On Interest and Interest Dealings

USURY, or interest, was common among the Arabs, as it was in the other communities of the world. Its most prevalent form was that people, in their need, borrowed money, and it was settled, at the time of the transaction, that they would return it with such-and-such an interest charge on its use, and within such-and-such a time. If the borrower failed to repay it within the stipulated period, he begged for an extension, and the interest charge was increased in proportion to it. The load of the poor borrowers would, thus, go on multiplying, and the greedy money-lenders would be sucking their blood like a leech. The practice, evidently, was opposed to the spirit of Islam. The teachings of Islam, on the contrary, require that help was given to the weak and the destitute, and care was taken of their needs, and that all this was done not for a worldly gain or advantage., but wholly for the sake of God and gaining the reward of the Hereafter. Just as in the Qur’an and the sayings of the holy Prophet, a gradual course was adopted towards the forbidding of alcoholic drinks and other intoxicants, the abolition of usury, too, was enforced by degrees. For a long time, in the beginning, stress was laid, in a positive way, on spending one’s wealth in the way of God and fulfilling the needs of the less fortunate brethren and bringing succour to them, and on cultivating the virtues of kindliness, compassion, generosity and self-denial. Slowly and steadily, it was instilled into the minds and hearts of the people that death was inevitable; they were bound to die one day, and their worldly possessions, too, were not everlasting. They should, therefore, take lesson from the dreadful end of the worshippers of wealth like Pharaoh, and try earnestly to make use of their riches as a means to earning the eternal joy and felicity of the world to come.

This guidance and corresponding action paved the way for the total abolition of the heartless practice of lending money at interest. The concluding verses of Surah Baqarah, i.e., from “Those who swallow usury cannot rise up save as he ariseth whom Devil hath prostrated by his touch up to And if the debtor is in straightened circumstances, then let there be postponement (to the time of ease); and that ye remit the debt as alms-giving would be better for you if ye but know,” (2: 275-80) were, consequently, revealed, proclaiming, in clearest terms, the forbidding of the lending and borrowing of money etc., at interest. In the above verses, it, also, is made clear that if, as a result of a previous transaction, interest on a loan is due to anyone, it will be treated as defunct and will not be payable or realisable after the commandment had been revealed. “Give up what remaineth due to you from usury.” The warning, further, is given, at the end, that if, after the revelation of these verses, people persisted in usury and transgressed against the law of God, they should consider themselves at war with Allah and His Messenger: “And if ye do not, then be warned of war (against you) from Allah and His Apostle.” Such a severe admonition has not been administered in the Qur’an in respect of any other major sin, such as, adultery, gambling, and murder. It denotes that usury is more repugnant in the sight of God and His Prophet than all the other, sins. As the Traditions given below will show, the Prophet has condemned usury as a sin of the highest order and spelt the curse of God not only on those who take or offer loan on usurious terms, but, also, on those who write the deed of it or act as witnesses to the transaction. In some narratives, usury, in fact, has been characterized as seventy times a greater sin than adultery and fornication.

(1) It is related by Abu Hurairah that the Apostle of God said: “Keep (strictly) away from the seven mortal sins.” “What are the seven sins?” the Companions asked. “To join anyone with God (in worship, in His attributes. and in His Functions); to practise sorcery; to kill a person unlawfully; to lend money on usurious terms; to eat of the property of an orphan; to desert the Muslim army and run away from Jehad (for fear of life); and to accuse falsely pious and innocent bondswomen of the Lord of adultery,” the Prophet replied.

Bukhari and Muslim

Commentary

The seven sins mentioned in it are the worst forms of evildoing. The holy Prophet has described them as Mobqat, i.e., fatal to man and to the spirit of his faith, and specified usury as next to Polytheism, witchcraft and murder. As the physicians tell about the properties of herbs, minerals and foods, on the basis of their knowledge and experience, so do the Prophets inform concerning the effects and properties of beliefs, morals and deeds of men on the basis of the knowledge vouschafed to them by God, with the difference that while there is the possibility of an error in the knowledge or judgement of the physicians, what the Prophets tell is beyond the shadow of a doubt or fallacy, at least for men of faith, for the simple reason that it stems from Divine revelations. But; strangely enough, although people follow the advice of the physicians and take the medicines prescribed by them unquestioningly – no patient can justifiably insist upon knowing the pharmacology of a medicine before using it – when the Book of God, the Qur’an, and His Messenger inform about a thing like usury that it is a grievous sin and ruinous to the soul and a fearful punishment awaits those in the Hereafter who lend money at interest, many a claimant to Faith and intellect are reluctant to believe and its philosophy must be explained to them before they are convinced.

