The Islamic Perspective on Poverty: Understanding the Conflicting Narrations


“Oh Mankind! You are the ones who stand in need of Allah, and Allah is all-sufficient and all-praiseworthy.” (Quran 35:15)

Poverty is currently one of the greatest challenges faced by the global community as a whole. It is estimated that approximately 713 million people, or nearly 9% of the world’s population, live in extreme poverty today [1]. Extreme poverty in these studies is defined as living on less than $1.90 a day. It should also be mentioned that another quarter of the world’s population lives below $3.20.

These numbers have been on the rise given the global pandemic as stated by the World Bank Group president, David Malpass: “the pandemic and global recession may cause over 1.4% of the world’s population to fall into extreme poverty”. As we can see from these numbers, poverty is a serious challenge that we as a global community are facing and will continue to face as the global population increases.

While many organizations are making an effort to alleviate the challenges caused by this issue, what I will seek to accomplish in this article is to provide a theological understanding of poverty based on the verses of the Qu’ran and the traditions of the Prophet and his family. 

When one examines the Islamic literary corpus, as a whole, one will find two conflicting descriptions regarding the concept of poverty. One batch of traditions seems to be praising the role of poverty in one’s spiritual development, while another set strongly warns about the social dangers of this challenge. The question here is which particular aspect of poverty do each of these sets of traditions refer to? When this is understood, only then will one be able to gain a holistic understanding of poverty from the Islamic perspective, otherwise simply examining just one batch of traditions without a thorough understanding of the other can be harmful to one’s worldview and social responsibilities. 

The word for poverty, or need, in the Arabic language, is faqr (الفقر) and the one who is in a state of poverty is called a faqīr (الفقیر). When we examine the portion of the Islamic literary corpus that praises the idea of poverty, the first consideration should be given to verse [35:15] of the Qu’ran which states: “Oh Mankind! You are the ones who stand in need of Allah, and Allah is all-sufficient and all-praiseworthy.” In this verse, we find that all of mankind is described as being in a state of poverty, or need, before Allah.

From this verse, we come to understand that the portion of the Islamic literary corpus which praises poverty is, firstly, referring to one’s existential poverty and need before Allah. This recognition of our endless need before Allah in every aspect of our life, beginning with existence itself, is considered a highly praised act. So in this sense, we are never able to escape being in a state of existential poverty, for we possess nothing of our own in the truest unconditional sense of possession.

The second regards to which poverty is praised in Islamic literature are those narrations which incite mankind to ascetism. It should be noted here that asceticism, conveyed by the Arabic word zuhd (الزهد), does not mean to forgo utilizing one’s abilities to acquire worldly blessings in a manner that has been deemed lawful by the Islamic legislation. Rather, it means to remove materialism and attachment to the perishing entities of this transient world, particularly when these material attachments hinder one from carrying out their responsibilities to Allah.

In this regard, we find that the Prophet states: “Poverty is relief, and affluence is a punishment” [2]. This “relief” from poverty comes from the fact that it aids in removing materialism. From the opposite angle, we also find traditions that describe true wealth as spiritual richness. For example, the Prophet has been quoted to have said: “Wealthniess does not come from an abundance of possessions, but rather it comes from the wealth of one’s self” [3].

It is stated that one day the famous companion of Imam Mūsa al-Kāim, by the name of Buhlūl, went to Hārūn al-Rashīd, the caliph, and gave him an old coin. When Harūn asked him about this, he replied by saying: “I had made a vow that if a particular problem of mine was solved, I would donate this coin to a poor person and after searching I found no one who is more poor, in the trust sense, than you”. Though Hārūn was the caliph possessing all the wealth one could imagine, Buhlūl taught a lesson that true wealth is spiritual wealthiness and true poverty is spiritual poverty.

So it can be seen from this discussion, thus far, that these traditions in the praise of poverty are speaking from either the virtue of recognizing one’s existential poverty before Allah or from the angle of inciting one toward’s the removal of materialism, thus building a stronger spiritual foundation in one’s life. 

Now we come to the examination of that portion of the Islamic literature which outright condemns poverty and mentions the importance of poverty alleviation. Here I find it appropriate to start by quoting Ayatullah Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī, who in one of his lessons on Akhlā(morality), said: “Poverty, in and of itself, is the well-spring (source) for many individual and communal deviations and corruptions” [4].

This quote shows that poverty is a serious issue which needs to be solved not only for alleviation in this world, but for a spiritual flourishing of the greater global community. Imam ‘Alī when speaking to his son Muamamd al-anafiyyah said: “Oh my son, I fear for you because of poverty, so seek refuge in Allah from it, for poverty diminishes one’s faith, brings confusion to one’s judgments, and incites one towards hatred” [5].

We often see that areas suffering from poverty are also more prone to an increase in crime rates. It is unfortunate that sometimes we as a society only examine the issue of crime from a superficial level at times, instead of understanding that one of the root causes for criminal behavior is economic deprivation. This negative effect of poverty has been mentioned in various narrations, such as the quote of Imam Ali above, and other traditions from our religion, such as the one which states: “Poverty darkens the face in both realms (this world and the hereafter)” [6].

Based on this category of traditions in the strong condemnation of poverty, we can say that the Islamic emphasis on poverty alleviation consists of both the angle of bringing about social equity and comfort for mankind, but also the angle of spiritual flourishment which arises in an individual and a society when their basic needs are being met. It is for this reason, we see many verses of the Quran and narrations which emphasize giving charity.

To quote all of these verses would be outside the scope of this article, but we find great praise for those who strive to alleviate the plight of the needy by giving charity in [2:274] when the Quran says: “Those who give their wealth by night and by day, secretly and openly, they shall have their reward near their Lord, and they will not fear, nor will they grieve”.

It is here that I conclude this brief discussion which was written with a general audience in mind, and leave you all with a quote by the Commander of the Faithful, Imam ‘Alī, who reminds us of our individual responsibility of helping the needy by saying: “cure poverty with charity and by giving generously” [7].


[1] These numbers were taken directly from The World Bank’s official website.

[2] Muammad al-Raysharī, Mīzān al-ikmah, vol. 3, p. 2442. 

[3] al-Shaykh al-Ḥasan ibn ‘Alī al-Ḥarrānī, Tuaf al-‘uqūl ‘an āl-Rasūl, p. 57.

[4] I had come across this quote in a book titled al-arba‘ūn adīthan. This work was prepared by al-Sayyid Muḥammad ‘Abdallah Zādeh, a student of Ayatullah Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī, and is a collection of forty traditions which Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī has discussed in his lessons on Akhlāq. 

[5] al-Sharīf al-Radhī, Nahj al-Balāghah, short saying no. 319. 

[6] Mīzān al-ikmah, vol. 7, p. 498. 

[7] ‘Abd al-Wāḥid ibn Muammad al-Tamīmī al-Āmudī, Ghurar al-ḥikam wa durar al-kalim, hadith no. 5156.

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