Surat al-Tatfif

By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi

“Woe unto the mean-hearted – those who, when they take the measure from people, strive to have it full, and when they measure for them, strive to make it short.”

(Qurʾān 83:1-3)

Although some translations render mutaffifin as fraudsters – perhaps over-influenced by the example of tatfif given in these opening verses – the meaning of tatfif is stinginess, and those who suffer this disposition, the mutaffifin, are stingy, mistrustful, mean-hearted people. Because they are mean-hearted they may pride themselves on being “crafty” in their business dealings, that is, as fraudulent as they can get away with. We find the word mutaffifin paired in this surah with mukadhdhibin, those who reject God’s message and call it a lie. We also find that the ultimate outcome for such people, if they have not repented, is the Fire. Meanness of heart is inevitably expressed as narrowness of vision: the mutaffifin are disposed to mistrust life generally, to mistrust others and think ill of them; they expect the worst and so they strive to get as much as they can by fair means or foul, and as fast as they can. They are indeed in a great hurry to make profits. Moreover, they cling fretfully to their gains, ever-anxious for more until (as another surah puts it), they come to their graves. It is no surprise that the mutaffifin are unable to conceive of an afterlife – they can see only this world, and this world only in the narrowest of perspectives. As for the next world – all the teaching about God and the tremendous Day when all shall receive their just due – it sounds to them like escapist wish-fulfilment, old fairy-tales. They think themselves clever, hard-headed realists, eager to deploy any trick that will give them an edge over others, and much too smart to be believers. Also, they wink knowingly to one another and make jokes at the expense of the believers and others whom they think they have outsmarted.

The instance of tatfif given in the surah’s opening verses is the apparently small-scale transgression of trying to get for yourself the best deal you can at the expense of the person you are doing the deal with. The verses which follow expose the disposition that underlies such transgressions, and the hereafter consequence of that disposition. Before we consider what this teaches about specifically economic transactions, it will be worthwhile to reflect generally on how the Qur’an teaches – these verses are a notably clear example of how Qur’anic teaching works and what it is for.

As I have repeated many times during these classes, the Qur’an does not teach any specialized discipline ¬– like theology or philosophy or law or economics or other such; it does not use the technical terminology of any such discipline, nor indeed does it use any other kind of secret or private language that requires an initiation or special training to understand. The Qur’an calls itself a guidance for all humankind and it describes itself as mubin, made plain and clear.

The Qur’an’s guidance is conveyed through examples of human attitudes and actions, situated in incidents and stories, such as (in this surah) the commonplace incident of cheating someone over the weight of what one is buying or selling. The examples are combined with an assessment that presents the outcomes of, and the final judgement on, those attitudes and actions.

The knowledge that comes to us from the Qur’an is, accordingly, the kind that can be expressed in how we live, in our attitudes and actions; moreover, our grasp of this knowledge is strengthened, refined and perfected by being lived.  That is why, from the very beginning and on the authority of the Qur’an itself, the Qur’anic teaching is accompanied by the teaching embodied in the practice of the Prophet, salla l-lahu `alayhi wa-sallam. The Qur’an teaches and motivates our consciences – not so that we can take part in finely-worded theoretical discussions about what is good or bad, right or wrong, but so that we can reform our attitudes and actions, and speak and do in the world as much of good as our particular situation allows. The Companion hadiths that have come down to us record that the Companions, radi Allahu `anhum, would study a few verses at a time, that they would spend years in hifz or preserving of God’s words, and this hifz meant understanding what there was in those words of knowledge and practice, the two together, `ilm and `amal. We know also, from the Qur’an itself, that the response of the believers when they heard its verses was that tears came to their eyes, and the little hairs on their bodies stood on end. 