(2) It is related by Abu Hurairah that the Apostle of God said: “The night I was taken on the (celestial) Journey, I passed by a group (of persons) whose bellies were like houses full of snakes, and the snakes could be seen from outside. I enquired about them from Gabriel and he said that they were the usurers.”

–   Musnad-i-Ahmad and Ibn-i-Maja

Commentary

On the night of the Prophet’s ascension to Heaven, he was shown many things that belonged to the invisible World, including some glimpses and objects of Heaven and Hell in order that from Haqqul Yaqeen (certainty relating to truth) he attained the stage of Ainul Yaqeen (certainty relating to seeing), and could, also, instruct and inform the people with regard to Divine reward and punishment in the light of personal observation. Among these was the scene described in the above Tradition. We are indebted to the narrators of the Traditions that owing to the extraordinary pains they took, we, too, have come to know, through authentic compilations, of the supernal experiences of the Prophet during the Journey by Night.

(3) It is related by Abu Hurairah that the Apostle of God said: “There are seventy parts of usury. Of them a most ordinary part is like committing incest on one’s own mother.”

–  Ibn-i-Maja and Baihaqi

Commentary

 As already stated, in the Arabic idiom and the language of the Qur’an and the Traditions, the word ‘seventy’, often, denotes the abundance of a thing, and not the exact number. Anyway, what the above Tradition seeks to emphasize is that usury is a more detestable crime than committing incest on one’s own mother.

(4) Jabir related to us, saying that “the Apostle of God cursed him who lends money at interest, and him who receives it, and him who writes the deed thereof, and those who are witnesses to the transaction, and said that (they) all are equal parners to the sin.”

–          Muslim

Commentary

It tells that usury is such a grave sin that all those who are associated with it in any way are doomed to the eternal punishment of the Hereafter, and the curse rests equally on the borrower, the writer of the deed and the witnesses thereof.

(5) It is related by Anas that the Apostle of God said: “Whoever of you makes a loan to anyone and the borrower gives him something as a gift or offers him an animal to ride, he should not accept the gift or use the animal for riding except that there have been such relations between them from earlier days.”

 –  Ibn-i-Maja and Baihaqi

Commentary

Meaning usury is so ruinous in its consequences that one should be careful to avoid a situation bearing even a trace of it. When a person gives a loan to anyone, he should refrain from receiving the least worldly gain or advantage from him, and allow not even a suspicion of it to come near himself.

(6) It is related, on the authority of Omar bin el-Khattab, who said: “The verse of usury, i.e., the verse of Sura-i-Baqarah forbidding usury is among the verses which were revealed during the last phase (of the holy Prophet’s life). The Apostle of God departed from the world without explaining fully its implications to us. So, give up usury altogether and guard yourselves even against a trace or suspicion of it.”

–  Ibn-i-Maja and Daarmi

Commentary

The word Riba, which has been used in the text of the above Tradition for usury was current in the Arabic language before the revelation of the Qur’an, and carried the same meaning as we have slated in the introductory lines. Thus, when the verse relating to it was revealed, it was believed that the practice of lending money at interest had been forbidden. There was no question of a doubt or confusion with regard to it. But in some of his sayings we shall be discussing later, the holy Prophet expressed the view about certain forms of trade which were not considered objectionable that they, too, amounted to usury. He, however, did not explain the various implications of it, but as the philosophy of the Shariat would demand, furnished only the doctrinal guidance and left it to the jurist to work out the details. The same is the case with all the heads and sections of the Shariat. But Hazrat Omar, who was among the leading legists of the Ummat, was so overawed by the warnings of punishment on usury that he felt it would have been better had the Prophet enunciated the details of the commandment as well, and not left it to the jurists to decide on their own. It was on account of this extremely God-fearing and cautious attitude of the mind that Hazrat Omar remarked that the better and wiser course for Believers was that they kept strictly aloof from everything that bore the least suggestion of usury. The irony of fate, however, is that some intellectuals of our times who claim for themselves the right to interpret the Shariat on the basis of Ijtehad conclude, from the above utterance of Hazrat Omar, that the position of usury is vague and uncertain, and, from it, proceed to justify various forms of it that are in vogue today.

