On the Ethics of Buying and Selling in Islam
Through the traditions of the Prophet, on whom is peace, Islam provides its own ethic of business transactions in day-to-day life. Whether it is the case of the seller in extreme need, or the ignorant buyer, or the sale of defective items, the Prophet has prescribed exact regulations which grant the Islamic law of commerce a halo of sanctity and humanitarianism that few can ignore.
(1) It is related by Ali that the Apostle of God “forbade buying and selling with a person who was in dire need or difficulties, and he forbade the selling of an article the availability of Which was not certain, and of fruit before it was ready for harvesting.” – Abu Dawood
Sometimes, a person is compelled to sell his property out of extreme want or any other distressing circumstance. The buyer, in such a case, can exploit his need and make an unfair profit from the deal. Such a transaction has been called Ba’i-i-Muztar (i.e., selling by a person reduced to want or necessity) in this Tradition, and it has been forbidden.
What it emphasizes is that the need of a person made desperate by poverty should not be put unfairly to advantage. On the contrary, he should be helped. The other thing it tells is that an article like a bird or deer in the forest or fish in the pond ought not to be sold in the hope that one will catch and supply it for it is neither in the possession of the seller nor is its availability assured, and, further, a difference can, also, arise over the quality of the thing.
(2) Abu Hurairah narrates that “the Apostle of God, once, happened to pass by a heap of corn (which belonged to a trader). The Apostle of God thrust his hand into it and his fingers felt damp. On being asked, the trader replied that rain had fallen upon it. (So, he had placed the wet corn that was on the top under the dry corn). The Apostle of God, thereupon, observed: ‘Why did you not let the wet corn remain on the top so that the buyers could see it? (Listen), he who deceives is not of us.’” – Muslim
Another version of the same incident quoted by Tabrani in Mo’jam-i-Kabeer-wa-Sagheer, on the authority of Ibn Masud, has it that the Apostle of God, lastly, said: “The sequel of such deceitfulness is Hell”.
(3) Relates Wasila bin el-Asqa that “I myself heard the Apostle of God say: ‘Whoever sold a dafective thing to anyone without disclosing the defect to the buyer would be caught, permanently, in the wrath of God.’ (Or was it) (that) ‘he would always be cursed by the Angels?’” – Ibn Majah
Sometimes, a narrator is not sure of the exact words spoken by the holy Prophet, and by way of caution, he indicates his lack of certainty while relating the event. In the above Tradition, too, Wasila was caught in two minds and could not decide whether the Prophet had said about the deceitful seller that “he would be caught, permanently, in the wrath of God,” or that “he would always be cursed by the Angels”.
(4) It is related by Abu Hurairah that the Apostle of God said: “Do not go forward and meet the caravan carrying grain etc., (for trade), (before it had reached the market-place). The trader who went ahead and bought the goods in the way, the owner would, then, have the right to cancel the deal, (if he wished), on reaching the market.”– Muslim
It was common, in those days, for people to bring the articles for trade from the outlying areas to the towns for selling them in the market. They used to travel in groups, both large and small, and were called Jalab. Clever traders would go on and settle the deal much before the caravan had arrived at the market-place. This practice, evidently, was not to the advantage of the sellers because they could, thereby, be cheated into selling the goods at a lower rate owing to the ignorance of the price current in the market. Another disadvantage of it was that all the grain and other articles of trade coming from outside went into the hands of skilful merchants and they sold them at a much higher rate to the ordinary consumers. Were the goods sold in the market, they would have fetched a better price and the consumers, too, would have got them at reasonable rates. It was for these reason that the holy Prophet forbade the buying of goods in the way, before they had reached the market, and, further, indicated that if anyone did that, the seller would be entitled to cancel the deal if, on reaching the market, he felt that he had been cheated.
(5) It is related by Abu Hurairah that the Apostle of God said: “Do not go forward and meet, (in the way), the caravans bringing grain etc., for sale; and none of you should interfere in the selling transaction of his brother by offering his own goods for sale; and do not try to raise the price of a commodity (by pretending to be a buyer); and the merchants of the towns must not store the goods of the bedouins with themselves for future sale; and do not have the milk collect in the udders of a goat or she-camel intended for sale, and if a person buys such a goat or she-camel, he will be free to keep the animal or return it, as he likes, after milking it, and in case he returns it, he will give a Sa’a (4 Kilograms) of dates to the owner (along with it).” – Bukhari and Muslim
Among the instructions given in it, the first is what has, already, been stated in the preceding narrative, i.e., grain and other essential commodities should not be bought by traders from the caravans, bringing them from the countryside, before they had reached the market.
The next requires that if a person is buying an article from a shopkeeper, the other shopkeeper should not interfere in the transaction and try to persuade the customer to buy from him.
The third is concerning the practice of raising the price of a commodity by posing as a buyer and offering a higher price, while a person was engaged in settling the deal with the seller, in order that the real buyer agreed to pay more.
The fourth instruction is that city merchants should not collect grain etc; brought by the village peasants or traders for selling, and keep them, for future sale when the prices will rise. The goods, on the other hand, should be sold when villagers bring them to the market so that artificial scarcity is not created and the prices do not soar. Moreover, when peasants or traders bringing the goods from the countryside will get the price of their commodities promptly, they will be encouraged to bring in a fresh stock of goods, and, thus, the trade will flourish, and they, also, will earn more.
The fifth and the last instruction is that anyone who wanted to sell a milch cattle should not cease milking it for a time so that the buyer was deceived by the inflated size of the udders and agreed to buy it at a higher price.
The Tradition, further, tells that whoever bought such an animal will be within his rights to return it if he felt dissatisfied on milking it at his place. The buyer, in that case, will, also, give a Sa’a of dates to the owner.
In another version of the same narrative, quoted in Sahih Muslim, it is stated that the animal ought to be returned within three days of the deal after which the buyer will forfeit the right, and, also, that a Sa’a of wheat or barley can be given in place of dates.
The object of the commandment requiring the buyer to give a Sa’a of dates, barley etc., along with the animal if he decides to return it, probably is that he kept the animal with him for a few days and made use of its milk, but he had, also, fed the animal during that time, and thus, the account was settled, but if anything was, still, left wanting, it should be made good in that way. Besides, it will be a consolation to the owner.