02 July 2007

Another waste of time Jumah?

Ayah. 2:78 - 2:82

My respected brothers in Islam. Asalaamualaikum. These ayah I have recited all deal with interest- or the Arabic word riba. Now firstly, the word Riba is often understood to mean only interest, the type we pay to and receive from banks and other financial institutions. But Riba is much more than that. Without going into too much detail, I would like to ask the question- why?
Why does Allah wage war on the person that indulges in this sin- a sin consistent in all the Abrahamic religions. Is it because Allah does not want me to buy a house, a car, or any other item on credit or HP? I believe it is this and more. We need to understand what effect interest has on society as a whole.

The current world economy is largely based on the model of capitalism- which very simply, gives power to those that have capital- they earn interest on this capital, which remains intact, and those that don’t have continue to work and toil to pay the interest on the loans that they need to survive. Interest is the life blood of capitalism and without it, the system will not survive. It simply, makes the rich richer and poor poorer.

So on a macro level, this causes problems that need to be solved. The World Islamic Eco Forum was recently held in Malaysia. Alhumdulillah I had the privilege of attending and being able to participate in forums where this was discussed. The WIEF brings together the Muslim world to discuss important issues- the role of Muslims from non-Muslim majority countries is also important- South Africa, England and the US Muslim communities have much to offer as well.

The objective of the WIEF was an aim of “reducing poverty and closing the income gap”. The discussions were generally around strategies aimed at achieving this- through education, trade and business- looking at multi-pronged approaches to be used as methodologies to reduce poverty in the world. Emphasis was on action-oriented programmes and not to continue dwelling on theories.

As Muslims, we often look back and name all the Islamic Scientists and scholars that dot history for being forefathers of their respective fields, setting the base for even greater global progress. How is it that a civilisation that reached such great heights, now finds itself in the opposite position- an Islamic Ummah today whose countries rank among the poorest in the world? Out of 31 countries with Muslim majorities, 13 are reported to have 15% & more of their populations living under USD 1 a day. There are 1.3 billion Muslims with 70% of the worlds energy resources and minerals. Statistic after statistic will show the squalor and poverty Muslims live in- what a contrast to our proud heritage and history.

For those that are interested, you can follow the discussions of the WIEF from their website- for important discussions around youth, leadership and the Muslim businesswomen. For efforts to establish a network of young, exuberant and promising Muslim leaders from various fields of knowledge and experience, who hold a common purpose to improve the well-being of the Muslim world. And to empower and accord young Muslim leaders with the necessary leadership opportunities to take ownership of the responsibilities of the Muslim world in the near future.

I believe that initiatives like the WIEF are important, and need to continue happening to ensure that we can come up with solutions. However, economics cannot be looked at in isolation- politics, society, it’s all intertwined. But we also need to be careful- the principles of Islam, which need to be applied to economics as well- are social justice, equality, empowerment, etc. We see the World Eco Forum focusing largely on profit- hence the need for the World Social Forum. It will be a sad day if the WIEF stops striving for a just, equitable economy- and we then need to start a World Islamic Social Forum!

But coming back to South Africa, lessons for us here at home. This is of course our priority- sorting out our problems here as well. Here in South Africa where we in our recent past had a system of oppression, racial oppression. Where race dictated who benefited and who sacrificed. But we were successful in fighting this oppressive system and overcoming it. Have we really been successful? Why did we recently see the biggest public demonstration since democracy? The images on the news, with people protesting and rioting, was similar to those old images that I had seen from the days of Apartheid.

South Africa, together with Brazil, is a model of inequality. Did we, after removing the chains of oppressive Apartheid, replace them with equally oppressive chains- a country where 20% of the population controls 80% of the resources. Where we see extreme poverty side by side with extreme wealth. As Muslims, what role do we need to play. The monster is not as easily identifiable- Apartheid was clear- the lines were drawn. Today, which side of the fence do we sit on- are our economic practices oppressive?

