A millennium and some centuries after its compilation, the Qur’an continues to occupy a unique status for a significant number of the world’s population. The book is arguably read by a more diverse audience than any other in history. It has not only drawn the attention of adherents to Islam, but also the critical exploration of non-Muslims and orientalists. This, however, does not mean it plays the role, or all the roles it wishes to, or that its admirers use it completely as it was intended. The premise adopted here is that the Qur’an itself introduces the different functions that it is able to perform, but ultimately, does not desire that only one among them receive its audience’s sole focus. The purpose of the Qur’an and how it describes itself and its mission, warrants independent consideration, and is not the topic of this piece. It is assumed, for the sake of the present writing, that the Qur’an wants its audience to employ it for all it has to offer, to the capacity and level that each individual is able. This second assumption will also not be pursued due to its relative obviousness.
For a book that is to remain relevant until the end of time, according to the belief held by the majority of its readers, it may seem strange to witness the extent that certain themes repeatedly occupy its pages; articulated in a variety of ways, or even the noticeable apparent reoccurrences of entire sentences. With no second edition due, or edits permitted to the original, one imagines that every word would be chosen with the utmost care and every line be completely indispensable. However, the Qur’an confidently conveys its messages, doing so in such a masterful manner that seldom do its readers tire of the constant reminders. It also has no qualms with highlighting that it is not an absolutely novel book, boldly embracing itself as a ‘reminder’ (zhikr), and even using this as a point of personal legitimacy. Nevertheless, the repetition of a theme in this context, makes it all the more important.
Regarding one of its roles, the Qur’an states “And this Book that We have sent down is a blessed one; therefore, follow it, and be Godwary so that you may receive mercy” (6:155). It is clear that acting on a part cannot not be equated with acting on the whole. Furthermore, trying to observe a part without an investigation or understanding of the whole can sometimes lead to having behaved contrary to the spirit of the book. The danger of selective reading has been mentioned in the Qur’an itself (2:85)[i] and the need to read holistically with a view to other verses has also been emphasized (3:07)[ii]. In conclusion, the Qur’an is to be followed, but to truly be followed, it must be appreciated with all its verses in mind, or all those directly and indirectly relevant to a particular theme. This realization gave birth to the thematic approach to exegesis by Muslim scholars[iii].
Among the topics given great emphasis throughout the pages and chapters of the holy Qur’an is the idea of a healthy and well-functioning society of believers, and the condemnation of individuals that threaten the peace and order within the community. Additionally, the morale of a believing society is no light matter in the Quranic discourse. In fact, the Qur’an has gone as far as to suggest that news and reports, good or bad, should go through a vetting process before being made public and shared with the population; ‘When a report of safety or alarm comes to them, they immediately broadcast it; but had they referred it to the Apostle or to those vested with authority among them, those of them who investigate would have ascertained it.’ (04:83)
While many of these verses speak directly about the relationship between believers, which ultimately translates into the governing atmosphere of society, there are numerous instances where the general community and all of its members are included. In fact, the truce one should have with others for the sake of existing religiously valued commonalities, can be interpreted as a means to maintaining a grounded and healthy social cohesion.
In the spirit of this desirable Quranic goal, it may be appropriate in today’s climate to speak about some issues pertaining to the most recent matter occupying and disturbing people’s lives around the world; Covid-19.
One of the most alarming sights in these days for any conscious onlooker is that of grown adults rushing to empty the shelves of supermarkets with incomprehensible amounts of the same item; essential, or arguably replaceable. The term commonly being used to describe this behavior is; hoarding. The types of items being hoarded may differ from region to region, but what is for sure is that it is not solely the disease of one group alone.
