A Muslim and Christian Holistic Approach to Poverty

by Dr. David L. Johnston

The Hebrew Bible – or the Christian Old Testament – begins with God creating the world in six days. On the sixth, after bringing forth all the animals, God created human beings in His image, both male and female. Then in verse 28 of Genesis 1 we read:

“Then God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.’”

In this creation story God imparts to humanity the mission to “rule” over the earth and its creatures. The common word used by Christians for this is “stewardship,” meaning Adam and Eve and their descendants remain accountable to God for the way in which they manage the affairs of the earth.

In a similar way, the Qur’an teaches that Adam was placed on earth as God’s “caliph” – a word also used for the political successors of Muhammad in seventh-century Arabia. But the word connotes authority as well, as the caliphs were empowered to rule in the Prophet’s stead. But more importantly, in the context of this verse in Q. 2:30, Adam is called to be God’s steward and trustee, ruling with wisdom over the creatures under him. For only he and his kind are given “the names of all things,” an expression that commentators have tied to humankind’s ability of reason and moral discernment.

Here I begin a series on faith and poverty, spurred on by a Lenten program at my church focused on the poor. In a blog about Fair Trade I explored some of the complexities of the notion of poverty, emphasizing in particular the unjust structures of global trade that hinder the economic development of the poorest countries. 

A broad approach to eradicating poverty

Poverty is no mere academic discussion. It is achingly real, and what the World Bank calls “extreme poverty” (living below $1.25 a day) affects 1.29 billion people worldwide, which represents 22 percent of the developing world. According to the UN’s World Food Programme, hunger is the world’s top health risk and one in seven people go to bed hungry every day. If, as God made clear to Cain, we are “our brother’s keeper,” this should alarm us. After all, stewardship of creation includes caring for our fellow humans too. 

My main point in this blog is to stress that as people of faith, both Christians and Muslims, God calls us to face this issue head-on from both the macro level (thinking about the poorest of the poor worldwide) and the micro level (what we can do locally). God also expects us to work simultaneously on long-term solutions, tackling systemic injustices globally, nationally, and even locally; and on short term poverty alleviation, that is, assisting victims of floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters.

Though Muslims and Christians work with similar texts on the issue of creation, their traditions highlight different aspects of the “righteous society.” Still, both faiths historically have impelled their adherents to care for the poor in a holistic fashion.

An Islamic approach to poverty reduction

Just as there is no “Islamic” way to organize government (in spite of what many islamists might think), there is no one “Islamic” approach to tackle hunger in a twenty-first century nation-state. During the Cold War years, many Muslim scholars were prescribing some form of socialism. At the same time, oil-rich Gulf countries were eager to work with western nations, and apart from some of the strictures of “Islamic banking” (finding ways around the charging of interest), they developed economies that function seamlessly within the mechanics of global capitalism.

Still, giving to the poor is at the heart of Islam. Muhammad was an orphan raised by his uncle, and the Qur’an and hadith are full of exhortations to be kind to the widow, the orphan, the traveler in need, and the poor and oppressed in general. In addition, one out of Islam’s five pillars is zakat, the command to spend 2.5% of one’s net worth annually to help the indigent. It plays out in a variety of ways in Muslim societies and is not always applied literally, to be sure; yet there’s no denying this theme of compassion permeates Islamic spirituality and practice. 

Ever since the Prophet ruled in Medina (622-632) as prophet and statesman, Muslims have believed that somehow piety had both a personal and communal – even political – dimension. So giving handouts to the poor was not sufficient. A just ruler had to make sure that the laws were fair and did not penalize the poor in any way. Likewise, the court system had to rule out injustice and corruption, so that both poor and rich could find justice.

Zakat has given rise to a multitude of private charities throughout the Muslim world, while at the same time Muslims expect a “godly” government to root out injustice and level the playing field in order for people of all social classes to earn a living with dignity. Social justice and compassion for the poor are key values in Islam – a fact that explains why many Muslims find the extreme economic inequalities within and between Muslim countries absolutely appalling. 

