Jumuah lecture on Friday 4 January 2019 (27 Rabi-u-Thani 1440) by Dr Sheikh Shahid Mathee at the Ahlul Bait (a.s) Masjid, Ottery, Cape Town.
إِنَّ الَّذِينَ يَتْلُونَ كِتَابَ اللَّهِ وَأَقَامُوا الصَّلَاةَ وَأَنْفَقُوا مِمَّا رَزَقْنَاهُمْ سِرًّا وَعَلَانِيَةً يَرْجُونَ تِجَارَةً لَنْ تَبُورَ
29. “Surely they who recite the Book of Allah and keep up prayer and spend out of what We have given them secretly and openly, hope for a gain which will not perish.”
لِيُوَفِّيَهُمْ أُجُورَهُمْ وَيَزِيدَهُمْ مِنْ فَضْلِهِ ۚ إِنَّهُ غَفُورٌ شَكُورٌ
30. “That He may pay them back fully their rewards and give them more out of His grace: surely He is Forgiving, Multiplier of rewards.”
May Allah (SWT) grant us the elements that are necessary for us to nurture our Taqwa that will help us on the Day of Qiyamah.
In these verses 29 and 30 from Surah Faatir (chapter 35 of the Holy Quran), Allah (SWT) says that those who recite the Quran and those who establish Salaah regularly and properly and who spend from that which we have granted them secretly and openly, they wish and hope for a commerce that will never diminish and never end. In that way Allah (SWT) gives them their reward and Allah (SWT) increases them from His Bounty. Indeed, Allah (SWT) is the one who forgives (ghafur) and in that way Allah (SWT) rewards us (shakur).
WHO DETERMINES PRICING?
Respected brothers and sisters, perhaps to start with a statement – if you recall over the last year, in 2018, we lived the fuel increases which escalated higher than ever before. We also saw the VAT increase of 1% and what that did to many people. We also saw the electricity increases and we were of course livid. Some of us may have even used words that we should not use in our critique of the system. We were deeply concerned!
However, in December and now again in January, we got some “relief” at least on fuel prices. We breathed! Some of us even smiled. Now, our response to the increases as well as our response to the decrease is behaviour in many ways. It is our Ahklaq.
The question would be – what informs our behaviour? What informs our responses to these price increases? Or is it just innocent responses? Do we just respond because we are unhappy about prices going up? Is there a relationship between our Akhlaq (behaviour) and these economic developments?
Let me put this question in another way. Who decides and who determines tariffs and prices? To put this question even in another way, is pricing the act of Allah (SWT) or is it the act of humanity ie. the market for example?
In a capitalist system, the market is God, absolutely! The market trumps Allah (SWT) in a capitalist system. But let us ask this question ie. who determines prices?
CALIPH UMAR BIN ABDUL AZIZ BELIEVED ALLAH (SWT) SET PRICES
Abu Yusuf was one of the famous early jurists, very well-known as the student of Imam Abu Haneefa (RA). There is some Hadith which he takes back to Umar bin Abdul Aziz, who was one of the Umayyad Caliphs. Abu Yusuf narrates that someone came to Umar bin Abdul Aziz in his capacity as the Caliph and asked the following: “How is it that things have become expensive now that you are the Caliph, whereas they were cheap during the time of the rulers before you?”
This means that the same concerns that we have right now, today, is identical to the concerns which people had in the year 702! Humanity have the same experiences!
Umar bin Abdul Aziz replies by saying that those in power before him (the governing structures) placed many conditions and made things difficult for the Ahlul Dhimmah (non-Muslims living in the Islamic state). This gives us some idea of economic and social history, that most of the traders were still non-Muslim.
The economy at that time was still in the hands of Jews, Christians or Zoroastrians etc, while the state was Islamic. So he says that they use to make things very difficult with multiple laws and regulations. Therefore he says that these traders had to sell at any price or their merchandise would depreciate in value and remain unsold, because of the conditions that the state placed upon people.
So they sold at cheaper prices in order to get rid of their stock, and avoid food being perished and clothes getting old and so on. Those who are business minded will understand how this works.
