Sulaiman b. ‘Amr narrated on the authority of his father: I heard the Messenger of Allah say in the Farewell Pilgrimage: Lo, all claims to usury of the preIslamic period have been abolished. You shall have your capital sums, deal not unjustly and you shall not be dealt with unjustly.
When we begin to peel back the layers of social injustice, we find that the majority of social injustice is in some way connected to greed. Social injustice draws from the fountain of greed, and we were able to touch on the spiritual elements of it in the previous chapter. Now, however, we can move on to the outwardly aspects of greed, and one of its greatest manifestations is usury or interest (riba).
The Hadith that I have chosen to begin with is narrated by Sulaiman bin Amr, on the authority of his father: “I heard the Messenger of Allah (swt) say in the Farewell Pilgrimage, ‘Verily, all claims to usury of the pre-Islamic period have been abolished. You shall have your capital sums, deal not unjustly and you shall not be dealt with unjustly.’
The farewell sermon of the Prophet (sws) contained the many ethical guidelines that are required for a community to function properly, with the first and foremost being the abolishment of racism and other forms of social injustice. The abolishment of usury brought a great change into how finances would work within the Muslim community and holds great relevance to our lives today for several reasons such as:
- It is difficult for people to understand why there is such a strict prohibition on usury when the society we live in functions on interest. For many Muslims the prohibition of interest (riba) seems to be harmful rather than beneficial as they believe the prohibition is exclusive to Muslims, whilst in other societies it is completely normal.
- The prohibition of usury is meant to free and liberate, but unfortunately many people feel that it is restrictive and that it is holding them back. They feel as though the prohibition stops them from achieving their full potential as a business or as an individual.
- Questions that keeps arising are why is Islam so strict about usury? Why is there strictness on the person who gives interest? It is understandable why the one who takes usury would be prohibited, but why are there harsh rulings for the person who needs to take out a loan?
- We are reactive and not proactive in trying to understand the prohibition of usury (riba) as being something that brings about good in society and a creates a healthier financial system.
During the farewell sermon of the Prophet Muhammad (sws), he made it a point to mention that the first case of usury that he was abolishing was the usury of his family – his uncle al-Abbas. This was the opposite of the elite putting down the poor; he was starting with his family to show that there were no exceptions. His uncle Abbas had many interest-bearing transactions, he could have said that people should pay the interest that has been agreed to and then adhere to the abolishment, but instead he abolished it right there and then. The only thing that remained was the capital sum.
When we look into the topic of usury and interest, we must first understand the connection between them and greed. Living within our means is a major part of our religion. And during a time when people are easily able to purchase through credit and get pulled into contracts – which can cause large amounts of debt – people also increase in their greed and want for more. The average American has around five-thousand dollars-worth of debt, because they are reaching for and buying beyond their means.
Allah mentions in the Qur’an in Surah al-Hashr 59:7: “So that it will not become a perpetual distribution (solely) among the rich from among you.” What is meant here is that money is not meant to belong to a few elite individuals whilst everyone else suffers, rather money should be distributed amongst the poor in society too. The Messenger of Allah (sws) outlawed profiting from loans by saying, “Profit is dependent upon liability (the possibility of loss).”121 Islam prohibits the concept of making money off of our money, as this allows the rich to get richer whilst the poor get poorer and become buried in their debts.
Another interesting point is that after Allah mentions usury in the Qur’an, He also says that He does not burden a soul beyond what it can bear. This statement has different connotations such as: Allah does not burden us in our religious obligations with more than we can bear. Islam has made our obligations reasonable and achievable within our capacity, and if for any reason we cannot fulfil an obligation, there is a relaxation of it to cater to our abilities.
We incur burdens upon ourselves by feeling compelled to become involved in interest-based transactions. When it comes to understanding the sin of usury, it is the most underestimated of the seven major sins. The Prophet Muhammad (sws) said regarding this sin, “A dirham which a man consumes as usury (riba) knowingly is worse before Allah than thirty-six acts of adultery (zina).”And he also said, “There are seventy-two types of riba, the least of which is like a man committing incest with his mother.”
These two statements of the Prophet show the gravity of this sin of engaging in usury; it is worse than committing adultery multiple times and is even likened to committing incest. Yet, usury and interest has become normalised in society and is not seen in the same light as the other major sins such as adultery and murder. We must stop and ask ourselves why riba is worse than zina.
