Whitepaper: Is it Wrong to be Rich in Islam?
An exploration of the concept of wealth in Islam
As a Muslim, you’ve probably often heard that wealth and spirituality don’t mix. That the riches of this world are nothing compared to the hereafter and pursuit of wealth is not a Godly exercise.
For others it causes them to settle for a sub-optimal outcome. “I am happy with where my business has got to – after all, it’s not really Islamic to create a business larger than you need is it?”
But there is no reason for that guilt or to settle for a sub-optimal outcome. To the contrary, there are many Islamic reasons to aim to be rich if that is right for who you are and you have the right intention.
However, if being rich and the pursuit of wealth is not right for you, or you do not have the right motivations – the pursuit of wealth is deeply damaging.
In this whitepaper I share:
- What Islamic literature says about wealth and being rich
- When aiming to be rich is the right thing
- When aiming to be an entrepreneur is not the right thing.
- Whether there is a threshold to how rich is acceptable in Islam
- What one might do with one’s wealth
But before I dive into this article, let me make my argument in a nutshell – so you can keep it in mind throughout:
Wealth in Islam is not a bad thing. It is an instrument. Wealth should be understood as a means to an end, and not loved as an end itself. That kind of relationship to wealth is only possible for some people. Those people have certain traits which allow us to recognise them. Let’s call them the “Righteous Entrepreneurs”. For such people, they should pursue wealth with a clear view on the purpose and end-goal of that wealth. Such end-goals should typically derive from overarching objectives such as benefiting humanity and this ummah. For everyone else, they too should maximise their wealth as much as reasonably possible– but it need not be their main contribution to the world. They also have a vital role to play. Let’s call this group the “Righteous Worker”.
In our time, the global Muslim population is on average around 20% poorer than the rest of the world and we lag on metrics such as health, education, innovation and income equality. It is our collective duty to correct this worrying course. Our righteous predecessors were not typically poor.
The kind of wealth we need to achieve in order to achieve parity is in the trillions of dollars and needs both the Righteous Worker and Righteous Entrepreneur to do their bit. The Righteous Entrepreneur should aim at making game-changing wealth. The Righteous Worker should aim at investing in the Muslim ecosystem and in Righteous Entrepreneurs, and to make sure they are putting their savings and investments to the best use possible.
1. So what does Islamic literature say about being rich?
In this section I first outline some reasons why wealth isn’t just a bad thing. I then outline the broader concept of money in Islam.
Wealth is consistently seen as a trial in the Qur’an and ahadith:
The Qur’an says:
Your wealth and your children are but a trial, and with Allah is an immense reward. [64:15]
The Prophet ﷺ said:
‘Truly, for every nation there is a trial, and the trial for my nation is wealth.’ [Tirmidhi]
He also said:
‘Wretched be the slave of the dinar; wretched be the slave of the dirham; wretched be the slave of fine cloth; wretched be the slave of embroidered cloth. May he be wretched and degraded, and if such a one is pierced by a thorn, let it not be extracted. When he is granted his desires he is pleased and when he is denied them he is angered.’ [Bukhari]
Even Ibn Taymiyyah didn’t hold back:
‘We must view wealth much as we do the toilet,’ he replied, ‘in that we resort to it whenever needed, but it has no place in our hearts.’ [Ibn Taymiyyah]
So is the aim of this article defeated at the first hurdle?
Wealth isn’t bad per se, it is bad when misused. Just like spouses and children are not bad per se – just when they become a distraction away from Allah.
Wealth, like children and spouses, can be a blessing or curse
Allah ﷻ says in the Qur’an:
Made beautiful for mankind is the love of desires for women and offspring, of hoarded heaps of gold and silver, of branded horses, cattle and plantations. [3:14]
Prophet ﷺ informed:
‘I have not left after me a fitnah more harmful for men than women.’ [Bukhari]
He also said:
‘The world is green and sweet and Allah has placed you in it as custodians to see how you behave. So be mindful of the world and be wary of women; for the first fitnah of the Children of Israel was regarding women.’ [Muslim]
We all understand these references in context. They do not mean woman and children are somehow evil. All it means is if our relationships with our children and the opposite gender makes us negligent to our overall goal, that is when those relationships become a fitnah.
