Ninth Greater Sin: Usury
The ninth Greater sin is usury. That it is classified as a Greater Sin is clear in traditions recorded from the Holy Prophet (S), Imam ‘Ali (a.s.), Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (a.s.), Imam Musa al-Kadhim (a.s.), and Imam Muhammad al-Taqi (a.s.).
According to the glorious Qur’an, taking interest is a sin that incurs severe Divine punishment. The punishment for usury as mentioned in the Qur’an is far more severe than the punishment for other sins. It is announced in Surah Āli- ‘Imran:
“O you who believe! Do not devour usury, making it double and redouble and be careful of (your duty to) Allah, that you may be successful. And guard yourself against the fire that has been prepared for the unbelievers. (Surah Āli- ‘Imran 3:130-131)
It means that the fury of the fire that is prepared for those who take interest will be just as intense as the fire prepared for the unbelievers.
The verse of Surah al-Baqarah says,
“Those who swallow down usury cannot arise except as one whom Shaitan has prostrated by (his) touch does rise. That is because they say, trading is only like usury; and Allah has allowed trading and forbidden usury. To whomsoever then the admonition has come from his Lord, then he desists, he shall have what has already passed, and his affair is in the hands of Allah; and whoever returns (to it) - These are the inmates of the fire; they shall abide in it.” (Surah al-Baqarah 2:275)
The above verse confirms that the usurer will remain in Hell eternally and there is no salvation for him. Allama Muhammad Husain Tabatabai, in his Tafsir, ‘al-Mizan’ says that the punishment ordered by Allah (S.w.T.) for usury is so severe, that such severity is not mentioned even for disobedience to any of the Furu’ ad-Dīn. Another equally serious offence is to nurture friendship with the enemies of Islam. The direct ill-effects of usury are clear and evident. Hoarding of wealth increases the disparity between the rich and the poor. Poverty is a malady that can degrade and humiliate its victims, erode his values and destroy his morals. This in turn leads to corruption, theft and murder. Those directly responsible for destroying the social equilibrium, are the hoarders, who amassed wealth and thus it was unavailable to those who needed it. The total disintegration of the social fabric can precipitate a civil war and further a world war which brings with it only death and destruction. In the world of today with the advances of the nuclear and chemical weapons, war does not only bring death to the humans, but leaves them a caricature, sick and maimed and deformed for generations to come.
The direct ill effects on the Muslim society as a result of friendship with those opposed to Islam, are also clear and evident.
History has recorded that friendship with the enemies of Islam can only be bought at a price. The price in this case is to compromise. Compromise on the tenets, the culture and the spirit of Islam, till a time comes when the country loses its identity as an Islamic society.
The verse of Surah al-Baqarah which is quoted above, says that those who take usury (interest on loan) shall be counted among mad people (whom Shaitan has touched). On the Day of Judgement people will recognize them from their madness that they had been taking usury. Their sanity would be destroyed, because in this world they have acted against intellect and Shari’a.
They have been oblivious of humanity and the needs of humanity. They did not deal equitably with others and disobeyed the law of co-operation. Actually these people had been insane in the world, because they have followed the direction of Shaitan and performed such insane acts.
This argument is obviously foolish. There is nothing comparable between interest and trade. There is equity in business transactions because there is a mutual agreement between the two parties and both stand to gain or lose. In trading, a seller sells an article to the buyer at a price mutually acceptable to both, and the matter ends there.
But taking interest is a clearcut case of exploitation. A person with surplus money, which he does not need, lends it to someone who is in dire need. The needy person agrees to pay interest which he can ill afford; not because it is acceptable to him but because of his compelling situation.
Undoubtedly, usury is an unjust and oppressive evil. It is against human nature and human dignity. It increases the riches of the wealthy and drives the impoverished to further depravation.
Understandably, the exploited poor begin to hate the rich. The pent-up hatred then finds an outlet in the form of violence and bloody revolutions.
In the book “Islam and World Peace” it is written, “Islam says that earning should be only in return of efforts and work. because capital itself cannot do any work and make any effort. Hence the wealth of the rich man should not be increased by taking usury.”
Increasing wealth by usury is the easiest form of making money but Islam forbids it. Wealth cannot be accumulated by forcing the helpless poor into further destitution; and usury does just that, causing economic imbalance and trampling upon human rights, equity and justice. Maulana Sayyid Abul ‘Ala Maududi of Pakistan has written a comprehensive and interesting book on usury that describes its evil effects and the arguments are supported by statistics.
