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JUNE 2000

MONTHLY    *    Vol 14-06 No:162    *   JUNE 2000 / RABI-UL-AWAL 1421H
  email: editor@islamicvoice.com

ISSUES


Famines, Hunger and Early Islamic State

Famines, Hunger and Early Islamic State

Dr. Sayed Afzal Peerzade

Rajasthan : Dried up Rajsamand lake in Rajsamand village in the drought - Stricken Rajasthan recently. The lake has dried up for the first time in 300 years. (DH)
The State should undertake relief and initiate preventive step against drought and famine

Famines are natural phenomena. Some times they are very violent events. They have a tendency to recur at regular intervals. If timely preventive steps are not taken, they simply decimate the population and cause extreme misery and widespread deaths due to hunger and epidemic. It is required here that the state should provide social security. It should arrange for the fulfilment of basic requirements of human life to each and every individual afflicted by hunger. Arrangements are to be made to an extent that every body in famine affected areas gets food, clothing, shelter and medical care. It would be interesting to know, in brief, how the early Islamic state, which Muslims hold as the model state, tackled the problem of famine, hunger and deprivation. At present many of the Muslim countries happen to be in Asia and Africa where famine is a stark reality.

In Holy Qur’an in chapter Yusuf there is a mention of famine and steps taken by the then government on the advice of Hazrat Yusuf (A.S.). In this commentary on the Surah, Jassas writes in Ahkam al Qur’an: “ The Almighty has narrated to us the story of Yusuf. It is told about him that he stocked food grains for distribution amongst people during (the expected) famine. The narration of this story conveys that it is obligatory on rulers that when they fear mass deaths on account of famine, they too should adopt a similar method (i.e., they should build up stocks of food grains)”.

Similarly works on the life of the Prophet too contain vivid accounts of famines which struck Arabia. In this context the concern of the Prophet towards sufferings of poor is very well documented. The state which evolved during the life- time of the Prophet very well understood its obligations at a time when on account of famine people suffer from hunger and malnutrition.


Hazrat Umar ordered digging of canals in Iraq and Egypt to expand areas of farming and storage of water what could be called watershed management in today’s parlance.

After the Prophet the four righteous caliphs were fully conscious of their responsibilities. The history of Caliphate bears witness to it. When Hazrat Abu Bakr was on the death bed, he summoned Hazrat Umar and said: “Oh Umar! Fear Allah. Be it known to you. There are certain affairs of Allah which need to be attended during the day time, the Almighty would not acknowledge them when attended during the night. Some of His affairs need to be attended during night time. These would not be acknowledged when attended during the day time. Beware! Unless the obligatory duties are discharged, the supererogation will not be acknowledged”. Hazrat Umar while explaining his responsibilities is reported to have said it in a sermon: “Oh you people! Allah has entrusted me the task of blocking the cries of poor from reaching to His court”. Hazrat Usman is known for his generous charity and Hazrat Ali used to forsake his food in favour of poor and hungry.

We come across several practical instances of arrangements of social security whenever severe famines struck Arabia. Once Hazrat Umar bin Khattab, the second caliph, went to Syria. There Hazrat Bilal narrated before him very impressively difficulties faced by people on account of famine and hunger. Hazrat Umar immediately ordered his local officials to provide to every Muslim foodstuff necessary for sustenance. Further Kalabi narrates that once Hazrat Umar filled his bedsheet with sandstone. Making it a pillow he slept in the mosque. Suddenly a person started shouting: “ Oh Umar!. Hazrat Umar got up at once and started running in the direction from where shouts were coming. He saw a person holding a camel’s bridle amid a circle of people. When people saw Hazrat Umar they informed him that the Commander of Faithful has arrived. Taking him to be an aggrieved and tortured person, Umar asked: “Who has harassed You?” He started explaining (his condition). He narrated a few verses explaining miseries of famine. While holding his head with hands Umar started moaning and said: `Oh you people what do you visualise! He is complaining about famine, Umar eats and drinks to his fill while Muslims suffer due to famine. Who among you will come forward to carry supplies (of essential goods) including dates? He then dispatched two members of Ansar community to Yemen with several camel loads of dates and food grains. They went there and distributed food grains brought with them.”

