IT’S A STORY I loved as a child. A poor girl is trapped in a room where she must make gold out of straw for a king. This is impossible. But she will not be freed until she does so. Then pops up Rumpelstiltskin and, lo and behold, he makes the gold into straw! But he demands a price. Driven to desperation, the poor girl agrees. The payment for his services is nothing other than her first-born child.
We live in a world of Rumpelstiltskins.
It’s a world where people make money out of things that, by their very natures, should not be made into money. It is a world where people are forced to make payments with things that ought never to be paid with. It is a world where nothing has value beyond the value of its price.
In modern economics, this is a process that takes place under a term called ‘commoditization.’ It is one of those nice, long words that no one really thinks to question because no one really knows what it means. And long, difficult words must be true. Why else would they exist?
But we must learn these names and their meanings. When we do, we see that this word in particular really means ‘economic injustice.’ The reason this is so is because God created this world in harmony, and He has linked this intrinsic harmony and balance of the world with economic justice:
Thus it is He alone who has set the balance of all things, so that you might not transgress the just balance. Therefore establish weights and measures with justice. And you shall not by fraud diminish the balance. [Surat Al-Rahman, 55: 7-9]
Every creature (whether we consider it “living” or “nonliving”) is endowed with God-given, inalienable (do we know what that word means?) rights. “Inalienable rights” means they cannot be exchanged, or replaced, or sold. No wealth-value can be placed on them. To put a price on what God has commanded remain priceless results only in corruption and destruction, humiliation and desperation. And it is our inalienable rights that are precisely what is being commoditized.
What this harmony is, what these inalienable rights are, is really very simple. We see it illustrated with the ascension of Adam and Eve to stewardship (khilafa) of the earth. And God says:
Yet there is for you in the earth a place suitable for settlement, and of goodly provision, for a preordained time. [Surat Al-A‘raf, 7:24]
The inalienable right of every human being is the right to live in security and dignity, and to be cured and well provided for. And it is free because it’s from God.
The central call of the Quran is to reset the balance and harmony of our lives. We see in the words of the prophets of old that this call is always two-fold: Acknowledgement of where we stand in relation to God and an exhortation to the establishment of social justice. And at the core of the latter is economic justice:
Then to the people of Midian, We sent their brother Shu‘ayb as a messenger. He said: O my people! Worship God alone. You do not have any God other than Him. Do not lessen the measure you give in commerce or falsify the balance in trade. For I see you thriving in prosperity, and, indeed, I fear for you the torment of an encompassing Day! And, O my people! You shall fill the measure and the balance with justice. And you shall not defraud the people of their rightful things. Nor shall you make mischief in the earth, sowing corruption in it. [Surat Hud,11:84-85]
This call of Shu‘ayb has been long buried under our present economic system. We live in a world where a price has been placed on every inalienable right. I said before we lived in the world of Rumpelstiltskin, but in actuality it is far worse. Rumpelstiltskin made gold out of straw. Today, we don’t even need straw. An elect group of people make money out of abstract concepts. Thin air. “We the people” make payments on the concept of our property. We make payments on the concept of our work. We make payments, even, on the concept of our health. Property tax. Income tax. Health insurance.
The most heinous of these commoditized concepts is dealt with most forcibly in the Quran. Making money off the concept of money. Also known as riba, interest, whose nature, in any amount, is usurious:
Those who devour usury shall not rise on Judgment Day, except as one rises whom Satan has battered with the touch of madness. That is because they say: Indeed, selling is just like usury—while God has made selling lawful and has prohibited usury. [Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:275].
This is exactly the argument of capitalists (oops! I said the word!). We are just buying and selling these “commodities” just like anything else. But this is not the just exchange of one good for another. It is thievery because one person gains that which he did not earn and, therefore, most importantly, is taking it wrongfully from someone else.
And is it not a fit punishment that these people rise for judgment with a touch of madness? For people under the strain of economic pressure, especially due to these injustices, are so often driven to, and even over, the brink of desperation and insanity.
We see this now with people who are humiliatingly driven from their homes, like cattle, because they could not make payments. We see it in those who have the audacity to get sick when they are buried by debt as they attempt to pay astronomical fees for their health. Material desperation, humiliation, and personal worthlessness—that is all that these helpless people are left with. It is no coincidence that mental illness and suicide rates increase in periods of financial difficulty.
That is why, in very strong terms, the Quran urges people to be for-going and lenient when it comes to economic difficulty. And that is not a nice suggestion. It is a Qur’anic economic commandment:
Now if one in debt has hardship, then let there be respite, until there is ease for him. And should you give it up as charity, it is best for you, if only you were to know. [Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:280]
And always tied to the Quran’s call to economic justice is the constant reminder of the Hereafter. It is a prompt for people to remember that this life is not all that there is. So give generously and keep in check your desire to always gain more wealth by any and all means. One who does so will be more than recompensed in the Hereafter.
It is also a reminder that we will be judged, that these injustices will not go unaccounted for:
Thus fear a Day Hereafter in which you shall be returned to God. Then each soul shall be rendered in full what it has earned—and never shall they be wronged in the least. [Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:281]
As for those who were wronged in this life, they will bear witness before God and all humanity. Then we will all have to answer for the pleasures we enjoyed at their anguished expense:
Then you shall, most surely, be asked to give account that Day for all the delights you have enjoyed in life. [Surat Al-Takathur,102:8]