Even a casual reader of the Qur’an can speak of its edicts related to society’s economic wellbeing (for all its members); whether through encouraging and obligating charity or by strongly condemning short-selling and cheating in the exchange of goods. As such, whether or not it has spoken directly about this phenomenon of hoarding, it would not be difficult to take a guess at how it would view the act. It is clear how the Qur’an views the collection of wealth without spending it charitably, and light digging can also help point towards what it believes are the causes for this within the human psyche. The Quran aims to create a social spirit where such acts not only exist due to the community moral code, but needn’t exist at all. Members of the herd are responsible for one another and have rights upon each other; not seeing their neighbors and coreligionists as opponents or even competitors, except in doing good deeds “so take the lead in all good works” (02:148). These teachings along with those regarding belief in the hereafter, the transient nature of this world, uncertainty about the length of one’s life, trust in God for sustenance, submission to the will of God, acknowledging Gods unfailing power, and that everything is ultimately subject to the laws put in place by God, a true believer cannot bring themselves to engage in such behavior.
The pandemic is a threat for most, and to further decrease the odds in people’s favor due to personal selfishness and greed, is an atrocious act. Here, I would like to examine a number of the narrations that can be linked to this behavior, and how some scholars have understood them.
The Quran may generally be understood to be speaking about the hoarding of wealth (70:17-18, 104:01-02)[iv], and not directly about food and goods in a way that impacts others, but has also spoken in numerous places about fair market practice and other money and transaction related matters. These can be read to indirectly be speaking about both greed and not using ones wealth in the way that is beneficial for others too, or in the path of God (09:34)[v]. In fact, the reason given for the spoils of war being for ‘Allah and the Apostle, the relatives and the orphans, the needy and the traveler’ is that ‘so that they do not circulate among the rich among you.’ (Quran 59:07).
It is clear then that any practice of disadvantaging others in an unbearable way, for personal gain, whatever shape it may take, is against the spirit of the Quran, and cannot be reconciled with the culture it wishes to create. This includes those who hoard wealth without spending it in God’s way. This means that while members of society may not be hoarding goods and items, they are still accountable if they are not using their wealth to help the needy, particularly in times where they are facing increased financial difficulty.
In contrast, the narrations contain numerous explicit mentions of the practice. The term used in the hadith literature is al-Ihtikaar, and can be understood to mean monopolization and hoarding.
Among the narrations that appear within the Shia corpus of hadith, we see:
1. The Prophetic quote, that has been recorded by three out of four of the most famous collections of jurisprudential narrations, which states ‘The hoarder is accursed’[vi] (المحتكر ملعون).
2. The Prophet is also quoted to have said, ‘No one hoards except the erroneous’[vii]. The term used in the narration is ‘Khaati’, which some scholars have understood to mean ‘sinner’ in this context; rendering the translation of the narration, ‘No one hoards except the sinner’ (لا يحتكر الطعام إلا خاطئ)
3. In a letter recorded from Imam Ali to his governor Malik Al-Ashtar, he instructs him to prohibit monopolizing, explaining that the Prophet had banned it, and orders him to punish (appropriately) those guilty of this act[viii].
There are various other reports condemning hoarding and the hoarder, but how is hoarding understood in the narrations?
Some narrations define what items are subject to the rules of hoarding and monopolizing, ranging from five to ten products, with most of them being food[ix]. Whether monopolizing applies to other items or not is something that jurists have debated through the ages. Another set of narrations speak about the period for which items are hoarded, mentioning a particular number of days, usually three or forty[x]. This matter has also been under investigation by the jurists. How to resolve these questions depends on the jurists approach to the narrations. As an example, one question that can shape the discussion (if permitted), is whether the narrations can be examined to see what role the items played in the lives of people in that period, and what significance the number of days had.
We understand from the narrations that this practice of monopolizing is, at least in a general sense, condemned, however, the question as to whether all stocking and storing of goods is condemned and considered a form of monopolizing?
Fortunately, some narrations also include further details, explaining the qualifiers to the ruling and helping us form a more accurate understanding of what is condemned and impermissible, and what is allowed.
Al-Kulayni collects two reports from Imam Sadiq that espouse on the topic of hoarding and its limits; they suggest that the act only counts as monopolizing if a person buys all the supplies without leaving anything for others, therefore, should there be more supply for others, the person can choose not to sell, and this would not constitute a monopolizing. Another indicator given by the Imam in a narration on the same page, explains that if there is plenty of food for other people, hoarding in this case is permissible, however, if supply is low and not enough for everyone, than hoarding is not permitted[xi].
