In Fiqh

Definition and Classification

Riba is one of those unsound (fasid) transactions which have been severely prohibited (nahyan mughallazan). It literally means increase... However, in fiqh terminology, riba means an increase in one of two homogeneous equivalents being exchanged without this increase being accompanied by a return. It is classified into two categories. First, riba al-nasi'ah where the specified increase is in return for postponement of, or waiting for, the payment; for example, buying an irdab (a specific measure) of wheat in winter against an irdab and a half of wheat to be paid in summer. As the half irdab which has been added to the price was not accompanied by an equivalent value in the commodity soled and was merely in return for the waiting, it is called riba al-nasi'ah. The second category is riba al-fadl, which means that the increase mentioned is irrespective of the postponement and is not offset by something in return. This happens when an irdab of wheat is exchanged hand to hand for an irdab and a kilah (another measure) of its own counterpart, the buyer and the seller both taking reciprocal possession; or when ten carats of gold produce are exchanged for twelve carats of similar gold produce.

Riba al-Nasi'ah

There is no difference among Muslim jurists about the prohibition of riba al-nasi'ah. It is indisputably one of the major sins. This is established by the Book of God, the Sunnah of His Prophet, and the consensus of the ummah. The Qur'an says:... (Verses 2: 275-9). This is the Book of God which has prohibited riba vehemently and has reprimanded the taker so severely that it makes those who believe in their Lord and dread His punishment tremble with fear. Can any reprimand be harsher than God equating the takers of riba with those who have risen in revolt against Him and are at war with Him and His Prophet? What will be the state of that feeble human being who fights with the Almighty and Overpowering God, Whom nothing on earth or in the Heaven can frustrate. There is no doubt that by resorting to riba such a person has adopted the course of self-destruction and deprivation.

The obvious meaning of riba to be understood from this noble verse of the Qur'an is the riba known by the Arabs in the Jahiliyyah period as explained by the commentators of the Qur'an. More than one of them has mentioned that when a loan extended by an Arab matured, he would ask the borrower for the return of the principal or for an 'increase' in return for the postponement. This is also the 'increase' that is known to us. This increase was either in quantity, like postponing the return of a camel now for two in the future, or in age, like postponing the return of a camel aged one year against a camel aged two or three years in the future. Similarly, the Arabs were familiar with situations where a lender would advance money for a period and take a specified amount of riba every month. If the borrower was unable to repay the principal when the loan matured, he would be allowed an extension in the time of repayment [rescheduling with the continuation of the riba he has been receiving from the borrower. This is the riba which is prevalent now and charged by banks and other institutions in our countries. God has prohibited it for Muslims...

The noble verses have decisively prohibited riba al-nasi'ah which involves, what is generally understood in our times as the giving of a principal amount on loan for a given period against the payment of riba in percentage terms on a monthly or annual basis. Some people try to justify this kind of riba in spite of its conflict with Islam. It is far removed from Islam and is in discord with its basic philosophy in form as well as meaning. Some of them claim that what is prohibited is the charging of riba many times the principal amount as stated by the Qur'an: "O believers! charge not doubled and redoubled riba, and fear God so that you may prosper" (3: 130). This claim is however absolutely wrong because the objective of the verse is to express a repulsion against riba...

Riba al-Fadl: It’s Legal Position

Riba al-Fadl...is prohibited according to the four schools of jurisprudence. But some of the Prophet's companions, among them Sayyid 'Abdallah ibn 'Abbas (may God be pleased with him), allowed it. Nevertheless, it is reported that he recanted his opinion afterwards and talked abouts its prohibition. Riba al-Fadl does not have substantial effect on transactions because of the rarity of its occurrence; it is not the objective of people to buy or sell one thing in exchange for the same thing unless there is something extra from which each of the parties may benefit. Notwithstanding this, it has been prohibited because it might lead to the defrauding or deception of less sophisticated persons. For example, a shrewd trader may claim that the irdab of a specific brand of wheat is equivalent to three irdabs of the other kind because of the excellence of its quality, or this unique piece of gold ornament is equivalent in value to twice its weight in gold; in such transactions there undoubtedly is defrauding of people and harm to them.

