Each year the world’s shakers and movers descend on Davos for shop-talks at the World Economic Forum about trends affecting the state of happiness of mankind in general and, coincidentally, of their own in particular. For the global elite, taking time out from their busy lives to muse about the future is time well spent, since they, after all, have a great deal more at stake than most of us, and anyway, their interests are in sync with those of society at large. Or so one would like to think. ‘The rich are like us,’ wrote Hemingway, ‘they just have more money,’ a quip which, glossing over the irony of the subtext, could serve as a WEF motto. But of late, the feel-good atmosphere enveloping Davos Man has come under strain as austerity policies seem to bite every section of society bar the one at the top of the income scale whose members in the midst of global belt-tightening seem to be doing rather well for themselves. In particular, the Davos Man’s comfort zone has been punctured by stark statistics tabled by Oxfam. Accordingly, the world’s eighty richest people hold as much wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion, moreover, on current trends by 2016 the top one per cent of the population will hold more than half of the world’s wealth. Such data suggests the economy is a turbo-charged wealth machine for a happy few feeding crumbs to the rest of mankind, but if it is, what should and could be done about such extreme wealth inequality? In a charged debate, taking a step back to gain a historical perspective can help clarify the issues. Tracking back to the very beginning of Islam, to Medina in the seventh century, shows already the debates over wealth distribution, income policies and tax fairness were front and centre of policy discussions.
When Arabs first stepped out into history, what puzzled observers more than anything else was what to make of their attitude to wealth. Ragged camel drivers descended from across desert dunes on towns near Mediterranean shores, in Gaza and elsewhere. Greeks searching for words to describe these newcomers pitching camp called them ‘sarakenoi’, meaning ‘people who dwell in tents.’ The term stuck. Saracens became a blanket reference for all Arabs, with a whiff of condescension towards a people who seemed quite content to make do with the most basic accommodation. But these tent-dwellers, when it came to positioning themselves in markets, proved surprisingly nimble in cornering market segments where profit margins were highest, in luxury goods such as perfumes, pearls, and silk. Commercial savvy belied their tatty attire. When Arabs, after concluding business, turned back East and again were lost to sight, they left behind a reputation for uncommon bargaining skills and, by inference, of extraordinary riches accruing from it. That reputation travelled widely. When the Roman poet Horace, famous for extolling moderation in all things, looked for a suitable phrase to censor a friend whose mind was set on accumulating riches, he lit on ‘your heart on Arab wealth is set’. Into world literature entered a new figure, the Arab as epitome of a plutocrat. Ibn Khaldun echoed the voices of Greek and Roman Antiquity since he, too, remarked Arabs embodied instantiations of opposites. ‘The story goes,’ wrote Ibn Khaldun of Arabs in early Islam, ‘that when they were given a pillow they supposed it was a bundle of rags,’ and then he contrasted this image of privation with a mention of the caliph al-Mamun’s wedding gift to his bride Buran: a thousand rubies. Largesse on such scale betokened affection, surely, but whatever was Buran meant to do with a thousand rubies? If switching between rags and riches was a trait so marked in Arab culture that Horace and Ibn Khaldun called attention to it across a distance of 1400 years, it is unsurprising one of the defining policy issues when Arabia was transformed by Islam was the proper treatment of wealth to redress the existing extremes.