Opinion, September 2003, www.aljazeerah.info
Special Measures for Times of Emergency
Arab News, 9/26/03
The Islamic system pays due attention to the problem of poverty, and lays down specific legislation which ensures that the poor will be adequately helped so that they are able to lead a decent life. Islam removes the very notion that charity is a favor a rich person does toward a poor one, for which the latter remains indebted. The zakah system is based on the principle that the poor are given by God a right which entitles them to a portion of the wealth of those who are better off. Although this right is only a small percentage (2.5% annually) of what the rich may have, its total amount when collected is always likely to cover the needs of the poor, so that no one in the Muslim community need to go hungry or remain without shelter or decent clothes. Those who pay zakah expect nothing in return from those who benefit by it. Instead, they expect something from God: a rich reward which He gives to those who fulfill His bidding.
Hence, when a Muslim pays zakah, he or she does not feel that it is a tax imposed on them and from which they receive no immediate or direct benefit. The payer realizes that the reward granted by God is much richer than the amount paid. Moreover, it is God who has given us whatever we have. When He requires us to pay a portion of it to those who are less fortunate than us, we simply part with what belongs to Him in the first place. We are only put in trust of it.
The terms of that trust require us to pay out that portion, which is called, in the Islamic terminology, zakah, a word which signifies purification. This means that its payment acts like purification of one’s wealth and one’s soul as well.
This explains the fact that throughout Islamic history, Muslim communities were largely free of social conflicts of the types and proportions which forced social changes in different parts of the world, particularly Europe in the nineteenth century.
While the zakah system is highly effective in reducing poverty in normal times, a Muslim community may go through a time of hardship which affects the population as a whole, as in the case of famine. It is important to know how Islam deals with such an emergency. In this column, we looked at the case of the Prophet’s companions who emigrated from Makkah to settle in Madinah. Although their arrival in their new home constituted a burden on the economy of the city, they received a warm welcome.
Their brethren in Madinah offered to share their date farms with them. The Prophet preferred instead a solution which required the newcomers, i.e. the Muhajireen, to work in the date farms in return for a portion of their yield. We also quoted the Hadith in which the Prophet is reported to have said: “People will suffer from famine in later times. Whoever witnesses such a time should equate nothing with feeding the hungry.” (Related by Al-Bukhari in Al-Adab Al-Mufrad).
This Hadith lays down a general principle applicable in times of famine or emergency of all kinds. When people cannot find enough to eat, or when things are so difficult that people are unable to cope, then providing food for the hungry is the good action which earns the best reward. In this connection, however, it is proper to ask how does the Muslim government react.
The best example is given to us by Umar ibn Al-Khattab, the second Caliph, whose government provides the best example in finding practical solutions to practical problems. The solutions have always been inspired by the Islamic system and remained within its framework.
During the time of Umar, Arabia went through a period of very severe drought, particularly in the case of bedouin tribes who traveled from one place to another, hoping to find areas which were not hit by the drought. There was hardly any in the whole of the Arabian Peninsula. People in Madinah suffered a great deal. That year is known in Islamic history as “the year of Ramadah”, a term derived from a root that means ashes. This is due to the fact that winds blew sand over agricultural areas and considerably reduced their fertility. Even animals suffered a great deal, to the extent that animals living in the wild came to town seeking food. All agricultural areas were dry and very little produce could be collected from them.
Umar mounted a campaign of emergency in order to supply bedouin tribes with wheat, oil and camels. Although these measures were effective, the suffering was wide spread. Umar was the first to set example to other people in Madinah. He vowed not to taste any meat, milk, butter or fat until the situation recovered and people were properly supplied again.
When the drought was biting hard, Umar resorted to the well tried measure recommended by Islam. He called on all Muslims to offer the “prayer for rain.” In this prayer, people go out of town wearing something plain and gather in an open area outside the town.
They take their women and children with them and pray God in all humility and sincerity to send them rain. They should couple that with showing repentance of their sins. It is recommended that one of the people, well known for his devotion, should lead them in such a prayer.
Umar called on the Muslims in Madinah to go out for this prayer. He asked Al-Abbas, the Prophet’s uncle to be the one who led the Muslims in their supplication. Umar was also praying earnestly. He prayed God to let the rescue of the Muslim community be seen on the tops of the mountains. This was a reference to clouds which he prayed to be so near. God answered his prayers and those of the Muslim community. The sky was soon pouring down with rain. Umar was so pleased. He said: “Thanks and praise be to God. Had God delayed the rain, I would have given every well-off Muslim family a similar number of poor people to feed. If two persons shared equally the food which is sufficient for one, none of them would starve to death.”
This was a clear case of emergency. The measure Umar suggested and would have implemented had the emergency lasted longer was to share equally the food available to rich families.
This is certainly an exceptional measure. He would have been within his rights to impose such a measure, because it was his responsibility to ensure that people did not die of hunger. There is a principle in the Islamic system which allows the Muslim government to take an additional amount of the money of rich people when zakah funds are not sufficient to alleviate poverty.
This principle empowers the ruler to levy an additional amount on a gradual basis, until the purpose of alleviating poverty is accomplished. The principle goes as far as taking from the rich all the money that they have in excess of what is sufficient to meet their needs.
Special measures in times of hardship are taken for granted in the Muslim community. Salamah ibn Al-Akwah quotes the Prophet as saying to his companions when they were at the time of the Eid sacrifice: “Your sacrifices! Let no one of you leave in his home any amount of the sacrificial meat after three days.”
The following year, the Prophet’s companions asked him: “Messenger of God, should we do like we did last year?” He answered: “You may eat and save. Last year, people were going through a kind of hardship and I wanted you to help.” (Related by Al-Bukhari and Muslim).
This authentic Hadith shows that the Prophet put in force a special measure in a time of emergency. Although it is perfectly permissible for anyone to save a good portion of the meat of his sacrifice for cooking later, that year the Prophet instructed his companions not to have anything more than what was sufficient for them for three days. He wanted the whole community to share in the festive occasion of the Eid and enjoy a period of plenty at a time of hardship.
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