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The Price of Opulence

 by Chandra Muzaffar

By Chandra Muzaffar 
(Professor Chandra Muzaffar is President of International Movement for a Just World (JUST) located in Selangor Daul Ehsan, 
Malaysia.  )

Every now and then a news report appears about some Muslim Ruler building an opulent, extravagant edifice as an embodiment of his wealth and glory. The latest to hit the headlines is a two billion pound hotel, the Emirates Palace – the world’s most expensive and most luxurious hotel — that has just been completed in Abu Dhabi. Built on the orders of the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, which is part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the hotel, needless to say, caters for the world’s super rich. The rate for a VVIP room is a whopping eight thousand pounds a night.

A few years ago, newspapers all over the world carried the story of a Muslim monarch whose palace boasted of a thousand rooms. There was also a Muslim President who constructed huge palaces in almost every major city in his country. Yet another Ruler is reputed to have plated the toilets in his palace with gold !

Whatever the media spin on these palaces and mansions, it is often forgotten that the money for them comes from a resource – this is true of all the cases cited above — that rightly belongs to the people. It is sad that in all these oil producing states the ruling elite tend to treat the people’s wealth as their own private property. Their management of petroleum revenue often falls short of established norms of transparency and accountability.

Of course, it is true that some of the Rulers have utilized a portion of the wealth to build schools and hospitals and to raise the people’s standard of living. In some instances, citizens in oil rich states do not have to pay income tax. While it is undeniable that some good has been done, there is also no doubt at all that a lot of oil money has been squandered on wasteful projects.

After all, even in wealthy oil producing Muslim states there are pockets of poverty. Besides, in many of these societies a wide chasm has developed between the extraordinarily affluent upper crust and ordinary citizens. It is relative deprivation of this kind, rather than absolute poverty as such, which alienates the masses from their leaders.

If for a moment we concede that neither poverty nor lack of basic amenities are serious challenges in most of the oil rich states, it is still legitimate to ask why their Rulers are not helping the abysmally poor in other Muslim societies such as Mali or Bangladesh? Since the Ummah (the global Muslim community) is a single body, shouldn’t the rich respond to the pain and suffering of their impoverished brothers and sisters? Indeed, don’t the fabulously wealthy Muslims have an obligation from an Islamic perspective to reach out to the deprived and downtrodden, regardless of their religious affiliation? In other words, instead of building lavish palaces, shouldn’t rich Muslim Rulers be in the forefront of a global endeavour to eradicate global poverty?

It is not just global poverty that should concern them. Shouldn’t the Sheikhs and Sultans of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, of Bahrain and Brunei, initiate programmes at the global level to eliminate illiteracy, to improve access to basic health care facilities, to upgrade infrastructure? If they did this, wouldn’t they help to transform the image of Islam and Muslims worldwide? By the same token, don’t they realize that their ostentatious living and their vulgar opulence merely reinforce negative stereotypes in the popular mind?

If many well endowed Muslim elites lack a sincere commitment to the well being of the poor, they are also guilty of showing little interest in the promotion of the sciences and in the pursuit of knowledge. Measured against the huge riches at their command, their investment in research especially in the basic sciences is pathetic. In this connection, I remember what the late Professor Abdus Salam, the 1979 Nobel Laureate in Physics, once told me about his experience in trying to persuade Rulers of the oil rich states to invest in research institutes specializing in various branches of the basic sciences. After he won the Nobel Prize he met with a number of these Rulers and told them that if they were prepared to set aside a small portion of their massive revenue from oil – and oil prices were astronomically high at that time — for the promotion of the basic sciences, the Muslim world would once again emerge as a major contributor to research and knowledge. Salam himself had pledged his entire Nobel Prize money to his proposed project. But the Rulers adopted a lukewarm attitude towards Salam’s request. They had very little understanding or appreciation of the potential role of the basic sciences in the intellectual emancipation of the Ummah. Their attitude is in sharp contrast to the passion for knowledge that characterized Muslim monarchs of the past such as the Abbasid Caliph, Harun Al-Rashid.

It is not just in their neglect of knowledge and the sciences or in their marginalisation of the poor and the needy that some contemporary Muslim Rulers have betrayed the letter and the spirit of the Quran. Their vulgar opulence and their hideous extravagance, there is no need to emphasise, are at total variance with the quintessence of Islam. The Quran reminds humankind constantly of the importance of simplicity and moderation. It eulogises restraint in consumption. It inveighs against extravagance and opulence. It condemns the ostentation of the wealthy.

There is perhaps no better example of the virtue of simple living than the Prophet Muhammad himself. As a non-Muslim scholar, Professor Ramakrishna Rao once put it, “After the fall of Mecca more than one million square miles of land lay at his feet. Lord of Arabia, he mended his own shoes and coarse woolen garments, milked the goats, swept the hearth, kindled the fire and attended to other menial offices of the family. The entire town of Madina where he lived, grew wealthy in the later days of his life. Everywhere there was gold and silver in plenty and yet in those days of prosperity many weeks would elapse without a fire being kindled in the hearth of the king of Arabia, his food being dates and water. His family would go hungry many nights successively because they could not get anything to eat in the evening. He slept not on soft bed but on a palm mat after a long busy day, to spend most of his night in prayer, often bursting with tears before his Creator to grant him strength to discharge his duties. On the day of his death his only assets were a few coins, a part of which went to satisfy a debt and the rest was given to a needy person who came to his house for charity. The clothes in which he breathed his last had many patches. The house from where light had spread to the world was in darkness because there was no oil in the lamp. Circumstances changed, but the Prophet of God did not. In victory or in defeat, in power or in adversity, in affluence or in indigence, he was the same man, disclosed the same character”.

No one is asking Muslim Rulers today to live exactly the way the Prophet did more than a thousand four hundred years ago. But can’t we expect them to at least emulate some of the noble values which informed his life, values such as simplicity and moderation — instead of wallowing in decadence and opulence?

30 May 2005.


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