The Rights of the Poor in Islam

Democratic Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., poses for a portrait before an interview, Wednesday May 20, 2015, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

In the 2016 US Presidential Election Cycle, progressive candidates have taken to making the case for supporting the poor by taking back the earnings of the wealthy and helping support the poor.  From the social standpoint of Islam, supporting society’s poor is a constructive value. Three foundational sources eminently manifest Islam’s unremitting admonition to its adherents to uphold this core ideal.

1. Islam puts forward a set of foundational concepts and moral values for supporting the poor.

2. A wealth of Scriptural Texts exhort Muslims to stand ever on the side of the poor.

3. Islam lays down a set of statutory rules to actualize communal and individual support for the poor.

Let us take a closer look at these three sources of material and psycho-social backing for the needy in Islam.


1. The Right to Defend Oneself Against Wrongdoing (Al-Inti|âr Ba¢d Al-<ulm)

 A number of âyât, or sign-verses, of the Quran establish the human right of self-defense against transgression. Allah states, for instance, in Sûrat Al-Shûrâ:

But as to those who choose to defend themselves, after having been wronged, there is no cause whatever for blame against them. Rather, the rightful cause [for blame] shall be against those who wrong people and who commit injustice in the land without any right. These shall have a most painful torment in the Hereafter (Sûrat Al-Shûrâ, 42:41-42).

The pure essence of this concept of self-defense is the removal of injustice and the establishment of justice, which it establishes by giving every wronged party a due right to vindicate oneself and justice, without retribution. Commenting on this âyah, Imâm Ṭabarî states:

There is no cause for blame or punishment against those who defend themselves against wrongdoing, for they do what they do by [divine] right. Such defense is, therefore, in the very nature of the case, neither an act of excess nor wrongdoing. Blame and punishment, rather, attach only to those who wrong people and commit injustice without any right.

Imâm Qurṭubî said:

This âyah is a proof that a wronged person has the right to personally undertake the task of restoring his usurped right. Now, these wrongdoings [against which one has divine authorization to defend oneself and to vindicate justice] come in three forms:

The First Form of Authority for Self-Defense: Bodily Injury: There is no blame on one who suffers wrongful corporal harm at the hands of another if he avenges himself against the one who has wronged him, provided he does this in a manner proportional to the injury inflicted on him.

The Second Form of Authority for Self-Defense: Transgressing One’s Right: A crime against one’s person, right, or property, for which there is a prescribed divine punishment (^add) (e.g., adultery, fornication, theft, etc.), entitles one to redress. However, the community [not the individual] is responsible for administering the punishment for any of such crime.

The Third Form of Authority for Self-Defense: Financial Grievance: The aggrieved party has the right to fight for his usurped financial right until he extricates his right from its usurper. Hence, one of the primary forms of ·ulm, or wrongdoing—which Muslims are duty-bound to remove—are social injustices inflicted on the poor. ¢Alî ibn Abî >âlib, a Companion renowned for his discerning juridical acumen, and the Fourth of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, said, in this regard:

Allah has indeed imposed upon the wealthy the [divine] duty to dedicate part of their wealth to fulfilling the basic needs of the poor in their communities. Hence, whenever the poor of a community can find nothing to protect themselves from the ravages of hunger and homelessness, then such is sufficient proof of [wrongful] neglect of the commands of Allah on the part of the wealthy, for which Allah will call them to account and duly punish them on the Day of Judgment.

¢Alî also said: “Never have I seen [the aggregation] of vast wealth, save that I have observed a usurped right [of others] along with it.”

2. Championing the Values of Equality and Justice (Al-Dif⢠¢an Qiyam al-Musâwah wa’l-¢dâlah)

There are many Texts of Revelation that exhort Muslims to equality (musâwah) and that praise equality. Abû Hurayrah narrated: “The Messenger of Allah œ was once asked: ‘Who is the most honorable person, O Messenger of Allah?’ He replied: ‘The one who fears Allah most’” (Muslim). [This is against a social backdrop in Arabia, wherein honor was attached to lineage, tribe, association, and wealth. Here, taqwa, pious fear of God, becomes the great equalizer among people, for no other attribute elevates one man over any other.]

Even so says Allah in the Quran:

O humankind! Indeed, We have created all of you from a single male and female. Moreover, We have made you peoples and tribes, so that you may come to know one another. And, indeed, the noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the most God-fearing of you. Indeed, Allah is all-knowing, all-aware (Sûrat Al-±ujurât, 49:13).