This profound agitation was not just a response to the linguistic power of the Qur’an or even to the awe of knowing that they were hearing the words of God. Rather, it was an expression of the dread of finding themselves under the judgement of their Creator. In this life, we have a constant sense of our selves, of being who we are, but we have also a constant sense that whatever we just did, we can partly undo, or make up for;  whatever we said, we can unsay or say differently; we have a constant sense that we can change, somehow someday reform ourselves and make right what we did wrong. In this life, in other words, we feel that our story is unfinished, our book is not closed. However, the attitudes and actions presented in the Qur’an for the education of our consciences are invariably connected with their ultimate value in the hereafter. The agitation and dread that believers feel when they hear the Qur’an is the dread of that “other”, the person they are, really and finally and forever, as judged by God. Hence the sudden tears, the anxious contrition, the fervent longing for forgiveness, the resolute hope in God’s mercy and His disposition to forgive. So, here in this surah and the next, al-Inshiqaq, indeed throughout the Qur’an, we hear that God is seeing and hearing our outward actions and our innermost thoughts, and we are presented with the connection between our thoughts and actions here in this life and their outcome in the hereafter, when the window of opportunity to reform ourselves has closed. This connection between the transient life of this world and the eternal life hereafter is made throughout the Qur’an, but in the short, early surahs positioned at the end of the Book, the connection is most vivid, most fiercely urged and most dramatic. It is indeed an urgent matter; there is no time to put aside for a later moment the need to reform ourselves. 

The import of the Qur’an, its main burden, is not a theology (ideas about God), nor philosophy (ideas about how reality is, and how far we can know it). Its purpose is not to encourage such speculation; its purpose is not even to encourage tafsir or explanations of itself, or beautiful recitations of itself. Its purpose is not to create in us some sort of “religious feeling” or spiritual mood, however helpful that can sometimes be in encouraging worship and devotion. No, its main import is ethical – to enable human beings to reform their dispositions and actions, individually and collectively, so that they may be and do good and thereby become worthy of nearness to God.

The good that Muslims can do is not limited to haram and halal, the rites of prayer and zakah, and fasting and pilgrimage, and other matters which are, in their form or content or in both, unique to Muslims and distinguish them from other communities. Rather, we should strive to excel in all that there is to do in the world; and “excelling” means striving to please God in our effort and the purpose of our effort. If we think about the scale and variety of all that was attempted and achieved by Muslims in so many different fields in the first two centuries of Islam – much of which has ever since greatly benefited scholarship and science in human civilization everywhere – we begin to appreciate the importance of understanding the Qur’an as guidance. Guidance from God must, by virtue of its being from God who is merciful, generous and just, be sufficient to enable the widest possible expression of human potential for being and doing good in this life. And we should never lose sight of the simple fact that this life is all the scope we are given within which to make ready our everlasting station in the hereafter.

Understood in this way, the import of Surat al-Tatfif is indeed far-reaching. To begin with, there is the simple instruction to be just and fair when buying and selling. Weight is one of the ways in which goods are specified before they are exchanged, but not the only way. Muslims made great efforts to establish standard weights and measures, and market inspection regimes to ensure that buying and selling transactions were accurate and fair. This is of course good for the market – it encourages trust, which in turn encourages growth in the number and size of transactions. Muslims also tried to regularize the flow of information between buyers and sellers by having the same kind of goods sold in the same part of the market, so that buyers (and competing sellers) had knowledge of the range of similar goods available and the range of prices for them. For such arrangements to succeed to the advantage of all, there must be a disposition to be just and fair in business practice. Where the disposition is absent or weak, no diligence in the specification of accurate measures or in the design of regulatory mechanisms will suffice to prevent fraud, and the whole system will be rigged to the advantage of the few. The most conspicuous example of such failure in our time is that of bank regulators being corrupted by the interests whose business practices they are supposed to be regulating – but indeed, as we will shortly explain, it is not in its parts that our economic system is corrupted and corrupting; rather, it is corrupt as a system. There must be an ethical (not just a rational) commitment on the part of those doing business to do it right – that does not happen in a reliable way unless the commitment is sustained, not for some worldly advantage, but for its own sake because it is right – in the language of believers, this is doing something “to please God” or “for the hereafter”. But belief in the hereafter is incompatible with mean-heartedness.

