Social Justice is has occupied a significant share of the Islamic conscience. Equality, and a sense of collective responsibility towards one another has been a hallmark of the early Muslim community, and has resulted in an influx of the poor, the underprivileged and slaves into Islam, escaping the brutal and rigidly hierarchical social structure that prevailed Arabia in the 6th century AD. The Prophet’s teachings tell us that “the Muslim community is like one body; if one part is ailing, the rest of the body responds with fever and ache”. Personal wealth is also considered a trial (64:15) and a gift entrusted to the wealthy by God (57:7, 2:254, 4:39, 13:22) to see if they will handle it as He wishes. The poor and the needy are therefore entitled to a share of the society’s wealth (51:19, 70:24-70:25). After the death of Prophet Muhammad, pbuh, Muslim civil leaders perpetuated the teachings of the Quran, and the practices recommended by prophet Muhammad in the construction of social institutions that guarantees those in need will not be ignored or forgotten (see below).
The following is a list of the major mechanisms by which Islam ensures that the wealth of a society does not circulate in the hands of a wealthy few (59:7):
a. Alms-giving (Zakah) is a mandatory fixed percentage (widely accepted as 2.5%) of a Muslim’s savings that the community is entitled to, every year. This is the only pillar of Islam that involves material benefit to others. The money is collected by the state and is spent in specific venues listed in the Quran for the benefit of all community members, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. These venues include amongst others: the poor, the needy, the indebted, and for the liberation of slaves (2:177, 4:36, 9:60). All commercial ventures, e.g., farming, mining, industrial production and trading, have their own specific Zakah that is also due annually.
b. Charity is different from Zakah in that is it not mandatory and has no preset limit. It is strongly encouraged in hundreds of verses in the Quran, as a mean of obtaining God’s mercy and forgiveness (24:22, 92:17 to 92:18), cleansing the souls of impurity (9:103), and attaining superior degree faith (30:38, 76:8 to 76:9, 90:10 to 90:16). Those who are bent on sequestering wealth, and denying the less fortunate a share in their possessions are always given as an example of the ones who will be suffering in the hereafter and are deprived of the mercy of God (3:180, 4:37, 47:38, 89:17 to 89.24). Not feeding the needy is cited amongst the major reasons for which someone will not be in paradise (74:42 to 74:46). Relieving the indebted (or remitting the debt entirely) is also promised a great reward by God (2:280 and 2:281). Lack of kindness to the orphans, and the needy are markings of hypocrites whose hearts are devoid of faith despite performing religious rituals (107:1 to 107:7). Amassing wealth for its own sake (i.e., for the love of gathering money) is an evil deed deserving of extreme punishment on the Day of Judgment (9:35).
c. Making amends: Spending money on those in need is also considered a means of atonement (or expiation) for different kinds of sins and mistakes (2:184, 5:89, 5:95, 58:4).
d. Endowment: Another kind of charity is endowment or ‘Waqf’ in Arabic. This is usually of larger magnitude and is in the form of an asset, e.g., a farms, factory, large building or a piece of land that should be invested with all the revenue going to charity. This choice is particularly attractive as is satisfies what is referred to as ‘on-going’ or ‘running’ charity. This kind of charitable deed is one of only three things that Muslims believe will them reward from God after their death (the other two being, useful knowledge that the individual developed or taught, , and an offspring of high standards and moral integrity).
Muslims are instructed to spend: It is most interesting that the verb ‘spend’ is used in the Quran almost exclusively to mean spend of one’s money on someone else in need of financial help. Not only are Muslims repeatedly instructed to spend, they are explicitly instructed to spend from their most cherished possessions, from what is dear to them, from what they consider to be the best that they own (2:267, 3:92). Generosity in spending is a hallmark of the most dedicated believers (13:33),
Moderation in Spending is commended: While Muslims are repeatedly encouraged to spend from their wealth in the path of God, the Quran reminds them to spend sensibly. Wastefulness is strongly admonished in the Quran and over-spending -even on charity- will cause harm that defeats the charity’s purpose (17:26, 17:27, 17:29). A generous, yet sensible, wealthy person is, in the long term, more beneficial to the society and to the poor than the unwise one that goes bankrupt (2:195)
The Prophetic teachings (Hadeeth in Arabic, which means narration or speech) are different from the Quran, and are not considered the word of God. When hadeeth is adequately authenticated, it is treated with utmost respect by Muslims and it inspires them on how to implement and abide by the Quran. Numerous Prophetic teachings are narrated on solving the problem poverty, on humanity in Islamic society, and on sharing the wealth. Some examples are listed below:
a. "He who sleeps on a full stomach whilst his neighbor goes hungry is not one of us."
b. “People [in a very generic sense] are partners in three things: water, grazing land, and fire.”
‘Modern day’ meaning of this hadeeth:: the essentials for survival in any society should be made available (i.e., guaranteed) for all members of that society. Water is key to survival in desert environment, water and grazing land are key to maintenance of a herd which is the major source of employment and wealth to a Bedouin society, and fire is the only means to cook food, and warm a household. Food, shelter, basic education and a chance to earn a living would be the closet modern day essential counterparts to those mentioned in the hadeeth.
c. “None of you believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.”
d. “If anyone would like God to save him from the hardships of the Day of Resurrection, he should give more time to his debtor who is short of money, or remit his debt altogether.”
e. “Anyone who looks after and works for a widow and a poor person is like a warrior fighting for God’s cause, or like a person who fasts during the day and prays all night.”
f. “Safeguard yourself against miserliness, for it ruined those who came before you.”
After the Prophet’s death: The practices of the early Muslim civil leaders further emphasized the collective responsibility of the community towards its poorest and weakest segments.
a. The House of Treasury (Bayt-el-Maal in Arabic) was established as an institution where Zakat was managed and channeled into its legitimate venues, and Waqf endowments were administered in a way that takes into consideration the Muslim community all over the
b. Stipends were issued from the House of Treasury to families with children to help offset their increased expenses.
c. Pensions were also introduced to help the elderly who were unable to work. These pensions were offered to Muslim as well as non-Muslim elderly.
d. The concept of transferring Zakat money from the locality where it was paid, to wherever it was needed in Muslim land, was also introduced. This helped redistribute the wealth allover the Muslim land, and prevented creating pockets of extreme wealth or poverty.
Poverty is an evil that underlies a lot of evils: An extraordinary event took place during the reign of Omar, the second civil Muslim leader. A serious famine and subsequent poverty struck large parts of
Conclusion of Social Justice and Poverty section:
I would like conclude this section with the full text of a very short chapter of the Quran (Chapter 93). In this chapter, God addresses Muhammad, pbuh, but He speaks to all of us. As members of humanity we all enjoy numerous blessings in our lives, not realizing their existence most of the time. Neither do most of us realize that the only way to thank God for all his blessings is to pass some of the blessings on to our fellow humans. These thoughts are beautifully summarized in this short Quranic chapter. Whether one takes it literally or metaphorically, this chapter leads all of us on a path to greater awareness of our responsibilities to the less fortunate.