(7) It is related by Abdullah bin Masud that the Apostle of God said: “However plentiful the interest may be, its end is want and scarcity.”

–  Musnad-i-Ahmad, Ibn-i-Maja and Baihaqi

Commentary

If the word ‘Aaqibatahu occurring in the original is taken to mean the ultimate end of the Hereafter, no believing person can have a doubt concerning it for in the future world everyone will see with his own eyes that the people who had made immense gains through usury will rise as paupers on the Last Day and the wealth they had so acquired will prove a curse for them, as set forth in the Qur’an and the Traditions. Should, however, the Tradition be supposed to signify that however much a person may add to his wealth through usury, it will, ultimately, avail him nothing and he will end up in poverty, the superficial observers may find it hard to believe but those who are capable of taking a deeper view of things will understand. Instances are not wanting of people accumulating a lot of wealth through usurious means, and, then, the whole wealth evaporating, as one would say, into thin air through a sudden turn of events, in their own lifetime or after death. It, also, is common experience that people who live on usury seldom enjoy real peace and happiness which is the chief advantage of being wealthy. It will, as such, not be incorrect to say that a man who acquires wealth by money-lending is, virtually, a pauper, all his worldly possessions notwithstanding. Says the Quran: “Allah hath blighted usury, i.e., taken away all propitiousness from wealth acquired by usurious means.” (11: 276).

(8) Abu Hurairah related to us, saying that the Apostle of God said: “A time will come when everyone will be usurer. (No one will be safe from usury). If a person will not be taking or receiving it himself, its dirt will, surely, be reaching inside his body.”

–  Musnad-i-Ahmad, Abu Dawood, Nissai and Ibn-i-Maja

Commentary

Its purpose is not merely to make a prediction, but to warn the Ummat that there will come a time when the practice of usury will become so common that no one will remain safe from it. The Believers and men of piety should, therefore, be vigilant. Our own times are no different, and even persons who consider usury a sin and abstain from it buy their provisions from shop-keepers who, directly or indirectly, are connected with the business of money-lending. In fact, it is practically impossible, now-a-days, to keep any business free from the effects of usury.

(9) It is related by Obaidah bin Saamit that the Apostle of God said: “The sale of gold in exchange for gold, and of silver in exchange for silver, and of wheat in exchange for wheat and of barley in exchange for barley, and of dates in exchange for dates, and of salt in exchange for salt should be equal and alike, and from hand to hand, but when the commodities are different you can sell them as you like provided that the transaction is from hand to hand, i.e., straight and expeditious.”

– Muslim

(10) It is related by Abu Saeed Khudri that the Apostle of Gad said: “Gold in return for gold, silver in return for silver, wheat in return for wheat barley in return for barley, dates in return for dates, and salt in return for salt should be bought and sold on a par with each other. Whoever paid or demanded more carried out a usurious transaction. Both the buyer and the seller, the one who gives and the one who receives, are equal in this respect.”

–  Muslim

Commentary

Traditions having the same meaning have, also, been related by Hazrat Omar, Hazrat Obaidah bin Saamit, Hazrat Abu Bakrah, Hazrat Abu Hurairah and many other Companions. In the above narrative, it is told. that if any of the six commodities mentioned in it, gold, silver, wheat, barley, dates and salt, is sold in return for the same commodity, as for instance, wheat is exchanged for wheat, the transaction will be fair and .lawful if it is equal in measure, value and quality, and conducted from hand to hand. If, however, what is exchanged is of a greater or lesser weight or value or the business deal is not carried out from hand to hand, but by way of borrowing and lending then it will be a usurious transaction and both the parties will be guilty of usury. The sum and substance of the comments offered on these Traditions by Shah Waliullah, in Hujjdtillah-il Baligha, is that the form of usury practiced in Arabia during the time of the holy Prophet and even earlier, and for which the term, Riba was used was that people, in their need, borrowed money from those who did the business of lending at interest and it was settled at the time of the transaction that they would return it within a fixed period, along with the agreed interest charge and if it could not be paid back on time, they obtained a respite and agreed to pay an additional amount. This was the Riba that was directly forbidden by the Qur’an. Later, at the behest of God, the Prophet included some other kinds of business deals, too, in the sphere of application of the commandment concerning usury, and enjoined upon the (Ummat to abstain from them as well. The Traditions, we have just seen contain the same promulgation, and their purport is that if any commodity among the six mentioned therein is exchanged for the same commodity, it should be of an equal weight and quality, and the transaction carried out from hand to hand, otherwise it will be a usurious deal and both the parties to it will stand condemned before God.

