The word Riba is constructed of three root letters, namely Ra, Ba and Waw. Interestingly, the word for profit in Arabic is Ribh, which is constructed of three root letters too, namely Ra, Ba and Ha. Despite the familiarity in terms of their root letters, there is a world of difference between Riba and Ribh, and the last letter makes all the difference linguistically!
Riba and its various derivatives and forms have common underpinning meanings of increase, growth, overpower and overshadow. Many of these meanings have appeared in the Qur’an with different verbal forms for the root word Riba.
Riba in the context of unproductive growth
In the following verse, the verb for Riba is used in the context of growth and produce of land. What is striking in the following verse is that the entire verse speaks of how Allah creates humans from nothing and then nurtures them through phases of growth, but then some people eventually turn into feeble and weak beings whilst others pass away before a frail state without any ability or cognitive function. Thereafter, Allah draws analogy of that phenomenon to barren land which grows into life and production, with the verb for Riba used to indicate to the growth and produce of that land after nothingness; eventually, that land will also reach an end of its cycle and diminish. By contemplating on the full verse, one may deduce that Riba is such growth that eventually turns feeble, weak and non-productive in the long-term, like the human who may seem strong at a point in the cycle of growth, but eventually turns feeble, frail and weak.
وَتَرَى ٱلْأَرْضَ هَامِدَةًۭ فَإِذَآ أَنزَلْنَا عَلَيْهَا ٱلْمَآءَ ٱهْتَزَّتْ وَرَبَتْ
“You sometimes see the earth lifeless, yet when We send down water it stirs and swells and produces every kind of joyous growth.” [Qur’an 22:5]
Riba in the context of immediate increase
In the following verse, very eloquently, two different word forms – a noun and a verb – with the same root letters from Riba, have been mentioned together. The noun is in the technical meaning of Riba. Allah emphatically states that He will destroy Riba. Thereafter, the verb “Yurbi” is mentioned in the meaning of effecting increase. The exegetes mention that this increase is in the world as well as the next life. An increase and benefit in this transitory existence is a form of immediate benefit, relative to the Hereafter. Hence, by contemplating on the context of this verse, it is as though Riba refers to an immediate increase and an instant gratification, which is the reality for those who earn Riba.
يَمْحَقُ ٱللَّهُ ٱلرِّبَوٰا۟ وَيُرْبِى ٱلصَّدَقَتِ ۗ وَٱللَّهُ لَا يُحِبُّ كُلَّ كَفَّارٍ أَثِيمٍ
“Allah will deprive usury of all blessing, but will give increase for deeds of charity.” [Qur’an 2:276]
Riba in the context of artificial growth
The following verse reveals another reality of Riba, that its growth is artificial, both economically and spiritually. Riba income is not as a result of production or trade, rather it is due to time preference and a penalty for borrowing funds longer than the expected date of repayment. Spiritually, it is bereft of any meaningful growth, resulting in an unfillable void in one’s life.
وَمَآ ءَاتَيْتُم مِّن رِّبًۭا لِّيَرْبُوَا۟ فِىٓ أَمْوَلِ ٱلنَّاسِ فَلَا يَرْبُوا۟ عِندَ ٱللَّهِ ۖ
“Whatever you pay as interest so that it may increase the wealth of people does not increase in the sight of Allah.” [Qur’an 30:39]
Riba in the context of overpowering and dominating mass
The following verses have another derivative of Riba, namely “Rabwa”, which is translated as a hillside, mound, high ground. What is interesting is that the root letters of Riba have manifested in the meaning of high ground and protruding ground, which overshadows, dwarfs and dominates other land. From this context, we can deduce that Riba has an essence and element of overpowering and dominating those around it. Riba minimises the wealth of those in contact with it, and gives its owners an apparent dominance.
وَجَعَلْنَا ٱبْنَ مَرْيَمَ وَأُمَّهُۥٓ ءَايَةًۭ وَءَاوَيْنَهُمَآ إِلَىٰ رَبْوَةٍ ذَاتِ قَرَارٍۢ وَمَعِينٍۢ
“We made the son of Mary and his mother a sign; We gave them shelter on a peaceful hillside with flowing water.” [Qur’an 23:50]
وَمَثَلُ ٱلَّذِينَ يُنفِقُونَ أَمْوَلَهُمُ ٱبْتِغَآءَ مَرْضَاتِ ٱللَّهِ وَتَثْبِيتًۭا مِّنْ أَنفُسِهِمْ كَمَثَلِ جَنَّةٍۭ بِرَبْوَةٍ أَصَابَهَا وَابِلٌۭ فَـَٔاتَتْ أُكُلَهَا ضِعْفَيْنِ فَإِن لَّمْ يُصِبْهَا وَابِلٌۭ فَطَلٌّۭ ۗ وَٱللَّهُ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ بَصِيرٌ
“But those who spend their wealth in order to gain God’s approval, and as an affirmation of their own faith, are like a garden on a hill: heavy rain falls and it produces double its normal yield; even if no heavy rain falls, it will still be watered by the dew. God sees all that you do.” [Qur’an 2:265]
Riba in the context of transitory excess, swelling and meaningless increase
The following verse has another derivative of Riba, the adjective “Rabiya”, which is used to describe swelling and meaningless growth in the froth of a river or stream of water. Interestingly, froth is also used to refer to market conditions preceding an actual market bubble, where asset prices become detached from their underlying intrinsic values as demand for those assets drives their prices to unsustainable levels. A frothy market is one where investors begin to ignore market fundamentals and bid up an asset’s price beyond what the asset is objectively worth. What we can learn from the following verse in the broader meaning of Riba is that Riba is meaningless and hollow, despite its abundance. The swelling of wealth on a balance sheet due to Riba receivables is meaningless in the long term and is transitory.
أَنزَلَ مِنَ ٱلسَّمَآءِ مَآءًۭ فَسَالَتْ أَوْدِيَةٌۢ بِقَدَرِهَا فَٱحْتَمَلَ ٱلسَّيْلُ زَبَدًۭا رَّابِيًۭا ۚ
“He sends water from the sky that fills riverbeds to overflowing, each according to its measure. The stream carries on its surface a growing layer of froth.” [Qur’an 13:17]
Riba in the context of overwhelming
The following verse has the same adjective as above, but in the feminine form. The root letters of Riba have been used to connote a meaning of overwhelmingness, forcefulness and being unbearable. These meanings relate to the nature of Riba as Riba has an overwhelming and forceful element to it. Riba overwhelms borrowers and is forced onto others.
فَعَصَوۡا رَسُوۡلَ رَبِّهِمۡ فَاَخَذَهُمۡ اَخۡذَةً رَّابِيَةً
“and they disobeyed the messenger of their Lord, so He seized them with an overpowering grip.: [Qur’an 69:10]
Riba in the context of power
The following verse has another derivative of Riba in the form of a superlative, to give the meaning of power and might as a result of abundance of wealth and numbers. This verse gives a hint of the nature of Riba, that Riba gives artificial power to the those who deal with Riba and operate a Riba system.
اَنۡ تَكُوۡنَ اُمَّةٌ هِىَ اَرۡبٰى مِنۡ اُمَّةٍ ؕ
“Just because one party may be more numerous, wealthier and powerful than another.” [Qur’an 16:92]
The above examples from the Qur’an paint a picture of what Riba is from various angles; Riba is unproductive growth, an immediate increase, an artificial growth, a dominating and overpowering substance, a transitory and meaningless increase, overwhelming and artificial power. It is precisely for these reasons that a Riba system destabilises the economy, skews the balance of power artificially, weaponises money, and overwhelms the wealth and property of others.