The Epitome of Interest

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The image above is from a blog posted last year. The picture notes the clear difference in the marketing strategy to attack attract the Malay demography. While the national standard seems to be “know the full price before you commit”, the Malay standard have been condensed to “$xx only per week”.

Pity the Malays. The vast majority of whom are Muslims, are also the milked cows for the profit of corporations. True, the religion teaches them to spend within their means, warned them against idolizing trivial trends, and prohibits them from getting involved in riba: usury or interest, be it on items borrowed or purchased.

Different what is being preached, different what is being practiced. The issue of borrowing money to finance some purchase or necessity has been long in existence. Circa 1400 years ago, the final Prophet ﷺ had warned against getting involved in such interest when borrowing, giving its ruling as forbidden. But after 14 centuries, we see the same thing giving problems to those who ill-manage their money.

Interest, usury, or riba, all are of the same name. The Qur’an has stated its prohibition clearly

الَّذِينَ يَأْكُلُونَ الرِّبَا لا يَقُومُونَ إِلا كَمَا يَقُومُ الَّذِي يَتَخَبَّطُهُ الشَّيْطَانُ مِنَ الْمَسِّ ذَلِكَ بِأَنَّهُمْ قَالُوا إِنَّمَا الْبَيْعُ مِثْلُ الرِّبَا وَأَحَلَّ اللَّهُ الْبَيْعَ وَحَرَّمَ الرِّبَا

““Those who devour usury will not stand except as stands one whom the devil by his touch has driven to madness. That is because they say: Trade is like usury. But Allah has permitted trade and forbidden usury…” (2:275)

Recently, community leaders have mentioned – while understandably sidestepping the issue of riba – another factor closely related to similar financial interactions, which is the long-term monetary commitment. Such commitments may lead to other, more important priorities being rendered peripheral, such as education.

…Concerned Malay MPs and community leaders are taking unusual steps this year to get a simple message across: Spend within your means, save for your children’s education.

A series of radio advertisements encouraging families to ‘Bijak Belanja’ (spend wisely) will air during the Ramadan fasting month, which starts on Aug 22, at the time of the morning call to prayer and the evening prayer ahead of breaking the fast.

For those who are unfamiliar, the same source lined out the attraction behind monthly installments.

Under such schemes, buyers pay by instalments instead of a lump sum. Big-ticket items are more affordable because of the lower monthly payments but overall, a buyer ends up paying more for the item because of interest payments.

The proliferation of purchasing the latest non-essential items has turned into a sarcastic Malay joke; if the home of some Malay doesn’t have an LCD television or some kind of home theatre system, then it is not a “true” Malay home. The importance of having the latest big-screen TV and entertainment system, which has now evolved into the obsession for the latest car accessories and handheld gadgetries, epitomizes the sad state of affairs for those who find pride in such items.

Sadly, I’ve been to a gathering where the homeowner was engaged in the discussion of why he proudly chose a Samsung Series 6 TV (or whatever it is called) as opposed to other TVs; this, bearing in mind that the homeowner still owe his audience a considerable amount of money.

While not understanding that their actions are being the butt of jokes, the trivial understanding of the issue is further compounded by the their showering of PSPs and handphones to their offsprings, and the purchase of jewelleries on installments (famously heard on radio: “pakai dulu bayar kemudian” – wear now pay later). While it is still very much a family affair, such irresponsible spending of money claims newer, weaker victims through peer pressure and the fear of being looked down upon.

Within Grasp

One factor of the problem is due to the availability of financial instruments to fulfill one’s desires. Such instruments, with banners promising payment starting in 2010 and $0 downpayment, is but a marketing gimmick which has been in existence for ages. But the increasingly so-called affluence of the Malays makes the instruments freely available within their reach.

Previously, lack of higher education means that the annual yearly income hover below the $30,000-per-annum standard to obtain credit. But now, after obtaining the diploma or degree, the $30k.p.a. isn’t really a rarity. The hand grabs what the heart desires. And the thirst Son of Adam will never be fully quenched.

لو كان لابن آدم واديان من مال لابتغى واديا ثالثا ، ولا يملأ جوف ابن آدم إلا التراب

“If the Son of Adam had two valleys of riches, he would ask for a third, for the cavity of the Son of Adam cannot be filed except with dust (i.e. he will never be satiated until he is dead).”

-Narrated by al-Imam Muslim

So as long as visitors and friends give that polite compliment, it’s worth it?

Buffet Spread

Another factor – even more vital perhaps – is the lack of religious education, combined with the lack of emphasis on the importance of spending within their means, aka the aspects concerning what some would term the  “essence of the religion” – matters which are taught not as rules and regulations, but mentioned as the attributes of the wise or characteristics of the scholars. But really, it’s actually just common sense.

While Islam has a holistic approach on life and lifestyle, ranging from everything to what to eat, wear, and spend, its followers still focus on the “regulation aspects” and decide to pick-and-choose which part of it they want to follow.

A non-Muslim friend commented that she always see Muslims abstain from pork and observe the Ramadan fast. But she doesn’t understand why they still do not cover up their ‘awrah, or refuse to perform the five daily prayers, or consume alcohol after dinner.

Giving the benefit of a doubt, I would say: “Well, maybe these people are new Muslims; perhaps they are just starting to learn about their religion.”

Confused, she would say: “But I thought Muslims believe in Allah? If they do, why don’t they follow His rules? You know, it’s not like God needs to reason his commands.”

Maybe she’s right. The religion we see now, after being practiced by our elders for so long, is increasingly being seen as a culture. While culture is usually more inclusive to others while at the same time giving some sense of belonging, the caveat is that – unlike religion – it can be changed, plucked, mixed and matched at whim.

The famous ketupat can be changed with lontong, the rendang with another dish, the pelita (candle lights) with electronic ones, and the list goes on. That’s culture for you. For religion, no mix and match dicated by fickleness; it must be based on religious basis and canonical principles.

Nevertheless, some Muslims are most known for abstaining from pork, but apparently not drinking. Most observe fasting, yet forget the five daily prayers. Almost all solemnize marriage religiously, even in mosques, but not all cover their ‘awrah.

Such is the epitome of the interest. The prohibition of riba and usury is clear, and interest is just another name. Perhaps as it is not both religiously and culturally inculcated in Malay-Muslims like the prohibition on consuming pork, it leads to most still being unaware that they need to give away the monthly interest in their bank account. Many still see fixed-deposits as nothing wrong, just as buying the shares of conventional banks, and profiting from their generous dividends.

Perhaps more focus needs to be given to educate Muslims on these issues. True, basic understanding of the religion starts with the five tenets such as solat (prayers) and zakat (tithe), but other aspects of the religion shouldn’t be neglected too.

Religion is not like a buffet spread.



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