Tafsir Zone - Surah 4: an-Nisa' (Women )

Tafsir Zone

Surah an-Nisa' 4:29

Overview (Verse 29)

Which Transactions Are Lawful
Believers, do not devour each other’s wealth illegally, unless it be through trade which you conduct by mutual consent. Do not kill yourselves, for God is merciful to you. (Verse 29)

This passage begins with a prohibition against illegally devouring other people’s money, explaining that it is only through trade that people may gain money from one another. Illegal gains are described as killing oneself and as utter loss. This is coupled with a warning against incurring punishment in the hereafter as well as a comforting touch in the form of a promise of forgiveness and assured help. The passage also emphasises that people must not covet what others may have. They should instead ask God to give them what they wish, for He is the One who gives in abundance. These directives come side by side with the establishment of the rights of earning and ownership to both man and woman. At this point, the Qur’ān stresses that God is aware of all things. Instructions given with regard to contracts of allegiance stressing the duty to fulfil these contracts and pledges are followed with a statement that God witnesses everything. Both statements of God’s knowledge leave very strong impressions on us. They come, after all, from God, who is well aware of man’s constitution and what influences his attitude.
The passage begins with an address to believers prohibiting all forms of illegal gain and profit. This suggests that what follows aims at the eradication of traces of past, ignorant life from Islamic society. When Muslims are addressed by God as believers, the address serves as a reminder of what faith entails.
What we have here is a prohibition on devouring one another’s wealth illegally. This includes all forms of financial transactions that God has not sanctioned or has forbidden, such as cheating, bribery, gambling, monopoly, hoarding of essential goods and all forbidden forms of trade, particularly usury. We are not certain whether this verse was revealed before or after usury, in all its forms, was outlawed. If it preceded that, then it serves as a preliminary prohibition for usury as the worst form of devouring other people’s wealth illegally. Alternatively, if this verse was revealed after the prohibition of usury, then it includes usury as an illegal form of financial transaction.
An exception is made of commercial transactions whereby the buyer and seller enter into these willingly: “Believers, do not devour each other’s wealth illegally, unless it be through trade which you conduct by mutual consent.” (Verse 29) Linguistically speaking, this is a special way of making an exception. It means that if a commercial transaction is conducted by mutual consent, then it is not included in the prohibition. The way that this is expressed in the Qur’ān suggests that there is an element of confusion that combines it with other dealings, described as the illegal devouring of other people’s money. We can understand this better if we remind ourselves of the Qur’ānic verses which prohibit usury in Sūrah 2, The Cow. We commented on these verses at length in Volume I, pp. 355-71. These verses quote usurers objecting to the prohibition of all usury, claiming that “trade is just the same as usury”. (2: 275) God replies to them in the same verse, explaining: “but God has made trade lawful and usury forbidden”. In defence of their accursed system, usurers were guilty of deliberate misrepresentation by claiming that trade which results in a profit produces an increase of the trader’s money in the same way as usury, which also increases the usurer’s money. Hence their claim that it was wrong to outlaw usury while making trade lawful.
The fact is that a great gulf separates ordinary trade transactions and usurious dealings. There is also a great difference between the benefits trade generates to people and the destructive effects brought about by usury.
Trade is a useful medium that brings commodities to consumers. Thus, it is a marketing service providing the motivation to improve goods and commodities and to make them available to the consumer. It is a service to both producer and consumer, which results in a profit gained by the trader. Skill and effort are essential for the gain to be made. A trader runs the risk of loss as also the prospect of profit.
None of these benefits can be attributed to usury. Usury places a heavy burden on industry, in the shape of interest, which is added to the cost of commodities. It also burdens the trader and consumer with the payment of interest paid by producers. As occurred when the capitalist system managed to gather strength, the usury system imposes a certain direction on industry and investment which does not take into account the interests of industry itself or of the consumers. The first priority is given to an increase in profits so that interest on loans can be paid. No objection is raised even when priority is given to the production of luxury goods, even though the majority of people cannot meet their basic needs. No objection is heard even when large investments are devoted to projects aiming at the illegal satisfaction of lust. The destructive effects of all this on society are not even considered. Additionally, there is the element of ever-continuing profit given to capital, which runs no risk of loss and does not rely on skill or effort which are necessary for trade. The indictment of the usurious system has many more elements, all of which demand the death sentence for this system. Islam issued this sentence long ago.
It is this type of confusion between usury and trade which necessitated this clarification to be made in the form of an exception, stated in the Qur’ānic verse as: “Believers, do not devour each other’s wealth illegally, unless it be through trade which you conduct by mutual consent.” (Verse 29)
The verse ends with a startling comment: “Do not kill yourselves, for God is merciful to you.” (Verse 29) This is how the Qur’ān comments on devouring one another’s money illegally. It suggests that such practices have a highly destructive effect on society. It is indeed a crime, which amounts to murder. God forbids the believers to practise it because He is so merciful to them.
It is indeed the crime of suicide. Every time the practices of devouring other people’s money illegally, such as usury, cheating, gambling, monopoly, hoarding, embezzlement, bribery, theft, and the selling of un-sellable things such as honour, honesty, and moral and religious values, spread within a community, then that community is sentenced to inevitable self-destruction. Such practices have always been rampant in ignorant societies, old and modern alike. God wants to spare the believers this type of self-destruction and lighten their load. He aims to save them from their weaknesses, for these are bound to destroy them whenever they follow the dictates of lust in preference to His directives.