Islam ordained sympathy for the poor and downtrodden and their uplift was a major concern at its very inception. A study of the chapters of the Holy Quran that were revealed in the beginning of Islam shows that the most dominant message in these verses is to support and uplift the poor. Muslims are told that if they desired national progress and God’s pleasure then they must try to help the poor and alleviate their sufferings.
Although at that point other injunctions of Islam — such as, how to pray, how to trade, how to judge, how to deal with each other, the rights of husbands and wives, the rights of rulers and ruled, and the rights of employers and employees — were not yet revealed, the Quran drew attention to supporting and uplifting the poor. The people were reminded that nations that did not help their poor and ignored the rights of the downtrodden were destined to be destroyed and would face God’s wrath.
History shows that the first chapter to be revealed was Surah al-‘Alaq (Chapter 96). The opening verses of this Surah were revealed in the first instance, followed by a gradual revelation of the whole chapter, spread over a short time period. Four of the chapters that followed immediately after this Surah have been called a ‘soliloquy’ by Sir William Muir, a well-respected European Orientalist, who was, at one time, the Lieutenant Governor of U.P. He held that these chapters gave expression to the thoughts that filled the mind of the Holy Prophet(sa) prior to his claim of Prophethood.
According to Sir William Muir these four chapters are Surah al-Balad, Surah ash-Shams, Surah al-Lail and Surah ad-Duha. Muslim scholars believe that these four chapters were revealed after Surah al-‘Alaq, and historical evidence supports this view. However, Muir was of the opinion that these four chapters were revealed prior to Surah al-‘Alaq. His argument was based on the thesis that Surah al-‘Alaq begins with the Arabic word iqra’, meaning, ‘read’. Thus it must be the case — according to Muir — that there were chapters that had been already revealed and were to be read.
In any event, these four chapters of the Holy Quran are the very earliest chapters according to Islamic history, and according to Muir they were revealed even before the Holy Prophet(sa) claimed that he has been commissioned as a Prophet. When we look at these four chapters, we find that three of them declare taking care of the poor to be necessary for salvation and national progress. They also instruct the rich to reform themselves. For example, it is stated in Surah al-Balad:1
Allah the Almighty says: ‘Every rich man in the world says, ‘I am very rich and I have spent enormous wealth without any concern for the amount spent and therefore, I am entitled to honour and respect in the public.’ The Arabic word lubad in this verse means ‘heap after heap’, and this is an accurate description of the scale at which wealth is wasted by the rich in worthless pursuits.’
Then He says: ‘Does such a foolish one think that no one sees him?’ i.e., by spending countless amounts he thinks that he has done a favour to the country, but people can see that he is doing it for show and is not motivated by sympathy and love for the poor. If he had those feelings, he would have spread his enormous expenditure over many days for the benefit and feeding of the poor, but he totally lacked such motives. His only motivation was to be known for his wealth. ‘Does he imagine that no one sees him?’ He is totally wrong. The world is not blind and stupid. It is clear to everyone that his spending was not for human welfare, but for self-glorification.
Then He adds: ‘Have We not given him two eyes?’ — he should have used them to look at conditions prevailing around him. The poor are dying of hunger with no one to care for them, but he is spending heaps for his glory. Had he not been granted eyes, with which he could see the conditions surrounding him.
And then He says: ‘And he had been given a tongue and two lips’, with which he could have discussed the situation and the proper uses of money.
The verse continues: ‘And We have pointed out to him the two highways’ of material and spiritual progress i.e. placed within his nature the impulse to seek the ways of attaining nearness to Allah as well as practising human sympathy and concern. But he did not employ any of the three means, and spent his wealth without a valid purpose. Therefore, he only wasted the money.
Then Allah the Almighty says: ‘But he attempted not the ascent courageously’ — despite having eyes to see the condition of the poor, and having the tongue and the lips to enquire about it, and having an ingrain feeling for the love of God and humanity — ‘he attempted not the ascent courageously.’ Like an overweight man, he got tired and failed to scale the heights — i.e. kept spending his wealth for show rather than the real purpose of achieving human welfare through it.
