Wealth inequality and the poverty of Muslim morality
Socioeconomic inequality is perhaps the greatest moral abomination of our time. Has it become sidelined in the Muslim public conscience in favor of tertiary wedge issues?
Religion, poverty, and misplaced moral outrage
There is no kinder way to put it: as a global community, we have our priorities fundamentally backwards. Torn between defending ourselves against a rising tide of Islamophobia, and moral hand-wringing — particularly in the US — over issues like same-sex marriage, we are rapidly losing our moral compass. Rather than addressing the greatest crises of our time, such as the terrifying pace of man-made environmental destruction, or the massively unequal global distribution of wealth, or the stain of structural racism in our societies, or lack of access to healthcare and education, we instead relegate these pressing issues to the discard pile of secular concerns. In doing so, we forsake our faith.
Wealth inequality in the US is nothing short of grotesque. According to Federal Reserve data, as of 2014, the richest 3% of families in the US now possess more than double the wealth of the poorest 90% of families. While American families work more jobs and longer hours, the real median income level is at its lowest point in 20 years, and only a few thousand dollars more than it was in 1986. When adjusted for inflation, the average hourly wage has only increased by 9% since 1972.
In the meantime, wealth concentration in the hands of the richest Americans has increased, and CEOs are taking home record pay. Between 1979 and 2012, census data indicates that the top 5% of families saw an increase of 75% in their real income. During this same period, the lowest fifth income bracket saw their real earnings decrease by more than 12%. Bear in mind that these are fairly conservative estimates.
One of the cruelest results of our economic regime in the US is the impact of this massive upwards redistribution of wealth on the most vulnerable. In the US, 22% — that is, nearly a quarter — of all children live below the federal poverty line. Nearly half of all children in the US (a whopping 45%) live in low-income households. For a snapshot of what this looks like on the ground, consider the following TV news segment from 2011, dealing with food insecurity in low-income households:
It’s worth pausing to consider: if the Islam we are so concerned about spreading does not have an effective answer for the situation of the parents and children in this video, not to mention the millions of others like them, then what’s the point? In that case, the problem is not only the immorality of poverty, but the poverty of our morality.
For a more global picture, according to UNICEF, the material well-being of children in the US is among the worst in the developed world, ranking near that of Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania. The US is a world leader in childhood poverty, infant morality, and number of children who go without breakfast. Lest you think this is all hyperbole, here are a several examples of how the US compares globally on child welfare issues (courtesy of UNICEF):
The level of US income and wealth inequality in general, and childhood poverty in particular, is nothing short of a moral abomination and an affront to God Almighty. For a group of people who tend to not only love but keep carefully groomed our moral high horses, it is baffling to me that in the face of this war on the poor and children, the American Muslim community remains largely silent, instead preoccupied with the fear of two men or two women marrying.
As a community, we need to ask ourselves some important questions. For example, as more and more families take home starvation wages, are we truly content to fix the moral lens Islam on issues like same-sex marriage? How we feel about ourselves, as a community, when we ignore malnourished and starving children in our midst while focusing on the issue of abortion — oblivious to the naked hypocrisy of this clear contradiction? Where are our family values when we not only say nothing, but do nothing, about the fact that the fastest growing segment of the US homeless population is indeed homeless families? What are we doing for the sake of God and the sanctity of Islam when we allow such an immoral social order to exist all around us?
I would argue — and firmly believe — that we have a moral responsibility to our neighbors, Muslim or otherwise. However, let us not pretend for an instant that the issues I have highlighted above do not impact the Muslim community, specifically. According to a Pew Forum study, in 2009, 35% of Muslims earned less than $30,000 annually. Compare that to, say, the same figure for Hindus (9%), or Jews (14%), or Buddhists (25%).
Globally, the picture is even more dire. Out of the 57 member states of the OIC combined, a massive 40% of their total population lives below the poverty level. (On the other hand, in the US, it’s not as though we’re a community without the means to start addressing these issues. According to that same study, 16% of Muslims earned over $100,000 annually.)
