This post is about the reasons why there is so much imperative in the Qur'an on sellers not taking advantage of their customers. The point being elaborated here is that it can be easy for sellers to take advantage of their buyers. The Qur'an uses a specific context (weights and measures) but this notion can be extended to other areas of the transaction.
We can lump together all sorts of decisions that we make every day. Amongst other things, these can be decisions about:
what products and services to buy
whether or not to wear masks, get vaccinated or maintain social distancing
haram and halal behaviours.
Many (but not all) decisions are underpinned by the information that we have to go on.
But not all information is the same. I distinguish between different types of information that buyers can use and why they may have preferences for some types of information which is why it becomes easier for sellers to take advantage of them. I draw out implications for different groups of people.
I believe this analysis informs an understanding of Qur'anic ayats dealing with the fairness of commercial transactions.
The starting point is the Qur'anic injunction (in various places) about the requirements of transactions and commerce. I am starting off with ayats that deal with transactions and focusing on what may distinguish each one. 6:152 refers to full measure and justice, later we will need to explore the meanings of these terms, but for the time being we'll work with their face-value meaning.
11:85 makes reference to fairness and full measure and also adds the notion of not defrauding others and 7:85 seems similar.
17:35 recognises that the fairness of a transaction can be influenced by the tools being used to make the measurements.
Here is some commentary from 'The Study Qur'an', I have previously noted the need to use this resource with discernment, but on this topic it seems to be ok.
Nasr, Seyyed Hossein; Dagli, Caner K.; Dakake, Maria Massi; Lumbard, Joseph E.B.; Rustom, Mohammed. The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary (p. 438). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.
Some contemporary concepts
The following text provides some additional contemporary conceptual material that may help inform an understanding of the Islamic injunctions.
The information that we receive about products and services (and indeed about any life decisions) can be divided into two types, that which has high predictive value or low predictive value.
High predictive value
Information with high predictive value better reflects the reality of a situation. It is better at predicting how a product will perform, how a virus works or what the world will be like and It's better for us clearly to rely on information that has high predictive value.
Low predictive value
Such information is not very useful, it does not serve as a good guide about what things are like, how they work or how they perform.
Why does not everyone just use information of high predictive value?
This is where the cartoon at the top of this post comes in.
Not all information is equally easy to understand and use. We all know this to be the case from personal experience. Some information is easy to understand and remember, other information we may find impossible to understand, perhaps because it is too technically complex and we do not have sufficient education. And even if we do understand some information it may be hard to remember.
If you want a more graphic illustration of what I am talking about watch this 1.5 minute video:
Morgan Spurlock provides a humorous insight into how the fast food industry 'deceives' its customers. This screengrab from the trailer gives some indication as to how it does this. Each of the labels below carries a 'meaning' for us as consumers, in each instance, I think we can agree that these are positive meanings.
What Spurlock does in his engaging film is to show how in reality the meanings can be far different to what we think they mean (free range) or in the case of 100% natural the word has no meaning at all, but it still feels good.
Let's work with 'free range'. If I see this term being used on the label for a chicken product my understanding is that it means that the chicken was not cooped up in a small box for its life or even a shed, but rather it was allowed to roam free outside and in the sunshine. This may be naive, but this is what the term means to me. And the key thing here is that because it is a term that I read everyday and because it is simple and easy to understand, I am quite confident that I know what it means.
Let's move onto a concept that describes this phenomenon.
Every product description that we come across has a different level of confidence value for us. Continuing with the above example, 'free-range' has high confidence value, we believe we know what it means in terms of describing how a chicken has been raised.
The problem is that information which we confidently believe provides an accurate description may not actually do so.
Free-range is a case in point. In his documentary Spurlock explains what the legal implications of the term are in the food industry. Farmers do NOT need to have their chickens raised outdoors in order to call them free range. What they are required to provide (a tiny alcove next to the shed where they spend their lives), is not what most of us would consider free range.
Predictive value and confidence value
Bringing the two ideas together, then, we have the following result. 'Free range' has high confidence value, we think we know what it means. But it has low predictive value it does not really indicate how a chicken has been raised.
This leads to the following.
The problem we have in making sense of the world around us is that information which can better predict how products or even events and pandemics will pan out (it has high confidence value) may actually be hard to understand and evaluate (it has low confidence value). This is shown in the top right-hand box below.
The human condition
An aspect of the human condition is that sometimes we can be a little lazy in our efforts to engage with information that helps us to see how things will be because it is intellectually more challenging.
This leads us down the dangerous path of following information that is easy to understand (has high confidence value), but which has low predictive value (won't really tell us what the future will be like). This is shown in the bottom left hand box in the diagram below.
Unscrupulous people will give us the latter in abundance and we will enjoy a false sense of security, but will ultimately arrive at a destination that is considerably different to what we expected. This applies both to the products and services that we buy and the ethical and moral decisions that we make and indeed the health and lifestyle choices that we follow.
The diagram below illustrates that thought leaders within society are needed to show us those things which are easy to use and can accurately tell us about reality and they're needed to explain to us those things which inform us about reality and which are hard to use. Certainly, one thing which we need from society's leaders is the ability to protect us from those things which we think will help guide us and/or inform us about the way the world really is, but which in reality will not do so.
This example shows how the above can work in practice:
Here's another example, from the same article above:
Both of these examples show how consumers can make decisions off very limited amounts of information that do not fully reflect what it is that they are buying and the more important issue here is that marketers can take full advantage of this in terms of how they label products and how they photograph and present them.
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