Naseer Ahmad and Muzaffar Iqbal

The act of acquiring, earning, or laboring to acquire and earn, whether with regard to material things (as in acquiring material goods or gathering wealth) or non-material things (as in ‘acquiring’ knowledge, deeds, and rewards). The Qurʾān emphatically repeats that on the Day of Judgment (q.v.) each person will be responsible for his or her own acquisitions (kasb): And fear the day when you shall be returned to Allah—then every soul shall be paid in full what it has earned (mā kasabat); and they shall not be wronged (Q 2:281; also 6:164; 17:15; 34:25; 39:7). This article focuses on the Qurʾānic concept of kasb as explicated in exegetical and hadith literature. For the usage of the term kasb in Kalām and Sufi texts, where it proved a key concept for those who sought at once to maintain Divine sovereignty and human ability, that is, to maintain the possibility of human responsibility qua moral agent, see the relevant sections in Ability; Humans; Legal Responsibility; Power; and Will, Want, and Volition.

Definition and Usage

The concept of acquisition is expressed in the Qurʾān primarily through two verbal derivatives of the root k-s-b (kasaba and iktasaba), and secondarily through one derivative of q-r-f (iqtarafa) and two derivatives of j-r-ḥ (jaraḥa and ijtaraḥa), both of which are considered synonyms of kasb by some linguists (see below). Each of these roots is dealt with in turn:

k-s-b: “al-kasb is to seek provisions (rizq; see Sustenance)” (Farāhīdī, ʿAyn; Aẓharī, Tahdhīb, sub k-s-b). Its primary meaning is “to gather” as reflected in the phrase “I gained a thing” (kasabtu shayʾan and iktasabtuhu) (Jawharī, Ṣiḥāḥ). Kasaba is used sixty-two times and iktasaba five times in the Qurʾān (Q 2:286; 4:32 twice; 24:11; 33:58). Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 606/1210) says that there is a difference of opinion on whether these two derivatives are synonymous, referring to al-Wāḥidī (d. 468/1075) for the affirmative view (Tafsīr, sub Q 2:286). Alternatively, Ibn Sīda (398-458/1007-1066) cites Ibn Jinnī (ca.320-392/932-1002) saying that, in connection with Q 2:286, kasaba is used for good acquisitions and iktasaba is reserved for evil acquisitions (Muḥkam 6:726-727). However, as al-Rāghib al-Aṣfahānī (d. ca.502/1108) notes, this is not borne out by Qurʾānic usage: kasaba is used for good deeds in Q 2:201-202 and 6:158, but for evil in Q 2:79, 281; 6:70, 120 and 164; 9:82; 35:45; iktasaba is used for good deeds in Q 4:32, but for both good and evil deeds in Q 2:286 (Mufradāt). Since iktasaba is derived from the root k-s-b on the stem-VIII form iftaʿala, which denotes striving and exerting, the verb kasaba means “he gained” or “he earned”, whereas iktasaba means “he sought, strove, or applied himself with labor to gain.” That is to say, iktasaba has a more intense signification than kasaba (Sībawayh, Kitāb 4:74; al-Astarābādhī, Sharḥ Shāfīyat Ibn al-Ḥājib 1:263; Fayrūzābādī, Qāmūs). Al-Zarkashī (745-794/ca.1344-1392) supports this view in his Burhān fī ʿulūm al-Qurʾān: “When a word moves from a lesser pattern (as with faʿala/kasaba) to a greater pattern (as with iftaʿala/iktasaba), it necessarily gains in meaning as well, because words indicate meanings; and when there is increase in words, an increase in meanings necessarily follows (fa-idhā zīdat fī-l-alfāẓ wajaba ziyādat al-maʿānī ḍarūratan)…and in His saying, For it is only what [reward] it has earned (kasabat), and against it is [only] what [punishment] it has deserved (iktasabat) (Q 2:286). Because evil is weighty and requires effort [to commit], the verbal form used has been increased [by additional letters]” (Burhān, Type 46, al-ziyāda fī binyat al-kalima, 3:34).

