Importance of Commerce in Islamic Economics
By: Ayatullah Shaheed Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim
Commerce is considered the chief and most important economic profession. It identifies market value and balances prices within the frame of supply and demand and in the field of production. Accordingly, commerce contributes largely to provide the vital necessities of human societies.
Founded on this fact, commerce had a special significance in the Islamic economic theory and was preferred over other economic activities.
The Ahl al-Bayt (‘a) used various methods of expression to urge engagement in business and commerce.
Clarifying the vital role of commerce, they are reported to have said that nine tenths of sustenance or blessings lie in commerce.31
They also declared that commerce increased the dignity of man.
Shaykh al-Saduq has reported al-Mu’alla ibn Khunays as saying: As he noticed that I was late for work, Imam al-Sadiq (‘a) urged me saying: Go and join your dignity.
According to another tradition, Imam al-Sadiq (‘a) said to one of his servants: O servant of Allah, watch over your dignity…it is to go to markets and honor yourself therein.32
Furthermore, the Ahl al-Bayt (‘a) declared that doing business keeps men’s intellects sound.
According to another valid tradition, Imam al-Sadiq (‘a) is reported to have said: Abandonment of business reduces faculty of reason.33
Mu’adh, a garment seller, has reported that Imam al-Sadiq (‘a) asked him, “O Mu’adh, have you become too weak to do business or have you forsaken it?”
Mu’adh answered, “Neither of these two!”
The Imam (‘a) thus asked for justification (about why he was not working), and Mu’adh explained, “I have more than enough money for my livelihood and I am not indebted to anyone. Hence, I do not think that I will consume all my savings up to my death.”
The Imam (‘a) instructed: Do not forsake business, because forsaking it decreases one’s reason. Work for your dependents and never let them work for you.34
Burayd al-’Ujali is reported to have asked his son-in-law Muhammad ibn Muslim to ask Imam al-Sadiq’s opinion about a matter that he had decided to undertake, “Many deposits and funds have been given to me for safekeeping and I am anxious because of them. I would like now to forsake all worldly affairs and give these back to their owners.”
When Muhammad conveyed the matter to Imam al-Sadiq (‘a), the Imam said: O Muhammad, is he intending to wage war against himself? No, he must not do thus; rather, he can receive (income) and give (to others) for the sake of Almighty Allah.35
The Ahl al-Bayt (‘a) also declared that doing business saves the virtuous community from begging.
Shaykh al-Kulayni has reported on the authority of Muhammad ibn Muslim on the authority of Imam al-Sadiq (‘a) that Imam ‘Ali Amir al-Mu'minin (‘a) said: Engage yourselves in business, because this will save you from being in need of what others hold in possession.
According to another tradition, the Imam (‘a) said: Whoever engages in business will cope without the help of others.36
Because of the significance and merits of commerce, the Holy Prophet (S) engaged in business both with the capital of Lady Khadijah (‘a) and independently.
Referring to the noble characteristics of righteous people, the Holy Qur'an indicates that the righteous are engaged in business: …men whom neither merchandise nor selling divert from the remembrance of Allah and the keeping up of prayer and the giving of poor-rate; they fear a day in which the hearts and eyes shall turn about. (24:37)
Shaykh al-Kulayni, through a valid chain of authority, has reported that Asbat ibn Salim said that he once visited Imam al-Sadiq (‘a) who asked him about the manners of ‘Umar ibn Muslim. When he was informed that ‘Umar had given up business, the Imam (‘a) said: This is the act of Satan!
Having repeated the same statement three times, the Imam (‘a) said: He should know that the Messenger of Allah (S) purchased some camels that had been brought from Sham, settled his debts from the profits and distributed the remainder among his relatives. Almighty Allah says, “Men whom neither merchandise nor selling diverts from the remembrance of Allah….” Some storytellers claim that the men praised in this verse did not work! Such storytellers are liars. These (praised) men were engaged in business, but they would also never miss performing all the prayers in their (prescribed) times. They were superior to those who performed prayers but forsook business.37
As has been previously cited, Imam al-Sadiq (‘a) used to do business with his money through sleeping partnerships although he was not himself in need of money.
However, at the same time that the Ahl al-Bayt (‘a) urged their followers to engage in commercial activities, they warned them against involvement in ethical and religious problems that might accompany such activities.
Al-Asbagh ibn Nubatah has reported that he heard Imam ‘Ali Amir al-Mu'minin (‘a) saying from the minbar (pulpit): O group of traders, give priority to learning religious laws over engagement in business. Give priority to learning religious laws over engagement in business. Give priority to learning religious laws over engagement in business. By Allah (I swear), usury in this nation is more observed than ants’ creeping on the Hillock of Safa. So, fuse your faith with honesty. Except those who give duly and take duly, a dealer is wicked and the wicked will be in Hellfire.38
Imam al-Sadiq (‘a) has reported the Holy Prophet (S) as saying: He who is engaged in buying or selling must avoid the following five things and, if not, must neither buy nor sell: (1) usury, (2) taking oaths, (3) concealment of an item’s defects, (4) speaking highly of a commodity to be sold, and (5) finding fault with the commodity to be purchased.39
Objectives of Encouraging Commerce
In particular, the Ahl al-Bayt (‘a) encouraged their followers to engage in commerce because they intended to achieve definite objectives for the virtuous community. These objectives can be summed up in the following points:
(1) Economic activity begets positive moral and spiritual results as mentioned in traditions already referred to. In plain words, economic activity is regarded as one of the most important social activities and people that engage in commerce gain the respect and esteem of others. All high-ranking personalities have engaged in economic commerce.
(2) Such business activities produce flexibility, freedom, and continuous motion. The nature of doing business requires activity, travel, and building expansive relations with various social milieus and provides flexibility in choosing how to spend one’s time, how to invest one’s capital, and what categories of people to deal with.
(3) Such activities earn sizeable profits for those who participate in them. According to some traditions one attains up to nine tenths of his sustenance through commerce. Such wealth increases the financial capacity of the virtuous community and ensures a definite and considerable financial resource to its administration through the khums that are levied from such assets.
31. - Al-Hurr al-’Amili, Wasa'il al-Shi’ah 12:3-5, H. 3, 4, 5, 8, 12.
32. - Al-Hurr al-’Amili, Wasa'il al-Shi’ah 12:3-5, H. 2, 10, 12.
33. - Al-Hurr al-’Amili, Wasa'il al-Shi’ah 12:6, H. 1.
34. - Al-Hurr al-’Amili, Wasa'il al-Shi’ah 12:6, H. 4.
35. - Al-Hurr al-’Amili, Wasa'il al-Shi’ah 12:7, H. 9.
36. - Al-Hurr al-’Amili, Wasa'il al-Shi’ah 12:4, H. 11, 8.
37. - Al-Hurr al-’Amili, Wasa'il al-Shi’ah 12:6, H. 5.
38. - Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:150, H. 1.
39. - Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-Kafi 5:150-151, H. 2.