This year the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York city was poorly attended in-person by the world leaders. Only about 73 heads of state and 31 heads of government attended the event. Under measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 , member states had agreed to limit the delegations entering UN headquarters with a leader or minister to six people, with only four of them allowed in the General Assembly chamber.
Rather than coming in person, many world leaders chose to deliver their speech virtually over the internet. Perhaps a wise decision from many fiscally smart leaders who were by no means unmindful of the mere fact that virtual meetings cannot substitute for in-person one-to-one or group contacts to tackle regional and global challenges and crises.
But what could justify the decision of some leaders from poorer nations who had defied logic and common sense and chose to spend tens of millions of hard-earned foreign currency to deliver their speech in person? Did the cost-benefit analysis justify their rather extravagant trip?
Last month many expatriates living in the USA were shocked to learn about how the government treasury in their native lands were and are being squandered by those in power. For instance, a poor country’s head of the government had chartered a commercial airplane for a 2-week long trip, costing millions of dollars to the nation’s treasury! Such news was embarrassing to even the most die-hard of the government supporters. A quick browsing of the social media is sufficient to see the outrage many people had felt even when explanations or, more correctly, lame excuses were made by some of the alleged offenders of the public treasury. No one was convinced and no one was amused.
With the latest release of the Pandora’s Papers, a 2.94 terabyte data trove, by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which exposed the offshore secrets of wealthy elites from more than 200 countries and territories, most people are beyond the threshold of shock, as if they have been sufficiently vaccinated by booster shots not to be rudely shocked these days!
The 2016 Panama Papers investigation was based on 2.6 terabytes of data in 11.5 million documents from a single provider, the now-defunct Mossack Fonseca law firm. The 2017 Paradise Papers investigation was based on a leak of 1.4 terabytes in more than 13.4 million files from one offshore law firm, Appleby, as well as Asiaciti Trust, a Singapore-based provider, and government corporate registries in 19 secrecy jurisdictions.
The Pandora’s papers is based on 11.9 million records that came from 14 providers that were reviewed and analyzed for two years by more than a hundred news outlets, including The Washington Post and the BBC. These papers also contain information on the shareholders, directors and officers of many companies, including 130 Forbes billionaires, as well as celebrities, fraudsters, drug dealers, royal family members and leaders of religious groups around the world.
According to the ICIJ, “In addition to the rich, the famous and the infamous, those exposed by the leak include people who don’t represent a public interest and who don’t appear in our reporting, such as small business owners, doctors and other, usually affluent, individuals away from the public spotlight. While some of the files date to the 1970s, most of those reviewed by ICIJ were created between 1996 and 2020. They cover a wide range of matters: the creation of shell companies, foundations and trusts; the use of such entities to purchase real estate, yachts, jets and life insurance; their use to make investments and to move money between bank accounts; estate planning and other inheritance issues; and the avoidance of taxes through complex financial schemes. Some documents are tied to financial crimes, including money laundering.”
More than 330 politicians from 90 countries and territories, which included 35 current and former country leaders have been exposed by the Papers. They used entities in secrecy jurisdictions to buy real estate, hold money in trust, own other companies and other assets, sometimes anonymously.
The investigation found that King Abdullah II of Jordan possessed 14 properties in the U.S. and the United Kingdom in purchases that amounted to more than $106 million. The ICIJ linked the king to nearly 40 shell companies created between 1995 and 2017. The king is embarrassed; his legal team said the purchases were made partly for security purposes.
In his month-long Asia tour in 2017 that included Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Japan, China and the Maldives, King Salman of Saudi Arabia reportedly spent tens of millions of dollars. He reportedly brought 459 tons of equipment, including two Mercedes-Benz S600s and two electric lifts. He accompanied an entourage of 1,500 people, including 10 ministers and 25 princes.
The same year, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was the buyer of a $450 million Leonardo da Vinci painting of Jesus Christ.
I am told that in the Islamic context such lavish expenses are simply wrong, irrespective of the source of the income.
How about public treasury? Can its money be squandered, misused, misappropriated or stolen at the whims of a leader? Let’s try to find answer from the Islamic sources.
Allah says in Surah al-Anfal (v. 27), “O ye who believe! Betray not Allah and His messenger, nor knowingly betray your trusts.”
Imam Fakhruddin Razi (RA) interpreted this verse as, warning people not to commit Ghulul or embezzle public wealth. So enormous is the punishment that even the Prophet Muhammad (S) will not be able to intercede on behalf of the embezzler. And no matter how small the amount of the public property that is embezzled by a corrupt person, it will deny that person the entrance to paradise, even if that person died a martyr.