It is because, in this surah, the particular malpractice in respect of the weight of goods exchanged is explicitly attributed to mean-heartedness and because that disease of the heart is in turn associated with rejection of God, disbelief in the hereafter, and the punishment of the Fire, that believers are so struck by the pairing of the phrases, waylun li-l-mutaffifin and waylun yawma’idhin li-l-mukadhdhibin. They are bound to ask, first, if (in contrast to the mean-hearted) they have brought to mind annahum mabuthƒna li-yawminazim – that they will be raised to a tremendous Day, the Day when they must stand before the judgement of their Creator. They are bound to ask, next, if (in all their dealings) they have given people the rights that are their just due. The best of scholars dedicated much energy, outside the field of economic relationships, to working out the rights that people have on each other – the rights Muslims owe to the non-Muslims under their protection, the rights upon each other of husband and wife, servant and master, parents and children, ruler and subject. Conscientiousness in human relations is not sustainable without an alert heart wary of displeasing God, humble, contrite, quick to forgive, anxious to err on the side of generosity rather than on the side of meanness. In the past, the best of our scholars would identify the errors in the work of scholars they disagreed with, but they would also identify what those others had got right, and moreover add that, because (like themselves) those others had been striving to find out the truth, they would surely be forgiven their errors. Now, sadly, if a scholar does not belong to the school or sect that we approve, we scarcely take the trouble even to read his work, still less to read it with a fair and generous-hearted reading. So too, in the past, the best of our scholars used to give reality its due – whether they were students of natural phenomena or human phenomena – by being mindful of the limitations of their knowledge and powers of reason. They tried to collect and sift different points of view, and they meant it when they wrote at the end of their treatises, “And God knows better”. Nowadays, Muslims avoid the study of reality as it is or was, and present only whatever consolidates the positions or dogmas of the school or sub-sect to which they belong. Perhaps worst of all, Muslims are too quick to label those they disagree with as unbelievers, without making the generous-hearted effort to go through all the reasons for not laying so heavy a charge on anyone.

The disposition and behaviour which take this concept as if it were a description of objective reality, or even a sort of law about human behaviour, are condemned in this surah. They derive from a disease of the heart which sees and values economic relations only in terms of profit or loss. Economic activity comes in many forms, which have in common the movement of goods (including labour and particular skills) from where they are in excess (i.e. not needed or not doing much) to where they are in short supply (i.e. needed and likely to be active). Such activity is valued as culturally enriching insofar as, in the process of exchanging goods, people meet with new things from new places, exchange customs and tastes, technologies and ideas. The profit mechanism is a necessary mechanism, a necessary means, of sustaining the effort and risk entailed in economic activity. So long as making profit is not the chief or only goal of economic effort, it is possible for most people to believe and behave as if the ethical constraints that apply to human relationships generally also apply to economic relationships – the marketplace can, so to speak, function in the shade of the mosque.

However, when the profit mechanism becomes the chief or only goal of economic effort, and the chief or only measure of the success and efficiency of such effort, then economic activity is valued insofar as it enriches one party and impoverishes another.

Any society that engages in economic transactions on this basis will concentrate wealth in a few hands and generate a widening gap between rich and poor, within as well as outside its political boundaries. It will also, eventually, reduce all transactions between people to the same pattern, so that the worth of any transaction is calculated in terms of its profit-generating capacity. For example, in the past, lands and certain other goods and services were held in common, that is, exempted from private ownership and therefore not liable to purchase and re-sale. At the present time, the “commons” are being moved, piece by piece, into private ownership. More than that, it is being claimed, quite falsely, that lands, goods and services held in common were not properly and efficiently looked after; rather, it is claimed, only after these same lands, goods and services are put into private ownership that they begin to be properly looked after. But what is actually meant by “properly looked after” is “properly exploited”, and what is actually meant by “properly exploited” is “made to generate a profit” for the private owners. In modern societies, organized on this basis, only that is recognized as wealth which can be made profitable. Whatever is not profitable is not accorded much social status, though it may still retain some traces of value for “sentimental’ or otherwise “economically irrational” reasons.

