In describing human’s nature, Qur’an mentions that humans are generally hasty (Al-Isra: 11), miserly (Al-Isra: 100), impatient (Al-Ma’arij: 19) and have a love of wealth (Al-Aadiyat: 8). Thus, humans have impatience, positive time preference, tendency to economize on expending and desire for material resources.
Islamic texts recognize consumption externalities and desire to consume positional goods and indulging in conspicuous consumption (Al-Takaathur: 1-2). According to Islamic texts, human instinct prefers goods which serve survival needs as well as other wants which serve non-survival needs (Aal’-Imran: 14). The story of Jews asking Moses (pbuh) for a variety of food (Al-Baqarah: 61) also hints at the desire for variety in consumption bundles and diminishing marginal utility.
In a hadith, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said: “If Adam’s son had a valley full of gold, he would like to have two valleys, for nothing fills his mouth except dust (of the grave)…” (Al-Bukhari, Book of Ar-Riqaq, Vol 8, Hadith No. 6436). This also hints at the instinctive desire of humans for non-satiated preferences. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said: “The heart of an old man remains young with regards to two things: Love of life and wealth.” (Al-Muslim, Book of Zakat, Vol 3, Hadith No. 2410). However, we shall see how Islamic teachings prescribe guidelines for moderating these instincts and inculcating empathy in conduct and behaviour.
Islamic teachings make a distinction between permissible and impermissible goods. Qur’an says “… Eat of that which is lawful and good on the earth…” (Al-Baqarah: 168). Islam forbids intoxicants (Al-Baqarah: 219), the meat of dead animals, blood and flesh of swine (Al-Baqarah: 173). In financial services, Islam forbids interest (Al-Baqarah: 276) and gambling (Al-Maida: 90), for instance. On some occasions, even lawful goods become impermissible, such as during the time of fasting (Al-Baqarah: 183). Fasting in Islam is prescribed for Muslims to make them become God-fearing by restraining their desires and achieving moral consciousness. Nevertheless, Islam does not approve monasticism (Al-Hadid: 27).
Instead of being miser and spendthrift, Islam wants Muslims to have moderation in their consumption, both with respect to contemporaneous consumption as well as inter-temporal consumption. Allah in Qur’an says: “And let not your hand be tied (like a miser) to your neck, nor stretch it forth to its utmost reach (like a spendthrift), so that you become blameworthy and in severe poverty” (Al-Isra: 29). In another verse, Qur’an says: “And those, who, when they spend, are neither extravagant nor niggardly, but hold a medium (way) between those (extremes).” (Al-Furqan: 67). In a hadith, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said: “Spend according to your means; and do not hoard, for Allah will withhold from you.” (Al-Muslim, Book of Zakah, Vol 3, Hadith No. 2378). Islam expects Muslims to avoid being spendthrift and extravagant. Allah in Qur’an says: “… Waste not by extravagance. Verily, He likes not those who waste” (Al-Anam: 141). In another verse, Allah in Qur’an says “…Spend not wastefully (your wealth) in the manner of a spendthrift.” (Al-Isra: 26).
Islamic principles recognize consumption externalities and counter them by explicitly cautioning against envy, egoism and pride. Instead of consuming positional goods and indulging in conspicuous consumption, Islam wants Muslims to observe humbleness and shun pride (Al-Isra: 37; Luqman 18). Qur’an says that Allah does not like prideful boasters (Al-Hadid: 23).
Islam also does not approve of envious behaviour. Qur’an says: “The desire for piling up of worldly things diverts you until you reach the graves.” (Al-Takaathur: 1-2). Instead, Qur’an prescribes “… Do not covet the bounties which God has bestowed more abundantly on some of you than others…” (Al-Nisa: 32).
Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said: “Envy consumes good deeds just as fire consumes wood, and charity extinguishes bad deeds just as water extinguishes the fire.” (Sunan Ibn-e-Maja, Chapters on Asceticism, Vol 5, Hadith No. 4210). Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) educated Muslims to be like none except the one who is given the knowledge of Qur’an and the one who spends in charity (Al-Bukhari, Book of Virtues of the Qur’an, Vol 6, Hadith No. 5025). Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) advised: “Look at the one who is at a lower level than you, and do not look at the one who is above you, for that may keep you from scorning the blessings of Allah.” (Al-Muslim, Book of Asceticism, Vol 7, Hadith No. 7430)
Qur’an educates Muslims that wealth will not last forever (Al-Humazah: 1-3). Wealth and children are only a trial (Al-Taghabun: 15). The temporary nature of this worldly life and material dispensation is eloquently summed up by Qur’an as follows:
“Know that the life of this world is only play and amusement, pomp and mutual boasting among you, and rivalry in respect of wealth and children, as the likeness of vegetation after rain, thereof the growth is pleasing to the tiller; afterwards it dries up and you see it turning yellow; then it becomes straw…” (Al-Hadid: 20). In one hadith, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said: “Richness is not in having many possessions, but richness is being content with oneself.” (Jamai-at-Tirmidhi, Chapters on Zuhd, Vol 4, Hadith No. 2373).
Islam does not recognize impure altruism to satisfy ego and to achieve fame and recognition (Al-Baqarah: 264; Al-Maoon: 6). Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) advised anonymity and secrecy in charitable giving such that the right hand does not know what the left hand is giving (Al-Muslim, Book of Zakat, Vol 3, Hadith No. 2380). Allah says of the ideal believers in Qur’an: “And they give food, in spite of their love for it to Miskin (poor), the orphan, and the captive. (Saying): ‘We feed you seeking Allah’s countenance only. We wish for no reward, nor thanks from you’.” (Al-Insaan: 8-9). Qur’an urges believers to spend what they love in order to achieve righteousness (Aal’-Imran: 92), spend throughout their lives (Al-Munafiqun: 10) and the ideal is to spend whatever is beyond their needs (Al-Baqarah: 219).
Qur’an urges Muslims to show kindness, generosity and benevolence to their fellow human beings. Allah says in Qur’an: “… Do good to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, Al-Masakin (the poor), the neighbour who is near to kin, the neighbour who is a stranger, the companion by your side and the wayfarer (you meet) …” (Al-Nisa: 36). Qur’an says in another place: “So give to the kindred his due, and to Al-Miskin (the poor) and to the wayfarer…” (Ar-Rum: 38). Feeding orphans and poor is regarded as highly virtuous acts (Al-Balad: 12-16) in Qur’an. Qur’an exhorts Muslim to look after orphans and treat them with kindness and generosity (Al-Fajr: 17-20), work honestly in their property (Al-Baqarah: 220) and avoid oppressive treatment (Al-Dhuha: 9) as well as refrain from harsh behaviour (Al-Maoon: 2). Qur’an strictly prohibits usurping the endowments of orphans (Al-Nisa: 2).
Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) declared that the best charity is to spend (in charity) while you are healthy, aspiring, hoping to survive, and fearing poverty, and not delaying until death comes to you (Sunan Abu Daud, Book of Wills, Vol 3, Hadith No. 2865). Allah wants the believers to avoid miserliness (Al-Nisa: 37). Instead of enjoining miserliness, Islam urges Muslims to help one another in good acts and endeavours (Al-Maida: 2).
Since Islam only accepts pure altruism, it promises numerous incentives for it in its two-worldly view of life. Several verses in Qur’an promise due reward for pure altruism (Al-Tauba: 121; Fatir: 29; Al-Hadid: 7). In several other verses, spending in charitable ways for the sake of Allah is compared to a good loan which Allah will repay with a manifold increase (Al-Hadid: 11; Al-Hadid 18; Al-Taghabun: 17; Al-Muzzammil: 20). In several Ahadith also, Muslims are encouraged to spend so that Allah also spends on them with His blessings (Al-Bukhari, Book of Commentary, Vol 6, Hadith No. 4684).