Abu Hurayrah (R) narrated, “The Prophet (S) got up amongst us and mentioned Al Ghulul, emphasized its magnitude and declared that it was a great sin saying, ‘Don’t commit Ghulul for I should not like to see anyone amongst you on the Day of Resurrection, carrying over his neck a sheep that will be bleating, or carrying over his neck a horse that will be neighing. Such a man will be saying: ‘O Allah’s Apostle! Intercede with Allah for me,’ and I will reply, ‘I can’t help you, for I have conveyed Allah’s Message to you Nor should I like to see a man carrying over his neck, a camel that will be grunting. Such a man will say, ‘O Allah’s Apostle! Intercede with Allah for me, and I will say, ‘I can’t help you for I have conveyed Allah’s Message to you,’ or one carrying over his neck gold and silver and saying, ‘O Allah’s Apostle! Intercede with Allah for me,’ and I will say, ‘I can’t help you for I have conveyed Allah’s Message to you,’ or one carrying clothes that will be fluttering, and the man will say, ‘O Allah’s Apostle! Intercede with Allah for me.’ And I will say, ‘I can’t help you, for I have conveyed Allah’s Message to you.’” (Sahih Bukhari)
In the Islamic context, such matters as enriching oneself or others, harming state finances, abuse of authority, embezzlement and gratuity/bribe are called ghulul. Imam Ahmad (RA) narrates from Abu Malik Al-Ashjai (R) that Muhammad (S), the Prophet of Allah, said “The worst ghulul with Allah is a yard of land, that is, when you find two neighbors in a land or home and one of them illegally acquires a yard of his neighbor’s land. When he does this, he will be tied with it from the seven earths until the Day of Judgement.” (Tafsir Ibn Katheer)
Abdullah Ibn ‘Amr (R) narrates that there was a man named Karkara who looked after the family and the belongings of the Prophet Muhammad (S). When the man died, the Prophet of Allah said, “He is in the Fire.” The people went to look at him and found in his place a cloak he had stolen from the war booty. (Sahih Bukhari)
To betray the entrusted wealth of a group of people, let alone of a state, is worse than betrayal of a single individual’s property. Abu Bakr (R) narrated from the Prophet of Islam that whoever (state official) takes the state’s property for the reasons other than those allowed has stolen. (Abu Dawud)
Being mindful of this hadith and its wider implication, Abu Bakr (R), the first Caliph, did not want to take any salary from the Baitul Mal (state treasury) for his service as the head of the Caliphate until Umar and Abu Ubaidah (R) convinced him to accept the bare minimum salary instead of supporting himself with a side job.
Ibn Hajr al-Haitami (RA) said that some of the ulama have opined that embezzling state fund or misuse of state treasury and zakat falls under ghulul.
Umar ibn Khattab (R), the second Caliph, set up very high standards of integrity for himself and his family members. Whenever he issued any instructions for the people to follow, he brought home to his family members that he expected them to conform to such instructions strictly.
He (R) issued strict orders that no member of his family should accept any gift from any person. So, when he found a new carpet with his wife Atika, he wanted to know from where the carpet had come. She said that it had been presented by Abu Musa Ashari (R), the Governor of Basra. Umar (R) had the carpet immediately returned to Abu Musa, who was reprimanded in strong terms for sending a gift to the wife of the Caliph.
‘Abdullah, son of Umar (R), purchased some camels. They were lean and were purchased cheaply. ‘Abdullah sent these camels to the state pasture where they fattened. These were then sold in the market and fetched a high price. When this news was brought to the notice of Umar (R) he ordered that as the camels had been fed at the state pasture whatever profit had accrued in the sale of the camels should be deposited in the state treasury.
Once Umar (R) received a considerable quantity of musk for the Baitul Mal. It had to be weighed and then distributed. Umar was in search of a person who could weigh musk with meticulous care. His wife Atika offered to do so as she was expert in the job. Umar (R) did not accept the offer on the ground that when she weighed and distributed it, some musk would be attached to her hands and clothes and that would be misappropriation in state property.
It was the fear of the accountability before Allah on the Day of Judgment that made Umar (R) to say, “If a caller from heaven announced that all people would enter Paradise together but for one man, I would fear that I am him. And if a caller announced that all people would enter Hellfire together but for one man, I would hope that I am him.” [Source: Ḥilyat al-Awliyā’]
Just ponder for a moment on this statement coming from one of those few Companions who was promised paradise by none other than the Prophet Muhammad (S) himself during his lifetime.
Dawud ibn Ali (RA) reported: Umar ibn al-Khattab (R) said, “If a lost sheep under my care were to die on the banks of the Euphrates, I would expect Allah the Exalted to question me about it on the Day of Resurrection.” [Source: Ḥilyat al-Awliyā’]
If this be the attitude of Umar (R) who is concerned about the safety of a goat (or any living creature) under his Caliphate, it is simply mind-boggling to understand the utter nonchalance of many Muslim leaders today. The way they waste/steal public wealth, government treasury, it gives the impression that they are either unmindful of their accountability on the Day of Judgment or have established a new hotline with Allah assuring their secured passage to paradise. It goes without saying that such indifference about the abuse and misuse of public treasury has contributed to its too familiar ripple effects at every strata within the society top-down. Nothing gets done in many Muslim-majority countries unless a hefty bribe is paid to those in authority.
As leaders, those in authority ought to be mindful of their role as the shepherd of the state and its inhabitants, and accountability, and must exemplify virtue and noble deeds. Let them take lessons from those that set high standards of governance.