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 Social Justice in Islam    by Professor A. R. Momin

The Islamic view of economic and human resources

According to the Islamic view, all resources have been created by God for the sake and humans (Quran 31:20; 57:7). These resources are for the benefit of all mankind and not for just a few individuals, families or groups (Quran 2:29). Man is therefore urged to partake of God-given resources (7:32; 28:77). Livelihood is described in the Quran as God's bounty (Quran 2:198; 5:4; 17:66; 28:2; 62:10). The Prophet is reported to have said: "Seek for your family legitimate means of livelihood, for this is a jihad (holy war) in the cause of God." The Prophet condemned indolence, dependency and beggary and emphasized that one should earn his livelihood through his own effort. One of the comprehensive prayers in the Quran says. "Our Lord! Give us what is good in this world and in the Hereafter" (Quran 2:201).

Islam is not against the ownership of private property or the accumulation of wealth. Nevertheless, the whole range of economic activities from agriculture to trade and commerce is subjected to two basic conditions. First, one should employ legitimate means in earning one's livelihood. Trade and other economic or commercial activities and transactions are subjected to a system of moral checks and balances. All unethical means of acquiring wealth, including unfair trading practices, bribery, hoarding, black marketing and usury, are strictly forbidden. Second, being the vicegerent of God, man is required to act as the trustee of economic resources. He should neither squander them in an unbridled manner nor use them as a means of exercising control and domination over others. The Islamic tradition is highly critical of ostentation and conspicuous or wasteful consumption (Quran 9:35; 17:26; 25:67). Imam Abu Hanifa, one of the greatest jurists of the first century of the Islamic era, is reported to have said that even if one were having a wash by the river Tigris he should be economical in the use of water.

Karl Polanyi has argued that one major pitfall of classical and neo-classical economic theory is that they regard the economy as an autonomous, self-regulating domain. In actual practice, however, economic processes are always regulated by social relations and moral values. Islam takes due cognizance of this reality and subjects economic activities to a system of moral checks and balances. In Islamic perspective, ethics and economics are indissociable. It is note-worthy that the bearing of ethnical norms on economic activities and economic behaviour is now increasingly recognised by eminent economists like Amartya Sen.

Islam is against the concentration of wealth in a few individuals or families (Quran 59:7). The Islamic economy is guided by the concept of human well-being (falah), which entails the sharing of available resources, fellow-feeling, social justice and philanthropy. The Islamic ethos of social justice is reflected in the Prophetic tradition: "Take wealth from the rich and turn it over to the poor." The Quran says that the needy and the dispossessed have a rightful share in the possessions of the rich (Quran 70:25). In the Islamic view, poverty and destitution result largely from the inequitable distribution of resources and the concentration of wealth in the hand of a few. In addition to the emphasis placed on charity and philanthropy, two important mechanisms facilitate the process of social justice in Islamic society: an obligatory tax on well-to-do Muslims, and the law of inheritance. The rate of the obligatory tax (zakah) varies according to the nature of the economic resources one possesses.

The Islamic law of inheritance stipulates that after death the assets and property of the deceased should be distributed among his heir and the nearest relatives. A person can bequeath only one-third of his property to any one he likes. The purpose of this provision is to ensure that he does not give away all of his wealth, through testamentary will, to some one according to his whims, leaving his legitimate heirs and descendants destitute.

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