The basic purpose of this life is 'ibadat (51:56), ie humbly serving Allah, and not the achievement of material benefits. Why then are we supposed to be concerned about such 'mundane' matters in Islam as economics? The reason is that 'ibadat also entails acknowledging Allah's blessings and showing Him gratefulness on receiving those blessings. It is, therefore, important that believers should not only indulge in the material affairs of life but also excel in them as much as their potential and Allah's guidance allows. However, indulgence in economic affairs should not cause an individual to be unmindful of Allah's remembrance, the impending accountability on the Day of Judgement, and Allah's commands. The Qur'an says while describing the correct attitude of the God-fearing believers that they are:
Men who are not distracted from the remembrance of Allah by trade and commerce and buying and selling, who stand by their devotional obligations and payZakah, who fear the day when hearts and eyes would flutter in trepidation. (24:37)
That approach in life can only be adopted if economic matters are conducted, like all other human affairs, according to the guidance provided by the Divine Revelation. In other words, Islam does not require its followers to shun worldly life in favour of asceticism; instead it urges them to play a full, meaningful role in the worldly matters within the guidelines of the Shari'ah. There is nothing intrinsically evil about the worldly matters according to the teachings of Islam; it is only the imprudent overindulgence in them which creates evil. In fact, to a God-fearing believer, according to a statement of the Prophet (sws): 'this world is a cultivating field for the hereafter'. Thus an individual who cares for the concerns of his life-after-death cannot be unconcerned about worldly matters.
Some Important Clarifications
Aside from the above-mentioned basic premise, Islamic teachings also give some other important guiding rules in the conduct of economic life which help in achieving the real purpose of life mentioned above.
The real status of an individual is not to be gauged from his economic condition or contribution towards economic progress of the society but from his level of God-consciousness. Thus although each individual is expected to play a role in the society according to his nature and abilities, achievement of the higher economic results by individuals do not in any manner confer upon him a higher social status. In an Islamic society, nobility is to be gauged from the level of God-consciousness (taqwa)of an individual and not from his material possession. The Qur'an says:
Indeed, the most honourable amongst you in the sight of Allah is he who is the most God-conscious. Indeed Allah is All-knowing, All-Aware. (49:13)
Thus a society where money and better economic conditions are considered an undisputed status symbol is most certainly not an ideal Islamic society. The best understanding of this concept is indicated by the fact that the Prophet Muhammad (sws) voluntarily opted to lead a life of an extremely poor man despite having better material alternatives.
Another guiding principle that emerges from the above-mentioned understanding is that everyone has been created in this world to play an important role. Allah has created human beings unequal in their physical and mental abilities. That arrangement is by design and not accidental. The diverse needs of our worldly life demanded that individuals expected to play roles to satisfy those needs should have different abilities. There is thus nothing inferior about an individual possessing different abilities from others. An individual is expected that he correctly identifies the area of his contribution to the society and concentrates in excelling in that area rather than envying unnecessarily the achievements of others who have been purposely bestowed with different abilities than his. The Qur'an says:
Do not covet what Allah has favoured some with more than He has some others. (4:32)
If an individual with limited abilities and opportunities has achieved what he could given his constraints, he should be considered a high-achiever, while if the one with superior abilities and better opportunities does not perform to his optimum, although achieves in relative terms much more than the former, he will still be considered a low-achiever in the eyes of Allah. The Qur'an says:
We never burden a soul beyond capacity. (7:42)
An additional purpose of the diversity in abilities of humans in the design of Allah was that He wanted people to be placed in a trial where different individuals are playing different roles, some at higher levels of the worldly ladder and others at lower levels. Thus if a lower-level worker of an organisation, for instance, discharges his organisational obligations to the best of his abilities and is also a grateful servant of his Allah, His real success in the hereafter is guaranteed. If on the other hand the chief executive of the same organisation is not discharging his worldly and religious obligations properly, his success in the hereafter will be in serious jeopardy.
The Qur'an keeps reminding the believers that their material achievements are in fact the bounties of Allah. According to the correct understanding of the Qur'anic guidance when we engage in economic activity, we do not earn a living; in fact we just 'look for the bounty of Allah'. (62:10). As far as the expression 'earning' is concerned, it is used by the Qur'an to describe the good or bad deeds we perform intentionally in this world, which will ultimately be rewarded or punished in the life to come. For instance, the Qur'an says:
Those were the people, and they have passed away. Theirs the reward for what they earned, as yours will be for what you earn. You will not be questioned about their deeds. (2:134)