Chicago Crescent: Islam and the Psychology of Wealth

The recent global economic meltdown has spared few Americans certain financial loss. Those with real estate investments have suffered heavy setbacks, and most Americans, whose primary assets translate to their home values, suddenly find themselves facing a negative total net worth. Some have lost more than others: their jobs, their sources of livelihood. As many families grapple with smaller budgets, mounting debt, and in some cases, unemployment; stress levels have risen, relationships have suffered, and in extreme cases, desperate people take matter into their own hands, hurting themselves or others.

In these trying times, Islam’s wisdom, in what it teaches us about wealth, about ourselves, and about God, can prove to be a grounding force that preserves our sanity and indeed immunizes us from the quicksands of material life.

First, we have to think completely outside the box. Forget everything I just wrote about the dismal economic climate, and let’s begin from scratch. What is wealth? From a religious perspective, wealth is blessings, the more things we are blessed with, the wealthier we are. From a worldly perspective, wealth is privileges, the more privileges we enjoy in our lives, the wealthier we are.

Let’s say you are a blind multi-millionaire living in total darkness, and let’s say there’s a new miracle gadget out there, priced in the millions, that can allow you to see half-way. Would you hesitate to spend your entire wealth to obtain the light of day? And even so, would you not feel extremely privileged and blessed to be able to afford that miracle cure? Well, you and I my dear reader are already twice as wealthy as that multi-millionaire, and we did not spend a penny for it. But do we know it?

Ask the deaf how much they would spend to hear, the paralyzed what they would pay to walk, the incarcerated what they would give to be free, and the wretched what they would do to find love. As the famous commercial would say: priceless. But do we count this sort of wealth – very real and tangible assets – into our portfolios. Why not? Why would it not count? Because we take it for granted? Well why do we take it for granted? Because it comes free, courtesy of God’s grace? Yet if it were to be lost, would we not spend our fortunes many times over to retrieve it. So should it not then count?

Islam is not a set of empty rituals; Islam teaches us to think outside the box to rediscover ourselves and to realize an immutable path to contentment. The Qur’an is indeed the ultimate psychology handbook. In enjoining us to reflect inwards vis-à-vis the concept of wealth – “if you try to count the blessings of God, you will not be able to calculate them” – the Qur’an revolutionizes the very process of how we assess our wealth portfolios. Since God’s blessings are infinite, everyone is wealthy if they only knew it.

The key is to gain awareness of our latent wealth, and to do that we must constantly reflect on our blessings until we feel real gratitude for them. It is for this reason that the Muslim’s first prayer evokes gratitude, “Grace be to God,” or Alhamdulilah, the opening verse of the opening chapter of the Qur’an, al Fatiha. Indeed, the opposite of a Muslim is an ingrate. Ingrate, not infidel, is the literal translation of Kafir: someone who denies – or conceals or covers (Arabic: kafar) – the blessings and signs of God.

Wealth is when possessions match desire. With this in mind, there are two paths through which wealth can be realized: amassing possessions to match desire, or mastering desire to match possessions. While most people fall captive to the first path, Islam introduces the latter. The first path is treacherous, if we reach one level, we immediately aspire to the next, constantly craving that which we don’t have. The latter path, the wise path, is to train ourselves to recognize that our existing blessings may already be worth the world’s weight in gold. One is consistently unattainable; the other is constantly within our reach. The wise path is our best bet to peace and happiness irrespective of Wall Street’s temper tantrums. Alhamdulilah.

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