The needy person ends up returning not only the amount loaned to him but far in excess of it. The excess can even amount to more than the principal amount if the repayment is delayed. Taking interest imposes an excruciating financial burden on one who is already needy and it is nothing short of blackmail. Needy people should be given loans without interest. This promotes a feeling of friendship, co-operation and charity.
To give a loan on interest not only destroys the economic balance in the society, it also inflames the feelings of hatred, enmity and selfishness.
There are too many disadvantages of taking interest. The earnings of one who takes interest, loses ‘Barakat’ (abundance and prosperity). Whereas the earnings of hard labour have much ‘Barakat’.
The Holy Prophet (S) says in one of his traditions:
“Worship consists of seventy parts. The most important is lawful earnings.”1
The Prophet (S) also says:
“The truthful trader shall be counted among the prophets on the Day of Judgement. His face would glow like a full moon.”2
Another misfortune of the usurer is that he loses trust in Allah (S.w.T.). He does not pray to Allah (S.w.T.) to give him ‘Barakat’. All his hopes are pinned upon the interest that he collects from his debtors and this is polytheism as discussed in the section on ‘Shirk’.
Another point to be noted is that in normal business there is a possibility of both gain and loss. So the businessman not only puts in sincere efforts but prays to Allah (S.w.T.) for success and profit in his endeavour. An usurer has no fear of loss and feels no intuitive need to pray to Allah (S.w.T.) for his ‘Rizq’. He is thus deprived of an important facet of religion.
One who takes interest is deprived of the rewards that are prescribed for giving a goodly loan. If there are ten merits in giving Sadaqah, the interest-free loan has eighteen merits. An interest-free loan is therefore more rewarding than Sadaqah in the way of Allah (S.w.T.).
A person who gives respite to his debtors and does not take interest is given a reward that is equivalent to charity of the said amount every day for the number of days that he extends. It is evident that the usurer does not qualify for such rewards. In fact he is afflicted with miserliness and greed, which only increase day by day. Surely the result of miserliness and greed is Hell.
We have already seen from the verses of the Holy Qur’an, the sayings of our Holy Prophet (S) and of our Imams (a.s.) that the punishment for usury in more severe than that of other sins. We have also discussed the reasons for this. Islam classifies usury as the greatest of the Greater Sins and its punishment is the severest of all punishments. If the usurer does not repent for his acts, his end will be with the disbelievers and those whose eternal abode is Hell. The usurer shall never be released from Hell.
“To whomsoever then the admonition has come from his Lord, than he desists, he shall have what has already passed, and his affair is in the hands of Allah, and whoever returns (to it) these are the inmates of the fire, they shall abide in it.” (Surah al-Baqarah 2:275)
However there are certain ways to compensate for this sin and pray for forgiveness. Certain sinful acts are forgiven by just repenting sincerely. If a Polytheist repents for his sins and becomes a Muslim, a great sin like ‘Shirk’ is forgiven. He does not have to do anything more than that. But there are some sins that require compensation in addition to sincere repentance i.e. like the one who has Qaža prayers and fasts. Along with repentance he must perform all the prayers and observe all the fasts due on him. Similarly in the case of interest, the penitent should give back the amount that he has taken as interest from his debtors.
The above Qur’anic Ayat continues:
“Allah does not bless usury, and he causes charitable deeds to prosper, and Allah does not love any ungrateful sinner.” (Surah al-Baqarah 2:276)
Charity spreads peace, promotes beneficence and love in society, whereas usury destroys peace and hardens the hearts of the people.
When usury spreads its roots in society, people have no hesitation in usurping each other’s rights. They are only driven by a feeling of enmity, hatred and a passion of revenge. A society devoid of harmony and co-operation cannot progress, it destroys itself with its own corruption. Charity and Sadaqah on the other hand promote feelings of friendship, love and brotherhood. An atmosphere of peace and prosperity prevails which inspires people to further good deeds.
The Noble Qur’an says,
“O You who believe! Be careful of (your duty) to Allah and relinquish what remains (due) from usury, if you are believers. But if you do (it) not, then be appraised of war from Allah and His Apostle...” (Surah al-Baqarah 2:278-279)
The proof of one’s belief is in obedience of Divine orders. The same verse continues,
“...And if you repent, then you shall have your capital, neither shall you make (the debtors) suffer loss, nor shall you be made to suffer loss.” (Surah al-Baqarah 2:279)
One who does not obey this command must be prepared for war with Allah (S.w.T.) and His Prophet (S).