Allah gives us only good – and he gives us wealth
Indeed Allah actively encourages us in the Qur’an to ask forgiveness of him and promises us wealth in lieu of that:
And said, ‘Ask forgiveness of your Lord. Indeed, He is ever a Perpetual Forgiver. He will send [rain from] the sky upon you in [continuing] showers. And give you increase in wealth and children and provide for you gardens and provide for you rivers. [71:10-12]
He also tells us to go forth and eat and earn:
“He it is who made the earth smooth for you, therefore go about in the spacious sides thereof, and eat of His sustenance, and to Him is the return after death.” [67:15]
Allah wouldn’t be rewarding us with something that is evil for us. Wealth also enables us to do great good deeds – the sort that earn one Jannah. More on that below.
Allah tells us to live up life a bit
Allah also actively encourage us to live life a bit (but without being excessive). He says in the Qur’an:
O children of Adam, take your adornment at every masjid, and eat and drink, but be not excessive. Indeed, He likes not those who commit excess. Say, “Who has forbidden the adornment of Allah which He has produced for His servants and the good [lawful] things of provision?” Say, “They are for those who believe during the worldly life [but] exclusively for them on the Day of Resurrection.” Thus do We detail the verses for a people who know. [7:31-32]
The wealthy can do good deeds others cannot
The Prophet also said the two following sayings:
The truthful and trustworthy businessman will be in the company of Prophets, saints and martyrs on the Day of Judgment. (Darimi, Tirmidhi)
There is no envy except in two: a person whom Allah has given wealth and he spends it in the right way, and a person whom Allah has given wisdom (i.e. religious knowledge) and he gives his decisions accordingly and teaches it to the others. (Bukhari).
The last two hadith show that it is very possible to get into Jannah with wealth – and in fact wealth can make it easier to access to certain good deeds.
20% of the 10 promised paradise were rich
Finally, of the 10 Sahaba promised paradise, two were incredibly rich. Abd ar-Rahmaan ibn ‘Awf and Uthman bin al-Affan.
When ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn ‘Awf died, according to some calculations, he was worth approximately 3.1 billion dinars which, at current rates of $54.33 per gram, is more than $700bn.
Uthman ibn Affan has a waqf in Madinah to this day that generates millions and we all benefit from. I’ve not been able to track down his wealth, but just summing up the major donations he made (which he references in the hadith I give later on in this whitepaper), they amount to about $55m in today’s money.
So at this stage we can conclude that wealth can be a trial, but also a source of great good when used correctly. We must master wealth, rather than make it our master.
But what exactly is wealth and how can one have a health relationship with it?
Imam Shafi’I has a series of poems in his diwan that explore wealth and poverty. Let’s dive in.
Wealth is a state of mind – not a bank balance
In Islam, we understand that wealth is Allah’s and derives from him and given to whom he wills:
Allah Provides sustenance to whom He pleases without measure. (3:37)
He also describes how He gives more wealth to some:
And present to them an example of two men: We granted to one of them two gardens of grapevines, and We bordered them with palm trees and placed between them [fields of] crops. Each of the two gardens produced its fruit and did not fall short thereof in anything. And We caused to gush forth within them a river. [18:32-33]
Literally, wealth in Arabic means to be free from need. The idea is that with wealth one has a lot of options that would not be available to others without that wealth. So one’s wants and needs are capable of being met.
That’s why Allah says:
God is rich but you are poor. [47:38]
Wealth is to be free from need.
Imam Shafi’I makes this point multiple times in the diwan. A powerful example of this is this verse:
وكذا الغني هو الغني بحالـه ليس الغنـي بملكـه وبمالـه
And likewise the rich man is rich because he feels it,
And no rich man is he by his wealth and possessions.
So the heart of being wealthy is a state of mind.
This state of mind is contentment.
Imam Shafi’I elaborates:
رأيت القناعة رأس الغنىِ فصرت بأذيالها متمسـك
فلا ذا يراني علـى بابـه ولا ذا يراني به منهمـك
فصرت غنياً بـلا درهـمٍ أمر على الناس شبه الملك
I saw that contentment was the essence of wealth,
So I held tight to its coattails.
