Islamic Laws

Encouraging Economic Activity in Islam

By: Ayatullah Shaheed Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim
The general economic activity of the virtuous community, as well as its financial capacity and public income, is looked upon as one of the most important issues on which the fiscal power of the virtuous community—plus its capability of movement and protection against dangers and perils and steadfastness against difficulties and pressures—depends. Without taking this issue into consideration, no community can attain perfection or survive the vicissitudes of time.
We have previously referred to the fact that Islam has paid much attention to the economic aspect. For instance, the great financial potential of Lady Khadijah al-Kubra (‘a) played an extremely vital role in helping Muslims withstand ordeals and resist the financial siege which was imposed upon them at the beginning of the promulgation of Islam.
Encouraging Economic Activity
While establishing the economic aspect, the Ahl al-Bayt (‘a) instituted a general principle for their followers, educated them about it and implanted it in their social culture. This general principle was the principle of work and exertion of all possible efforts to earn a livelihood. The Ahl al-Bayt (‘a) disallowed reliance on others to meet one’s financial needs, considering work to this end to be among the obligatory sacred deeds that draw one nearer to Almighty Allah.
In an authentic tradition, Shaykh al-Kulayni reported ‘Umar ibn Yazid to have said to Imam al-Sadiq (‘a), “A man decides to stay at home and he offers prayers, fasts and performs devotional acts, believing that his sustenance will inevitably find its way to him. What is your opinion about such an act?”
The Imam (‘a) commented: This man is among one of the three categories of people whose prayers are never responded to.1
According to another authentic tradition that is reported from ‘Umar ibn Yazid, Imam al-Sadiq (‘a) said: If a man were to enter his house and lock its door, would anything fall on him from the heavens?2
Ayyub, the brother of Adim ibn Bayya’ al-Harawi, is reported to have said that he and some others were sitting in the presence of Imam al-Sadiq (‘a) when al-’Ala’ ibn Kamil came and sat in front of the Imam (‘a) and asked, “Pray to Almighty Allah to provide me with easy sustenance.”
The Imam (‘a) answered: No, I will not. You must seek sustenance as Almighty Allah has ordered you to do.3
This struggle to seek sustenance has been elevated to such a degree that it has attained the rank of jihad or even higher.
In an authentic tradition, al-Halabi has reported Imam al-Sadiq (‘a) as saying: He who works to provide his dependents with sustenance is like a mujahid who fights for the sake of Almighty Allah.4
According to another authentic tradition, Zakariyya ibn Adam has reported Imam al-Ridha (‘a) as saying: He who seeks the grace of Almighty Allah to provide enough sustenance for his dependents will have a greater reward than fighting for the sake of Almighty Allah.5
Muhammad ibn Marwan has reported Imam al-Sadiq (‘a) as saying: The following statement is written in the book of wisdom of (Prophet) David’s household: A Muslim of sane mind must not be seen busy except in three pursuits: improving his livelihood, supplying himself with provisions for the life to come, and seeking lawful pleasures. A rational Muslim is also required to dedicate an hour to acts directed to Almighty Allah, another hour to meeting his brethren-in-faith to discuss the affairs of the Hereafter, and a third hour to gain lawful pleasures. The third hour helps him do the work of the first two hours properly.6
The Ahl al-Bayt (‘a) provided excellent practical examples in order to emphasize the importance of work and clarified this principle empirically so that their followers would follow their examples.
According to an authentic tradition, ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Hajjaj has reported Imam al-Sadiq (‘a) as recounting the following: Muhammad ibn al-Munkadir used to say: I never thought that ‘Ali ibn al-Husayn (‘a) would leave a successor as excellent as himself until I saw his son, Muhammad (‘a). I wanted to give him a lesson, but he gave me one. On a hot day, I went to al-Madinah where I saw Imam al-Baqir (‘a). I said to myself, “A great man of Quraysh working at this hour of day in search of the material world! I will certainly give him some advice.” I approached and gave a salutation. Still catching his breath, he returned my greeting. Sweat was pouring from his head and face because of the heat. I said, “May Allah help you! A great man of Quraysh is seeking worldly provisions at this time of the day! What will happen if death overtakes you in this situation?” He said, “If death overtakes me in this situation, I will be in a state of obedience to Almighty Allah. I am afraid of death only when I am committing a sin!” I said, “May Allah bless you! You are thoroughly right. I intended to give you advice but you gave it to me!”7
Muhammad ibn ‘Adhafir has reported his father as saying: Imam al-Sadiq (‘a) gave my father one thousand and seven hundred dinars asking him to use it in business. The Imam (‘a) then said: Verily, I do not have the desire to gain profits from this business even though profit is something desired; rather, I just want Almighty Allah to see me seeking His interests.
