By Imam Murtadha Gusau
In the name of Allah, Most Merciful, the Bestower of Mercy
All praise is due to Allah, Lord of all creation, and may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon our Prophet Muhammad, his family and all his Companions.
Dear brothers and sisters, if you search Google Images for “greed,” you will encounter many depictions of rather pompous individuals – typically men – hoarding money. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “greed” as:
“A selfish and excessive desire for more of something than is needed.”
While Ragheb Isfahani defined greed as:
“The intensive desire for something.”
It is, of course, natural to seek pleasure and to pursue – actively – that which one perceives to be good and satisfying. Even those who give to the needy might do so, at least in part, because it gives them pleasure knowing they are helping others. But greed involves not just self-satisfaction, but selfishness. To quote Merriam-Webster again, to be selfish is to be:
“Concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself … without regard for others.”
Of course, the antithesis of this self-centeredness is that ever-familiar Golden Rule:
“Want for others what you want for yourself.”
Dear servants of Allah, the greed is an innate trait in humans causing a person to desire to possess Allah’s blessing entirely, and if others use this blessing, that person will become sad. When there is no greed trait in a man, the mental health is affected and she/he will suffer from mental instability. Therefore, this attribute accompanied with Islamic training method should be used to guide persons properly. It has been divided into two parts as the praised one and the reviled one by ethics scholars. The praised part leads to helping, fairly competing to perform necessities and charity, and eliminating unpleasant features; the reviled part is the root of many problems and difficulties, and the destruction of human benefits. This trait must be fought against and controlled; contentment and generosity are the cures for the reviled part.
Now let me begin the commentary on a grim note. In the 103rd Surah of the Qur’an (Surah al-‘Asr), we read:
“Truly humanity is in a state of loss.”
This stunning proclamation, however, is immediately followed by a critical qualification:
“Except those who keep the faith, do good, encourage one another to stand for the truth, and encourage one another to be patient and perseverant.”
Notice the wording here: to “encourage one another” to stand for the truth and be patient. I cannot simply focus on myself. I must be cognisant of and concerned with others. The Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) is quoted as saying:
“None of you truly believes until [you wish] for [your] brother what [you] wish for [yourself].”
And according to even the rather conservative medieval Muslim scholar, Imam al-Nawawi, this refers to all of humanity, and not just Muslims.
But let’s return to that grim line, “Humanity is in a state of loss.” Although Islamic scripture insists that each human is born free of sin, it also presents this world as a series of tests – a world where one must be active and swim upstream, as it were, in order to resist the downward pull of temptation. The earliest revelations of the Qur’an – the short revelations first revealed in the city of Makkah, and the ones typically taught to Muslim children – are replete with warnings of the harms of not material wealth necessarily, but material greed. Consider the following examples:
The 102nd Surah of the Qur’an, (Surah al-Takathur), opens with the proclamation:
“Vying for increase distracts you, until you visit the graves.”
In the 104th Surah (Surah al-Humazah), we read:
“Woe unto every slandering backbiter, who amasses wealth and tallies it, supposing that his wealth makes him immortal.”
And along these lines, the 107th Surah (Surah al-Ma’un) reads as follows:
“Have you not seen the one who denies religion? That is the one who drives away the orphan, and does not urge feeding the poor. So woe to the worshippers who are heedless of their prayers, those who strive to be seen, yet refuse to supply even neighbourly needs.”
In other words, material greed is an omnipresent temptation that terminates only at death. The antidote, according to a Prophetic report, is to foster a sense of contentment. The Prophet (Peace be upon him) says:
“The most enviable of my friends is a believer with little property who finds pleasure in prayer, who performs the worship of his Lord well, who obeys Him in secret, who is obscure among people, who is not pointed out by people, and who is content with his provision.” [Sunan al-Tirmidhi]
These notions of humility and contentment are of course not unique to Islam. So what do we make, then, of the modern ethos that “greed is good” because it drives individuals to compete aggressively in a free market, thereby benefitting society at large through the introduction of creative and useful ideas, services, and institutions?
Here we have to be very careful. We first have to ask, what exactly we mean by “greed.” If we mean simply the active pursuit of wealth, that need not be selfish per se. As the 19th century English economist Alfred Marshall would have it:
“Love of money” encompasses “an infinite variety of motives,” which “include many of the highest, the most refined, and the most unselfish elements of our nature.”
Indeed, one could seek wealth for the purpose of helping others.
In fact, in the context of Islam, there is at least one well-known Prophetic report that indicates that it is better to work hard to attain wealth and give to those in need than to choose simply not to work. In this case, striving to attain wealth is not a distraction from the path of Allah, but rather an enhancement of faith.
What is unanimously regarded as a distraction is the selfish pursuit of wealth, at the expense of others, and ignoring those in need. This is the greed stated in Merriam-Webster. And even if this selfish form of greed benefits society in some way, directly or indirectly, one obvious lesson we glean from Islamic and other traditions is that the ends do not justify vile means.
And perhaps some of us moderns are overestimating the benefits of greed and downplaying its harms. Consider a recent study by, among other researchers, Michael Norton of Harvard Business School. According to Norton’s study, when certain people act selfishly, they inspire others to act selfishly. What we’re left with is a vicious, destructive cycle.
