What Is the Law of Reciprocity in Islam?


Of all the major guidelines given us in the Quran, one of the most important is the Law of Reciprocity, repeated frequently in the Quran but of course, not using that term. I use the English term to convey its universality, as it is the Divine comprehensive application we discuss here, analogous to Newton’s Third Law of Motion: “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” What makes it so fundamental is that it applies not only to the physics, biology, and human social behavior of this life, but also to Al-Akhira, the Hereafter, insofar as what we do in this life brings consequences in the next. Not only that, but Allah the Exalted applies it not only to humans, but to all of creation in a sense, and even more stunningly, Allah applies this principle to Himself, as in the expression that Allah has “decreed mercy on Himself.”

Of course, since The Exalted is also in control of all things, such reciprocity is within the context of His own will and design. And there’s more: establishing a reciprocity with Allah the Exalted means maintaining it constantly over time, which gives us even more than we could imagine.

Reciprocity is something we must initiate.

What we are enjoined to initiate is du’a or supplication coming from our hearts and directed solely to Allah, God, and thikr Allah, God-consciousness. When we call upon God, or bring Him to mind by invoking His Name, we are acknowledging Him as the One to call upon, capable of responding to us, i.e. reciprocating our call and helping or aiding us.

وَقَالَ رَبُّكُمُ ادْعُونِي أَسْتَجِبْ لَكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ الَّذِينَ يَسْتَكْبِرُونَ عَنْ عِبَادَتِي سَيَدْخُلُونَ جَهَنَّمَ دَاخِرِينَ
And your Lord says, “Call upon Me; I will respond to you.” Indeed, those who disdain My worship will enter Hell [rendered] contemptible.

Surat Ghafir 40:60

Here Allah literally tells us (the “you” is plural here) to call upon Him, and promising reciprocity, and Allah never breaks His promise. This clearly shows that we must initiate du’a, a word whose meaning is identical to the English sense of “prayer”—it can be done any time, any place, aloud or in secret, just as “prayer” in English means supplication. Salat, the formal Islamic obligatory prayer with body language and space-time perimeters, has no equivalent word in English, being a mode of prayer largely lost in Christianity. Its role is described below.

We must show our recognition and appreciation

of Allah the Exalted’s response to our prayer, one could say we must convey both acknowledgement and gratitude. By these two steps we create a reciprocity: we initiated, Allah responded, we acknowledged thankfully, thereby establishing a two-way connection.

فَاذْكُرُونِي أَذْكُرْكُمْ وَاشْكُرُوا لِي وَلَا تَكْفُرُونِ

So remember Me; I will remember you. And be grateful to Me and do not deny Me.

Surat Al-Baqara 2:152

The reciprocity is very clear here, as is the initiation of remembering Allah, emphasized just as is initiating du’a. Here the word for “remember” is thikr, which also means “to invoke”. Gratitude here is shown as the opposite of denial. In fact, a lack of gratitude is directly associated with kufr, a word often translated “denial” or “disbelief.” What is being denied here is Allah’s reciprocity. For there to be a two-way reciprocal relationship, there must be a positive response.

This connection must be constantly maintained.

Allah the All-Merciful gives us a way to do this: daily salat prayer, something we “establish” over time; and regular zakat, a word that has two meanings both of which apply, namely 1) obligatory charity if one is able, and 2) purification in the general sense of giving up something one values in this earthly life. Two aspects of this are described in the ayat below:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لَا تُلْهِكُمْ أَمْوَالُكُمْ وَلَا أَوْلَادُكُمْ عَن ذِكْرِ اللَّهِ ۚ وَمَن يَفْعَلْ ذَٰلِكَ فَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْخَاسِرُونَ
O you who have believed, let not your wealth and your children divert you from remembrance of Allah. And whoever does that – then those are the losers.

Surat Al-Munafiqoon 63:9

One must prioritize one’s connection to the Almighty, All-Merciful.

