The History of the Prohibition of Interest

AHMED DANYAL ARIFECONOMICS

2nd November 2021 THE REVIEW OF RELIGIONS

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Ahmed Danyal Arif, UK

According to Muslims, each word and every letter of the Holy Qur’an is the word of Allah, revealed to Muhammad (sa), the Seal of the Prophets.

The span of this revelation is spread over the entire period of his prophethood which lasted twenty-three years. In other words, the revelation of the first fragment of the Qur’an marked the beginning of his prophethood, and the last part was revealed shortly before his demise. Therefore, if the collective days of his prophethood are analyzed against the total number of Qur’anic verses, the average daily revelation is equivalent to approximately nine words per day. [1] On the basis of these calculations, it is evident that the Qur’an was revealed at a slow and progressive pace. The Qur’an itself does not imply anything when it says: ‘And We have divided the Qur’an in parts that thou mayest read it to mankind slowly and at intervals; and We have sent it down piecemeal.’ [2]

The wisdom behind it is that it was first necessary to allow Muslims, especially the early adherents to the message of Islam, to study and memorize it. Moreover, there are many verses urging a change in the usual pattern of some practices in which many Arabs were entangled. In the socio-economic sphere, by the time of the advent of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa), there was a clear tendency towards individualism in Makkah.

In fact, to say that the Holy Qur’an is full of chapters evoking divine displeasure with Makkan society is really an understatement. Their economic culture concentrated wealth in the hands of a few to the exclusion of the poorest. Class division in Makkah resulted from and reinforced the concentration of wealth in the hands of the rich merchants. [3] These merchants began to use their excess capital in another form of banking practice: interest (Ribā). With the increased commercial activity and with the reduction of risks involved in such investments, those who had no original capital were encouraged to borrow from the merchants who did, and usury became for them another way to further increase capital and amass wealth.

Makkans were thus naturally invited to more moderation and flexibility, especially towards the poor, orphans, widows and all who were weak and in need of help. Such deprivation was also not economically sound because the widening gap between the rich and the poor had not only created social tension, but was forcing merchants to give up more of their wealth. As a result, they were asked to make their wealth more mobile by distributing it instead of accumulating it excessively.

Coming back to interest, let us bear in mind that the term used in the Holy Qur’an is ‘Ribā’ and its meaning was far broader during that time than it is today. One of its meanings was the taking of interest on a loan of money — it did not matter how much. That being said, the order in which the verses on interest were revealed demonstrates that its prohibition was done gradually in order to prepare the ethos of the population:

Step 1:

Whatever you lay out at interest that it may increase the wealth of the people, it does not increase in the sight of Allah; but whatever you give in Zakat, seeking the pleasure of Allah — it is these who will increase their wealth manifold.’ [4]

This verse appears in chapter 30 (Surah Al-Rūm), which was entirely revealed in Makkah. The inner evidence of the opening verses of this chapter indicates that it was revealed during the sixth or seventh year of the Holy Prophet’s (sa) mission, as in that year the tide of the Persian conquest was at its height. The Persian armies were knocking at the very gates of Constantinople and the degradation of the Romans had touched its nadir. It is not at all surprising that Ribā is condemned early on in the revelation; rather the absence of such early condemnation could have not only been surprising but also contrary to the wisdom of the Qur’an.

This early condemnation and the verses of the Holy Qur’an revealed in Makkah are replete with the denunciation of the economic injustice of contemporary Makkan society, the profiteering and stinginess of the rich, and their unethical commercial practices such as cheating in weight and measurements [5], etc. What is important to note here is that the verse passes only a moral stricture on interest; it does not yet declare it legally prohibited, for Islam had not yet attained political power by which it could eradicate this evil.

Step 2:

So, because of the transgression of the Jews, We forbade them pure things which had been allowed to them, and also because of their hindering many men from Allah’s way. And because of their taking interest although they had been forbidden it, and because of their devouring people’s wealth wrongfully.’ [6]

These verses of chapter 4 of the Holy Qur’an (Surah Al-Nisā’) were revealed in or around a year after the migration to Madinah, by which time A’isha (ra) had come into the Holy Prophet’s (sa) house after marriage. [7] These verses are strongly denouncing the usurious practice of the Jewish people by recalling that it was forbidden in their own scriptures. Indeed, as indicated in Deuteronomy, the Jewish people were forbidden to take interest from one another, but they were permitted to take it from those who were not Jewish: ‘Do not charge a fellow Israelite interest, whether on money or food or anything else that may earn interest. You may charge a foreigner interest, but not a fellow Israelite, so that the Lord your God may bless you in everything you put your hand to in the land you are entering to possess.’ [8] We also find in Exodus: ‘If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest.’ [9]

