This is another of the stories of prophets who were sent to deal with specific types of misconduct. This time it is not a sexual but an economic one that has a bearing on people’s life. Those people were cheating on others in measure and weight. This is how the Holy Quran speaks about them: “Woe to those that deal in fraud, Those who, when they have to receive by measure from men, exact full measure, but when they have to give by measure or weight to men, give less than due” (83: 1–3).
What distinguishes Shu’aib’s story and his dialogue with his people from Lot’s is that Shu’aib’s position within his people was far stronger than Lot’s. He came from a very powerful tribe. This had made his appeal to his people rather strong, yet tinged with friendliness. There was a divine air about it. He was trying to win them over to his side of the argument in an amicable way.
Shu’aib’s approach won him a great following among the oppressed and disenfranchised segments of his clan. With them he faced up to the arrogant, repressive, and rich elite among his people. This could be attributed to the nature of his message and the principles he came to spread. Tampering with measurements and weights is a kind of economic exploitation that is usually perpetrated by the rich and powerful who are, by and large, driven to such practices by egotism. Thus, they resort to taking advantage in what they sell or buy fraudulently, be it in measurement or in weight. Let us experience the atmosphere of the story of this reformist Prophet through the Quranic dialogue, which he conducted with the adversaries of his message:
To the people of Madyan We sent Shu’aib, one of their own brethren: he said: “O my people! Worship God; ye have no other god but Him. Now hath come unto you a clear (Sign) from your Lord! Give just measure and weight, nor withhold from the people the things that are their due; and do no mischief on the earth after it has been set in order: that will be best for you, if ye have Faith. And squat not on every road, breathing threats, hindering from the path of God those who believe in Him, and seeking in it something crooked; but remember how ye were little, and He gave you increase. And hold in your mind’s eye what was the end of those who did mischief. And if there is a party among you who believes in the message with which I have been sent, and a party which does not believe, hold yourselves in patience until God doth decide between us: for He is the best to decide.”
The leaders, the arrogant party among his people, said: “O Shu’aib! We shall certainly drive thee out of our city – (thee) and those who believe with thee; or else ye (thou and they) shall have to return to our ways and religion.” He said: “What! Even though we do detest (them)? We should indeed invent a lie against God, if we returned to your ways after God hath rescued us therefrom; nor could we by any manner of means return thereto unless it be as in the will and plan of God, Our Lord. Our Lord can reach out to the utmost recesses of things by His knowledge. In God is our trust. Our Lord! Decide Thou between us and our people in truth, for Thou art the best to decide.” The leaders, the unbelievers among his people, said: “If ye follow Shu’aib, be sure then ye are ruined!”
But the earthquake took them unawares, and they lay prostrate in their homes before the morning! The men who rejected Shu’aib became as if they had never been in the homes where they had flourished: the men who rejected Shu’aib – it was they who were ruined! So Shu’aib left them, saying: “O my people! I did indeed convey to you the messages for which I was sent by my Lord: I gave you good counsel, but how shall I lament over a people who refuse to believe!” (7: 85–93)
We now move from this dynamic scene and standoff to another where the style of dialogue between the prophet and the arrogant party is somewhat different, especially on the detailed aspect of the message and the challenges it faced:
They said: “O Shu’aib! Does thy (religion of) prayer command thee that we leave off the worship which our fathers practised, or that we leave off doing what we like with our property? Truly, thou art the one that forbeareth with faults and is right- minded!” He said: “O my people! See ye whether I have a Clear (Sign) from my Lord, and He hath given me sustenance (pure and) good as from Himself? I wish not, in opposition to you, to do that which I forbid you to do. I only desire (your) betterment to the best of my power; and my success (in my task) can only come from God. In Him I trust, and unto Him I look. And O my people! Let not my dissent (from you) cause you to sin, lest ye suffer a fate similar to that of the people of Noah or of Hud or of Saleh, nor are the people of Lot far off from you! But ask forgiveness of your Lord, and turn unto Him (in repentance): For my Lord is indeed full of mercy and loving-kindness.”
They said: “O Shu’aib! Much of what thou sayest we do not understand! In fact among us we see that thou hast no strength! Were it not for thy family, we should certainly have stoned thee! For thou hast among us no great position!” He said: “O my people! Is then my family of more consideration with you than God? For ye cast Him away behind your backs (with contempt). But verily my Lord encompasses on all sides all that ye do! And O my people! Do whatever ye can: I will do (my part): Soon will ye know who it is on whom descends the penalty of ignominy; and who is a liar! And watch ye! For I too am watching with you!” (11: 87–93)
In this dialogue, the following points become clear:
1. The crooked way
The issues Shu’aib (a.s.) had discussed should throw some light on his people’s conduct, especially in their business dealings with others. They sought to cheat people and sow sleaze in the land. They practiced all ways possible to turn away from the right path of God and intimidated others not to follow it, leading them astray.
