are unjust and there is poverty and suffering in the society, first priority would be enforcement of social, economic and legal justice and then anything else.

The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was extremely sensitive to suffering humanity and especially to those who suffered from woes of poverty. He is reported to have said that it is more meritorious to feed a hungry soul than to pray whole night and that in the vicinity of hungry, angles of mercy do not descend. He required Muslims to pay fitrah i.e. a portion of ones wealth to the poor on the occasion of Eid so that poor could also partake in the celebration of festival. It is not only the rich who have right to enjoy these celebrations.

The Prophet (PBUH) when setting up a society in Madina his whole emphasis was on equality between believers. When migrants came from Mecca to Madina he established a novel form of institution unheard of before called mu'akhat (i.e. brotherhood) between one immigrant and one helper from Madina who was well settled there. For the time one stands on ones own legs, helper would support him for his livelihood. However, the immigrant was required to start earning his own livelihood. This created an atmosphere of cooperation.

It also helped create people self-supporting so that they do not become burden on others. Some immigrants were quite well to do in Mecca but as immigrant they were helpless in new situation. These immigrants soon began to earn their own livelihood through trade and other economic activities. The Prophet himself was an immigrant and many helpers (Ansar) considered it a great privilege to keep him and his family at their respective houses. But the Prophet declined and preferred to establish himself and soon he constructed his own quarters along with a mosque, which came to be known as Masjid al-Nabi - the mosque of the Prophet.

Also, the Prophet (PBUH) called leaders of all the religious groups and tribal chiefs to draw up a covenant to live in harmony with each other despite pursuing different religions - Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Paganism - and differing tribal traditions. It came to be known as Mithaq-i-Madina, a novel political document of its time. It was very close to the modern political ethos. In fact Prophet's Madina presents best model of religious pluralism which even the West came to adopt in later part of the Twentieth century.

Though there was no formal government Madina became the best governed city depending entirely on mutual cooperation and voluntary services including defense services. Formal state structure did not develop in Madina until much later in the Umayyad period. Even during the four Caliphs who succeeded the Prophet there was hardly proper state structure except some elements of it.

However, despite severe challenges and complex problems Madina was better governed city compared to capitals of powerful empires like Roman and Sassanid empires. There was great emphasis on social justice without heavy burden of taxation. It was spirit of social justice based on the concept of equality and equal dignity for all human beings (17:70) that created a just social structure.

Though Abu Bakr, the first Caliph after the Prophet did not get much time to organize Madinese society due to his preoccupation with tribal revolt (war of riddah) Umar and Ali the 2nd and 4th Caliphs tried their best to create a just society. Umar used to say I will be responsible to Allah even if a dog died of hunger in my regime. He used to impose norms of governance very strictly. He chided his most competent general Khalid bin Walid when he came to know he had given a large amount of money to a poet because he liked his composition.

Ali, who was bravest general and a great scholar, orator and a poet, was very rigorous in dispensing with justice in keeping with the Qur'anic ideals and would not allow a single dirham to be spent from Bait al-Mal (state treasury) without justification. He chided his own brother Aquil when he wanted money from state treasury for himself. Ali would take from state treasury as much as he would give to his servant, not more, not less.

When an Arab woman demanded more from Ali than a non-Arab woman, Ali said "By Allah I would not make any distinction between an Arab and Ajam (non-Arab)". It was because of such rigorous imposition of justice that Madina could avoid, at least for few years, the extremes of riches and poverty. But, one must admit, this did not last longer as when Caliphate was turned into monarchy by Mu'awiyah who nominated his son Yazid as his successor. All norms of social justice were thrown to thr winds and Caliphate turned into a dynastic empire and worst kind of oppression and exploitation began. Maulana Maududi in his book "Khilafat aur Mulukiyyat" has given vivid description of this change.

Here it is worthy of note that a society can remain just only if it is small in size and not obsessed with power. It is megalomania which leads to not only complex problems in the society but also severe injustices, exploitation and subjugation of others. It is megalomania of western powers which resulted in colonialism and in contemporary world the wars and bloodshed by America.

