In this article, I will attempt to define Maysir in Islam which is considered one of the 3 major corruptors of business activities alongside riba (interest-bearing debt) and Al-Gharar (ambiguous terms).

Similar to my methodology when defining Riba I will examine the meaning of the Arabic word Maysir (الْمَيْسِرِ), that is, how it was used when the Quran was revealed, and search the Quran and Sunnah for any clues that can further help add definition to the term.

So starting with the meaning of the word Maysir, it comes from the Arabic word “يسر” “yisir” meaning ease. At the time of the Quran’s revelation, it was used to refer to a game that was played wherein a group of people would buy a camel, slaughter it, and then place a number of arrows with distinct marks on them in different mugs. Each person would pick a mug and depending on the mark on the arrow in the mug they pulled they either got more or less than their fair share of the camel and may end up getting nothing at all.

Here, two points stand out to me:

The first is that the participants risk something of value in hopes of gain. In this case, it was their share of the price of the camel.

The second is that the outcome of the activity is based on chance.

Now let’s examine the Quran to see what it thinks of Maysir and if it can provide any further definition to the term.

Maysir is mentioned in the Quran in two places. In Surah Al-Baqara, Allah SWT says:

بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ

يَسْأَلُونَكَ عَنِ الْخَمْرِ وَالْمَيْسِرِ قُلْ فِيهِمَا إِثْمٌ كَبِيرٌ وَمَنَافِعُ لِلنَّاسِ وَإِثْمُهُمَا أَكْبَرُ مِن نَّفْعِهِمَا وَيَسْأَلُونَكَ مَاذَا يُنفِقُونَ قُلِ الْعَفْوَ كَذَٰلِكَ يُبَيِّنُ اللَّهُ لَكُمُ الْآيَاتِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَفَكَّرُونَ

They ask you [O’ Muhammad]  concerning alcohol and maysir. Say: they contain great sin and benefit for people, but their sin is greater than their benefit. And they ask you what should they give to charity? Say: that which is more than your need, And so Allah shows you wisdom so that maybe you will think.

[Quran 2:219]

Notice here the genius of the Quran. It says that Maysir contains great sin and benefit for people but its sin is greater than its benefit. One may think the counter-balance of benefit should be harm, not sin. Therefore, one would expect the Quran to have said Maysir contains great harm and benefit for people but its harm is greater than its benefit. However, by saying its sin is greater than its benefit, Allah swt is teaching us that sin is synonymous in meaning to the word harm. In other words, that which is harmful is sinful and that which is sinful is harmful.

Going back to the topic of Maysir, in this verse, Allah teaches us that Maysir, like everything that is prohibited in Islam, has more harm than benefit. This is important because it means that that which clearly has more benefit than harm cannot be classified as Maysir.

The other verses in the Quran where Allah mentions Maysir are in Surat Al-Ma’ida where SWT says:

بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا إِنَّمَا الْخَمْرُ وَالْمَيْسِرُ وَالْأَنصَابُ وَالْأَزْلَامُ رِجْسٌ مِّنْ عَمَلِ الشَّيْطَانِ فَاجْتَنِبُوهُ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ

إِنَّمَا يُرِيدُ الشَّيْطَانُ أَن يُوقِعَ بَيْنَكُمُ الْعَدَاوَةَ وَالْبَغْضَاءَ فِي الْخَمْرِ وَالْمَيْسِرِ وَيَصُدَّكُمْ عَن ذِكْرِ اللَّهِ وَعَنِ الصَّلَاةِ فَهَلْ أَنتُم مُّنتَهُونَ

“O you who believe, intoxicants, Maysir, sacrificing for idols and making decisions based on games of chance are sicknesses from the work of Satan, so avoid these things so you may prosper. Satan desires to create enmity and hatred amongst you through intoxicants and gambling and to stop you from praying and remembering Allah. So will you abstain from these things?” [Quran 5:90-91]

In addition to containing a clear unequivocal prohibition of Maysir by saying that it is the work of Satan and asking if we will abstain from it …This verse also adds clarity to the meaning of Maysir by assigning attributes to it saying Maysir creates enmity between people. So one is inclined here to think that this verse is highlighting the zero-sum nature of Maysir transactions wherein one person’s gain is another person’s loss.

Additionally, SWT says:

and to stop you from praying and remembering Allah

When SWT says that Maysir is meant to stop one from even remembering Allah, let alone praying, this gives us an idea of the all-consuming and thought occupying nature of Maysir.

In fact, according to the American Psychiatric Association, one of the diagnostic criteria to identify gambling disorder is that the person:

Is often preoccupied with gambling (e.g., having persistent thoughts of reliving past gambling experiences, handicapping or planning the next venture, thinking of ways to get money with which to gamble).

A person in this state is unable to engage in productive activities or remember what is important. They are unable to pray or remember Allah.

So far, here’s what I’ve concluded about Maysir given the meaning of the word at the time of the Quranic revelations and from what the revelations themselves say about it.

  • Participants risk something of value in hopes of gain.
  • The outcome of the activity is based on chance.
  • The activity creates no vital societal value (has more harm than benefit).
  • Has destructive quality because of its potential to lead to addiction.
  • Creates enmity between people on account that the gain of one participant comes from the loss of another (zero-sum game).

Now let’s look at the sunnah to see if there is anything that can help us further understand Maysir.