In another ^adîth, the Prophet œ said:

All humankind is from Adam and Eve. Thus, the Arab has no superiority over the non-Arab. Nor does the non-Arab have any superiority over the Arab. Nor does the white have any superiority over the black. Nor does the black have any superiority over the white. [Elevation is a result of] nothing but piety and good action (Bay^aqî).

In the social perspective of Islam, equality means that relationships among Muslims are to be governed by a set of abstracted and universal rules, namely, the Sharî¢ah rules, which transcend all other considerations, be they racial, social, geographical, cultural, or of any other aspect. This, of course, does not mean that Islam denies the existence of differences in talents and personal capabilities among human beings, for Allah has said:

Are they the ones, then, who apportion the mercy of your Lord, O Prophet? Rather, it is We alone who apportion among them their very livelihood in the life of this world. Moreover, it is We alone who have raised some of them above others, by degrees, so that they may employ one another in service. Yet the mercy of your Lord is better than all that they amass (Sûrat Al-Zukhruf, 43:32).

This verse also shows that Allah’s decree of varying gradients of provision among human beings is a social mechanism for the purposes of wealth distribution. Note that Islam directly links the virtue of equality to the virtue of justice, to which many nuûṣ, or Texts of Revelation, refer, as in the statement of Allah: Moreover, whenever you judge between people, you shall judge with justice (Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:58). And in the same sûrah:

O you who believe! Be most upright in upholding justice, bearing true witness for the sake of Allah alone—even if it is against your own selves, or your parents, or your nearest relatives—regardless of whether one party is rich and the other is poor, for Allah is most regardful of what is good for them both. So do not follow whim such that you pervert equity. For if you distort testimony or turn away from the truth, then, indeed, ever is Allah all-aware of all that you do. (Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:135)

Thus, justice is essentially a procedural arrangement to determine who is in the right between disputing parties. However, procedures of justice are meant to be carried out in accordance with the rules that govern relationships and transactions among people prior to the rise of dispute, and in order to obviate injustice.

3. Emphasizing the Leadership of the Poor (Imâmat Al-Musta\¢afîn)

Islam’s foundational concept of vindicating the support and sustenance of the poor, who are invariably downtrodden wherever (yes, wherever!) the rule of Islam is not applied, is implicit in the âyah: Yet We intended to confer favor on those oppressed in the land and to make them exemplary leaders in faith; and to make them inheritors of Our commandments (Sûrat Al-Qa|a|, 28:5).  This concept points out a divine sunnah (pl. sunan)—the manifestation of Allah’s will in human history.  Here sunnah means Allah’s unalterable and established ways. whose materialization is inevitable—provided their conditions are satisfied.

The essence of this concept is that it is the way of Allah to give power (in its comprehensive sense, which embraces its multiple dimensions—civilizational, ethical, religious, social, economic, and political) to the oppressed (al-musta\¢afûn), i.e., to the group whose ability to act has been repressed or neutralized.

Yet the materialization of this “imamate” hinges upon the musta\¢afûn’s awareness of, and commitment to, the requirements upon which the promised imâmate is conditioned. In other words, they must become upright believers who capture the qualities of character, action, and belief as Allah has commanded them in his Book and as His Prophet œ has exemplified and taught them in the Sunnah of his life.

Imâm Qurṭubî says in his commentary on this verse:

According to Ibn ¢Abbâs, the statement of Allah in the previous verse—to make them exemplary leaders—means to “make them leaders in everything good (khayr).”

According to Mujâhid [the Tâbi¢î, or a member of the Successor generation; Quran commentator] the statement means “to make them callers to good.”

[The later commentator] Qatâdah [d. 118 h /735 CE], however, maintains that the âyah means to “invest them with political authority and kingship (the proof being Allah’s words in Sûrat Al-Mâ’idah, 5:20, and He made you kings).”