Then Umar bin Abdul Aziz says that he only makes rules which people can carry. Hence, in his time of rule, he decided that people can sell the way they want ie. a free-market system. So, people sell at the price they want which means they have free reign to raise the prices too.
He says this is in contrast to the rulers before him who instituted all kinds of rules which compelled traders to bring their prices down.
The person then asks Umar bin Abdul Aziz whether he will install prices ie. a tariff regime with pre-determined price-setting by the state. Umar bin Abdul Aziz responds by saying that it is not for the state to do so, as rulers who are human beings. He says that it is Allah (SWT) who decides the prices.
Now, Umar bin Abdul Aziz is known as the just Caliph. But there is something problematic here, because it would appear as if the Caliphs before him were unjust since in their regime they allowed the traders to not do whatever they wanted, at least if we read it superficially.
On the other hand, here the pious Caliph Umar bin Abdul Aziz comes into power and says that he will not do price-setting and therefore these traders, in whose hands the commanding heights of the economy is, can decide prices.
Now this is a bit difficult, because Umar bin Abdul Aziz is saying that prices can go anywhere, up or down, unrestricted. And then he is also saying that prices are determined by Allah (SWT).
So imagine that when the petrol price went beyond R17 a litre in 2018, it is Almighty Allah (SWT) who made petrol to be this price! Now, do we have the right to complain if Allah (SWT) makes petrol and food to be so expensive? Definitely NOT! How can we complain against Almighty Allah (SWT)?? That is the problem with this particular understanding, if we believe that prices are set by Allah (SWT).
IS PRICES IN SOUTH AFRICA SET BY THE MARKET OR BY ALLAH (SWT)?
It is interesting in Muslim theology that the Ash’ari school had exactly this view about Umar bin Abdul Aziz, that Almighty Allah (SWT) decides prices. In contrast to this, we have the Mu’tazila and many of the others believe that nature decides prices eg. the weather and even human beings.
Today we need to ask ourselves which view we want to accept, in South Africa and across the world, where things are so expensive.
Do we want to accept the view that Almighty Allah (SWT) decides pricing? We may want to say this, but we have no way of communicating with Allah (SWT) to know how prices should be determined, because the market does this. Is there any way that we can establish whether the market has a link to Allah (SWT), considering that the market is most ambiguous, as we very well know?!
In the capitalist system, the market is God, but you have no way of communicating…it is the few who decide! This is not a scholastic or theological question. We can talk about this, namely the view of the Ash’ari etc. However, this is not a scholastic question. This is an engaged question. It is not even an ideological question to start with.
Of course, in a sense it is ideological as in with the ideas, but more directly, it is a question of life and death! People live and people die! In this country of South Africa, 12 people die daily because of hunger. So, who decides the prices? Hence, this is an extremely important question. It is not simply an ideological or theological question.
WHAT IS OUR TRUE EXISTENCE IN A CAPITALIST SYSTEM?
As human beings, we experience these daily realities of inflation. We look at our payslips and ask ourselves tough questions about what is happening this month. Can we repay our mortgage? Many of us can, while others simply cannot. And this is the reality throughout the world, and not only South Africa.
I am impacted, and therefore I exist. If I am to have a very superficial reading on the whole notion of Wujud (existence) and want to deny my existence, if I know that I have to pay the electricity bill and fuel, and give your children food, then you know you exist in spite of yourself. So, existence is brought upon us!
I realise my existence in concrete terms, not purely as an abstract question, but as a live question. Therefore, we go back and ask how our religious discourse responds to this question of pricing, and the question of capitalism and to the question of the markets. These are extremely important questions, without doubt, and our religious scholars have to engage these questions.
ECONOMIC MODEL PRE-CAPITALISM: COMMODITY – MONEY – COMMODITY
Let me for a moment take you to the reflection of Karl Marx, to understand how things have changed in this capitalist system and why capitalism is so very hard and so obscenely immoral. Therefore, the notion of trying to transform capitalism is a failure.
Lets look at what Marx says…
We basically had CMC prior to capitalism. This means we had a commodity, and then money, and then it goes back to a commodity. In other words, when this system became the order, we sold things in order to buy.
