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In The West : Patchworks and Adaptations

The preceding lines make it easier to perceive the disturbances and difficulties that cannot fail to arise in the mind of the conscience of Muslims who would like to live faithful to these principles in the West. In their daily lives, with every financial action, at the smallest attempt to invest or launch a commercial project, the question arises: am I true to my principles? What should I do? Is it even possible not to be complicit with the capitalist system, speculation, and interest? Some give up out of fear. Some cobble together more or less viable solutions. Some proceed in resignation, almost convinced that they have to steel themselves to work within the system and adapt to it. In spite of the seriousness of this concerns, the daily difficulties and the importance of the hindrance they present for sound economic activity, no solution seems to be in sight. Most of the ulama are fixed on the classical opinions and reaffirm the prohibitions, some Islamic financial institutions suggest arrangements for some organizations and individuals, but on the whole everyone knows that we are at an impasse, and no alternative for Western Muslims is proposed. It is true that there are specific responses to particular situations, but radical thinking is glaringly absent. So far, Muslims in the West who want to be true to their principles are clearly stalled, condemned either to betray themselves or to marginalize themselves. Ultimately, like it or not, they can be nothing but observers on the economic scene. The very people whose first responsibility it should have been to propose “something else” from within the system find themselves forced to give in or to dream, like those who reassure themselves by predicting the imminent implosion of the system “on its own,” “from the inside.” Now, at a time when “anything economic” is preeminent, losing this battle and refusing to take the risk needed to create an alternative means losing practically everything. This is both irresponsible and senseless. It is first and foremost wrong.

We have recalled that the two fundamental principles of Islamic guidelines in economic matters are an obligation and a prohibition: the obligation of zakat on the one hand and the prohibition of riba on the other. If we try to evaluate the current situation in the West regarding the concrete application of these two principles, we cannot fail to notice important deficiencies (as much in thinking as in practice) and the more or less endemic dysfunctions within Muslim communities. It is true that the situation has improved somewhat in the past few years, but we are still very wide of the mark. For example, many Muslims are committed to paying the zakat that is due, but the way these things are considered and organized leaves them confused. Once the annual calculations are made, the money is either paid to institutions that specialize in collecting zakat, or it is sent off for humanitarian works or mosque projects, or it is given directly to people in need in the West or, more often, in the home countries. In fact, the money collected as zakat represents phenomenal amounts, and there is almost no local or national body today thinking about or directing the careful and appropriate use of it, even though this is essential if the fundamental purposes are to be achieved. It all simply happens as if zakat is just a widow’s mite to be paid out of duty and distributed as charity. But zakat is anything but that: the levying of this purifying social tax, in response to precise requirements set out long ago by the ulama, must be considered within the purpose of establishing a real system of collective solidarity and social security, woven into the very fabric of society, that aims at freeing the poor from their dependence so that eventually they themselves will pay zakat.

This system can come into being only by applying a thorough knowledge of the social context in which the zakat payments are made. This is the more important because it is an absolute priority that the payments should be dispersed in the area in which they are collected. The least that one can say is that nothing seems to be being done today about a system thought out and conceived in and for Western societies: we are not far from a general chaos in which each organization and individual goes its own sweet way. Local, national, and international institutions are set up (such as bayt al-mal or dar al-awqaf), but strategies for expenditure and distribution are not always clear and are often unrelated to the realities and needs of the area. Moreover, the funds are very often used to finance building projects (e.g., mosques, centers), rather than to provide direct support to people, who are then helped in a very perfunctory way, with no precise consideration and no purpose beyond alleviating a financial difficulty here and there. Ultimately, it is the social philosophy as a whole that leads to this way of acting and maintaining only the outward form of zakat, which is thus undermined and even betrayed. As we have said, zakat is first and foremost an obligation that requires a systematic approach: to respect the “rights of the poor” in a given society is to limit the dysfunctions of that society in a specific way (e.g., unemployment, homelessness, disability, causes of instability and marginalization); one must start from these factors and decide on a logical strategy that will lead to autonomy rather than dependence; it is a matter of acquiring an in-depth knowledge of one’s community, its needs and its priorities, through close involvement or, in other words, thinking through the framework of a real social policy with principles, vision, and inner consistency. We are at present a long way from taking this approach.

With regard to the other principle—the prohibition of riba—we have already said that there is a formal prohibition against interest, and Muslims are called to distance themselves from anything that resembles it in any way. In this area, one single exception is made (except by the Hanafis), and, curiously, is presented as one of the priorities in Muslim communities in the West. This is borrowing from banks with interest in order to buy houses. The European Council for Research and Fatwas, and the League of Scholars of Sharia in the United States, by a majority rather than unanimously, have pronounced legal opinions that allow the use of this kind of credit. In brief, we may say that they rely in their pronouncements on two main considerations:

  1. The particular situation of Muslims concerning their need for secure accommodation as well as for financial security (the ownership of a house is in itself a considerable gain), which implies that the acquisition of a dwelling must be considered a constraining necessity (darura), or, more precisely a need (haja), which in the nature of things becomes a constraining necessity;
  2. The legal opinion of some scholars of note (among the most prominent is Abu Hanifa and his student Muhammad ibn Hasan alShaybani) who allowed the use of riba in dar al-harb in dealings with non-Muslims on the double condition that one is using this practice to protect the goods of Muslims and at the same time neither betraying nor deceiving the said partner to the transaction.

Not all scholars are in agreement with this view. The literalists and the great majority of the traditionalists (apart from those who follow the school of Abu Hanifa, who for the most part accept this ruling) reject this ruling and do not allow any departure from the absolute ban on riba. Among those who subscribe to the reformist school, reservations have been expressed as to whether the need to buy property is really “constraining” (since it is possible to rent), and also, with some reason, with regard to the basic contradiction implicit in referring to dar al-harb (abode of war) in these specific circumstances when these same bodies (the European Council and the League) have generally (with regard to citizenship and patriotic allegiance) stated forcefully that the West is not an “abode of war.”

What is disturbing, beyond this immediate debate on what is always a very sensitive subject among Muslims, is that people are interested primarily in buying houses while it is the whole relationship with the dominant economic system that poses the deeper and more complex problem. To allow borrowing from banks on the ground that there is a “constraining necessity” in the matter of housing while keeping silent about financial and economic considerations that are so much more serious and that touch the daily lives of a much more significant number of Muslims than those who would like to buy a property is surprising and in the end illogical. What Muslims in the West are in painful need of today is a global approach that would make it possible for them not only to live but to develop a spirit of economic initiative and creativity capable of putting forward concrete alternatives aimed at extricating them from the system through financial independence, rather than remaining spectators resigned to their own powerlessness. This is the level at which urgent commitment is needed. Constant ad hoc solutions and adaptations are methods that, as we have said, affirm the dominant system of speculation and interest more than they resist it. Our ethics require us to commit ourselves to an indepth and radical resistance.

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