The topic for today is business (ethics) in Islam.

I have heard/read that generally, conducting trade or business in Islam is highly encouraged, obviously taking religious laws/boundaries (theft/deception/interest etc.) into consideration. I would like to start my own business in the field of textiles and merchandise, but I am in a bit of a dilemma.

Capitalism/Consumerism/Materialism in its current form is one of the major problems in our world today, adversely affecting the environment, general society, individual mental/physical-, religious/spiritual- wellbeing and therefore hindering human focus, potential and progress at large.

Leading scholars have also criticised western materialism that has crept into all societies globally.

I’d like to understand how we can interpret Islamic rulings in today’s age from various angles with regards to the environment, economy and business. Does Islam give any clear answers as to which form of economic system and business conduct is ethical/acceptable and the limitations, given the circumstances that exist today (apart from the obvious rulings)?

Before and during the time of our Prophet (PBUH and his Family) up until the post industrial revolution and world trade (globalisation), one could argue that scarcity existed to an extent (even if people could sustain themselves). Major progress was made, and the quality of life could substantially be improved without major adverse effects to the environment and people. Today however, many products are completely unnecessary, and we really have to deal with material and immaterial damage to all living things as a result of our activities, except maybe in regions where scarcity/poverty still exist.

Most necessary items (food, clothing, furniture, other domestics items, etc.) are already catered for and come in seemingly infinite tastes and designs. Rarely do new/innovative beneficial “necessities” come into being, only variations thereof. Knowing that we have excess and not moderation in most areas, is it ethical to start a business in these fields?

In Islam, we are encouraged, even when performing daily obligations such as Wudhu and Ghusl to be extremely careful about unnecessary/wasteful use of water. I believe to remember that one Hadith stated the use of 3 Litres for Ghusl (I am dead meat!!!) and we are generally encouraged to turn off the tap when performing Wudhu. Even in war, we are told not to cause unnecessary damage to assets and resources, such as cutting down trees or spoiling crops. Are the above not principles that should be adopted or translated into every other area of our lives then?

Yet, for our economies, business and profits, we are destroying everything around us to the extent that many species are facing extinction. Even so-called green technologies, like mining lithium for batteries, causes substantial damage to the environment and human health (cancer). We also still have no way of recycling these batteries in an environmentally friendly way once they reach the end of their life cycles. Another example: I read that manufacturing ONE pair of jeans requires between 7000 and 10000 litres of water! Then there are obviously the adverse effects of dyes and other chemicals on the environment on top of that. These adverse effects can be translated to almost all other resources and production methods.

I understand that almost every action will come with the dilemma of choice and loss/damage of some form or the other and that progress can only be made by being active. The hope is obviously that we reach a point where things become more sustainable.

There is also no doubt that our behaviours and various cultures have contributed towards progress, beauty and diversity in our surroundings. As I understand, Islam does not prohibit luxury and beautification. Briefly speaking, asceticism in Islam means you can own things, but they shouldn’t own you. Therefore, wealth and comfort are not discouraged.

My problem is the current sheer unnecessary scale of it all which is mainly driven by profits.

I also understand that we as Muslims can’t just sit back and relax, especially since most business and economic affairs globally are handled by, let’s say, people with little concern and sincere intentions towards others/communities.

Employment also often entails working for someone else, marketing just as useless/harmful products and being in an environment that is not conducive to Islam. So it’s not a great alternative.

The problem is, unless one is highly specialised in a field (or knows a group that is) and independently comes up with and develops something completely new and innovative that solves a “real” problem (for example treatment of a disease, solving an environmental crisis, improving upon existing necessaries, contributing to the progress of society) then basically, there’s no reason to get involved in business from a purely moral or ethical perspective.

But the reality is, most of us get involved in some existing and saturated business idea (fashion, food, restaurants and other basic commodities). If the only thing one is doing, is to compete on existing variations of unnecessary items for sale and putting further strain on the environment, flashing out additional ads to get people brainwashed and hooked to your product, then how is that really doing something good? Wouldn’t it be considered as wastage and extravagance in our religion?

It is a bit like the problem of interest being an inescapable necessary evil in the world we live in.
We accept that materialism is a bad thing yet contribute towards it and say the responsibility of moderation or dealing righteously lies with the individual consumer.

Yes, one can argue if the business is successful and generates profit, we will serve our Imam (AS) and help our communities. We can pledge to use more environmentally friendly methods in materials and production etc. But does working for the “greater good” justify the damage in the process.

Isn’t that a bit like someone willing to break their principles of goodness and religion, even if for only a brief moment, for example saying they’ll play the lottery or do a dare, even though they know it is forbidden, but trying to justify it by pledging a portion of the winnings towards good. That would not be allowed in our religion, as I understand.

Basically, as I mentioned in the beginning, I’d like to get into textiles and other merchandise. But I know that the world does not need me to use its resources and give people more t-shirts and cups in the current situation we find ourselves in. My question is, how do we justify and behave from an Islamic perspective if we wish to start a business, taking into consideration the things mentioned above?

I’m sorry, this has become quite long but to conclude I have a few more specific questions regarding business practices.

Alternatives to luxury products:
This relates to the issue discussed above. There is a luxury vehicle which costs say ten times more and consumes twice as much fuel compared to an ordinary vehicle which is just as capable of taking someone from A to B. Assuming one has enough money, is it acceptable to buy the luxury vehicle, knowing that the money could be put to much better use elsewhere and the additional wastage of fuel and pollution avoided?

Profit Margins on Products:
Is it correct that we are free to set the profit margins on the items that we sell or is it considered a form of deception if they are very high, even if the buyer knows exactly what they are getting for the price and is still prepared to pay for it? (the discussion is not about hoarding and creating scarcity of a commodity or necessary item). Often popular or luxury brands operate on large profit margins.

