6 Striving In God’s Way

Just as I was properly entering full-time employment some years back, a dear relative pleaded with me not to punctuate by working days with the prayers at midday, mid-afternoon and sunset. My employers, she contended, would not look favourably upon one who set aside a few minutes away from his desk each day to cast his mind back beyond the heavens. Such behaviour could not possibly be good for me at this stage in my career when my whole future was at stake.

I did not wish to be dismissive, but the memory of a university student—the friend of a friend—from my period in Scotland was weighing on me. The young man, barely 20-years old, returned home from college one evening complaining of a headache; within two hours he had left this life having suffered a sudden brain seizure. Nobody saw it coming; nobody anticipated that such a thing could come to pass. My fear, I told my relative, was not being ready should my moment come. A few months earlier I met a friend who was slowly recovering after an accident in which a van had ploughed into him, throwing him from his bicycle and leaving him with horrific injuries. A few months later I learned that a woman who had completed her degree at the same time as me had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and was dying. This spectre of sudden illness and the unforeseen accident sharply reminded me that I did not know when my end would come. I cannot afford to wait until I am old and grey—because my whole future is at stake. To pray five times a day is a matter of religious Law. After belief in God it is the most rewarding act of worship. The Prophet taught his followers that the bond between them that separated them from the rest of mankind was prayer, and his companions said that they knew of nothing which if neglected would lead to disbelief except this. If I chose to abandon the prayers that fall within working hours for the sake of career development, what then would be left? To worship God is to obey Him.

The Muslim who sets out to study Islamic jurisprudence will spend weeks focusing on the times of prayer, on ritual purification, the particulars of the prayer itself and the specific prayers on Fridays, in Ramadan, when travelling, when asking for rain and so on. Sharia—the Islamic way—is taught in sequence, centring on the key elements first. Students learn of the aspects of belief—belief in God, the angels, the Prophets a and the revealed books—and then move on to cover purification, prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage. For some this is almost all they will learn, for these are the obligatory duties of every Muslim, but others will move on to study rulings concerning vows and oaths, matters of marriage and divorce, of business transactions, of inheritance and of wills and testaments. Those destined to become judges and scholars will inevitably move far beyond this, but those topics are of little concern to the ordinary man and woman.

Why, I asked, should any Christian be troubled by this? Their forefathers did not set the Law aside because of the inconvenience it caused them or for the reason of distaste, but purely as a consequence of their theology as in Paul’s letter to the Galations: ‘Now that no man is justified by the Law in the sight of God, is evident: for the righteous shall live by faith.’[footnote]Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 3:11.[/footnote] The character around whom their beliefs revolve adhered to the Law himself: ‘until heaven and earth pass away,’ they believe he said, ‘not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.’[footnote]Gospel of Matthew 5:18.[/footnote] Christians do not argue that the Law their saviour adhered to was erroneous, only that their faith in him supplanted it.

To worship God is the very purpose of life for the Muslim and Islam is the transport towards this end. Tawhid—the unity and sovereignty of God—is the key principle of Islam upon which every other matter is dependent:

As the word in its literal sense signifies, it is a relationship with the Only One that excludes a similar relationship with anyone else. Tawhid is man’s commitment to God, the focus of all his reverence and gratitude, the only source of value. What God desires of man becomes value for him, the end of human endeavour.[footnote]A Ghazali and S Omar (eds.), Readings in the Concept and Methodology of Islamic Economics (Pelanduk Publications, 1989), p.10.[/footnote]

The source of value for the Muslim who seeks to meet the objectives of tawhid is found in the Qur’an and the sunna. Both sources combine to make up the Law—the sum of legal provisions designed to realise the moral values and norms of an Islamic life.[footnote]AM Sadeq, Economic Development in Islam (Pelanduk Publications, 1990), p.1.[/footnote] Yet in wider society Islam is regarded as a structure that must be reformed—if not ignored—if the real betterment of people’s lives is to be achieved. Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s are popular words, cited with increasing frequency as the debate on the role of religion intensifies, but who will accommodate those who say that that which is God’s is more than private prayer?

It has become fashionable to view religion both as a source and manifestation of backwardness in human society. Barely does a day go by without a journalist or social commentator scrutinising the actions of religious folk in the modern world, their tone often mournful and curt.The reformation, the truth of evolution, the feminist revolution and the success of capitalism were all supposed to have pushed religion to the margins, replacing superstition with the supremacy of scientific rationalism. Secularists asserted that it is for man to create the structures by which he lives and dies, for him to define who he is and who he wants to be. Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, insist those who deride the rest of scripture. As a friend at work reminded me one morning—taking advantage of the late arrival of our colleagues—religion has no place in this enlightened era. Religion is the primary cause of underdevelopment and a hindrance to social progress; it is man alone that must reform and modernise society.

