When he first began to spread his message, Muhammad’s focus was almost entirely social justice. He lived in a region where many prospered from trade while others struggled to meet basic needs. In Muhammad’s time, it was normal for the rich to provide loans to the poor. Equally common were unfair lending practices such as high interest rates and payment schedules that put debtors at a disadvantage. Borrowers who failed to keep up might suffer from another caveat to the agreement: being forced work for their lender on terms dictated by the more powerful party. The households of the wealthy would expand as the disadvantaged lost their freedom, trapped in an indefinite loop of servitude.
Women and children were especially susceptible to this cycle. Custom did not permit women to accumulate resources in their own names or inherit wealth. Even a widow was not the typical recipient of her dead husband’s money. A woman who found herself with no male head of house would have no means of supporting herself or her children. If forced to borrow money, she would almost certainly be unable to pay it back. A needy widow might have no other option but to attach herself to a wealthy household by whatever means possible, even as a slave. Children left with no parents were especially at risk of needing to trade freedom for survival.
Both Muhammad and his beloved first wife Khadija faced circumstances before they met that could have relegated them to lives of subservience. They managed not only to avoid the worst consequences associated with those stations, but to go on to lead happy, prosperous lives. Muhammad lost his parents at a young age, but was raised lovingly in his uncle’s household. Khadija had been widowed, but amazingly defied the status quo by obtaining her deceased husband’s wealth and his thriving trade business. But I think both Muhammad and Khadija lived with the “what if’s” of fates narrowly escaped.
Muhammad didn’t start speaking out for social reforms until after he married Khadija. With her love and support, he argued for changing lending practices and abolishing interest rates so that the poor could have easy access to resources. The wealthy elite hated his ideas, but Muhammad didn’t care. He believed women deserved the ability to accumulate wealth and receive inheritance. He insisted that the rich had a duty to care for the needy. While Muhammad’s message evolved and expanded, it was rooted in these issues that troubled him.
The problems that existed around Mecca during Muhammad’s life are not exclusive to that region or time. All over the globe and across generations, people struggle with the same things. The source of the disadvantage may vary—it might be race or education or illness or age. Women and children continue to make the list almost anywhere you go, though certain laws and government programs help.
After my parents broke up, I suppose my mom and I became a modern-day equivalent of Mecca’s widow and orphan. We landed at the bottom of the barrel resource-wise. Fortunately, we had my grandparents who lived in Dallas as a safety net. My mom’s parents lived in South Dallas, in a mostly African-American neighborhood. My dad’s parents lived north, in a much whiter and ritzier area. My mom and I were constantly driving back and forth between those two parts of town—between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”
Dallas is the first I was aware of the difference between wealth and poverty. Even today, after living in a handful of other cities with similar income disparities, I still think of Dallas as particularly polarized by income. I attribute this association, at least in part, with the low-income status I shared with my mom when we lived there. Ours was a modest means. But the other part of my association is certainly tied to the “Big D” culture of wearing one’s fortune. The rest of the country has since caught on—thanks to reality television, I fear—but Dallas was ahead of the curve: fancy handbags, head-to-toe designer labels, diamonds the size of ice cubes, cars that cost more than my mom would earn in a decade. Maybe the gap just seems so much wider when that extreme is flaunted.