Bismillah al-Rahmaan al-Raheem

Some Strategic Policies to Combat Poverty

By Ayatollah Sayyid Murtada Shirazi

[This paper was presented to the sixth international conference on Imam Ali pease be upon him - held in London ]

Praise is to Allah the Lord of the worlds, and peace and blessings be upon the trustworthy messenger of Allah and his pure family.

Almighty Allah states in the holy Qur'an

{He brought you into being from the earth, and made you dwell in it} [1]

He also states: {Give full measure and full weight and wrong not the people in their goods, and do not make mischief in the earth} [2]

He also states: {He it is who created for you all that is in the earth} [3]

It is also reported that Imam Ali said, If poverty were to assume the form a man I would have killed him. [4]

What is Poverty?

In order to appreciate the grave consequences of poverty, we must define poverty in a precise and comprehensive way. Poverty does not mean material deprivation only, as imagined by many, but it has extensive and wide ranging manifestations.  Poverty means dispossession and deprivation and as such includes all of the following categories:

1. Emotional Poverty

Emotional poverty is cited in various prophetic hadith, for example: and is religion other than love? [5] ; have mercy on those on the earth, and He who is in the heavens will have mercy on you [6] , and in the supplication and have compassion for me through your glory [7] .

2. Educational Poverty

Educational deprivation, for both material and religious needs. The significance of these aspects is referred to in the holy Qur'an, {and he (the Prophet) purifies them, and teaches them the Book and Wisdom} [8]

3. Deprivation of comprehensive wellbeing

Deprivation of a comprehensive wellbeing for the body soul, and mind. These issues are given in the hadith the sciences are four . . . and the knowledge of protection of the body. [9]

4. Deprivation of Sport and exercise

Deprivation of exercising sport that an individual needs in order to keep fit, and to develop his fitness and stamina physical, mental and spiritual.  Hence the recommendation of swimming, archery and horse riding in Islam.

5. Deprivation of Suitable housing

. . . where one can see to one's physical, mental, and spiritual needs.  It is narrated in a hadith that a spacious house is a sign of a man's happiness. [10]

6. Poverty in Clothing

About which the Almighty states, {wear your adornment} [11] and {O Children of Adam! We have revealed unto you raiment to conceal your shame, and splendid vesture} [12]

7. Poverty in food and drink

By which one acquires his necessary nutritional requirements; as the Almighty states {let them worship the Lord of this House, Who has fed them against hunger} [13]

8. Deprivation of a vehicle or a means of transport

9. Deprivation of Adornment and luxury

The Almighty states {Say: Who has forbidden the adornment of Allah which He has brought forth for His servants} [14]

10, 11, 12. Deprivation of Social, political and economic security

The Almighty states, {and gives them security against fear} [15] , and fear includes all that threatens mankind politically, economically, and socially.  The Almighty states {He releases them from their heavy burdens and from the yokes that are upon them} [16] and these burdens and shackles that the messenger of Allah destroyed are all the fetters and restrictions that limit man's freedom in all aspects of life, such as freedom of trade, agriculture, manufacturing, movement, travel, residence, and even freedom from repressive customs and traditions.

13. Deprivation of Primary and secondary rights

Such rights as freedom of expression, the right to travel and residence, the right to own land and property, the right to conduct trade, business, investment, and a thousand and one other rights in accordance with the legal principle derived from the teachings of the messenger of Allah, the people are masters of their wealth and their souls [17] , and the principle No (one may) harm (anyone) nor (be) harmed (by anyone) in Islam. [18] And the Almighty states, {to you be your religion, and to me mine.} [19]

14, 15. Intellectual poverty

The Almighty states, {We bestowed on Abraham his rectitude of conduct} [20] and {and he (the Prophet) purifies them, and teaches them the Book and the Wisdom} [21] .

16, 17. Social and Governmental poverty

Poverty and dispossession is not limited to the individual, but it includes governmental poverty, and poverty of the society as a whole.  So among the visible manifestations of poverty is that of the government and society due to lack of constitutional establishments, fundamental infrastructure, and suchlike.

18, 19. Deprivation of Independence

Furthermore, we have the government's and society's deprivation of economical and political independence.

These are some of the main categories of poverty. Let us now look at what Imam Ali said about poverty.

Poverty in the texts of Imam Ali peace be upon him

Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib drew our attention to this expansive meaning of poverty.  He points to intellectual poverty saying, There is no riches like knowledge, and there is no poverty like ignorance [22] . Ignorance in itself is a scientific and educational poverty, and it is one of the most important causes of economical poverty too.

He also points to poverty from the viewpoint of education, and intellectual awareness saying, The greatest poverty is stupidity [23] .

Citing the lack of security from the social and political viewpoints, he addresses some of his companions, And you are not pillars that can be relied upon, nor the needed supporters of honour and victory [24] .

