|Socio-economic justice and poverty: An Islamic perspective
based on Imam Ali’s teachings in Nahj al-Balagha
The World Bank Group and American University
Washington DC, USA.
The concept of socio-economic justice is of utmost importance in Islamic teachings. Through examining Nahj al-Balagha, a 10th century collection of sermons and letters of Imam Ali Ibn Abutalib, this paper aims to present a comprehensive account of Imam Ali’s view on poverty and socio-economic justice in Islam and policies aimed at reducing or eliminating socio-economic injustices. A detailed analysis of Nahj al-Balagha reveals several key points that could act as a guide for Muslim policymakers, academicians, and activists in their efforts of promoting socio-economic justice. First, in Imam Ali’s view socially just outcomes can only be achieved through just means and procedures. In other words, ends and outcomes, no matter how desirable they may be, can never justify unjust procedures and means to achieve them. Second, acute and visible inequalities and side-by-side co-existence of extreme wealth and poverty in a society point to the existence of socio-economic injustices. Third, a society that is suffering from severe and continuous socio-economic injustices or in other words acute poverty and inequality will cease to prosper and develop. Fourth, the main objective of an Islamic governance system is to adopt policies, institutions, and procedures that would reduce or eliminate socio-economic injustices. A government that fails to reduce socio-economic injustices, in Imam Ali’s view, has failed in its main mission of protecting the rights of the public and ensuring their prosperity. Finally, regardless of government action or inaction, each individual in a society is also responsible to reduce socio-economic injustices to the best of his/her knowledge and ability. In other words, Imam Ali considers every individual responsible for the welfare and wellbeing of all other individuals in a society.
Keywords: Islam, Imam Ali, Nahj al-Balagha, Justice, Poverty
Human society has grappled with the phenomenon of poverty and its many ills from its earliest inception. As a result, many great philosophers and religious figures have often addressed “the normative question of how governments or individuals ought to treat the poor [which] goes to the heart of the idea of justice” (Vaughan 2008, 1). The fourth Muslim Caliph, Imam Ali Ibn Abutalib (hereafter referred to as Imam Ali), is of no exception. This essay attempts to provide a preliminary investigation into the relationship between justice and poverty within an Islamic paradigm presented by Imam Ali. This task is accomplished by analyzing a 10th century compilation of his sermons, letters, and sayings titled Nahj al-Balaghah (hereafter referred to as Nahj). According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a leading contemporary Islamic scholar, after the Qur’an and the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet), Nahj is “the most inspired and influential writing on justice in the annals of Islamic History” (Lakhani 2006, xiv).
The exercise carried out in the following pages is relevant for three main reasons. First, Imam Ali is held by a majority of Muslims as one of the most knowledgeable, pious, and just leaders in early Islamic history after the heavenly departure of the Prophet Muhammad and therefore enjoys a highly venerated position among Muslims from different backgrounds and schools of thought.1 Consequently, Muslims view his teachings as shedding a unique and trusted light on the message brought by the Prophet Muhammad. As a result, a detailed analysis of Imam Ali’s thought surrounding justice and poverty is of theoretical and practical significance for those Muslims who are motivated to address the issue of widespread poverty and its many social ills2 in the Muslim World.3 This becomes more significant considering the fact that Imam Ali’s adherence to justice and reducing poverty is exemplary. George Jordac, a Christian Lebanese literary figure who has authored a book on Imam Ali entitled Imam Ali: The Voice of Human Justice, argues that Imam Ali’s life was dedicated to upholding justice in all domains of human life to such an extent that one could claim that justice was part of his innate character, from which he could not deviate. Jordac writes:
Ali enjoys a very high position in the history of human rights. His views were linked with the thinking of Islam…His entire attention was directed towards the enforcement of the rules of equity and justice. His thoughts and manners and his government and polities were all dedicated to the achievement of this purpose…His voice remained loud continuously for the enforcement of justice and his mace always remained active to achieve this end… nothing was more important in the eyes of Ali than eliminating poverty and misery of the people” (1984, 84).