My father made a one hundred dinar profit from the business he undertook. The Imam (‘a), having been informed of this, rejoiced and had my father add the profit to the capital. When my father died and the investment was still with him, Imam al-Sadiq (‘a) summoned me and wrote down, “May Allah grant wellbeing to you and us! I have given Abu-Muhammad one thousand seven hundred dinars to use them in business. So, please hand this amount over to ‘Umar ibn Yazid.”
When I searched in my father’s register, I found the following written therein: “Abu-Musa has one thousand and seven hundred dinars invested with me, and I made a profit of one hundred dinars for him. ‘Abdullah ibn Sinan and ‘Umar ibn Yazid have full acquaintance with the matter.”8
General Trend of Economic Activity
The Holy Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt (‘a) founded a set of principles to be the general trend in the economic activities of their followers. The first principle was to seek sustenance without indolence by exerting all possible effort to provide for oneself through work.
Shaykh al-Kulayni has reported, through a valid chain of authority, that Sadir asked Imam al-Sadiq (‘a), “What is a man required to do to seek sustenance?”
The Imam (‘a) answered: If you open the door [of your store] and stretch your rug [on which you exhibit your goods], you will have done perfectly what you are required to do.9
Al-Tayyar is reported to have said that Imam al-Baqir (‘a) asked him, “What is your current profession or what kind of job are you currently doing?”
He answered, “I have no job.”
The Imam (‘a) instructed: “Betake yourself a store, sweep the confines, and stretch a rug therein. If you do so, you will have done perfectly what you are obligated to do.”
The reporter said, “When I carried out the Imam’s instruction, I was given ample sustenance.”10
Ibn al-Qaddah has reported Imam al-Sadiq (‘a) as saying: Laziness is the enemy of work.11
Imam Musa al-Kazim (‘a) is reported to have said: My father said to one of his sons, “Beware of laziness and tedium, for they deprive you of your share of this world and the Hereafter.”12
The second principle was commitment to seeking only legal sustenance. Almighty Allah, ordered man to seek of His sustenance and guaranteed it to him—provided it was sought through lawful means.
He, the Almighty, has thus said: In heaven is your sustenance, and (also) that which you are promised. (51:22)
Complying with this divine instruction, the Holy Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt (‘a) asserted that, while seeking sustenance, it is necessary to maintain balance between obligation and what Almighty Allah has determined for each individual. As a result, man is required to seek sustenance and, at the same time, be committed to the regulations and general rules determined by Islam, avoiding squandering or violations of these regulations.
Abu-Hamzah al-Thumali has reported on the authority of Imam al-Baqir (‘a) that the Holy Prophet (S) said in his famous sermon at the Farewell Pilgrimage: Verily, the Trustworthy Spirit (the Angel Gabriel) inspired in me that no single soul will die before fully receiving its sustenance. So, (you must) fear Almighty Allah and seek sustenance. Do not make the delay in an amount of your sustenance incite you to seek it through an act of disobedience to Almighty Allah, for He, the Blessed and Exalted, has divided lawful sustenance, never unlawful sustenance, among His creatures. Therefore, whoever fears Almighty Allah and waits patiently, Almighty Allah will give him his lawful sustenance, but whoever ravages the curtain of protection and rushes to take his sustenance unlawfully, Almighty Allah will reduce it from his lawful sustenance and leave him to compensate for it on the Day of Resurrection.13
Ibrahim ibn Abi’l-Ballad has reported on the authority of his father that Imam al-Baqir (‘a) said: There is no single soul but that Almighty Allah has decided for it its sustenance to be gained in a lawful and wholesome way, but He has also determined the same sustenance if gained unlawfully; therefore, if a soul takes any of its sustenance in an unlawful manner, Almighty Allah will reduce it from its lawfully-earned sustenance, which He has determined. With Almighty Allah, however, there is much more grace than sustenance that is gained either lawfully or unlawfully, to which He has referred, saying, “Ask Allah of His grace.(4:32)”14
The third principle was to take considerable interest in preserving one’s funds and maintaining equilibrium in spending in order to avoid both squandering and parsimoniousness.