Why can’t Muslims be more like Christians, ask the more nostalgic commentators who seek to counter the immoderation of some of their counterparts, promoting accommodation rather than dismissive contempt: why won’t Muslims recognise that religion is a personal matter? Why don’t Muslims recognise, as post-reformation Christians have, that truth is not derived from divine revelation, but is determined by what can be achieved by it? Belief is a personal affair to be tried and tested, for human reason is the ultimate authority, knowledge the mere product of his sense and perceptions. Islam, like Christianity before it, is in need of reform if Muslim societies are to advance, their citizens appropriating the enlightened mores of today’s utopias. It was only a reformed Christianity, argued some of the 19thcentury philosophers oblivious of the age to come, that created conditions fertile for economic development: Calvinist Protestantism considered hard work a form of worship, while its Lutheran equal saw the fulfilment of duty in worldly affairs as the highest form which the moral activity of the individual could assume. It was reformed Christianity, not the seizure of resources in colonised lands, that gave rise to economic development. If only the Muslims would realise this, they too would reap these fruit.

Why can’t Muslims be more like Christians and recognise that religion is a personal matter to be confined to the home and place of worship? Religion is a warm feeling inside; beyond that, it is the source of injustice and oppression in the world. Indeed, religion is a symptom of oppression: ‘Man makes religion,’ stipulates irreligious criticism, ‘religion does not make man’.[footnote]K Marx, Contributions to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law, quoted in J Elster (ed.), Karl Marx: a Reader (Cambridge University Press, 1986), p.301.[/footnote] Religion is but a reflex of the real world:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people. … To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness.[footnote]Ibid.[/footnote]

The contemporary preoccupation with viewing religion as a cause and symptom of backwardness is in fact nothing new. Some of yesterday’s atheists went beyond mockery—‘science has liberated us from believing in sky pixies’—and built societies in which religion really did have no place. Lenin held that religion was a form of spiritual oppression, a mechanism which weighed down heavily on the majority of people: rather than motivating people to better their lives, it taught the exploited classes to await the next world passively, taking comfort in the hope of heavenly reward.[footnote]V Lenin, On Religion (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1978), p.8.[/footnote] Thus the early years of the 20th century saw religion ridiculed by the League of the Militant Godless in the Soviet Union, while atheism was promulgated through education and the media. Although Albania under Enver Hoxha was alone in actually banning religion, other countries played an active role in persecuting religious leaders, institutions and the ordinary believer.

It is true that the most vulnerable members of society are often the first to make up religious followings, but far from it being a defeated sigh, the phenomenon can be seen as a manifestation of empowerment. In Rwanda in east Africa, the number of Muslims has doubled since the genocide of 1994 and now they make up 14 per cent of the population. A large number of them say they adopted Islam after witnessing the role played in the massacres by some Catholic and Protestant leaders. While thousands were slaughtered even as they sought refuge beneath church roofs, Muslim families and the leaders of their communities hid and guarded many of those who could escape:

‘If it weren’t for the Muslims, my whole family would be dead,’ said Aisha Uwimbabazi, 27, a convert and mother of two children. ‘I was very, very thankful for Muslim people during the genocide…’[footnote]E Wax, Islam Attracting Many Survivors of Rwanda Genocide—Jihad Is Taught as ‘Struggle to Heal’ (Washington Foreign Post Service, 23 September 2002), p.A10.[/footnote]

Similarly it is thought that their growing awareness of social degradation motivated thousands of untouchable caste Harijan Hindus in several villages in Tinnevelly district of Tamil Nadu in India to embrace Islam years earlier.[footnote]PQ Ufford and M Schoffeleers (eds.), Religion and Development:Towards an Integrated Approach (Free University Press, 1988), p.167.[/footnote] For many, religion is a theology of liberation, but reservations about its role in society remain. While mainstream Christianity considers relief work a crucial constituent of true faith, one author proves that some interpretations are less than positive, as in his description of the phenomenon of Dispensationalist theology which actively encourages its adherents to believe that they should submit to adversity passively:

In 1989 I heard a pastor in Greenville, Liberia, preach on Revelation 6, 1-8, a passage which deals with four horsemen given authority over a quarter of the earth ‘to kill by the sword, by famine, by plague and by wild beasts’. He claimed that this text was being fulfilled at that very time. He linked the prophecy of famine with Liberia’s food shortages … Rice was said to be scarce because it was God’s plan; since it was God’s plan, nothing could be done about it… The Christian’s role in these circumstances was merely to trust in Jesus…[footnote]P Gifford, Christian Fundamentalism and Development (Review of African Political Economy 52, 1991), p.11.[/footnote]