Second, not only Nahj provides an abstract treatment on justice and poverty, it also sketches a clear picture of the Imam’s efforts to combat injustices and prevent and reduce poverty in his society. This combination of theory and policy will reduce the degree to which his teachings would be misinterpreted. This would in turn provide a clearer and more consistent picture of Islam’s stance on justice and poverty.
Finally, many of the current works on Islamic notions of justice or Islam’s view towards poverty are heavily grounded in the writings of Medieval Muslim thinkers such as Al-Farabi (10th century), Al-Ghazali (11th century), and Ibn Khaldun (14th century) with little to no direct references to the teachings and practices of early Muslims such as Imam Ali.4 This work, by focusing its analytical lens directly on the teachings of an exemplary figure from the early Islamic era, attempts to avoid the medieval interpretations of Islamic notions of justice and poverty and thus develop a more accurate and unadulterated picture of Islam’s stance towards justice and poverty.
This essay shows that in Imam Ali’s view the fundamentals of justice are based on being mindful of one’s responsibilities and the rights of others no matter the capacity in which an individual functions. In other words, if one wishes to practice justice, he should respect the rights of others and perform his responsibilities to the best of his knowledge and ability. These rights and responsibilities, Imam Ali teaches, are in turn prescribed by Allah in the Qur’an and communicated to humanity by Prophets and are also inscribed by Allah in mankind’s innate nature (Fitra). Furthermore, according to the Imam, one’s salvation in the eternal life of the Hereafter is directly linked to his level of commitment in practicing justice in this life. Therefore, in Imam Ali’s teachings, one who takes interest in his ultimate wellbeing has to practice justice and as a result be mindful of his responsibilities towards himself, the human society, the creation as whole, and the Creator, Allah. This in turn establishes a strong link between self-interest and justice in the Imam’s teachings. One reads in sermon 224 of Nahj:
By Allah, I would rather pass a night in wakefulness on the thorns of as-sadan (a plant having sharp prickles) or be driven in chains as a prisoner than to meet Allah and His Messenger on the Day of Judgment as an oppressor over any person or a usurper of anything out of public wealth. And how can I oppress any one for the sake of this body and life that is fast moving towards destruction and is to remain under the earth for a long time… By Allah, even if I am given all the domains of the seven skies with all that exists under them in order that I may disobey Allah (and commit an act of injustice) to the extent of snatching one grain of barley from an ant I would not do it. For me, the pleasure of this world which is acquired through corruption and injustice has less value than a leaf in the mouth of a locust that is chewing it.
One can furthermore deduce from Imam Ali’s teachings that a perfectly just social outcome is unachievable as long as mankind is powered by freewill. This is so because at any point in time there are those who refuse to abide by just norms of behavior, therefore resulting in aggregate unjust outcomes in the human society. This however, Imam argues, does not remove the responsibility from any individual in trying his best to act justly and combat injustices, because one is ultimately accountable to Allah for his intentions and deeds and not their outcomes.
Moreover, in Imam Ali’s worldview, the ultimate justice resonates from Allah, who does not do or command to anything but justice. As a result, the widespread poverty and tragedies in human society cannot by any means undermine Allah’s justness because, as the Imam argues, Allah has provided enough sustenance for all. Rather, human miseries are direct result of a complex set of injustices inflicted by mankind at personal, social, and structural levels. Therefore the only effective solution to poverty and inequality and their many social ills is rooted in reducing injustices in human society at all levels.
In Imam Ali’s teaching, the prevalence poverty and widespread inequality is an indicator for socio-economic injustices which in the long run will hinder the prosperity and development of a society. In such cases, the Imam views the state as incompetent and failed in meeting its main mission of upholding justice and protecting the rights of the governed. However, no matter the level of state’s commitment to upholding justice and therefore lack of it, an individual is always obligated to be attentive in reducing injustices in the society he is living in.