You won’t see me begging at doors,
Nor will you see me infatuated
I became rich without a dirham,
I walk among men like a king.
Imam Shafi’I is clearly not from the Abd ar-Rahmaan ibn ‘Awf school of thought – nor from the Imam Abu Hanifah and Imam Malik schools of thought – all of whom were wealthy and didn’t shy away from spending on a few luxuries.
But the point he is making is still instructive for us and one I am sure all the Imams would agree with.
A hadith attributed to the Prophet makes the point clearly:
Love of this world is the root of all evil [Bayhaqi]
Whether one is a Righteous Entrepreneur or not, the attitude to the righteous from among both groups is to see wealth as a means, not an end. They do not love wealth in and of itself.
Another hadith makes the point powerfully:
Whoever denies himself a type of clothing out of humility for Allah, whilst he is able to wear it, Allah will summon him on the Day of Judgement amongst the whole of creation, in order to allow him to choose from any type of adornment of īmān which he wishes to adorn himself with. [Tirmidhi]
So being wealthy isn’t about showing off its about something deeper than that.
Its about contentment with what is in this life and then focusing on the hereafter.
Wealth and sons are allurements of the life of this world. But the things that endure, good deeds are best in the sight of your Lord, as rewards, and best as the foundation for hopes.” [18:46]
This aim for contentment is a command of the Prophet too:
When a person sees a person who has better wealth and beauty, let him look at the ones who are less than him.” (Bukhari)
But of course – there are some deeply spiritual benefits to wealth.
Wealth helps cover one’s defects.
So what are the instrumental benefits of wealth? Imam Shafi’i shares an important one:
وإن كثرت عيوبك في البرايا وسرك أن يكون لها غطاء
تستر بالسخاء فكل عيب يغطيه كما قيل السخاء
And if your defects spread amongst society,
and you were happy that they were covered.
Then cover up with generosity every defect,
it covers up – like it is said – the generous.
Uthman ibn Affan (rah) earned his Jannah this way. He gave so much one day that the Prophet said:
Nothing Uthman does after today will harm him [Tirmidhi]
Striving for wealth therefore should be done to enable one to do great good deeds. It should be a proactive thing – not a defensive thing. In fact, that’s positively discouraged.
One should not strive for wealth out of fear of poverty.
Wealth and the amassing of wealth is, for someone who sees it as instrumental to doing great good, just what he does.
He doesn’t do it because he’s scared of being broke.
Allah warns people not to kill or abort children due to fear of poverty:
Kill not your children because of fear of poverty — We provide sustenance for you and for them. [6:151]
He also says he will provide in all sorts of ways:
“And He (Allah) will provide him from (sources) he never could imagine. And whosoever puts his trust in Allah, then He will suffice him. Verily, Allah will accomplish his purpose. Indeed Allah has set a measure for all things.” [65:3]
The Prophet also said the same thing:
“If you were to rely on Allah as He should be relied on, He would provide for you as He provides for the birds. They go out early in the morning hungry and return in the evening full.” [Tirmidhi]
Imam Shafi’i makes the point beautifully:
تَوكلْتُ في رِزْقي عَلَى اللَّهِ خَالقي وأيقنتُ أنَّ اللهَ لا شكٌ رازقي
وما يكُ من رزقي فليسَ يفوتني وَلَو كَانَ في قَاع البَحَارِ العَوامِقِ
سيأتي بهِ اللهُ العظيمُ بفضلهِ ولو لم يكن مني اللسانُ بناطقِ
ففي أي شيءٍ تذهبُ النفسُ حسرة وَقَدْ قَسَمَ الرَّحْمَنُ رِزْقَ الْخَلاَئِقِ
For my daily bread I relied upon Allah my creator,
and I believed Allah is no doubt my sustainer.
And what there is for me in rizq I will not lose,
though at the bottom of a sea of deepest blues.
Allah the Great will bring it out, by his bounty,
though my tongue made not a sound.
So, to what end does the soul become heartbroken,
when the Merciful has already distributed the sustenance of all creation.
So what should we strive for wealth for then?
The core goal in this dunya is achieving the pleasure of Allah
Taqwa is the key goal.