He points to moral and spiritual poverty when he says, The worst poverty is the poverty of the soul [25] , or in another text the greatest calamity is the poverty of the soul [26] .

From a different angle, Imam Ali gives a general definition for poverty when says, Many a dispossessed person may be richer than all the rich [27] .  One may be materially dispossessed but rich and needless in his health, and thus one is richer than the person rich in wealth but poor in health, or one who is deprived of his basic rights such as freedom of expression, travel, ownership, investment, and suchlike even if rich in wealth, for the latter is worse off than he who enjoys his rights even though he is destitute in wealth.

Furthermore, the Imam cites the words of Allah's messenger in relation to religious deprivation, Poverty is the shame of both worlds [28] .  By this is meant deprivation from the teachings of religion such as piety, abstention from wrong, moral values, and suchlike that result in loss in this world and the hereafter.  He who is deprived from religious teachings may steal, usurp, transgress, kill, and suchlike, and similarly a government that is deprived from moral and religious values suppresses people's freedom, imprisons the free and the innocent, persecutes the masses, and in that is the shame of both worlds.

The Imam continues, The most deprived of the people is he who is tight-fisted against himself when in affluence and prosperity, and leaves all that behind for his heirs [29] .  So deprivation is not just dispossession of wealth and riches, but it is deprivation from their use and facility to meet one's needs; material and spiritual, social and political, educational and intellectual, from the basic and the fundamental to the luxurious and comfortable.  Thus he who owns billions [of dollars] but does not use them to defend himself and his people is deprived' or rather is the most deprived of the people' . . . and the government that possesses billions but does not invest them to create infrastructural institutions or support and augment constitutional institutions is a poor government.

Why Imam Ali?

Imam Ali is chosen as the starting point to address the means to combat poverty because:

  1. He is the most knowledgeable in the divine teachings.  The prophet Muhammad used to say, I am the city of knowledge and Ali is its gate, whoever wishes to access the city should do so through its gate [30] ,
  2. He was the real embodiment of the divine teachings in fighting poverty before taking the office of government, and after ruling a country that encompassed some fifty of today's countries,
  3. He left behind the greatest heritage and legacy, wisdom, and theoretical and practical solutions to address the grave problem of poverty,
  4. In his speeches and teachings and especially in his mandate to Malik al-Ashtar whom he appointed as the governor of Egypt there are general guidelines depicting a clearly defined strategy for the fighting of poverty throughout time.
  5. He was distinguished by an exceptional perseverance and awesome will to fight poverty. When he was effectively restricted and denied from all activities for 25 years for his opposition to despotism and to the coup d'état that was executed against the teachings of the prophet Muhammad, Imam Ali used to spend prolonged periods of time reforming the land and educating the people in various aspects.
  6. He became renowned for his policies when the masses chose him as the head of state of an empire on which the sun never set. He went on to establish a theoretical economic programme and implemented it practically, thus turning the country, within five years, into a utopia in which not even one dispossessed person could be found.  He used to say, abstaining from luxury and opulence, Perhaps there may be an individual in the Hijaz or the Yemen [31] who has no hope of obtaining a piece of bread or has not satisfied his hunger fully [32] , and even in Africa there were no dispossessed persons as has been mentioned by chroniclers [33] .

His mandate to Malik al-Ashtar reveals some of his distinguished and innovative economic policies in addressing poverty.

Among the Strategic Solutions to Combat Poverty

The solutions to combat poverty may be divided to two categories: those preventative' solutions that relate to the infrastructure or general policy that contain the problem of poverty, and those curative' solutions that address the problem after its occurrence.

1. Adhering to Allah's philosophy on existence

This is in effect being in harmony with the declaration of the Almighty {He it is who created for you all that is in the earth} [34] .  All natural resources are for all the people, and this means that the government does not own the land, the mines, the seas, the airspace, and suchlike, and all belong to the people directly, and whoever acquires something it is his, and the government's role is to manage this process only.  This simply means:

A) That colossal expenses will be lifted from the shoulders of the poor.  Thus if a destitute person wants to own a house, he does not need to buy the land to build the house, for the messenger of Allah states, Land belongs to Allah and whoever develops it [35] , so it does not cost him other than the building cost.

B) This constitutes a great blow to [high] living expenses and inflation, for the abundance of the commodity reduces costs.

C) This also brings about an increase in the ability of the deprived to invest, for the capital required by a person of low income to set up farm, workshop, etc. is reduced significantly, for he does not need to pay the government for the land he needs to set up his business.

