Philosophical Reflection: Significance of Honesty in Trade

Writer: Zuhriddin Juraev All credit to my beloved teachers: Shaykh Dr Hamza Yusuf (Q) and Prof Dr Young-Jin Ahn
Philosophical Reflection: Significance of Honesty in Trade

 Let us talk about the concept of Fair Trade, overcoming the limitations imposed by the dominant Western discourse. In the Islamic tradition, there is a profound directive against the consumption of wealth acquired through falsehood, emphasising the avoidance of unjust, vain acquisition. The Arabic term “batil”, which refers to anything that is empty or devoid of goodness, serves as a powerful reminder to stay away from falsehood, dishonesty and anything that contradicts reality.

Further intricacies of just trade are explained in the Islamic tradition, which advocates trade that satisfies both sides. This principle is becoming increasingly important in the current global scenario where markets are experiencing unprecedented turmoil characterised by unjust consumption of wealth, theft and embezzlement. The Quran emphasises the imperative of fair trade and stresses the satisfaction of all parties involved in a commercial transaction.

Historically, marketplaces adhered to the principles of justice and used visible scales to ensure fairness. In the Islamic tradition, this practise went as far as tipping the scales in favour of the buyer to embody the Prophet’s teaching of mercy to those involved in buying and selling. In today’s world, however, there are economic injustices that stem from an inherently unjust economic system. To cope with the complexity of our interconnected world, it is essential to understand the fundamentals of economics.

Economic discourse often tends towards a false dialectic, especially between Keynesian and monetarist approaches, and ignores alternative perspectives such as Islamic economics. Despite the historical contribution of Muslims to Western trade, the Muslim voice remains conspicuously absent from contemporary economic debates. Remarkably, even the term “general average” has its roots in Arabic and stems from the practise of merchants engaging in a kind of co-operative insurance or takaful.

When reflecting on these aspects, we need to think about why Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of God be upon him) chose the path of a merchant before taking on the mantle of prophethood. This historical precedent is of great importance and encourages us to examine more closely the link between commerce and the principles underlying Islamic teachings. When reflecting on the role of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) as a merchant, a compelling question arises: Why was he, the Prophet, ordained by God to be a merchant? While various professions were conceivable, the divine choice of commerce for the Prophet prompts reflection on the deep meaning attributed to this profession.

When one gets to the heart of this perspective, one realises that the merchant occupies a pre-eminent position as the most useful human being. The very fabric of our daily lives, which includes goods such as glasses, clothes, televisions and cameras, is woven through the threads of commerce. In the words of the Prophet, The truthful and trusty merchant is associated with the prophets, the upright, and the martyrs(Narrators: Tirmidhi, Darimi and Daraqutni transmitted it; and Ibn Majah transmitted it on the authority of Ibn Umar, - Source: Mishkat al-Masabih, chapter of “Business Transactions”, Hadith No.2796); thus establishing the high status of an honest merchant in the hierarchy of virtuous persons alongside the prophets and martyrs according to Islamic tradition. Look at the position of an honest merchant, they are with the prophets, they are with the truthful people like the Islamic rightly guided caliph – Abu Bakr Siddiq - the highest people; and they are with the martyrs on the Day of Judgement according to Islamic tradition and Muslim belief. This shows you the position and, unfortunately, the rarity of a truthful merchant. Because merchants can tell a lie.

However, the rarity of honest merchants is acknowledged and it is recognised that merchants, like the famous Islamic figure Imam (i.e., leading scholar) Abdur-Raḥman ibn Amr al-Awzai (AD 707-774), can succumb to fraudulent practises under the guise of advertising. There is a narration says, during his stay in Beirut, Imam al-Awzai met an onion seller who passionately proclaimed that onions were sweeter than honey. Imam al-Awzai then confronted the vendor and asked him about the permissibility of such a statement. The reply that followed shed light on the ancient practise of advertising and disproved the idea that this was a modern phenomenon. The Arabs, Imam al-Awzai noted, were skilful marketers who used poetry as an advertising tool. He drew parallels with modern advertising slogans and reflected on the effectiveness of these marketing techniques. However, in the midst of recognising advertising strategies, the Imam emphasised the enduring importance of truthfulness. In the context of economic transactions, Imam al-Awzai addressed the role of the muhtasib, a kind of ombudsman responsible for quality assurance in the marketplace. This figure served as an intermediary between the regulatory authorities who monitored weights and those involved in weighing goods. A vivid example from the era of Umar shows the appointment of Shifa (a woman) as Muhtasiba (as a responsible person for quality assurance). Armed with a stick, she inspected the market and ensured that fraudulent practises, such as putting good fruit on top and inferior fruit on the bottom, were thwarted. Imam al-Awzai’s narrative subtly drew attention to contemporary consumer experiences, such as the strategic arrangement of strawberries in shops. He demystified this seemingly innocent practise and exposed it as a form of manipulation. This historical context illuminated the concept of a tradition inherent in our heritage that emphasises quality assurance in commercial transactions. In essence, Imam al-Awzai’s narration served as a poignant reminder of the timeless importance of truthfulness and ethical behaviour in commerce that transcends eras and cultural changes.