لَن تَنَالُوا الْبِرَّ حَتَّىٰ تُنفِقُوا مِمَّا تُحِبُّونَ ۚ وَمَا تُنفِقُوا مِن شَيْءٍ فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ بِهِ عَلِيمٌ
Never will you attain righteousness until you spend [in the way of Allah] from that which you love. And whatever you spend – indeed, Allah is Knowing of it.

Surat Al-Imran 3:92

Often understood to mean spending money or property, for those of little means it can also mean giving up something else worldly one loves, which can take one away from the mindfulness of Allah. Examples could be watching certain television shows or playing cards with friends to the point one forgets to pray, or many other things, some much worse. Common sense should always be a guide. For example, music does not inherently interfere with faith and is not specifically prohibited in the Quran, insofar as it does not take one away from thikr Allah. But working as a singer/ entertainer often brings one into easy and frequent access to sources of corruption, and one must therefore consider this fact as an ever-present harmful influence, and is responsible for the consequences of such a choice.

The Quranic admonition above clearly tells us how important this type of purification is. It is not enough to give a formulaic zakat amount of money, although that is certainly required. But to attain righteousness and be accepted by Allah, essentially the whole goal of our existence, we need to spend from things we love, such as giving in charity from food we would want for ourselves, not lower-quality, cheaper food, and the same goes for clothing or other goods given as charity. We must treat the recipients of our charity as equals, deserving of respect as much as we are, since a human being is valued not by the attainment of worldly success with money, goods, properties, etc., but by the quality of their actions.

Similarities between Quranic and Economic Reciprocation

Now you might be surprised to know that everything I have said thus far is in agreement with the ideas of a successful economist and businessman, Peter Kaufman, whose speech to a college economic class on what is truth and what is exemplary behavior is summarized below:

Using a true multidisciplinary understanding of things, Peter identifies two often overlooked, parabolic “Big Ideas”: 1) Mirrored Reciprocation (go positive and go first) and 2) Compound Interest (being constant). A great “Life Hack” is to simply combine these two into one basic approach to living your life: “Go positive and go first, and be constant in doing it.”

There may be no better formula for living the best life you could possibly live.

And this formula is actually given to us in the Quran as the way to seek Allah, not money, showing us how universally Allah’s laws are applied throughout the whole of creation, to the point where someone seeking truth by an entirely different means but using a wholistic approach, will come to the same exact conclusion.

For example, Kaufman describes his search: “We’ll ask this question: is there a simple two-word description that accurately describes how everything in the world works?” He then refers to Newton’s Law of Motion mentioned above, to which he says “That’s how the world works. It’s mirrored reciprocation.” Or as I put it, simply the Law of Reciprocity, although “mirrored” expresses that reciprocity in a physical sense. We are reminded, in fact, by that word “mirrored” of “ring composition” a mirrored form of writing used not only in the Quran but also in the Bible and the Torah, showing traces of their same Source.

Kaufman also quotes Einstein saying “The most powerful force in the universe is compound interest.” Which sounds odd until Kaufman describes it: “The most powerful force that could be potentially harnessed is dogged incremental constant progress over a very long time frame.” So the words I’ve italicized are his definition of “compound interest” in Einstein’s view, which was, like Kaufman’s view, interdisciplinary. That is to say Kaufman studied these truths by examining interviews of scientists in many fields, most of which he would normally never read, to see what truths were common to all of them.

Basically, he discovered these two things: mirrored reciprocity, and patiently and consistently maintaining that reciprocity. This applies to interhuman relationships as initiating positive treatment of others, and being scrupulously consistent in maintaining that reciprocity including in one’s fiscal behavior: spending on human values as a priority over merely “fiscal” ones.

And how does this agree with my explanation of the Law of Reciprocity stated at the beginning? Kaufman was not speaking about our relationship with God but rather speaking of this as the law of the universe, including human behavior. But insofar as he inferred it applies to everything, we will consider he means it must apply to our interactions with whatever is around us, the natural world/ ecosystems, our place of employment, and of course, for people of faith, our relationship with God. But to ignore God entirely in this matter would be a grievous error. The fact that we cannot perceive God as one perceives the creation has everything to do with the fact that God is in a category by Himself, which is the only reasonable understanding possible. Of course, there is a difference between what I have said and what Kaufman is saying, that this law of reciprocity (which is a universally accepted principle as seen in a google search of this expression) will help one achieve success, by which he means in this world whereas I’m referring to not merely this “world” including the universe, but to the Hereafter, to Allah’s eternal realm.