Later they promised Nehemiah to give up this evil practice [10] but some of them broke their word; and in line with the prophecy of Ezekiel, they suffered persecution at the hands of their enemies: ‘He lends at interest and takes a profit. Will such a man live? He will not! Because he has done all these detestable things, he is to be put to death; his blood will be on his own head.’ [11]

Also, since the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) was in alliance with the Jewish tribes during the early years in Madinah, he had to call upon their contributions, either to support the emigrants from Makkah, or for military expenses and preparations. [12] This was especially needed when an attack by Makkans was imminent. The call for contributions was made to the Jewish tribes as well as to Muslims, but the former refused and declared themselves ready to make loans with interest. [13] The Holy Prophet (sa) knew that it was against Jewish law to engage in such a practice towards a fellow believer. In his eyes, the Jewish people and Muslims were co-religionists and therefore, the Jewish should also contribute to the national cause, or at least make interest-free loans. In this way, the question of interest became another sticking point in religious teachings between the Holy Qur’an and the economic culture of the contemporary Jews.

Step 3:

O ye who believe! Devour not interest involving multiple additions, and fear Allah that you may prosper.’ [14]

This verse of chapter 3 (Al-‘Imrān) was revealed after the Battle of Uhud (3 A.H. or 625 A.D.) [15] and it is prohibiting compound interest to believers. The latter differ from simple interest in that it is based on the principal amount and the interest that accumulates on it in every period. This was the practice in vogue in the time of the Holy Prophet (sa), and it constituted a penalty imposed on delinquent debt repayment or default, where lenders then used to double the amount of debt outstanding if payment was not made on time.

The earliest documented statement about Ribā in pre-Islamic time is found in the Muwatta of Imam Malik: ‘Riba in the Jahiliyyah [pre-Islamic era] was that a man would have a debt (haqq) on a man for a set term. When the term was due, he would say, “Will you pay it off or increase me (‘ataqdi aw turbi)?” If the man paid, he took it. If not, he increased him in his debt (zada hu fi haqq hi) and lengthened the term for him.’ [16]

Step 4:

Those who devour interest do not rise except as rises one whom Satan has smitten with insanity. That is because they say: ‘Trade also is like interest;’ whereas Allah had made trade lawful and made interest unlawful. So he to whom an admonition comes from his Lord and he desists, then will that which he received in the past be his; and his affair rests with Allah. And those who revert to it, they are the inmates of the Fire; therein shall they abide. Allah will blot out interest and will cause charity to increase. And Allah loves not anyone who is a confirmed disbeliever and an arch-sinner. Surely, those who believe and do good deeds, and observe Prayer and pay the Zakat, shall have their reward from their Lord, and no fear shall come on them, nor shall they grieve. O ye who believe! fear Allah and give up what remains of interest, if you are believers. But if you do it not, then beware of war from Allah and His Messenger; and if you repent, then you shall have your original sums; thus you shall not wrong, nor shall you be wronged. And if the debtor be in straitened circumstances, then grant him respite till a time of ease. And that you remit it as charity shall be better for you, if only you knew.’ [17]

These verses of the second chapter of the Holy Qur’an (Al-Baqarah) were revealed towards the end of the life of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa). This is proved by the following tradition where it is narrated that ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (ra) said:

The last thing to be revealed was the verse on usury but the Messenger (sa) of Allah died before he had explained it to us. So give up usury (Ribā) and doubtful things (Rībah).’ [18]

As far as the verses are concerned, they prohibit interest in all its forms and every economic evil which is the creature of interest has been made an economic crime. Furthermore, they declare that the taking of interest is destructive to world peace and tantamount to waging a war against God.

Again, a careful examination of the overall situation of Arabia shows that even before the prophethood of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa), charging interest was a widespread practice in Makkah, [19] and produced considerable difficulties for the poorer classes. As a result, many transactions were discouraged, mainly to prevent the practice of interest entering from the back door. Such was the case for muhaqala (the renting of land for gold) and mukhadara (the selling of green wheat before it was harvested for already harvested wheat). There were also the practices of m‘awama (selling the crop years in advance), kira’ (the buying of a crop before it was ripe or harvested in exchange for another crop), and the muzabana (the sale of grapes in exchange for raisins/wheat in exchange for prepared food). [20]

Conclusion

The purpose of Islam cannot be reflected in purely economic terms; its objective being to improve the moral and spiritual state of man. The two types of duties assigned to Muslims are those towards God, and those towards humanity. [21] It can be inferred that Muslims have to give up their own interests on occasions when it comes to improving the state of society as a whole. [22]

The case of interest falls precisely in this category, because Islam assigned to man a duty to immediately help those in need. As for the sums borrowed to meet the basic needs or for an urgent case, Islam goes further by urging to grant an additional grace period, or even to cancel altogether the sum borrowed by the one who was not able to repay it. [23] The aim of the prohibition of interest was therefore not symbolic, but was intended to create in him noble feelings towards his neighbour. The underlying idea of the universalism of the prohibition of interest was that all human beings are brothers, and therefore, must help each other financially as well as by other means.