2. Chauvinistic vs. ideological struggle
Shu’aib did not want to set off a struggle with his people on tribal lines, in that he kept his tribe outside the game. This would drag the struggle into self-centered issues and revive age-old enmities. He sought to rouse in them the desire to reflect on things, so that an honest and well-informed debate would ensue between the believers and unbelievers among his people, until God adjudicated in the matter, for He is the best of judges. Ideological debate is capable of yielding results for all parties, not least by finding new common ground to be shared by the antagonists.
3. Broken dialogue
Shu’aib’s people were not serious in engaging in serious debate with him on the issues he raised. Instead, they were poking fun at him and his religion/prayer, which prompted him to stand up against their going astray, especially for not relinquishing the ways they inherited from their forefathers and for doing with their property what they liked. They went on to be patronizing, in that they said he could not be serious because he was a wise and right-minded man who did not behave outside social norms, or could not do what would land him in trouble. They resorted to threatening Shu’aib’s followers to either abandon their new religion and go back to the fold or to face expulsion.
While rejecting all forms of intimidation and blackmail, Shu’aib cautioned them against God’s wrath. He reminded them of the fate of bygone peoples who chose to stand against the Messages of the prophets and how in the end they faced calamitous fate. While sparing no effort to sway the arrogant among his people from their antagonistic stance, he made it clear to them that he and his followers were not going to buckle under the pressure because their cause was not a personal one. Theirs was an issue of right and wrong, which have a bearing on both this life and the hereafter. Firm in the knowledge that they had been delivered from utter darkness that would have led to their annihilation, they were not for turning. Thus, they never contemplated any compromise whatsoever. Shu’aib was clear in his mind. That is why he did not entertain any thought of weakness or wavering. Yet, he never gave up on God’s support, beseeching Him to decide between the two sides for He is the best arbiter.
4. The right criterion
The declaration of the unbelievers that they would have stoned him had it not been for Shu’aib’s tribe, was an indication that his power base was a force to be reckoned with and that his tribe provided him with an insurance policy against the harm that would have otherwise befallen him. However, Shu’aib differed with them on that argument because he told them that they were mistaken, i.e. no matter how strong his tribe was it amounted to nothing before the might of the Almighty. He further explained that his tribe’s power was limited to the resources it owned, viz. human resources, wealth, or weapons, whereas God is Omnipotent. So, it was wiser that they should fear God’s might rather than Shu’aib’s own tribe. In the end, he threatened them with God’s punishment, which was nigh.
The unbelievers continued their campaign to sway the believers by arguing the issue on a profit-and-loss basis. Following Shu’aib would, according to their calculations, lead to material as well as moral loss. However, after punishment had been meted out, the Holy Quran makes it clear to the believers that loss was the lot of the unbelievers, who were the losers in both this world and the hereafter. As for the material as well as moral gain, there is no doubt which party garnered it.
5. Responsible, not irresponsible, freedoms
The unbelievers’ rejection of the legal provision that makes fraud illegal may be attributed to a mistaken belief, i.e. the absolute freedom of man over his property. That is, no law should encroach upon this freedom in any way. This was the main thrust of their vehement argument, “Or that we leave off doing what we like with our property?”
Yet, Shu’aib was faithful to the divine code, which recognizes freedom in the context of the public interest and what ensures for life its perfect equilibrium. Thus, in its drive to constrain or grant freedom, i.e. in decreeing what is permissible and what is not, the divine law seeks to make this balance prevail. Fraudulent practice, as that taken to by a group of Shu’aib’s people, was a kind of wily exploitation and transgression against people’s rights and a plundering of their property. This was bound to upset the equilibrium that religions have come to apply in society and people’s lives, in that all parties should be given their fair share when they deal with each other. That must be so, for it is in keeping with the doctrinal preponderance that regulates responsibilities and rights between people. That is, fraudulent practices were declared illicit to prevent corruption in the land.
All this leads us to conclude decisively against the calls propagating the doctrine of free market, which advocates freedom of any commercial activity, irrespective of whether it is detrimental to man’s welfare or not. It is evident that such doctrine has put in place the legal framework to protect the perpetrators of malpractices, be they political, economic, or social. Such practices are indulged into under the pretext of free trade, which is motivated primarily by profit and loss, away from any moral or humane considerations.
This is clearly manifest in modern capitalist ideology, which encourages and protects these practices under the semblance of economic freedom, which, according to its proponents, is one of the main pillars of the question of freedom in the world. This ideology has paved the way to the birth of colonialism, which enslaves peoples and exploits their natural resources, and turns them into consumer entities to buy its industrial products. It goes without saying that this malpractice would inevitably lead to perpetuating backwardness, ignorance, and superstitions. It would also lead the despotic powers to suppress harshly any inclinations to achieve political as well as economic liberation and independence.
