The Sustainable Development Goals from a Shariah Perspective – V

Since the religion of Islam sets the agenda for development in predominantly Muslim societies, it is interesting to examine to what extent the SDGs conform to the Islamic vision of development. In order to explain the Islamic vision of development, Islamic scholars have come up with a broad framework rooted in what are called, the Goals or the Maqasid of the Shariah (MaS). The MaS (as originally presented by the 12th-Centurey Islamic scholar Al-Ghazzali) are broadly discussed in five (05) categories: protection and enrichment of faith (deen), self (nafs), intellect (aql), progeny (nasl) and property (maal).

In recent times there have been some attempts to map the SDGs against the MaS. However, such attempts have often resulted in one-to-many as well as many-to-one mappings and the resultant clutter that adds little value in terms of comprehending the underlying relationships. In what follows, we seek to explore the relationship by going to the basics. We seek to delineate the relevant Shariah norms and prescriptions from the primary sources, i.e. the Quran and the Hadith for each one of the SDGs one by one.

In this Part, we focus on SDG10 (reduced income inequalities).

sdg10 SDG10: Reduce inequality within and among countries

Societies across the globe have experienced significant growth in recent years. strides towards lifting people out of poverty.  However, inequality persists and large disparities remain regarding incomes and access to health and education services and other assets. In many countries, an increasing share of income goes to the top one percent of the population. The bottom forty percent receive less than twenty-five percent of overall income. There is growing consensus that economic growth is not sufïcient to reduce poverty if it is not inclusive and if it does not involve the three dimensions of sustainable development economic, social and environmental.

Distribution[1] of income and wealth is a key idea in the Islamic economic vision with several Quranic verses and sayings of the Prophet (pbuh) dealing with this issue. In essence, Islam recognizes the disparity that is a natural outcome of varying competencies and resources among men and women. It recognizes the notion of private ownership of income and wealth and inheritance by progeny.[2] However, it also rules out the possibility of concentration of wealth by proclaiming several forms of income (e.g. monopoly profits, riba and maysir) as illegitimate. Further, it has redistributive mechanisms in place, e.g. zakat, sadaqah, faraid, waqf that have the moderating effect of reduced inequalities.

“And do not wish for that by which Allah has made some of you exceed others. For men is a share of what they have earned, and for women is a share of what they have earned. And ask Allah of his bounty. Indeed Allah is ever, of all things, Knowing. (4:32)
And for all, We have made heirs to what is left by parents and relatives. And to those whom your oaths have bound [to you] – give them their share. Indeed Allah is ever, over all things, a Witness. (4:33)

The Quran asserts that all wealth and resources belong to Allah SWT and entrusted to humans as amana (as trustees), who are allowed to use the same in a responsible and acceptable way. Further, disparity in income and wealth is natural and acceptable since humans are endowed with different skills and abilities.[3] When rewards and returns are based on one’s effort, the resultant disparity has an incentivizing effect too. The Quran in several places asserts the notion of to each his due (2:279, 11:85, 26:183, 45:22)

Islamic also deals with disparity at a spiritual level – by labelling such inequality as a test – through the twin behavioral traits of gratitude (shukr) and patience (sabr). It requires the rich to be grateful to Allah and spend in acceptable and responsible manner. At the same time, it requires the poor to be patient, not to develop envy, keep faith and work hard to progress out of adversity.

While disparity is acceptable, the Islamic vision of development demands that the distribution of wealth and income should be equitable. Equitable distribution requires that rewards should commensurate with efforts; not due to monopoly over resources, and not due to illegitimate means including interest (riba), market manipulation (ihtikar) and gambling in uncertainty (maysir and qimar). It however, permits creation of wealth through risk-sharing and permissible modes, e.g. trade (bai) and partnerships (mudharabah, musharakah).

To eliminate extreme inequalities the Islamic framework not only prescribes prohibitive measures (e.g. riba, maysir, ihtikar), but also positive measures (e.g. zakat, faraid) and voluntary measures (e.g. sadaqah, awqaf).

With redistributive mechanisms in place, concentration of wealth and excessive inequalities are curbed. The Quran recognizes a right of the poor in the wealth of the rich.

And in their wealth, there was a right for one who asks and for one who is deprived. (51:19)
And in one’s wealth there is a known share of others (70:24)

It may be noted that Islam guarantees the fulfillment of basic needs of every human-being. While it expects every human-being to protect his/her own life, it also provides for the need fulfillment of someone who is unable to take care of his/her basic needs by making it a collective obligation on the society and providing for zakat as compulsory levy, the proceeds of which can only be spent on such people who cannot fend for themselves (poor and the needy e.g. orphans, handicapped and very old and sick).

The Quran requires that wealth should not circulate only among the rich.

And what Allah restored to His Messenger from the people of the towns – it is for Allah and for the Messenger and for [his] near relatives and orphans and the [stranded] traveler – so that it will not be a perpetual distribution among the rich from among you. And whatever the Messenger has given you – take; and what he has forbidden you – refrain from. And fear Allah; indeed, Allah is severe in penalty. (59:7)

Zakat is a compulsory annual levy on the wealth of the rich which is directed by the Shariah, to flow to the poor and the needy. By definition, it is a tool of redistribution of wealth, transferring wealth from the rich to the poor. Every Muslim individual who possesses wealth beyond a prescribed minimum threshold is liable to contribute from his wealth. Zakat is levied on savings that account for part of the wealth of an individual. It is also levied on forms of wealth that are characterized as stocks such as gold, silver, trade inventory and livestock. At the same time, zakat is not levied on income, which is used for consumption, and items of wealth, which are used for personal and family utilization. It is also not levied on wealth that is categorized as the means of production, or capital goods. Thus, the levy of zakat results in the transfer of wealth from the rich without adversely affecting their consumption or productive investments. [4]

Islam stipulates conditions on the use of zakat funds and requires that funds must clearly flow to specified categories of beneficiaries only.[5] Zakat is primarily targeted at the underprivileged and the excluded sections in the society, such as, the poorest of the poor, the needy, the destitute and those in bondage or overburdened with debt. These include individuals with no means of livelihood or inadequate income to meet their basic necessities of life that would include orphans, the sick and the disabled and the homeless. Zakat is therefore, rightly seen as a safety net to take care of the basic necessities of life of those who cannot afford them.

Waqf can also play a powerful role in correcting the over-pricing of social goods and making them affordable to the poor and excluded. It can provide a restraining impact on the prices of key social goods such as education and healthcare. There are examples in contemporary Muslim societies where the integration of waqf with the market has yielded positive results in terms of providing microfinance, education and healthcare at affordable prices.

To be continued


[1] The related root word qasama, qismat meaning divided, distributed appears 33 times in the Quran

[2] Indeed all wealth and resources belong to Allah SWT and entrusted to humans as amana, who are allowed to use the same in a responsible and acceptable way.

[3] Unlike some worldviews, Islam recognizes disparity as a natural outcome and acceptable,

[4] Islamic law provides elaborate rules relating to estimation of the zakat base (amount of wealth on which zakat is levied) and the rates of levy that vary with forms of wealth. With most forms of financial assets, the rate is two and a half percent.

[5] The eight eligible categories of beneficiaries of zakat, according to Shariah, include: fuqara (the poorest of the poor), masakeen (the needy and the destitute), ameleen-a-alaiha (zakat personnel), muallafat-ul-quloob (people whose hearts are inclined towards Islam), fir-riqaab (those in bondage), al-gharimun (the indebted), ibn-sabeel (traveller) and fi-sabilillah (in the path of Allah)

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