“This is a book in which there is no doubt, a guidance for the Muttaqin (the God-fearing ones).” [2:2]
If attaining wealth comes at its expense, then taqwa is better.
Imam Shafi’i emphasises this:
يريد المرء أن يعطى منـاه ويأبـى الله إلا مــا أرادا
يقول المرء فائدتي ومالـي وتقوى الله أفضل ما استفادا
Man wants to be given his desires,
but Allah rejects except that which he intends.
And man says “my profit“ and “my wealth”,
but the fear of Allah benefits more.
The person who desires wealth like the one in this poem, is one who is just not suited to be pursuing such wealth.
So what characterises such people?
2. When aiming to be rich is the right thing
Everyone should aim for a basic threshold of wealth
Firstly, we should all aim to be self-sustaining – both Righteous Entrepreneurs and Righteous Workers.
Al-Ghazali reported: Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, said, “Let not one of you refrain from working for his provision, supplicating to Allah to provide while he knows that the sky does not rain gold and silver.” [Iḥyā’ Ulūm al-Dīn 2/62]
Umar in fact found some people sat in the masjid just praying and doing dhikr – and they explained they were the ones who had tawakkul and so didn’t work. Umar, in his customary fashion, beat them out of the masjid with a stick.
So we should all earn – and look to make a self-sustaining living.
We should be Righteous Workers. Here are some thoughts on what such a Righteous Worker looks like.
The Righteous Worker is someone who isn’t just clocking a 9-to-5 and tolerating it. He doesn’t just get by – he thrives. His career has a purpose. When you ask him where he wants to be in 10 years he will tell you right away. When you ask him why – he will tell you in detail, including how what he is doing today links to that end-goal. His career is purposeful and an extension of his spirituality and his family life. He bring all of himself to work, prayer and play. He has extra-curriculars that are carefully thought-through and that he sticks to consistently and for years. He is someone who can and does zoom in to microscopic detail and, when needed, zoom out to see his life unfolding at a distance.
The Righteous Worker is not mired in politics – he rises above it. He isn’t driven by money yet it follows him. His work is enjoyable to him and often his passion. His work helps humanity. His family see him often and without any distractions. He calls his parents so much they are sick of talking to him. He is merciful and kind to those weaker, poorer, or younger than him. He speaks to managers, bosses, the rich and scholars just the same as normal people. He has a deep reservoir of hard work that he taps into regularly but never exhausts – he doesn’t burn out. He is unafraid to have the hard conversations that enable him to deliver a well-framed and well-structured life he has designed for himself.
He has thought about morality in the workplace and doesn’t put himself into events, situations, or contexts that his parents or the Prophet wouldn’t be proud to see him in. He communicates this to his colleagues elegantly in a way that maintains ties and doesn’t make them feel bad.
The Righteous Worker doesn’t settle for mediocrity. He is the best in his profession. He is wealthy and spends time managing his money strategically for his family and community. He doesn’t let it sit and fritter away in his account.
His children know him and respect him. He pushes them quietly to extraordinary heights. He eats with them and jokes with them. His spouse loves him and knows his purpose – because he talks with her about it often. He listens to her.
If you’re constitutionally built for it – you should look to make billions
It is the wonderful system of Allah that not everyone is built to hunt down profits and make billions. Society needs a wide variety of skillsets that may not lead to outlier wealth. Society needs artists, scholars, teachers, nurses and more.
But some people are constitutionally set up to make billions. Abd ar-Rahmaan ibn ‘Awf was one of those people. He was one of the first Righteous Entrepreneurs.
The Righteous Entrepreneur is a complicated hodgepodge of things. Here’s our attempt at describing him (many of these qualities are Islamic and have associate ayat or ahadith – for brevity we leave these out).
The Righteous Entrepreneur is willing to take a risk but is not foolhardy. He listens to data and is driven by it but is not shy of going with instinct. He sees gaps in the market and economic fabric of society everywhere he goes. He is a doer not a thinker or dreamer. He is capable of consistently and doggedly doing the banal, mundane and boring but retains the ability to zoom out and see the route-map to a global strategy. He thrives in adversity and competition but keeps his virtue throughout. When he loses he doesn’t take it personally or emotionally – he learns from it and starts again with a fresh zeal as if this was his first venture again.
