Between the Lines – Who and What Reflect Muslim Values?

The US Presidential campaigns have staked out their positions on Muslim-Americans, Muslim immigrants, and by extension Muslims worldwide. These positions have been defined by perceptions about Islam and its various components: the Quran, Sharia law, religious terms such as kafir and jihad, and generally not well understood rituals. Most telling are the images daily broadcast and projected by radicals who use Islam as a cloak for their violence and heinous crimes against mostly other Muslims.

The ongoing conflict is not only between Muslims and those who are not. More and more courageous Muslim voices are being raised against radicalism and extremism as not representative of Islam and actually in deep conflict with the basic values of Islam. These rejections by Islamic leaders and communities are at odds with those who claim that Muslims are not public enough in their condemnation of extremists who claim the mantle of Islam as justification for their actions.

Lately, there is growing recognition in the West that Muslim leaders from Malaysia to Morocco are indeed making the case against terrorism and Islamic radicals. In this context, the Globe and Mail published an op-ed by the noted French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy who singled out the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, as one of many who have boldly challenged the radicals.

He pointed out that the king’s condemnation took on even greater gravitas as he is regarded as a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed and has the title “Commander of the Faithful” responsible for the integrity and promotion of Islam, in particular the Maliki school with its strong Sufi texture and emphasis on inclusion, moderation, and peace.

The king spoke on the 63rd anniversary of the People’s Revolution, commemorating the resistance of Moroccans to the French occupation. Most Western media accounts highlighted his condemning terrorism, noting there is no heavenly reward for terrorists. It is reported that the Prophet Mohammed said “I guarantee a house in the surroundings of Paradise for those who give up arguing, even if they are in the right; and I guarantee a house in the middle of Paradise for those who abandon lying even when joking; and I guarantee a house in the highest part of Paradise for those who have good character and manners.” (Sunan Abu Daawood: 4800)

So when the King said that he wanted overseas Moroccans “to remain firmly committed to their religious values and to their time-honored traditions as they face up to this phenomenon which has nothing to do with their culture or background,” he was emphasizing that values lie at the heart of the practice of Islam and so to distort the rituals is to challenge the moral core of the religion.

In Islam, there is no eternal reward for passively living in the world. According to Anabulsi, a noted Muslim scholar, the Hadith “Religion is Conduct” [الدين المعاملة] means that “real worship does not consist only of establishing rituals, but it’s about exerting good conduct/behavior or applying good manners towards others.” This Hadith adds that “Ritual worship is not valid unless it’s largely supported by good conduct.” And further, “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” (Bukhari and Muslim)

This emphasis on good works is found throughout the Abrahamic faiths. It is no coincidence that in Islam, human behavior, from commercial transactions to how one treats family members, is guided by values that engender good conduct. In Islam, the link between behavior and prayer is reflected in Hadith such as “Through his manners and good conduct, the believer can attain the status of a person who frequently fasts and prays at night.” (Abu Dawoud)

The backstory to the king’s speech is that there is the explicit need for Muslims to act according to values that promote comity, respect, and dignity. We are in this world to do good, not evil, and that we should shun those who would tell us to hurt others. As the Imam Malik reported, “Mohammed, the Messenger of Allah, PBUH, said, I have been sent to perfect good character.” And “The best of you is the best among you in conduct.” (Al-Bukari and Muslim)

King Mohammed’s words echo the determination of King Abdullah II of Jordan who, like King Mohammed, has a unique historical role to both defend Islam and clarify its dynamic role in promoting harmony, justice, and respect within the human community.



What Hadith and Cheese Making tell us about Work and Labor

Once the Prophet (PBUH) was sitting with his companions and they happened to see a young man busy working in the early hours of the morning. The companions watched him and commented on how beneficial it would be if he put his effort in worshipping Allah (S.W.T.) instead. When he heard this, the Holy Prophet said to them: “Do not say that! Because if he is working to be independent and self-sufficient, it is in the way of Allah. Even if he were striving to earn a living in order to support his family, it would still be a noble act. It is only when a person takes pride in his efforts and money that he is working in way of Shaitan. 

This simple, yet provocative story, recounts Mohammad’s support for just and noble work. Yet many youth today avoid jobs that require physical labor and would rather wait for less tiring opportunities. Labor market realities are not working in favor of those who wait. With economic stagnation dominating MENA economies, and a growth rate of 5% off in the distance, it is hard to imagine a robust economy anywhere in the region. Even the UAE, which is doing better than most, has very high unemployment among its young people, especially university graduates. And foreign worker participation remains very high.

