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8.4 Consumption


Host:   Please explain the connection between today’s topic and the last three topics?


Jamal Badawi:

In the first three we dealt with basic principles on which a proper ideal economy can be established.  The first program covered the broader principles and conceptual foundation.  In the second and third program we dealt with some of the fundamental principles and concepts which shape the nature of Islam.  One is the attitude towards property rights and second was the attitude towards labor.  These principles however, do not show us how the ideal Islamic economy should operate.  In order to get into that we have to find out what the attitude of Islam towards consumptions, productions, distribution, price determination and the role of government (how it can help the economy moving in the right direction).


Host:  What is the common notion of consumption in the West?


Jamal Badawi:

Western economy is largely based on capitalism which is based on Protestant ethics.  A good reference to that is Max Webber’s Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism published in 1958.  This is a reference where the theory of capitalism and its relationship to Protestant ethics is articulated and explained.  In this approach there are two different approaches to consumption theory.  The first is called rationalism which means an individual in his own economic behavior tries his or her best to be very cautious and careful in calculating risks and benefits for the purpose of economic success.  This implies that acquisition of wealth is the criterion for whether or not economic success is achieved.  A second basic pillar of the capitalist economy is called utilitarianism which means that things are evaluated depending on their usefulness.  For example if a book is useful then it has value.  This goes beyond commodities and even moral principles are sometimes evaluated on this utilitarian basis.  Honesty under the utilitarian theory is good so long as it is beneficial.  So if one is an honest merchant and honesty helps you get credit from the bank and helps you get customers it is good.  If the same moral principle of honesty works against your economic interests and success (the ultimate goal under the capitalist system) then you may discard it.  It all depends on whether or not the given principle helps one out at a given time.  These two principles seem to reflect a particular philosophy and as we indicated in previous programs we can not talk about economics without relating them to religious convictions.  These ideas of rationalism and utilitarianism seem to both stem from the philosophy of the human.  The human is, what economists call, an economic man or as some people call, in anthropology, homo economicus. This is a person who is working mainly to gain more and more wealth and more and more economic success which is the ultimate goal that the individual can hope to attain.


Host:  How does the consumer decide what to buy or what cervices to acquire?


Jamal Badawi:

In the Capitalist theory of economics the use marginal analysis which was later modified using the equality between the marginal rate of substitution.  Basically as a consumer when I decide to buy things I have to first consider the limits on my income (income constraints) and what is the maximum amount of income that I may have available to buy these goods and services.  Then each person has to think if it would be more beneficial to spend all that money buying one, two, three items, and how much they can vary the mix of goods and services in order to attain the maximum utility.  The economic professors use the good old example of a combination between apples and oranges.  If someone has a specific amount of money and it costs so much to buy an apple, an orange or a banana and the person has to figure out how to get maximum satisfaction by buying all apples, all bananas, or a mixture of all three within the restrictions of the total income.  This, to put it in a simple way, is a marginal analysis to find out what can be attained by a particular mix of commodities and services.


Host:  In contrast to that how does Islam differ or compare with the common approach to consumption?


Jamal Badawi:

In the Islamic Economy by Dr. Munzir Qah he summarizes five basic differences between Islamic economy and Capitalist Economy.  One relates to the concept of success.  Second, relates to the time when the person makes the decision to buy certain things.  Third is the concept of wealth.  Fourth is the concept of goods and what is the definition of goods.  Fifth certain aspects pertaining to the ethics of consumption in Islam.


Host: What distinguishes the Islamic concept of success from the conventional economic concepts?


Jamal Badawi:

The capitalist approach is that success is mainly economic success.  One is evaluated, one’s value and success is basically measured by one’s economic success.  In Islam success is acknowledged but is not exclusively measures by mere acquisition of wealth.  Success is not merely economic success as this would have to much bias from an Islam view.  Ultimate success for a Muslim is to achieve the pleasure of God, to live virtuously, to live a harmonious life where there is complete harmony between the material, moral and social needs of the human.  All of these are integrated together in a whole.  So the moral values are a part of evaluating whether a person is successful not just the amount of money.  This means that economic success (acquiring wealth) should not be regarded by a Muslim as ultimate success but rather a means to an end which is loftier, more noble and more important.  This doesn’t mean that Islam regards wealth as a vise or regards poverty as a virtue.  There is nothing virtuous about poverty.  The idea is to understand and have the awareness that life has many facets and one of them is economics.  Man does not live with bread alone but he doesn’t live without bread also.  One needs to be able to integrate and consider all the needs of a human.  The idea is to have a balance in one’s life within the limits of Islamic Law or Sharia’a and in a way which doesn’t constitute deviation from the basic moral values of Islam.


Host:  What does the time scale of consumption means in an Islamic concept?


Jamal Badawi:

This refers to the time horizon and the consequences of a decision in the next hour, day, week, year, 5 years.  This refers to the time frame that influences one’s decision as a consumer.  This is different in the case of capitalism than in Islam.  In capitalism a person thinks about what their worth is by the time they reach a certain age or when they retire.  In the mind of a Muslim one thinks in a much broader time scale because one doesn’t think about how things effect them in the next year or years but how it would effect them forever.  One basic fundamental belief in Islam is in the life hereafter, Paradise and Hell, where each person will have to stand alone before God to give account of his or her life on earth and how no one can take responsibility for another’s actions.  This has an important motivational force because for every action or decision one takes one doesn’t only think of the benefits they will have next year but they must think of the consequences of these actions even in the life hereafter in addition to this life.

