Lecture by Shaykh HamzaYusuf | Transcribed by Anonymous
[The following is the video and transcript of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s lecture entitled ‘Fair Trade Commerce for a Better World.’ The transcript includes slight modifications for the sake of readability and clarity].
All praise be to Allah . I’d like to thank Allah for the blessing of all the angels that come with all of you. You brought angels into this arena and insha’Allah Allah will let us taste some of the pleasure of angelic presence.
Alhamdullilah, what I wanted to talk about was fair trade, and extending that meaning beyond the confines that have defined it in the dominant western discourse. The Qur’an tells us not to consume “wa la ta’qul nasi bi batili”. Don’t consume the wealth of people falsely, unjustly, vainly. Batil is everything that is empty, it’s what’s not good. So it’s the opposite of haqq, which is truthfulness, sincerity, reality, what is real. So it says don’t consume the wealth of people unjustly. “takuna tijaratan aow Ila tijaratun an taraadin minkum,” let your trade only be trade that is mutually content. In other words, each side is content with the actual event of trade and commerce. This is an incredibly important point, all of the Qur’an is important but this verse is so central to what’s happening right now globally, and why we’re seeing so much turmoil in what are called the markets.
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These global markets, where wealth is consumed unjustly. People’s wealth is stolen, misappropriated, given to people without the right accountability. And this is happening in many many places. And so Allah tells us that “tejarat”, commerce should be fair. In other words, each side should be pleased with the event that’s happened, that’s transpired. Allah also says in Surah Rahman, “wa wada’al meezan, al-laa tatghow fil meezan”. He placed a balance, scales, that you not transgress the balance. Historically, our scholars identified these verses that are between the heavens and the earth. They’re between, if you look at Surah Rahman, it opens with heavenly, celestial discourse, and then it talks about this balance and then it goes, “wal ardha wada’a ha lil anaam” and we placed the earth for all living things but between those is the balance. This refers to all types of balance. Allah has given an economic balance, and this is historically how they understood it, the prohibition of cheating people in the marketplace, which is related to this balance between the celestial and the terrestrial. And Allah reminds us that the earth was placed for all creatures, al-anaam are all living creatures. It’s not just the human beings. Some of the commentators say “an’aam” comes from “nowm” which is all things that sleep, because sleep is the gentle tyrant. It’s what Allah has given us to remind us that He is “Qaahirun fawqa ibadihi,” that Allah is overpowering, overwhelming His servants. The fact that we have to sleep at the end of the day, and our lives are rounded by this little sleep.
So the idea of just commerce and balance is very important in the Quran. Historically in the marketplace -and this is unfortunately no longer the case because of digital scales- but historically you had scales in the marketplace, so people could actually see the justice. If you bought a pound of fruit, the merchant would put a pound weight on the scale, and then he would place the fruit on the other. And in Islamic tradition they used to always tip the scales to be on the side of the buyer, not on the side of the merchant, because the Prophet (saw) said may God have mercy on a man or a woman, who is forbearing, who is forgiving, who is generous, when they sell or when they buy. And I’ve seen this many times when I was in Fez or places in Morocco, they would do this. They would tip the scale, they’d put an extra date to tip the scale, just to show that you’re getting the extra, because they wanted that ziyada, that extra, of ihsaan.
We’re living in a time of incredible economic injustice and that injustice is because we have an unjust economic system. Economics now has become a necessary science to understand. You have to understand the basics of economics to be living on the planet that we’re living in, because it’s affecting all of us. It’s affecting our lives. We have to understand the false dialectic that’s been created between the so called Keynesian and monetarist. This left/right dialectic, as if there’s no other alternative to these two approaches to economics because the Muslims have an alternative, but unfortunately we’ve been absent from the discourse. Even though much of what is beneficial in western commerce came out of transacting with the Muslims. In fact, “average” is from an Arabic word, because merchants they used to say, and you can look this up in chambers etymological dictionary or google it. Average is an Arabic word because merchants used to have a type of takaful, when they would send a ship with goods, and if goods were destroyed, a portion of the goods were destroyed, they would take an average and all the merchants would share in it. It was a type of insurance. So this came, ta’reef, tariff, is from the Muslims because we forget that our religion is a religion of commerce. I reflected deeply at one point when I was studying the seerah, why the Prophet would be a merchant before he was a prophet. Why was he a merchant? Because Allah could have made him many things, but he made him two things: he made him a shepherd in his youth, and he made him a merchant in his adult manhood. He made him a shepherd because all prophets are shepherds because the essence of being a prophet is caring for a flock, it’s caring for people in a way that the shepherd does not want any harm to come to the flock. And who does the shepherd guard the flock from? The wolf. The wolf.
The reason, I believe, the reason that the Prophet was chosen to be a merchant was because the merchant is the most beneficial human being in human society. There’s no one more beneficial to human society than a merchant. Everything, the chairs that you’re sitting on are from commerce, the clothes that you’re wearing are from commerce. The glasses that you’re looking through if you’re looking through glasses, are from commerce. The fillings in your teeth are from commerce. The medication that is keeping your blood pressure low right now is from commerce. Everything that is beneficial to the material wellbeing of the human being is from commerce. But there’s another secret in commerce. Commerce teaches you good character, because the most successful merchants are the ones with the best character. You go back to people who treat you well, and that’s why historically they used to say ‘customer is king.’ The customer is always right. A merchant shouldn’t get angry because even if the person buying from him is making him angry, he’ll lose the sale if he starts getting angry because the person will just walk, walk out. And so it actually creates good character. Tahleebul nafs. Akhlaq. “Wa innaka ala khuluqal adheem” – you’re on a vast ethos, .
