In the Name of God, the Subtle, the Loving
The man was tremendously wealthy; so wealthy, in fact, that the chests that held the keys to his treasure were so heavy that the strongest men in the community could not lift them. His wealth made him arrogant…tremendously so. His people tried to counsel him to be thankful to God for His tremendous blessing:
Exult not [in thy wealth], for, verily, God does not love those who exult [in things vain]! Seek instead, by means of what God has granted thee, [the good of] the life to come, without forgetting, withal, thine own [rightful] share in this world; and do good [unto others] as God has done good unto thee; and seek not to spread corruption on earth: for, verily, God does not love the spreaders of corruption!
He scoffed at this counsel. He said, “This [wealth] has been given to me only by virtue of the knowledge that is in me!” He rejects any notion that God has blessed him with anything. He believes that it was completely his work and toll that led to his success, and God had nothing to do with it. Not only that, he flaunts his wealth and status in front of his people. He struts among them in all his pomp, and there are many people who wish to be in his place: “Oh, if we but had the like of what [he] has been given! Verily, with tremendous good fortune is he endowed!”
But, others were not fooled by his display. They reminded them: “Woe unto you! Merit in the sight of God is by far the best for any who attains to faith and does what is right: but none save the patient in adversity can ever achieve this [blessing].”
Because he rejected God’s blessing, he was punished:
And thereupon We caused the earth to swallow him and his dwelling; and he had none and nothing to help him against God, nor was he of those who could help themselves.
When they saw this, the people who wished to be in his place reflected:
Alas [for our not having been aware] that it is indeed God [alone] who grants abundant sustenance, or gives it in scant measure, unto whichever He wills of His creatures! Had not God been gracious to us, He might have caused [the earth] to swallow us, too! Alas [for our having forgotten] that those who deny the truth can never attain to a happy state!
This is the story of Qarun, an extremely wealthy man who lived in the community of Moses (pbuh). It was a lesson of the Qur’an about arrogance and its consequences [Qur’anic reference: 28:76-82]. The Qur’an says it correctly about the nature of humanity:
Nay, verily, man becomes grossly overweening whenever he believes himself to be self-sufficient (96:6-7)
This verse is stating a tendency for many human beings: that when things are going well, they tend to forget God’s blessing and His role in their success. They tend to say: “This [wealth] has been given to me only by virtue of the knowledge that is in me!” They forget that they their wealth and status was given to them by God and His blessing. Now, it may be easy to misconstrue the lessons of the story and come to faulty conclusions.
First, the story does not say that it is a sin to be wealthy. In fact, Islam does not condemn being wealthy. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) used to pray to God: “O God, I seek refuge in You from disbelief and poverty.” The Qur’an does say:
Seek instead, by means of what God has granted thee, [the good of] the life to come, without forgetting, withal, thine own [rightful] share in this world
Many of the Prophet’s Companions were extremely wealthy, and the Prophet (pbuh) did not condemn them. Qarun was not punished because he was wealthy, but rather because he rejected the notion that God had anything to do with his material success.
The thing with which Islam does take issue is refusing to help those who are less fortunate after God has given you excess wealth and means. The thing which Islam does condemn is arrogance as a result of the bounty that was given to you by God. That is what the Qur’an means when it says:
Do good [unto others] as God has done good unto thee
That is the test of wealth: to whom much is given, much is expected. In fact the Qur’an tells of a grievous punishment for those who hoard their wealth, refusing to spend for God’s sake:
But as for all who lay up treasures of gold and silver and do not spend them for the sake of Gods – give them the tiding of grievous suffering [in the life to come]: on the Day when that [hoarded wealth] shall be heated in the fire of hell and their foreheads and their sides and their backs branded therewith , [those sinners shall be told:] “These are the treasures which you have laid up for yourselves! Taste, then, [the evil of] your hoarded treasures! (9:34-35)
Also, one should not conclude from the story of Qarun that one does not have to work hard to be successful. I am certain Qarun worked very hard to get to where he got in society. Islam rejects the notion of simply sitting at home and “waiting for our sustenance from God to come to us.” No. We must get up and work hard to earn the living that we do. But, at the end of the day, when we enjoy the fruits of our labor, we turn our hands to our Sustainer in thanks for His blessing and help.
We see this concept perfectly manifested in the action of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). He would plan his actions as if there was no God, but then would pray to God as if he did not plan anything at all. Before the battle of Badr, the Prophet made all the preparations he could possibly make, and then he turned to God in fervent and sincere prayer. That is the proper balance between work and reliance upon God.
But, what about the abundant people who are not as fortunate? They do work and work, but are still not wealthy. Or, those who are even poorer and cannot provide for themselves? That is where the people to whom much is given come in:
And in whose possessions there is a due share, acknowledged [by them], for those who ask [for help] and are deprived [of what is good in life] (70:24-25)
Indeed, when one reads this verse, there may be a part of himself that resents this. He may say to himself I work hard to get where I am, and I have to give my hard earned wealth to someone I don’t know who is not as successful as I am? Why?. Indeed, when one feels like this, he is manifesting exactly what God said about him:
Verily, man is born with a restless disposition. [As a rule,] whenever misfortune touches him, he is filled with self-pity; and whenever good fortune comes to him, he selfishly withholds it [from others]. (70:19-21)
Yet, once again, that is the test of wealth: to resist the inner tendency toward selfishness and extend his or hand in help to those who are less fortunate. And when one does this, he will find that God will give him even more. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) once said, “Wealth is never decreased by charity” (Muslim). In the Qur’an, God says:
And [remember the time] when your Sustainer made [this promise] known: ‘If you are grateful [to Me], I shall most certainly give you more and more; (14:7)
And whosoever is saved from their own covetousness, it is they, they that shall attain to a happy state! (59:9)
The best way to be grateful for God’s blessing one with wealth is to give some of that wealth back to those who are less fortunate. Also, the story of Qarun serves as a constant reminder that one must never become arrogant, especially if they have become wealthy, prominent, or successful. That was Qarun’s downfall. A great thing to be is a rich man who is grateful, and I pray God blesses that we all become thus. We have no right, no place, no reason to become arrogant in the face of God. He gave us life when we were dead; He gave us everything when we had nothing; it is He Who is the Source of everything in this universe. When He blesses us with so much bounty, how dare we become arrogant? There is no “I” in “God.” Who are we to insert one?