Yet charity doesn’t stop with zakat for Muslims. The Qur’an enjoins them to give freewill offerings as well, or sadaqa – a word any student of Hebrew would recognize. In the second sura we read a thought similar to the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “If you make public your free gifts, it is well. But if you conceal them and deliver them to the poor, that would be best for you, and will atone for some of your ill deeds. And God is well acquainted with all you do” (v. 271). In Jesus’ words, “don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Mat. 6:3).

Finally, the ban on usury in the Qur’an, parallel to the one in the Law of Moses, is a structural mechanism designed to prevent the rich from exploiting the poor. Trade is an economic setup wherein investor and borrower share the risks of the venture. If the commercial deal succeeds, then both make a profit. If it fails, both share in the loss. By contrast, when a bank lends money to an entrepreneur with interest, any loss incurred will be borne solely by the borrower. As the Qur’an states, 

“Those who gorge themselves on usury behave as one whom Satan has confounded with his touch. They say: ‘Buying and selling is but a kind of usury.’ But God has permitted trade and forbidden usury… God has blighted usury and blessed free giving with manifold increase. God loves not the impious lawbreaker” (Q. 2:275-276).

Ziauddin Sardar, whose book on the Qur’an I have examined in a recent blog, sees the recent economic meltdown in that light:

“We live in a time beset by the consequences of economic disasters. As we contemplate the results of subprime mortgages; the escalation in house prices which keeps increasing numbers of even moderately affluent people off the housing ladder; our economy fueled by an increasing debt burden on everyone; derivative trading that seeks to make money out of mis-selling to the poorest; increasing disparities between the pay of private employers and even the top management of public bodies as against the rest of the workforce; the billions paid in bonuses to those who manipulate the stock market to make money from money; there is pertinent cause for thought in this passage. Untrammeled consumerism has brought us a world of stark contrasts as well as an increasing gap between rich and poor. I see this passage as speaking directly to contemporary concerns” (Reading the Qur’an, p. 196).

A Judeo-Christian response to poverty

Many scholars believe that when Jesus, at the outset of his ministry and in his hometown synagogue, read from the Isaiah scroll, he was referring to the Year of Jubilee. Here’s the text from Luke 4:19-20:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”

Besides the obvious reference to the poor as the main recipients of his ministry, as exemplified in his works of healing and exorcism, there is a wider context that only comes into focus with the last phrase, “the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” That’s the “Year of Jubilee” language.

The Jubilee came every fifty years, but it was part of a rhythm of work and rest – observing the seventh day as the Sabbath. Then, every seventh year (“Sabbath year”) all agricultural lands were to be left fallow. Finally, after seven cycles of seven Sabbath years came the Year of Jubilee, during which not only were people to let the land rest; they were to forgive all debts incurred during the past 49 years and each property reverted to its original owner. Capital could not accumulate, nor could any kind of monopoly develop.

Leviticus 25, the major passage explaining the Jubilee, speaks of political and economic structural safeguards put into place so that wealth is fairly distributed among the people of Israel. Though it was rarely followed to the letter, this ideal of a righteous society tied to the redemption of the severely indebted and to the flourishing of the “least of these” (Mat. 25:40, 45) left its mark on both Jewish and Christian spirituality over the centuries. In fact, it was at the heart of American independence (Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell, “Let Freedom Ring!”), the Civil Rights Movement, and the Jubilee 2000 Campaign, initiated in the UK, that successfully put pressure on the World Bank and IMF to cancel the debts of the world’s poorest countries.

From the core of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions, alleviating poverty is a holistic enterprise. Beyond the commands to give generously to the poor, we find clear indications about how we humans, as God’s trustees on earth, are called to organize our respective societies so that all members can flourish according to their own gifts and abilities. Some will naturally be richer than others; at the same time, the rich will be kept from beating down those weaker than themselves.

Examples of courageous faith-based initiatives to free people of various bonds and impediments continue to inspire, like the committed Christians who helped abolish slavery in nineteenth-century England. Today a plethora of Muslim and Christian relief and development agencies dot the globe delivering aid with compassion. What is more, people of faith are joining other more secular elements of civil society in many contexts to lobby for more justice for the poor and oppressed. But more about that in my next blog...

 

More by David Johnston can be found at www.humantrustees.org