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Friday, 28 February 2014

Phases of Prohibiting Riba

In Part One of this study, I explored the meaning of riba (interest or usury) and its ruling in Islamic Shari`ah. I also elaborated the catastrophes and atrocities of riba. Here, I would study the gradual stages of prohibiting riba in Islamic legislation.

First Stage:
This stage started with the revelation of the Makkan Qur’anic verse in surat ar-Rum whose meaning is rendered into English as,
{That which you give in usury in order that it may increase on (other) people’s property has no increase with Allah; but that which you give in charity, seeking Allah’s countenance, has increase manifold}. (Ar-Rum 30: 39)
Apparently, this is a direct advice that riba has no profits or gains with Allah. The verse came in the context of speaking about sustenance and recommendation of spending on relatives, the poor, and wayfarers. This shows the ethical, moral, and social dimension of the issue. According to Qur’an commentators, this verse applies to those who give to others gifts or services to receive from them greater benefits in return. Such seemingly good acts are meritless and deserve no reward from Allah, since He knows the real intention behind such allegedly good deeds.
Basically, riba is prohibited for the principle that “any profit which we should seek should be through our own exertion and at our own expense, not through exploiting other people or at their expense.”[1] However, as Muslims, we are asked to go beyond the mere act of avoiding what is wrong. We are enjoined to love our community in a practical manner; that is to spend of our own resources in the service of those who are in need. We should also have the belief that our reward is with Allah the Almighty Who will surely multiply it for us even more than what we do deserve because He is the Most-Generous.
Finally, the aim behind the verse is the “awakening of the live souls,” addressing the people who have not been aware so far that such gain from usury is to be interdicted.[2]
Second Stage:
Then, two Madinian verses in surat an-Nisa’ were revealed; these verses tackled one aspect of the story of the Jews and how they were condemned for taking riba when they were forbidden from taking it. The verses may mean in English,
{Because of the wrongdoing of the Jews We forbade them good things which were (before) made lawful unto them, and because of their much hindering from Allah’s way. And of their taking usury when they were forbidden it, and of their devouring people’s wealth by false pretences. We have prepared for those of them who disbelieve a painful doom}. (An-Nisa’ 4: 160-161)
Ibn Kathir said, “Allah states that because of the injustice and transgression of the Jews, demonstrated by committing major sins, He prohibited some of the lawful, pure things which were previously allowed for them.” In addition, “Allah prohibited them from taking riba, yet they did so using various kinds of tricks, ploys and cons, thus devouring people’s property unjustly.”[3]
The second verse is seen by many scholars as prohibiting riba, though some understood it as referring to the Jews and their taking of riba; a matter which – to them – leaves it unclear if such a prohibition applies to Muslims as well. However, in this verse a stronger expression is used, i.e., ‘take’ instead of ‘give’ which is used in the preceding verse in surat ar-Rum. As a linguist, I understand this as to connote the graduation in prohibition.

Third Stage:
Then the following Madinian Qura’nic verses were revealed and they may mean in English,
{O you who believe! Devour not usury, doubling and quadrupling (the sum lent). Observe your duty to Allah, that you may be successful. And ward off (from yourselves) the Fire prepared for disbelievers. And obey Allah and the Messenger, that you may find mercy}. (Aal `Imran 3: 130-132)
Commenting on the topic of riba, Daryabadi says,
The Arabic word is but partially covered by the English word usury which, in modern parlance, signifies only an exorbitant or extortionate interest. The Arabic expression al-Riba, on the other hand, means any addition, however slight, over and above the principal sum lent, and this includes both usury and interest.[4]
This means that any excess on the capital is riba (interest). There is no distinction in Islam in so far as prohibition is concerned, between low and high rates of interest.
In the above verses, Allah prohibits the believers from dealing with riba and from devouring the property of others through illegal means as they used to do during the pre-Islamic period. For instance, if the debtor asks for deferring a loan, the creditor would require interest and this would occur year after year until the little capital becomes multiplied many times. Also, Allah commands the believers to have piety in their hearts so that they may be successful in this life and the Hereafter. The believers are also threatened with Hell-fire and are warned against it in clear words.
In short, these verses enjoin the believers to keep away from riba if they desire their own welfare.
It is also worthy of note that there is a graduation in the strength of the word used in these verses, i.e., ‘devour’. In the verse in surat ar-Rum, the word “give” was used, then in the surat an-Nisa’ the word “take” was used, and here in surat Aal `Imran the word “devour” is used. Surely, the connotations as well as denotations of each of these words cannot be ignored by anyone who knows Arabic and appreciates the rhetorical inimitability of the Ever-Glorious Qur’an to the extent that makes one realize the fact that each and every word in the Qur’an is intended and no other word can replace it in its own context!