The remainder of this essay is organized as follows. Section II provides an overview of the concept of justice in Imam Ali’s thought. Section III provides a detailed examination of the Imam’s views on poverty and justice. Section IV concludes the discussion.
Justice and Imam Ali
Justice in procedures
A careful study of Nahj suggests that Imam Ali is only concerned with socially, politically, and economically just procedures, policies, and code of conduct rather than just outcomes. Imam Ali always refers to just actions and modes of behavior because he is convinced only just procedures can lead to eventual just outcomes. Even in his famous definition of justice, the Imam refers to justice as a mechanism that “puts things in their proper places” (Aphorism 437).5 In Imam Ali’s worldview, the “proper places of things” are in turn rights and responsibilities that are identified by Allah’s external and internal guides. The external guides are the divine scriptures and Prophets which were perfected by the Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad respectively, while the internal guide is one’s innate nature (fitra) which, if not obscured or ignored, can successfully guide one towards just behavior (Sermon 1, 216; Letter 31).
The above procedural definition of justice has important theoretical as well as practical implications. On the theoretical front, one could never achieve a perfectly just society, because one could never ensure that at any given point in time everything in the society is in its proper place. In other words, only if all members of the society were vigilant towards their responsibilities, could one expect a perfectly just collective outcome. Since mankind is powered by free will and therefore capable of acting unjustly towards himself and others, a perfectly just society is practically unachievable in this life.
On the practical front, and related to the above, one’s just actions may not result in the originally intended just outcomes because the outcomes are influenced by million other factors (such as the action of others and events of nature) that are simply beyond one’s capacity to identify and control. Why then is Imam Ali insisting on just behavior when just outcomes are not guaranteed? One could find the answer to this question in Imam Ali’s view towards justice as fulfilling one’s responsibilities and duties (Sermon 87) while leaving the outcome to Allah.6 This is because, no matter his level of diligence and care, one can never perfectly control every variable that might influence the outcome of his actions. In this line of reasoning, mankind is only obligated to reduce injustices to the best of his knowledge and ability7 and act only to fulfill his obligations towards Allah, himself, and his society.
Furthermore, in Ali’s view, carrying out one’s responsibilities (i.e. being just) is strongly associated with one’s spiritual development and nearness to Allah (Sermon 216). This is based on the fact that Allah “is just and does only what is just” (Sermon 214). Therefore, anyone who seeks nearness to Allah should try to have sincere intentions to act justly and subsequently act upon those intentions to the best of his ability.8 Consequently, even if one does not immediately see the outcomes of his just actions in the external world, these internal spiritual results, in Imam Ali’s view, should be more than sufficient motivation for one to conform to the norms of justice (Sermon 216).
Three Layers of justice
It was mentioned above that being just in Imam Ali’s view is equivalent to carrying out one’s responsibilities as outlined by Allah because Allah “commands justice and the doing of good…and He forbids all shameful deeds, and injustice and rebellion” (Qur’an, 16:90). Allah’s commands can in turn be divided into three main categories: the commands that pertain to one’s responsibilities towards the Creator, the commands that outline one’s responsibilities towards the creatures and the creation (such as humanity, animals, earth, and etc…) and the commands that describe one’s towards one’s own self. As a result, in Imam Ali’s teachings, justice and therefore injustice is composed of three kinds:
Know that injustice is of three kinds: one, the injustice that will not be forgiven, another, that will not be left unquestioned, and another that may be forgiven without being questioned. The injustice that will not be forgiven is associating others with Allah. Allah has said: Verily Allah forgives not that (anything) be associated with Him ... (Qur’an, 4:48). The injustice that may be forgiven (without being questioned) is the injustice a man does to himself by committing (personal) sins; and the injustice that will not be left unquestioned is the injustice of men against other men (and creatures). The retribution in such a case is severe. (Sermon 176)
A number of conclusions can be drawn from this passage. First, justice towards Allah is established when one does not associate anything with Him in worship and obedience because “He the Glorified, has created His right over creatures that they should worship Him alone” (Sermon 216). In other words, Imam Ali sees it a duty and responsibility of mankind towards Allah to worship Him and Him alone.
