Laws

Tas'ir (Price Control) in Islamic Law

The market (suq or bazar) has a distinctive place in the history of Islamic civilization. Makkah and Madinah were major trade centers at the time of the advent of Islam, and the prophet was himself an active market  participant and reformer. There were famous markets - 'Ukkaz, Majannah, and Dhhu al Majaz - in pre-Islamic Arabia that commonly held fairs during the pilgrimage season. This practice was continued after the appearance of Islam, for when the new Muslims felt that it might be sinful for them to trade in such places (al Zubayli 1984), the following verse was revealed: "There is no sin if you seek the bounty of your Lord (during the pilgrimage)" (Qur'an 2:198).

The main theme here is religious: allaying the fear of indulging in sin. However, it is Significant that this potentially sinful activity was referred  to in such dignified term as "seeking the bounty of your Lord." Elsewhere in the Qur'an, we find passages dealing with the market's cultural aspects, such as the verse that asks whether it is proper for the Prophet to mingle with the common people in the market place. The answer received was that prophets, just like everybody else, are free to interact and engage in commercial transactions in the mark: "And they say: What sort of a messenger is this, who eats food and walk- through the streets? Why has not an angel been sent down to him to be a Warner with him?" (Qur'an 257) and "And the Messengers whom We sent before you were all (men) who ate food and walked through the streets" (Qur’an 25:20). The second citation refers to market activity in a mainly economic and historical context, one that highlights the market's role in providing food stuffs and the fact that all prophets mixed with their people on the basis of equality. In other words, they were ordinary men whose spiritual value was not compromised by engaging in market activities.

These verses characterize Islam’s worldview in general and its view of the market’s diverse nature in particular. Islam reaffirms its holistic approach to life and informs us that the market is an arena for the combined interplay of culture, religion, economics, and history. This was partly due, perhaps, to the Prophet’s own commercial experience and acumen, which he put to good use as his future wife’s (Khadijah) trusted agent and that led eventually to the reform of Arabian commercial practices. These reforms sought to purify the market of practices that differed from Islamic ideals of fair play, honesty, and justice. In many ways, a market is like an open theater, for it displays the unfolding of a portion of a civilization’s best achievements as well as its worst weaknesses and pitfalls.

One frequent issue is the need to recognize the free market principle: the governing of trade solely by the natural interplay of the economic forces of supply and demand. Only in such a market, it is argued, is one urged to strive and compete with his/her peers in pursuit of better products or services. No market can exist without a profit motive, and the right to make a profit must never be eliminated. Thus a market regulator must be concerned with ascertaining that legitimate profit does not exceed the limits of fair gain and that an individual’s greed and desire for profit are controlled. The intention is to ensure that skilled market operators do not take advantage of an unsuspecting customer’s ignorance and naivety.

Broadly speaking, one may say that this was the main goal of the new Islamic rules introduced into the Arabian market’s economic life. No law dealing with the quantitative limits of profit was promulgated, for profit is the d t of supply and demand and so is not a concern of the law. The law’s role is limited to ensuring the market’s morality, as well as the propriety and fairness of its participants and their activities (i.e., prohibiting fraud and misrepresentation), and implementing precautionary measures to prevent or rectify unfair trading practices.

I shall examine several provisions, mainly as regards price control (tas’ir) and highlight some conflicting interests of freedom vs. authority as reflected in relevant Shari‘ah provisions. The underlying issue is the extent to which rules on price control may or may not impinge on one’s basic form to trade and to sell items at the regular market price as opposed to one fixed and imposed by the ruling authorities. The answers provided will show that the intention to preserve the freedom of trade is the overriding factor of the Shari‘ah’s price control rulings.

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