When Apartheid was over thrown, we embraced globalisation at neck breaking speed. The systems that existed in the world had many features that we had hoped to defeat in the old SA. Does the Apartheid quality of life continue? How will we break the chains? As I recently heard a scholar ask- are we breaking the chains or just polishing them?

As Muslims, it is our obligation to fight oppression. We need to play a more active role in economic development. Concentrate on empowerment, rather than just hand outs. Have we accepted mediocrity? Our obligations in terms of charity, should not be merely discharged- we need to aim for maximum benefit from our charity. Our Zakaat, Waqfs, etc. Its not just about giving to some organisation- the organisations that exist are doing a good job- but our concern and efforts will assist them and maybe even push them further in the right direction. Give the organisations the support that they need to improve the work and results. We need to apply our minds to the problems that exist- to change mindsets.

Singapore can teach us some lessons in this regard- there I saw them running their affairs very professionally- and have made great progress. Again, it’s a mindset that we need to change. Someone like me, studied and trained as an accountant, but the dichotomy in my thought makes me think that my Islamic obligation is to give my Zakaat and Sadaqah to some organisation to utilise for their projects. But what about me looking around and trying to figure out how I can use my skills and talents to bring about change, to make lives better for those around me?

A number of other things come to mind- the environment. What stances are we taking as Muslims? This world is an amaanah to us- we need to curb our consumption, cut down on unnecessary wastage of energy, and take greater interest in recycling and other ‘green’ initiatives. These are all Islamic obligations, not just things which will make us feel good.

Social justice, economic equality, redistribution of wealth- I have thrown these words around throughout my entire lecture. I ask, lets think about this. What do there mean to me as an individual. Lets discuss there concepts around the dinner table, that we are so fortunate to have, with family and friends that we are so fortunate to have.

The following I read from a paper written in 1990 by a Sayed Iqbal Mohd. I am not sure who he is or who exactly he addressed this to. But 17 years later, it’s still very relevant:

Q. What role can Muslims play in contributing to a just socio-economic order in South Africa?
A. The first thing that must be done is role definition- what do they want to do for the upliftment of the oppressed community and how do they intend to achieve this? Short-term plans clearly defined, that is, ways in which a meaningful contribution can be made within the present system.

The basis of the Muslim entrepreneurs (businessmen, shopkeepers) must be to empower the disadvantaged, disfranchised masses. Business resources must be pooled perhaps into an investment corporation. Interest-free loans could be advanced to establish businesses or to assist existing businesses in black areas. Extended credit facilities could be another aspect of the short-term objectives.

For myself? What can I do? As an accountant, how can I justify going to work every morning- if, if my being at work means that I am indirectly assisting a system that is based on Riba, a system that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. A system that is oppressive and unjust- how can I justify my being an integral part of this. Especially if, my sole purpose of being there is so that I can amass wealth. So that I too can earn loads of cash to buy nice things, so that I can send my kids to private school.

These are things most people want and aspire for. But if all I achieve in an entire lifetime, for however long Allah lets me live, is material possessions. If my understanding of Islamic obligations is to just fulfil my obligations, how will I answer when questioned on the day of judgement about how I used this Amaanah, this education and skill Allah allowed me to gain?

I am just a cog in the wheel of this oppressive system. I think its silly to just leave though- to leave my job and then do what? How many Muslims are out there, cogs in this system? All, indirectly assisting a system of oppression. Without asking anyone to leave their jobs, can we all rethink our objectives- I will no longer be totally focused on my career, focused on amassing wealth. I will change the intention of being out there, working- I will try to see what ISLAM REQUIRES of me in my profession. How I can use my skills to bring about change in the world. To establish social justice, equality, redistribution of wealth.

If every Muslim makes this their long term objective, if we all sincerely strive for this, not that many before us don’t or have not- I speak to myself and my generation. If we begin now, we could bring about real change and make the lives of others better. Even if we don’t achieve a just and equitable economy, based on Islamic principles, we can at least die trying.

{Announcement: next meeting of Muslim Professionals is 10 July 2007 @7pm, Nana Memorial}

1 comment:

mario said...

hello bilal..nice post. not something new or earth shattering -but interesting..we shud chat sometime..