Given MENA’s growing population and the reluctance of young people to consider employment that seems to lead nowhere, governments are scrambling for strategies to bring more entrants into the formal economy. From programs to certify skilled workers now in the informal economy and efforts to replace foreign workers with local substitutes, to a variety of wage and work subsidies to make national employees more attractive to companies, the work space is literally littered with opportunities, but the dent in overall employment is barely noticeable. Even large-scale efforts to promote entrepreneurism only produce hundreds rather than the tens of thousands of jobs needed, if locals will take them.

Labor and Work

I recently went to a cheese maker’s shop in Jordan who started out as an environmental activist. Then she decided that Jordanians needed to source more of their basic needs locally and in a more sustainable way. So she started making cheese. If you’ve ever tried, you know it’s not so simple to make cheese, despite the fact that when our parents made laban or labneh or halloum, it looked pretty straight-forward.

You have to pay attention to not overheat the milk, add the starter at the right time, let the culture do its work, and then more patience is needed through the final steps to the end product. No wonder no one makes cheese at home anymore! Who can spend the time it takes when there’s no guarantee that something won’t go wrong.

Organic food markets making a mark  Photo: Jordan Business Magazine

Organic food markets making a mark
Photo: Jordan Business Magazine

Making cheese reminds us that making choices in life are not always in our control, there are many mediating factors: age, gender, education, physical condition, training, temperament, opportunity, even wasta have a way of shaping choices we can make. But like the Jordanian cheese maker, we need to start somewhere with a belief that we can do something with our lives, even when it seems that there are tough challenges ahead.

Start with thinking about the differences between labor and work. Although they are used to mean the same thing, by definition, labor involves hard physical work. Work, on the other hand, is defined as “activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.” It is this emphasis on achieving a result that should guide us as we look for opportunities to grow, earn money, and have satisfaction in our lives.

Some want to work with as little labor as possible, because they are interested only in compensation, not achievement. People who see the challenges and are still determined to make a difference in their lives are willing to take a risk and treat work as a means to achievement – of a better job, better salary, having a family, and raising children – all started because of their parents’ labor and work. This is not always evident at the start, especially in technical and vocational job sectors. Yet this is the work that makes a modern society function – building and maintaining infrastructure,  making clothing, furniture, ice cream, and food, and providing all kinds of support services.

Later that day, I met a man who is proud to say that he is a farmer. He has a degree in agronomy and is one of the pioneers in developing, producing, and marketing organic products for local sale and export. He says that the short-sighted view of young people is supported by the reluctance of families to accept marriage prospects who are not “good enough” because of their jobs. This attitude will only be mitigated when society remembers that it was only a few generations ago that many family members were illiterate and only did manual labor…that was then and now…it’s time to rethink what matters about work, and labor.

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A Taste of Ramadan

Being in Jordan gives me the opportunity to focus on lessons that come from everyday experiences sometimes overlooked in the frenetic pace of living in the US. For example, during Ramadan, we are all encouraged to slow down, reflect, and renew our spiritual as well as human relationships in deeper and richer ways. This is true no matter what faith you are…Ramadan is pervasive in its impact on our daily lives.

I was struck the other night, during iftar at a friend’s house, how the fruit, in particular, seemed to be so much sweeter than in Washington, DC. I remarked on this to my friend and he replied that everything tastes better in Ramadan because of the physical and spiritual anticipation of enjoyment that comes from fasting and prayer.

This made me think about why we eat, what we eat, and how much we miss when eating becomes so routine that we lose some of our sense of taste because we are always in a hurry, on to the next activity. Ramadan enables us to slow down, appreciate everything that we have, acknowledge God’s generosity and wisdom, and the simple pleasure of sharing food together.

No less a source than the UK National Health Service commented on the relationship between fasting and enjoyment. “After a few days of the fast, higher levels of endorphins appear in the blood, making you more alert and giving an overall feeling of general mental wellbeing.”

Well, some may argue that, at least on the surface, fasting does nothing for the level of patience or driving acumen of those who are fasting. Many cab drivers charge more for being on patrol during Ramadan despite having meters, making Uber much more popular! So where do I see the link between Ramadan practices and greater appreciation of one’s life? It’s in the the iftar meal that the richness of the experience of just being together, engaging in discussions ranging from the present insanity of world politics to preferred vacation destinations, and sharing foods that demand slow and thorough appreciation.

Whether one is in someone’s home or indulging in a copious buffet at a restaurant, the enjoyment of the meal, particularly after a day of fasting, signals a contentment and respite from the demands and challenges of daily lives.

That said, you’re probably wondering why I picked this theme and what this teaches me about work and enjoying the “fruits” of our labor, something that is a central goal of workforce development, which is why I’m in Jordan.