Second, justice towards others is equivalent to carrying out one’s responsibilities towards others and respecting their rights. While the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad outline the main guidelines and requirements for a just course of action towards others (Sermon 216), Imam Ali also highlights the importance of the “Golden” and the “Silver” rules in one’s interactions with other fellow human beings. One reads the following in a letter the Imam wrote to his elder son, Imam Hassan Ibn Ali:
My dear son, so far as your behavior with other human beings is concerned, let your 'self' act as scales to judge its goodness or wickedness. Do unto others as you wish others to do unto you. Whatever you like for yourself, like for others, and whatever you dislike to happen to you, spare others from such happenings. Do not oppress and tyrannize anybody because you surely do not like to be oppressed and tyrannized. Be kind and sympathetic to others as you certainly desire others to treat you kindly and sympathetically. If you find objectionable and disgusting habits in others, abstain from developing those traits of character in yourself. If you are satisfied or feel happy in receiving a certain kind of behavior from others, you may behave with others in exactly the same way. Do not speak (negatively) about them in the same way that you do not like others to speak (negatively) about you. Do not speak on a subject about which you know little or nothing, and if you at all want to speak on anything or about anyone of whom you are fully aware, then avoid gossip, defamation and accusation as you do not like yourself to be scandalized and scorned in the same manner. (Letter 31)
Therefore, in Imam Ali’s view, one can accomplish much in the way of being just towards others by simply being mindful of his own likes and dislikes when it comes to his social relations with others. This is because humanity shares a common creator and innate nature or Fitra (Nahj Sermons 1, 83; Qur’an: 49:13) making it plausible for mankind to discover rules of just conduct towards others by simply reflecting upon his own self.
It is important at this stage to highlight that Imam Ali does not limit one’s responsibility to the human domain solely, but he also insists on highlighting man’s responsibility towards other creatures of Allah, such as animals. For example, one finds the following passage in one of the letter Imam wrote to his tax collectors:
Entrust the animals to one who is trustworthy and who is of a kind and sympathetic character so that he may not treat the animals cruelly and may not starve them or tire them out during the transit. Instruct him not to separate a she-camel from its young, not to milk it so much that nothing is left for its young one and not to ride them harshly or to overburden them with heavy loads. He should ride them in turns so that those who have been already ridden may have an easy journey. He should not drive them fast and should avoid harshness. He should always give them enough rest at watering places. They should not be driven through deserts. As much as possible green lands and well-wooded regions should be selected for the passage. (Letter 25)
One also reads in Sermon 224 that: ‘By Allah, even if I am given all the domains of the seven (skies) with all that exists under the skies in order that I may disobey Allah (and be a transgressor) to the extent of snatching one grain of barley from an ant I would not do it” (Sermon 224). This passage points to the fact that in Imam Ali’s thought all forms of oppression, no matter how insignificant they may appear to us, are detrimental to the spiritual development of a person because perceiving a sin and transgression as small and insignificant is itself a great offense. Moreover, while an act of injustice might seem trivial to the source of the action, the person or creature at the receiving end may consider it otherwise. Therefore, in Imam Ali’s teachings, all forms of injustices, however inconsequential they may be initially perceived, should be avoided. Therefore, one sees in various Nahj passages that in Imam Ali’s view, mankind, being Allah’s vicegerent and representative on earth (Qur’an, 2:30), must act justly towards all beings because if a creature is given the honor of life by Allah, its rights should also be honored and respected by Allah’s vicegerent.