The role of religion in society is far more complex than many of us wish to acknowledge. We cannot generalise about the irreligious—my friend who designs particle accelerators for a living has beliefs entirely distinct from those of my old Marxist flatmate—but it is apparently acceptable to simplify the interactions of creed and community. The demand that Islam be reformed because that was the path taken by western Christianity supposes an experience of history that is universal. We must suppress religion, argue some of its detractors, for religion suppressed the pursuit of science. Indeed an industry has developed over recent years whose very aim is to write-off the beliefs of religious folk, placing science in one camp and religion in the other.Yet, in truth, it was only a particular strand of Christianity during a particular period of its history that proved resistant to scientific exploration. The contribution of Muslim scholars to the fields of economy, engineering, geography, mathematics, medicine and science over several hundred years whilst Europe lingered in its Dark Ages is well documented. There was consensus amongst Muslim scholars nine centuries ago, for example, that the Earth is round like an ostrich egg, not flat like a pancake. The hospitals of the medieval Muslim world, meanwhile, were renowned for their advances in healthcare. That the Muslim physician Ibn Al-Nafis explained the basic principles of pulmonary circulation nearly 350 years before the birth of Sir William Harvey, who is credited with first proposing the theory in Europe, is but one of hundreds of examples of systematic exploration in the pre-enlightenment age. Islam itself teaches that the acquisition of knowledge is obligatory for all Muslim men and women.

Where does this leave us? In exactly the same position, apparently. Though the Muslim argues that the current social morass is the natural consequence of the neglect of Islam’s teachings—over the past two centuries Muslims have experimented with nationalism and socialism in its place—a different paradigm prevails. Sociologists charge Islam with being the source of discrimination against women. Strategists blame it for the rise of militancy. Secular economists insist that it is a negative influence on the development of society. It is the antithesis of progressiveness, they claim, and thus irrelevant to industrial civilisation.

I beg to differ, for care for one’s neighbour lies at the heart of a God-centred society. Although policy-makers place emphasis on social well-being and the needs of the poor in general, it remains the case that economic growth is widely held to be society’s primary concern. A nation that views economic growth as an end in itself may fail to satisfy the deeper needs of its people, but the failure to achieve growth may have the same consequences. In the absence of great wealth, development is dependent on growth:

Clearly, if a whole population is desperately poor, growth is the only way any of them (let alone all) will ever be able to have their plight eased. If only a part of the population is desperately poor, growth permits the suffering of the poor to be alleviated without penalising the non-poor as much as would have been the case without growth.[footnote]P Hall, Growth and Development: An Economic Analysis (Oxford: Martin Robertson, 1983), p.4.[/footnote]

Long-term growth is the aim of all major economies, whether it is an end in itself or, as is more likely, the means of securing public welfare. Rich economies concentrate on controlling resources in order to achieve optimum productivity, manipulating interest rates to control capital funds and to decrease borrowing expenditure, so as to allow the government to guide the economy to meet its current needs. At times of high unemployment, monetary policy may aim to develop economic activity in order to lower its rate. Under the Keynesian model it is said that increased capital supply contributes to lowering interest rates; where interest rates rise, the incentive to save increases, while incentive to invest decreases. Increased investment causes a rise in demand, which in turn should lead to increased economic activity.[footnote]MP Todaro, Economic Development (Longman, 1997), p.609.[/footnote]

The Qur’an is not a treatise of political economy but it has been noted that more than 1,400 of its 6,226 verses refer to economic issues. On economic growth, one author has noted that several verses encourage the exploitation of resources so that poverty is minimised, while income and wealth increases, although the accumulation of wealth is tied to particular conditions.[footnote]AM Sadeq, Economic Development in Islam (Pelanduk Publications, 1990), p.5.[/footnote] Wealth is permissible only when it is obtained through legal means defined by Islamic Law; wealth acquired through gambling, the sale of alcohol or illegal drugs or from interest, for example, is considered haram.

Long before the Make Poverty History campaign caught the public imagination—its huge momentum so famously derailed by four bombs on the London transport system in July 2005— another global movement was calling for the cancellation of the unpayable debts of the world’s poorest countries.At the turn of the millennium, Africa was said to be paying $200 million every week just to service its debts. ‘The debts are unjust, unpayable and are killing too many people,’ lamented Jubilee 2000, ‘The cards are stacked against the poor. We’ve got to change the system, to put an end to this injustice.’ Thus, in more than 120 countries, trade unions, charities, religious groups and community organisations came together with a unified retort; a call that the debt be dropped.

There is no doubt that this was a noble cause. It is claimed that Benin used more than 50 per cent of the money saved through debt relief to fund healthcare, while Tanzania was able to abolish primary school fees which led to an increase in attendance of more than 60 per cent.The work of Jubilee 2000 was indeed commendable. Yet for those of us familiar with religious law it does seem that we are missing something.While calling for the cancellation of existing debts, there is a much larger injustice about which we have fallen silent.