If we have a taste for achieving something, in the short term it could be as simple as a new shirt, or in the longer term a vacation or a car down payment, it all begins with working. Whether we are attracted to the work at first or not, there is a clear link between our labor and our reward, much as there is between fasting and the enjoyment of food.

More importantly, when we break the fast, or when we buy the shirt, we have a sense of satisfaction that is beyond the physical act of acquiring or consuming something. There is a spiritual and moral dimension to our satisfaction that derives from knowing that we have “earned” our reward.

Vocational training starts with learning by doing

Vocational training starts with learning by doing

So it is with work. What appears to be a mundane, routine, unexciting job may be exactly that, but what we are learning through that experience may enable us to see more opportunities ahead that we might not yet be able to appreciate. The human experience is one of trial and error; we learn by doing, not by sitting by and waiting for life to come to us.

This is the challenge of promoting a “culture of work” in Jordan and elsewhere in the Arab world. Low entry salaries, poor working conditions, routine tasks with little apparent future prospects, and all of the other challenges inherent in many jobs put an emphasis on “labor” rather than learning. Many young people here and throughout the world do not see the benefit of working as learning.

To make this point, there is a growing emphasis on soft skills training, career guidance, and subsidies to bridge the entry of new workers. The effectiveness of these programs are limited without attending to the larger issues of adequate wages, sufficient benefits, safe and healthy workplaces that promote retention and increase profitability, and serious government attention to enforcing policies to protect women and vulnerable communities.

If the lessons of Ramadan could be carried into the workplace, perhaps more job seekers would take the risk of entering the workforce under less than ideal conditions with the anticipation that the life lessons may just yield the sweet fruit of a successful life.

Thinking Aloud About Islam and Work

Several years ago, I was part of a project in Saudi Arabia for the Ministry of Labor on restructuring curricula for the Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) sector. It was a very sophisticated effort including outreach to families and communities, revising the Qur’anic content in the syllabus to focus on work themes, and introducing widespread usage of English, innovation, soft skills, and problem-solving teaching methods in both the male and female programs.

It was, and still is an innovative effort to remake perceptions of the value of skills-based work as a career and contribution to the larger society. Recently announced plans to restructure the Saudi economy include a strong determination to have more Saudi men and women engaged in the workforce. This has been a theme since the 80s offset programs, Saudization (nationalization of the workforce) in the 90s, the nitaqat version unveiled in early 2011, and the new and improved nitaqat tied to the Vision 2030 reforms.

As explained by the Minister of Labor, Mufrej Al-Haqbani, “The government planned a new form of Nitaqat that would not focus merely on the numbers of Saudi nationals hired but also on factors such as women’s employment, the average pay of Saudi nationals, the ratio of the wages of Saudis to non-Saudis, and the sustainability of jobs occupied by local citizens.”

These same challenges exist throughout Arab countries, from Morocco to the Gulf, where many university graduates sit unemployed and underutilized due to a lack of market-ready skills, while hundreds of thousands of vocational and technical jobs are either filled by foreign labor or go vacant. Rates of unemployment among women are usually twice or more as those for men, and little or nothing is done to accommodate handicapped workers.

Women in a medical glove factory in Malaysia

Women in a medical glove factory in Malaysia

Muslim majority countries, especially in the Arab world, find it difficult to recruit labor willing to work in jobs unappealing for a variety of reasons: poor pay, lack of benefits, low social status, and poor working conditions are most frequently mentioned. Using Jordan as another example, a dichotomy is apparent. Jordanians waiting for the “right” job while Muslims from other countries show no hesitation to take manual technical and vocational jobs requiring very hard work without protections or future guarantees.

One could argue that for Jordanians, in their own society, there are constraints in the environment, such as social status or Islam that influences the choice of jobs. Yet that is not consistent with other Muslim countries whether one is looking at men working in the dye pits of Marrakesh or the women in Malaysia working in textile and industrial production lines.

One’s willingness to work may be affected more by local attitudes rather than other cultural considerations. In this regard, what Islam has to say about work is very instructive for both employer and employee in defining cultural values around labor.

My favorite passage on work from the Qur’an is “The Messenger of Allah (PBUH) shook the hands of a man on whom he found the effects of a rough manual labor, then said: ‘This is the hand that God’s love and His Messenger.’” And when asked what type of earning was best, “Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) replied, “A man’s work with his hands and every (lawful) business transaction.” (Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 846) These passages remind me of my parents who immigrated to the US, ran their small businesses, always had vegetable gardens to tend, and believed that one learned important life lessons through honest labor.

