By Ziauddin Sardar
May 20, 2008
The passage (al-Baqura 261-281) moves from discussing charity to usury, from an institution that builds community and society to one that blights and destroys social cohesion, from the broad basis of human sympathy to the annihilation of all sympathetic human affections.
Islam is by no means unique in seeing usury in a negative light, a Madeleine points out. It is regarded as evil in most religions and religious philosophies. In The Divine Comedy, Dante, who has a particular aversion to Islam and its prophet, places usurers in the inner ring of the seventh circle of hell, below even suicides. (Showing how cultural attitudes have changed since the 14th century, the usurers' circle was shared by blasphemers and sodomites.)
The Qur'an distinguishes between trade and usury. The essential difference has to do with sharing in mutual risk, which historically developed distinctive forms of contractual relationships and instruments for funding trade, most of which ended up being borrowed from Muslim society by Europe.
In trade, this meant the capitalist shared the risk of making a loss along with the hope of making a profit. But with usury the whole of the loss is borne by the borrower, the person using his or her physical and intellectual labour; the lender merely sits back and counts the profit, for the debt must be repaid irrespective of whether the enterprise suffers an actual loss. Hence trading stands on a different footing from usury.
Trade has the potential to increase the wealth of a society, bring peoples and cultures together, while usury only makes the rich richer. Worse, it can trap people and states in perpetual debt; it divides society and increases the hardship of those most in need: it undermines the moderation and strong sense of social justice of "the middle community" and is diametrically opposed to the law of equity. As such, usury is a tool of oppression.
The emphasis on charity suggests that the Qur'an is unambiguously on the side of the poor. It does not want the rich to grow richer at the expense of the poor by impoverishing them further as a direct product of usury. This, however, is not just an issue of social and economic justice but also of morality.
Usury's worst effects are on our moral well being: it generates a love of wealth, makes us selfish, and leads us to think, like Gordan Gekko in the 1987 film Wall Street, that "greed is good". Not surprisingly, the Qur'an takes an unequivocal stand against usury and compares those who employ it to those touched by the devil, which in this case stands for Mammon: "those who take usury will rise up on the day of resurrection like someone tormented by Satan's touch" (verse 275). There are echoes here of the story of Adam and his wife being led by the arrogant Iblis to transgress the boundaries of ethical behaviour.
The Qur'anic term for usury is Riba. The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Arabic (edited by J M Cowen), widely regarded as a standard work, translates Riba as "interest" or "usurious interest". But the term, which originates from the root r-b-a, also means "to grow, to exceed", to add, to swell, to add an excess over and above the necessary.
Riba, as Asad notes, contains the idea of "the exploitation of the economically weak by the strong and resourceful". Given that the Qur'an sees oppression as a prime sin, I would suggest that Riba is not just about interest but also about all forms of economic exploitation of the poor - such as disproportion in the amount of tax paid by the poor, as well as the disproportion in the amount of taxpayers’ money spent in poor areas, which result in poor schools and hence the lack of access to educational opportunities and health provisions, cultural marginalisation and all those things that end up victimising the poor simply because they are poor.
The "usury verses" (275-282) were among the last verses of the Qur'an to be revealed. The prophet died soon afterwards and his companions could not question him about the extensive meaning of Riba.
Classical commentators, such as Ibn Kathir, who relied extensively on the saying of the prophet and his companions on their interpretations of the Qur'an, thus had serious problems both in understanding and explaining these verses. This, I think, is a blessing in disguise. Economic exploitation is like plasma: it is difficult to contain, morphs into different shapes and sizes, and devours anything in its path. It will take different forms in different societies depending on their principal modes of production and technological status.
So the nature of Riba, in its fullest sense of economic exploitation, cannot be defined once and for all. As Asad rightly notes:
Our answers must necessarily vary in accordance with the changes to which man's social and technological development - and, thus, economic development - is subject. Hence, while the Qur'anic condemnation of the concept and practice of Riba is unequivocal and final, every successive Muslim generation is faced with the challenge of giving new dimension and fresh economic meaning to this term which, for want of a better word, may be rendered as "usury".
There are, however, a number of general principles that we can tease out from this passage, that steer us away from the path of Riba. We return to the similes of "grains of corn", arable land and garden. Making money from money is an arid exercise: in the long run it brings little benefit to a society as a whole and is like a rocky land where "rain falls and leaves it completely bare". Just as seed cast on the ground unaccompanied by labour or rain would not grow, so expenditure and investment of money has to be accompanied with physical or intellectual labour to produce wealth that benefits all.
Credit and debt are a scourge, like "a garden of palm trees and vines" that is "struck by a fiery whirlwind and struck down" (verse 266) leaving you in your old age and your feeble offspring destitute. Those who are suffering from a debt burden, individuals and states, are to be helped; and where possible their debts have to be written off as an act of charity (verse 280).
And just like a tree in the garden does not continue to grow beyond a certain point, so that it ends up devouring and destroying the rest of the garden, individuals and societies cannot continue to grow economically without destroying the very society and environment that sustains them. The moderation that is the characteristic of the "middle community" must also be reflected in its economic activities. The Qur'an urges the Muslims to be neither miserly nor extravagant: "Do not be tight-fisted, nor so open-ended that you end up blamed and overwhelmed with regret" (17:29).
Ultimately, the Qur'an argues, we are all dependent upon God's bounty. None of us is free from risk, which comes in multiple ways and means, because none of us can foresee the future. What cannot be avoided should therefore be shared: that is the law of equity. When usurers insulate themselves from all risks and perils, they unfairly push the risks on to others. Sharing risk is a way of recognising the contribution both labour and capital make to the betterment of society. Every soul has to be paid in full for the toil and trouble of its physical or intellectual labour, as much in the here and now as in the hereafter.