According to al-Dāmaghānī (d. 478/1085), al-kasb is used in the Qurʾān in four respects (Wujūh wal-naẓāʾir p. 400): (i) writing or depiction, as in Q 2:79 describing those who falsify scripture for paltry gain (woe unto them for what they thus earn (yaksibūn)) (cf. his contemporary al-Zamakhsharī’s Kashshāf for a similar gloss); (ii) progeny, as in Q 111:2 (his wealth did not avail him, nor what he earned (mā kasab), which according to Mujāhid means “what he begot” (mā walad)) (cf. Samarqandī, Baḥr; for the exegetical consensus that this refers to Abū Lahab’s children, see Zajjāj, Maʿānī; for the Prophet’s statement that “One’s children are part of one’s kasb,” see Aḥmad, Musnad al-Nisāʾ, musnad al-Ṣiddīqa ʿĀʾisha bint al-Ṣiddīq raḍiya Allāh ʿanhā; Abū Dāwūd, Buyūʿ, fī-l-rajul yaʾkul min māl waladih; Nasāʾī, Buyūʿ, al-ḥathth ʿalā al-kasb); (iii) an accumulation, as in Q 2:267 (O you who believe, spend of the goodly things you have earned); and (iv) a deed, as in Q 2:286 quoted above, where al-Dāmaghānī says, commenting on His words in al-Baqara (Q 2:134): (That is a nation that has passed away. They shall receive what they earned and you shall receive what you earn), “Meaning that they will receive [the recompense for] whatever they did (ay lahā mā ʿamilat). An earlier authority in the science of polysemy and collocation (al-wujūh wal-naẓāʾir), Ismāʿīl b. Aḥmad al-Nīsābūrī (d. after 430/1038), added three more Qurʾānic uses of the term (Wujūh al-Qurʾān, bāb al-kasb p. 278): obedience, as in Q 2:134 (theirs is that which they earned, and yours is that which you earn); sin, as in Q 2:286 and 3:161 (then shall every soul be paid in full what it earned); and the pleasure of Allah Most High, as in Q 6:158 (nor in its faith earned good);

q-r-f: the basic meaning of the root is “peeling of bark from a tree or scab of a wound”; al-qarf and al-iqtirāf refer to the action of peeling off while qirf is what peels off; thus every peel of a fruit is qirf (Jawharī, Ṣiḥāḥ; Rāghib, Mufradāt, sub q-r-f).Iqtirāf is metaphorically used as a synonym of iktasaba/iktisāb (“to earn, to acquire”), both for good and evil (Q 6:113, 120; 9:24), although its preponderant usage is for earning evil, which is why it is said that al-iʿtirāf yuzīl al-iqtirāf (“recognition/acknowledgment erases commission”) (Rāghib, Mufradāt, sub q-r-f). According to al-Jawharī (d. 393/1002), yaqrifu/iqtarafa is synonymous with yaksibu/iktasaba (Ṣiḥāḥ). This root occurs five times in its iftaʿala/iftiʿāl form (Q 6:113 twice, 120; 9:24; 42:23);

j-r-ḥ: according to Ibn Fāris (d. 395/1004), the two primary meanings of the root j-r-ḥ are “acquisition (of deeds)” (al-kasb) and “splitting skin open” (shaqq al-jild), as in a wound. The relation between these two meanings emphasizes that action is always embodied. Ijtaraḥa refers to acquiring (especially sinful) actions (as in Q 45:21) because it involves one’s limbs (ʿamal bil-jawāriḥ), that is, the instruments of acquisition (al-aʿḍāʾ al-kawāsib) (Maqāyīs, sub j-r-ḥ). Al-Farāhīdī (100-175/718-791) says that a person’s jawāriḥ are the body parts (see Body) used to commit deeds, such as the extremities; ijtaraḥa ʿamalan means exerting oneself in order to acquire (iktasaba) (ʿAyn). Al-Rāghib says al-ijtirāmeans to earn evil deeds (iktisāb al-ithm) (Mufrādāt). Other meanings of the root include: to injure, to defame, or birds and beasts of prey (Fayrūzābādī, Qāmūs; Zabīdī, Tāj; Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān). The Qurʾān uses derivatives of this root four times (Q 5:4, 45; 6:60; 45:21), of which the latter two refer to acquisition: in Q 45:21, committing evil deeds (ijtaraḥū al-sayyiʾāt); and in Q 6:60 (He recalls your souls by night, and knows what you have earned (jaraḥtum) by day), committing any deed, good or evil (ʿAbd al-Razzāq, Tafsīr, on the basis of a statement of Qatāda), or specifically evil deeds (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, on the basis of a statement of Ibn ʿAbbās). The difference of opinion hinges on the referent of the verse. According to al-Zamakhsharī (467-538/ca.1074-1143), it addresses the disbelievers, and what you have earned thus refers to evil deeds (Kashshāf); Abū Ḥayyān al-Andalūsī (d. 745/1344), on the other hand, holds that the verse addresses every listener, meaning that what you have earned too is general, whether good or evil (Baḥr). Al-Ālūsī (1217-1270/1803-1853) prefers al-Zamakhsharī’s opinion because of the context of the verse (Rūḥ).