Islam emphasizes its teachings throughout the Quran; the common bond between humanity is that a specific group of people or generation are not the only group of people on earth or who can claim achievement.  Humans on this earth should be humble and realize that he or she is only one part of a caravan of creation as there are those who lived before and those who will live in the future.  This means that when one decides to harness the various resources in the universe one not only thinking of the selfish needs of one generation because one’s religious teachings teach one be considerate to other generations.  This means that one has no rights to squander and abuse natural resources because by the time certain resources are exhausted it would take a few hundred years which would spare them and their children.  In Islam one should care about other human beings and the future.  The time horizon is much larger than the immediate dollars and cents of one particular generation or group of people.  In other words it is a question of maximization of the overall wellbeing of the person in this life and in the hereafter of this generation and future generations.


Host:  What is the attitude towards wealth and goods?


Jamal Badawi:

In the matter of wealth Islam sees an important need to integrate the various facets of human life such as material and spiritual.  As we indicated before poverty is not regarded as a virtue at all but in fact Saidna Omar the second Calif after Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was quoted as saying that if poverty was a man I would have killed him.  The Prophet in his supplications and prayers used to say Oh Allah I seek refuge in you from disbelief and poverty.  So poverty is considered to be as evil and as bad as disbelief because when people are starved and are in bad shape they are driven to acts that they would not go near if they did not need.  So wealth is not regarded as a negative thing provided that ti is acquired legitimately and all obligations and duties on this wealth have been fulfilled.  In more than one program in the past we quoted the Quran in (28:77) “But seek, with the (wealth) which Allah has bestowed on thee, the Home of the Hereafter, nor forget thy portion in this world: but do thou good, as Allah has been good to thee, and seek not (occasions for) mischief in the land: for Allah loves not those who do mischief.”  This shows us that wealth is good so long as it falls within those limitations.


In regards to goods, in the strict economic sense any item is called good if it has benefit to someone somewhere.  The item could be illegal but economically it has value.  For example one can say that a pen has a utility and has economic good because it is useful for writing.  But what about hash, opium, heroin and damaging alcoholic drinks? In a strict economic sense, aside from the legality where heroin for example is illegal, in the Western capitalistic economy that heroin has a utility because someone somewhere feels that it has a utility and economically speaking that is good.  The Islamic view is quite different than that because of two related terms: altybat and alrizk.  Altybat is found in the Quran describing commodities can be translated to mean wholesome things, pure things, clean things, but not useful for any kind of usefulness.  Rizk is used to mean a gift from God, something that was bestowed on humanity and provisions that God has given to humanity.  In Islamic concepts an item which is harmful like heroin can not be viewed as an economic good and as such its production, distribution and consumption are all prohibited in Islam.


Host:  Is there any ethical guideline to consumption?


Jamal Badawi:

There are a number things that provide basic guidelines for an individual for his or her economic pursuit.  First of all one should realize that God created all the humans and He is also the only and sole Creator of all the resources on this universe.  The fact that some people for whatever reason are able to control a larger portion doesn’t justify that they have no obligation and are not supposed to share these bounties of Allah with other human beings.  This stems with the question of the trusteeship of mankind on earth and that we serve as the trustees and servants of God.  The fact that you acquired more resources or wealth doesn’t mean that it is illegitimate if it was acquired through legitimate means but it doesn’t imply that one only has to care about themselves.  The basic rule foundation in Islam is that things are permissible unless otherwise specified as illegitimate.  This means that enjoyment in itself is permissible; if something is not prohibited it is automatically permissible.  The Quran puts it in a very nice way, not only to show us that it is permissible but also to show us that we have no right to make things forbidden that God has made permissible for no good reason in (7:32).  It says “Say: Who hath forbidden the beautiful (gifts) of Allah, which He hath produced for His servants, and the things, clean and pure, (which He hath provided) for sustenance? Say: They are, in the life of this world, for those who believe, (and) purely for them on the Day of Judgment. Thus do We explain the signs in detail for those who understand.”  However we also find that the Quran also provides some ethical boundaries as to how to go about consuming the goods or services.  Two basic extremes have to be avoided: first a person should not be too stingy if God has blessed him or her with provisions they should not hoard it and not benefit himself and his family from it.  The other extreme, if one legitimately owns wealth, not be too wasteful.  Waste depends on the circumstances of the time and the kind of customs and norms in a given society.  But most people can understand what being extravagant and wasteful in the use of available resources is.  Both of these extremes were mentioned in the Quran in (17:29) “Make not thy hand tied (like a niggard's) to thy neck, nor stretch it forth to its utmost reach, so that thou become blameworthy and destitute.”  Don’t put your had so close to your neck a symbol of being too stingy and overextend it which a symbol of wastefulness and extravagance.  The other thing that pertains to some of the basic rules in Islamic Law in regards to the ethics of consumption that one’s utilization of wealth should not harm one’s self or harm others.  These are some of the boundaries that determine how one should go about enjoying the different bounties of God on earth without falling into any of the prohibited actions which are not wholesome from an Islamic point of view.


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