Friday, September 17

Religion is Subjective

A few days ago a friend asked if I could settle an argument he was having with a colleague. A bit of background here: They both play Poker quite extensively, and not just for fun. My friend is a non-Muslim. His colleague, however, is one.

So the obvious disagreement they had was in the Muslim defending his right to gamble. Alarm bells ringing yet? But wait - I wouldn't be posting this if it didn't get vaguely interesting.

His (the Muslim's - let's call him Joe) reasoning was that the prohibition of regular gambling was a consequence of the concept of "unearned incomes" being generally disallowed in Islam, much in the way interest bearing loans are. He further reckons that because he puts in enough effort into playing Poker 10 hours a day etc, his income is just as "earned" as anyone else's. For those of you who don't play the game some consider high stakes professional Poker as a game more of skill, like sport, rather than more about luck. And like sport, if one has a natural talent in a game then there's no reason why they shouldn't exploit it.

My friend on the other hand suggests that gambling, like drinking and borrowing money, is something which can undermine that moral structure of a society. I added that gambling is also unfair in a lot of cases, has an increased likelihood of negatively affecting a person's character, and always has losers.

We then moved on to Blackjack - a game where it's totally possible to count cards and therefore bet lightly when the game is not in your favour and heavily otherwise. "Is there any difference between this and any other speculative/investment activity?" my friend asked. "What about buying stock - like 200 kilos of bananas which may not sell?" They certainly appear to be the same.

The problem here is with the reduction, or inference of a ruling. We live in modern times with a lot of concepts and facilities which didn't exist in the time of The Prophet(SAW)[1] - a prime example is that of the range of securities which now exist in financial markets. That's a natural consequence of time moving forward, and thankfully we have a framework of how to infer new rulings from the old. The trouble is that this framework largely relies on subjective opinion (albeit of a good character), and is itself subject to interpretation. This of course results in disagreements and differences of opinions - you can easily find two equally respected scholars saying the opposite for a particular ruling, be it whether women are actually allowed to pluck their eyebrows to if a suicide bomber is justified in any way for his actions. There is no Islamic Pope (although whether there should be one is another issue beyond the scope of this post. But quickly, I think we're alright without).

I don't really think that there's an issue though. People are naturally good and tend, in the whole, to make good choices between what's good and what's bad. In many ways this comes from God - in the hidayaat he blesses us with and which we should ask him for every day. Further, I think that if one considers all options and makes their own rational decision about which to follow, then ultimately they'll be stronger in following their faith. Of course there are nasty things like fitna, oppression and dunya getting in the way of making the right choice, but that's up to the individual to overcome. Anyone else can only advise on religion which at the end of the day is a personal thing. And besides in most cases we can co-exist with these differences in opinion anyway.

So is gambling ok in Islam? Without listing my reasoning (that's your job) I still don't think that it is - and there are certainly other more clearly legal ways to make a living (although we should make sure not to make haraam what is halal). Joe, however, appears to have thought about it and has made his decision and I wish the best of luck to him. As always, God knows best.

A final note: IANAS (I am not a scholar), and although I feel there is an Islamic basis to what I've written above I can't claim to have spent much time and effort researching in to it. Take what you will, but please do your own further independent research before accepting on this or ANY Islamic concept or opinion.

[1] For ease of writing and communication I shan't be writing the praise of our Prophet after his name from now on. I trust that the reader will though when reading or mentioning his reference, as I am when writing it.


  1. Irrespective of religion I find good "moral" reasons to count cards at blackjack.

    Every (other) casino game has house advantage (a percentage advantage for the casino even if you play perfectly) and they relieve ordinary working (and often non-working) people, poor suckers and degenerate gamblers of tens of billions every year. Avoid the casinos on Mondays if you don't want to watch fathers gambling away their family's weekly benefits cheque.

    Given 3% advantage, the law of large numbers states that given a LARGE number of repetitions the casino is going to make exactly 3% profit on the total amount bet. That's not a gamble for them, that's a money farm.

    As a card counter the game is different.

    Every once in a while you have the opportunity to enjoy house disadvantage and take them for everything you can. Sure, this is maybe 0.001% of gamblers but we were all once those poor suckers losing to house advantage.

    So, to me at least, beating the house at it's own game is somehow heroic. Factor in the law of large numbers and it's not really a gamble at all.

    I'm not sure about good and evil, but I think I can at least still spot heroic as opposed to vicious. (Ok, we're probably into the realms of anti-hero now, how terribly modern). To a predominantly godless society I think heroic virtues are the one moral concept which still stands up. The man stealing the bag from the old lady? Bad man! If pushed we probably couldn't give definite fundamental ethical reasons why, but we know we disapprove of his viciousness. The man who chases him and recovers the bag for the old lady? Good man! Again, we're gonna be really flaky when pushed with a chain of "...and why is that good? ... and why is that good?" but we can still recognize his virtue.

    And yes ok, if I were a better man (in some sense) I'd best give this money to something good and charitable (old ladies whose bags have been stolen?), but my life is a little more complex than that. My motive to do this isn't to do good, but I think that in doing this I show some degree of virtue.

    Religion, to me at least, would be an ethical crutch. On one hand you get some fairly definite rules to lean on, whereas without it you have to make your own way, limping along. To push the analogy far beyond where it should go: as a religious person, do you think that somebody trying to make their own way, without religion, can live as ethically good a life as a devoted servant of God?

    If I can see no good reason not to, can I gamble and drink and eat whatever I like and, providing I try to be good in my own eyes, still be as "good" as the devout?

  2. My waffle waffle, point being "Can we get by without an objective good?"

  3. Blimmey you can so tell you're shak's friend! Anyway i actually thought this was a very interesting blog entry!

    >>as a religious person, do you think that somebody trying to make their own way, without religion, can live as ethically good a life as a devoted servant of God?

    I have come across people who are not very religious and yet they are ethical! I dont think it necessarily means that religion makes you more ethical or a better person, sure Islam teaches how you should behave towards others and treat them (with respect etc etc)... but as someone pointed out to me very recently, religion isn't like a manual which you refer back to, ethins and good morals are deeply rooted. I do however believe that for some people religion is a very strong focus point and yes abiding by the rules gives their life and their conduct a structure.

    Forget your waffling... i do loads of it...:-S anyway good people are good.. there are bad people in the world too.. but alhamdulillah Allah (swt) gives hidayat to people and well in that respect i'd say religion helps you to be a better person.. its subjective.. we all have different experiences.
    As for the "can i do all those other things aslong as i know im good"...its all well to have a clean heart and pure intentions but sometimes as they say actions speak louder than words.