The measure of a nation is how it treats the weakest and
the most vulnerable members of its society.
Usury (Arabic: riba), is profiteering or economic oppression of any kind. Usury is forbidden in the Quran in the strongest terms because it creates untold misery, usually to those who are the most vulnerable. This system of iniquity is practiced in many societies including feudal and capitalist economies. This type of economic subjugation can lead to excesses which leave the less able, and those trapped in poverty, in a perpetual state of hardship. This is because, despite regulation and laws, the bottom line for these businesses is money.
In the less-developed countries where some form of feudalism still operates, landowners and brokers not only lend money at exorbitant rates, but also take advantage of borrowers’ families as additional labourers and their women for personal gratification. This is cruel and oppressive and deserves to be condemned.
Since the late 19th Century, low income families were enticed, through necessity into high-interest personal loans such as Provident Vouchers in the UK. Recent decades have seen growth in this area of legalised usury when companies lend relatively small amounts of money (e.g. Pay Day Loans) to the poor for interest rates of around 4,000%. Capitalism may have encouraged a free market economy but it is at the expense of those who can ill-afford it.
‘Islamic Banking’ also illustrates how religion can be used to delude people into thinking that they are doing the right thing, when in fact they have become victims of a usurious system. In housing loans (mortgages) there is little difference between the ‘Islamic’ bank and the conventional ‘high street’ bank. The conventional bank charges ‘interest’ whereas the ‘Islamic’ bank charges ‘profit margin’. If the borrower fails to pay, both banks will repossess the borrower’s property. Not only that, but the ‘Islamic’ system also has a different way of dealing with early prepayments. If the borrower were to come into a windfall and wants to pay off his loan, the conventional bank will ask him to pay only the principal sum and discount the interest that is not yet due. The ‘Islamic’ bank however may ask the borrower to pay the principal sum plus all the ‘profit margin’ for the future periods. The ‘profit’ is not always discounted. This does not seem to match well with the concept of fairness and justice.
The difference between profit and profiteering is greed. While profit (e.g. wages or the price of a product or service charged by a business) is the legitimate reward for one’s labour, after taking away the costs incurred, profiteering is the excess earned over and above that. While we can accept that sometimes the line between the two can be subjective, we can usually recognise when we are being ripped off. This can happen when, for example, people become attracted by designer labels – often manufactured by slave labour and retailed at inflated prices. Also, purchases are sometimes made because of stress, when a bargain is struck in times of weakness or hardship. Under this pressure a usurious contract can easily occur and also in times of shortages, the price of goods goes up. While this can be justified because traders may need a minimum income to survive, in many cases the price is just hiked up to line the pockets of those in a position of advantage. This is also usury.
Gambling is to play games of chance to win money or another specified prize. Are games of chance forbidden in the Quran? The verses normally considered to mention gambling are 2:219 and 5:90. However, gambling is not mentioned in either verse. It is the word ‘maysir’ that is usually wrongly translated to mean gambling. If we, for argument’s sake, take the usual understanding that it means gambling then how would we translate the same word which also appears in verse 2:280? The translation of this verse would then wrongly become: “If the debtor is in difficulty, then wait for a gambling (maysira)”. The correct translation of this verse is, of course: “If the debtor is in difficulty, then wait for an easier time (maysira)”. In other words, if someone is unable to pay a debt, then allow additional time to help the debtor.
There is mention of ‘divination’ (fortune telling, predictions, betting on sports results etc.) in verse 5:90. This does not mean it’s forbidden – decreed as haram – but the clear instruction is to avoid it due to the devastation it can cause, not only to the individual who takes part, but also to the family concerned. However, to decree all speculative ventures as haram would mean that ‘calculated business risk’ would also be forbidden and many transactions based on future stock (such as crops) could not take place.
We can elaborate the use of ‘maysira’ further. The word ‘maysira’ means additional or extra time. The origin of this word means ‘excess time’. To corroborate this we can look at verse 2:280 where the same word is used: ‘If the debtor is in difficulty, then wait for an easier time (maysiru).’ And also: “In [free time] there is gross harm and some benefits for the people. But their potential to cause harm is greater than their benefit.” [Verse 2:219]. When there is too much time on a person’s hands this could lead to mischief. An English idiom aptly says “The devil makes work for idle hands”. What this means is when someone is not busy, or gainfully employed, trouble is bound to follow.
Slavery is being bound in servitude as the property of a slaveholder or a household. In modern times there appears to be no country that has a law that advocates or condones slavery, but religions such as Hinduism still practice servilism. There is also bonded labour in some developing countries and slave labour exists in many western countries, albeit underground. Also, many nations on the economic cusp, while reproachful of open slavery, turn a blind eye to conditions in their factories and farms which are, in reality, operated by slave labour.
