Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

July 24, 2023

First published July 22, 2023

 in Economic Times

Raiders and Traders of the Desert

Prophet Muhammad was a trader who was forced to become a raider. It happened fourteen hundred years ago, in Arabia. He was so good a trader that the richest woman in Mecca, a widow, decided to marry him. In caves outside Mecca, he encountered an angel who declared he had been directed by the one true God to give a message to humanity. This was a time when Mecca was the centre of trade, connected to the port city of Jeddah. It was also a pilgrim spot housing many pagan deities who could foretell the future. The trader-mystic said these were false gods; the one true god has no form; his message is about social codes of conduct, not magic; that one true god was venerated by the monotheist Jews and Christians too. This naturally upset the elite of the city who profited from anxious pilgrims. So when Muhammad’s rich wife died, and he lost the protection of her influence, he was driven out of Mecca, He took refuge in the city of Medina, created a network of political allies through marriage, and was forced to become a raider of Meccan caravans, until he forced a peace treaty that enabled trading once more.

Debt, Investment and Charity

What turned Muhammad, the trader, into Muhammad, the raider? It was the lack of empathy. A culture becomes a civilisation only when it exchanges goods, services and ideas. When one culture hoards goods, services and ideas, and prevents others from exchanging goods, services and ideas, trading cultures become raiding cultures. This is what happened with Mongols seven hundred years ago, when the Chinese emperor shut them out with his walls. This explains why from time-to-time nomadic communities have raided settled communities. They were never barbarians – they were simply not allowed to participate in the market.

Like a good trader, who took many risks travelling across deserts and seas, with goods to distant markets, the Prophet valued investments and equity but did not like money lending and debt. To him wealth was not a commodity to be traded; it had to enable commerce and establish brotherhood. As an investor, you profit when the business profits. As a banker, you profit, even if the business fails, and that for the Prophet was haram, against God’s law. To put people in debt was wrong. To write-off debts, to be generous, was halal, in line with God’s law.

The Quran as we have it today is full of verses (sura)based on conversations of the Prophet with his one true god through the angel Gabriel. There are verses when he was a trader in Mecca and there are verses when he was a raider in Medina. The two are mixed as the verses are organised from the longest to the shortest, by length more than origin. But scholars have discerned a general pattern. The longer verses which are more political and aggressive come from the raiding days in Medina. The shorter verses which are more spiritual and sublime, found later in the holy book, come from the trading days of Mecca. The longer verses, that refer to war, that come first, tend to dominate over the latter ‘trader’ verses.

Pax Arabia

The Islamic Age was the age of mercantilism. Baghdad in the tenth century connected the Mediterranean world with South East Asia. After the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century, Baghdad was replaced by three great Islamic empires – the Ottomans of Turkey, the Safavids of Iran and the Mughals of India. Their trading practices ensured everyone in the world had access to Chinese inventions like paper, printing press and magnetic compass. They ensured wealth flowed into India in exchange for textiles and spices. While Sufis and Ghazis were busy spreading the faith, the Caliphs were more pragmatic. As per some scholars, Muslims had to give 10% zakat tax for the public good while non-Muslims had to pay 20% jaziya for the same. Having non-Muslims in your kingdom made greater sense to the trader and thus commercial ambition balanced spiritual and religious zeal. This explains the high diversity and secularism documented in Islamic empires as compared to later Industrial empires.

On the downside, Islamic monotheism justified monopoly mindset. One god in the temple encouraged one seller to dominate the market, push out competition. As the Islamic world monopolised the trade, the Christian European world pushed back with scientific innovations. Eventually the Portuguese, Dutch, French and English mercantile power overwhelmed the Islamic world, and we are now following the raiding models of the East India Company, where neighbouring countries are seen as resources to be plundered, not people to be helped.

Today, nation-states are behaving less like traders and more like raiders. America is being run by business houses that use its military to ensure access to cheap raw materials, cheap labour and vast markets. China controls its business houses with its military grip and is determined to dominate rather than work with its neighbours. India is caught in the middle – unable to link its military to its industrial ambitions. We see how international banks are putting countries in debt, rather than writing off debt, how investment is designed to make money at the stock market rather than helping new businesses gain a foothold. Money is being used not to help the poor, but to entrap, enslave the poor with clever financial instruments. Businesses are establishing ‘war rooms’ and that is a dangerous sign.

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