Finally, in sermon 176 highlighted above, Imam Ali argues that one can in fact commit injustice towards his own self through sins. This is because disobeying Allah’s commands can take one away from Allah’s favor and nearness and might endanger one’s sustenance and comfort in this life and salvation in the hereafter. In Imam Ali’s thought, one who attempts to acquire the short-lived material gains and pleasures of this life at the cost of ignoring Allah’s commands is committing grave injustices to himself. This is because “the only price (i.e. the just price) for man’s life is the Heaven (i.e. Allah’s nearness)” (Aphorism 456) with which no worldly gains and pleasure is ever comparable with (Qur’an, 43:71). In other words one who forgoes the eternal pleasures of Heaven and Allah’s nearness for transitory worldly gains is in clear and great loss (or Khusranun Mubin). In another place Imam Ali questions the audience that “how bad is the transaction that you allow (unlawful enjoyment of) this world to be the price for yourself as an alternative for what there is with Allah for you” (Sermon 32)? Therefore, in sermon 157, Imam Ali warns his audience: “O' creatures of Allah! (fear) Allah, (fear) Allah, in the matter of your own selves, which are the most beloved and dearest to you, because Allah has clarified to you the way of truthfulness and lighted its paths”. Imam Ali then argues that the best and nearest creature to Allah is one who “has enjoined upon himself justice and the first step of his justice is the rejection of unlawful desires from his heart” (Sermon 87) submitting himself to the commands of Allah.
Justice and self-interest
Nahj provides strong evidence that Imam Ali’s uncompromising insistence in safeguarding just norms of behavior and policies in society is solely based on his concern for his own status and wellbeing in front of Allah who is simultaneously the witness and judge of all deeds and thoughts (Aphorism 324). In other words, the Imam upheld justice and acted based on its principles because he saw his spiritual wellbeing strongly linked to carrying out his responsibilities that were ordained to him by Allah who “is true in His promise” of punishing those who ignore his commands and rewarding those who abide by it (Sermon 185). This orientation of Imam Ali is explicitly visible in Sermon 224:
By Allah, I would rather pass a night in wakefulness on the thorns of as-sadan (a plant having sharp prickles) or be driven in chains as a prisoner than to meet Allah and His Messenger (Prophet Muhammad) on the Day of Judgment as an oppressor over any person or a usurper of anything out of public wealth…By Allah, I certainly saw (my brother) Aqil fallen in destitution and he asked me a for about three kilograms more out of his share of wheat (from the public storage); and I also saw his children with messy hair and a dusty expression due to starvation, as though their faces had been blackened by indigo. He came to me several times and repeated his request (for extra unlawful shares from the public storage) to me again and again. I heard him, and he thought I would sell my faith to him and follow his tread leaving my own way. Then I heated a piece of iron and took it near his body so that he might take a lesson from it, then he cried as a person in protracted illness cries with pain. Then I said to him, "Moaning women may moan over you, O Aqil. Do you cry on account of this (heated) iron which has been made by a man as a game while you are driving me towards the fire which Allah, the Powerful, has prepared as a manifestation of His wrath? Should you cry from pain, but I should not cry from the flames? (Sermon 224)9
Note that Imam Ali refused to provide his brother with extra shares from the public wheat storage because he was concerned about Allah’s severe punishment that is associated with discriminatory treatment of public funds, no matter how insignificant the amount may be. Therefore, Imam Ali’s insistence on being just towards others (in this case towards the governed) is rooted in his efforts of seeking nearness to Allah and avoiding His punishment on the Day of Judgment.10
In another occasion Imam Ali states that “he who finds it hard to act justly should find it harder to deal with injustices against himself” (Sermon 15). Therefore, even from a purely materialistic outlook and cost-benefit analysis, Imam Ali argues that treating others with injustices will only attract unjust treatment of others which is often more painful. This is because for a majority of people pains associated with a loss is often more significant than utilities associated with the same amount of gain.