The Values of Religion Commands us to Protect the Needy and Orphans
Today, poverty is no longer a problem restricted to some particular countries. The world agenda is dominated by children who make their living on the streets collecting trash, who spend freezing nights out on the streets and have dangerous jobs in return for which they receive little money, risking their lives. So, much of the world is not safe from the child deaths stemming from malnutrition and other poverty-linked problems.
Statistics on poverty and on street children alone reveal the serious dimensions of the situation.
In 1982, UNESCO reported 200,000 street children in Istanbul, 10,000 in Bogota, and 2 million in Rio de Janeiro. In Africa, this figure is estimated to be 5 million and is steadily increasing. Civic dislocations and wars, scarcity, AIDS and rapid urbanization are factors increasing the number of street children. Around the world, 30 to 70 million street children are homeless on any given night.5
In America, the young child poverty rate has grown at an alarming pace. Between 1979 and 1994, the number of children under the age of six living in poverty in the United States grew from 3.5 million to 6.1 million. Nearly half of all children under six lived in poor, or nearly poor, families in 1994. In addition to the 6.1 million young children who lived in poverty, another 4.8 million young children lived in near poverty.6
As the statistics above suggest, even the developed world is not immune from poverty. The unemployment from economic depressions and inadequacy of social security systems are, by and large, responsible for this poverty.
The values of the Qur'an and the Sunnah, however, demand the protection of the poor and the needy. There are many hadith of Allah's Messenger, the Prophet Muhammad (saas) that bid the believers to protect the poor. One of them reads thus:
Love the poor and be near to them. If you love them, Allah will love you. If you take care of them, Allah will take care of you. If you clothe them, Allah will clothe you. If you feed them, Allah will feed you. Allah will be generous to you if you are generous.7
In the former socialist countries we see another dimension of poverty; the living standards of almost all individuals are low, independently of particular conditions unlike those in developed and third world countries. In these countries, there is a general poverty influencing almost all the population. Consequences of poverty have an overall impact over the whole country. The infrastructure of cities and the social security systems prove to be inadequate, for instance. Food is scarce. Unlike most countries, even if you can afford it, food and goods are not available in the marketplace.
It is possible to list many reasons accounting for poverty. However, it would be more helpful to discuss the impact of poverty on society and ways to eradicate it. In the following chapters, problems pertaining to poverty are dealt with under particular sub-topics.
The Destructive Effects of Poverty on Society
No doubt, children suffer the most from the consequences of poverty. Poor children, especially the homeless, are often turned away by public schools because they lack permanent addresses, proof of age and immunization records. They hardly find food to eat. Mostly, they are forced to work under difficult conditions. In some countries, children are even sold by their families to workplaces as "slaves".
For the most part, these children earn little money, in the most unhealthy environments imaginable that can prove lethal in some cases. The population of India is 940 million and there are 44-100 million child workers in the country – more than the total number of working children in the rest of the world. In Pakistan, a country with a population of 120 million, there are approximately 8 million working children.8 The sad state of poor children is no different in the rest of the world.
All over the world we are familiar with the situation of underage children forced to work, and the harsh conditions surrounding them in the workplace. Despite this, however, rather than bringing these children the social services and educational support so essential to their development, these countries are concerned about the competitiveness of their economies with the cheap products produced by the child workforce. In their meetings, they even discuss how to increase their competitiveness, and not how to save these children.9
Many countries in the world allocate significant portions of their budgets to defense. India and Pakistan, countries where areas such as education, health and industry all call for urgent reform, are no exceptions. For instance, Pakistan allocates 60% of its budget to armaments and to defense spending. That the majority of the public is blighted by poverty does not alter the situation in Pakistan. Nuclear armament spending in the USA is 35 billion dollars a year. From 1946, the year when programs linked to the atom bomb were initiated, until the year 1996, approximately 5.5 trillion dollars were spent.10
No doubt, these budgets allocated to defense and armaments could simply be offered to bring relief to the problems of poverty-stricken people. However, despite the fact that the lives of little children are at stake, political concerns and calculations of vested interests have long hindered the development of viable solutions to these problems.
One point deserves special mention here: under the following conditions, defense spending is unavoidable. Because disbelief brings more conflicts, disorder, outrages and violence, it seems that these problems will persist. Therefore, a country will have to rely on her defense to maintain its existence.
However, misery is everywhere. Evidently delivering speeches on problems will not produce any solutions. Nor will merely avoiding side-stepping beggars and giving charity. Co-ordination of regular programs addressing the educational, health, shelter and clothing needs of poor people is essential.
This is only possible, however, through the sensitivity people will develop when living by the Qur'an. Again, Qur'anic values will ensure a peaceful environment which will make countries sensitive enough not to violate other countries' rights. Consequently, defense spending can be limited and the resources allocated to them can be invested in related fields to secure general welfare, peace and quality education for the public.
