Before we proceed, a word of caution is in order. This article will tread on mental areas that have been conceptually neglected by both Sunni- and Shi‘i-stilted fanatics. These are people who could not and will not factor in the context, the circumstances, and the conditions that were widespread before, during and after the 23 years of our Prophet’s moral leadership and the 30 years of trying to keep up with the Prophet’s principles that followed.
This phenomenal development is looked at either with a holier-than-thou psychology or a disjointed mentality that fails to take into account disquieting details that cannot fit into a “Sunni-centric” or a “Shi‘i-centric” interpretation of that pioneering history. This column is a humble and honest attempt to condense the significant and valuable decisions and policies of the years that followed our dear Prophet’s heavenly departure.
Let us be clear about the transition of leadership from ‘Umar to ‘Uthman. It was a transition from strict and meticulous policies of austerity during ‘Umar’s reign to lenient and relaxed policies during ‘Uthman’s reign. ‘Uthman released the citizenry of al-Madinah from ‘Umar’s constraints and restrictions. Now everyone and anyone was free to go wherever they wanted. This initially gained ‘Uthman a degree of popularity and a favorable reputation. But it was only a matter of a few years when that public sentiment changed to one of disillusionment and frustration.
This is when the fitnah that ‘Umar and the steadfast Muhajireen and Ansar (the first line of defence of Imam ‘Ali and Ahl al-Bayt) had blocked began to unfold. Remember ‘Umar had allocated a financial allowance to the unwavering Muhajireen and Ansar – corresponding to each one’s sacrifices and losses, as well as those who were family relatives of the Prophet (pbuh). ‘Umar calculated that this allowance would spare them the need to struggle to “make a living”.
Still, some of them did partake in commercial activities and “gainful employment”. Some sought to “make a personal fortune”. And a few actually accumulated a tremendous fortune. That did not mean they became what we call in today’s terminology “capitalists”. It simply meant that they made more money and as a consequence, they were able to give more money to those who are entitled to it.
With all of what ‘Umar tried to do to curtail or limit such a dangerous social (“class”) from emerging, he was not completely successful. The hindsight fact of the matter is that everyone was free to transact, trade, and traffic in commerce during the standard-setting time of the Prophet (pbuh). All of these developments/changes did not sit well with ‘Umar. He began to notice that the accumulation of wealth by some on one side due to state allowances that were allocated to them combined with their “free market” revenue accumulation, juxtaposed with the disparity of many others on the other side. It appears that he regretted having allocated budgetary stipends to those who had eventually accumulated excessive wealth. ‘Umar is famous for his retrospection quote:
لو استقبلت من امري ما استدبرت لأخذت من الأغنياء فضول أموالهم فرددتها على الفقراء.
[If it was to happen all over again to me [i.e. the personal authorized double dipping of the Muhajireen and Ansar] I would henceforth appropriate the excess profits of those who are rich and allocate them to those who are in need.] If Umar were to have lived longer, in all likelihood he would have “socialized” the economy. Keep in mind that the revenues, proceeds, and the Islamic budget were growing extraordinarily due to the growth and development of the Islamic dominion. This excessive and extravagant breakout of wealth complicated and clouded the social norm that was the order of the day during the Prophet’s time which was still honored by Abu Bakr and ‘Umar.
This new turn of events compelled ‘Umar to probe the thoughts and feelings of his colleagues and teammates (the true and tested first generation Muslims, first among them was Imam ‘Ali). Imam ‘Ali advised him to have society maintain the lifestyle, standard of living, and way of life that was anchored by the Prophet (pbuh) and not to get caught up in the “new wave” of exorbitance. Imam ‘Ali’s advice was along these lines: Distribute whatever revenue comes into the Islamic treasury so that at the end of the year there is not one dirham or dinar left in it – all is allocated to those who deserve it.
‘Uthman’s opinion was along these lines: I, (‘Uthman), note that there is much wealth and money and if there are no controls, then this (extravagance) will become overwhelming; this led ‘Umar to devise the dawawin (registry or records offices). People in need were entitled to budgetary discretions. This may have been the first known institutionalization of what the modern world refers to as “social security.” Whatever else was left in the state treasury was to be spent on public services and interests.
This proved to be a very wise decision as it served the purpose of alleviating dire food crisis circumstances during the year of famine. This is how ‘Umar put it:
نطعم المسلمين من بيت المال حتى اذا لم نجد فيه شيئا أدخلنا على كل أهل بيت من الأغنياء مثلهم من المحتاجين وما نزال نفعل ذلك حتى يطعم المسلمون جميعا
We provide for the Muslims from the treasury until we deplete it then we assign those in need to those who are affluent (i.e. the rich sustaining the poor). We will continue to do that until all Muslims are nourished.
‘Umar considered all the revenue, assets, and proceeds reaching the treasury to belong to all Muslims. No individual or group had more right to it than another. ‘Umar allocated a certain amount corresponding to each individual’s specific condition and needs – a man got his share, a woman got hers, a child got its share, an elderly, and the disabled, even babies, all of them received their stipends equitably. Social justice was the order of the day.
One of the policies of that golden age of Islam was to distribute the sadaqat on location where a certain district’s underprivileged of the ummah would receive the sadaqat coming from their own district first. If there were no sadaqat available there, then they would receive their entitlements from the central funds. The reserves in the central account would be distributed within the Qur’anic-defined channels of contributions: the destitute, the needy, the homeless, and those in debt, etc…
Some readers would like to buttress their secular, socialist, or even communist theories by labeling ‘Umar a socialist or a communist. This is untrue. They would also try to label the Prophet (pbuh) and Imam ‘Ali the same way. Again, this is a complete mischaracterization of the reality. These were divine subjects and public servants as Allah (swt) meant them to be. It should be noted here that private property was allowable, and gaining wealth was permissible. Social justice can be accomplished without banning private possessions or forbidding worldly goods and fortune, provided the person’s conscience is attuned to Allah (swt) and His Prophet (pbuh) and thus responsible for those in need, accountable to the disadvantaged, and answerable to a moral Islamic authority.
All “state employees” were carefully scrutinized by the khalifah. All of the Prophet’s sincere followers were consulted when problems arose. It would not be far-fetched to say that Shura would have been rigorously and methodically institutionalized and systematic if ‘Umar had lived on and if Bani Umayyah had not caused the fitnah that ensued with the death of the third khalifah ‘Uthman.
And yet, behold, your Sustainer [grants His forgiveness] to those who forsake the domain of injustice after being exposed to tumult, and who thenceforth strive hard [in Allah’s cause] and are patient in trying times: indeed, after such [repentance] your Sustainer is certainly much forgiving, very merciful - Al-Nahl, 110