I [=Qurṭubî] say that Qatâdah’s interpretation is comprehensive, for a king is an imâm whose example is emulated. Allah has made it obligatory on Muslims to strive to realize the imâmate of the musta\¢afûn. This is implied when Allah blames those among the downtrodden who acquiesce in, and succumb to, oppression, dismissing the excuses they produce to justify their acceptance of injustice:

As for those whose souls the angels take while they are wronging themselves in the midst of disbelief, the angels will say to them: In what state of faith were you in life? They will say: We were utterly helpless in the land. The angels will say: Was Allah’s earth not spacious enough for you to migrate therein, away from unbelief? It is these, then, whose final abode shall be Hell—and what an evil destination it is! (Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:97).

The Quran also indicates the otherworldly torment awaiting those who are passive in accepting the oppression that is visited upon them—a torment no less severe than that of their oppressors:

And behold! They shall argue with one another in the Fire of Hell. Thus the weak of the world shall say to those who were insolently arrogant: Indeed, we were devoted followers of yours! So can you avail us, even a little, against any portion of the Fire? Those who were insolently arrogant shall say: Indeed, we are all of us steeped in it. Allah has already judged between all His servants with justice (Sûrat Ghâfir, 40:47-48).

Only those of the musta\¢afûn who could find no means to ward off oppression are exempted from punishment on the Day of Judgment:

Excepted are the truly helpless among the men and the women and the children who can gather not the means to avert their oppression, nor find a way out of it. It is these, then, whom Allah may pardon. Indeed, ever is Allah all-pardoning, all-forgiving (Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:98-99).

In fact, Allah counts liberation of the musta\¢afûn among the factors that render jihad obligatory upon Muslims:

Then what is with you that you do not fight in the path of Allah, and for the utterly helpless among the men and the women and the children who say: Our Lord! Bring us out of this city whose people are oppressive wrongdoers, godless in heart. And appoint for us, from Yourself, an invincible ally. And appoint for us, from Yourself, a mighty supporter (Surat Al-Nisâ’, 4:75).

4. Rejecting the Leadership of the Affluent Elite (Raf\ Imâmat Al-Mutrafûn)

Contrary to the leadership of the musta\¢afûn (based on economic and political deputation, or istikhlâf), stands the leadership of the mutrafûn (the affluent elite, or power elite), a leadership premised on insolent arrogance and economic and political oppression). Allah says:

Thus when We intend to destroy a town for evildoing, We first command its affluent elite to become righteous. Yet should they continue to commit flagrant deeds of ungodliness therein, then the divine word of doom comes to pass against it. Then do We demolish it utterly (Surat Al-Isrâ’, 17:16).

The term ‘al-mutrafûn’ mentioned in the âyah does not denote solely the moneyed, or wealthy. Rather, it refers to those who possess vast wealth, who are keen on maintaining a leadership and social status quo of control that is based on the arrogance/oppression binary opposition.


The nu|û|, or Revealed Texts, exhorting Muslims to support the poor abound. There is the category of nu|û| that censure a negative view of the poor and of poverty—a view based on social discrimination, which was rampant in the ignorant pre-Islamic Arab communities. Allah says, quoting the Makkan polytheists:

And they said: Why was this Quran not sent down upon a great man from [one of] the two [leading] cities, so that we could be sure of its truth? (Sûrat Al-Zukhruf, 43:31).

There is also the divine response to the proposal which the Arab elite made to the Prophet œ, namely, that he devote himself in his divine address to two separate audiences, one for the rich and another for the poor. Allah instructed the Prophet œ, in answer to this:

Rather, keep yourself patient in the company of those humble believers who call upon their Lord with devotion in the morning and in the evening, desiring only His Face. Nor shall you turn your eyes from the likes of them, desiring the adornment of the life of this world. Nor shall you obey the dictates of anyone whose heart We have rendered heedless of Our remembrance, who thus follows his whims, and whose disposition is ever reckless in disregard of the truth (Sûrat Al-Kahf, 18:28).

There are also the nu|û|, or Revealed Texts, that consolidate a positive, equality-based view of poverty and the poor, and present actions—not material possession—as the best and soundest criterion for determining people’s worth. Again Allah states:

And, indeed, the noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the most God-fearing of you (Surat Al-Hujurât, 49:13).

Moreover, the Prophet œ said:

People may look down upon a disheveled, dust-covered, rag-clad person, when [the reality is that] he is so very honorable in the sight of Allah that were he to swear that Allah shall do a certain thing, Allah would defer to his request.

There are numerous a^âdîth in which the Prophet œ calls upon whomever truly loves Allah to love the poor and show them kindness.

