Islamic Management of Poverty. The Management Created in the Early Days of Islam

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2011

16 Pages

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Islamic Management of Poverty: The Management Created in the Early Days of Islam

Nameof Presenter:

Taha Mohd Omar Master Candidate

School of Social Sciences

School of Social Science

(Islamic Development Management) © 2011


Taha Mohd Omar

Centre for Islamic Development Management Research (ISDEV) School of Social Sciences

Universiti Sains Malaysia Master Candidate


This paper intends to determine the impact and understand the Islamic perspectives in poverty management.It also attempts to find the accurate role of poverty-managementbased on Islamic scholars’ views around the world. Islamic scholars all over the world have studied and explored the issue continuously. Unlike the Western poverty management, Islamic poverty management places spiritual poverty into account. Although in Islam, improving the economy is a priority, the spiritual attributes of the ‘people’ such as the economists and key development playersneed to be built up too. As proven during the early periods of Islam the spirituality of Prophet Muhammad’s companions enlightens theirinner ability to cope with poverty. Such as the ‘people of the platform’ (ahlus-suffah) and other companions, the key theme emerging from the Prophet’s companions’ stories is that their relationship with God is as servants and vicegerents. This allows them to take an active and positive stance in viewing and interpreting the circumstances of their lives.Without the accurate guidelines, can Islam step up to the challenges of poverty or is Islam itself suffering from poverty because of the lack of spiritual enrichment? These are the questions dealt in this review paper.

Keywords: 1)Islamic Poverty Management, 2) Spiritual Poverty, 3) Islam,

4) The Companions of Prophet Muhammadpbuh


Islamic management of poverty might not sound familiar to many. The Islamic management of poverty is one of the branches of Islamic development management project that is based in Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). The aim of Islamic management of poverty is to manage poverty from a purely Islamic perspective that concerns Islamic beliefs. This paper is a review on literaturesurvey on Islamic set of guidelines which are devoted to Islamic values and doctrines. Islamic doctrines are based on Quran, Hadiths (sayings of the Prophet), and Sunna (deeds of the Prophet)and these clearly go beyond scientific knowledge and explanation(Muhammad Syukri Salleh: 1999).

Poverty is a problem in any area of the world and it affects the religious beliefs of the people. Both Islam and the West have fears over the matter and many would think that by introducing new methods of management, mechanism, and economy-basedsolutions, any government would be able to overcome poverty. But the reality is,poverty will never be totally and perfectlyeradicated (Muhammad Syukri Salleh, 2000: 98). The same statement made by Sodiq (2011: 119) that oftentimes, people wonder how in Islam the payment of two and a- half percent (2.5%) of a Muslim’s annual wealth(zakat) can solve the problems of poverty in the Muslim world?The answer is that first, eradicating poverty can never be completely attained, however, it can be reduced drastically, and the wide economic gap would eventually be made smaller between the rich and the poor, so there will be less tension between them. Secondly, this 2.5% is the minimum requirement of zakat payment. Muslims can pay more than that according to their society’s needs.

Islam has been dealing with poverty since the medieval times. Poverty was assumed as a social concept, where most of Muhammad’s followers were practicing pious poverty with the state of mind that it was a religious issue and responsibility. Over the centuries, thousands of Muslims all over the Arab world adopted the life of voluntary poverty and these include Hejaz, Turkey, and Iraq (Sabra, 2000: 8). The Islamic world continuously discusses the problems created by poverty andwith endless deliberations. Consequently numerous discussions are conveyed to the policy makers to address poverty and its related problems which explain the Islamic management of poverty and at the same time improving the Islamic economy.

Early Days of Islam in Medina

The foundation of Islamic poverty management begins from the Muslim’s inherent iman itself, which concerns the concept of man as the servant and vicegerent of Allah. The Quranic principles and the Prophet’s prescriptions serve as a guideline for all the Muslims, whether in establishing a government, building the economy, making profitable businesses, and foremost binding the relationship between the human-beings and Allah by obeying His commandments (ibadah) (Abbas Ali: 2005).