Although I am unaware of any specific data on the subject to date, based on broader available figures, I do not think it too far-fetched to suggest that the 20% of US Muslims who are black are probably not in the “over $100,000” category. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that the disproportionately racial impact of income inequality and childhood poverty extends well into the American Muslim community. It is probably not much of an exaggeration to say that racism within the US Muslim community is at least one — if not a significant — contributing factor to our shocking lack of attention and activism on the poverty issue.
How did poverty, which makes a mockery of God’s creation, become sidelined as a moral concern? The answer, I suspect, lies in the idolatry of wealth that has infected our religion. It is recorded that the Messenger of God (S) said: “There is a [golden] calf for every nation, and the calf of my nation is the dinar and dirham.” This is perhaps nowhere better exemplified than the obscene tyrants of the Saudi “royal family” alone have an estimated net worth of at least $1.4 trillion. I suspect we can all think of better, more Godly uses for that money than, say, an opulent luxury vacation in Cannes, involving the closure of a swath of public beach.
In reality, we find the Quran and sunna to be unequivocal on the subject of poverty and equitable distribution of wealth as moral issues.
From the Holy Quran:
Gold Almighty has said:
…Those who treasure up gold and silver, and do not spend it in the way of God, inform them of a painful punishment on the day when these shall be heated in hellfire and therewith branded on their foreheads, their sides, and their backs [and told]: ‘This is what you treasured up for yourselves! So taste what you have treasured!’ (Q. 9:34–35)
And He has said:
Piety is not to turn your faces to the east or the west; rather, piety is [personified by] those who have faith in God and the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets, and who give their wealth, for the love of Him, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveler and the beggar, and for [the freeing of] the slaves, and maintain the prayer and pay the alms tax, and those who fulfill their covenants, when they pledge themselves, and those who are patient in stress and distress, and in the heat of battle. They are the ones who are true [to their covenant], and it is they who are the Godwary. (Q. 2:177)
From the noble sunna:
The Messenger of God (S) has said, “Whoever withholds his wealth from the righteous discriminatingly, God will forcefully distribute his wealth to the evil.”
And he (S) said, “Beware of sitting with the dead.” It was said: O Messenger of God, who are the dead? He said, “Every rich person whose wealth has made a tyrant of him.”
Imam Ali (AS) has said, “Verily God, glory be to Him, allotted the food provisions of the poor within the wealth of the rich. Consequently, no poor man goes hungry except as a result of what a rich man has denied him, and Allah, the Exalted, will question him about that.”
And he (AS) has said, “Surely God made it obligatory upon the rich, that a portion of their wealth was also what would suffice the poor around them. So, if people go hungry, or are naked, or exhausted, it is only because of their deprivation by the rich. And Allah has a right to take them to account for it on the Day of Resurrection, and punish them for it.”
And he (AS) has said, “There is no burden greater than the burden of a rich person [carries for] depriving the needy.”
Imam al-Husayn (AS) has said, “Your wealth is such that if you do not control it, it will control you. So do not save any of it, for it will not remain for you. Consume it [by spending it in the way of God] before it consumes you.”
Imam al-Sajjad (AS) has said, “[As for] the one who sleeps on a full stomach while there is a hungry believer present, God Almighty will say: ‘O My Angels! I hold you as witnesses upon this servant, that I commanded him, but he disobeyed Me, and obeyed other than Me! So I assign this to [be recorded in] his record of deeds. I swear by My honor and My majesty, I will never forgive him, ever!’”
Imam al-Sadiq (AS) has said, “The alms tax was only put in place as a trial for the wealthy and an aid to the poor. If the people paid the alms tax on their property, their would not remain a single needy or impoverished Muslim, and the people would be content with what God Almighty had made obligatory for them. People are not made impoverished, needy, hungry, or naked, except by the sins of the wealthy.”
Imam al-Kazim (AS) has said, “Beware of withholding [giving wealth] in the [way of] obedience to Allah, for you will spend twice its amount in disobeying Him.”
Imam al-Rida (AS) has said, “Wealth can only be gathered through five means: intense stinginess, far-flung expectations [in the worldly life], being overcome by greed, cutting off kinship, and preferring this world over the Hereafter.”
