The purpose of this article is to re-discover the social commentary, moral message and relevance of some Meccan suras.
Mecca during the time of the prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was a successful commercial city. It was a center of trade and a relatively wealthy city. But it was also a city where the wealthy were greedy, corrupt, uncaring and the poor were destitute. The rich led a life that was centered on wealth while the poor were hungry. The Quran mentions the need to feed the poor many times, so clearly there lived in Mecca people so poor that they couldn’t afford food. The Quran also mentions fraud, greed, and “rivalry of wealth” amongst the rich citizens of Mecca.
Muslims seek Allah’s guidance in the laws or commands in the Quran. But guidance doesn’t have to be in the form of a command to “do this” or “don’t do that” or “this is permissible” and “that is forbidden”. Guidance can be in the form of examples, in the form of stories.
I would like to argue that the Quranic descriptions are also Allah’s guidance. The descriptions are prescriptions. When the Quran describes the pagan Arabs as greedy, lacking in charity, committing fraud, it is instructing believers not to be like the pagans and conversely, when the Quran describes the early believers as caring for the poor it is instructing later believers to do the same. The description of pagan Meccan society, its moral failures, greed, corruption, lack of charity and on the other hand the moral behavior of the early believers is Allah’s guidance.
The Quran is teaching through negative and positive examples. The leaders of pagan Meccans are negative examples that we have been warned about, and prophet Muhammad and the early believers are the positive examples that we should follow.
During the early Meccan stage the zakat tax (fixed tax on the wealth of a Muslim) had not been introduced. But the basic moral teaching to care for the poor is clear. The zakat tax requires a Muslim government to collect and distribute the tax, but the moral teaching to care for the poor, to shun “rivalries of wealth” and fraud doesn’t require a Muslim state. Any conscientious person can act according to the moral guideline within or outside of a Muslim state.
Great inequality of wealth along with fraud and greed are common problems today. The modern world for all its material development has not been able to overcome the moral failures of Mecca. All over the world great wealth and hunger exist side by side. Greed, fraud, lack of charity, wealth centered life, these money related sins are as prevalent today as they were 1400 years ago in Arabia. As such, somewhat sadly the description of pagan Mecca is recognizable all over the world today.
We need to ask, have Muslim societies overcome the moral failures of Mecca? Are the poor in Muslim societies free from hunger, have Muslim societies achieved equitable distribution of wealth, are the lives of Muslims not centered on wealth and free from “rivalries of wealth” and ostentation? The answer to these questions should come from Muslims but my limited knowledge suggests that Muslim society today continue to suffer from inequality of wealth, poverty and hunger as well as fraud, greed and “rivalries of wealth” that was the failure of Mecca.
Although inequality of wealth, poverty and hunger, greed and “rivalries of wealth” are rampant in today’s world, there are many voices that speak against these moral failures. All religions and many secular modes of thought speak against poverty, hunger, fraud, greed and wealth centered life and for the need for charity and honesty. Charity is a virtue and greed or avarice a sin in Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism. Economists and social scientists speak for the need for reducing poverty, reducing inequality, reducing fraud etc.
The religious and the secular use different frames of reference. The religious speak in terms of God’s guidance and pleasure, of benefits in the hereafter. The secular speak in terms of social uplift, economic benefit for society and state but the actual action is the same.
The Quran describes the moral corruption of the people of Mecca. In Surah 89 Al-Fajr (The Dawn) verse 17 the Quran accuses the pagan Quraish of excessive love of wealth, greed and lack of charity. When the Quran accuses the pagan Quraish of lack of charity, it is a description of the situation in 7th century Mecca, but it is also a prescription, the Quran is telling those who believe and read the Quran not to be like the pagans.
89.17 Nay, but ye (for your part) honour not the orphan
89.18 And urge not on the feeding of the poor.
89.19 And ye devour heritages with devouring greed.
89.20 And love wealth with abounding love.
Punishment in hell is directly linked with lack of charity. Sura 69 Al-Haqqah (The Reality) states the guilty will be punished in hell for not believing in Allah and not caring for the poor. Sura 69 ayat 32 to 37 describes the punishment of Hell. Here the Quran is directing readers that if they want to be far removed from hell fire they need to care for the poor.
69.30 (It will be said): Take him and fetter him
69.31 And then expose him to hell-fire
69.32 And then insert him in a chain whereof the length is seventy cubits.
69.33 Lo! He used not to believe in Allah the Tremendous,
69.34 And urged not on the feeding of the wretched.
69.35 Therefor hath he no lover here this day,
69.36 Nor any food save filth
69.37 Which none but sinners eat.
Again Sura 74 Al-Mudaththir (The Cloaked One) states that the people burning in hell will be asked “What hath brought you to this burning?” They will reply “We were not of those who prayed nor did we feed the wretched.” (Sura 74 verse 42 to 44). This verse offers a choice to readers either feed the poor and pray or face hell fire.