According to Haddad (2002:68) the effort of establishing the Islamic economy started after the migration to Medina which the Muslims called hijra (physical separation from the ignorant populaces/ jahiliyya). This was thought to be an effective way to build a pure Muslim community led by the Prophet Muhammad. One of the main purposes of this migrationwasto prevent the Muslims from falling into a much severe poverty as well asgaining a new life for the Muslims of Mecca.The people of Medina treated the migrants from Mecca as close family members. Leila Azzam (2011: 44) said that even the wealthiest of men in Medina started sharing their riches with the Prophet and other companions. Furthermore, each man from Mecca was taken as a brother by the people of Medina. Sharing everything they had, reflected the concept of Islamic brotherhood (ummah). It was said that Prophet Muhammadloved the life of poverty and had lived with those who were economically poor, living very simple lifeeven after he had become ‘the ruler of the whole world’. Through time the Prophet’s life had become a model and source of inspiration for all Muslims (Britannica Educational Publishing, 2010: 58).

One of the Muslim scholars, Iqbal (2009) believes that poverty is assumed as a dishonor in Islam both for the poor and the rich. The reason is because poverty eventually leads to unwanted conflicts in the society. That is why one of the early ‘financialmechanisms’ in Islam is the prohibition of riba (interest) which has been mentioned in the Quran in an uncompromising way. An acceptable operative ‘financial and economical mechanism’ is zakat (almsgiving). It works similarly as the modern government-taxation (with a fixed amount) but more towards fulfilling the commandments of Allah and is obligatory. Bonner (2006) stated in one of his writings regarding poverty and almsgiving in Islam, that some Medina scholars believed that there should not be any specific limit in almsgiving. Without limitations in the amount and anyone may give to the point of impoverishing themselves.

Prophet Muhammad once mentioned a Hadith regarding zakat:

The upper-hand (giver) is better than the lower-hand (receiver) (Muslim, kitab-ul- zakat. No. 124).

The above hadith was further enlightened by Muhammad Abdul Raoof (1999: 24) that if the receiver of zakat can grasp the spirit of the Prophet’s saying, he will try the best to be the giver instead of the receiver. He further marked that even though some Muslim scholars would think that poverty in Islam is a negative thing and damages the society, actually in Islam the possession of wealth does not raise a man’s dignity, nor does poverty degrade it.Most of the Muslim tribes of Hejaz were poor, but poverty was their protection and some may believe that they never really felt poor. According to Eaton (1985), to feel poor one must envy the rich, and the Muslims are not allowed to envy the rich solely for their wealth. The most priceless thing is the faith (iman) and piety (taqwa) that they have in their hearts. Spiritually rich and never influenced by the greatness of the worldly things is what makes them successful in this world and the hereafter.

During the Prophet’s time in Medina, the Muslims maintained a pastoral life with humbleness and taqwa in their hearts. They were capable of achieving this with spiritual enrichment that the heart needed and the dignity that was both compelling and religious. In those days the Arabian land laid its wisdom for existence fully centered on tawhid (the consciousness of divine unity) which made it easier to practice the Prophet’s teachings entirely (Burckhardt: 2009). In Islamic teachings the inner quality of a human-being is more valuable than the wealth that one has.

Barak (2000) mentioned that in Islam sincerity in belief (istikhlas) is the primary achievement for a man. Therefore the value of a Muslim is not in his or her genealogy, family, clan, and tribe nor in his or her wealth but in his or her purity in faith to Allah as an obedient servant and vicegerent. The ethical teachings and spiritual beliefs left by the Prophet was propagated and practiced throughout the Muslim world by great Islamic scholars such as al-Qushayri and al-Ghazali. This is what the Islamic world should emphasize more, which is on Muhammad’s inner reality and ethical character rather than the external episodes of his life (Britannica Educational Publishing, 2010).

