The world has changed much in the past few hundred years. The pursuit of material goods and physical pleasure has taken precedence over spiritual endeavors for the vast majority of people. The result is that many of us proceed to live a life that is devoid of its true meaning and spirit.
This unbridled race for wealth has consequences. Take for example the focus of most countries on developing their economies without regard to its impact on the environment, or the focus of corporations on “maximizing profit” at the expense of the quality of life of their work force. The truth is that the accumulation of material goods will never satisfy our hunger to acquire more, nor will it bring us true happiness.
The Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) once said “If the son of Adam (a human being) was given a valley full of gold, he would long to have a second one; and if he were given the second one, he would love to have a third.....”. If our purpose in life was simply accumulation and satisfying our physical needs then what would make us different as a species from animals? It is important for us to know that God has created mankind for a much higher and more noble purpose, which is for us to purify our hearts through His worship and remembrance.
God says in the Quran: “He has succeeded who purifies the soul and he has failed who instills it with corruption,” (91:9-10). And furthermore He refers to the Day of Judgement as “A day when there will be no benefit in wealth or children, but only in he who comes to God with a pure heart,” (26:88-89). We learn from these verses that our success in the Hereafter depends upon the purification of our hearts in the present life. We must cleanse them from all sorts of spiritual diseases such as greed, envy, arrogance, anger and hatred.
Greed and miserliness are spiritual disorders of the heart which can have devastating consequences for individuals and the entire society. In fact, greed and the lust for wealth have underpinned many of the armed conflicts in the world over the past hundred years. They have also led to income inequality in the world the likes of which have not been seen in all of human history. In 2013 it was reported that the top 10 percent of families in the United States held a staggering 76 percent of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 50 percent of families combined held only 1 percent.
To make matters worse, wealthy individuals and corporations consistently find loopholes and clever ways to avoid paying their share of taxes, thus depriving the rest of society from access to social services. I would like to make it clear that I am not in favor of socialism as a political doctrine. But I do support the notion that all citizens have certain fundamental rights, including access to basic social services, education and quality healthcare. Unfortunately when a large segment of society is deprived of these needs while a small minority have a great abundance of unused wealth—such circumstances can lead to anger, frustration and resentment among the masses. Islam has an answer to the income inequality problem and to the disease of greed in general.
I am a firm believer that God blesses and multiplies the wealth of those people who spend in His way on the orphan, the poor and the destitute. One of the five pillars of Islam is the concept of Zakah, or obligatory charity. It is a mandatory giving of 2.5% of our savings and accumulated wealth to the poor every year. If practiced worldwide it would eliminate poverty and provide a solution for income inequality. The word zakah literally means “to purify”, as by giving this portion of our savings to the needy every year we are in essence purifying all of our wealth. Zakah frees us from the spiritual diseases of greed and miserliness. It also forces us to acknowledge the fact that everything we have comes from God and in reality everything belongs to Him.