2. Giving priority to construction, growth, and investment in infrastructure

One of Imam Ali's policies was that he established a law stating that the absolute priority is for construction and development, growth and production, and it is not for taxes.  This is given in the mandate of Malik al-Ashtar:

Your attention to developing the land must be greater than that for collecting revenues [36] and the reason he gives for this reveals his penetrative strategic foresight, and holistic economic view: for that cannot be realised except through development, and he who seeks taxes without seeking development, ruins the land and destroys the creatures of Allah, and his reign shall not survive except for a short while.

So the governments make a double mistake when they concentrate on taxes, the first being the destruction of the ability of small farms and businesses, increasing the number of people on a low income or the unemployed, the results of which the government will face as the government will have reduced revenues. The second aspect of concentrating on revenues is the destruction of the creatures of Allah. This not only damages the economic situation but brings about social commotion and upheaval, but also causes mental and psychological illnesses for those affected, not to mention subsequent physical ones.

3. Calculated Expenditure (Value-for-Money)

Calculated expenditure in the government of Imam Ali was one of the most important aspects of a healthy economy and combating poverty.

There are many examples of showing the Imam's endeavour to instil laws to prevent waste and extravagance.  It is needless to say that if such policies were adopted today, the billions that are wasted here and there could be saved.  To begin with they may seem trivial but collectively constitute a colossal amount that could be used for the benefit of the economy and the poor.

The Imam used to go to great lengths to prevent wastage, or avoid illegal use of public funds'.  For example:

He used to put out the lamp, which was lit using treasury funds, when someone came to him to deal with a personal matter. 

When writing letters, he did not use to leave too much of a gap between one line and another, and he used to write them close to each other.

He was also conscious of and endeavoured to prevent his and his officials' time being wasted, prevent from me your unnecessary talk, and get to the point [37] , for officials' time constitutes a colossal wealth for the country and must be best used for strategic and fundamental issues.

4. Social security

Social security is one of the most important fundamentals that Islam defines and Imam Ali implemented in order to overcome poverty, and amongst the tenets that Imam Ali made and instilled in this respect were those in his mandate to Malik al-Ashtar:

I urge you  by Allah!, to take [special] care of the lowest class who have no means [to care for themselves] the destitute, the impoverished, and the disabled who are unable to work for amongst them are those who ask for help and those who don't discharge your duty towards Allah in providing protection for them, and assign for them from your treasury and from the crops of the lands under your jurisdiction [i.e. public estates] wherever they may be, and the furthest should have the same as the nearest, for you are responsible for each of them, and let not the conceit of your position and vanity of wealth occupy you to lose sight of them. [38]

Social security is provided for all including followers of other religions, as it is obvious from the reported event of the Imam assigning benefit from the treasury for the old Christian man who had no source of income.

Islam has also determined that the treasury pay the debt of one who is unable pay it back. Furthermore, Islam has also determined that the treasury pay the expenses of a woman whose husband is unable to support her, or any children whose father is unable support them, or indeed any parents whose son is unable to support them.

5. Keeping the economic balance between urban areas and the countryside

One of the greatest causes of economic imbalance and the spread of poverty is that governments tend to support urban areas at the expense of the rural areas, which ultimately causes the migration of resources and expertise from the latter to the former, and consequently undermines the production and growth of the rural areas and increases unemployment and poverty. This of course has negative effects in terms of the educational and cultural development of the countryside, which in turn reflects on the economic growth of these areas.

Imam Ali was the first to call for keeping the balance between the two urban and rural areas when he wrote to Malik al-Ashtar: . . . and the furthest should have the same as the nearest, for you are responsible for each of them. . . [39] which means that the economic rights of the furthest, who are those living in the countryside and the rural areas, are the same as those living nearest, i.e. those living in the cities and urban areas, and the ruler is responsible for both of them and he may not favour either of them.

He then goes on Deal with the issue of revenue with a view of the welfare of those who pay it, for the welfare of the community relies on its wellbeing and the welfare of them [40] .  For attending to the countryside is a fundamental cause in preserving a healthy and developed economy.

6. Social Sponsorship

Imam Ali established the basis of Social Sponsorship, as Islam has defined the principle of social sponsorship in various dimensions, and this program is considered to be one of the most important factors in fighting poverty, as well being a contributing factor for Social Stability.

The messenger of Allah used to say to his followers, He has no faith in me who sleeps with his hunger satisfied, while his neighbour is hungry [41] , and he is not a believer who sleeps with his hunger satisfied, while his neighbour is hungry [42] .

One of the most eminent authorities on Islam in recent times, the late Ayatollah Muhammad Shirazi states in the book of Economics of his al-Fiqh series, volume 107, p298, This hadith of the prophet is either limited to a moral concept in order to bring about a faultless faith, or it is a legal religious obligation for one to act upon when necessary; for example at the time of famine, when it is permissible for him to take the amount he requires, and if he cannot repay it then it is the responsibility of the treasury.

The Almighty states {Help ye one another in righteousness and piety} [43]