For example, a peasant grew corn. The peasant would take this corn and sell it off to another person and would buy clothes with the money. They would take their kid to a hospital or buy a house to live in.
This is the CMC model, meaning the transformation from a commodity to money and then back to a commodity. In other words, the money is in the end converted to a commodity that serves a useful value. So, one is not selling here with the intent of making more money.
ECONOMIC MODEL OF CAPITALISM: MONEY – COMMODITY – MONEY
However, with modern-day capitalism, this relationship is turned around. It now becomes MCM ie. money to buy a commodity and to make more money! Money is changed into a commodity, and then the commodity is changed back to money. In other words, the capitalist bought in order to sell and not to use. Now, if one buys in order to sell, then what is foremost in the mind is profit maximisation. There is no care any longer for humanity.
KARL MARX CRITIQUE OF CAPITALISM
This is a very important point which Karl Marx discusses and quite frankly he should know this. He often didn’t work in his life and he often needed to sell his own clothes so that he could pay his rent! Some would say that he was just plain lazy! Be that as it may…this is why he could write from his heart!
So the point that Marx discusses is the MCM model, where money is needed to buy a commodity and then the commodity is sold to convert back to money. Marx says that in this “money”, “commodity”, and again “money” form, the buyer lays out the money in order that he may recover money at all costs as a seller.
Marx says that the buyer throws money into circulation by the purchase of his commodity, in order to recover it again by the sale of the same commodity. In other words, he lets money go but only with a sly intention of getting it back again, because capitalism is sly and deceptive by origin ie. it has no inherent good in it!
The money is therefore not spent, but merely advanced! This is very different to the CMC, where you sell in order to get some money to buy something else to live! With MCM, it is about making money and the one who makes the most money comes to the top of the chain. It is money to make more money!
Of course, I want to have a superficial reading of what Marx said. Marx lived in Europe, he was often Euro-centric and perhaps he did not even understand what happened outside of Europe. That being said, the principle is there which reflects what is happening in life today.
GOVERNMENTS ARE THE SLAVES OF CAPITALISTS
Governments all over the world are managers for the big companies. That is true about capitalism. So, often we can take our anger against governments. The exceptions to this are governments who have political will such as countries like Iran and Venezuela. We see the economic terrorism in Venezuela because those who own the commanding heights of the economy will starve the entire country!
Venezuela is a rich country but there is no food in the shops. People from here have to escape to other countries. Why? It is because you have a government there with political will. Yes, we can have a critique of all these governments, such as Maduro and Chavez etc. However, the point is that they are saying that they will not simply be managers for those who own the economy.
This is the role that Islam should play and our religious leaders (Ulama) should lead us in, so that we can replace capitalism. This notion of trying to Islamise capitalism simply cannot work because the system is fundamentally and intrinsically immoral!
CAPITALISM CONTROLS HUMAN BEHAVIOUR!
Now, to come back to the question of behaviour I raised at the beginning, it is not simply an innocent thing that when we notice the petrol price increase, some of us may simply be disappointed and still remain calm while others may swear! Do you think this is accidental? NOT AT ALL, especially when you see people smiling when the prices come down over this festive season! This once again shows how capitalism controls everything – even our Akhlaq and even our religion to an extent!
We may think that our responses are not often linked to something. Let me give you an example. I was in Mali recently where there is a greater influx of cars on the road, which talks to the economic progress. People are not even courteous on the road any longer, because everyone is in a mad rush to get to the next point! They will simply knock you down! Interestingly, this was not the case 10 years ago when these cars were not there!
Why have we lost our Akhlaq? It is because the economy and money often decides how we even behave! Yes, indeed, Alhamdu Lillah, from the teachings of the Quran and the Sunnah of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) we need to be calm and keep control of ourselves, but we see how these economic factors impact the mood on ground.
What our religious discourse says or does not say is often decided by these very same factors. Even if you look at the media…who decides the media? It is not simply an accident, but those who are at the commanding heights of the economy are setting the agenda of what is communicated to us.