Instead of promoting inequality through interest, the method presented by Islam to keep the economic wheel moving is called Zakat. This system of taxing idle capital was realised from the well-to-do and redistributed to meet the needs of the poorest and fulfil the demands of social welfare. As mentioned in the verse above (Ch.30: V40), the Qur’anic injunction contrasts the bad circulation of wealth (Ribā) with the good circulation of wealth (Zakat). Another important instance of circulation occurs in the Holy Qur’an in the following words: ‘Whatever Allah has given His Messenger as spoils from the people of the towns is for Allah and for the Messenger and for the near of kin and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer, that it may not circulate among those of you who are rich.’ [24]

As a fundamental pillar of the Islamic faith, the system of Zakat stands out as the polar opposite of interest. As explained by the Fourth Caliph (rh), it, ‘Established that it is the right of every person to have certain basic necessities of life provided to him in every land and society, and those made responsible for meeting this obligation are the ones who possess more than their basic needs, leaving it to the state to decide upon the modus operandi, which is to ensure that the system is fair, just and equitable and adequately fulfils its basic purpose.’ [25]

About the Author: Ahmed Danyal Arif is a French economist by education and currently working in London. He has a Masters degree in Economics and Politics. After working for the French tax administration system, he published two books in French: Islam & Capitalism: For an Economic Justice (2016), and Economic History of the Islamic World: From Pre-Islamic Arabia to the Umayyad Dynasty (2019). He currently serves as the Editor for the Economics Section in The Review of Religions.


ENDNOTES

[1] According to the calculation of Mirza Bashir Ahmad (ra), in The Life and Character of the Seal of the Prophets, vol. I, Islam International Publications, Tilford, p. 6-7.

[2] The Holy Qur’an 17:107

[3] Wolf, R. E. (1951), « The Social Organization of Makkah and the Origins of Islam », in Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 329-356.

[4] The Holy Qur’an 30:40

[5] The Holy Qur’an 83:2-7

[6] The Holy Qur’an 4:161-162

[7] Sahih al-Bukhari, Virtues of the Qur’an, no. 4993: https://sunnah.com/bukhari:4993;

Hazrat Mirza Bashir-ud-Din Mahmood Ahmadra (2018 edition), The Holy Qur’an with English and Commentary, Vol. 2, Islam International Publications Limited, Farnham, p. 608.

[8] Deuteronomy 23:19-20

[9] Exodus 22:25

[10] Nehemiah 5:12

[11] Ezekiel 18:13

[12] Watt, W. M. (1956), Muhammad at Medina, Oxford University Press, Oxford, p. 297.

[13] Sahih al-Bukhari, Sales and Trade, no. 2068: https://sunnah.com/bukhari:2068.

[14] The Holy Qur’an 3:131

[15] Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad (rh), (2002 edition), Qur’an-e-Karim: The Holy Qur’an with Urdu Translation, Introduction of Chapters and Brief Explanatory Notes, Islam International Publications Limited, Farnham, p. .79

[16] Muwatta Malik, Book of Business Transactions, no. 84: https://sunnah.com/urn/513700.

[17] The Holy Qur’an 2:276-281

[18] Sunan Ibn Majah, The Chapters on Business Transactions, no. 2276: https://sunnah.com/ibnmajah:2276.

[19] Lammens, H. (1910), « La république marchande de La Mecque vers l’an 600 de notre ère », in Bulletin de l’Institut Égyptien, pp. 23-54.

[20] Ibrahim, M. (1990), Merchant Capital and Islam, Texas University Press, Austin, p. 87.

[21] Tirmidhi, Chapters on Righteousness and Maintaining Good Relations with Relatives, no. 1955: https://sunnah.com/tirmidhi:1955.

[22] The Holy Qur’an 3:93

[23] The Holy Qur’an 2:281

[24] The Holy Qur’an 59:8

[25] Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad (rh) (2017 edition), Some Distinctive Features of Islam, Islam International Publications Limited, Farnham, p. 14.

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