  The Prophet œ said: O ¢Âishah! Love the poor and be among them, so that Allah draws you near to Him on the Day of Judgment.

  On the authority of Abû Dharr: My intimate friend (that is, the Prophet œ) advised me to not look up to those who are above me, and to look instead to those who are beneath me. He also encouraged me to love the poor and to mix with them (>abarânî, and Ibn ±ibbân).

  The Prophet œ wished to live and die a poor man: O Allah! Make me live a poor man and die a poor man and include me in the company of the poor on the Day of Judgment. When the Companions l asked why he made such a supplication, he answered: The poor enter the Garden forty years ahead of the rich.

It is common knowledge that the Prophet œ lived a poor life.

¢Âishah said: Ever since they arrived in Madinah, the Prophet œ and his household never ate their fill of wheat bread for three successive days. Sometimes two months would pass without a fire being lit (for cooking) in the Household of Allah’s Messenger.


The First Application: The Governing Authority’s Responsibility to Alleviate Poverty from Society—and Available Mechanisms

Islam puts the weighty force of divine rule and inspirational exhortation into its core moral value of supporting the poor. It does this by providing specific communal and individual mechanisms that oblige paying the poor their due right in the wealth of the community and in the wealth of the individual.

Islam, moreover, defines wealth as any surplus that rises to a relative amount—for a sustained time—over and beyond the ordinarily recurring basic needs for oneself and one’s dependents. It also sets up a hierarchy of the needy to which the governing authority and the individual must give:

Therefore, you shall give to the close relative his every due right [with kindness]. And [you shall give due charity] to the indigent and the wayfarer. That is best for all those who desire only the Face of God. For it is these who are the truly successful (Sûrat Al-Rûm, 30:38).

In addition, it exhorts the believer to give in charity from one’s good earnings and healthful provision:

O you who believe! Spend [charitably] from the wholesome things you have earned and from all that We have brought forth for you from the earth. Thus do not target what is vile to spend from it [in charity], though you yourselves would not take it, without closing your eyes to [accept] it. And know that God is self-sufficient, all-praised (Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:267)

The charitable substance too, has a hierarchy, which itself has determinative implications for the believer. One must give, not just anything, as seen from the above verse of Sûrat Al-Baqarah, but rather from what one him- or herself truly desires:

You [believers] shall never attain to [the highest] virtue [of faith] until you spend in charity from that which you love. And anything you spend, indeed, God is all-knowing of it (Sûrat Âl ¢Imrân, 3:92).

The culmination of this best-of-charity and best-of-giving arises in the example of the An|âr of Madinah in their care and reception of the Makkan Émigrés l. Allah highly lauds their spirit as the epitome of giving for all believers for all time. Thus from it, He enunciates a universal spiritual principle, the attainment of which humanity is ever to strive for:

Rather, they give them preference over their own selves—even when they themselves are in pressing need. And whoever is safeguarded from the avarice of his own soul—then it is these who are the truly successful (Sûrat Al-±ashr, 59:9).

Any authority that governs in accordance with Islam has the care of the poor as a primary task in behalf of the Ummah. As such, Allah gives it obligations and mechanisms by which it may fulfill its social mission.

Zakât: Allah said: “Zakah expenditures are only for the poor and for the needy and for those employed to collect [zakah] and for bringing hearts together [for Islam] and for freeing captives [or slaves] and for those in debt and for the cause of Allah and for the [stranded] traveler –an obligation [imposed] by Allah. And Allah is Knowing and Wise” (Sûrat Al-Tawbah, 9:60).

Public Assistance: On the authority of Abu Hurayrah who quoted the Prophet as saying: According to the Book of Allah, I have the best title to the guardianship of believers. So if anyone of you die leaving behind a debt or poor dependents, let me know and I will act as his guardian  (Muslim).

Stipends (¢Aâ’): ¢Umar ibn Al-Kha~~âb said: “By Allah! No one individual is more entitled to these public funds than another, and there is none save that he has a share in these public funds, whether I have given him of them or not. I will apportion monetary allowances to people according to their endeavors in furthering the cause of Allah and according to their needs. And by Allah! If I am to live, I shall make sure every person—even the shepherd in the desert—gets his rightful share of the public funds.”