The fundamental reason for these failings in our general disposition is that we do not pay sufficient attention to the ethical import of the Qur’an. We do not strive to combine knowledge and practice. Instead, we spend too much energy on questions that, whether we know the answers or not, hardly make any difference to how we live. How easy it is to fill a lecture hall if the teacher’s subject is the signs of the coming of Dajjal, or if the teacher can offer interesting conjectures to explain what Sijjin is or Iliyyin. How much easier still, if the teacher can so beautifully recite the Qur’an that he raises the audience into a fine religious mood of awe and reverence, even though, when the session is over, there is no difference in how the members of the audience actually live their lives. The responsibility we have to the Qur’an, its right upon us and the most productive way to preserve it, is the way of the best of the Companions, namely to establish it as the practice of our lives. If we do that, others alongside and after us have a lived example that they, in their turn, can adapt to a similar or different situation. If we do not do that, then our practice as Muslims is restricted to those observances (like forbidden and permitted foods, and other such matters as I mentioned earlier), which we can adhere to so as to be assured of our distinct identity as Muslims. But these matters, although they are of the highest importance, make up only a fraction of our everyday lives. For all the rest, Muslims, like everybody else, follow the lived example and take up the opportunities around them. In the absence of any energy among Muslims to implement the guidance of the Qur’an and Sunna in the way that they conceive of and the way they carry out the tasks that are before them, Muslims will necessarily follow the lead of non-Muslims. There is no necessary or automatic enmity between the guidance of Qur’an and Sunna and the ways of non-Muslims, but the potential is strong that, little by little, over the passage of time, Muslims will become separated from that guidance and nothing will be left in the world of Islam except the grand symbols of it – Islam will be little more than a source of identity for Muslims, perhaps also a solace and place of refuge from the world, not a way of shaping the world, not a way of making a positive difference in it.

This is a great loss, not just for Muslims, but for all humankind. To explain why, let us read again the opening verses of Tatfif. But this time, let us try to understand how a non-Muslim might respond to them:
Woe unto the mean-hearted – those who, when they take the measure from people, strive to have it full, and when they measure for them, strive to make it short.

What prompts people, when they are dealing with others, to squeeze that little bit more of gain out of them – to take from others as much as they can get away with, to give back in exchange as little as they can get away with?

The non-Muslim will answer: this is just normal business, normal market behaviour: buy as cheap as possible, sell as dear as possible. Behind that answer is the fundamental concept of the modern Western “science” of economics – namely that resources are scarce and there is competition for them: play tough and survive, or play nice and perish. That concept is based upon a falsehood – in reality, the world is teeming with resources, there is superabundance of them, not scarcity. The rule is not even true of human economic behaviour: the world is teeming with human beings, most of whom sometimes, some of whom all the time, are quite relaxed about the resources at their disposal and willingly share them or give them away. The concept of life-and-death struggle for scarce resources is in fact only true as a description of the mechanism by which profit is generated – an example is when one man buys another’s labour for a wage less than what he expects to gain by selling the product of that labour.

The worldview underlying this economic system is vicious and destructive: the whole earth, given to humankind to inhabit and utilize, to investigate and understand, to marvel at and rejoice in, is denied any inherent value ¬– value is “created” in it when human beings, by individual or collective effort and ingenuity, by acumen and industry, make it profitable. It follows, unsurprisingly, that any harm done in the course of achieving this profitability is regarded as irrelevant and formally classed as an “external cost”. Now it is true that, in very recent times, certain of these “external costs” (notably industrial-scale pollution of land, air and water) are beginning to be considered as “internal” to business, part of its financial, legal and moral responsibility. But, this is only happening where (1) the harm is a present threat to profit-generation (for example, when land is so exhausted that it cannot yield a profitable crop), and where (2) the private-owners of the means of profit-generation can move the “external costs” directly or indirectly to the rest of society – society as a whole pays the “external costs” either collectively through taxation, or individually through higher prices for lower quality. The impulse behind the recognition that the modern economic system is doing harm, that it is literally life-threatening, is not an ethical impulse but a rational one. The recognition is inspired (and limited) by the determination to keep the system going as it is. The will to change this system cannot be found from within this system.

People committed to this system (and the worldview behind it) find it difficult to be concerned about even a this-worldly hereafter. There is no urgency in their concern about the harm ensuing from their way of life while that harm is far away in space (only people in distant countries are seriously suffering) or far away in time (only the generation of their grandchildren or great-grandchildren will face serious suffering). Muslims may be disappointed by this lack of imagination and compassion, but they cannot be surprised. In several surahs, notably in the two we are reading today, God makes it abundantly clear that the hereafter is real; that only those deny it whose hearts are rusted up and whose intentions and actions in the world are criminal and sinful. It is also made very clear that the thoughts and deeds of human beings are minutely recorded and, following the review at the Day of Judgement, justly recompensed. The quick profits to be had in this life do not last; they are not worth competing for. Only the forgiveness and pleasure of God are worth competing for, and the reward of nearness to Him.