Tafsir Minhaj us-Sādiqīn gives an explanation of this verse. It could mean that the severity of the sin of usury is such that if in this world a usurer were to come face to face with the Holy Prophet (S), the Prophet’s (S) sword would be against him and the Prophet (S) would be prepared to fight him. In the Hereafter the fire of Hell shall keep him in torment by the order of Allah (S.w.T.). The usurer must be fought till he submits to the Divine orders and refrains from taking usury. Traditional reports state that after the revelation of this verse, the Holy Prophet (S) informed the Commissioner of Makkah that if the tribe of Bani Mughaira does not desist from taking usury, they must be fought against.
The Holy Prophet (S) also said inter alia in a sermon at Makkah: “Know that the usury which has been accumulated in the period of ignorance is now condoned completely. First of all I condone the interest (that is upon your neck) of (my uncle) Abbas Ibn Abdul Muttalib.”
It is reported from Hazrat Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (a.s.):
“Taking a Dirham as interest is worse in the eyes of Allah than doing illegal intercourse with Mahram women.”3
Imam ‘Ali (a.s.) says:
“The Holy Prophet (S) has cursed one who accepts interest, one who pays interest, one who buys interest, one who sells interest, one who writes the contract of interest and one who is the witness of this transaction.”4
Ibn Baqīr relates that Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (a.s.) was informed about the person who took interest and considered it as permissible as mother’s milk. Imam (a.s.) said:
“If Allah gives me power over this man, I would strike off his head.”5
It is clear that to consider interest Harām is an article of faith. One who disregards this and says that interest is not Harām becomes an apostate. The Imam (a.s.) can also have him killed.
Samā says that he asked Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (a.s.) as to why Allah (S.w.T.) has mentioned the illegality of usury at various places. Imam (a.s.) replied:
“So that people may not forgo acts of charity (like giving interest-free loans).”6
Imam Baqir (a.s.) said:
“The worst transaction is that which involves interest.”7
Zurarah says that I asked Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (a.s.) concerning the Qur’anic verse:
“Allah does not bless usury, and he causes charitable deeds to prosper...” (Surah al-Baqarah 2:276)
“But I see that wealth of usurers goes on increasing?”
Imam (a.s.) replied,
“What could be a greater loss? That in return of a Dirham of interest he loses his faith. And if he repents of his deeds in the world all his wrongfully earned wealth comes to an end and he becomes a destitute.”8
The Holy Prophet (S) says,
“One who takes interest, his belly shall be filled with an equal quantity of fire by Allah. If he has earned more from the interest money, Allah will not accept any of his deeds. And till even a grain of interest remains with him, Allah and his angels will continue to curse this man.”9
The Holy Prophet (S) has also stated:
“On the night of ascension (Miraj) I saw some people trying to stand up but did not succeed because of their huge bellies, I asked, O Jibrīl, who are these people?”
Jibrīl replied, “They are those who have taken usury. Now they can only stand up like those who have been possessed by the Devils.”
The Prophet (S) continues,
“Then I saw them herded upon the path of the followers of Fir’on. Seeing the extreme heat of the fire they exclaimed. O God! Then when will be Qiyāma?” (It is clear that the fire mentioned in the tradition is of the punishment of Barzakh).
In another tradition it is said that when these people saw the followers of Fir’on they tried to get up and run away. But due to overlarge bellies they could not rise up and consequently the followers of Fir’on trampled them under their feet and moved on.
It is narrated from the Holy Prophet (S) that he said:
“When adultery and interest becomes common in a town the angels are given permission to destroy its inhabitants.”
Another Prophetic tradition in the same vein says:
“When the people of my Umma start taking interest, tremors and earthquakes will be frequent.”10
The Noble Prophet (S) says:
“If a man commits adultery with his mother in the Holy Kāba this act shall be seventy times lighter than the act of usury.”11
Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (a.s.) says:
“In the eyes of Allah, taking one Dirham of interest is worse than thirty incestuous acts.”12
A previous tradition describes this sin to be seventy times more than adultery. There is one more report where taking a Dirham is equated with twenty such acts.13
Even in today’s world, the scourge of interest has spread to such a magnitude that economies are on the verge of collapse. Some economists say that interest is necessary for development. If this had been true then Islam would not have prohibited it. At the present time there are two schools of economics whose ideology is not based on interest. One is Communism and the other Islam. Whereas the foundation of imperialist economy is based upon interest. Even the Communist and the Islamic schools of economies differ greatly.
Unlike the Communists, Islamic government has never felt the compulsion to accept interest as inevitable, in order to fit the logistics of economy. And yet, Islamic economy is not known to have weakened because it does away with interest.
Yes, it is a necessity for the few selfish and greedy people who wish to add to their already enormous wealth, by increasing the miseries of the poor and the destitute. Their aim is to enslave the deprived people. We are well aware of the logic of these hoarders.
