The Quran spells out the following principle regarding the true purpose of wealth: 1
[And give them out of the wealth of Allah which He has bestowed upon you.]
The pronoun ‘them’ in this passage, as shown by the context, stands for slaves, i.e. prisoners of war who are not in a position to ransom themselves either out of their own personal and family means, or with the help of the government or country they had fought for.
In such situations, Quran instructs us that we should help the prisoners of war by providing them with resources that they can employ to make money and use it to procure their own release by paying the required ransom. We are thus taught that if we are holding some unfortunate people, whom the vicissitudes of life had deprived them of the power to stand on their own feet, they should be given the benefit of a portion of our resources, which really belong to God and in which every creature of God holds a share.
Similarly, the verse quoted above instructs Muslim rulers and kings that the wealth, which God has given them, does not solely belong to them, but all of mankind has a share in it. Even if they capture prisoners of war who are so unfortunate that their own countrymen and family abandon them and show little interest in getting them freed (possibly because people back home wish to usurp the prisoners’ property), it remains the duty of Muslims in authority not to abandon them. In such a situation, they are urged to spend a portion of their wealth to set the prisoners free, since ‘your wealth is not yours but belongs to God, and your prisoner is created by the same God who created you.’
These references demonstrate that: Firstly, according to Islam, the world’s wealth belongs to all mankind. Secondly, the real master of all wealth is only God Almighty. Man is therefore not free to dispose of his wealth in any way he deems fit; what he can do is circumscribed by God’s prescribed limits.
We learn from the Holy Quran that this basic principle of ownership of wealth is an age-old truth, proclaimed by every Prophet of God. The Holy Quran refers to Hazrat Shu‘aib(as) when he warned his people against usurping the rights of others, against injustice, and against adopting ways of earning and spending wealth that led to strife. The people’s response was: 2
That is, O Shu‘aib! What is the matter with you. The money is ours, the wealth is ours, the property is ours, and we feel that we can give it to whomsoever we please, and we can keep it from whomsoever we please; spend it wherever we please and not spend it wherever we please. Who are you to intrude upon such matters? This wealth is not yours to decide where to distribute or spend; it is ours, and we maintain the choice to spend it however we please. Has your mind become perplexed from offering prayer after prayer that you are now interfering in our financial affairs and telling us that if we spend in this way it shall be virtuous, and if we spend in that way it shall lead to punishment? Whence have you acquired the right to counsel and teach us?
Then the people taunted, ‘Thou art indeed very intelligent and right-minded,’ i.e., who are you to preach in favour of the poor! That is, we accept that you are intelligent and right-minded, but now you claim that you can tell us how we should behave? We reject this claim of yours.
This clearly explains that the teachings of the Holy Quran regarding wealth are the same as were presented by the earlier Prophets. They did not consider human beings entirely free to earn and spend as they pleased. They believed that all wealth belonged to God ultimately and that spending it against His will was unlawful.
1 Surah an-Nur, 24:34, (publishers)
2 Surah Hud, 11:88, (publishers)