If you search Google Images for “greed,” you will encounter many depictions of rather pompous individuals - typically men - hoarding money. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “greed” as “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something than is needed.”
It is, of course, natural to seek pleasure and to pursue - actively - that which one perceives to be good and satisfying. Even those who give to the needy might do so, at least in part, because it gives them pleasure knowing they are helping others. But greed involves not just self-satisfaction, but selfishness. To quote Merriam-Webster again, to be selfish is to be “concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself … without regard for others.” Of course, the antithesis of this self-centeredness is that ever-familiar Golden Rule: “Want for others what you want for yourself.”
Let us begin the commentary on a grim note. In the 103rd Sura of the Qur'an (al-'Asr), we read, “Truly humanity is in a state of loss.” This stunning proclamation, however, is immediately followed by a critical qualification: “Except those who keep the faith, do good, encourage one another to stand for the truth, and encourage one another to be patient and perseverant.” Notice the wording here: to “encourage one another” to stand for the truth and be patient. I cannot simply focus on myself. I must be cognisant of and concerned with others. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is quoted as saying, “None of you truly believes until [you wish] for [your] brother what [you] wish for [yourself].” And according to even the rather conservative medieval Muslim scholar, Imam al-Nawawi, this refers to all of humanity, and not just Muslims.
But let's return to that grim line, “Humanity is in a state of loss.” Although Islamic scripture insists that each human is born free of sin, it also presents this world as a series of tests - a world where one must be active and swim upstream, as it were, in order to resist the downward pull of temptation. The earliest revelations of the Qur'an - the short revelations first revealed in the city of Mecca, and the ones typically taught to Muslim children - are replete with warnings of the harms of not material wealth necessarily, but material greed. Consider the following examples:
The 102nd Sura of the Qur'an, al-Takathur, opens with the proclamation, “Vying for increase distracts you, until you visit the graves.” In the 104th Sura (al-Humazah), we read, “Woe unto every slandering backbiter, who amasses wealth and tallies it, supposing that his wealth makes him immortal.” And along these lines, the 107th Sura (al-Maa'uun) reads as follows: “Have you not seen the one who denies religion? That is the one who drives away the orphan, and does not urge feeding the poor. So woe to the worshippers who are heedless of their prayers, those who strive to be seen, yet refuse to supply even neighbourly needs.”
In other words, material greed is an omnipresent temptation that terminates only at death. The antidote, according to a prophetic report, is to foster a sense of contentment. The Prophet (PBUH) says, “The most enviable of my friends is a believer with little property who finds pleasure in prayer, who performs the worship of his Lord well, who obeys Him in secret, who is obscure among people, who is not pointed out by people, and who is content with his provision.” (Tirmidhi)
These notions of humility and contentment are of course not unique to Islam. So what do we make, then, of the modern ethos that “greed is good” because it drives individuals to compete aggressively in a free market, thereby benefitting society at large through the introduction of creative and useful ideas, services, and institutions?
Here we have to be very careful. We first have to ask, what exactly we mean by “greed.” If we mean simply the active pursuit of wealth, that need not be selfish per se. As the 19th century English economist Alfred Marshall would have it, “love of money” encompasses “an infinite variety of motives,” which “include many of the highest, the most refined, and the most unselfish elements of our nature.” Indeed, one could seek wealth for the purpose of helping others.
In fact, in the context of Islam, there is at least one well-known prophetic report that indicates that it is better to work hard to attain wealth and give to those in need than to choose simply not to work. In this case, striving to attain wealth is not a distraction from the path of God, but rather an enhancement of faith.
What is unanimously regarded as a distraction is the selfish pursuit of wealth, at the expense of others, and ignoring those in need. This is the greed stated in Merriam-Webster. And even if this selfish form of greed benefits society in some way, directly or indirectly, one obvious lesson we glean from Islamic and other traditions is that the ends do not justify vile means.
And perhaps some of us moderns are overestimating the benefits of greed and downplaying its harms. Consider a recent study by, among other researchers, Michael Norton of Harvard Business School. According to Norton's study, when certain people act selfishly, they inspire others to act selfishly. What we're left with is a vicious, destructive cycle.
Earlier I referenced the 103rd Sura of the Qur'an. That Sura is called al-'Asr, which could be translated as “time.” A major theme of the Qur'an is that, in time, all will be made right, people will no longer be deluded, they will, in the end, recognise the reality behind the material world, and the truth will be made manifest. This, of course, is a popular theme, as characterised by Shakespeare:
“Time's glory is to calm contending kings, To unmask falsehood and bring truth to light, To stamp the seal of time in aged things, To wake the morn and sentinel the night, To wrong the wronger till he render right, To ruinate proud buildings with thy hours, And to smear with dust their glittering golden towers.”
Many writers representing many cultures seem to be in agreement that material greed reflects not only self-centeredness but also delusion. So where do we go from here?
The desire for more and more of the good things in life is part of human nature. But in the Qur'an and other scriptures and sources, we are challenged: we are told not to self-indulge, but rather, to “hasten to do good.” And here one is reminded of the words of the famous Sufi Rabia Adawiyya: “Lord, if I worship you in fear of hell, burn me in it. And if I worship you in hope of paradise, keep me from it. But if I worship you for your own being, don't withhold from me your everlasting beauty.”
The writer is a lecturer of Economics, BRAC University and Founder, Finding Bangladesh.