Islam and Trade: Can Ulema be Merchants?

Farah Adeed discusses Maulana Tariq Jamil’s decision to launch a clothing brand titled MTJ. He deals with an important question: does Islam allow ulema to become traders? The early history of Muslims and their great civilization from the eighth to eleventh centuries reveals some interesting facts, he argues. Read an informative and interesting op-ed.

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“O ye who believe! Squander not your wealth among yourselves in vanity, except it be a trade by mutual consent, and kill not one another. Lo! Allah is ever Merciful unto you.”The Holy Quran, 4: 29.

Maulana Tariq Jamil, a well-known religious scholar, has started a clothing brand titled MTJ. As the news went viral, Maulana shared a video message on his official Instagram account to explain the reason behind launching a clothing brand. “I always wanted to run the madrassa without using zakat money. But I couldn’t find enough resources for it. So, when the pandemic happened, the Almighty put this thought in my head to start a business and use that money to run the Islamic institutions. That was my intention and a few of my friends collaborated with me. Hence, we launched a brand with my name,” Maulana said.

Maulana’s critics, some of his followers and a few self-styled liberals not only criticized the idea of launching a clothing brand but also mocked him. The main criticism has been about his sermons where he always professes simplicity and humility. If Islam promotes simplicity then why would he need to launch a brand, his critics asked him on social media.

From an academic standpoint, the question should be: can Ulema be traders? Or does Islam allow ulema to become traders? This piece argues that popular discourse about Islam and its relationship with trade and commerce is not only ill-informed but also dangerously misleading.

Religious scholars are generally ‘expected’ to be anti-free market, anti-trade and anti-commerce in the contemporary Muslim world. Given the fact that their literalist interpretation of religion leaves little to no room for independent exercise of reason in other walks of life, they are supposed to be concerned about the life hereafter without any want to establish a business or launch a clothing brand. However, regardless of the ulema’s rigid interpretation of the holy Quran, the more important question is whether Islam allows ulema to trade or not.

Prophet Muhammad (P.B.H) and many of his close companions themselves were merchants. Many of his companions were well-known traders of their time. Hayyim J. Cohen’s analysis shows that, from the eighth to the mid-eleventh century, 72.5 percent of Islamic scholars or their families worked in commerce and/or industry. Interestingly, Imam Abu Hanifa (Rahmatullah alayh) was a silk merchant. Abu Hanfi’s student Shaybani emphasized that “the profession of the honest merchant, or indeed any trade, pleases God more than Government service.”

As a result of freedom of thought and socio-economic supremacy in the Muslim world almost 1000 years ago, Martin Kramer wrote that “had there been Nobel Prizes in 1000, they would have gone almost exclusively to Moslems.”

The pattern got changed in the eleventh century due to various structural changes and ulema become an alley of the political class. It was the beginning of the Muslim’s downfall, intellectual stagnation, and anti-intellectualism. Prior to the alliance, the Muslim world had philosophers and artists.

Professor Ahmet T. Kuru recently wrote an insightful book titled Islam Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison to explain the causes of Muslims’ inability to democratize and become part of the modern world. Professor Kuru’s chief argument is that underdevelopment and authoritarianism in the Muslim world are mainly due to a historic alliance between the religious (here meaning ulema) and political classes. “In early Islamic history, Islamic scholars’ independence from the state and the economic influence of merchants enabled the freedom of thought enjoyed by philosophers, a diverse group including not only Sunni and Shii Muslims, but also Christians, Jews, and agnostics,” argues Prof. Kuru.

Read More: How can Muslims stop living in history? GVS Exclusive Interview with Prof. Ahmet T. Kuru

Prof. Kuru further explains how ulema became servants of the state: “Under the Seljuks, while the military personnel controlled certain lands through the iqta system, the ulema, who taught in madrasas, began to benefit from some other lands through the waqf system. Moreover, a number of ulema served and were paid as state servants. These material incentives encouraged the ulema to legitimize the new economic order based on iqtas. Through Nizam al-Mulk’s policies on madrasas, waqfs, and iqtas, the ulema and the Seljuk military state formed an alliance.”

As a matter of principle, ulema should be encouraged and facilitated to trade or get involved in any type of economic activity which helps them earn independently. Economic independence is, as our own history reveals, a prerequisite for intellectual independence. Ulema’s participation in business would not only make them independent but also encourage every other fellow Muslim to be part of a larger economic system. One may disagree with Maulana Tariq Jamil’s interpretation of Islam, but he should be congratulated for setting up an independent business and inspiring his followers to become merchants.

Farah Adeed teaches politics and international relations at UMT. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s Editorial Policy.

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