Almighty Allah has said in the Holy Qur’an: Those who, when they spend, are not extravagant and not niggardly, but hold a just balance between those extremes. (25:67)
The Ahl al-Bayt (‘a) also instructed that one’s funds must be cared for and managed personally, especially when such funds are considerable.
Tha‘labah and other narrators have reported that Imam al-Sadiq (‘a) said: Proper management of funds is part of faith.15
Dawud ibn Sarhan has reported that he once saw Imam al-Sadiq (‘a) weighing dates with his own hands. He thus said to him, “May Allah accept me as ransom for you! You could have ordered one of your sons or servants to save you from this deed.”
The Imam (‘a) answered: O Dawud, three matters can lead a Muslim to uprightness: (1) mastery in religious knowledge, (2) steadfastness against misfortune, and (3) good management of livelihood.16
Yunus has reported that Imam al-Sadiq (‘a) instructed him saying: Manage your major affairs in person, and employ others to manage minor dealings…major affairs include purchasing real estate and matters of a similar nature.17
The fourth principle is commitment to a policy of economization, which includes saving one’s annual provisions, according to the religious law of Islam, so as to eliminate neediness and avoid requiring aid from others.
Al-Hasan ibn al-Jahm has reported that he heard Imam al-Ridha (‘a) saying: If one saves the provisions of a year, one’s burdens will be light and one will rest. Abu-Ja’far (al-Baqir) (‘a) and Abu-’Abdullah (al-Sadiq) (‘a) did not purchase even a knot before they would have already saved provisions for that whole year.18
Ibn Bukayr has reported on the authority of Imam al-Ridha (‘a) that the Holy Prophet (S) said: Verily, after a person saves his (annual) provisions, he will certainly be stable.19
The fifth principle was autonomy in business such that the investments and profit of one’s business would be one’s own concern rather than dealing with partners.
Al-Mufadhdhal ibn ‘Umar has reported that he heard Imam al-Sadiq (‘a) saying: Whoever becomes an employee of another has in fact banned sustenance on himself.20 This is because whatever he gains goes to his employer.21
‘Ammar al-Sabati has reported that he once said to Imam al-Sadiq (‘a), “Men who are employed in business give whatever they earn to their employers.”
The Imam (‘a) commented: They must not accept to be used as employees; rather, they should seek Almighty Allah’s sustenance and work in business for themselves. If they accept to be used as employees, then they will have banned sustenance on themselves.22
The sixth principle was to distribute funds in a number of economic occupations and not invest everything in one area.
According to a valid tradition, Mu’ammar ibn Khallad has reported that he heard Imam al-Ridha (‘a) recounting the following: A man came to Ja’far al-Sadiq (‘a) to try to give him advice. “O Abu-’Abdullah,” said the man, “Why have you separated the funds in scattered sectors. If they were all put in one occupation, it would be easier to supervise and provide greater benefit.”
The Imam (‘a) answered: I have distributed them among various sectors so that if one sector loses, the other funds will be saved. At any rate, the total is the composite of all these funds.23
The seventh principle was avoidance of saving, storing, or transferring all of one’s funds into currency, gold, or silver. One should conduct business with one’s funds or transfer them into real estate, farms, or commercial enterprises.
Zurarah has reported that he heard Imam al-Sadiq (‘a) say: No legacy is worse than money that lays stagnant…money must be transferred into estates; i.e. farms or houses.24
Through these principles, we get an idea about the general economic activities that the Ahl al-Bayt (‘a) determined for their followers.