He fails often and fast (not slow). He tests ideas before investing in them. He has a higher purpose for his business and can state that to you in a sentence and make you want him to succeed. He is the last man standing if it is a game of perseverance. He can go for decades without needing recognition or attention or even being proven right. He’s not doing it for the money – he’ll typically give the vast majority of it away in his later life. He talks in the billions not the millions and does so without a shard of arrogance or aspiration but utter conviction. He is not afraid by going into the grey areas or pushing the boundaries of social practice, rules or conventional mindsets – but does not push so far that he loses everyone. He retains wise counsel at all times and makes course corrections. He will scrap a project worth millions without blinking if that is the right decision.
He’s typically someone who is good at stock investing – he is emotionally in control over those two pretenders “fear” and “greed” that make better men than he make bad decisions. He buys low and sells high. But he doesn’t worry he’s not bought low enough or sold high enough. There are no emotional rollercoasters as the markets go up and down – only the calm adherence to a well-thought-out thesis.
He controls only what he can control and leaves the rest to God. But what he can control he controls meticulously. He is tidy and organised both physically, mentally, and online. He thinks clearly and welcomes constructive criticism (or even destructive) and then takes the important bits. He takes rejection very well – in fact he expects it. He does not make things personal – for his goal is much bigger than that. He recognises other Righteous Entrepreneurs and surrounds himself by them.
He doesn’t just have a noble end goal for his wealth, he is contributing to that noble goal already. For him becoming wealthier is simply to be better equipped to deliver on that noble goal. He gives charity and is capable of giving a third, a half or even all of his fortune away at the drop of a hat to the right donor. He knows all wealth is from Allah and for him is but to make sure he is striving sincerely and according to a robust process. That is his success, not the bank account. He doesn’t live extravagantly and is typically not too fussed about the finer things in life.
3. When aiming to be an Entrepreneur is not the right thing
As can be seen from the rather long description of the Righteous Entrepreneur, such a person is a rare one. If it was common, we’d have an Uthman ibn Affan walking around on every street.
Some of the qualities of a Righteous Entrepreneur can be taught but many cannot be. We may individually have some of those qualities, but it is combining those qualities that is rare.
But not having some of those qualities should not stop us from trying to be Righteous Entrepreneurs – after all – I don’t think anyone has absolutely all of those characteristics.
What should stop us from aiming to be a Righteous Entrepreneur however is:
- When it distracts you from the worship of Allah
- When the pursuit of wealth is not your competitive advantage
- When the priorities of our world demand something different from us
The first of those points is self-explanatory.
On the second, imagine you are good at being a Righteous Entrepreneur but you are excellent as an Islamic scholar and teacher – much better than others. Being an Islamic scholar and teacher is therefore your competitive advantage even though it might not make you as much money. Because the metric we are trying to maximise is not wealth, it is the value-add to this world and ummah and the consequent pleasure of Allah that that brings. Only when the pursuit of wealth is the best route for you to attaining the pleasure of Allah should it be pursued.
On the third point, it might be that in the coming decades humanity is struggling to survive as climate change ravages our earth. That is then not a time for profit-making but of solidarity and assistance. That is when we all should be the philanthrope and the charity worker.
4. Whether there is a threshold to how rich is acceptable in Islam
But where wealth does not change you, and you are mission-driven and spending on your mission as you go, then there is no upper limit. Islam is not a socialist creed in that sense.
Different people react differently with increasing amount of wealth. Where wealth is changing you – you know that is your threshold. No more.
Wealth should not lead to dropping other obligations
So for example, my view is that many City workers working long hours for decades on end are likely failing in their spiritual, familial and physical goals. Their achieving fabulous wealth does not justify missing those crucial self-set goals. It doesn’t justify their missing salah times due to a multibillion dollar deal closing.
Wealth should not change one’s simplicity
Ahmad narrated in az-Zuhd (p. 36) that Sa‘eed ibn Jubayr said: Abd ar-Rahmaan ibn ‘Awf (may Allah be pleased with him) – who was one of the wealthy Sahabah – could not be recognised from among his slaves.