Only six articles are mentioned in these Traditions, but the legist-doctors are almost unanimous on the point that other articles belonging to the same category, too, are covered by the commandment although there is some difference in their views on matters of detail.

(11) Narrates Abu Saeed Khudri that once Bilal brought some high quality dates for the Apostle of God. The Apostle of God enquired how he had come to possess them upon which Bilal said that he had exchanged two Sa’as (i.e., a measure of five pints and a third used for measuring corn etc.) of poor quality dates for one Sa’a of the finer ones. “Ah,” the Prophet exclaimed. “It is pure usury. When you want to buy dates (with dates), first sell your dates, and, then, buy the other dates with the money you, thus, obtain.”

–  Bukhari and Muslim

Commentary

Hazrat Bilal would, certainly, not have been unaware that Riba had been forbidden by God, but he did not know that the manner of his buying the dates, too, was a usurious practice. He thought that only the taking or giving of a loan at interest was usury. But the Prophet explained to him that the exchange of the dates on unequal terms, also, was similar. According to Shah Waliullah, Riba relating to a loan is real Riba while what has been described as such in the narratives of Hazrat Abu Saeed Khudri etc., is equivalent in significance to it.

(12) Ata bin Yasaar relates, saying that Muawiya, once, sold a cup (or jug) of gold (or silver) in return for the same metal of a greater weight. Upon it, Abu Darda told him that he had heard the Apostle of God forbidding a sale like that except that the articles exchanged were of an equal weight. But Muawiya said that he saw nothing wrong or sinful in what he had done. (With great sorrow), Abu Darda, observed that “I should be considered helpless where Muawiya is concerned. I tell him what the Apostle of God has commanded, and he tells me what he thinks.” Abu Darda, afterwards, told Muawiya, “I will not live in the territory in which you live”. He, (thus), came to Omar in Medina and narrated the whole thing to him upon which Omar wrote to Muawiya to keep clear of such deals. The exchange of gold, silver etc., for the same goods or articles was permissible only when both the things were of an equal weight.

–  Mowatta and Nissai

Commentary

Hazrat Muawiya was the Governor of Syria during the Caliphate of Hazrat Omar, and Hazrat Abu Darda, also, used to live there. It was in those days that Hazrat Muawiya sold a drinking vessel of gold or silver in exchange for the metal it was made of, though the metal weighed a little more than the vessel, but he thought that there was no harm in it. Hazrat Abu Darda, thereupon, told him that the holy Prophet had forbidden such a deal and commanded that if an article of gold or silver was sold in return for the same metal, the two should be of an equal weight, neither more nor less. Hazrat Muawiya, perhaps, was under the impression that if an article – a vessel or an ornament – made of gold or silver was sold, it would not be unfair to charge a higher price, taking into consideration the cost of manufacture. That was why he remarked that he saw nothing wrong and unlawful in the transaction. Hazrat Abu Darda, however, was extremely shocked at it as he believed that there was no question of one’s own view or judgement in what he had heard from the Prophet. Anyway, he left Syria for good, and came to Medina where he related the incident to Hazrat Omar. Hazrat Omar, then, wrote to Hazrat Muawiya that the correct legal position was what Hazrat Abu Darda had stated, and, therefore, no such deals could be permitted.

It shows how firm and uncompromising the holy Companions were in their attitude even on the second category of Riba. They were not ready to tolerate even the least deviation or error of judgement in that regard.