A loan on interest is one whereby a person lends something with the precondition that it would be returned with fixed increment at a fixed time. The loan given may be money or any other article, say, one loans five Mounds of rice and expects to get back six Mounds. The increment demanded may be in the form of cash or kind, labour or even a favour.
For example, one may lend money with the condition that the borrower will return the money and also carry out some household chores for him. Or a lender may lend a sum of money for a year and in return stay in the house of the borrower for a year without paying any rent. Or a person may give gold as a loan and expect the borrower to make some jewellery free of cost. Whatever is taken in excess of what was given, irrespective of its form, is interest and is Harām. Also it does not matter whether such conditions for giving loan were stated in the beginning or decided later. It is Harām in any case.
1) A transaction involving interest is Harām. Charging interest is Harām and paying interest is Harām too. So if the borrower takes money on interest and uses it and earns some profit, the actual owner of the profit is the lender. For example, if he borrows some wheat and plants a crop, the crop that grows from this, rightfully belongs to the lender. However, if the lender has agreed that his loan can be utilised in such a manner, then the profit from it is the right of the borrower.
2) If one gives an amount to a trader with the understanding that he can return a lesser amount, it is permitted. For example, he gives a thousand Tumans to a trader in Shiraz and agrees to take nine hundred and ninety Tumans in Tehran, he is allowed to do so. This type of transaction is knows as ‘Sarf al-Barāt’, since there is no involvement of interest.
3) If at the time of disbursement of the loan there had been no mention of interest and the loanee wishes to return the loan amount with an increase out of his own wish, it is not Harām. In fact it is Mustahab. It is also Mustahab to repay the loan, if possible, before its due-date or before the lender demands it. It is also Mustahab for the debtor that when repaying the loan he should add something to it with the intention of giving it as a gift to the creditor. But the intention must be of ‘gift’. It must not even remotely be thought of as interest. Similarly, it is Mustahab for the creditor to accept whatever extra is given to him as a gift, not think of it as an interest, and accept it as a goodwill.
If any of the following conditions are present in a transaction, it becomes a transaction of interest, and is Harām:
1) Whatever is taken and whatever is given back are of the same material but the quantities are unequal. Or if the quantities are equal, there is disparity in quality etc.
2) When only one standard of measure and weight is employed, the amount taken and given back is of unequal measure or weight. However, at the time of borrowing if the measure of weight is kilogram but while returning it, it is Sīr or Pound it is allowed. In the same way whatever was taken by the unit of measurement as metre and returned by the units of measurement as foot or yard, is valid too.
In the same way it is Harām for a person to lend one Mound of wheat for a month and in return borrow one mound of wheat for two months from the same person. Even though the quantity is the same, the transaction is Harām because time is also a significant factor.
1) In the matter of interest, wheat and barley are considered equivalent. Then if one gives a Mound of wheat and takes one and-a-half Mound of barley, it is interest, and thus Harām.
Similarly, whatever constitutes the same basic material is regarded as equivalent. As an analogy one may think of the roots, branches and leaves of a tree as equivalent. For example, milk and curd are equivalent, grape-vinegar and grapes are equivalent, sugar and sugarcane are equivalent too. All these have to be loaned and given back in equal quantity or it will constitute interest and will be Harām.
2) If a person gives one Mound of wheat and a handkerchief and takes back one and-a-half Mound of wheat, it does not constitute interest and is not Harām. In this transaction one Mound of wheat shall be considered in lieu one Mound of wheat that is returned. And the remaining half a mound of wheat shall be in the lieu of the handkerchief. It is also possible that a person may give one Mound of wheat and a handkerchief and take back one Mound of wheat and some other article, for example, soap. In this way too he has not committed usury.
3) If a person first sells one Mound of his wheat for two Tumans and later purchases one and a half Mound of wheat for two Tumans, it is permitted. Since both these transactions are separate. It does not constitute usury.
It may be possible that Zaid sells a Mound of wheat to Khalid, and Khalid gives half a Mound of his wheat to Zaid as a gift. This is also permitted.
There are Three types of people between whom the taking and giving of interest is allowed:
(1) Father and son: The father and son can enter into a transaction of interest. But a transaction of interest between mother and son is Harām.
(2) Husband and wife: The husband and wife can charge interest from each other. For example one of them gives a hundred rupees and demand one hundred and fifty rupees in return. It is permitted.
(3) The Kafir who is not staying in an Islamic country: A Muslim can take back more but he cannot give him more. As far as the Zimmi Kafir (one who is staying in an Islamic country) is concerned it is Harām to enter into a transaction of interest with him. Taking and giving of interest both are Harām in this case.