So, the Prophet’s teachings emphasise the divine attitude to partnership and trust in commerce, as explained in the Hadith Qudsi: “God says: “I am in partnership with two people as long as one does not cheat the other. But if one cheats on his partner, I will leave the partnership (Reported by Abu Dawud). So, in this hadith the Prophet is quoting from God saying the above “Hadith Qudsi”. It is amazing that as long as one does not betray the other, – God supports him/her perfectly like a close partner. But if one of these partners is a betrayer, then God abandons him, which means that God punishes him and does not help him anymore unless he changes his statement towards trustworthiness. Many people who trade with each other oppress each other, except those who believe in God and the Last Day and do good deeds (according to Islamic belief). So, this divine proclamation emphasises the great importance of trustworthiness in business ventures. That’s why it’s really important to be trusting and trustworthy.

In a hadith, it is narrated that, “The Prophet gave him (i.e., to one of his companions – Abu ‘Urwah) a Dinar to buy a sacrificial animal (like goat) or a sheep. He bought two sheep with it, sold one of them for a Dinar and came back to him with a goat and a Dinar. So he invoked blessings on him in his business dealings, and he was such that if he had bought soil (of the earth) he would have made profit from it” (Reported by Tirmizi, Source: Bulugh al-Maram, chapter of “Business Transactions”, Hadith No.1258). So, this narration of Abu ‘Urwah, who received a dinar from the Prophet to buy a sacrifice or a lamb, is another example of the blessings that come with honest trading. Abu Urwah’s subsequent profitable transactions, even in the sale of seemingly insignificant items such as sand, serve as evidence of the enduring positive effects of integrity in business. This view thus emphasises the central importance of honesty in commerce and draws inspiration from Islamic teachings and the practises of revered personalities. The connection between trustworthiness and divine assistance, as explained in the hadiths, emphasises the moral imperative to trade with integrity.

In examining the philosophical perspective on the importance of honesty in trade outlined above, some lessons emerge that resonate in the economic geography of trade. The perspective not only emphasises the central role of trade as the lifeblood of social transactions that shape the global landscape through the exchange of goods and services, but also addresses the broader implications for economic geography. The emphasis on trustworthiness in trade becomes a key factor in building and sustaining trade networks across geographic boundaries.

The lessons drawn from this perspective emphasise that an ethical approach to trade fosters a climate of trust that contributes significantly to the foundation of resilient and mutually beneficial trade relationships. In the course of economic exchanges between nations, the principles of honesty and integrity prove to be essential cornerstones for navigating the intricacies of the interconnected economic geography of trade.


Look ahead:


As we reflect on the profound insights gained from this exploration of the philosophical foundations of honesty in trade, it is essential to consider the implications for current economic geography trends and theories.

The lessons that can be derived from this essay resonate with the contemporary economic landscape and emphasise the central role of trustworthiness in trade as a key factor in shaping global economic geography. In economic geography, where the interconnectedness of nations is becoming ever more apparent, the importance of ethical behaviour in trade emerges as a guiding principle. Emphasising honesty not only strengthens interpersonal relationships in commercial partnerships, but also contributes to the resilience and sustainability of trade networks across different geographical boundaries.

Geography students in particular can gain valuable insights from this discourse. The lessons emphasise the need for a nuanced understanding of the ethical dimensions inherent in economic transactions. At a time when economic injustice and global unrest are commonplace, geography students are encouraged to critically examine the role of trust in shaping international trade relations.

In addition, the historical examples, such as the practises of equitable trade in the Islamic tradition and ethical considerations in markets, provide students with a rich spectrum for exploration. Examining the role of the muhtasib as a quality assurance intermediary and advocating the principles of fair trade provide fertile ground for understanding the evolving dynamics of economic geography.

Looking to the future, this essay encourages students of geography to consider the intersections between trade, ethics and geography. The continued importance of honesty and integrity in trade, as emphasised in Islamic teachings and exemplified by revered figures, serves as a compass for navigating the complexities of today’s economic landscape. The challenge for future geographers is to apply these principles to promote equitable and sustainable trade relations on a global scale, contributing to a more just and interconnected world.


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