For several years, low income countries paid about $2.30 to service their debts for every $1 received in grant aid. In her well-known book, A Fate Worse Than Debt, Susan George called interest rates the ‘bane of Third World debtors’ existence’.[footnote]S George, A Fate Worse than Debt (Penguin Books, 1994), p.27.[/footnote] Interest lies at the heart of the matter. The first loans to Africa, Asia and South America came from the World Bank and foreign governments, targeted at development projects and the expansion of capital goods imports and were tied to relatively low interest rates. It is ironic that the newly oil-rich Muslim countries of the Middle East should be responsible, even if indirectly, for the crisis of later years.

In the 1970s, commercial banks inexperienced in dealing with poor countries found themselves holding excess capital from Opec’s oil price partnership and thus provided variable-rate loans based on market rates. Interest rates followed market fluctuations and, largely as a result of the US Federal Reserve tightening monetary policy against inflation in the 1980s, they quickly rose from negative to positive levels. Consequently, as debt repayments suffered, the commercial banks withdrew from further lending to protect their own interests. The result of continued high interest rates, combined with a decline in commercial bank lending, was the paradox that the recipient countries were paying out more finance servicing payments than they received as borrowing.

Although some progress has already been made towards realising its goal, the Jubilee Debt Campaign, as it is now known, is demanding a complete end to the injustice of what has been termed the ‘Third World debt crisis’. Admirable, indeed, but is it not time that we addressed the issue at the heart of this crisis? The movement’s name derives from the Hebrew Bible, for the jubilee was a time when debts would be forgiven. In The Times in 1998, the late Roman Catholic Archbishop Cardinal Hume wrote: ‘The prospect of reducing the burden of debt has profound theological resonance.’[footnote]B Hume, Forgive the poorest their debts—now (The Times, 14 May 1998).[/footnote] A step further could have equally heartfelt significance, for in this crisis there is an inkling of a matter that was always treated with due concern by Church theologians through the ages.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam have much in common, one example of which is a prohibition on the consumption or charge of interest. Traditionally all three faiths held that contracting a transaction involving interest was a major sin. The Law in the Pentateuch states that an Israelite may not exact interest from his poor brother on a loan given to him. A Jewish court would reject a contract based on usury made between Jews. In the Psalms it is written that one who does not put his money out to usury will remain unshaken. In Ezekiel, a righteous man is one who ‘never lends either at discount or at interest, but shuns injustice and deals fairly between one person and another’; a loan in interest, meanwhile, is considered amongst a list of abominations.[footnote]See Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:36; Psalms 15:5; Ezekiel 18:8 and 18:13. Also JDM Derrett, Loans and Interest in DM Metzger and MD Coogan (eds.), The Oxford Companion to the Bible (Oxford University Press, 1993), p.463.[/footnote]

Similarly, Christians made reference to the Gospel of Luke which advises believers to lend without expecting a return.The Encyclical of Pope Benedict xiv of 1745 stated, ‘The nature of the sin called usury has its proper place and origin in a loan contract.’ He went on, ‘One cannot condone the sin of usury by arguing that the gain is not great or excessive, but rather moderate or small; neither can it be condoned by arguing that the borrower is rich; nor even by arguing that the money borrowed is not left idle, but is spent usefully…’[footnote]Luke 6:35. Also Encyclical of Pope Benedict XIV promulgated on 1 November 1745 at St. Mary Major, Rome (www.ewtn.com/library).[/footnote]

As for Muslims, the Qur’an states, ‘Those who devour usury will not stand except as stand one whom the devil by his touch has driven to madness. That is because they say: trade is like usury, but God has permitted trade and forbidden usury…’[footnote]Qur’an 2:275.[/footnote]

The prohibition of interest—riba in Arabic—is mentioned in five verses of the Qur’an and condemned several times within the sunna. Our blessed Prophet confirmed this when he said, ‘A dirham which a man knowingly receives in usury is more serious a sin than 36 acts of adultery.’[footnote]Hadith recorded in the collection of Tirmidhi.[/footnote] Some authors have argued that this prohibition does not refer to interest in general, but refers to the pre-Islamic practice of doubling an overdue debt.[footnote]M Rodinson, Islam and Capitalism (Penguin Books, 1974), p.14 and T Kuran in KS Jomo (ed.), Islamic Economic Alternatives. Critical Perspectives and New Directions (Macmillan, 1992), p.27.[/footnote] This argument, however, is divergent from the consensus of Islamic opinion: it is akin to stating that only some alcoholic drinks are prohibited because the Qur’an uses the word khamr which refers to a specific kind of drink made from grapes. Islamic jurists are agreed that riba refers to an excess of money demanded over the principal sum loaned for a specified period of time in financial transactions.