Directing Economic Activity
The Ahl al-Bayt (‘a) did not stop at principles; rather, they directed the economic activities of the virtuous community after examining the social, political and economic circumstances under which the Muslim community in general and the virtuous community in particular lived.
Common Activities
A general view of professions that produced greater benefit pointed out the following fields of economic activity:
(1) Agriculture: cultivating lands of the ruling regime (i.e. annexed lands), cultivating derelict lands, entering into a farm-sharing contract (muzara’ah), or irrigating lands by digging wells and canals.
(2) Animal Husbandry: shepherding, providing fodder and in-house breeding.
(3) Trade: facilitating processes of exchanging money for goods, distribution of goods internally and externally through transport of goods to various regions and countries (i.e. import and export).
(4) Manual labor: weaving, saddle making, blacksmithing, construction, etc.
(5) Extracting natural resources: mining, diving, hunting and fishing.
(6) Professions and crafts: tailoring, goldsmithery, tanning, preparation of medications, and similar professions and services.
(7) Clerical jobs: clerks, constabulary, jobs in the military forces, tax collection, employment, governorship and the like.
(8) Cultural, educational, and the arts: teaching, writing, oration, poetry, novel writing, drawing, sculpture, ornamentation, calligraphy, etc.
(9) Complete avoidance of religiously forbidden professions: sorcery, witchcraft, black arts, sale of wine and intoxicants, managing brothels and so on.
Of course, economic activities vary with regard to the social conditions and circumstances. However, except for forbidden earnings, these activities are necessary for human societies because they help in their perfection and, sometimes, some of these activities are even obligatory according to the religious code of Islamic law; that is, they are obligatory collectively upon the society and when some individuals carry out those activities such that the needs of society are met, the others will be released from responsibility in that regard.
In the past, the followers of the Ahl al-Bayt (‘a) would engage in a large variety of economic activities, other than those that were forbidden—a fact that can be understood from the reports on the religious laws appertaining to such activities. Other reports have also asserted that the followers practiced various activities and would ask the Holy Imams (‘a) about the details of laws pertaining to their jobs.
Forbidden Activities
The Ahl al-Bayt (‘a) prohibited their followers from practicing certain activities, previously mentioned as religiously forbidden professions.
According to an authentic tradition, Abu-Basir has reported that he asked Imam al-Baqir (‘a) about the legality of occupying offices in the ruling regimes of unjust rulers.
The Imam (‘a) answered: O Abu-Muhammad, never help them in any matter even if it be as trivial as handing them over a pen. No one can obtain any worldly benefits from them without losing a part of their faith in the same amount as the benefit.25
According to another authentic tradition, Ibn Abi-Ya’fur has reported the following: I was once in the presence of Imam al-Sadiq (‘a) when one of our acquaintances (i.e. followers of our faith) visited him and said, “May Allah lead you to more success! One of us who is exposed to penury or indigence might be offered (by the despotic ruling authorities) employment to construct a building, clear waste from a river, or fix a beaver-dam. What is your opinion in this regard?”
The Imam (‘a) said: I would never desire to do anything for them, even if it be as trivial as untying a knot or sewing a bag, even if they give me whatever lies between its (i.e. al-Madinah) two extremes (i.e. mountains on either side). Definitely not! Even if it be handing over a pen. On the Day of Resurrection, the assistants of the tyrants shall be put under a canopy of fire and kept there until Almighty Allah finishes settling accounts with all His worshippers.26
Likewise, the Ahl al-Bayt (‘a) forbade their followers from practicing other banned activities that were common in that age, such as rearing girls for singing, using them as slaves, or selling them; selling forbidden things like corpses, blood, filthy things, and intoxicants; working for the benefit of the singing profession, sorcery, witchcraft, or black arts; cheating, counterfeiting, or working in prostitution in addition to other banned activities mentioned in the books of practical laws.
They also instructed their followers to avoid certain activities and occupations which were considered by them to be objectionable or requiring precaution. The reason for this was that such occupations required high proficiency in religious law to be practiced properly—either because ordinary people do not pay enough attention to details of religious requirements or because of certain subtle spiritual and moral aspects. Money-changing, goldsmithery, and butchery are examples of these objectionable economic activities.