Exegetical Reflections

The Qurʾān uses al-kasb, writes al-Samʿānī (d. 489/1095), to refer to “any deed one does by exerting oneself for gaining benefit or to ward off harm. Therefore the acts of Allah (fiʿl Allāh) are not called al-kasb because His acts are beyond seeking benefit or warding off harm” (Tafsīr, sub Q 6:3; Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub Q 4:111). Ibn ʿAṭiyya (d. 546/1151) holds that whatever you acquire (mā taksibūn) in Q 6:3 (He is Allah in the heavens and on earth; He knows all you keep secret and what you do openly, and He knows fully whatever you acquire) includes beliefs, deeds, and speech (Muḥarrar, sub Q 5:6). For example, in Q 4:88 Allah is said to have thrown them (the hypocrites) back as a result of what they have earned (bimā kasabū), meaning “by way of disbelief and hypocrisy” (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar). In Q 2:202 (they shall have a portion from what they have earned (mimmā kasabū), according to al-Zajjāj (d. 311/923), the phrase what they have earned means “their accepted supplication, because their kasb here is their supplication [in the prior verse: O our Lord, grant us the good of this world and the good of the Hereafter]” (Maʿānī; also Samʿānī, Tafsīr). Al-Zamakhsharī explains that supplication here is referred to by the word kasb, for it too is a (meritorious) deed (Kashshāf).

The concept of kasb is intimately connected with individual freedom and choice on the one hand and, on the other hand, with taklīf, legal responsibility. Individuals are held responsible (see Legal Responsibility) for what they acquire through their beliefs and deeds, both of which constitute an inseparable pair in many verses (Q 4:57, 17; 5:9, 93; 7:42; 10:9; 13:29; 18:30; 22:56; 26:227; 29:7, 52, 58; 30:15, 45; 31:8; 32:19; 38:24; 41:8). The concept of acquisition thus has a direct and necessary relationship with Divine justice (ʿadl). The Qurʾān asserts that Allah does not burden any soul with more than it can bear (Q 2:286), an assertion repeated in five other verses (Q 2:233; 6:152; 7:42; 23:62; 65:7). Expressed otherwise, no bearer of burdens shall be made to bear another’s burden (Q 6:164; also 17:15; 35:18; 39:7; and 53:38). Allah Most High requites everyone for what he or she has earned (Q 14:51) and everyone is held in pledge for whatever he has earned (Q 52:21). They shall be judged justly and no wrong shall be done them (Q 2:281; 3:25, 161; 40:17). But where are the limits of kasb? Since Allah has full knowledge of events occurring even in the innermost depths of the human self (Q 2:284), does this mean that one will be held responsible even for the thoughts, over which one has no power, which pass through one’s heart —the heart being the locus of volition and consciousness? If even passing suspicions or occasional doubts are considered kasb, however, and one cannot arbitrate the drifting thoughts, does this not impose on human beings an unbearable responsibility (taklīf mā lā yuṭāq)? A verse central to this discussion is Q 2:284: Unto Allah belongs all that is in the heavens and all that is on earth. And whether you disclose what is in your selves (mā fī anfusikum) or conceal it, Allah will call you to account for it; and then He will forgive whom He wills, and will chastise whom He wills, for Allah has power over everything. Explaining this verse, al-Rāzī offers a distinction between two kinds of thought:

There are two kinds of thoughts (khawāṭir) which come to the heart: those which a person brings to his heart through volition and will, and those which are not like this but come rather on their own—[and] although one dislikes them one has no power to free oneself of them. One is taken to account for the first kind [of thought], but not for the second. Do you not know this saying of the Most High? Allah will not take you to task for what you have uttered without thought, but will take you to task [only] for what your hearts have conceived in earnest; indeed Allah is much forgiving, forbearing (Q 2:225).

