Stop the Looting

Dec 06

An abridged version appears in Islamic Horizons, Nov/Dec 2009 Issue.

There is virtually no major organized opposition to legalized gambling, except from Focus on the Family and similar evangelical Christian groups. Given Islam’s prohibition of gambling, Muslims should work with other concerned organizations to educate people about the ills of gambling and advocate more transparency in lotteries (such as better disclosure of the winning odds). For example, if players knew that the odds of winning the Mega Millions jackpot are 1 in 135 million, would they so willingly part with their hard-earned money? To help publicize such facts, Muslims should support the National Problem Gambling Awareness Week (, the National Council on Problem Gambling (, and – Gambling Addiction (

Other religions oppose gambling as well. Dianne M. Berlin (vice chair, National Coalition against Legalized Gambling []; coordinator, CasinoFreePA []; and founder CasinoFree LanCo), told “Islamic Horizons” that “gambling is a form of theft” And that although the words “gamble” or “gambling” are not used, two of the Ten Commandments address gambling: not to covet other people’s possessions (Exodus 20:17) and not to steal (Exodus 20:15).

Rabbi Jill Jacobs (director, outreach and education, Jewish Council on Urban Affairs [JCUA]) and Noah Leavitt (director, advocacy and policy, JCUA) state that Jewish law virtually condemns gambling. One Talmudic opinion, found in a discussion in “Tractate Sanhedrin,” categorizes gamblers as thieves and thus disqualifies them from giving legal testimony. Maimonides, one of Judaism’s most important medieval authorities, defines gambling as stealing even if both parties agree to the rules of the game, for the winner “takes another’s money for free” (“Forward Forum,” 21 Jan. 2005). Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, extends this prohibition to state-run lotteries.

The essential problem, according to these thinkers, lies in gambling’s violation of the basic principle of rabbinic commercial law — the terms of sale must be clear to both the buyer and the seller. In addition, locating casinos or advertisements for them in low-income neighborhoods violates the Biblical precept Ilifnei iver lo titen michshol: “(Do not place a stumbling block before the blind), generally interpreted as a prohibition on tempting a person to do something that she or he knows to be wrong.”

The Qur’anic word for gambling is maysir (2:119 and 5:90); the term often used in Islamic law to denote it is qimar. According to Abu Hurayrah, Prophet Muhammad prohibited gambling (“Sahih al-Bukhari,” no. 4579). In his commentary on 2:219, Abdullah ibn Abbas says “Al-maysir is al-qimar,” and that pre-Islamic Arabs would bet their wives wife and wealth (“Tafsir ibn Jarir,” 2:358). Ibn Abidin states: “Gambling is from the word qamar, ‘that which increases at times and decreases at other times.’ It is called al-qimar due to the possibility that each gambler may lose his wealth to his counterpart, and it is also possible that one may gain from the wealth of the other.”

Protestants have issued explicit prohibitions against gambling, and the United Methodist Church’s “Book of Resolutions” states: “Gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, and destructive of good government. As an act of faith and concern, Christians should abstain from gambling and should strive to minister to those victimized by the practice.” Judaism takes a “dim view of gambling,” even describing the winner as a moral “loser” (Eliezer Danzinger, “What is the Jewish view on gambling?” ). Hindu scriptures also prohibit gambling (e.g., Rig-Veda 10:34:13 and Manu Smriti 7:50).

In contrast, the “New Catholic Encyclopedia” describes gambling as “though a luxury (it) is not considered sinful except when the indulgence in it is inconsistent with duty.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Games of chance (card games, etc.) or wagers are not in themselves contrary to justice. They become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others. The passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement. Unfair wagers and cheating at games constitute grave matter, unless the damage inflicted is so slight that the one who suffers it cannot reasonably consider it significant” (William N. Thompson, “Gambling in America: An Encyclopedia of History, Issues, and Society,” [ABC-CLIO, Inc.: 2001], 317-24).

Even though lotteries are illegal in many (though not all) Muslim-majority countries, variant forms of gambling are commonly found. Legalized and state sponsored gambling traditions date back to colonialism. For example, in 1567 Queen Elisabeth established the first state lotteries; Egypt’s first casino, Casino Opera, opened in 1926; and the French opened casinos in Lebanon. They remain open today, although in many instances restricted to foreigners. After the 1971 Indo-Pak war, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto built a plush casino in Karachi because he thought tourism would expose Pakistanis to “more modern Islamic and non-Islamic views,” (Linda K. Richter, “The Politics of Tourism in Asia” [University of Hawaii Press: 1989]). A military coup toppled him, however, before it was opened.

Wagering upon such inhumane games like quail or cock fights remains common in many Muslim societies. The spending of some Muslim royalty in famous casinos is quite legendary. And many Muslims in North America not only purchase but also sell lottery tickets in through their convenience stores.

The mission of Prophet Muhammad was to be a “mercy to humanity (and other creations.” In this context, Muslims should find common cause with others in opposing the scourge of gambling and increasing normalization of gambling like attitudes in finance and investments.

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