IMAM ALI (A.S) FROWNS UPON THE STATE OF POVERTY
Amir al-Mu’mineen Imam Ali ibn abi Talib (a.s) says to his son Imam Hassan al-Mujtaba (a.s) that he should never blame a person who is seeking his/her sustenance, if their behaviour is bad.
Imam Ali (a.s) goes further to say that whoever does not find his food has many sins and mistakes. Imam Ali (a.s) then says that the poor person is despised and his speech is not attended to. This person’s status is not acknowledged.
When a poor person speaks the truth, he is told that he is lying! If a poor person is an ascetic, they would say that he is like this because he does not have anything! This is what society does!
Imam Ali (a.s) then says that whoever is tested with poverty is tested with 4 characteristics:
- He/She has weak Imaan;
- That person’s intellect is defective;
- His/Her faith is flimsy;
- That person has little shame or modesty
That is why we see that the Saudis can do what they want…they can bribe people with some money. Perhaps you and I can reject it because we have food, but ask the person who does not have food! Ask the poor Muslims who play the Lottery! It is nice to say that it is Haraam, and that is the correct approach, because it is Haraam, but the person who plays the Lottery is hopeful he can get some money to escape the rut of poverty.
Our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) says that poverty is tantamount to disbelief! They are together as counterparts.
COUNTRIES WITH A STRUGGLE BACKGROUND HAVE NOT UNDERSTOOD CAPITALISM
What I am saying is that the bad Akhlaq in response to economic pressures is not simply because the person has no manners and etiquette. Instead, we need to reflect on how this bad Akhlaq is determined by an external force, and we need to do something about that external force.
Let’s look at Iraq today. Many of those who are in power today are students of one of the greatest intellectual giants of the 20th century, namely Shaheed Ayatollah Sayed Muhammad Baqir Sadr. While Iraq is dealing with the terrible plague of corruption, I do not think every government officer in Iraq is corrupt, or in South Africa for that matter.
I think the bigger problem is that they have not come to terms with understanding capitalism. I think they are very sincere people. I would not want to believe that all of Ayatollah Baqir Sadr’s students have become corrupt and simply filling their own pockets without caring about the people of Iraq. Indeed, that element is there, but the real root cause is that they have not come to terms with capitalism.
This is what Islamic finance does. While there are indeed good efforts, we need to have a good reading to respond to these questions. Maybe we need a person in the Muslim world like Marx to go and study how does this capitalist system actually work and how does pricing of commodities actually work. This is what Marx did. Only then can we have a scientific critique, and not only a moral critique of capitalism.
SOCIETY IS CRYING OUT FOR ECONOMIC REFORM
It is within our ability to have a system whereby all of humanity can benefit. All of us know what is wrong today. It is not a theological question when we see children dying because of poverty, when mothers are just boiling water to deceive their children into thinking that they are cooking something, when in fact there is nothing in the pot! This is not the system of Almighty Allah (SWT).
Our response should be a moral one based upon Taqwa. Imam Khomeini made a choice to eat dry bread. That was his personal choice because he could have eaten anything else. He did not only have dry bread accessible to him.
We can similarly follow this. However, the bigger focus should be on the system to ensure that everyone has enough to eat. Will we as a community, society and as a state contribute to this change?
May Almighty Allah (SWT) grant us the ability to reflect upon these challenges, to think about issues such as pricing and become more engaged. Insha Allah, may our religious scholars (Ulama) lead us in addressing these questions and finding the solutions, and for their role to not simply be confined to a ceremonial one in the eyes of the government.
Our government should be told unequivocally that the VAT increase was wrong because they are managing the country for the kleptocrats ie. those who are stealing from this country like the Oppenheimers, who have not been taken to task and probably will not be taken to task, together with all the others who have stolen from this country.
More importantly, we need to present the alternative.
Lastly, congratulations to all the matriculants who are able to enter university and conduct further studies. The imperative of gaining a further education is to learn and transform. It is not simply about getting a degree to enter into the market. This is what capitalism wants ie. to create educated people for the market, in order to serve their selfish interests!