Tafsīr, sub Q 2:284

Exegetes further explain this distinction by narrating sound hadiths concerning Q 2:284. Ibn ʿAṭiyya says: “It has been reported from Ibn ʿAbbās, Abū Hurayra, al-Shaʿbī, and a group of Companions and Successors that when this verse was revealed it grieved the Companions. They said, ‘We will perish, O Messenger of Allah, if we are to be taken to task even for the thoughts which pass through our hearts!’ It also grieved the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, but he said to them, ‘Do you want to say, “We have heard and we disobey” as the Children of Isrāʾīl did? Rather say, “We have heard and we obey.”’ The Companions did so. After that, Allah sent down [the verse], Allah does not burden any soul with more than it can bear (Q 2:286) and removed their distress” (Muḥarrar; cf. the hadith found in Muslim, Īmān, bayān qawlih taʿālā wa in tubdū). Al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/923) and Ibn ʿAṭiyya report that Ibn ʿUmar wept profusely when he heard Q 2:286 and Ibn ʿAbbās’s saying: “May Allah forgive ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿUmar, for the Companions of the Messenger, upon him blessings and peace, were likewise distraught at this verse, so Allah sent down Allah does not burden any soul with more than it can bear, and abrogated [responsibility for] stray thoughts (waswasa) while affirming [responsibility for] speech and action (fa-nasakha Allāh al-waswasa wa athbata al-qawl wal-fiʿl)” (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:284).

Other hadiths state that even volition to commit sin is not recorded as one’s kasb until one actually commits it (Bukhārī, Riqāq, man hamm bil-ḥasana aw sayyiʾa; Muslim, Īmān, idhā hamm al-ʿabd bi-ḥasana). The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, also said: “Verily, Allah forgives my umma (see Community) for the evil thoughts that occur in their hearts so long as they do not say or act upon them” (Muslim, Īmān, tajāwuz Allāh ʿan ḥadīth al-nafs; see discussion of this hadith below and also the version in Bukhārī, ʿItq, al-khaṭāʾ wal-nisyān fī-l-ʿatāqa).

Certain Qurʾānic verses, however, apparently carry the opposite meaning. For instance, Q 2:225 declares that Allah will take you to task for what your hearts earn (bimā kasabat qulūbukum) and Q 49:12 insists some suspicion (ẓann) is a sin. This apparent conflict is taken up by several hadith commentators, Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ (471-544/ca.1078-1149) and Abū ʿAbdullāh al-Māzarī (d. 536/1141) among them. Al-Nawawī (631-676/1234-1277) encapsulates the discussion masterfully in his commentary on the hadith:

Imam al-Māzarī, may Allah have mercy on him, said that it is the opinion (madhhab) of al-Qāḍī Abū Bakr b. al-Ṭayyib that whoever makes a resolute decision (ʿazm) to commit a sin and prepares himself (or: prepared his nafs, see Soul) to commit it has committed a sin by conviction and by resolve (athima fī iʿtiqādih wa ʿazmih). What has been said in these and similar hadiths is that the [only] one not taken to account is he who has not yet prepared himself to commit the sin; rather, the thought [of doing so] has merely passed through his mind without settling there (marra dhālik bi-fikrih min ghayr istiqrār). This is called hamm, which is distinct from ʿazm. That is the opinion of Qāḍī Abū Bakr. Many jurists and scholars of hadith have disagreed with this interpretation, taking rather the apparent meaning of the hadith. Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ, may Allah have mercy on him, said that a majority of the predecessors (salaf) and people of knowledge among the jurists and scholars of hadith concur with Qāḍī Abū Bakr, on the basis of the hadiths which confirm that one is accountable for activity in one’s heart. Although these scholars say that such a resolution is recorded as a sin, that [recording] is not [of] the sin one had intended to commit but did not because one was prevented by factors other than fear of Allah Most High and repentance to Him. It will be recorded as a sin because insistence and resolve [to sin] is a sin in itself and is recorded as such (nafs iṣrār wal-ʿazm maʿṣiya fa-tuktab maʿṣiya). Once committed, it will be recorded as a second sin. If, however, one abstains from it out of fear and awe of Allah, a good deed will be written for him, as [described] in the hadith, “He abandoned it purely on My account” (innamā tarakahā min jarrāya); for his abandoning [the sin] was due to fear of Allah Most High and his striving against his inciting self (li-khawf Allāh taʿālā wa mujāhadatih nafsah al-ammāra bil-sūʾ)… The hamm which are not recorded (that is, do not qualify as kasb) are stray thoughts (al-khawāṭir) which one does not cultivate in the heart; are not accompanied by agreement, intention and determination; and regarding which one has not made any [determined] resolve (ʿazm).