Earlier I referenced the 103rd Surah of the Qur’an. That Surah is called al-‘Asr, which could be translated as “time.” A major theme of the Qur’an is that, in time, all will be made right, people will no longer be deluded, they will, in the end, recognise the reality behind the material world, and the truth will be made manifest. This, of course, is a popular theme, as characterised by Shakespeare:
“Time’s glory is to calm contending kings, To unmask falsehood and bring truth to light, To stamp the seal of time in aged things, to wake the morn and sentinel the night, To wrong the wronger till he render right, To ruinate proud buildings with thy hours, And to smear with dust their glittering golden towers.”
Many writers representing many cultures seem to be in agreement that material greed reflects not only self-centeredness but also delusion. So where do we go from here?
The desire for more and more of the good things in life is part of human nature. But in the Qur’an and other scriptures and sources, we are challenged: we are told not to self-indulge, but rather, to “hasten to do good.” And here one is reminded of the words of the famous Sufi Rabi’ah Adawiyyah:
“Lord, if I worship you in fear of hell, burn me in it. And if I worship you in hope of paradise, keep me from it. But if I worship you for your own being, don’t withhold from me your everlasting beauty.”
Respected brothers and sisters, our religion (Islam) teaches us to beware of greed, as it will cause our downfall and destruction. We read in a Hadith our beloved Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) said:
“Beware of greed, for it was only greed that destroyed those before you. It commanded them to be miserly and they did so. It commanded them to sever their family ties and they did so. It commanded them to behave wickedly and they did so.” [Sunan Abi Dawud]
We learn from this Hadith how detrimental greed is for us, our lives and our faith. It causes us not to be generous with what we have been blessed with and it can even cause us to have problems with those close to us.
We read in another Hadith that Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) said:
“Spend in charity and do not count it, lest Allah count it against you. Do not hoard it, lest Allah withhold from you.” [Bukhari and Muslim]
Therefore, we should try our best to be generous and avoid being greedy.
Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) feared that we would be wealthy. This should really make us reflect on our lives and understand that wealth and greed can really cause us to become too attached to worldly things and take us away from our faith (iman). We read in a Hadith that Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) said:
“I do not fear poverty for you, rather I fear that you will compete for riches. I do not fear for your mistakes, rather I fear for what you do on purpose.” [Musnad Ahmad]
My people, generosity will only bring about good for us in this life and in the Hereafter. If we try to live our lives in a way that is considerate of those around us and with a caring mentality, Allah will reward us. We read in a Hadith:
“Generosity is near to Allah, near to Paradise, near to the people, and far from the Hellfire. Miserliness is far from Allah, far from Paradise, far from the people, and near to the Hellfire. An ignorant generous person is more beloved to Allah Almighty than a stingy scholar.” [Sunan al-Tirmidhi]
Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) also spoke about greed and luxury in another Hadith, saying:
“Beware of luxury. Verily, the servants of Allah do not live luxuriously.” [Musnad Ahmad]
We should learn from this that although it is easy to become consumed by the materialism of the world we live in, it really is not good for us. Luxury will not bring about our nearness to Allah.
We know that greed is very easy to fall into, as Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) said:
“If the son of Adam had a valley full of gold, he would want to have two valleys. Nothing fills his mouth but the dust of the grave, yet Allah will relent to whoever repents to him.” [Bukhari and Muslim]
This shows us that we must be very careful not to have greed in our hearts. We should remember that Allah rewards us for our efforts to avoid what is displeasing to Him.
Greed is something we should avoid not only in terms of money and wealth but also with food. We read in a Hadith:
“The son of Adam cannot fill a vessel worse than his stomach, as it is enough for him to take a few bites to straighten his back. If he cannot do it, then he may fill it with a third of his food, a third of his drink, and a third of his breath.” [Sunan al-Tirmidhi]
Whenever we strive to do something good, we must remember that it is the tests and trials that will help us to develop our Iman (faith). Greed was written to be a trial for us, so we should be mindful about this. We read in a Hadith that Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) said:
“Verily, every nation has a trial, and the trial of my nation is wealth.” [Sunan al-Tirmidhi]
Anas reported that: The Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him) said:
“The son of Adam grows old but remains young in two matters: greed for wealth and greed for long life.” [Muslim]
Abu Hurairah (RA) reported that: Umar Ibn al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, used to say to people in his sermons:
“Those among you have succeeded who are protected from whims, greed, and anger. There is no good in anything less than truthful speech.” [al-Zuhd li-Abi Dawud]
Abdullah Ibn Amr narrated that the Prophet (Peace be upon him) said:
“Beware of greed for indeed greed destroyed those who came before you. It ordered them to cut off ties of relationship so they cut off ties of relationship, and it ordered them to be miserly so they were miserly, and it ordered them to commit sins so they committed sins.” [Abu Dawud]
The Prophet (Peace be upon him) said:
“Every nation has its fitnah and the fitnah of my ummah is wealth.” [Al-Tirmidhi]
May Allah send His Salah and Salam upon our noble Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him).
And all praises and thanks are due to Allah alone, Lord of the worlds. May the peace, blessings and salutations of Allah be upon our noble Messenger, Muhammad, and upon his family, his Companions and his true and sincere followers.
May Allah grant us the opportunity to witness this coming month of Ramadan in good health, ameen.
Murtadha Muhammad Gusau is the Chief Imam of Nagazi-Uvete Jumu’ah and the late Alhaji Abdur-Rahman Okene’s Mosques, Okene, Kogi State, Nigeria. He can be reached via: [email protected] or +2348038289761.
This Jumu’ah Khutbah (Friday sermon) was prepared for delivery today, Friday, Sha’aban 05, 1442 AH (March 19, 2021).