Fourth Stage:
Finally, four verses of surat al-Baqarah were revealed declaring the absolute and strict prohibition of riba in Islam. These verses may mean in English,
{Those who swallow usury cannot rise up save as he arises whom the devil has prostrated by (his) touch. That is because they say: Trade is just like usury; whereas Allah permits trading and forbids usury. He unto whom an admonition from his Lord comes, and (he) refrains (in obedience thereto), he shall keep (the profits of) that which is past, and his affair (henceforth) is with Allah. As for him who returns (to usury) such are rightful owners of the Fire. They will abide therein. Allah has blighted usury and made alms giving fruitful. Allah loves not the impious and guilty}. (Al-Baqarah 2: 275-276)
{O you who believe! Observe your duty to Allah, and give up what remains (due to you) from usury, if you are (in truth) believers}. (Al-Baqarah 2: 278)
{And if you do not, then be warned of war (against you) from Allah and His Messenger. And if you repent, then you have your principal (without interest). Wrong not, and you shall not be wronged}. (Al-Baqarah 2: 279)

The above verses are seen as categorically forbiddingriba of all forms and rates as ordained by Islam. They came in the context of speaking about spending in the Cause of Allah, giving in charity, abolishing differences between the rich and the poor through forbidding extravagance, and declaring riba as one of the means of blocking the institution of spending in the Cause of Allah. All these confirm the ethical dimension behind the prohibition of riba as well as the social and integral dimension among members of the Muslim community.
Verse 275 means, on the Day of Resurrection, these people will get up from their graves just as the person afflicted by insanity or possessed by a demon would. This is understood from the hadith by ibn `Abbas which reads, “On the Day of Resurrection, those who consume riba will be resurrected while insane and suffering from seizures.”
In the same vein, al-Bukhari recorded that Samurah ibn Jundub said in the hadithabout the dream that the Prophet (peace be on him) had, “We reached a river -the narrator said, ‘I thought he said that the river was as red as blood’- and found that a man was swimming in the river, and on its bank there was another man standing with a large collection of stones next to him. The man in the river would swim, then come to the man who had collected the stones and open his mouth, and the other man would throw a stone in his mouth.”
The interpretation of this dream was that the person in the river was one who consumed riba.
Also, these Qur’anic verses show the difference between trading and riba and states that Allah has permitted trade and forbidden riba. The reason behind this can be learned from the following words, “Whereas legitimate trade or industry increases the prosperity and stability of men and nations, a dependence on usury would merely encourage a race of idlers, cruel blood-suckers, and worthless fellows who do not know their own good and therefore akin to madmen.”[5]
Verse 276 shows that Allah does not bless riba and that He increases charity. This can be also understood from the hadith of ibn Mas`ud which reads, “Riba will end up with loss, even if it was substantial.”[6]
And the hadith narrated by al-Bukhari that reads, abu Hurayrah said that the Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) said, “Whoever gives in charity what equals a date from lawful resources, and Allah only accepts that which is good and pure, then Allah accepts it with His right (Hand) and raises it for its giver, just as one of you raises his animal, until it becomes as big as a mountain.”[7]

 Finally, the above verses reproached those taking riba; they established a clear distinction between trading and riba; they required Muslims to terminate all forms ofriba, instructing them to take only the principal sum of the debt, and abstain from taking even the principal money in case the debtor is in difficulty.

A Final Word
One of the Laws of Allah in natural disposition of man is the difficulty of change especially with things one is accustomed to and feels familiar with. Before Islam, the Companions of the Prophet (peace be on him) acquired habits that became part and parcel of their own lives. Islam came with morals and rulings that are contrary to some of these habits. It was out of Allah’s Mercy and Wisdom – which were also taught to His Messenger (peace be on him) – that the application of change came gradually and that gradation was one of the objectives and key characteristics during the Prophet’s life.
Examples of gradual approach Islamic legislation include the gradation in prohibiting intoxicants and riba as well as the abolishment of slavery step by step and through a deliberate systematic mechanism that led eventually to the complete avoidance and total submission to the Ordinance of Allah and His Messenger without the slightest inclination to return to the same state of affairs as was before Islam.
(On Islam / 03 Feb 2014)
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