Nawawī, Sharḥ Muslim, bāb bayān tajāwuz Allāh Taʿālā ʿan ḥadīth al-nafs

Taqī al-Dīn al-Subkī (d. 756/1355) posits a hierarchy of five “degrees of intention” (marātib al-qaṣd) in his Qaḍāʾ al-arab (p. 156-174) in order to clarify the limits of what is considered kasb. Both Ibn ʿAllān (996-1057/1588-1647) and al-Mubārakfūrī (d. 1414/1993), perhaps drawing on al-Subkī’s idea, describe these degrees of intention as follows: hajis, the initial casting of the idea into one’s heart, a passing thought; khāṭir, a recurring thought, upon which one has not yet decided whether to act; ḥadīth al-nafs (or: ḥadīth nafs), oscillation between action and inaction, without any commitment to either; hamm, initial, hesitant commitment to action; and ʿazm, firm resolve.

The first three degrees of intention, according to scholarly consensus, incur neither reward nor punishment. That is, they are not inscribed in the register of one’s deeds: they do not qualify as kasb. Intending good to the fourth degree (hamm) incurs reward but intending evil to the same degree incurs no punishment. Only firm resolve (ʿazm) yields definite consequences and is included in one’s kasb.

                 al-Mubārakfūrī, Mirʿāt al-mafātīḥ
1:142, abridged

Al-Ālūsī (d. 1270/1854) cites a couplet by an unknown poet who arranged the degrees of intention in ascending order of legal consequence. Referring to the work of prior authorities, the poet declaims:

The degrees of intention are five: hajis,

then khāṭir, then ḥadīth al-nafs—heed well—

then follows hamm, then ʿazm. All are forgiven

but the last, which brings consequences and accounting.

Rūḥ, sub Q 2:284

Some verses emphasize justice for what one earns (Q 2:202; 3:25, 161; 40:17; 45:22), while others state that no calamity befalls us except from what our own hands have wrought, although He pardons much (Q 42:30). Still other verses emphasize Divine mercy: Your Sustainer is the Forgiving, Owner of Mercy (dhū al-raḥma). Were He to take them [at once] to task for whatever [wrong] they commit (bi-mā kasabū), He would indeed hasten on their doom (Q 18:58); If Allah were to take mankind to task for whatever [wrong] they earn (bi-mā kasabū), He would not leave a living creature on the surface [of the earth] (Q 35:45). Certain other verses mention that one enters Paradise because of one’s good deeds: This is the Paradise which you have been made to inherit because of your deeds which you used to do (Q 43:72); and, describing the righteous: Those whom the angels take in death, good and pure. They will say: “Peace be unto you! Enter Paradise, because of what [good] you used to do” (Q 16:32). At the same time, there are sound narrations which state that no one enters Paradise merely because of one’s deeds. The Prophet, peace upon him, once said, “None of you will enter Paradise by his [good] deeds, but only by the favor of Allah and His Mercy.” His Companions asked: “Not even you, O Messenger of Allah?” He answered: “Not even I, unless Allah encompasses me with His favor and His mercy” (Bukhārī, Marḍā, tamannī al-marīḍ al-mawt; Muslim, Ṣifat al-qiyāma wal-janna wal-nār, lan yadkhula aḥad al-janna bi-ʿamalih) (see Blessings, Bounty, and Favor of Allah).

Al-Nawawī explains in his commentary on this hadith that the orthodox doctrine (madhhab ahl al-sunna) on this matter is that one cannot prove reward or punishment rationally and that no law constrains Allah Most High:

The universe is His dominion; this world and the Hereafter are under His rule; He does as He wishes. If He were to punish all the obedient and righteous and send them to Hell, it would be His justice; and if He were to honor and bless them and send them to Paradise, it would be His favor. If He were to bless the disbelievers and cause them to enter Paradise, it would be likewise. It is only through revelation as conveyed by the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, that we know this not to be the case and that rather “He will forgive the believers and cause them to enter Paradise by His mercy; and He will punish the hypocrites and cause them to enter Hell because of His justice.

Nawawī, Sharḥ Muslim

The difference between Q 43:72 and 16:32, seemingly insisting on kasb as means to success in the Hereafter, and the other verses and hadiths cited above, seemingly insisting on Divine Mercy and Favor, is resolved by al-Nawawī through a deeper reflection on the nature of kasb and human ability to commit deeds and adhere to guidance with sincerity, which, in itself, is ultimately due to the Mercy of Allah, as is the acceptance of one’s deeds due to His Favor. Thus deeds are certainly not sufficient and Divine freedom is maintained, in that deeds cannot constrain Allah to let anyone enter Paradise. Likewise, however, the securing of heavenly reward through acquiring meritorious deeds (encompassing actions, intentions, and speech) still has a central and vital role in the Divine dispensation of human responsibility.


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See also

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