These excerpts a merely a drop in an ocean of divine revelation specifically dealing with the issue of wealth and poverty in the Quran and sunna. Do not think for an instant that we will not be questioned about our own moral bankruptcy on the issue of poverty, both locally, nationally, and globally, on Judgment Day. For American Muslims alone, when we are asked what we did about the fact that 22% of the children in our country live in poverty, or that nearly 50% of the children in our country regularly go without breakfast, I cannot help but wonder what defense any one of us might offer before the Lord. “Sorry, but we were too busy with political wedge issues,” perhaps? I don’t know about you, but I suspect that won’t cut it.
The idolatry of wealth stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of wealth, and to whom it belongs. Unfortunately, it would appear that, if asked, not an insignificant number of Muslims would respond with something along the lines of, “My wealth is my own, and its purpose is whatever I want.” Islamically, however, that’s an insupportable notion.
For those who let their Quran gather dust, in spite of their best intentions, allow me to highlight an important point in this regard: all wealth belongs to God, and its purpose is to help others. Whether or not you use it that way is all part of the Godly test. Thus, in the Quran, God has said:
You shall certainly be tried respecting your wealth and your souls (Q. 3:186)
Likewise regarding wealth as a test, He has said:
Do they think that by what We aid them with of wealth and children, We are hastening to them of good things? Nay, they do not perceive. (Q. 23:55)
And He, the Exalted, has said most pointedly:
As for man, when his Lord tries him, then treats him with honor and makes him lead an easy life, he says: My Lord honors me. But when He tries him (differently), then straitens to him his means of subsistence, he says: My Lord has disgraced me. Nay! but you do not honor the orphan, Nor do you urge one another to feed the poor, And you eat away the heritage, devouring (everything) indiscriminately, And you love wealth with exceeding love. (Q. 89:15–20)
Islamically speaking, wealth ought to be used to cover the basic necessities of a sufficiently comfortable lifestyle relative to one’s time and place. Anything beyond that is excess, and should be used for the benefit of others. Thus, Imam al-Sadiq (AS) has said, “God gave you this excess in wealth to use it according to what God Almighty likes, and He did not give it to you in order for you to hoard it away.”
The best examples of a modest lifestyles, focused more on giving to others than earning for oneself, are the likes of the Prophet, Imam Ali and Fatima, or Abu Dharr. These role models led lives of incredible restraint from excessive material possessions, and devoted their very existences to serving God by serving others in whatever capacity possible.
One may debate the solutions to the problem of poverty all day long; whether they require a massive increase in charitable organizations and contributions, or a radical restructuring of the national and global economies, and an end to capitalism. Yet one indisputable fact remains: the morally obscene distribution of wealth and rates of poverty — particularly childhood poverty — that surround us are startling indicators of just how much we have abandoned not only the words of God, His Messenger, and the appointed successors from the Holy Household, but their examples of what constitutes an ethical life.
To classify the disaster of poverty and wealth inequality as an issue outside the scope of religious morality and obligation, or to downgrade its importance within that realm, is to both disgrace and betray the soul of Islam. As a community, we are well past the time for offering solutions. In fact, if we truly believed in the superiority of our religion, then we should have been running point on this matter, in the US and elsewhere, from day one. Until our actions and financial choices catch up with our supposed values, any self-satisfied moralizing on our part is nothing more than meaningless flapping of the tongue. And don’t forget: the Imam of the Age (AJ) is watching us, just as God is always keeping score.
It is time for the American Muslim community, for one, to lead by example, and take on the moral issue of poverty and wealth inequality in a public and meaningful way, through coordinated grassroots action across the country wherever our there is an mosque, Islamic center, Husayniyya, or just a handful of Muslims. The establishment of a just socioeconomic order is part of the DNA of Islam. While we lament the conditions of the modern Muslim world, we never once ask ourselves what we have done to deserve a better position. We have abandoned the emulation of God’s justice, yet we expect to be successful in this life, not to mention the hereafter. In practice, we hold ourselves hostage to a backwards and wholly un-Islamic value system borrowed from a toxic brand of moneygrubbing, proto-fascist Christian evangelism.
The way forward is to empower ourselves by empowering those around us; to raise ourselves up by raising up our surrounding communities, particularly the most vulnerable. To do this, we must redirect much of our hitherto misplaced moral outrage, and seriously commit to a deep recalibration of our ethical priorities. Or, we can stick to business as usual, and have none but ourselves to blame for the consequences. The choice is ours.