So even in these times when we think that slavery is from a bygone age, we may be benefitting from slavery; whether it’s the food we eat or the clothes we wear. Abject misery is also created in human trafficking. It is reported that children are brought from African counties to be sacrificed in religious rituals; women are imported to be employed as sex workers and other people to work in the black economy. Slavery may be legally abolished but slaves are still alive and existing in misery. The Quran does not condone slavery and decrees to free the slaves. This can only be done by creating a good and equitable economy, where employers pay a fair wage for a fair day’s work and, as a consequence, customers are prepared to pay fair prices too.
Economic exploitation, Charity and Social Welfare
Usury or economic exploitation is condemned in the most serious terms but social welfare is encouraged at all times. Those who genuinely need a helping hand from society should see it as a right and those in a position to help are under an obligation to relieve the suffering of those less well off or need aid due to sickness or injury. The call is for a social commitment to be fulfilled: give dignity not charity.
Throughout the 19th. century, destitute people in Western Europe unable to pay their debt were put in debtors’ prison, which was similar to locked workhouses. They worked there to pay for their incarceration costs and accrued debt. The Quran however decreed leniency for debtors and advocated expenditure for Social Welfare for the less well-off centuries before this. Verse 2:280 clearly says:
“If the debtor is in difficulty, then wait for an easier time. If you do this with sincerity, it will be better for you, if you only knew.”
People in financial difficulty should not be burdened but should be helped. In recent years short term loan companies have preyed on people who are already in great difficulty. While profit in business is condoned, the Quran condemns profiteering. See verses 2:275; 3:130; 4:161.
There are almost 200,000 registered charities in the UK. Many of even the well known ones have been involved in fundraising scandals, targeting the vulnerable and attempting contact with people who have recently died, distressing their relatives. Other operating practices considered disgraceful are that while their main objective appears to be helping the poor and needy, large amounts of donations are spent on wages and fundraising activities. Donors are giving their money to causes but charities spend it mostly on executive salaries and administrative costs. Some charities are totally funded by the government. This, many believe, inhibits them from criticising flawed policies and helps the government evade their social responsibilities. Charities, they say, don’t bite the hand that feeds them.
Charities can also claim Gift Aid on donations from taxpayers. This is a claim of the tax paid on the amount equivalent to the donation. Gift Aid to charities is seriously detrimental as it takes away money from vital public services such as hospitals and schools – a truly heavy cost to society.
People should not give their tax pounds or any money to charities and should instead demand that the government of the day effectively use funds to do the job they are elected to do. Social welfare should be central to government responsibility and not any other body, be it a charity or another organisation.
It may seem striking at first, but we should not be surprised to learn that there is no charity decreed in the Quran. As always there is a very good reason for omitting something that on face value seems good but in actual fact is detrimental. Charity is the occasional voluntary donation of residual income or goods to the needy. It can be an act of pity to temporarily relieve the hardship of someone and makes the giver feel as if they have done something worthwhile. The Quran’s decree is a more permanent solution with far-reaching effects. It propagates a social welfare system to help those in genuine need.
Verse 2:177 clearly says ” …be benevolent and selflessly expend your money, despite your love for it, to become benefactors of society.” and verse 51.19 says that a portion of an individual’s money is set aside for the destitute and the needy. This money should go “first to your parents and then your relatives, the orphans, the poor and the refugees.” states verse 2:215. And how much of your money should be set aside? For each person it is different so no percentage is fixed: “The excess part of your disposable income or goods.” as noted in verse 2:219.
When giving items other than money, it is not acceptable to “…pick out the inferior to give away when you yourselves would not accept it unless your eyes are closed.”Verse 2:267 also reminds:“You shall spend for good of social welfare of your community from the good things you possess and from what We have produced for you from the earth.” And also “Those who spend their money in the cause of God, then do not follow their expenditure with reproach or insult will receive their recompense from the One who sustains them; they have nothing to fear nor will they grieve.”
Any expenditure you make for the good of social welfare is ultimately for your own good. This welfare expenditure shall be for the cause of God and will be repaid to you without the least injustice. [Verse 2:272]. The example of those who give their money seeking God’s pleasure, out of sincere conviction is that of cultured land on high fertile soil; when heavy rain falls it gives twice as much crop. If heavy rain is not available a shower will suffice. God is Seer of all that you do. [Verse 2:265].
Furthermore, you cannot attain honour until you spend your money for the good of social welfare from the possessions you love. Whatever you expend for the welfare of society, God is fully aware of all things. [Verse 3:92].
Universal Basic Income – dignity, not charity.
Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a way of giving all residents a regular cash payment for life.
This would be a welcome change to the current benefits schemes being operated in Britain. It’s not that the current system is broken, because it was made this way but for a bygone era. It may have worked then but it’s clearly not fit for this century when social welfare should be much more just, especially when the means and the technology to put it into practice are available.
The Universal Basic Incomewould not provide complete security or affluence but fulfil its purpose in providing basic economic security to everyone – every man, woman and child. It would be unconditional because it would allow people to determine their own spending needs without any restrictions. There would be no behavioural conditions attached as recipients will not have to show they are active in seeking a job in order to qualify. The payment will not be means tested, as most current benefits are, and it would be paid regularly; weekly or monthly. Also, it would be paid as a right and like all fundamental rights it cannot be taken away.