A by-product of colonialism has been the sowing and perpetuating of religious, social, and regional differences and turning them into intractable armed conflicts, which are bound to sap the energy of those peoples and drain their resources. That, of course, is in an effort to produce and sell more arms to feed the appetites of the warring factions. This in turn is liable to make the politicians in the countries where conflicts are rife, natural clients for arms producing nations, just to keep the conflict alive and kicking whenever there was hope that these conflicts seem to be receding.
This dialogue rejects unequivocally economic freedom in its capitalist model, which is devoid of any moral or human considerations. Instead, it advocates that the wider human interests should govern financial freedom where equilibrium should rule supreme in life. Thus, its legislative principle, i.e. the wider human interest, is unvarying. That is, it is one, regardless of time and place.
At this juncture, we reckon it is imperative to remind many believers and Muslim activists, working in the cause of God, to be mindful of that delicate line that separates economic freedom, as it is expounded by capitalist ideology, from that espoused by Islam, in its legislation for private ownership and protecting it. Capitalism espouses the slogan of the people of Shu’aib, when they protested against his call not to do with their property whatever they wished on account of personal freedom. Whereas, Islam promotes the motto of Shu’aib, “I only desire (your) betterment to the best of my power”. “And do no mischief on the earth after it has been set in order.” That is, he believed in private ownership, provided that the owners did not seek with their wealth to corrupt both people and land, i.e. by squandering its resources. So, if wealth turns into a tool of corruption, Islam moves to constrain it forcefully so that life goes on, enjoying responsible, not irresponsible, freedom.
6. The great importance of economics
What should be gathered from the importance that Islam attaches to the story of Shu’aib (a.s.) is that the economic dimension had a great significance in the dynamism of the prophetic missions. It is so important that it has a priority over other domains of legislation, not least because of its relationship with the question of maintaining equilibrium in life.
In this light, we deem it necessary to remind Muslim activists to lend this subject a greater share of focus in their work. They have to put great emphasis on Islamic legislative aspects in order to give the right perspective of Islamic solutions to economic problems. In concert, they have to fight deliberately shady economic activity in all its facets, because the Holy Qur’an, in the story of Shu’aib, did not denounce his people’s practice of cheating in measurement or weight in itself, but rather, for its bad impact on the life of people. That is, it is a corruptive practice that could bear heavily on the weak and poor in their dependency on the rich and powerful. This should enable us to combat unlawful exploitation, monopoly, and illicit trade, which are detrimental to health, ethics, freedom, and integrity. Deceit, stealing, bribery, interest-based systems, and all practices that are geared towards corrupting political and social realities should be resisted in the same vein and measure. This stand-off should turn into an open war on monopolists, exploiters, those who dabble in usury, cheats, thieves, the merchants of politics and religion, and war and civil strife mongers. This is because all those categories of people aim to profiteer at the expense of people’s lives and stability.
This stance is the one that would present to people the comprehensive system to regulate life, in all its spheres, on a solid basis. Such stand is also capable of pre-empting any move by anti-Muslim forces to succeed in neutralizing Islam. Those forces work hard to smear Islam and paint a bleak picture of it as representing some sort of utopian set of rules and regulations that have no relation to man’s real life and concerns. They also seek to wage media war against the workers in the cause of Islam, in that they portray them as the natural allies of monopolistic and exploitative regimes. They further allege that those workers acquiesce to economic malpractice and its perpetrators, and that they only raise their fingers against doctrinal and moral decadence that might have a bearing on economic misconduct.
We raise these issues so as to face them with a well-thought-out plan, which should be part and parcel of a comprehensive one for propagating Islam among the people. Obviously, this is the realistic Islamic way, which the Qur’an has affirmed in its lawgiving, conceptions, and practical progress, in that it is an extension of all prophetic divine missions.
This approach can pull us away from the narrow-minded reactive mentality that is subject in its outlook to echoing what others dictate to it. Such a mentality has given hostages to fortune because it lacks originality of thought and proactive thinking. It is unable to predict problems and work to forestall their occurrence. The greatness of any movement lies in its achievements in the theatre of life where the pluses outweigh the minuses, and profit taking is commonplace. Then, and only then, would reactions, should they take place, be outside the circle of mistakes, i.e. a way of protest by others for being unable to find faults.
This is the significance of Qur’anic lawgiving and storytelling. It raises a host of issues, only to give the opportunity to man to reflect on them objectively and calmly, which should result in walking the right path.
7. The decisive word
The last chapter of Shu’aib’s story ends with him standing over the smithereens of his people who perished in punishment. There he stood, reminding them that he did his best to convey to them the Divine Message and that he gave them good counsel. Yet, they chose to rebel against it. Thus, he had no regrets for what had befallen them, which was due to their unbelief and intransigence. No remorse for their fate was due because they were against life that draws on the Will of God.