A very severe famine struck Arabia in 18 Hijrah. It was so severe that the year was called the “Year of Famine”. It indeed was a testing time for the Islamic state. On that occasion Hazrat Umar discharged his responsibilities with a great sense of accountability and administrative finesse. His role would always serve as a model. Much can be learnt about the famine of 18 Hijrah. However, it suffices here to point out that a gloom of hunger and disease descended over Hijaz for full nine months. Crops had withered. Expecting relief, a large portion of rural population migrated to urban centres especially to Madinah. Despite extraordinary arrangements several people perished.

At Madinah Umar arranged for public distribution of food grains. Thousands of people were fed twice a day at government’s expense. Camel loads of food grains, flour, fats, edible oils and other essential items were brought from far off places such as Egypt and Syria. Thousands of camels and cattle were brought from other places for public slaughtering. People in famine affected areas were permitted to procure freely goods from caravans carrying government. Umar faced the challenge of famine in the manner battles were fought on a large scale. He personally supervised all arrangements. His condition deteriorated and people started crying: “Oh Allah! Weaken the severity of famine. We fear Umar would die worrying about difficulties of Muslims”. All through the day Umar used to be preoccupied with the worries. Bowing his head before the Allah, the Sustainer and the Fosterer, he used to pray all through the night. In order to demonstrate his solidarity with the suffering of Muslims he stopped consuming fat and meat. His general health worsened and his colour turned black.

From the above statements attributed to Hazrat Umar it is understandable that his notion of social security during famine period included provision of medical care and health facilities. It can be contended that a ruler, who holds himself responsible for the provision of medical treatment to animals, would definitely allot top most priority to the extension of health facilities to human beings. Umar had drawn up a tour programme of one year so as to cover the entire Islamic realm. He wanted to see that the social security arrangements and administration of justice are ensured efficiently. However, his martyrdom did not provide a chance to undertake the proposed tour.

At Madinah proper Umar used to go on night beats to find out poor and needy so as to arrange for their needs. On several occasions during beats he came to learn about different needs of people and made on-the-spot arrangements to fulfil them. He used to regularly remind his subordinates of their responsibilities. When Hazrat Abu Musa Ashaari, the governor of Basra province, came with a delegation to meet Umar, he advised him: “Listen, maintain their (poor people’s) houses well provisioned and arrange feeding of their dependants”.

During the relief work of 18th Hijrah famine in Madinah, Hazrat Umar bin Khattab was feeding people. Holding a stick he was walking in their midst. In the course he passed nearby a person who was eating with his left hand. Hazrat Umar asked: ‘Oh you servant of Allah, eat with your right hand’. He replied: ‘Oh you servant of Allah it is engaged’. This he repeated for three times. Hazrat Umar asked him to explain. He replied that his right hand was lost during the battle of Moota 18 Hijrah. The narrator reports further that on listening his explanation Hazrat Umar started crying. He sat down and asked: ‘Who helps you for ablution? Who washes your clothes? Who gives you bath? Who attends your sundry works...? Hazrat Umar immediately provided a personal attendant, conveyance and other necessary articles. It can be learnt from one of the narrations that Hazrat Umar held that “the provision of personal attendants comes under the same principle which governs the provision of food to hungry”.

It happened during the period of Hazrat Umar bin Abdul Aziz that a severe famine struck Arabia. A few persons from Arabia came to him in a delegation and complained: ‘Our urgent needs have brought us here. Our skins have dried because there is nothing to eat, even bones are not available. Our problem can be solved only through the (money of) baitul maal. There are three possible (uses). Either this is for Allah or for the servants of Allah or else it is for you. If it is meant for Allah then Allah (in fact) does not need it. If it is meant for the servants of Allah, hand it over to them. Give it in charity in case it is yours. Allah amply rewards those who practice charity”. Tears rolled out of the eyes of Hazrat Umar bin Abdul Aziz. He said: “The position of properties of baitul maal is exactly the same as explained by you”. He ordered that their needs should be met from (the funds of) baitul maal”.

On several occasions whenever poor and needy approached him, after making necessary enquiries, Hazrat Umar bin Abdul Aziz arranged to provide for their needs. A great concern before Hazrat Umar bin Abdul Aziz was that his subjects should be free from hunger and destitution. Once a person came from Madinah. While inquiring about the general condition in Madinah, Hazrat Umar bin Abdul Aziz specifically asked about some poor persons who used to sit at a particular place. He was told that the poor no longer sat there (because they no longer need to). “The Almighty Allah has freed them of that need”.