According to a valid tradition, Ishaq ibn ‘Ammar has reported that he once visited Imam al-Sadiq (‘a) and informed him about the birth of his son, “May Allah accept me as ransom for you!” said Ishaq, “Which craft should I teach him?”
The Imam (‘a) answered: If you turn him away from the following five crafts, you may then teach him any craft you like: (1) You must not put him in the craft of money-changing, because a moneychanger cannot avoid usury. (2) You must not involve him in the craft of coffin-selling, because a coffin-seller is pleased when a plague comes upon the people. (3) You must not involve him in food-brokerage, because monopoly rarely leaves a food-broker. (4) You must not teach him to be a butcher, because mercy and sympathy has been divested from butchers’ hearts. (5) You must not put him in the slave-trade, because Allah’s Messenger (S) has said, “The most evil of all people are those who sell people.”27
According to another validly reported tradition, Talhah ibn Zayd reported on the authority of Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq (‘a) that the Holy Prophet (S) said: I have given my (maternal) aunt a slave-boy and I warned her against teaching him to be a butcher, a cupper, or a goldsmith.28
Abu-Isma’il al-Razi (i.e. of Ray, currently Tehran), the sword-polisher, has reported that he visited Imam al-Sadiq (‘a) carrying two garments. “Abu-Isma’il,” The Imam (‘a) said, “I have been gifted many garments by you but none of them was as fine as these two.”
Abu-Isma’il said, “May Allah accept me as ransom for you! These were spun by my wife and woven by me.”
The Imam (‘a) asked astonishingly, “Are you a weaver?”
“Yes, I am” Abu-Isma’il answered.
The Imam (‘a) warned, “Do not be a weaver!”
Abu-Isma’il asked, “If I do not, then what should I be?”
The Imam (‘a) instructed, “You may be a sword-polisher!”
Abu-Isma’il commented: I had two dirhams with which I bought swords and antique mirrors. I then went to Ray and sold them at great profit.29
The Ahl al-Bayt (‘a), of course, demonstrated that these crafts are not objectionable in themselves, but rather are undesirable because they were attached to some complicated matters. They clarified that the warning against engagement in such crafts was because of confusing ethical and legal matters attached to them. On other occasions, they also confirmed that honesty must be present in every job.
According to a validly reported tradition, Imam ‘Ali Amir al-Mu’minin (‘a) has said: Verily, Almighty Allah loves trustworthy professionals.30
Unambiguous Economic Activities
In addition to their directives in this field, the Ahl al-Bayt (‘a) chose for their followers a set of economic activities to be the main object of their attention and the center of their activities. In this respect, we will refer to three activities: commerce, agriculture (in its common sense), and utilization of real estate.
1. – Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:77, H. 1.
2. – Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:77, H. 2.
3. – Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:78, H. 3.
4. – Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:88, H. 1.
This section and the following ones bear positive traditions that demonstrate this concept.
5. – Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:88, H. 2.
6. – Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:87, H. 1.
7. – Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi: 5:73-74, H 1.
Muhammad ibn al-Munkadir was one of the superior master and most trustworthy scholars of Sunnis. He died in AH 130 or 131.
This section of the previous reference book comprises many narrations about the Ahl al-Bayt’s acting as examples to be followed.
8. – Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:76, H. 12.
9. – Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:79, H. 1.
10. – Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:79, H. 2.
11. – Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:85, H. 1.
12. – Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:85, H. 2.
13. – Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:80, H. 1.
14. – Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:80, H. 2.
15. – Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:87, H. 3.
16. – Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:87, H. 4.
17. – Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:90-91, H. 1.
18. – Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:89, H. 1.
19. – Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:89, H. 2.
20. – Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:90, H. 3.
21. – Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:90, H. 1.
22. – Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:90, H. 3.
23. – Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:91, H. 1.
24. – Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:91, H. 2.
25. – Al-Hurr al-’Amili, Wasa’il al-Shi’ah 12:129, H. 5; Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi, 5:107, H. 5.
26. – Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:106-107, H. 5.
27. – Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:114, H. 4.
28. – Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:114, H. 5.
29. – Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:114, H. 6.
30. – Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:113, H. 1.

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