Surely, defense spending is only an example. Many other similar solutions can be provided. As in all other issues, it is essential to see that the solution lies in living by the Qur'an and the Sunnah. That is because only a person endowed with the values of the Qur'an and the Sunnah could give his own share of food to the needy or an orphan when he, himself, is hungry. By the same token, that person is the one who does not offer things he dislikes to others, and he is the one who offers help without demanding anything in return. Allah explains in Surat an-Nur how wealthy people should conduct themselves:
Those of you possessing affluence and ample wealth should not make oaths that they will not give to their relatives and the very poor and those who have left their homes in the Way of Allah. They should rather pardon and overlook. Would you not love Allah to forgive you? Allah is Ever-Forgiving, Most Merciful. (Surat an-Nur: 22)
Allah, in the Qur'an, explains how the wealthy should address the needs of the poor. For instance, Allah says that some portion of the properties of the wealthy belongs to the poor. Allah says that some people do not disclose their poverty, and that the rights of these people should be protected:
And in their wealth and possessions (was remembered) the right of the (needy), him who asked and him who (for some reason) was prevented (from asking). (Surat adh-Dhariyat: 19)
It (Charity) is for the poor who are held back in the Way of Allah, unable to travel in the land. The ignorant consider them rich because of their reticence. You will know them by their mark. They do not ask from people insistently. Whatever good you give away, Allah knows it. (Surat al-Baqara: 273)
The Suffering of Those who are Forced to Leave their Countries
One of the important consequences of world poverty is the refugee problem. Hope for better job opportunities or better living standards, or struggle and scarcity have produced mass displacements, thereby causing serious conflicts between countries.
The flow of refugees from third world countries was initially favored by many host countries, and was originally arranged through high-level international treaties in order to provide a cheap supply of labor to the west. The low wages paid to foreign workers and their readiness to work under difficult conditions accounted for this ready acceptance. Indeed for a long period, foreign workers contributed enormously to the economies of these countries, but in time, as these countries attained economic stability and security , they no longer required the foreign workforce and tended to employ their own citizens.
Malaysia, for instance, forced veteran foreign workers within her borders to leave. These people, who arrived in Malaysia with the hope of a better life, had to return to their home countries after years of service.
The reasons for dislocation are not restricted to the desire for better living conditions. Struggles between countries also produce dislocations. In a country devastated by post-war poverty, a majority of the population can be uprooted. Witnessing the plight of people fleeing from war, a few countries show some willingness to accept refugees. In freezing cold, refugees in need of resettlement sometimes walk for weeks toward a destination they hope to be secure, but are often not admitted.
In March 1998, the dislocation experienced by more than 300,000 Kosovar refugees left almost all the cities of Kosovo desolate. Meanwhile, the severe cold caused the loss of many lives during the flight.
In November 1990, Chechens who fled from Russian attacks on foot sought shelter in neighboring countries, but these countries tightened border controls and set strict rules of transit, showing their reluctance to host any Chechens. By the time the refugees arrived at the Turkish border where they were finally admitted, many women, children and elderly people had been lost due to the severe cold.
In Africa, conflicts between tribes are responsible for the flight of tens of thousands of people. In Rwanda, the conflict between Hutus and Tutsis is an example. These displaced persons suffered from starvation and epidemics. They tried to take refuge in other countries but they were usually not admitted. (For details see chapter "Racism")
The moral values acquired by adhering to the commandments of the Qur’an, however, lay the foundation for a totally different social structure. In this structure, the rights of the poor and of those forced from their homes are protected. All means are used to prepare better conditions for them and to lessen their pain. For this cause, people do not avoid making sacrifices. During the time of the Prophet Muhammad, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, this value structure was most apparent in the attitude of believers towards those who left their homes for Allah's cause:
Those who were already settled in the abode, and in faith, before they came, love those who have left their homes in the Way of Allah and do not find in their hearts any need for what they have been given and prefer them to themselves even if they themselves are needy. It is the people who are safe-guarded from the avarice of their own selves who are successful. (Surat al-Hashr: 9)
It is for the poor fugitives (muhajirun) who were driven from their homes and wealth desiring the favor and the pleasure of Allah and supporting Allah and His Messenger. Such people are the truly sincere. (Surat al Hashr: 8)
As is obvious from the verses, the values depicted in the Qur'an are far removed from those experienced today. In the Qur'an, a request for help is always responded to with a generosity and benevolence. Believers render the most thorough help to those in need. While giving assistance to the needy, the Qur'an demands that the provider not display any moral weakness such as expressing his own needs or to setting his eye on the aid provided. These values will bring solutions to many problems.
5. http://www.uia.org/uiademo/pro/ d5980.htm
6. htmThe National Center for Children in Poverty, http://www.nccp.org/main4. html, One in Four: America’s Youngest Poor
7. Ramuz al-Hadith, vol 1, p. 17, Salman al-Farisi (ra)
8. Time, April 15, 1996, p.36-39
9. Time, April 15, 1996, p.36-39
10. Nando Times, 1 July 1998