عَنْ أَبي هُريرة – رضي الله عنه – قال: قالَ رسولُ الله – صلى الله عليه وسلم-: “لا سَبقَ إلا في خُفٍّ أَوْ نَصْلٍ أَوْ حافرٍ” رواهُ أحمد والثّلاثَةُ، وصَحَّحَهُ ابْنُ حِبَّانَ.

The prophet peace be upon him said, “you should not bet an amount of money except on races of camels, arrows or horses”

Here the prophet peace be upon him gives special status to horse, camel and archery competitions because his calculus was that betting on these competitions held more good than harm and therefore did not meet the Quranic definition of Maysir. Why were these competitions especially beneficial? Because these competitions, and betting on them, incentivized the proliferation of expertise in these fields. During the time of the prophet, expertise in these fields was vital for Muslims in order for them to effectively defend themselves and spread their message. So the prophet peace be upon him exempted them from the general prohibition of betting on competitions.

What we also confirm from this hadith, is that betting on competitions is generally prohibited i.e. Haram. Which means that the earlier claim, which is that Maysir can partially be characterized as activities wherein the outcomes are based on chance is false. This is because competitions are not necessarily chance based. Certainly the game I described earlier wherein the competitors would pull an arrow from a mug was chance-based but If I bet you $500 that I can bench 200 pounds, this activity does not have a chance-based outcome. Rather, the outcome largely depends on my physical attributes and my preparation prior to the competition. Yet it is prohibited in Islam as is evidenced by the prophet peace be upon him’s hadith wherein all betting is prohibited except in the case of the exceptions he mentioned.

So in fact, the outcome of the activity is based on chance should be removed from our understanding of Maysir. Our list of defining attributes is now:

  • Participants risk something of value in hopes of gain.
  • The activity creates no vital societal value (has more harm than benefit).
  • Has destructive quality because of its potential to lead to addiction.
  • Creates enmity between people on account that the gain of one participant comes from the loss of another (zero-sum game).

Based on this understanding, in order to identify Maysir we need to ask the following two questions:

1- Does the activity create value for society?

If the answer is no, then ask:

2- Is the participant risking something of material value in hopes of gain?

If the answer is yes, then it’s Maysir and it’s prohibited in Islam.

So now, armed with this understanding, let’s see if we can determine whether some activities are a form of prohibited Maysir or not…

Today, is betting on horse, camel and archery competitions a form of Maysir?

Question 1: Does this activity create needed value for society?

No. In today’s world horse, camel and archery competitions while they may be fun and often useful activities for the mind, they are not vital skills for societies’ longevity and prosperity.

So while the prophet peace be upon him exempted these competitions explicitly in the hadith, if one understands the reasoning of the prophet one must conclude that these exemptions do not apply today. The calculus has changed. There is no existential societal need to learn these disciplines and perfect our expertise in them.

Since the answer to our first question is no, we ask the second question: Is the participant risking something of material value in hopes of gain?

In case they are betting on the outcome then yes they are.

From our answers to questions 1 and 2, betting on any of these competitions is absolutely a form of prohibited Maysir.

What about playing the lottery?

Question 1: Does this activity (lotteries and playing the lottery) create needed value for society?

Again the answer here is no, it destroys value by transferring wealth from people who need it more to people who need it less.

You may ask what if proceeds from lotteries are used to help public schools or some other value-producing service? This is often the case in the United States where states will organize a lottery and use its proceeds as a means to supplement its income. In 2014, lotteries contributed $21.3 billion to state budgets.

Well, where did that 21.3 Billion come from?

“A 2011 paper in the Journal of Gambling Studies conducts a thorough review of the available research on lotteries and concludes that the “poor are still the leading patron of the lottery”…Moreover, other studies find that lottery outlets are often clustered in neighborhoods with large numbers of minorities, who are at greatest risk for developing gambling addictions.” 

So essentially states are disproportionately taxing the poor through lotteries rather than creating an even burden of taxes amongst its citizens. This doesn’t create any value, it destroys value by transferring wealth from those with the most need for it to those who have less need for it.

Again, since the answer to our first question is no, we ask the second question: Is the participant risking something of material value in hopes of gain?

Yes, lottery tickets are not free. Therefore they absolutely are a form of prohibited Maysir.

The third example, builds off the lottery ticket example but adds a wrinkle: Is a lottery ticket with a 95% chance of winning a form of Maysir?

Granted, the prize, in this case, would have to be rather small or the price of the ticket who be enormously high in order for such a situation to exist in reality.

But assuming it does, do our answers to either of our two questions change?

Does the activity create value? No, for the aforementioned reasons.

Is the participant risking something of material value in hopes of gain? Yes, the price of the lottery ticket.

Therefore it is Maysir. Even if it has a 95% chance of winning.

I mention this last example in order to illustrate that Maysir has nothing to do with the level of risk associated with the activity. Rather, it has to do with the existence of material risk in a valueless activity.

There is hardly any economic activity that you can think of that has better chances of success than 95%. Yet, all productive economic activity is not considered Maysir despite the odds whereas valueless activities wherein wealth is being risked (regardless of the level of risk) are considered Maysir.

After reading this article, I hope you have a better idea of what Islamically-prohibited Maysir is and how to identify it.

Again, simply ask the following questions:

1- Does the activity create value for society?

If the answer is no, then ask…

2- Do the participants stand to lose anything of material value based on the outcome of the activity?

If the answer is yes, then the activity is Maysir.

I will address my opinion on trading stocks and options and forex trading in future articles.  I wanted to start with a definition of Maysir so that we can build off of it in order to tackle these other issues.

Assalmu Alaykum and peace be upon you all,

Rakaan