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The Moral Framework: From the Individual to the Collective

Fundamental Principles in Economics

By way of introduction, we must repeat here that the particular characteristic of Islamic rules in economic matters is the total, continuous, and inclusive link between this area and the moral sphere of reference. In fact, commercial and financial transactions between people are included and fed by the basic teaching of tawhid—the principle of the oneness of God— and they cannot be considered in the abstract, apart from their relation with it. Just as one turns toward God, just as one tries not to lie, not to deceive, so in the same way the rule is not to steal, to work for the good of humankind in the sight of God, to do good in the sight of God—always. It is impossible, from this perspective, to conceive of people as cogs in a machine, definable without reference to any ethical qualities, motivated only by their own interest, either producing or consuming, their actions assessed only quantitatively. Economic science, which considers itself as positive and has concentrated on the study of the famous homo economicus, is thus cut off from the Islamic point of view. To reduce a person to the mechanics of how, without any consideration of the ultimate why, is inconceivable, unless people are to be confused with “things,” simple tools, just links in the chain that constitutes society.

The Moral Framework: From the Individual to the Collective

In fact, even the most everyday, simple, and natural economic activity always contains a moral quality. Whether we look at production or consumption, it is the moral quality from which it derives its value, not in the first instance from performance in terms of productivity, profitability, or benefit in the broad sense. Every Qur’anic teaching in the sphere of economics revolves around this axis: production of evil, against the humanity of humankind, production leading to terror and the brutalization of the masses, is production at a loss, with no profitability before God, whatever the financial profits that may be achieved. The same is true of consumption: it goes into deficit if it forgets itself. There are innumerable verses in the Qur’an that link “economic” activity with the moral dimension of its ultimate purpose (through which it is linked with mindfulness of the Creator), and we may here cite three kinds of economic action:

Zakat. This is the third pillar of Islam, and its very essence reveals the importance of social involvement in the Muslim worldview. Zakat is clearly a tax on possessions and property, which must first be understood as an obligation before God. This levy “purifies” one’s goods on the religious, sacred, and moral levels. So the link with God, with Transcendence, with remembrance of the meaning and finiteness of life, is inscribed and actualized not only in being but in having, and in the relation each human being establishes with that fact. After the two declarations of faith (in the oneness of God, tawhid, and in the Prophet), and after the obligation of prayer, which establishes the link between the believer and the Creator, the social purification tax (zakat) projects the believer into the sphere of the community, which is thus permeated by Transcendence and the sacred. At the same time, what underpins zakat is a full and ethical conception of social organization and human relations: those who have possessions have duties; those who are unprovided for have rights before God and among men. Islam does not conceive of poverty as a normal feature of the social arena and does not envisage that the remedy for this distortion should be the free generosity of some toward others in the hope that the wealth of the rich and the destitution of the poor may somehow miraculously find a point of balance. The obligation of zakat puts this question into the realm of law and morality and cannot be left to anyone’s discretion. Social solidarity is part of the faith and is its most concrete testimony: to be with God is to be with people; this is the essence of the teaching of the third pillar of Islam.

Abu Bakr, the first successor of the Prophet, decided, against the advice of Umar, to fight the southern tribes who no longer wanted to fulfil the obligation of zakat. There can be no compromise on a question that arises, before God, from the right of the poor and hence from the responsibility of every society with a constitution. It cannot simply be a question of generosity; it is clearly a question of justice, and this notion must be defended in every human transaction. The point is that the rich, those who have possessions, must never forget, for in their property, as the Qur’an says, is “the right of the beggar and the disinherited.”

Personal Expenditure. Beyond the obligation of zakat, we find in Islamic teaching a large number of recommendations about the moral significance of personal expenditure. The management of one’s possessions can never be thought of as outside the meaning of being. We may distinguish in the Qur’an at least four aspects of the moral meaning of expenditure: to please God and make gifts along the way He sets us; to give fair measure; to struggle against egoism and acquisitiveness; and to learn discreetness.

TO PLEASE GOD AND MAKE GIFTS ALONG THE WAY HE SETS US. In theQur’anic Revelation are numerous references with this kind of reminder, among the most significant verses in this connection: “The [the believers] feed the poor, the orphan, the captive for the love of God, saying: ‘We feed you to please God alone (for the sake of his face); we do not expect any recompense or gratitude from you.’ In the next two verses, images that compare the “benefit” of giving in the way of God with the abundant life of nature, which offers its fruits without calculating: “The parable of those who spend their possessions for the sake of God is that of grain out of which grow seven ears, in every ear a hundred grains: for God grants manifold increase unto whom He wills; and God is infinite, all-knowing.” Further on: “The parable of those who spend their possessions out of a longing to please God, and out of their own inner certainty, is that of a garden on high fertile ground: a rainstorm smites it, and thereupon it brings forth its fruit; and if no rainstorm smites it, soft rain [falls upon it]. And God sees all that you do.” Faith is that intimate conviction that God sees what we do and knows the intention behind the way we dispose of our possessions. Maintaining this link with the Creator means directing all our financial activity toward goodness, transparency, and justice. It is to give and give again from our plenty, over and above zakat, in order to live with our rights in harmony with those of others.

