Is it possible to resolve the conflict in a way that one can take care of both? Or are they mutually exclusive? This has been a central question for all religions and many in the past suggested the second answer, making hermits as the ideal for the humanity. Unfortunately not much humanity is left when one moves too far in this direction. One can read today the horror stories of Christian and Hindu monks, among others, who tried to seek spiritual purification this way. As a reaction, some took the other course, making material pleasures the goal of this life. The western civilization today is the prime example of that. Its toll on human spirit and morality is well known and is a constant reminder that something is wrong here as well. In between the two extremes Islam points out the proper path. Man is both a material and a spiritual being. The solution does not lie in denying the material needs and desires but in denying their claim to primacy.
They are part of being but not the reason or goal of being. As long as they are kept in place, they are an important part of our life. The problem is not money but the love of it. Wealth itself is not bad. In fact Qur’an refers to it as ‘ ... your wealth which Allah has made for you a means of support.’ [Al-Nisa, 4:5]. And another hadith praises the merits of ‘the halal wealth of a pious person.’ The effort to earn a living is not only against spirituality, it is a religious obligation! But this earning must be through halal means. This is the second message of this hadith. Our obligation is not just to make money but to make halal money. This is a broad statement that is the basis for Islamisation of a society’s economic life. Not every business idea or possible business enterprise is good for the society. And the decision regarding right and wrong here cannot be left to the so-called market forces.
Right and wrong in the economic life, as in all life, must be determined by a higher source. Shariah guides us as to the Halal and Haram business enterprises and practices, and at both individual and collective levels we must follow that guidance. At times that guidance may conflict with the prevailing practices. For example riba (interest), gambling, pornography, and liquor are haram, and no matter how attractive the financial rewards of engaging in those enterprises may seem to be, a Muslim must refrain from them. This is the economic struggle of a believer, and it is obvious why it should be carried out as a religious obligation. At the individual level the obligation is to engage is halal professions and businesses.
At the collective level the obligation is to establish a system that facilitates such individual efforts and discourages their opposite. Third, all this effort for halal earning should not eclipse our primary religious obligations. Indulgence even in a purely halal enterprise should not make us miss our Salat, or hajj, for example. This hadith may help us set our priorities right: The economic endeavour is a duty after the primary duties. And let us remember: In economics, as well as in religion, getting the priorities right is part of being right.