By Hwaa Irfan
Based on Islamic Work Ethics from Traditional Islam in the Modern World by Seyyed Hossein Nasr
“The first element of Islamic work ethics which must be considered in the Shari’ite injunction that the accomplishment of whatever work is necessary to support oneself and one’s family is as worthy, in the eyes of God, as the performance of religious duties classified as obligatory (wajib). Every person must work to support himself and those who depend upon him for their livelihood, these persons usually including the members of his immediate family; sometimes also female members and old or incapacitated persons belonging to the extended family circle. This duty is usually incumbent upon the man of the family, but the women are also responsible when external necessity dictates their working outside the home, as can be seen very often in the agricultural sector of society. Whatever is necessary for the continuation of human life gains, according to Islamic teachings, a religious sanction as the very result of that necessity.
There is however, no emphasis in Islam upon the virtue of work for the sake of work, as one finds in certain forms of Protestantism. In the Islamic perspective, work is considered a virtue in the light of the needs of man and the necessity to establish equilibrium in one’s individual and social life. But this duty towards work, and provision for one’s needs and for those of one’s family, is always kept in check and prevented from becoming excessive by the emphasis that the Qur’an places upon the transience of life, the danger of greed and covetousness, and the importance of avoiding the excessive accumulation of wealth.
Work, like everything else in life, must be seen and performed within the framework of the equilibrium which Islam seeks to establish in the life of each individual as well as of Islamic society as a whole. While the earliest Islamic community was still in Makkah, this nucleus of the future society, which consisted of a spiritual elite, was advised to spend much of the night in prayer and vigil; but in Madinah, when a complete social order was established, the Prophet emphasized the importance of the members of the new religious community in general devoting a third of their day to work, a third to sleep and rest, and a third to prayer, leisure and family and social activities. This prophetic example has set an ideal for later Islamic society, according to which, while the performance of work to support one’s family is considered a religious duty, the exaggerated emphasis upon work for its own sake is opposed in as much as an attitude destroys the equilibrium that is the Islamic goal of life. If in many present-day Middle Easter cities a taxi diriver is seen to work much longer hours than is specified by the traditional tripartite division of the day, and that he performs his difficult work as a religious duty to support an often large family, it is usually economic necessity which dictates such a prolonged working schedule and not the desire for work as an end in itself. There is no innate religious value connected with work in itself simply as a means of amassing wealth and outside of the patterns established by the prophetic Sunnah and the Shari’ah.”
Arising from the Protestant work ethic is the notion of work for the sake of work in support of the state from the inception of the Industrial Revolution. This remains with us today and has been adopted within Muslim secular societies. In the process, the other aspects of man’s needs have been sidelined. Before the global economic crisis, a growing trend was forming. That trend evolved around mainly the male population in certain Western countries like the U.S., and the U.K., no longer willing to take up managerial positions, because of the health risks (e.g. heart disease) that ensue with such occupations. Added to this trend was a growing realization that the overwhelming corporate world as ‘disposable’ when an employee had given up much of their life for that corporation. What had been relinquished is the creative part of that person, the family in terms of well-being, and to a great degree the sacrificial lamb, the conscience as a result of unethical practices. Instead what ensued was failing health, divorce, dysfunctional families, and basically the social skills that helped one feel more human and less a cog in a wheel.
From the point of the onlooker not being familiar with the sacrifices that a corporate person makes, the envious onlooker only sees the position, the wealth, and the ‘things’ one can have and what one can do with that wealth for one’s own pleasure or the pleasure of the family. Instead members of the family have been bought with the ‘things’ that they could have, but the love that was unnourished as a result of that culture of work was missing. If one explored the initial trend of school fatalites in the U.S., the perpetrators were often middle-upper class lads who had all of the materialistic wealth, and none of the love and attention of family, for their families were often too busy accumulating wealth, and shoring up positions. As the school fatalities increased, the perpetrators were not always from the middle to upper class income bracket, but were a product of the same problem, that is a family concerned with position and wealth. This is just one example of work for the sake of work.
When we fall into the practice of working for the sake of work where there are no intrinsic ethics to that work, or process of self and/or spiritual development in the essence of that work, we begin to lose other skills that are important to our personal well-being, and the well being of those around us. Islamic prayer in Islam is a form of work as in the adhan, the call to prayer we are called to perform “good” works. It punctuates our day, and if not done ritualistically but with purpose allows us time to reflect on ourselves and what we do, and why we do it. When we are prevented or delayed from performing that “good” work, we are putting aside our relationship not only with God, but with everything else that is outside of work, yet the employer cannot deny that the work of a practicing Muslim is better if allowed to pray!
As we go through this global economic crisis, let us take time out to evaluate why we do what we do, and whom it benefits, and in what way is that benefit for when one’s lifestyle prevents one from becoming a better human being, one’s family, and one’s society loses out too. By doing more work than is reasonably possible for the sake of wealth, one is depriving another from work, but in the process one is depriving one’s self from one’s self! The currently socially accepted modes of work will only last for a time, because they are in fact humanely unsustainable, the obvious signs of which have been witnessed in certain European countries when the people reacted to the idea of increasing the age of retirement. That is how long many people put on hold the other aspects of their lives when we do not even know if we will live to see a tomorrow!