GIVING FAIR MEASURE. It is not necessary to live like a hermit and to give everything without any sort of account. It cannot be right that we should make ourselves poor in order to achieve justice. A true gift is one that is motivated by moderation and awareness of limitations, as well as by responsibility. It is essential that a gift should be in fair measure: “Neither allow thy hand to remain shackled to thy neck, nor stretch it forth to the utmost limit [of thy capacity], lest thou find thyself blamed [by thy dependents] or even destitute”; “(The servants of the Merciful are) those who, when they spend on others, are neither lavish nor miserly and who find a fair measure between the two.” To give part of one’s time and one’s possessions is to give the means of a permanent commitment for one’s own sake and for the sake of others. Our spirit, our body, those close to us—all have rightful claims upon us to which we must respond, and out of this response is born the true gift of oneself to the other and to society as a whole: fair measure makes it possible to maintain what we need to sustain our own center in order better to be [in solidarity] with other people.

THE STRUGGLE AGAINST EGOISM AND ACQUISITIVENESS. The Qur’anic commandments on this point aim in the same direction and complement what has just been said. To neglect giving and to protect one’s possessions to the point of burying them is to forget God and to treat one’s possessions like an idol. It means that one is preoccupied with counting, when what is needed is prayer and purifying oneself from this natural tendency to egoism: “Those who guard themselves from their own greed, those are they who succeed.” The Revelation has some hard words for acquisitive people. The image of a hereafter of suffering is meant to awaken the conscience to the seriousness of an attitude that borders on idolatry and whose consequences we see every day: “as for all who lay up treasures of gold and silver and do not spend them for the sake of God—give them the tiding of grievous suffering [in the life to come]: on the Day when that [hoarded wealth] shall be heated in the fire of hell and their foreheads and their sides and their backs branded therewith, [those sinners shall be told] ‘these are the treasures which you have laid up for yourselves! Taste, then, [the evil of] your hoarded treasures!’

LEARNING DISCRETION. There is a constant reminder of this in the Qur’an. Humankind is asked to find the measure in which it will give and to remain discreet and respectful of others. Indeed, one’s way of giving is in itself a testimony of faith: if you have no need to be seen by others, it is a sign that you know God is always with you. Discretion also safeguards the dignity of those you help: “If you do deeds of charity openly, it is well; but if you bestow it upon the needy in secret, it will be even better for you, and it will atone for some of your bad deeds. And God is aware of all that you do. Again we find an image drawn from nature to express the perversity and vanity of giving alms in order to be noticed: “O you who have attained to faith! Do not deprive your charitable deeds of all worth by stressing your own benevolence and hurting [the feeling of the needy], as does he who spends his wealth only to be seen and praised by men, and believes not in God and the Last Day: for his parable is that of a smooth rock with [a little] earth upon it—and then a rainstorm smites it and leaves it hard and bare.” This should be the attitude of humankind: to struggle for the rights of all to be respected and to make gifts of one’s possessions silently and discreetly. This duty to be discreet is more important than it may appear: it bears the mark of respect for people’s dignity in all circumstances, even the most intimate. The aim is to prevent evil, to give before the poor need to beg, and to try to avoid being seen by anyone so that no one has to be embarrassed or look the other way for no reason. When society does not give what its members are entitled to have, the more affluent among them must express the greatness of this principle of dignified generosity. The Qur’an constantly paints this landscape, which must not be forgotten in our personal economic management.

These four aspects of personal expenditure are moral qualities that give direction to human action. When we are mindful of God, we can discern easily that this action takes place in a sacred dimension because it expresses immediately—in the sense of without mediation—the link with Transcendence. It embodies an ultimate purpose, a meaning, and this meaning is clearly the expression of the morality of the action and thus of elementary, normal, everyday economic activity.

Collectivity. The teaching that can be deduced concerning the individual and the collective flows from what has just been said about zakat and personal expenditure. It is impossible to live, to bear witness, to pray, to fast, to make the pilgrimage alone, apart from other people and thinking only of oneself. Once again, to be with God is to be with other people: to bear the faith is to bear responsibility for social commitment at every moment. The teaching that must be understood from zakat could not be more explicit: to possess is to have the duty to share. It is impossible shamelessly to accumulate possessions in the name of personal freedom when it leads to exploitation and social injustices; it is impossible, too, to forget the interests of society as a whole and consider only one’s own. Of course, people are free, but they are responsible for this freedom before God and other people. This responsibility is undeniably moral: according to this morality, to be free means to protect the freedom and dignity of others. The four practical pillars of Islam have, as we have seen, this double dimension—individual and communal. The essence of Islamic teaching lies along this path between these two extremes: either to put first individuals and their own interests and so create a social space that may turn into a jungle, no matter how lofty the speeches that may be made, or to give priority to the group and to the society and to deny the specificity, the hopes, and desires of each individual by creating a structure that binds and alienates, no matter how many plans there may be for development. A difficult balance, but it is the only way to respond to the demand of the Creator, who expects each person alone to bear responsibility for his or her community life. On the economic level, it is the only way that allows one to live humanly, taking into account the exchanges we cannot do without. Here, as in other areas, there are rights, and so there are also duties. Islam claims, with all the moral energy of its message, that a human economy without duties is an inhumane economy that organizes, produces, and structures injustice, discrimination, exploitation, and famine. No jungle on earth is home to such horror.

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