The words of our beloved Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) are full of rich lessons. Among them is his address during the farewell Hajj. This is the eighth in a series of articles on The Prophet’s Last Sermon, Lessons for Humanity.
“Truly, the usury of the Era of Ignorance has been laid aside forever. And the first usury I begin with is that which is due to my father’s brother ‘Abbas ibn ‘Abd al-Muttalib.”
Usury was one of the signs of the age of ignorance. It is one of the great prohibitions of the Quran. Allah revealed the prohibition of usury in successive steps. The prohibition came unequivocally in the Quran ultimately. Allah says:
ٱلَّذِینَ یَأۡكُلُونَ ٱلرِّبَوٰا۟ لَا یَقُومُونَ إِلَّا كَمَا یَقُومُ ٱلَّذِی یَتَخَبَّطُهُ ٱلشَّیۡطَـٰنُ مِنَ ٱلۡمَسِّۚ
“Those who devour usury shall not rise on the Last Day, save as he rises who is repeatedly beaten down by the Devil in a seizure” [Quran, 2:275; tr. Keller, Quran Beheld]
As civilizations decay, people increasingly engage in predatory practices. It is almost like people become scavengers. Usury is one of these practices. It has spiritual consequences. People start behaving as though they are driven crazy by the touch of the Devil.
This prohibition of usury is something that a lot of people are negligent about. Allah says:
فَإِن لَّمْ تَفْعَلُوا۟ فَأْذَنُوا۟ بِحَرْبٍۢ مِّنَ ٱللَّهِ وَرَسُولِهِۦ ۖ
“If you will not, then hear and know of an utter war against you from Allah and His messenger” [Quran, 2:279; tr; Keller, Quran Beheld]
if Allah and His Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace) are at war with you, you know who is on the losing side.
Great Harm in Usury
There is great harm in usury. Many people try to give all kinds of interesting contorted explanations about it. Usury was known to the Arabs. A lot of the Arabs engaged in trade, particularly Quraysh. They lent and borrowed, and they engaged in different types of usurious activities. Whether by borrowing money or by owing money for something they acquired, payable later, for an extra amount.
The Arabs sometimes would not have food and their harvest was coming later. So they would borrow dates or borrow wheat and so on, to be exchanged in a larger amount. There were also types of interest-based trade and financing because they would fund caravans.
Those who accumulated wealth, just get wealthier and wealthier. This is one of the many wisdoms of the prohibition of usury, that wealth does not just circulate amongst the rich of you.
Quraysh knew about usury because they traded, lent, and engaged in financing activities of their trade expeditions and so on. Merchants would buy large amounts of produce on interest so that as they profited, they would pay back the loans that they were owed.
Civilizations Condemn Usury
In pretty much every human civilization, the worst of society were considered the usurers. The usurers. The Chinese deemed usurers despicable. In Hindu society, they were deemed despicable in much of the history of Indian societies. Similarly, before successive capitulations, if you were established to be a usurer, you would be excommunicated from the church.
People realize the grave individual, religious harm and societal harm of usury. It has been prohibited due to the grave social-economic injustice that arises in lending money at interest because the consequence of it is the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and poorer.
Some may think there is an individual advantage for somebody in financing their home or financing their car but Allah has prohibited it unequivocally. Out of a divine wisdom, Allah has clothed human actions in spiritual light and spiritual darkness. Things that benefit others and that are of the good in their consequences, come with light. If you engage in them, you will find light and good and serenity.
The things that are harmful to others, even if you engage in them in a manner that is not harmful immediately but because you are partaking in a harmful act, it will have spiritual harm and you will be culpable in the hereafter.
So alcohol, for example, if somebody is disciplined and they only drink a little bit at a time, will it cause them immediate harm? Will it make them drunk? Make them violent? Cause them to run over people when they are driving? No, but because this is a matter which if actively engaged in has grave societal harm, then even the individual engaging in it below the threshold of discernible, palpable harm is also frequently prohibited.
Usury Destroys Society
The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) reportedly described it in sound hadith to be worse than public Zina with one’s own mother. Not just in private but in public, many times over. Here the harm is between two individuals, the harm of usury is societal. It destroys entire societies.
There are numerous harms of usury and this is something that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) emphasized in his final sermon. It has spiritual harms, societal harms, and civilizational harms. The believer is not party to harm. It is far better to earn, invest, live within one’s means, avoid debt and rather to save and grow one’s wealth until one is ready to make those large acquisitions or to finance in ways that are compliant with the Sacred law, but even Sacred law-compliant ways of entering into debt are better to avoid.
The strength of the believer in their financial activity is to live within their means, to save, invest, and to grow their investment. That is what the companions did when they came to Madina. They came to Madina without wealth. They earned, saved and they invested.
Within a number of years, when the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) called them to go, in haste, to gather what is called Jaish al-Usra, the army that was gathered during distress, and the time when normally the people will be busy harvesting their crops and so on, they were told to assemble. Our master Uthman funded the whole army. That is how much he had accumulated.
Early Scholars and Renunciation
A lot of the early Muslims used to write about renouncing worldliness. The great Imams of Hadith wrote works in renunciation, like Imam Abdullah ibn al-Mubarak, Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, ibn Abi Shayba, and others. Al-Imam Muhammad ibn al-Hasan (one of the two greatest of the students of Imam Abu Hanifa) was known for his attention to the science of Hadith.
He wrote multiple works and he is one of the great narrators of the Muwatta of Imam Malik. Unusually for his time, he never wrote a book on renunciation, althought the righteous scholars of Fiqh and Hadith frequently did so.
He wrote works on trade because true mindfulness is not just about talking about virtue. One of the great tests of mindfulness is do you have the mindfulness of Allah when it comes to your earnings and your spending.