Reflection on Islamic Work Ethics V

Reflection on Islamic Work Ethics V


By Hwaa Irfan


Based on Islamic Work Ethics from Traditional Islam in the Modern World by Seyyed Hossein Nasr


“There developed during later Islamic history more specific institutions which were directly concerned with the ethical aspects of work, and which related organizations connected with specific economic activities with moral and spiritual qualities. These institutions consisted of various guilds, orders and brotherhoods called: Asnaf, futuwwat, ukhkhuwwat, the akhi movement, etc., which, from the Seljuq period, spread throughout the cities and towns of the Islamic world on the basis of less formal organizations dating from earlier centuries…

A code of honor, strict work ethics, responsibility for and devotion to the quality of work, pride in ones metier, generosity to others and aid to members of the guild, as well as many other ethical and spiritual precepts associated with work., developed through such organizations. These guilds and orders were at once the guardians of ethical concern for work and the means by which the ethical character of the work of their members were guaranteed; they also guaranteed their members protection from external pressures and oppression.

In this domain, the particular category of work associated with the making of things, namely the arts and crafts (which have in fact never been regarded as different forms of activity in Islam), needs to be particularly emphasized. All works which concerns the making of things or ‘sun’ possesses religious and spiritual significance when done according to traditional criteria: with one’s own hands and by means of  techniques which possess an eminently symbolic, and hence spiritual, significance. The ethical aspect of work in this case embraces also the aesthetic, for to produce a work of beauty and quality requires the love of the maker for that work and brings into play the virtue of goodness. Such a work ennobles the soul of the person who creates it and fulfils deep religious and spiritual needs., while transmitting to the person who obtains the work, not only an object which fulfils a certain external need, but also a joy which refreshes the soul and possesses a definite religious significance…

A mechanical and impersonal manner of making things destroys a basic dimension of the ethical value of work, no matter how fair the wages and how physically favourable the working ambience. In Islamic art, the beauty of objects designed for everyday use ranging from textiles and carpets to bowls and lamps, testifies to the extremely wide range of those fruits of human labour which reflect love devotion joy and peace…

If one were to study work ethics in Muslim society today, one would not discover all the qualities and characters that have been mentioned above among actual workers – at least not everywhere, and not among all types and classes of workers…

The worker in much of the Islamic world, especially in urban areas, is often cut off from his family and social matrix. His relation to the rhythms and norms of nature has become severed. In many cases, modes of production based upon the impersonal machine have replaced traditional modes based upon love and devotion to a craft…

All this has happened while the market to which the Muslim worker is of necessity related becomes dominated ever more by forces blind to moral considerations…”

Anyone who is familiar with the roots of guilds and brotherhoods like freemasonry based on skills, will know that the ideas sprung up from aspects of Islamic practice of ethics. Today those ethics do not guide the work that is produced and profited from. The only guarantee of quality from the point of view of the consumer are a set of trading, and consumer laws that if anything are inconsistent without encouraging the producer of that product to do better. There is no incentive on the part of the artisan to do better other than him/herself.  Without this inner compass, there is nothing to guide the producer/the craftsman towards reaching his/her inner potential which grows as a result of that level of commitment to their skill. A consumer recognizes that love although they may not understand in a piece of craft that inspires them to the extent that they want to buy it.

This value placed on the maker/producer of a piece of work, has been much reduced by the mechanization of the mode of work through the industrial revolution, which initially offered cheaper end products as a result of mass production to say the least this is no longer the case, what else has been lost in the process is the relationship between the maker/producer and the end product/the craft, along with a more evolved person who in turn inspires and ennobles the purchaser of that end product/the craft.  If this was a common practice today, we would find a more content workforce, a less stress riddles society, and end products of this stature more readily available to a broad cross section of society, instead of only those who can afford it. By demeaning most of the workforce in this way, has led to a demeaning of one’s relationship to life, and society at large.

Only those who become conscious enough from the mind clamp that has been caught up in, reject this notion of work enough to seek a better relationship with their work, their social framework, and themselves. Without this step, the healing process that an individual, who is the microcosm of society has to go through is delayed or put on hold, even more so if they have never had the chance to develop a skill beyond the modes of mechanization. A dissatisfied workforce, and an unsatisfactory society by all means is the end result that only a career/corporate minded person or a money-maker will find to his/her limited sense of satisfaction , a satisfaction that if it does descend downwards, is only superficial.

It is time to regard work as something more as just a means to status and/income, especially as it frames at least half of our daily lives. It is a current that has become represented by a period of Islamophobia in the work environment, as the Muslim calls for the right to pray, and is represented by the non-Muslim who has become disenchanted with the corporate world, though successful, and has moved on to achieve something more fulfilling than the fat pay check. As we go through a process of great change, we will awaken to the reality that the concept of the ‘Mall’ symbolically presents to us, and that is one that devours the local enterprises, reduces the workforce both numerically and spiritually, and presents the illusion that there is something worth having at whatever cost regardless of the intrinsic value.


Traditional Islam in the Modern World.” By Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Kegan Paul International, London and New York. 1987. ISBN 0-7103-0332 7


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