What if one merely considers “what if God were actually real” not as an anthropomorphic entity as in Christianity but as the Ineffable, like the ancient concept of Brahman before being given confusing properties by various Hindu sects. The Quran clearly states that Allah the Almighty is beyond our ability to see (by merely looking at a mountain it was instantly collapsed into dust). Then if Allah is indeed real or potentially real, why don’t we call upon Him? And then He responds…We shall know Allah then, by His reciprocity.

Clearly our relationship with our Creator is the most important relationship we could have. Yet the idea of a reciprocity existing between the Almighty and us mere humans, undetectably tiny in the context of the universe let alone the Creator of that Universe or “seven heavens” (which may in fact be more in line with string theory and its 6 dimensions beyond our own, making them “7 heavens/ dimensions”), is itself astounding.

Yet because religion in the West is usually considered as a variant of Christianity, all religions are condemned or at best avoided by science, because naturally the idea of a man who is God is absurd. Religion is not in any true sense the attempt to “define” and thus limit God, but rather is a way of worshipping God.

In Islam, the concept of God is ineffable, undefinable yet He tells us His nature. He is One, Indivisible in both time and space, creates but does not procreate, and if you initiate calling upon Him, He responds. In fact, to not call upon Him is described as an act of “arrogance.” This is not looked upon as neutral but rather as highly negative, because it was historically common knowledge that God is the Creator, gives us from His creation and sustains us, but also tests us, so we must strive to be “good people.”

Compound Interest Applied to Ethics and Compassion

And what defines “good people?” Their deeds: Initiating charitable acts without asking anything in return, kindness and consideration in speech and demeanor, mindfulness of God, and patience in maintaining that grateful and charitable attitude. Replacing the fiscal application of “Compound interest” is the “increase” Allah promises to those who are patient and consistent over time. Time being an element that strengthens that which is in it, reciprocally of course. So if you put in years of establishing salat and zakat and are consistent in this, it creates “compound interest.” Not in the fiscal, but rather in the true value sense, where interest is not taken from money but rather from your investment of your most valuable asset, your lifetime, in a positive reciprocal relationship with your Creator.

So the agreement with Kaufman on “go first and go positive” applies in Islam to du’a and thikr Allah; that is, prayer and mindfulness of Allah, followed by gratitude and “being constant” over time. Thus we apply the abstract principle using Allah’s guidance in the Quran. It is the best personal, economic, social, and, most essentially applying this to our relationship with Allah, religious, spiritual, and timeless advice. But of course, where we may diverge is in where we invest: in this world, or the Hereafter, the eternal domain where all our gains are given Divine values. Obviously, the Quran leads us to the most lasting and beneficial result. Investing your time and attention to Allah the Almighty the All-Merciful reaps unimaginable eternal rewards from the true King of Kings, whereas investing in money is riba and rewards the investor at the expense of those with little or nothing to invest. It creates wealth out of an injustice, thus negating the good of the reciprocity one achieved for wealth whose value is only in this world, and even there on shaky ground. Nowadays money is not even a “thing” but only an assertion or the assertion of an idea.

So great wealth in and of itself is not an actual resource like ecosystems, minerals, or clean air and water, but rather has no consideration for those actually valuable things except if we assign a dollar value to any specified “tangible good.” The attempt to put a price tag on a biome puts into stark terms the true “value” of money: whatever you think it is. But even biomes are not eternal. We must start with eternal values, then invest in “the most powerful Force in the universe”—not compound interest, obviously—but rather our connection to Allah the Exalted. Owner of the heavens and the earth — and all that is in them. The most spectacular return, truly unimaginable, against which everything else literally seems like less than a quark in comparison. Just a tiny spark of arrogance soon snuffed out.

Exalted without money. (Photo by author.)

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