It should not be difficult to appreciate how a disassociation from interest would have the greatest theological resonance, but we actually find that most people are ignorant of this tradition. Although a distinction between usury and interest was rejected by both Luther and Phillip Melanchthon, Calvin’s separation of the two gradually gained acceptance amongst both Protestants and Catholics.Thus, today, in a global economy based on interest, few give the matter a second thought. Indeed this is surely the age that the Prophet spoke of when he said, ‘A time is certainly coming to mankind when only the receiver of usury will remain and if he does not receive it, some of its smoke will reach him.’[footnote]Hadith recorded in the collection of Abu Dawud.[/footnote] It is time that we stopped skirting around the issue. It is not just the debts which are unjust, unpayable and which are killing too many people, as the Drop the Debt campaign argued. It has been noted that income generated by interest is seen to create a rentier class that becomes a burden on the progress of society as a whole and leads to waste in productive potential. In simple terms, it is viewed as being unjust; because it is the poor who are usually debtors, the likelihood of them gaining from interest is extremely low. All of us would do well to support this admirable and worthwhile campaign, but we should recognise that it is only part of the solution. If we—believers of the Abrahamic faiths—really want to change the system, we may have to concede that it is time to stick Calvin’s separation back together again and that maybe—just maybe—the ancients had it right after all.

‘And so you would have us live in a primitive society,’ retorts the economist.

‘I would have us live in a fairer society,’ I might reply, for I recognise that the way we live comes at a price. When I speak of my concern about the cost of our wants, I do not do so as an untainted Luddite living a lifestyle untouched by modernity–I own a computer, a washing machine, a mobile phone and various other gadgets—but rather as an uncomfortable technophile. Consider the life cycle of tantalum alone, which is used to manufacture capacitors which maintain the flow of current in electronic devices. This valuable commodity is refined from colombo-tantalite, also known as coltan, which is mined in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo which holds 80 per cent of the world’s deposits.

In the mid-1990s, Ugandan and Rwandan armed forces moved into the Congolese regions that have the highest mining yields, took control of them and continue to maintain a monopoly there, making them in excess of $20 million a month during a period of bloody war involving nine African nations and directly affecting the lives of 50 million people. Between August 1998 and April 2004, when most of the fighting occurred, it is estimated that 3.8 million people died. Despite vast mineral exports it is one of the most impoverished nations on earth.

Our desire for the latest gadget—even when it does not add any value over the models it replaces—is fuelling this conflict, even if we hate to acknowledge it. It has been said that the highest-selling mobile phone with touch screen controls and exquisite branding, contains three times the quantity of tantalum than the handsets of its competitors; even if this tantalum was mined in Colombia, the demand for coltan naturally maintains the mining frenzy in Congo.

In Britain a political economy has developed in which many of us have convinced ourselves that we must always have something new—the latest mobile phone, better furniture, new clothes—and a culture of credit has been promoted to support it. Several times a month I receive letters from credit card and personal loan companies, suggesting that I might buy myself a new car or go on an exotic holiday if I signed up to take advantage of their attractive product. We are sold on the perpetual upgrade, although we are well aware that resources are finite, and we demand an economy that will always sustain much more than our needs.

There is an alternative, for history proves that wealthy societies have existed in the absence of economies based on interest, given autonomous control of resources. On the small scale an institution known as ‘udha sale was used as a substitute for interest in the Hadramawy region of Yemen in the 19th century. Based on the revocable sale of the custody of property, this allowed Muslims to take credit without violating the prohibition.[footnote]L Boxberger, Avoiding Riba: Credit and Custodianship in Nineteenthand Early Twentieth Century Hadramawt (Islamic Law and Society 5/2, 1998), p.196.[/footnote] In contemporary literature on Islamic economics the main alternative to the use of interest is the principle of profit and loss sharing, the most important of which is known as mudaraba. This is a long-term precautionary saving facility which gives depositors a share of the bank’s profits; in circumstances of loss the depositors do not win a profit share, but their deposit is guaranteed against liquidation. Profit and loss sharing is a useful economic framework that has been practised for thousands of years: ‘In many markets and for various types of lenders, borrowers, savers, and investors,’ wrote one economist, ‘profit and loss sharing is the preferred mechanism for allocating returns even when interest is a legally available option.’[footnote]Kuran in KS Jomo (ed.), Islamic Economic Alternatives. Critical Perspectives and New Directions (Macmillan, 1992), p.31.[/footnote]

Yet as Pope Paul VI pointed out in his Populorum Progressio, development cannot be confined to economic growth alone: it should promote human welfare and spiritual growth.[footnote]R Charles and D Maclaren, The Social Teachings of Vatican II: Its Origin and Development—Catholic Social Ethics: an historical and comparative study (Plater Publications, 1982), p.334 detailing Populorum Progressio, the Encyclical Of Pope Paul VI, On The Development Of Peoples, 26 March 1967.[/footnote] While there are many approaches to the definition of human welfare, a common strand focuses on basic needs which address the absolutely poor. Recognising the failure of economic growth to alleviate poverty in developing countries many development economists adopted a basic needs approach beginning in the 1970s with the aim of ensuring that everyone has access to enough basic goods and services to maintain a level of living above a basic minimum.[footnote]Stewart, Basic Needs Strategies, Human Rights, and the Right to Development (Human Rights Quarterly 11, 1989), p.347.[/footnote] The sum of individual utilities is usually taken as the measure of social welfare and a measure of poverty is often lowness of income. The World Bank defines poverty as the inability of an individual to attain a minimum standard of living, but it has been argued that it makes more sense to view poverty as capability deprivation, taking the freedom an individual has to avoid hunger or homelessness into account.

