Islam speaks clearly to the redistribution of power such that no person should be left far behind nor should a person have such a disproportionate amount.
Friday Sermon: Islamic politics is transformative, and demands redistribution of wealth and power
The previous two discussions looked at how Islam provides support to a society and emphasises on political engagement. In this part, we will ask how Islamic sources speak on distributive justice and social equity.
Islamic politics are supposed to be transformative. This means its policies must (1) never tolerate oppression, (2) must not shy away from tackling injustice, (3) must restore rights and (4) provide an environment for goodness to thrive. As the Qur’an says of the prophetic mission, it is to “lift the burdens and break the shackles” (7:157) upon a society.
First, the prophets of Allah (swt) are often described with a particular epithet or quality in the Qur’an. That description is particular to their characteristics, which would respond to the specific challenge of their time. This means that if social change abc was present, Allah (swt) emphasised quality xyz in the prophet for us to understand what their mission was and how they would change their society through the presentation and application of that good quality.
For example in the Qur’an, Prophet Zakariyyah (a) fears his cousins would usurp the role of leadership in the community and owing to their incapability for interpreting the divine, would lead people astray. Knowing this he (a) makes a specific prayer so that Prophet Yahya (a) would be born to respond to that challenge:
وَإِنِّي خِفْتُ الْمَوَالِيَ مِن وَرَائِي وَكَانَتِ امْرَأَتِي عَاقِرًا فَهَبْ لِي مِن لَّدُنكَ وَلِيًّا “Indeed I fear my cousins after me, but my wife is unable to conceive, therefore grant me an heir from You” (19:5).
Another example is the quality of absolute truthfulness in Prophet Ismai’l (a). It’s worth mentioning because his community has the opposite traits, of lies and hypocrisy, such that when he acted it was an evidence upon them of how to restore their character and cultures:
وَاذْكُرْ فِي الْكِتَابِ إِسْمَاعِيلَ إِنَّهُ كَانَ صَادِقَ الْوَعْدِ “And mention Isma’il in the Book; indeed he was evert truthful to his promise” (19:54).
In both cases we realise that the lesson for Islamic politics is that it must face up to the challenges and environments of its time, and change the overriding state of behaviours.
Second, the Qur’an speaks of wealth and power distribution. This is a very topical discussion in political discourse, especially today. Islam speaks clearly to the redistribution of power such that no person should be left far behind nor should a person have such a disproportionate amount.
Specifically, it states that wealth is not to be kept to a certain class nor are the policies of distribution allowed to keep wealth circulating amongst one class:
مَّا أَفَاء اللَّهُ عَلَى رَسُولِهِ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْقُرَى فَلِلَّهِ وَلِلرَّسُولِ وَلِذِي الْقُرْبَى وَالْيَتَامَى وَالْمَسَاكِينِ وَابْنِ السَّبِيلِ كَيْ لَا يَكُونَ دُولَةً بَيْنَ الْأَغْنِيَاء مِنكُمْ “Whatever [spoils taken] from the people of those villages God has turned over to His Apostle – [all of it] belongs to God and the Apostle, and the near of kin [of deceased believers], and the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer, so that it may not be [a benefit] going round and round among such of you as may [already] be rich” (59:7).
In fact the narrations also testify to its opposite that if taxes were to be paid i.e. proper wealth distribution, no person would be left poor:
وقال عليه السلام: “انما وضعت الزكاة اختباراً للاغنياء ومعونة للفقراء، ولو انّ الناس أدّوا زكاة اموالهم، ما بقي مسلم فقيراً محتاجاً وان الناس ما افتقروا ولا احتاجوا ولا جاعوا ولا عروا إلاّ بذنوب الاغنياء Imam as-Sadiq (a) said: “Zakaat has been put as a test upon the rich to aid the poor. Had people paid their taxes, there would not remain a Muslim poor, in need. And indeed people would not be made poor, not in need nor hungry or destitute except for the wrongdoings of the wealthy.”
The application is not just for Islamic dues such as zakaat or khums, but is a principle of justice that where tax dodging is allowed or worse, encouraged, people will remain impoverished due to the imbalance in tax intake. This is also a debate in the political world today. Large and multinational corporations are able to avoid paying their taxes and governments are supporting wealth to remain with them instead of being redistributed.
For example last year a number of companies made massive profits but paid nothing in income tax: Caffe Nero: nil; Vodaphone: nil; EE: nil; Apple… Amazon… McDonald’s…. the list goes on and on. So long as they can avoid paying into the public share, the welfare of people is affected. Islam demands an equitable distribution of wealth and so its policies must yield that.
What is interesting is that narrations mention that when we do not fulfil our duties ourselves, the punishment is that such wealth will be passed to the undeserved. The Prophet Muhammad (s) is narrated to have said: “Whoever withholds his property from (reaching) the good voluntarily, Allah will transfer his wealth to the evil doers forcibly” مَن مَنَعَ مالَهُ مِنَ الأخیارِ اختِیاراً صَرَفَ اللهُ مالَهُ إلَی الأشرارِ اضطِراراً.
Third, power and rights are not only not to be kept amongst a certain class, but it is to be TAKEN back from oppressors. Imam Ali (a) said: “A nation is which the rights of the weak are not taken from the strong, shall never be sanctified” لن تقدس امة لا يؤخذ للضعيف فيها حقه من القوي غير متتعتع.
Similarly, a government which makes policies to vilify, burden, or exacerbate people’s poverty is the worst kind, as Imam Ali (a) said: “To pursue others’ weaknesses in the of the worst of vices” تتبع العورات من اعظم السوءات.
Moreover, a government that does not look after its people’s needs should know they will soon be replaced by people who will do so. As Imam Ali (a) said: “He who does not tolerate or uphold the costs of people’s provisions should be prepared to hand power over to someone else” من لم يحتمل مؤونة الناس فقد اهل قدرته لانتقالها.
In these ways, Islamic politics places the transformation of people’s lives through the equitable redistribution of wealth and power at the centre of its theory.