4(e) Poverty

Contrary to popular notion, human poverty in Islam is indeed concerned with both material as well as cultural and spiritual poverty. This dual notion of poverty has its roots in the Shair’ah. While it should be possible to identify a number of economic, social and moral value- oriented variables and indicators to assess the extent of poverty resulting from the de-Islamization process the current analysis is mainly confined to the discussion of material poverty and Islamic responses to it.
While it is difficult to quantify the level of extent of material poverty, it is possible to integrate “minimum subsistence”, “minimum adequacy” and “minimum comfort” into definitions of poverty. The Shari’ah requires that Islamic state must provide a guarantee of a minimum level of living to all. But it is conditional and relative. For, individual must first, try to earn his living through his efforts. Again, this guarantee is relative to socio-economic conditions of the society concerned. But when people are living at a subsistence or starvation level, it is important that we must attack absolute poverty rather than relative poverty as a matter of priority. Although the concept of human poverty involves considerable value-judgement particularly in construction of an index of relative deprivation or equivalence in consumption and income, it should be possible to identify the causes and to suggest remedies consistent with the spirit of the Shari’ah. In most cases poverty in Muslim countries arises due to colonial exploitation and legacy, implementation of inappropriate development policies resulting in economic and financial dualism, neglect of human resources, low labour productivity and so on.

Lastly, Islamic solutions to the problems of poverty may include
among other things, three basic lines of actions:
i. Initiating institutional and non-institutional reforms through legal and non-legal measures such as
(a) re-structuring the development policies geared to the need of the rural population,
(b) introducing necessary reform in land tenure
(c) progressive taxation to transfer funds for providing public goods such as education and training, health care and so on.
ii. Providing Guaranteed Minimum Provision (GMP) to all concerned, determined by the level and stage of social and economic development to meet the basic minimum needs rather than provision for a national minimum wage (NMW). Although a case can be made for NMW in an Islamic economy, it is only a partial solution to the problem of poverty as NMW concentrates its benefits upon those who remain in employment.
iii. Re-constructing and re-activating the conventional tools of redistribution such as (a) collection and disbursement of Zakah to achieve pre-planed objectives,
(b) redefining the scope and limits of intra-family obligatory allowances and obligatory social provision of certain goods and services in a particular social context,
(c) fuller implementation of Islamic laws of inheritance and so on.

Each of the above-mentioned lines of approach is rooted in the Shari’ah in one way or other. However, the question of minimum provisioning for living deserves a special treatment in view of its importance in the Shari’ah. Therefore, a brief explanatory note is needed.

Minimum Provisioning for Living: An explanatory note

While the Shari’ah stressed upon the individual to earn a livelihood, yet it is also recognised by the Qur’an and the Sunnah that a state of poverty and deprivation entitles one to community’s support, as guarantee of a minimum level of living is to be provided by an Islamic state. It is suggested by some scholars that an Islamic state must provide a constitutional guarantee for providing minimum provisioning for living so that court must have jurisdiction to take appropriate legal measures against the public treasury to enforce that minimum, if necessary. This is perhaps an ideal Islamic position.
But in the context of today’s reality, it is very difficult to give a categorical answer as to whether all Muslim countries (excepting a few oil rich countries in the Middle-East) are capable of giving a guarantee of a minimum provisioning for food, shelter, clothing, education and health care to their people. In the case of many least developed Muslim countries the minimum provisioning for the shelter alone can perhaps, eat up the budgetary resources leaving practically nothing for other items of the vital expenditure. The basic question which I am raising here is the following. When a state can not provide a guarantee of a minimum provisioning to its poor people as required by the Shari’ah, due to its resource constraints, it is perhaps in order to identify the order of priority in terms of minimum provisioning, thereby providing a guarantee for at least priority needs, although it may be a guarantee for sub-minimum provisioning. This is not to suggest that this second best solution should be a permanent feature in any Muslim society. Attempts should however,
be made to exploit the resources in such a way so that it becomes possi-ble to break the vicious circle of poverty. This is perhaps Islamically justified approach to the problem.