But the other thing about commerce is, if you want your commerce to be successful, you have to be trustworthy. That is the essential characteristic of commerce, trustworthiness. If you give your word, you stand by it. If you write a note, you fulfill it. If you promise goods on a certain day, you fulfill that. And if you don’t, people stop doing business with you. The Prophet before Islam was known as al-Amin, the Trustworthy. He was known as al-Amin because he was the most trustworthy of merchants. People knew that if you gave him your money, not only did you get it back, but you got it back with great benefit. Khadijah never had anybody that transacted with her money like the messenger of Allah and should we be surprised? And when she sent Maysara out with him, and all the people around him have beautiful names, like Maysara, and Umm Baraka, Baraka, Ummu Ayman, Haleema as’Sa’diya, they all have beautiful names, all the people that raised him and nurtured him. So he’s with Maysara, the place of ease, the one who makes things easy, and Maysara noted all these things about the Prophet and informed Khadijah [but Khadijah had insight into who he was before anyone else, which is why she’s Khadijatil Kubra . Her name Khadijah is from khidaaj, which is like naaaqis. It’s used in the Arabs would, if a child was born early, they would be thin and skinny, they would call them Khadijah. But she’s also naaqis until the Prophet completes her. Khadeja al-Kubra was a merchant and she used her wealth for the sake of Allah . Abu Bakr was a merchant. He used his wealth for the sake of Allah . Umar. All of these people, look at them. The people around the Prophet , the Qureish were the great merchants of the Arabian Peninsula. But he went to the people of agriculture, because these are the two forces in the world, agriculture and commerce, these are the things that make the world go round, they’re what enable us to survive and they’re in our original story, is all of the human condition. Everything is there in that original extraordinary story of the messenger of Allah .
The prophet told of principles of commerce. One of the principles that he taught, , was that the truthful merchant is with martyrs on the Day of Judgment. The ulema say that it’s because of the rarity of a real merchant. Imam al-Awzai once was in Beirut, and he passed by an onion seller and the onion seller was saying, onions sweeter than honey, and Imam al-Awzai said to him, do you think it’s permissible to lie about something like that? That’s called advertising. Don’t think advertising is some new thing. Arabs were marketing a long time ago, they used to market with poetry. Now we have jingles plop plop, fizz fizz, oh what a relief it is. The Arabs had jingles as well, right. I wish I could get that part of my brain back, that that got lodged into. But they’re very good, these jingle makers. Jingle bells. They used to advertise, but truthfulness is important. The Muhtasib, which is like the ombudsman, it’s the person that goes into the marketplace for quality assurance. It’s a person that is an interface between those who regulate the weights and those who are weighing in the scales in the marketplace. Umar appointed Shafa or Shifa as the muhtasiba during his time. She used to go in the marketplace with a stick and she would turn over fruit to make sure the good fruit was not on the top and the bad fruit on the bottom. If you go into a store now you will get your strawberries. They have all the big ones on the top and then the tiny ones on the bottom. That’s not by mistake. But it’s a type of “ghish”, because you buy the big ones and then when you open the package you get all the little ones one the bottom. Although little ones can be better than big ones. So this is what the muhtasib did. The hisba is part of our tradition, having quality assurance in the marketplace. This is part of the Islamic tradition and we forget this.
Now one of the things that is very striking about our age is the incredible disparities between the north and the south. The north and the south, and this is something that was pointed out in the seventies by Brant in Germany, he wrote a book about this. So this is, this has been going on for a long time but people in the west, the best of the people, Ulul Baqiyya, those people that are still on virtuous tradition from their ancestors, these people are very concerned about these disparities. Canada is one of the countries that has a real concern. Many of the best countries in the world, if you look at them today, that have the highest social indices in the world have a great concern about social justice. Not just in their own countries but in other places.
And so what happened, you had a movement that began from a Mennonite Christian woman and the Mennonite community is a strong community in Canada. She went to Puerto Rico and she witnessed the types of social disparity, and it troubled her and she wanted to help. And so she thought of bringing goods paying good prices, just prices to people in Puerto Rico and importing those goods into these countries like United States and Canada. And this was the beginning of the fair trade movement.
CNN recently reported from a website that was supported by, was actually a state department funded project that the average American has, and this would obviously be very difficult to work out. But it’s interesting to think about. The average American has 59 slaves working for them around the world. 59. In other words, your lifestyle is based, our lifestyle, not yours, I’m putting myself in there too. Our lifestyle is based on the suffering of other people because, for instance, and I’ve stopped eating chocolate for this reason, when I found out, and you can see the film on this. There’s a documentary that was done on it, on the child labor in harvesting cocoa, that 70% of cocoa on this planet is harvested by child labor. And so when you’re eating that chocolate, your pleasure is somebody else’s pain. And if you don’t think that’s having an impact on your being, then you have to wonder why everybody’s on Prozac in these countries. Why are people so depressed? They’re depressed because, because much of what we’re enjoying, the fruits of our cheap lifestyles, of our cheap gasoline, of our cheap clothes, of our cheap shoes, all of these things, the Walmart world of cheap goods is based on exploited labor from other places. Not only is that exploited labor the pain and suffering of other people but its direct result is the unemployment that’s happening all over these western countries. They’re losing their jobs because they’re going to Walmart and buying something that’s made in Indonesia with labor laws that don’t exist, often in incredibly difficult conditions, people working in factories that are really subhuman, and they will buy that instead of buying something that was made by somebody in their own town. There used to be people that made shoes, Americans and Canadians and these other places, they actually used to produce things. That’s no longer the case. But it’s not fair because it’s based on the exploitation of other peoples. And we have to deal with the fact that this is the life that we’re living.
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