Inside Islamic Charity

By R. T. NAYLOR Counterpunch 2/24/07

Usama bin Laden, according to a top level “independent” task force of political hacks and self-appointed experts in “clandestine finance” set up by the Council on Foreign Relations, worked his monetary magic with the usual tools of clandestine finance–cash couriers, shell companies, coded bank accounts, and the like. He also employed the notorious hawala system, a supposedly ultra-secret method of sneaking money around the world which in fact sometimes operates openly with witnesses, provides written receipts and in some countries even has its service charges printed in local newspapers. (Doubtless for reasons of national security,) the Task Force was unable to specify a single instance of Usama’s use. And allegedly he had yet another trick up the sleeves of his loose-fitting burnoose.

Over the previous two or three decades, Islamic charitable foundations (along with Islamic banks and investment companies) had spread widely. They could, so the story went, raise money in wealthy places like the Gulf or the U.S., then move it to finance terrorist outrages while pretending to bring succor to teary war widows and doe-eyed orphans. Most money moving through such charities was of anonymous origin.

That was grounds for serious suspicion. After all, what decent American would contribute a large sum to a charity unless they got a public accolade and a fat tax write-off? While an attack on hawala merely closed a terror-dollar channel, an assault on Islamic charities could also stop actual fundraising. It could also insult the core religious beliefs of 1.3 billion Muslims, but that was just more collateral damage.

Although popular bigotry and political opportunism certainly play a role, part of the West’s confusion over Islamic charities arises because the Qur’an supports an economic ideology very different from the canons of savage capitalism so beloved of today’s bond brokers and televangelists. Islamic ethic imposes on Muslims as their primary duty the creation of a just society that treats the poor with respect. It favors equity over economic hierarchy, cooperation over unscrupulous competition, and charitable redistribution over selfish accumulation. In effect, the Qur’an was an early blueprint for the welfare state.

The most fundamental premise of that ethic is that economic activity is inseparable from spiritual. The ultimate purpose of life is the ibada of Allah. More than simply worship, this implies total submission to God in all aspects of life, including the economic. Where God and the market disagree, the market must give way.

Therefore, private property rights are not absolute. Ultimately all material things are gifts from Allah over which humans (individually or sometimes collectively) only have trusteeship. This makes it easier for a state authority, acting nominally on Islamic principles, to set limits on what a person can do with economic assets without invoking the protests common in the West against interference with the divine right of property. Islamic thought also makes a distinction between direct gifts from God and things that owe their existence mainly to human intervention. The first are common property. The Qur’an so specifies water, pasture, and fire (i.e., wood and forest resources). Some clerics add certain types of mines–like petroleum wells.

Since wealth and resources are bequeathed to humanity in trust, people are expected to exploit them for economic gain; but they cannot waste or destroy; and anything they earn is to be used for God’s work. That requires donating to the mosque and to the general defense of the umma and relieving the economic hardship of others.

Obviously, this egalitarianism is far from perfect in practice. Apart from the frequent economic subordination of women (something, of course, totally alien in the Christian world), it is a fair criticism that some Muslim countries condoned slavery until fairly recently. Indeed, one finance minister of Saudi Arabia in the 1950s had been a slave by birth. Leaving aside the fact that in Islamic countries slavery was more often a form of bonded personal service than a mode of organizing labor for economic profit, and that Islam made a virtue of freeing a slave, if the West is so socially advanced, it is curious that there has never been a black secretary of the Treasury in the U.S.A. or, for that matter, a non-white minister of finance in any major European country to this day, several generations after slavery was abolished. Whatever the social failings of places where Islam is predominant, the Qur’an makes clear that the umma is defined by faith alone, with no reference to race or nationality; and Islamic doctrines with their stress on cooperation and equality to achieve falah (the welfare of humanity) are less compatible with economic servitude (in both historical and modern forms) than the grab-and-run ideology now rampant in “advanced” countries, with the enthusiastic endorsement of modern “fundamentalist” Christianity.

There are several instruments used to turn Islamic economic philosophy into practical action. These include: restrictions on how business enterprises are structured; a ban on fraudulent practices; condemnation of gains from pure speculation; and, to aid circulation of wealth, injunctions against hoarding in the hands of a few. None would likely earn plaudits on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. A prohibition on trading in produce before crops are ready for harvest would spell ruin to the Chicago commodities exchange; a demand that employers pay decent wages promptly would hardly be appreciated by today’s vulture capitalists who count on rolling back wages and looting employee pension funds to finance acquisitions; and provisions for the intergenerational dispersion of wealth could mean the end of the great family trusts in the U.S.A. that ensure perpetuation of dynastic control without the nuisance of taxes.

All of these instruments are important. But two others are central to implement an Islamic vision of economic society. One provided the impetus for the rapid growth of Islamic banks and investment funds; the other led to a worldwide expansion of Islamic charities.

Full article: Counterpunch

The article is excerpted from Naylor’s book, Satanic Purses: Money, Myth, And Misinformation in the War on Terror