Volume 15-05 No:173
Believers do not gorge yourselves on interest, multiplying (your money) again and again. Have fear of Allah, so that you may prosper. Guard yourselves against the fire which has been prepared for the disbelievers; and obey Allah and the messenger, that you may be graced with mercy. (The House of Imran, "Aal Imran": 3;130 -132)
Commentary by Sayyid Qutb
Translation: A. A. Salahi and S. A. Shamsi
The Surah we have been discussing in this column in the third longest in the Qur’an. Last month, we concluded our commentary on its first half which dealt with matters of faith and relationships between Muslims and the followers of earlier religions. The Surah moves on to discuss and comment upon the events of the battle of the Uhud, the second major battle between the Muslims in Madinah and Quraish. This battle started with the Muslims gaining the upper hand but soon losing control when some of the fighters disobeyed an express order of the Prophet. This led to the battle being lost by the Muslims. The subject is a great victory the Muslims achieved in their first major battle with the Quraish at Badr. Just before, it moves on to refer to the battle of Uhud, we have a short passage of seven verses which speaks about interest and its transactions, obeying Allah and His messenger, spending money in Allah’s cause at times of prosperity and adversity, the Islamic cooperative system is opposed to the accursed interest-based system, controlling one’s anger, forgiving other people’s mistakes, praying Allah for forgiveness and turning to Him in repentance when a mistake is committed.
All these directives are given immediately before the discussion on the military battle in an implicit reference to a basic characteristic of the faith of Islam. Islam is a single and comprehensive system which caters for every aspect of human life and makes every human activity revolve around one essential value, namely, submission to Allah as represented in worshipping Him alone and dedicating everything in human life to Him. In every sphere of human life, we make sure first of what Allah bids us and willingly do His bidding. That these instructions are grouped together in the Surah in this way is a clear reference to the fact that all aspects of human activity are mutually interdependent has a considerable effect on the ultimate result of the sum total of human activity.
The Islamic system deals with man as a whole entity. It organizes the whole life of the Muslim community in a total, comprehensive approach which it considers preferable to a piece-meal one. It is in this light that we should view this combination of preparation for a military battle on the one hand and the purification of souls and hearts, controlling desires and spreading love and friendliness within the community on the other. All these aspects have mutual effects on one another. When we discuss them in detail taking each directive individually, we are bound to recognize their essential role in the life of the Muslim community and their bearing on the power and the potentials of that community in the battlefield and in all spheres of life.
Horrid System of Interest
“Believers, do not gorge yourselves on interest, multiplying (your money) again and again. Have fear of Allah, so that you may prosper. Guard yourselves against the fire which has been prepared for the disbelievers; and obey Allah and the messenger, that you may be graced with mercy.”
The subject of interest was discussed in detail in our commentary on verses 275-281 of the second Surah, “The Cow”. (Refer Islamic Voice, October 1996 Issue)
We will only briefly comment here on the multiplication of the principal again and again. Some people in our modern times want to manipulate this verse in order to make lawful what Allah has forbidden. They say that prohibition is limited to excessive interest which leads to the multiplication of the principal amount of money time after time. They further claim that rates of interest of four, five, seven, nine per cent and similar rates do not lead to any such multiplication. Hence, they argue, they are not included in the prohibition of interest.
Let us begin by stating clearly that the reference to multiples is simply a description of something that was happening in practical life. It is not a condition for the prohibition to operate. The Qur’anic statement in Surah “Al-Baqarah”, or “The Cow”, make a clear prohibition of interest and interest of all sorts. It addresses the believers and bids them to abandon what remains of interest. It applies to all that exceeds the principal amount, without qualification.
Now that we have established this principle we have a word to say about this description. It is in fact not a description of the interest-based transactions which took place in the Arabian Peninsula at a particular point in history. It is a description of the horrid system of interest. When a financial system is based on interest it makes the financial cycle revolve round it. We have to remember that interest-based transactions are neither single, isolated transactions nor simple ones. They are both repetitive and compounded. When we add the element of time to these two aspects we find that they inevitably lead to the multiplication of the principal amount time after time.
By its very nature, the interest-based system will lead to such multiplication. The description here is not, therefore, limited to transactions known in Arabia at the time of the revelation of this verse. It is characteristic of this system at all times.
This system will inevitably lead to the corruption of the moral and psychological life of society in as much as it corrupts its financial and political life. It has, therefore, a definite and clear influence on the life of the whole community and all its members.
Fear of Allah
As Islam began to mould the Muslim community, it was keen on ensuring for it a pure psychological and moral life as well as a sound and healthy one financially and politically. The effect of these elements on the outcome of the battles fought by the Muslim community is well known. Hence, the conclusion of the prohibition of interest within the Qur’anic comment on the military battle of Uhud becomes clearly understandable in the context of this complete and comprehensive system. This prohibition is also coupled with an order to fear Allah in the hope of achieving prosperity, and guarding against the fire prepared for the disbelievers. This is again a most fitting comment. No one who fears Allah and fears the fire prepared for the disbelievers will gorge himself on interest. No one who believes in Allah and removes himself away from the ranks of disbelievers will ever think of making profit through interest or usury.
To believe in Allah is not simply a word we utter; it is a conscientious following of a system which Allah has devised in order to be a practical translation of our faith. Believing in Allah is simply the introduction for this implementation and for shaping the life of the community according to its directives and commands.
It is impossible for faith and interest to exist side by side in any place. Whenever interest or usury is adopted as a system, the faith of Islam as a whole does not exist. There can only be the fire which has been prepared for the disbelievers. Any argument against this is simply futile. The fact that these verses combine the express prohibition of interest with a calling on the believers to fear Allah and guard against the fire is not a mere coincidence. It is made in order to establish this fact clearly in the minds of Muslims. It is also made in the hope of achieving prosperity through abandoning interest and maintaining the fear of Allah. For, prosperity is the natural outcome of fearing Allah and implementing the divine method in human life. We have already discussed the catastrophic effects of interest on human society. We have only to remind ourselves of these catastrophic effects in order to recognize the meaning of prosperity in this context and the fact that it is made conditional on abandoning this hateful system.
The final comment here is given in these words: Obey Allah and the messenger, that you may be graced with mercy. This is a general command to obey Allah and His messenger which makes mercy conditional on this obedience. As it is given, however, in the form of a comment on the prohibition of interest, it acquires a special significance: Allah and His messenger cannot be obeyed in any society which adopts a system of interest. No one who accepts interest in any form or sort is obedient to Allah and His messenger. This comment, then, serves as further emphasis to the prohibition.
Moreover, this order is particularly relevant to the events of the battle in which the commands of the Prophet were disobeyed. It re-emphasizes this obedience as the means to achieve prosperity and benefit by Allah’s mercy.
Note: The Translation by Adil Salahi uses “usury” for “Riba”. However, closer examination reveals that English dictionary maintains a difference between “usury” and “interest” in that the former refers to exorbitant rates of interest. Since the Quran prohibits all kinds of interest, regardless of the rates, we have replaced “usury” with “interest” in Adil Salahi’s commentary. Editor.