In the context of frequent failure of the rains and consequent droughts and famines, the early Islamic state took concrete long term steps to protect crops by constructing dams and lying a wide network of canals.

Hazrat Umar’s anxiety for the promotion and fostering of agriculture may be judged from the following story. Once during the invasion of Syria a man came and complained that the Muslim army in their march through his lands destroyed his crops. The caliph compensated him for his loss with ten thousand dirhams forthwith.

During the period of Hazrat Umar a large number of canals were laid out in conquered lands and a big department was organised for constructing dams, excavating tanks, and for the building of canals and sluices for the distribution of water. Juza bin Muaviayh built many canals in the districts of Khuzakistan and Ahwaz in Persia with the permission of Hazrat Umar which enabled farming on new areas. Hundred of other water courses were thus built, of which traces are found here and there in books of history.

The canals were also used for drinking water and many other purposes. Hazrat Umar wrote to his governor of Basra province, Abu Musa Ashari, to get a canal dug for the people of Basra. This canal was brought from river Tigris which flew at a distance of about ten miles. Consequently the population of Basra increased by leaps and bounds. He also ordered the Egyptian governor to lay new canals and to repair and rebuild the old and damaged ones. The biggest and most useful canal built on the special order of Umar was one which came to be called Nahr Ameerul Muminin (Canal of commander of Faithful). This joined Nile to the Red Sea. It is reported that nearly 1,24,000 workers were employed for the said work for months together. The size of the labour force engaged in the work alone is sufficient to speak of the magnitude of work undertaken at that time. This greatly facilitated movement of food grains and other goods between Egypt and Hejaz. It was dug to avoid possible shortages of food as happened in 18 AH, the year of great famine. “In the first year 20 big ships laden with 60,000 arubs of grain sailed by this canal and came to Madinah via Jeddah”.

Hazrat Ali is reported to have once written to his governor: “ The protected people have reported of a canal which is choked up in your jurisdiction, and the Muslims are bound to repair it. You should inspect the site along with them and get the work done. To me improving and developing the lands is preferable to having the inhabitants desert them”. Similarly, many other canals were laid under the supervision of Abu Musa Ashaari, Saad bin Viqas, Hajaj bin Yusuf, Umar bin Abdul Aziz, Harun al Rashid and others. A noted historian, Baladhuri, has given names of more than a hundred well-known canals in Iraq alone. Another author, Istakhri, reports existence of 1,20,000, canals linking each other around the Basra province many of which were used for transport. Baladhuri speaks of the construction of a dam over, as far away as, the river Indus in the present day of province of Sind (Pakistan).

Hazrat Umar bin Abdul Aziz wrote to the governor of Iraq, Abdul Hamid bin Abdul Rahman, asking him to lend surplus funds with baitul maal to non-Muslim cultivators so that hey can cultivate lands after improving them. Deriving support from this precedent, Muslim theologians, from time to time, have urged caliphs to provide agricultural loans to farmers from the state treasury so that they can bring more land under cultivation. The state support was thought necessary to prevent farmers from migrating to other areas in search of jobs. A later period Muslim jurist Shahhabuddin Ahmad, rightly linked the well-being of people to prosperous agriculture. He urged rulers to preserve and develop adequate stores of water, to protect farmers from any type of oppression and to impose and collect taxes from farmers strictly according to Shariah.

Imam Ghazzali writes: “It is obligatory on the part of a ruler that he should help and assist his subjects when they are suffering from hunger, poverty and calamity. The ruler should provide food and improve their condition by extending financial assistance. This is for the reason that during the period of famine and rising prices people fail to earn (sufficiently) for their livelihood”.

It is, thus, clear from the above discussion that the early Islamic state launched a two-pronged attack on famines. In the first place, it took short-term measures such as arranging supplies of food grains to the famine affected areas. In the second place, the long term measures included water harvesting. Efforts were also made to cultivate available land more efficiently. In some cases the early Islamic state came forward to share the cost of cultivation. The success could be greatly attributed to the sincere management of the situation by highly God-fearing persons. That made a difference. A total difference!

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