There are many other examples of wasteful spending. For example, some pleasure-seekers spend a fortune on dancing women, others, for lack of alternatives, spend it on gatherings of poetry recitals. There may be a poor widow in their backyard holding in her lap her hungry and crying children all night, but the rich give little thought to feeding the orphans, as they care more for their fame. However, God declares that they are not spending their money but rather wasting it.
Then Allah the Almighty says: ‘Do you know what the uphill ascent is?’ and then goes on to explain that it is the feeling of sympathy that yearns to help and free that slave who toils in alien soil away from his family and home. It is the feeding of the poor and the hungry, instead of wasting money on feasts for the rich, sometimes involving slaughter of hundreds of camels in one day. In times of drought and extreme cold, when food is scarce, it is the caring of the downtrodden, the feeding of the hungry and the clothing of the naked. It is the feeding of the orphan, instead of wasting money on lavish dinners, or gambling or wasteful sports.
The verse ‘feeding of an orphan, near of kin’ does not mean that one should only feed the orphan who is a relative. As it is, even the most miserly person would feed an orphan who was related to him. Instead, this verse highlights the fact that there are two types of orphans. First there are orphans who do not have any relatives. These orphans are so helpless and friendless that at times even the most stonehearted of men would feel sympathy and feed them. But then there is a second category of orphans, who may have close relatives, such as, brothers, sisters, uncles, etc. People tend to pay less attention to such orphans, as they are held to have family to support them. However, God expects such a high standard of compassion that, even for an orphan with relatives, we should feel such love in our hearts that we consider him or her as our own kin.
The last part of the verse asks why ‘a poor man lying in the dust’ was not fed. The Arabic expression dha-matrabah, or ‘lying in the dust’, in this verse implies the kind of extreme poverty that reduces one to near non-existence. Persistent destitution can deprive one of even the ability and energy to raise a voice. There are beggars who go from door to door seeking relief. Some of them beg insistently and refuse to take no for an answer. Others raise hue and cry in protest, and organize themselves to press the government and the rich to help them. However, God expects us to have such sympathy and love that we must seek out the helpless poor who do not even have the capacity to protest and beg at someone’s door. Such a person is not a member of a ‘trade union’ of beggars; his lips remain sealed even though his stomach may be empty; he remains hidden away in sickness and grief; he is friendless with no hope or energy left.
Islam expects the rich to reach out to such hopeless poor and strive to heal their bruised hearts. Islam expects the rich to achieve such heights of moral advancement that, after doing everything in their power in the service of the poor, they do not regard themselves as superior for being charitable. Instead, Islam expects the rich to remain humble before God and constantly prod their hearts to ascertain if they have truly fulfilled their duty towards the poor. The rich must not remind the poor of their help, nor should they consider it as a favour to the recipient. Rather, they should constantly engage in self-examination if they have fulfilled their God-given obligations.
The next verse ‘And exhort one another to be steadfast’ describes the next stage on this ‘uphill road.’ It indicates that: beyond helping individuals, one seeks to address the troubles of the entire nation.2 One should not blindly indulge in the life of ease while the poor are living a life of distress. These days, because of rationing, the rich are able to get the goods while the poor are left empty handed. The rich must not content themselves in just helping the poor; they should also persuade their friends and relatives to do likewise. Everyone should collectively work to improve the nation’s well-being and support each other in that effort. The next stage is that, despite all the good works, they are still left feeling that nothing has been done. And in that spirit, they must continue to remind one’s fellow beings the importance of helping and caring for the weak and the poor and continue such exhortations up to the last breath of their lives.
This teaching belongs to the earliest period of Islam, when the Holy Quran had just begun to be revealed and details of its commandments had yet to come. It was a time when even the people of Makkah were scarcely aware of Islam. Sir William Muir maintains that these were the thoughts of Holy Prophet(sa) and tendencies that led him eventually to claim (God forbid) Prophethood. We believe that these teachings comprise the earliest revelations to which applied the Divine command embodied in the word iqra’ (read) — i.e. convey these teachings to the people. Nevertheless, these teachings, revealed in the very early days of Islam, make clear that while individual freedom and struggle for personal material progress are permitted, it is not acceptable that a few individuals live a life of luxury while others suffer in pain and misery.
1 Surah al-Balad, 90:7–18, (publishers)
2 Surah al-Balad, 90:18, (publishers)