Money and financial health are things that we always worry about. It is what pays the rent, puts food on the table, funds our education and – as the cliché goes – “makes the world go ‘round.”
In Islam, there has always been a careful approach to the concept of money. Having too much of it is not a problem in itself, but could easily lead you down a path of greed, tricking you into believing that the wealth you have accumulated in this world will help you in the next.
At the same time, not having wealth is not a major virtue, and both the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad encourage us to do whatever we can to improve our lives and living conditions.
The easiest way to think about money in Islam, therefore, is as a means to a greater end. It is a vessel, carrying both value and intent from one person or institution to another.
This is perhaps why just a few hundred years ago some scholars were worried about the introduction of paper money.
Gold, silver, and other things that held actual value, they believed, were more powerful methods of conveying intent. Paper currency, as it is only backed by the strength of the institution that issues it, changes the very foundation of that vessel. The same debate goes on with new virtual currencies.
But putting that scholarly debate to one side for a minute, if wealth is a means and a vessel, then what is the best way to handle it? How do we make sure that our intent when dealing with money is properly communicated, and that we avoid the pitfalls?
For this, we need to continue our previous discussion on purification, known in Arabic as tazkiyyah.
Knowing Where Your Money Comes From
The first thing that we all must keep in mind is to always be aware of where our money comes from. It doesn’t matter whether we live in a majority Muslim or non-Muslim country, illegitimate sources of wealth are always there; and as Muslims it is our responsibility to be conscious of it.
This could include the more obvious things in our religion like alcohol, pork, or clear criminal activity.
On the other hand the question could be much more subtle, when your business is morally unfair with its customers or suppliers.
Of course, we are not all-powerful. You or I alone cannot change the way our boss decides to run their business, much less how the global financial system works.
You will be surprised, however, about how things might change if you took the initiative. When possible, find ways to make your source of income more “pure.”
If you work at a restaurant, ask a colleague if they would be willing to serve alcohol so that you keep some distance.
If you are in a company, try to present to your bosses ways that you could improve honesty and transparency in the business climate.
Finally, if you run your own business, double-check how everyone you work with (employees, suppliers, and customers) are being treated, and see if there isn’t something better that you can do.
Watching Your Expenditures
As you start working to improve the quality of your income, the next step is to start thinking about your expenditures. Clearly, this is not about teaching you to balance your check-book, but rather to be wiser about where your money goes.
Think about the following Quranic verses:
Satan threatens you with poverty and orders you to immorality, while Allah promises you forgiveness from Him and bounty. And Allah is all-Encompassing and Knowing. He gives wisdom to whom he wills; and whoever has been given wisdom has certainly been given much good. And none will remember except those of understanding. (2:268-9)
2 Lessons from the Verse
These two verses show us two things. The first is that a fear of poverty – not actual poverty – and immorality go hand in hand.
How many times have you bought something that you really shouldn’t have, and then freaked out about how much that is going to impact your monthly budget?
How many times have you been tempted with your wealth, even if it is something “not too bad?” That is the very meaning of the verse at work.
When you do immoral things, money seems to just disappear, and you never seem to have enough. One little voice in your head starts ringing the warning bells, while another keeps telling you to spend more. Heed the warning of this verse by avoiding immorality and watch what you are spending.
The second thing this verse teaches us is that through spending our wealth appropriately, God rewards us with wisdom.
You begin to see the truth behind material things, and that you really don’t need most of them. That doesn’t mean that you have to live the life of a monk, completely forbidding yourself from the good things in life. It just means that you will reach a state that we call “Rida,” or contentment with your current lot in life.
Paying it Forward
Finally, we need to talk about charity. As Muslims we have two types: required payments that we need to make every year (zakat) and voluntary payments (sadaqa).
Both types of charity fulfill the same core purpose: to purify our wealth.
However, as we mentioned at the beginning of this article, your money is a vessel carrying not just your wealth but also your intent. When you sit down to pay your Zakat or look for an organization to give your charity to, think before you give.
For the best tazkiyyah, put your money somewhere it is going to be positively invested: for students or the production of knowledge, for organizations that are going to build something new and sustainable. This is known as sadaqa jariya, or continual charity, whose benefit will continue for years to come.