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.
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.
[image from Slideshare.net]
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