Friday, August 2, 2013

Qur'an and Riba: the unfinished business

One of the miracles of the Qur’an is that it means so many different things to so many different people. We all read it with intention, and Allah – the Highest ­ – grants us His blessings accordingly.  

It is said that not one Qur’anic sound will pass our lips without an Angel carrying it to the foot of the Throne. Every letter, we are told, carries reward. Every ayah is a world; every Surah a universe and every Juz a galaxy. In fact, so blessed is the Qur’an that it will testify for us on the Day of Judgement.

In this respect, chapters such as Surat ul-Mulk are imbued with special properties for the reciter. Surat ul-Yasin offers solace to the dead or dying, Ayat ul-Kursi (the verse of the Throne) protects us from danger.

The Qur’an glitters with strings of meaning and metaphor. We are warned that it is not poetry, yet it still soars. We are told that it is not prose, yet it still captivates. We are taught that it is not music, yet it is still a symphony.

And, tellingly, we are informed that even if our creative pens were to be filled with the oceans (which cover 70% of earth) they would still not be able to create its like. Yet the Qur’an humbles itself to us so that we can read it, its words transmitted from a Divine Source.

Every Ramadan, millions of us bury ourselves in the pages of the Holy Book’s 114 chapters and over 6,000 verses. Imam Abu Hanifah, the great 8th century imam, could recite the Qur’an in the standing of one prayer. Imam Shafi’i, his student, would complete at least one reading a day.

Whilst most of us lesser mortals will finish just one recitation of the Qur’an during the 29-30 days of Ramadan, it has never been my outcome. My approach – and it’s just a personal thing – has been to try and read the Qur’an for its meaning.

I like to understand what I’ve read. I’ve never rushed and a complete reading can take me years. The Qur’an is sublime in expression, so that when you slow down it often leaves you gasping with amazement.

One thing I’ve learnt is that every time I read Qur’an I discover new things. No reading is ever the same. It’s like walking through a valley and seeing new plants and animals every time you pass through. And when you stop to examine the scenery, the hike begins to take longer and longer.

This year I found myself still deep in Surat ul-Baqarah, the first chapter of the Qur’an, after 18 days. It made me wonder if Allah grants me more Ramadans I might just find myself stuck on the opening Basmallah!
What caught my attention was verse 276 in Surat ul-Baqarah that deals with usury, or riba, best defined as “excessive, or exploitative interest”. Allah declares usury deprived of all blessing, and warns the pre-Islamic Arabs that He will declare “war” on those who don’t take heed.

The next verse demands that debtors be treated with compassion, not tyranny, and then goes on to deal with the basics of tijarah, or business transactions. This, I think, is significant. Allah mentioning riba before the lengthy section on tijarah clearly indicates that exploitative interest cannot be the foundation of economic principle.

It made me realise that the issue of riba even features in the accounts of Nabi ‘Isa, or Jesus, who overturned the money-changers’ tables on the Temple Mount. Four of the gospels mention this incident, the only time ‘Isa (as) ever used physical force.

What’s significant here are two things. Firstly, ‘Isa (as) would have been enraged by the crass materialism of the priests in a sacred place – every step in the Temple cost the believer money. And, as Ibn Kathir observes in the Qisas al-Anbiya, Temple worship had become about money.

Secondly, he would have been disturbed at the money-changers. They would charge exorbitant commission and proffer inferior coins for sacrificial animals, further exploiting the poor – people who’d become outsiders.

This story has resonance with riba being the devil’s curse since time immemorial. Riba represents the worst of human nature. In the 21st century it has become an ugly blight on society. It doesn’t take much imagination to link the Temple Mount priests and money-changers to modern-day bankers.

It’s no exaggeration to say that they have enslaved almost all of mankind with oppressive debt, and brought the world’s economic system to its knees from excessive hoarding, speculation and interest-based profit. Their greed and lack of compassion needs no further elaboration.

Bearing in mind that Nabi ‘Isa (whom we don’t believe was crucified) is due to appear back on earth, I think the Temple Mount encounter will have left him well-equipped to understand our modern-day sicknesses.

I have always felt that the biggest opponents of the end-time Imam Mahdi and ‘Isa (as) will be this very banking class, a ruling class whose interest-based systems will be dismantled in the name of social justice. They will not take kindly to their wealth being redistributed.

Over a thousand years ago the pre-Islamic Arabs, particularly the Quraish in Makkah, would have understood the Qur’anic verses only too well. Their business, not unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, revolved around the lucrative pilgrimage.

The one-eyed, end-time dictator – the Dajjal – whom ‘Isa (as) will slay at the gates of Lud (now Tel Aviv airport) will more than likely be a product of the usurious elite, a faceless kleptocracy who have so ruthlessly plundered humanity in the name of materialism.  

This is where Surat ul-Baqarah comes in again. “Deal not unjustly and you will not be dealt with unjustly,” it says after Allah’s declaration of “war” on riba-mongers. War, or “harb”, is a very strong term. And although ostensibly directed at the Quraish , it is curiously open-ended, almost – I would say – as if there’s unfinished business.  

In other words, the war against riba has already been declared but – the big question – when the final battle?

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