Al-Baghawi said, “On a societal level, when an economy becomes richer because of usury (riba), the rich commit more shamelessness (fahisha) and the poor indulge in their sorrow and fall into the same sins.” The rich indulge in these sins because they can easily access such things, whilst the poor become depressed and find cheaper alternatives of the same.
The inequality that usury (riba) causes forces people into these directions; usury causes much more harm to society than other sins. By involving yourself in usury, you contribute to a system that impoverishes and continues to lead people towards wrong. In the last verses of Surah al-Baqarah, Allah mentions a verse of charity, followed by a verse regarding riba, and then another verse regarding charity and so on. Allah draws a contrast here between people who spend in charity and their reward and people who are involved in usury and deplete others through the practice of usury and their punishment.
Societally, if people distribute charity the way that they are meant to, people will not feel the need to take out loans with interest. If society functions properly, those who can afford would be taking care of the education or food or other such necessities of those who are less able to afford them. The system should be built in such a way that those who can afford to, should take care of those who are in less favourable positions, removing the need for them to involve themselves in interest based loans or contracts.
On an individual level, people who see money as burden give from it in charity on a regular basis; they want to rid themselves of the money and give it to those who need it. Those who act so, have passed the test that Allah has given them. Wealth is a huge test; those who become greedy and want more cause problems within society, whilst those who feel a sense of debt to Allah will spend day and night, both publicly and privately. Allah also mentioned in Surah al-Baqarah 2:275: “Those who consume riba will not stand on the Day of Resurrection except like the standing of a person beaten by Shaytan leading him to insanity.” Ibn Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him, said regarding this that on the Day of Judgement, the one who deals in usury will be in such a state that he will be beaten to the point of insanity, and then he will be told to take his weapons and prepare for a war with Allah and the Prophet Muhammad (sws).
Not even the disbeliever will be able to stand in this state. Allah has forbidden usury and has encouraged the act of charity for people; societies can survive without riba but cannot survive with it. The global economy collapses repeatedly because it is based on a system of interest, and that system is doomed to fail. It is a system that leads to poverty, inequality and great economic disparity – all of which Islam came to rid society of.
In regards to loans, Islam does not view them as business transactions but charity. The concept of a loan in Islam is to lend money as a means of charity if you cannot give it away. Abdullah bin Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, said that there are three types of loans:
- There is a loan which you lend because you desire the pleasure of Allah and so you gain the pleasure of Allah.
- There is a loan which you lend desiring the pleasure of your companion. People may not have liked you previously but because you lent them money, they will gain respect for you.
- The third type of loan is a loan in which you take what is impure by that which is pure, meaning that it is usury (riba). Benefiting financially from the money that you lend to someone else is the third type of loan, one which is prohibited in Islam.
There was an incident involving Imam Abu Hanifa in which he had lent a man some money, but the man had not paid him back for some time. One day Abu Hanifa was taking a break whilst travelling and sat underneath the shade of the man’s tree (the tree was on the other side of the wall, but its shade was on the outside). All of a sudden, Abu Hanifa realised that this tree belonged to the man that he had lent money to and began to fear that sitting in the shade of his tree may be interest. Islam, however, is not unique in its prohibition of usury – all the Abrahamic faiths have prohibited it. In Judaism, it says in Leviticus and Exodus, “If you lend money to any of my people, even to the poor, you shall not be to him as a creditor, neither shall you lay upon him interest. And if your brother is poor and his means fail him, take no interest of him but fear your Lord that your brother may live with you.” In the book of Deuteronomy, it says that interest can be put upon foreigners but not amongst the community of Israelites. The Talmud says, “It is not only the creditor who takes interest and violates the prohibition, but also the debtor who agrees to pay interest, the guarantor who guarantees the debt that bears interest, the witnesses who attest the creation of an interest-bearing debt, and even the scribe who writes out the agreement.” Whilst the prohibition was similar to that in Islam, it was limited to the community of Israelites.
Thomas Aquinas, a Christian, on the other hand had said very famously, “To take usury for money lent is unjust in itself, because this is to sell what does not exist, and this evidently leads to inequality which is contrary to justice.” Interest was prohibited in the Catholic Church until the year 1832; they finally gave in to the pressure from the Protestants after their Protestant Reformation in the seventeenth century, which reinterpreted the rulings and verses of usury and allowed people to deal in it. Old philosophers such as Aristotle who did not even belong to the Abrahamic faiths viewed interest to be a lowly transaction. Making money from money, or breeding money using any method that one can think of was seen as unnatural and wrong. Usury has been looked down upon because it essentially creates economic slavery. People become buried in debt, and the rich use this to further impoverish the poor and fill their own pockets.
