A friend showed me this video of Tawfique Chowdhury, a Bangladesh-born speaker in Australia. He is the founder of Mercy Mission Australia, an organisation that aims to 'help people help others' by providing Islamic education and supporting Muslim businesses.
Now all that doesn't sound so bad. It sounds pretty good, actually. But if a person were to just watch this video without knowing where he's coming from, that person could start to feel a little uneasy.
He starts the video by asking "How many Muslim millionaires are there?" and goes on to argue that Muslims need to be rich, to 'have the world in their hands' but at the same time, to use this wealth justly, to help others because he has 'God in his heart'. A rich Muslim is of more benefit to his community than a poor one.
He says that many Muslims today are lazy. With hard work, if Muslims all become lawyers, doctors, businessmen, then they can in turn help their fellow poorer Muslims, and ultimately, everyone will respect Muslims because of their intelligence, status, etc. But I find many of his points problematic.
Blaming the poor for their problems - is this really such a new way of thinking? He gives the example of Muslims in Australia who depend on welfare and have more children as a strategy to get more money. In other words, their poverty is a result of bad choices. He does not mention any structural factors such as marginalisation from the state, the lack of access to education, etc. Not to mention that wealth usually comes from wealth - a rags-to-riches story is more an exception than the norm.
Wealth requires accumulation, or savings. Accumulation requires a relatively comfortable standard of living already, with a surplus to save. At the same time is there favourable infrastructure and access to opportunity? In Bangladesh would he have been able to spend as much time studying and accumulating as much wealth as in Australia?
Working hard to earn money usually means a gender division of labour, and I can confidently say that here it should preferably be men working hard at being successful, while their wives take care of the home. Rich and successful men become so at the expense of experiencing the raising of their own children - it was actually written in a biography of him at his site that Tawfique 'has 5 children and loves to steal a few moments here and there to play with them'. A few moments here and there? To play? So who does the feeding, dressing, bathing, etc.? The wife and domestic worker?
This video makes people who are already in the rat race feel good because they can say that their wealth is for helping the ummah (larger Muslim community). Indeed, I personally know someone who has the noble vision of helping Muslims in his country, but he feels that he can only help them when he is in a high enough position or status (so that presumably, they will listen to him). But then there is also the actual labour of helping. If you give money for food for the poor, who delivers that food to the elderly woman living alone in her 1-room flat?
This is the vision of Mercy Mission:
When our work is done and our ultimate vision is achieved, the world will be a completely different place. Islam will never be snubbed, nor will Muslims be harmed except by due right. Muslims will be of the highest level of piety and completely confident of their religion. They will not be dependent on anyone save their Lord and they will give selflessly to the needy. Muslims will be the most admired for their faith, knowledge, achievement, excellence and character. They will be part of an illustrious and exemplary community of believers that serve humanity’s needs. Mankind will come into Islam in large numbers for the excellence of the example of Muslims. At that time, no Muslim should live on this earth except that he is able to access a product, service or someone from Mercy Mission. Mercy Mission will be a movement, a conglomerate of institutions and corporations that influence others and the ethos of knowledge and action is desired by all.The whole idea of being 'exemplary' and 'admired' implies an external audience for a Muslim's hard work, which contradicts the sincere intentions behind it. I agree that it's great to aim to be a Muslim who is rich both materially and in piety, because you need it both for the world here and hereafter. But then, at the end of this vision, 'conglomerate' and 'corporations' stand out. His vision justifies his own business, a little tautology - as if there are no power relations and exploitation in businesses too. It would be great to know if Mercy Mission promotes fair wages and decent work in the enterprises that they support.
From an Islamic point of view, don't we receive what we do only because God wills it? For all our hard work, saving, and scrimping, God ultimately determines if we will be rich, successful or smart.
I don't totally agree nor disagree with his speech. There are valid points but there are also problematic ones, and I feel one should always be careful, especially when Islam is used as a banner of support for someone's business or organisation.