But some products are considered “price blind” due to them being new or innovative in the market. Price blind means a consumer doesn’t know what an item should potentially cost, as there are no or only few comparable items in the market. Sellers then take advantage of this fact and they charge a high price. Still, the customer knows what they are getting and is prepared to pay the price.

What does Islam recommend for profit margins or does one usually follow industry standards?

Quotes and names of Imams (AS) on merchandise:
Is it permissible to sell merchandise with quotes and names of our Imams (AS) and to make a profit? If yes, on what type of items. Cups get dirty, so do clothes. If quotes do not contain any holy references but are simply advice or information, could one print those without the names on items like cups and t-shirts?

Selling knowledge:
I have read Hadith where it more or less stated that selling knowledge for profit is a wretched act (and it did not specify whether general/worldly or religious knowledge). Unfortunately, I don’t have the relevant hadith or reference at hand. What type of knowledge does this refer to? We see scholars and worldly people sell knowledge in form of books and courses all the time and teachers earning wages. Let’s say a worldly person wrote a book to sell for profit about their journey from atheism to belief with strategies, passages from the Quran and quotes from the Imams (AS) etc. Would this constitute as selling knowledge, or is this permissible?

Women’s Fashion: is it permissible to sell women’s fashion that is considered immodest to wear in public by Islamic standards (e.g. tight, colourful, short sleaved clothing) or are there no limitations on selling these types of items? Theoretically this type of fashion would be permissible for a wife to wear in front of her husband (such as lingerie). But assuming the seller knows that people are also likely to misuse wearing such clothes, is it still acceptable? Is the argument similar to; just as a knife has practical applications, it can also be used for harm, yet we sell knives. Or is that a weak argument?

If the answer is no, we cannot sell such items, are textile mills in Muslim countries that also manufacture for foreign buyers required to refuse the production of such goods? Is there a difference if I sell such items in Muslim or non-Muslim countries?

1- Indeed our society and our economy have become very materialistic. While it is permissible to start a business in the areas you mentioned, if you want true Barakah in your life, see if you can start a business in more beneficial areas—such as basic necessities or areas human beings can benefit from for their self-development. But as long as the products are halal, from a Fiqhi perspective it will be halal to sell them, even if some people misuse them or become excessive with them. My recommendation is for you to study what people reasonably need and then create a business to address those needs. This would be better than inventing “new needs” which “create new desires” for people.

Furthermore, try to ensure that your business does not cause significant harm to the environment and does not lead to the unnecessary wasting of resources. So yes, we must try as best as we can to save resources and not be involved in wasting them.

One recommendation is to come up with creative methods to raise awareness. For example, you can print a label on your products and remind the consumers “that resources are precious and limited, so please don’t waste this product. Use it wisely, as millions around the world do not have the luxury to afford such a product.” It really does make a difference when people are reminded.

Yet another recommendation is to be creative and find new, environmentally-friendly ways to generate clean resources. For example, since making a pair of jeans requires so much water, have your business come up with a way to recycle water, or use properly recycled water to make the jeans. This will require more effort and possibly decrease your profits, but Allah will reward you for that. Also, today there are people who want to support environmentally-friendly businesses, so be creative with your marketing and you can be successful. So any way to offset the damage causes to the environment will make your business more and more ethical.

2- Wealth and comfort are not discouraged as long as one guarantees that materialism will not negatively affect him and weaken his faith. However, one must also not be extravagant and wasteful.

3- Initially you might have to partner with existing businesses out there (that may not be so ethical), but as long as your intention is to establish a fully ethical business, then your pursuit is justified (just make sure no haram is committed). So just have the goal of: trying to be creative and save resources, try to decrease the impact on the environment, and your pursuit of a business in the textile industry will be justified.

4- Honestly, buying a very expensive and luxurious car is not recommended and not called for. Even if one is rich and paying his religious dues, it’s unnecessary to spend so much on a car. Instead of driving a $300,000 car, the rich person can drive a $50,000 car and do something useful with the $250k. True believers avoid extravagant spending.

5- You are free to set the profit margin as long as you are not engaging in any deception of the buyer. Yes, Islam recommends one not to make too much profit from customers. Doing so usually leads to greed and exploitation of people. So the profit margin should be kept reasonable and Allah will put more Barakah in the business. You are not obligated to inform the customer of your actual costs. As long as you are not deceiving or lying to them, you can set whatever price you want.

6- It’s permissible to sell items with quotes and names of our Imams. Just make sure they items are not the type that would usually be thrown in the trash. So for example if you want to sell a cup, you can have a hadith written on it about remembering Imam Hussain’s thirst, or about thanking Allah for blessings. That’s fine. If you suspect that usually such items become najes, you can write something like “The First Imam states….”

7- Those hadiths about selling knowledge basically refer to those who misuse the knowledge and do not follow the instructions of Ahlulbayt (a). Let’s say I use the knowledge of the Imams and sell my book, and I use the money in haram or not in God’s obedience. This is condemned. But let’s say I use the profits to support my family, to support charities, and so on—then it would be ok.

8- If you know that the majority of people will use the fashion items for haram (wear them publicly), then do not be a part of such business. For example, let’s say you know that 90% of your customers will wear those leggins publicly—in this case avoid selling them. As for the knife example, usually people use it for halal. It’s rare for people to use to kill others. Let’s say you lived in a society where 90% of people used knives to kill unjustly—in that case you should avoid selling them.

9- What you can do is narrow down your market areas. Try to sell your items in areas that you know they will be misused less.

10- You can get the opinion of other scholars on these questions. No problem in that. And you can post my answers on other platforms. That’s ok.

May Allah bless you.