The Management of Material and Spiritual Poverty in Islam

Earlier this paper has discussed the acceptance of povertyduring the early days of Islam in Medina. Next, is the alleviation of poverty necessary or does Islam thinks that poverty is a pious and noble thing? If alleviation is necessary, what are the actions suggested by the Islamic management to lessen poverty?Before identifying the material and spiritual poverty, the paper has highlighted that in Islam the spiritual characters of the humans are more valuable and accountable to Allah. Therefore the discussion focuses more on the spiritual management rather than the material management of poverty.

In Arabic the word faqr represents the meaning for spiritual poverty. According to Glasse and Smith (2001) spiritual poverty is attached to religion especially the intangible things. Spiritual poverty has to be avoided in order to make way for God’s presence in the heart. The representative of all virtues is the spiritual virtue, such as a person’s bond with Allah or the human as a servant to Allah by fulfilling His commandments.

The development of inner attributes (spiritual faith) is an important subject to the Muslims.

Living a poor or rich life is a man’s personal choice, but further thanthe material features and objects whether poor or rich, one’s heart is most important that requires to be ‘rich’ (Muhammad Syukri Salleh: 1999). When it comes to poverty management, Islam divides it into two measurements: spiritual poverty management and material poverty management. Spiritual aspect ought to weigh the inner attributes and it begins with the development of ones worldview andthought of its own belief.Islamic worldview is the foundation for any Muslim’s faith which reflectshis thorough belief. It means the management-framework that will be constructed by a Muslim should also be in accordance to Islamic guidelines.

Muslims especially those practicing Sufism, consider poverty a matter that needs to be practiced and not to be eradicated or alleviated. In the early period of Islam (the Abbasid period), a largenumber of Islamic movements practiced the simple-life of Sufism. These Sufi movementsemphasize on tawakkul, a concept of resignation to God’s will that is voiced through voluntary poverty. The tawakkul concept is also joined with asceticism and the rejection of worldly things to build noble attributes (mahmudah) such as, patience, faith, appreciation, and love of God (Lapidus, 2002: 92).The lack of the Muslims devotion and spiritual weakness of faith in Allah can be seen in places such as the Mosques. The emptiness of the mosque is related to the idea of spiritual poverty (faqr). The Muslim beliefs and faith involve the visible and invisible objects. The Quran often refers to the visible and invisible worldsas alamal-ghaybwa ’ l-syahadah ’ identifying the first with the spiritual and the second with the material world (Nasr, 1987: 46).

Narrated Abu Hurairar.a.: The Prophet pbuh said, "Faith (iman) consists of more than sixty branches and Haya (The term "Haya" covers large numbers of concepts which are to be taken together; amongst them are self-respect, modesty, and shyness) is a part of faith." (Bukhari, Volume 2).

A total example of living faith practitioners that had the ‘spiritual rich and material poor’character are the Sufis who are also the descendants of the ‘people of the platform’ (ahlus suffah). They are the ones who have mentioned most of all of spiritual virtues. As noted by Qureshi (2004) one of the most widely used names for Sufism is ‘Muhammadan poverty’, (al-faqr al-muhammadi). The type of poverty adept by the Sufis was quantifiable, but their inner mind is unquestionably rich. Without this form of value, the divine wisdom (tawhid) to Allah would be difficult to achieve. Without tawhid no spiritual attainment is possible, no matter how wise and powerful one can be.

Huda Khattab (1992: 90) mentioned that despite living in a materially poor condition in the Prophet’s pbuh mosque,the people of the platform (ahlus-suffah) were never forced to work by the Prophetpbuh. In fact they were left to be the way they were with the devotion to knowledge, worship (ibadah), and going in the path of Allah to spread Islam (jihad).Even though these people were poor, they never asked funding and support from anybody. It was the Prophet pbuh himself that prohibited them from working and doing any labor, but every so often the Prophet pbuh used to give them daily sustenance and other foodstuff. This was the Prophet’s pbuh routine, the quality and spiritual richness that ‘the people of the platform’possessed was the reason why the Prophet pbuh understood that they did not need any material wealth, because they were already rich from the inside.