Al-Qadhi Al-Nu’man[xii] also mentions a report from Imam Sadiq suggesting the type of monopolizing that is impermissible, is that which causes a loss or harm for people, or is done to increase prices, is empty of good or benefit.
‘There is no blessing in any act of hoarding that causes harm for people and increases the price for them’[xiii].
Numerous narrations also specifically speak about monopolizing in ‘cities’[xiv]. This would further emphasize the social aspect of prohibiting hoarding, when necessary. Therefore, stockpiling goods where others are not impacted, particularly for those who lived away from the cities where demand was not so high for certain items, would not fall under the category of condemned hoarding.
What is clear in the jurisprudential works, is that the vast majority of Muslims scholars, regardless of their legal school, believe that hoarding that harms others is prohibited, and not necessarily all storing and stocking of goods, even if the jurists may disagree on the exact instances, and details of the laws or definition.
The ruling cannot be taken in isolation, and one should not act on it in a manner that suggests that it was issued in a vacuum. Rather, it is important to understand the holistic approach of the Quran towards a healthy society, and how all of these matters play a role. Even if one believing individual has more wealth or supplies than others, they do not see it as their own, but rather a shared ownership.
‘And in whose wealth there is a known right, for the beggar and the deprived.’ (70:24-25)
So should they have extra, it is not only for the comfort and convenience of their own family, but is also available to their extended family and network of believers, should there be a need. Bringing together the other Islamic concepts, they believing community should be able to help one another out of such a crisis, and any other. They would rather go through some (reasonable) difficulty collectively, than overlook the right of their coreligionists and fellow humans, to potentially suffer individually in the other promised stage of their life.
[i] ‘…What! Do you believe in part of the Book and defy another part?…’
[ii] ‘It is He who has sent down to you the Book. Parts of it are definitive verses, which are the mother of the Book, while others are metaphorical.1 As for those in whose hearts is deviance, they pursue what is metaphorical in it, courting temptation and courting its interpretation…’
[iii] For further reading see ‘Thematic Approach to Quranic Exegesis’ by Muhammad Baqir Al-Sadr.
[iv] 70:17-18: ‘It invites him who has turned back and forsaken, amassing and hoarding.’; 104:01-02: ‘Woe to every scandal-monger and slanderer, who amasses wealth and counts it over.’
[v] ‘O you who have faith! Indeed many of the scribes and monks wrongfully eat up the people’s wealth, and bar [them] from the way of Allah. Those who treasure up gold and silver, and do not spend it in the way of Allah, inform them of a painful punishment.’
[vi] Al-Kafi, Al-Kulayni, v.5, p.165; Kitab Man La Yahdhar Al-Faqih, Al-Suduq, v.3, p.266; Al-Istibsar, Al-Tusi, v.3, p.114
[vii] Tahdhib Al-Ahkham, Al-Tusi, v.7, p.159.
[viii] Nahj Al-Balaghah, letter 55.
[ix] Wasaa’il Al-Shi’a (Islamiyyah), Al-Hurr Al-Amili, v.12, p.313-314.
[x] Kitab Man La Yahdhar, v.3, p.267
[xi] Al-Kafi, v.5, p.165
[xii] It is widely accepted that Al-Qadhi Al-Nu’man was Shia, however, whether he followed the twelve-Imami strand of Shiism or Isma’ili is debated by historians and scholars. Regardless, his book Da’aim Al-Islam enjoys a notable place in the eyes of both schools, and hence has been referenced here.
[xiii] Da’aim Al-Islam, Al-Qadhi Al-Nu’man, v.2, p.35.
[xiv] See for instance; Al-Kafi, v.5, p.165.
Syed M. Hadi is an independent researcher in Islamic Studies, with a particular focus on the Shi’i tradition. He carried out his Hawzah studies in London, UK, and Qom, Iran between 2007-2017.