Linguistically, the word riba means increase, which is also the same as the word zakah. However, the difference here is that zakah is an increase with purification whilst riba has no benefit and has been made prohibited (haram). In an authentic Hadith narrated by Ibn Mas’ud, the Prophet Muhammad (sws) said: “There is no-one who deals in usury a great deal (to increase his wealth) but he will end up with little (his wealth will be decreased).” Allah will cause the wealth of the person who deals with interest to deplete, even though that person is trying to increase his wealth by taking interest.
The Messenger of Allah (swt) also knew that usury would spread because all major sins spread. In another Hadith narrated by Abu Hurairah, the Prophet Muhammad (sws) said: “There will come a time when there will be no-one left who does not consume interest, and whoever does not consume it will nevertheless be affected by it.”124 Even if we do not deal with interest first-hand, we may still be engaged in it without knowing and without wanting to. Things such as bank accounts or credit cards could mean that we are in engaged in interest in some capacity.
The Prophet Muhammad (sws) also said, “Allah curses the one who consumes riba, the one who gives it, the one who witnesses over it and the one who writes down the transaction; they are all equal in sin.”This Hadith is similar to the quote I mentioned earlier from the Talmud, and bears the same message that no matter how small the capacity in which a person is involved in a transaction involving interest, he will be equal in sin to the one who consumes interest. Thus, when we look at the long-term, we must realise that we are not to become mere products of our society and simply look to survive, we must better our society.
Our society should collectively thrive; we should not look for excuses to make interest acceptable. In the 1990’s, people kept pushing scholars that lived in other countries to pass a ruling (fatwa) to allow buying a house on a conventional mortgage. Yes, it is a necessity to have a house to live in, but no collective effort was made to create real Islamic alternatives, resulting in the passing of such fatwas. As Muslims, we are not tasked with finding a way out just for ourselves, but we should try and create alternatives that are Islamically acceptable. Insistence can open doors; the more Muslims demand halal alternatives, the more providers will be forced to comply and supply these alternatives. By not giving in, we can help establish solutions for the entire Muslim community and allow these model solutions to become successful and grow to such an extent that they become a realistic replacement and easily accessible. The former president of Nigeria made a profound statement in which he commented on their debt crisis and said that they had borrowed five billion dollars, they had paid around sixteen billion dollars, yet they were still being told that they owed twenty-eight billion dollars.
He said that the worst thing in the world was compound interest; the injustice of the foreign creditors meant that the debt on Nigeria was not ending. Such greed and selfishness are not acceptable in Islam; it goes against the empathy that Islam entails. Interest creates money that is not there and sinks nations into poverty and adverse circumstances; it creates economic systems that are always meant to fail, and only the richest are able to recover. A powerful and horrifying Hadith that depicts the severity of usury is from when the Prophet
Muhammad (sws) witnessed Hellfire and said: “We proceeded until we came upon a river which was red like blood. In this river was someone swimming, and at the shore was a man who had collected many stones. The swimmer would swim to the shore, where the man would hurl a stone into his mouth which would send him back to the middle of the river, and he would swim back, only for the same to happen again and again. I asked who are these two? They said to me ‘Move on, move on.’” The person who was swimming in the river and was being fed stones, was the consumer of interest. Every time he tried to come out, he was driven back into the river of blood with the stones, just as he did with the people who borrowed from him – they thought they would be free from their debts, but he increased them in it with interest. Scholars have also mentioned that the red represents the gold or wealth that he drowned himself in.
The consumer of interest believed that he was smart by cornering or forcing people into debt and taking advantage of their needs, but he will show up on the Day of Judgement stumbling like a madman. In a world where it is extremely difficult to see justice, hearing about
it is reassuring; knowing that Allah will provide justice in the end. May Allah protect us from becoming involved in interest in any capacity, and may He allow us to purify ourselves from it but to also purify our financial systems from it. May Allah never allow us to be in a vulnerable situation where we feel forced to succumb to it. Amin.
This excerpt is from 40 on Justice by Omar Suleiman published by Kube Publishing. Available at all good Islamic bookstores as well as Amazon and Book Depository.
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