Public Loans: Ibn ¢Âbdîn narrates in his Hashiyât Ibn ¢Âbdîn from Abû Yûsuf (Abû ±anifah’s student-associate and author of Al-Kharâj, or Property Tax): “The one who does not have the financial means to cultivate his kharâjî  (taxable) land [that is, land on which kharâj “property tax” is leviable] should be granted a loan from the public treasury to enable him to cultivate his land.”

Independent of the responsibilities of communal authorities that govern according to the rules set by Revelation, Allah variously obliges and exhorts the Muslim individual to uphold the needy of society, in all the forms in which they appear. Zakât and mandatory |adaqah remain in effect on Muslims whether they are a part of a legitimate Muslim polity with functional governance structures or not. In addition, Allah provides multiple, broad avenues to His blessings and forgiveness, and greatly inspires the believer to avail him- or herself of them before there comes a Day [Hereafter] in which there shall be no gainful trade nor availing friendship (Sûrat Ibrâhîm, 14:31).

The Second Application: Poverty Alleviating Mechanisms Performed by the Individuals of the Community.

Voluntary charitable donations (adaqât): Allah states: So fear Allah as much as you can [O believers]. Thus, hear and obey [His Commandments]. And spend charitably on what is good for your own souls. For whoever is safeguarded from the avarice of his own soul—then it is these who are the truly successful (Sûrat Al-Taghâbun, 64:16).

Sponsoring orphans and widows: The Prophet œ said: I and the sponsor of the orphan shall be like this in the Garden of Paradise (he said the word “this” and raised up his index and middle fingers touching together [indicating closeness] (Bukhârî and Muslim).

On the authority of Abû Hurayrah, who quoted the Prophet œ as saying: The one who caters to the needs of widows and the poor is entitled to a divine reward (hasanah) equal to that of a warrior in the cause of Allah, or that of an ardent worshipper who fasts by day and prays by night (Bukhârî and Muslim).

Atonements (kaffârât): Allah states: Allah will not hold you accountable for unintended vows in your oaths. But He will hold you accountable for what you have [intentionally] bound yourselves to by oaths, the atonement of which is feeding ten indigent people with the average of what you feed your own families; or clothing them; or freeing a human being from bondage (Sûrat Al-Mâ’idah, 5:89).

Endowments in perpetuity for the poor (Awqâf): The waqf emerged as a practical translation of the advisement of the Prophet œ: “When a Child of Adam dies, all his deeds are severed save of three kinds: A charity in perpetuity (|adaqah jâri’ah) [a charitable endowment from which the entitled continue to benefit]; [preserved] knowledge from which benefit is derived; and a righteous child who prays for one. (Tirmidhî).


From the foregoing, it is clear that Islam leaves no loopholes, social or spiritual, in man’s moral obligation to pay the poor their due right out of whatever Allah has vouchsafed the believer and his community.

From this point of view, this core moral value of Islam—unlike all that we now experience and witness regarding the plight of the downtrodden poor under the enlightenment-bragging, synthetic ideologies in whose shadows we live—is absolutely structural on both the macro and micro levels of the believing society.

With sweeping and unambiguous injunction, Islam indelibly and irrevocably enfranchises the poor in the truly believing society. In fact, one may argue, the poor are a society’s existential proof and confirmation of its stated witness to belief in the One God and His Messenger Muhammad œ.


For the obligation, inspiration, and testimony to true belief that support for the poor represents are conceptually deep-set in the mentality that Revelation builds. An unrivaled plethora of Islam’s Scriptural Texts underlines this believing mindset. And a kingdom of entrenched institutions divinely designed to uplift and protect the poor actualizes it—if indeed one is a true believer, and if, indeed, a society’s governance apparatus rules in the name of Allah.

If it is a place to begin the reformation of human civil society that we seek, and the reestablishment of an honest, inspired, compassionate structural presence in a world harrowingly in need of new leadership, then look no further than your own needy relations; the orphan, refugee, and widow; the browbeaten and subjugated poor, hunger-ravaged, desolately homeless, and near-naked. They are everywhere, rupturing civil society in catastrophically alarming numbers.

Here let us begin. What say you, O believer?

Written By

Sabri Mohammed Khalil received his MA (Islamic Political Philosophy) in 1996, and his PhD (Islamic Values Philosophy) in 1999, from the University of Khartoum, Sudan, where he was head of the Philosophy Department from 2003 to 2006, and where he currently teaches “Islamic Values Philosophy.”

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