MOHAMMED Abduh, the famous Egyptian Islamic scholar and jurist had once said: “I went to the West and saw Islam but there were no Muslims. I came to the East and saw many Muslims but there was no Islam.” One of the areas in which this is true of many Muslims living in their own countries is that of their work ethics. It is quite common to find people, whether they are engaged in manual labour or are working in banks, universities, airlines or any other public- or private-sector institution, demonstrating a remarkable lack of enthusiasm, energy, commitment and honesty towards the work that they do. This is in direct contrast to people working in Western countries.
How many of us have visited the bank on our way to office to find that the relevant staff has not come in yet, or on our way home to find that the staff had left early? Many of us are kept waiting, curbing our frustration as the person in charge enjoys a cup of tea with his comrades. Work hardly gets done on Fridays because people are getting ready for prayers and then proceed to their respective home villages, returning late on Mondays. Work is done unwillingly and often to the barest minimum.
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Islam enjoins its believers to ensure they fulfil all rights and obligations towards the community (huquq-ul-ibad) and towards God (huquq Allah). Praying or fasting means little if one is not meeting one’s obligations towards those around them, including one’s employers and clients. Equally, Islam stresses upon ethics (akhlaq) in every aspect of life, including the workplace. Work itself is mentioned in both the Quran and hadith as something that humans must necessarily engage in, in order to meet their responsibilities on earth and use the resources God has put in place to serve humankind. The Quran says: “That man can have nothing but what he strives for; that (the fruit of) his striving will soon come in sight: then will he be rewarded with a reward complete.” (53:39-41)
While work ethics in general means placing value on hard work, and committing one’s energies to whatever one is labouring at, Islamic ethics goes beyond this definition to give work a status equivalent to worship. The person who spends her/his entire time in praying and does not work would be less favourable in God’s eyes than one who deploys her/his potential in work that raises sustenance for the family.
Work should be considered an obligation.
Scholars have derived five characteristics of Islamic work ethics, based on the Quran and Sunnah. These include fulfilment of obligations to society, ie working and being creative in contributing to progress and development, for the purpose of pleasing God; many hadith relate how the Holy Prophet (PBUH) praised hard work and earning a livelihood as being an act of worship. People must be able to place their trust in workers, hence trustworthiness is an essential part of work ethics; an Islamic tradition likens an untrustworthy person to a hypocrite.
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Work should be considered an obligation, similar to other religious rites — one’s motivation to work should include reward in the hereafter; in fulfilling work responsibilities, the worker must be committed, pay attention to timely completion and remain honest with colleagues and employer. Time is of great value as per a hadith in which the Prophet has said that no one will cross over to paradise unless s/he has been questioned about how s/he spent her/his time on earth. Wasting time, especially while at work is to betray the trust of the employer. The fifth attribute of Islamic work ethics is that the mutual relationship between employees and employer is one without prejudice of any sort.
It is evident from the above that work ethics in Islam invite the Muslim to be loyal to work in the same manner as is required for prayer. For the latter, both heart and mind must be directed towards God; in the former, both must combine for effective results.
Islamic work ethics hinge upon dignity of labour. All types of work are to be respected and taken pride in, by the one performing it and by those paying and benefiting from it. No work is to be looked down upon. Yet, in many Muslim societies, some types of labour are considered base, mean and lowly and are undertaken by certain disadvantaged groups of people who are pushed to the lowest strata of society, destined to be despised. This is one of the worst forms of discrimination that we indulge in regularly.
Over the years, many Muslims have become fixated with rituals and textual interpretations of their religion, with little or no understanding of the spirit and ethical principles of either the Quran or the teachings of the Prophet. Had they been taught the content and practice of Islamic work ethics, the socioeconomic indicators in the Muslim population would have been very different from the current bottom-of-the-pile ones.
The writer is an independent contributor with an interest in religion.
Published in Dawn, January 7th, 2022