Wealth should not change the work ethos
Abu Masud said: “The Messenger of Allah used to command us to give in charity, so one of us would not find anything which he could give in charity, until he would go to the market place and carry loads on his back (in labour work). Then he would come with a Mudd and give it to the Messenger of Allah. Indeed I know today of a man who has a hundred thousand, yet on that day he did not have a Dirham.” [Nasa’ee]
And that doesn’t mean Islam wants there to be super high concentrations of wealth among the elite. Because that wouldn’t happen with a Righteous Entrepreneur. Indeed Abd ar-Rahmaan ibn ‘Awf would say “the people of Al-Madinah are partners of Ibn `Awf in his money. He lends to a third of them, pays the debts of a third, and strengthens his ties of kinship and gives away a third.”
Because remember – when you have significant excess wealth it doesn’t just sit in your bank account – it is typically invested into a whole variety of things for wealth preservation purposes. If those things – businesses, institutions and working capital – are all within the community – the community as a whole benefits.
5. What one might do with one’s wealth
There is really no limit to what one may do with one’s wealth as long as it is good and righteous.
What one mustn’t do though, is squander one’s wealth and over-concentrate into a particular area (even in philanthropy):
“Verily, Allah has made unlawful for you: disobedience to your mothers, burying your daughters alive, niggardly in spending and hoarding wealth. And He hates for you: to engage in gossip “this one said and that one said”, excessive asking [for wealth and unnecessary questions], and the squandering of wealth.” [Bukhari]
“And the servants of the Most Merciful are those who, when they spend, do not do so extravagantly (excessively), nor are they miserly but they are between the two, moderate.” (Al-Furqān: 67)
One should be strategic about charity and investment. To our mind those are two sides of the same coin. Both are mechanisms by which money is delivered to society and lifts the wellbeing of society overall.
So some high-level thoughts on what we can spend on:
- Invest in young entrepreneurs and game-changing ideas
- Invest in institutions
- Invest in research
- Invest in technology
- Use it for political, academic, and strategic philanthropy
The above list is not exhaustive, but if we make a start with that, we’ll be in a better place as an ummah than we are now.
Giving away a fortune
On the topic of charity – the more the better is a good rule of thumb in our religion:
When Uthman was besieged (by the rebels), he looked upon them from above and said, “I adjure you by Allah, and I adjure no one but the Companions of the Prophet (PBUH), do you not know that the Messenger of Allaah said: “Whoever will [buy and] dig the well of Ruma, then for him is Paradise” and I (bought and) dug it? Do you not know that he said: “Whoever readies the army of ‘Usrah, then for him is Paradise” and I readied it?” They attested to that which he said: “Do you know that the Masjid became constricted due to the amount of its people, so the Messenger of Allaah (sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) said: “Who will purchase the plot [of land] of the family of such and such, and so he adds it to the Masjid – [in exchange] for better than it in Paradise?” So I bought it with the core of my wealth.” [Tirmidhi]
“There once came to Ibn ‘Umar twenty odd thousand; and so he did not get up until he had distributed it.” [Siyar Alaam an Nubala]
I leave you with a restatement of my core argument:
Wealth in Islam is not a bad thing. It is an instrument. Wealth should be understood as a means to an end, and not loved as an end itself. That kind of relationship to wealth is only constitutionally possible for some people – not all. Those people have certain traits which allow us to recognise them. These are the Righteous Entrepreneurs. For such people, they should pursue wealth with a clear view on the purpose and end-goal of that wealth. Such end-goals should typically derive from overarching objectives such as benefiting humanity and this ummah. Each Righteous Worker on the other hand should also maximise their economic potential – but it need not be their main contribution to the world.
In our time, the global Muslim population is on average around 20% poorer than the rest of the world and we lag on metrics such as health, education, innovation and income equality. It is our collective duty to right this ship. The kind of wealth we need to achieve in order to achieve parity is in the trillions of dollars and needs both the Righteous Worker and Righteous Entrepreneur to do their bit. The Righteous Entrepreneur should aim at making game-changing wealth. The Righteous Worker should aim at investing in the Muslim ecosystem and in Righteous Entrepreneurs, and to make sure they are putting their savings and investments to the best use possible. The Righteous Worker should also work to deliver on the various raw ingredient that makes a thriving Islamic economy (e.g. culture, academia, politics, governance etc.).