Speaking about manual labor, the Prophet said “If any Muslim plants any plant, and a human being or an animal eats of it, he will be rewarded as if he had given that much in charity.” It is also written “Allah loves, when one of you is doing something, that he [or she] does it in the most excellent manner.”

The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) also spoke directly to employers, “You should pay the laborer his wages before his sweat dries.” (Sunan Ibn Mâjah (2443) This addresses the central message of ethics in business, non-exploitation of labor, and justice – qualities both Islamic and universal. It is not surprising to find strong support for business and work in the Qur’an and hadith, given the revelations and the Prophet’s own honoring of labor and business as a community responsibility and benefit.

As governments throughout the MENA region look for effective means to motivate young people to acquire life skills built around technical and vocational capabilities, drawing on cultural and Islamic norms can be a persuasive entry point. Remembering too the responsibilities of employers to provide sufficient wages, respectful behaviors, and beneficial working environments should be promoted as both an obligation and good business sense.


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Muslims Battered on both Sides of the Atlantic

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.                                                         W.B. Yeats The Second Coming

There are plenty of interpretations of this poem, written by Yeats after WWI, and its memorable lines have inspired many novel and film titles. It is especially appropriate today as we see the failure of the center to hold against the tide of radicalism from the left and right.

Attempts to reason against the illogic of blaming all Muslims for the acts of a very few fall on deaf ears among skinheads, Trump/Cruz supporters, or other too ready to blame “the other.” The center cannot hold because it has little capacity to counter extremism, which would require more awareness of Islam and Muslims than most are willing to engage.

Muslims themselves are torn between justifying acts of reasonable opposition to autocratic regimes and pointing fingers at those whose horrific acts undercut every word of compassion uttered by their communities. It is ironic that the vast majority of extremists call themselves Sunnis, salafists, jihadists, while Shiites, whose excesses of past decades in Lebanon and obdurate policies emanating from Iran, are tarred with the same brush as al-Qai’da franchises and Daesh, Inc. Despite 1400+ years of separation, in the end, they are, in fact, all Muslims, all guilty.

To non-Muslims, Muslims are equally culpable for a multitude of sins stretching from Indonesia to Nigeria to Europe and even North America. To most Americans, Muslims are predominately Arabs, as are Iranians, because “what’s the difference?” They all share the tenets of Islam, a religion of hate and submission we are told by the Trump/Cruz apologists on talk radio. Muslims, they claim, are unwilling to live in peace with the rest of humanity (read Christians) because of religious precepts.

Far be it for these supporters to actually shake hands and converse with a Muslim although they may have been doing it for years without contamination. Enlightened statements by President Obama, leading military and intellectual leaders, and well-intentioned political leaders have not impacted those who fervently believe that Muslims are somehow a lower form of humanity that won’t rest until the apocalypse has come – strangely similar to most Christian evangelicals.

My concern is both broad and deep for my country and for the lack of civility that characterizes public life. I have worked and lived with Muslim communities my entire professional life, here in the U.S. and in many Arab countries, and Iran, which I know is not Arab. I have always thought it a blessing (baraka you could say) that my parents taught me compassion, inclusiveness, and openness, especially to that which I did not understand or feared.

While mine was a mostly normal American childhood, bigotry was somehow always lurking around, in remarks, insinuations, teasing. My sister/poet Elmaz writes of the pain of discrimination and marginalization…I guess it’s harder for some. Mine was more cerebral, since I was fortified by not giving a damn.

I am a Christian Arab American; we are the majority of Arabs in the U.S. We weathered the Palestinian and Lebanese conflicts as highly political rather than theological conflicts. So much is different today. We hear from varied sources about the persecution of Christians by Daesh. Lost in the hateful news is that the tyranny of Daesh, acting in the name of Islam, has been responsible for far more Muslim deaths. Daesh and its comrades are enemies of humanity, not just of religions.

The same drumbeat of deprecation is rising even louder in Europe as tides of immigrants and horrific violent acts deprive the centre of a stable platform for engaging doomsayers, bigots, and racists of all stripes. In our naïve caricature of the region, we want clarity about friend and foe. This is no easy task. It is somehow lost in translation that we are in a generational identity struggle among ourselves and with those “not like us.” It is a struggle that we cannot, each in our own way, avoid confronting.

Just think for a moment, why are refugees headed for Europe and beyond? Is it because they hate the West, its civilization, and its society? Is it because they are hiding terrorists cells within their numbers waiting to strike? Or is it because, like us, they just want to wake up each day to the tedium of jobs, families, children, and traffic?

It is this normalcy that is under attack and must be forcefully countered. We are certainly in a clash of civilizations – humanity against the beasts who deny us choice.

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