Although the family is considered the basic social unit within the framework of Islam, its role is rarely studied in contemporary literature on Islamic economics. Traditionally it only became the responsibility of an Islamic government to meet the needs of its subjects when the family and the community were unable do so, although structures of social welfare were well established in the medieval Muslim world.[footnote]Waqf trust institutions, for example, funded the establishment and administration of hospitals and schools from the seventh century onwards. Some commentators have noted its similarities to English trust law, which may have been influenced by the waqf institutions encountered during the Crusades of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.[/footnote] The family fulfils a number of functions in Islam and its establishment is also considered a form of worship.

In 1979 a secular theory of income distribution was proposed in which the family was considered key, as both the social unit within which individual incomes are wholly or partially pooled and the means through which abilities, attitudes and property rights are inherited, for it was noted that a function of the large traditional family was the provision of welfare services for its weaker members.[footnote]H Lydall, A Theory of Income Distribution (Clarendon Press, 1979), p.265.[/footnote]

In the Islamic context, the family is defined as a group of people related by blood or marriage, with marriage its central institution. While it is of course fair to acknowledge that there exists a ‘gross abuse of Islamic family laws among some uninformed Muslim groups,’[footnote]AR Omran, Family Planning in the Legacy of Islam (Routledge, 1992), p.40.[/footnote] it remains the case that all responsibilities regarding the welfare of the family lie with the husband or father. Consequently a man is forbidden from contracting in marriage if he is unable to maintain a family, although there is nothing to prevent a wife who is willing to work from contributing if her husband’s income is insufficient to sustain a decent standard of living. Maintenance in the form of the provision of food, clothing, a place of residence, medicine and other essential services is the right of every wife and her children. The Prophet said, ‘Among the believers who show most perfect faith are those who have the best disposition, and are kindest to their families.’[footnote]Hadith reported in the collection of Tirmidhi.[/footnote]

In theory, resources are not pooled within the Islamic family structure, but are dispersed from a single source. Even if a woman earns her own income or owns property, the responsibility of welfare provision lies with her husband, while she may choose to invest her wealth or use it for personal consumption. It may be suggested that this places a high burden of responsibility on just one family member, particularly in the case of very poor communities, but it is balanced to some degree by the rules of inheritance which take the gender-based contribution into consideration. This is extended further with the recognition that welfare cannot be considered only in financial terms and that welfare provision must be translated into actual family well-being.

When individuals are unable to meet the maintenance targets prescribed by Islamic Law other frameworks come into play. The concept of zakat enjoys great prominence within the literature on Islamic economics as it is considered a pillar of Islam along with prayer, fasting and pilgrimage. Normally referred to as obligatory charity, it is the means through which an Islamic government provides for the needs of the desperately poor.

Every Muslim who possesses more than a specified minimum is required to give two and a half per cent of their net wealth as zakat to the government. In Pakistan it is discharged by local zakat committees which function at the grass-roots level.[footnote]SA Peerzade, The Definition and Measurement of Poverty: An Integrated Islamic Approach (The Pakistan Development Review 36/1, 1997), p.93.[/footnote] In other areas, particularly where Muslims are in a minority, it is collected from voluntary contributions and distributed by charitable organisations such as Islamic Relief.

A number of writers have identified issues with the contemporary implementation of zakat, such as its interpretation by modern literalists.[footnote]Y Qaradawi, Islamic Awakening between Rejection and Extremism (The International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1993), pp.53-54 and T Kuran in KS Jomo (ed.), Islamic Economic Alternatives. Critical Perspectives and New Directions (Macmillan, 1992), pp.22-23.[/footnote] It has been noted that some have restricted the commodities covered by zakat to those that were identified during the time of the Prophet alone despite the fact that in the period that followed, further elements were considered: during the Prophet’s lifetime, for example, horses were exempt from zakat, but by the time of the early Muslim ruler Umar I, it was extended to include them due to the rise of a horse trade. The form of zakat proposed by some literalists would serve a major redistributative function only in a primitive agricultural economy, for where no attention is paid to the industrial and service sectors of contemporary economies the burden is met primarily by low-income individuals and not the very wealthy. It has been argued, however, that the sources make the rendering of zakat much more inclusive than acknowledged by some contemporary literalists. There is consensus amongst the scholars, for example, that paying zakat on stock, merchandise and shares is obligatory.