Critics often say that such schemes will cause an increase in unemployment and draw in losers from other countries. They also say that UBI is unaffordable.
The concept of UBI is not new, it has been around for a very long time and in recent decades there have been many pilot schemes in Africa, India, South America and many other places – all with impressive results. While there have been initial variations in unemployment the long term advantages to the economy and to the general welfare of individuals and community have shown to be positive and substantial.
It is true that a small number of people will not work, but these people would not have worked anyway. Most people are ambitious and want to improve themselves and a Basic Income received regularly gives them the security that they need to pursue work as a creative activity rather than labour dependent wages for a job they may not be happy with. People are more productive when they are stress-free and can have a greater input into society by either volunteering or taking on additional paid work. Entrepreneurs and inventors can also put to use their ingenuity and imagination without the risk of worrying about their basic needs. While economic security is essential for the well-being of an individual, but above all Universal Basic Income gives freedom and dignity and is equitable in a way that other benefits are not.
As for the question of affordability it too can be dealt with practically. While the nitty-gritty of finances can be left to the economists the broad points can easily be understood by most people. For example the current tax system and benefit payments can be realigned as can other spending by respective governments. Also ‘corporate warfare’ which costs the country billions can be diverted for public good. While the average waged labourer has his or her taxes deducted at source, many businesses avoid paying tax through ‘tax mechanisms’ that allow them to do just that. In reality these are legal loopholes created by the rich for the rich to help them pay the least amount of tax possible. The Panama papers and the Paradise papers provided enough evidence of these smoke and mirror activities. Should the government wish, the revenue brought in by closing these escape routes to tax havens should be sufficient to pay for UBI without any additional cost to the Exchequer.
Some critics also say that charities are doing enough for the poor and needy. There are more than 190,000 (and increasing) registered charities in the UK. But the performance of these charities is disgraceful with less than half of the average collections by charities going to the causes they represent. One well known cancer charity was in the news for spending as little as 3% of the donations it received on its declared cause while the rest went to ‘administrative expenses’. Reliance on discretionary charity can be precarious, as most of the funding does not appear to help those in need. This is why, while it may seem striking at first, we should not be surprised to learn that there is no charity in the Quran.
An act of charity is pity more akin to contempt while the Quranic decrees dignity both for the giver and receiver. The first incitement in the Quran is to become benefactors of humanity by sharing inherited social wealth; to spend money, despite the desire to hold on to it, for those in need.
The wealth of society, the Quran says, belongs to all its members; it decrees to compensate every individual and for each person to look after each other’s interests. This is social welfare and Universal Basic Income underpins the freedom and dignity attached to it.
The current benefits system is hanging on a very shaky nail. It stigmatises people, it’s precarious and provides no stability or proper permanent security. Insecure people are not rational, especially when faced with an uncertain future. Such situations that cause division in society are dangerous and volatile. The extreme right, as seen in recent years, has taken advantage of this to create tension within communities, especially amongst migrant and religious groups. To provide basic financial security unconditionally for everyone would be the foundation for a peaceful and harmonious society.
People have an alienable right to a regular secure basic income and the government owes this debt to them. The British government has reflected this in some benefits such as the NHS (nationally) and cost-free medicine prescriptions (in Scotland) but it needs to go the full course and provide Universal Basic Income for all its permanent residents. By doing this it would show that it recognises this right and that each and every person deserves dignity and not charity.
Please also see Parents, Children and Family: You deserve success – but how much?discussed earlier in this section.
Equity and Equality – what is the distinction?
Although the terms equality and equity are often used interchangeably, this can lead to some confusion because while these concepts are related, there are also important distinctions between them. Equity involves giving people what they need to enjoy a happy and full life. Equality by contrast, aims to ensure that everyone gets the same things in order to enjoy the same standard of a full and healthy life. The aim of equality is to promote fairness and justice, but it can only work if everyone starts from the same place and needs the same things.
To show the distinction between equity and equality we can look at the health care system in the United Kingdom which is based on the concept of equality. It is designed to ensure that everyone has the same access to health care services regardless of their ability to pay for the health services they receive. On the face of it this seems fair. But it is limited in promoting a fair and just service because it ignores other important factors – such as language, place of residence, sex of the individuals – that can also act as barriers to receiving proper care. At the same time, ensuring the same access to care for everyone assumes that everyone has similar health issues and similar health care needs. This is not always the case. Many people live with social, political and economic disadvantages that contribute to poor health. For example, people who live in poverty frequently have more health issues than those with more money. As a result, they may need additional or special services rather than just the standard ones, to counter the force, for example, of substandard housing, limited access to fresh, nutritious foods, and exposure to unsafe environments.
 Inherited social wealth is the income from resources that belong to all people (minerals, metals, oil etc.) whether derived from physical assets or intangible assets and all that produces financial benefits as a result of what our ancestors and our society has done in the past or are doing today. For more information visit basicincome.org. See also verses and footnotes 2:3 and 21:112.