74.42 What hath brought you to this burning ?
74.43 They will answer: We were not of those who prayed
74.44 Nor did we feed the wretched.
In sura 92 Al-Leyl (The Night) states that the righteous will be far removed from the fire. The charitable, “who giveth his wealth” are the righteous.
92.14 Therefor have I warned you of the flaming Fire
92.17 Far removed from it will be the righteous
92.18 Who giveth his wealth that he may grow (in goodness).
On the other hand in Sura-76 Al-Insan or Ad-Dahr (Time or Man) verse 8 the righteous are in heaven because they believe and “feed with food the needy wretch, the orphan and the prisoner”. This verse clearly states that heaven is the abode of those who believe and feed the poor.
76.6 A spring wherefrom the slaves of Allah drink, making it gush forth abundantly,
76.7 (Because) they perform the vow and fear a day whereof the evil is wide-spreading,
76.8 And feed with food the needy wretch, the orphan and the prisoner, for love of Him,
In Sura 90 Al-Balad (The City) charity, defined as “to free a slave, and to feed in the day of hunger an orphan near of kin, or some poor wretch in misery”. Charity is moral development, Ascent.
90.11 But he hath not attempted the Ascent -
90.12 Ah, what will convey unto thee what the Ascent is! -
90.13 (It is) to free a slave,
90.14 And to feed in the day of hunger.
90.15 An orphan near of kin,
90.16 Or some poor wretch in misery,
90.17 And to be of those who believe and exhort one another to perseverance and exhort one another to pity.
The wealthy pagan Meccans lead a wealth centered life. They are busy competing with the each other to see who has more. Sura 102 At-Takathur (Rivalry In Worldly Increase) verses 1 to 6 reminds the wealthy Meccan pagans that their competition will end when they reach the grave and finally face hell fire.
102.1 Rivalry in worldly increase distracteth you
102.2 Until ye come to the graves.
102.3 Nay, but ye will come to know!
102.4 Nay, but ye will come to know!
102.5 Nay, would that ye knew (now) with a sure knowledge!
102.6 For ye will behold hell-fire.
Competition in wealth is such a common phenomenon that the two phrases “Conspicuous Consumption” and “keeping up with the Joneses” are now part of the English vocabulary. All over the world, people define themselves by what they possess and how much more they possess than their neighbors and peers. Wealth alone is not enough, it is necessary to flaunt your wealth so that others know.
Apart from inequality, competition in wealth, “keeping up with the Joneses” is a common moral malady. And surprisingly the description of 7th century Mecca is true today.
In Sura 100 Al –Adiyat (The Coursers) verse 8 the Quran accuses the wealthy pagan Meccans of an excessive love of wealth. And at the same time warns love of wealth will be a cause for concern on the day of judgment.
100.008 And lo! in the love of wealth he is violent.
100.009 Knoweth he not that, when the contents of the graves are poured forth
100.010 And the secrets of the breasts are made known,
100.011 On that day will their Lord be perfectly informed concerning them.
Meccans are accused in Sura 83 At-Tatfif (Defrauding) verse 1 to 6 of fraud. Those who commit fraud are defined as “Those who when they take the measure from mankind demand it full, But if they measure unto them or weight for them, they cause them loss.” (Sura 83 verse 2 and 3). Those who commit fraud are asked “Do such (men) not consider that they will be raised again”.
83.1 Woe unto the defrauders:
83.2 Those who when they take the measure from mankind demand it full,
83.3 But if they measure unto them or weight for them, they cause them loss.
83.4 Do such (men) not consider that they will be raised again
83.5 Unto an Awful Day,
83.6 The day when (all) mankind stand before the Lord of the Worlds ?
The combination of greed and fraud could describe the latest financial scandal in the US. The list is long, Enron, WorldCom, Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, subprime mortgage crisis etc. The long and growing list may give the impression that greed and fraud happens mostly in the US. But a little research shows that greed and fraud happens all over the world and Muslim nations are not immune from this problem. In fact a study of the Transparency International list of Corruption Perception Index show most of the countries perceived to be most corrupt are Muslim.
In Sura 104 Al-Humazah (The Traducer) verse … the Quran charges wealthy slanderer and traducer. (Definition of Traducer “someone who humiliation or disgrace by making malicious and false statements”) (also translated as backbiter, defamer) The slander and backbiter probably refers to, the pagan opponents of the prophet who spread lies about the prophet. The description “who hath gathered wealth (of this world) and arranged it, he thinketh that his wealth will render him immortal” suggest that the pagan adversary of the prophet lead a wealth centered life. They are warned that they will be flung the consuming fire of hell.
104.1 Woe unto every slandering traducer,
104.2 Who hath gathered wealth (of this world) and arranged it.
104.3 He thinketh that his wealth will render him immortal.
104.4 Nay, but verily he will be flung to the Consuming One.
In sura 107 Al-Maun (Small Kindness) the one who denies religion is defined as he who repels the orphan and doesn’t urge others to feed the poor.
107.1 Hast thou observed him who belieth religion ?
107.2 That is he who repelleth the orphan,
107.3 And urgeth not the feeding of the needy