I firmly believe that religion has an important role to play in modern society. The acquaintance that approached me early one morning with his appeal for all religions to be banned later went on to discuss what he termed the plight of Africa with another colleague, reciting a predictable list of woes: debt, corruption and the spread of Aids. I wondered about the role of religion. The Messenger of God warned his community of the deeds that lay the foundation for corruption, injustice and tyranny. Similarly, he told his followers: ‘If fornication becomes widespread, then realise that this never happened without new diseases befalling people that their ancestors never suffered from.’[footnote]From a longer hadith in the collection of Ibn Majah.[/footnote] We were counselled on the consequences of consuming interest and devouring the rights of others, and have been commanded to give to the poor, to look after widows and orphans, to carry another’s burden, to value water and respect the earth. It is, of course, easy to point fingers at the other, but what of our situation?

In 2006, there were 193,700 abortions in England and Wales, a rise of nearly four per cent on the previous year. Across the whole of the United Kingdom approximately 75,000 children are in the care of the state and the responsibility of local authorities—it was estimated that the government would need to spend at least £1.7 billion on foster care in 2006. Domestic violence accounts for 16 per cent of all violent crime in England and Wales and costs in excess of £23 billion per year, not to mention the lives of two women each week. More than two million British children are brought up in families where one or both parents have alcohol problems. Approximately 40 per cent of violent crime, 78 per cent of assaults and 88 of criminal damage cases occur whilst the offender is under the influence of alcohol. There were 139,680 hospital admissions of adults with a diagnosis of mental and behavioural disorders related to alcohol use in the period 2005-6. The total annual healthcare costs related to alcohol misuse is around £1.5 billion. According to figures published by the Bank of England in October 2007, a total of £216 billion was owed in unsecured personal loans and on credit cards in the United Kingdom, a rise of £1.35 billion over the previous month, while the total debt level for consumers had reached £1.38 trillion. The average consumer debt was over £3,000, while the average household debt, excluding mortgages, was almost £9,000.[footnote]All of these figures are taken from published Home OfficeNational Health Service, Local Government and Bank of England reports.[/footnote] Has man defining who he is and who he wants to be improved the way we live our lives?

Travelling to Turkey over a number of years I found myself largely in the company of loud and often rude secularists who chain-smoked perpetually and frequently declared their dislike for Muslims. Apart from the elderly who still attended the mosque five times a day for prayer, even those Turks who would assign the label ‘Muslim’ to themselves freely drank alcohol and mocked their brethren with their atheist friends. One such person who was adamant that I sit next to him in the mosque on Eid one year, less than 12 hours after he made fun of me for not drinking alcohol, started to exclaim Al-Fatiha—the name of the opening chapter of the Qur’an—as a substitute for a swear word whilst watching football. Sure enough, I had met decent Muslims in Turkey, but not many whose teeth still graced their mouths or whose hair had not yet whitened. Instead, most of the people I met who were of my age, younger or into their middle-age followed the path of Ataturk which had become a new religion in its own right. Saddened, my depression came to a head one day whilst staying in a mountain settlement up above the clouds. Sitting in the white-walled mosque I scribbled my thoughts down in minute characters on a scrap of paper:

I feel frustrated in this once great Muslim land. It seems like the Turks I come into contact with have lost respect for their heritage, their land and themselves. There is no one under the age of fifty in the mosque—all the faces are aged and wrinkled, mostly ancient as if soon to pass from this world. Instead the middle-aged men spend their days drinking and gambling, mocking the religion of their forefathers. They do not believe in God or the Prophethood of Muhammad, they say; they believe in Ataturk. In respect for this cult they furiously attack the Muslims, ridiculing them to the best of their abilities. They refuse to say Salam because it is Arabca and insist instead on Merhaba, oblivious to its Arabic origin. They do not respect the culture which brought them beautiful mosques, gardens, homes and art—their culture is concrete apartments, satellite football and Raki.

Like their disrespect for their heritage they show how they do not care for their land. All around, the ground is littered with cans of Efes Pilsen. The streams sourced by natural springs are filled with detritus, plastic bags and cigarette packets. Beneath a sign which reads, ‘Water gives life, do not pollute it,’ the earth is hidden beneath more cans of beer. It is true that the earth will cleanse itself— when the snow comes in a month’s time the streams and land will be washed clean again by the melt that follows it—the huge boulders strewn across this landscape witness to the power of these waters when they come. But how will the people cleanse themselves when they have lost respect for their heritage and their land?

Later during that same visit, however, I caught a glimpse of another Turkey. A young generation of Muslims existed after all and I detected a whisper that there was a living Islam beyond my own community. The stagnation and opposition I had seen thus far was only one face of this once great Muslim land—a land that was once refuge to religious minorities escaping persecution in Europe. On my return two years later I was to discover that some of those hostile characters now fasted and prayed, quietly withdrawing as their friends reignited old arguments.