The Christian community too led life according to the ideals of Bible but the whole character of Christianity changed once it was associated with the Roman Empire. Thus political power and religious spirit cannot go together. Political power is based on coercion and religion on persuasion.

Thus if we want religion to be an important resource to fight poverty in contemporary society, it should never be associated with political power. I said in the seminar in Union Theological Seminary if you want religion to be an important resource give training to your students that they should fight poverty by siding with the poor, not with rich and powerful in pursuit of political power. Our priests and religious preachers should be strongly committed to social justice which is the real spirit of religion.

The liberation theology in Christianity developed in poor and exploited Latin America, not in powerful and affluent USA. The Catholic priests working among poor peasantry and urban poor in Latin America stood by the oppressed and exploited and developed liberation theology which the powerful church hesitated to recognize. Many of these priests were killed by the powerful landlords. Supreme sacrifice is the real spirit of religion. Qur'an also says "You cannot attain to righteousness unless you give (in the way of Allah) what you love."

Thus real spirit of religion is giving, not receiving, sacrificing, not accumulating. Wherever religion gets associated with powers that be, it remains anything but religion. Then religion assumes the form of rituals completely devoid of spirit. The whole history of church during medieval ages and the history of Islam through various empires beginning with Umayyad empire are powerful demonstration of this truth.

Separation of the church and state is the right doctrine but it is observed more in breach than in practice. Religion must remain powerful critic of powers that be and should play subversive role for the establishment. Political revolutions failed because ultimate logic of political revolution is to seize power from one set of elite for another set of elite without bringing any qualitative change.

Religious revolution, on the other hand, plays initially at least a different role to bring qualitative change in society by ushering in a just structure. However, soon it also gets associated with political power and its spirit is lost in the ocean of lust for power. All religious revolutions also lost their edge soon after they tried to change society. It is this dilemma which human beings have faced since the beginning of known history.

In fact religion and poverty should never go together and religion should once again play a role of a powerful critic of the established powers who thrive by accentuating unjust distribution of social resources. A truly religious society cannot be built by building grand temples, churches, mosques and gurdwaras but by building a simple and need-based social structure.

Poverty is opposite of material riches, not of simple need-based lifestyle. The resources of our earth are limited and must be used with great sense of economy. The right word in Arabic for simple need-based life style is faqr which implies patience, constraint on desire and dignified but simple lifestyle. The Prophet of Islam also said faqr is my pride (al-faqr fakhri).

However, today we see the so called religious personalities living in high style in grand buildings and maintaining an army of servants and subservient followers. A truly religious person should never be afraid of social critic and should never display his power and influence. He/she should be distinguished from others by simplicity, honesty and transparence. One who gives in to greed and opulence can never be seen with the masses.

All great founders of religions are known for their simplest possible lifestyle be it Buddha, Christ, Muhammad or Nanak. Also, Sufi saints like Baba Farid, Moinuddin Chishti or Nizamuddin Awliya always led life of faqr in true sense. Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet often used to eat dry bread with salt and curd. Nizamuddin Awliya fasted during day and would break it with dry piece of bread. Yet they are so powerful that kings used to envy their popularity. They were powerful critics of power seeking monarchs.

Religion being powerful critic of the powerful must be on the side of the oppressed and exploited to fulfill its role in society. Tagore in his "Geetanjali" rightly points out that if you are seeking God you will not find it in grand temples but in workers breaking stones in the heat and dust of May. Real miracle is not to produce things out of the thin air as many charlatans do but to transform our society into a just cooperative than competitive society where all can have their needs fulfilled and live a rich spiritual life.

This of course cannot be realized as history has shown but until then religion should remain a critic of oppression and exploitation and be seen always on the side of the weak. It should advocate moral, not political power. Its superiority lies in moral superiority and if religions perform this role there will be no conflict between religions but between exploiters. Religions fight among themselves because they become tools of exploiters.

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