Secondly, Islam forbids extravagance, i.e., excessive spending on things or activities that are acceptable within their due limits. An example of extravagance is the construction of tall structures or expensive decorative gardens for just ostentation. There are, of course, orchards with fruit trees, which are not forbidden in Islam. However, some large private gardens are made only for display and personal enjoyment and pleasure. This was so when kings built huge gardens just to entertain themselves with song and dance. Spending large amounts of money for personal leisure is considered extravagance.
However, large gardens for public use, as are found in many cities, where people can go for enjoyment, relaxation and exercise is not banned in Islam at all. If a city spends a large sum of money on a garden for its inhabitants to enjoy, that is a legitimate expense.
To illustrate, Lahore currently has a population of about 900,000. If Lahore Corporation were to lay out public gardens and parks at the cost of a few hundred thousand rupees, Islam would not call it extravagance, as the whole town would derive benefit from these gardens. The per capita expenditure on such a garden would be quite reasonable relative to the benefits that the entire population would receive. On the other hand, if a king or a rich person were to lay out similar gardens for the sole use of his family, Islam would disapprove of it. Such expenditure would mean that millions have been spent for the benefit of a few individuals only, while the same expenditure could have benefited hundreds of thousands of people, which might have also been beneficial for their health.
Thus Islam does not stop us from spending money on people’s genuine needs. It only restricts individuals from wasteful expenditures that come about by neglecting the rights of public at-large. If a multi-story building is built with hundreds of offices for the use of thousands of people, it is a legitimate expense. However, if an individual builds a house with large number of rooms to show off his wealth, then that expenditure would be considered extravagant and not legitimate in Islam. Such a person would be answerable before God on the day of judgement to explain why he did not spend money for the benefit of mankind?
The example of the Taj Mahal is close to home. This fine mausoleum is renowned all over the world, attracting admirers from far and wide. I myself have visited it a number of times, and it is undoubtedly a marvellous structure, exquisite in form, grace and beauty. But it is in fact no more than a personal monument built by an emperor to immortalise his love for his queen. From the Islamic point of view, the enormous amount of money spent on it was not well spent. If the same money had been spent for the betterment of the poor, the downtrodden and the orphans, hundreds of thousands of people could have benefitted for a long time to come. It would have been a better use of wealth if such people could have been provided resources for food, clothing and shelter.
There is no doubt that from a technical and engineering perspective, the Taj Mahal is a work of art. We all appreciate it and like to visit it. However, the reality is that we must also recognise that such magnificent buildings, which are built for the benefit of a few individuals alone, are not permitted in Islam. On the other hand, the buildings built for the benefit of public at large, no matter how tall and big, are not against Islamic teachings. It is the expenditure on things beyond one’s reasonable needs that is forbidden. Example of expenditures forbidden in the Holy Quran and hadith are: big buildings, large expenses on gardens to display wealth, overindulgence in food and extravagance in the purchase of clothes, cars, horses, furniture, etc. By limiting the scope of what one might spend on, Islam limits the need for accumulating wealth.
Islam similarly forbids passing on political power to individuals solely because of their wealth. I have already spoken about the Quranic injunction: ‘to make over the trusts to those entitled to them’, meaning that we should only accord authority to those who are best able to hold office regardless of their economic status. Thus, Islam reproves accumulation of wealth in order to gain political power or high office. It instructs Muslims to elect people solely on the basis of merit and not to be swayed by wealth and high social or economic status.