Frequently we are witness to great battles concerning mere ideas and look on as debates ensue over the definition of the construct of the moment. When our dignity is at stake, we are easily led. We only seek the pleasure of God, we tell ourselves, only for our inward gaze to observe a recurring pattern of response. There will be occasions when we are bombarded with propaganda set on defining for us the realms of civilisation. The best of us wish that its root referred to courtesy and politeness, but know that it does not. Our dictionaries provide a definition that describes an advanced stage or system of human social development. Politeness is, of course, a characteristic of advanced human social development, as is honesty, sincerity, kindness and generosity, but none of these are meant. The stage is set and we will respond accordingly.

I am troubled—I will say—by the fact that the civilised nations are spending vast sums of money on weapons. The United States of America’s Department of Defence alone had a budget of $437,111 billion in 2004. While it is true that this expenditure accounted for only four per cent of gross domestic product, its 2005 military budget was still greater than the combined total of the next 27 countries.

Interestingly, the United Kingdom—tiny beside the United States, China and Russia—spends almost as much as Japan and only slightly less than Russia and China: a figure close to $50 billion. The joint expenditure of these nations is 50 times greater than the combined total of Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria—those famous members of the ‘axis of evil’—and contributes to two-thirds of the total expenditure of the entire planet. In the case of the United States, these figures exclude their actions in Iraq and Afghanistan which are funded outside the Federal Budget.[footnote]See for example the SIPRI Year Book 2007, the CIA World Factbook 2008 and the World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers report.[/footnote]

Why—I will grumble—are the civilised nations spending billions on killing machines and on developing the most hideous weapons ever conceived? Consider the blu-82b/c-130 weapon system, nicknamed Commando Vault in Vietnam and Daisy Cutter in Afghanistan.[footnote]The Federation of American Scientists, Military Analysis Network (www.fas.org/man/dod-101)[/footnote] This is a 15,000-pound bomb based on explosive sludge that is dropped from high altitude to destroy an area between 300 and 900 feet radius. Or consider Fuel-Air Explosives which disperse an aerosol cloud of fuel which is ignited by an embedded detonator to produce an explosion that causes high overpressure. What kind of mind could conceive of such weapons—I will ask—and what sort of nation would fund them? In response to the latest assault on us, we will rush to our own defence with words like these.

Blessed are the meek, says the Bible, for they shall inherit the earth. A time comes when we realise that the labels assigned by those around us are worthless. Spending $500 billion—even $50 billion—on a war machine is not indicative of advanced human social development. Let the primitive nations rejoice: blessed are the humble, for they shall inherit the earth.

‘Don’t burden yourself with those prayers,’ my relative advised me, ‘for it will only count against you.’ I acknowledged those words patiently, but I did not take them to heart, for I have no idea when will come the moment my lungs no longer expand and my eyes no longer view the world around me. I have always found a way to fit them in, whether hiding in an empty meeting room or hurrying to a mosque in my lunch hour; for half of the year only the midday prayer falls within working hours. I could not afford a moment longer, I insisted, for my whole future was indeed at stake.

The prayer sums up my relationship with every deed enjoined upon the Muslims. Someone else could say that I should take to drinking alcohol for the sake of my career because it lies at the heart of effective networking between colleagues. Another person could say that my abstention from taking interest will only disadvantage me as I grow older. People could say anything, but my position would remain the same. ‘So if your religion asked you to blow yourself up,’ challenged another relative of mine one day, ‘I suppose you’d do that too.’ No, I replied, for the Law is not a collection of hypothetical scenarios: it holds that suicide is haram, while its ruling on the use of a bomb as a weapon—the medieval precedents were the use of catapults and Greek fire—is that it is also haram if it is used in a place where there are civilians because it kills and maims indiscriminately.[footnote]MA Al-Akiti, Defending the Transgressed by Censuring the Reckless Against the Killing of Civilians—Fatwa Against the Targeting of Civilians (2005), p.28.[/footnote]

To worship God is to obey Him. He knows what is best for us, for He is the Creator of all things. We know that 6,500 light years from Earth, stars are being forged in a tower of dust and gas—smoke in the words of the Qur’an—57 trillion miles high, but this stellar spire is only one structure amidst millions of other nebulae and galaxies, hanging with such beauty beneath the first heaven. When one truly reflects upon His creation— with today’s technology the most distant galaxies visible to us are around 12 billion light-years from Earth—we can only conclude that none is worthy of worship except God. To strive in God’s way is the only response that appears worthy, insignificant as it may seem in the grand scheme of life. We strive obediently in God’s way because it is the closest we come to worshipping Him in the manner that He deserves.

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