To build a high quality and virtuous society in Medina, arange of management methods were applied by the Prophet pbuh according to the Islamic guidance (Holy Quran); to develop the people and as a corollary tomanagethe material and spiritual problems of poverty too. The main appliance of the Islamic management in Medina is that the Prophet pbuh approached each andevery one according to the individual’s character itself(Muhammad Syukri Salleh, 2004: 54). Some of the individuals of Medina would be managedthrough material mechanism to handle poverty and some through spiritual and virtuous practice.

Munasarah ’or ‘ Nusrah ’ means helping each other, where the high income people of Medinahelped the poor in terms of expenses, giving charity (sedeqah), and other noble activities. It was an inherentresponsibility of every individual in Islam to help each other and have mercy for each other and this is practiced until today which consequently brings unanimity amongst the people and also strengthens the relationship between the people(Muhammad Syukri Salleh 2004: 58).Helping each other and giving aidto the poor in particular is one of the virtuous practices of spiritual poverty management in Islam. This practice acts as a bridge human-relationship and is also known as united-community (ummah). Moreover, in Islam everybody is treated the same way, there are no dissimilarities between the people regardless whether one is poor or rich (Turfe: 2004).

Treating everyoneequally means to act with fairness which is a concept that is well thought- out in Islam. Adil in Arabic means ‘fair’ or ‘just’which has a vast meaning in Islamic values. According to Asadulla (2008), in Islam’s history, one of the main inspirations for the people to convert to Islam was the concept of being fair (adil). Being ‘just’ is not only between the high-level people of a society and the unfortunate; it is also betweenoneunfortunate and another. All of the ‘people of the platform’ were poor and together they performedjustice and practice equality among each other. Different Clusters of Poor amongst People of Medina The present poverty index built by the ‘West’ typically only stresses material aspects. Such as in the United States, where the poverty level is calculated by one’s annual earnings which is supposed to fulfill the standard living of a particular state or city for at least four family members (Andersen & Taylor, 2007: 228) Whereaspoverty’s spiritual aspects which Islam particularly emphasizes on, is not put into account. This is the significant differencebetween Islamic poverty management and the more widely acceptable Western poverty management.

Islam does not compute material possessions as aguide in characterizingpoverty; instead the poor companions of Medina such as Abu Hurayrah, Abu Dharr al Ghifari, Salman Farsi, and HudhayfahibnYaman rhuma (Huda Khattab: 1992) were considered rich (spiritually) but in actual were materially poor because they did not have any source of fixed income. They were rich in a way that they did not have any desire for material and worldly pleasures, instead the little amount that they sometimes had would be more than enough for them (Muhammad Syukri Salleh: 2004).

In the context of religious poverty, the poor people of Medina would simply be categorized into three groups. As according to Muhammad Syukri Salleh (2004: 95) the first category arethose who are spiritually rich but materially poor, they are ‘the people of the platform’ or as we call them today the ‘Sufis’. Sufism as mentioned earlier means to attain the life of piety which is also considered a spiritual path which used to be called ‘the science of behavior’ (ilm al-Akhlaq). The method of attaining this type of life was actually mentioned in the Quran and was also shown by the Prophet Muhammad pbuh (Sodiq, 2011: 221). The ‘people of the platform’ were allowed to be and live the way they were without any concern of changing their way of life. Living the life of poverty was their choice and the main part is they lived without causing any trouble and burdening the administration and people in Medina.