The authority for the prohibition of riba al-fadl lies in what the Prophet, peace be on him, said: Gold for gold, silver for silver, wheat for wheat, barley for barley, dates for dates, and salt for salt - like for like, equal for equal, and hand-to hand; if the commodities differ, then you may sell as you wish, provided that the exchange is hand-to-hand.

Even though the above except is sufficient to convey the views of the four schools of jurisprudence, the reader may wish to go through the following sample of opinions from prominent Qur'an commentators and/or jurists of the various schools, particularly the Ja'fari school, which is not covered in the above-quoted book. It may be seen that there is hardly any difference of opinion on the subject except in presentation and in certain minor details.

Fakhr al-Din Al-Razi (Qur'an Commentator and Philosopher)

Riba is of two kinds: Riba al-nasi'ah and riba al-fadl: Riba al-nasi'ah is what was well known and conventional among the Arabs in Jahiliyyah. They used to give loans on the condition that every month they will receive a stipulated amount with the whole principal remaining outstanding. Then, when the loan matured and the borrower was unable to clear his obligation, the amount was raised and the period was extended. This is the riba that was practised in the Jahiliyyah.

Riba al-naqd [al-fadl] is, however, the selling of one maund [a unit of weight] of wheat, or anything similar to it, against two maunds. (Al-Tafsir al-Kabir, Tehran: Dar al-Kutub al- 'illmiyyah, 2nd ed., n.d., wol. 7, p. 85)

Abu Bakr al-Jassas (Qur'an Commentator and Hanafi Jurist).

The literal meaning of riba is increase...but in the Shari'ah it has acquired a connotation that its literal meaning does not convey. The Prophet, peace be on him, termed the increase, [which is a condition] for waiting, as riba as is evident from the hadith narrated by Usamah ibn Zayd in which the Prophet said: "Riba is in waiting..." Hence God abolished the riba which was being practised at that time. He also invalidated some other trade transactions and called them riba. Accordingly, the Qur'anic verse "God has prohibited riba" covers all transactions to which the connotation applies in the Shari'ah even though the indulgence of the Arabs in riba, as mentioned above, related to loans in dirhams and dinars for a specified period with the increase as a condition.

Muhammad ibn 'Abdallah ibn al-Arabi (Qur'an Commentator and Maliki Jurist)

Riba literally means increase, and in the Qur'anic verse (2:275) it stands for every increase not justified by the return... (Ahkam al-Qur'an, Cairo: 'Isa al-Babi al-Halabi, 1957, p. 242)

It may be clarified here that the 'waiting' involved in a loan is not considered by the jurists to be a return justifying the increase (riba) on the principal amount.

Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah

Riba is of two kinds: Jali and Khafi. The Jali has been prohibited because of the great harm it carries and the Khafi has been prohibited because it is an instrument for the Jali. Hence prohibition of the former is deliberate while that of the latter is precautionary. The Jali is riba al-nasi'ah and this is what was engaged in during the Jahiliyyah, like allowing the postponement of repayment of principal against an increase, and every time there was a postponement, there was an increase... However, riba al-fadl has been prohibited to close the access to riba al-nasi'ah. (A'lam al-Muwaqqi'in, Cairo: Maktabah al-Kulliyyat al-Azhariyyah, 1968, vol. 2, pp. 154-5)

Shah Wali-Allah Dihlawi

Remember that riba is of two kinds: One is primary (haqiqi), the other is subject to it. Primary riba is only on loans. The other riba is called riba al-fadl...and is akin to primary riba. (Hujjat Allah al-Balighah, Lahore: Qawmi Kutub Khana, 1953, tr. Mawlana Abdul Rahim, vol. 2, pp. 474-5)

Abdallah ibn Ahmad ibn Qudamah al-Miqdasi (Hanbali Jurist)

Riba is of two kinds: riba al-fadl and riba al-nasi'ah. The prohibition of riba al-fadl involves the exchange of one commodity against itself and covers all commodities which are exchanged by volume or by weight regardless of whether the quantity exchanged is small, like one date for two dates or one grain for two grains (p. 64)

Riba al-nasi'ah is involved in the exchange of two commodities one of which is not the price. (p. 73) (Al-Muqni', Qatar: Matabi' Qatar al-Wataniyyah, 1973, vol. 2, pp. 64-77)