The second category are the ones who are spiritually poor but materially rich, they are such as Tha’labahibnHatib, as written by Wherry (1896: 303). Tha’labah was a poor man and was living in poverty and one day he approached the Prophet pbuh and asked him to pray to Allahswtthat He would bestow riches on him (Tha’labah). The Prophet pbuh firstly advised him be more thankful (syukur) for the little that he had, than to ask for more, which someday might become a temptation to him. But on Tha’labah’s continual demand and promise to do good actions with his riches, the Prophet pbuh prayed for him and almost immediately Tha’labahgot what he desired, that is ‘to be rich’. Muhammad Syukri Salleh (2004) added, that when Tha’labah became wealthy and rich, he began to be busy and engaged with his live stocks and other animals, which eventually ledto the negligence in religious obligations such as daily prayers (salat) and also paying zakat. Such is an example that what Islam describes as spiritual poverty, where the values of the worldly things are put much higher than fulfilling the commandments of Allahswt.In Islam what good does one’s rich do to its owner, if there is no sense of gratitude (syukur) and frankness (qanaah) to Allah who is the true benefactor of all things and beings.

The third category which is the most critical one are those who areboth spiritually and materially poor. According to some writerslike Retso (2003: 91) they are the hypocrites (munafiq) of Medina. The hypocrites are those that Allah swthas prohibited the Muslims of Medina to make them leaders because of their hatred for Islam and were left to be the lower level of society (Adnan Tharsyah: 2008). They were the people living near to Medina and also in Medina itself that did not practice Islamic faith, beliefs, and life even though they came from tribes that had officially gave loyalty to Prophet Muhammad pbuh. A commentary made by Jazuli (2006) on the Quranic verse: 101 from chapter: 9 (at-Taubah) regarding the hypocrites:‘ That they lived everywhere in Medina and also among the Bedouins in the desert, and Allah will punish them with poverty and misery in this world and the punishment in the hereafter will be much severe ’.

The Prophet pbuh knew that these people were living among the true Muslims and were doing harm to the society from the inside. As mentioned by Ali Paya and Esposito (2011: 186) that the verses of Medina clearly exposed the Munafiq ’ s plots in the Quran and each one of their positions. But the Prophet pbuh never took any actions against them (munafiq) as it would spread negative impacts to other religions. Nowadays in the Muslim world the so called ‘ munafiq ’ still exists and unlike the Medina days they are not easily identified or recognized anymore. The Medinan munafiqs are the class of poor which needs the highest level of management solutions. According to Muhammad Syukri Salleh (2008) those who are spiritually and materially poor needs top managementactions to be alleviated, since they cause great threats to the Muslim people and society. As long as one is sincere to Allah and loyal as a servant should be, Allah promises a life full of comfort and pleasure which must also be according to Islamic guidelines.


The solution for all of the three above groups lies in their faith or beliefs (iman)in Allah. There is always an ultimate aim the way Islam manages poverty, and clearly the aim is not to eradicate poverty totally. In fact the aim is to achieve to the blessings of Allah in this world and the hereafter(Muhammad Syukri Salleh: 2008). In order to succeed in achieving His blessings in the world and the hereafter, actions must possess genuine and authentic good judgment of Islamic guidance, the Holy Quran and Hadiths. The toleranceof the conventional and stereotype management system does not run in harmony with the Islamic poverty management.

Islam views poverty from aspects not realized by the western ideologies whose views are strongly linked to material wealth. Obliteration of poverty is not the major goal in Islam, instead taqwa and faith in Allah supersedes material poverty. In coping with poverty, Islam accepts the idea to remain poor but spiritually rich over being materially rich and spiritually poor. Islam has the avenue of zakat and alms to care for the materially poor whose needs for the basic necessity are recognized. An applied management method can be introducedand a new methodology can also be designed for the Islamic poverty management field. Hence, these methods can be applied and practiced in every Muslim country in particular and generally all over the world in the near future. As a final point, even though the economy has always been the indicator for one’s success in development and expansion, but as an Islamic government like Medina and led by a leader such as the beloved Prophet Muhammad, apart from the well-established Islamic economy the added value of ‘faith and piety’ was a measure of success of the people.


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Islamic Management of Poverty. The Management Created in the Early Days of Islam
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