From our blog
Business Ethics in Islam
When we look at the history of Islamic civilization, we see a civilization which is a story of achievement. What more impressive achievement in history than for the Muslims, who began as a small group of browbeaten and oppressed monotheists, in a small dusty Arabian town, within 50 years, certainly within a hundred years, to create the largest and the greatest and the most populous civilization the world has ever seen? What is it about that message that produced such excellence, such professionalism, such structures, financial structures, mercantile structures as well as intellectual and institutional and educational structures? How did they do that?
This golden age that we read about, the age of Sinbad the sailor, medieval Muslim trade outshone any other form of trade in the world. This is the world of the Silk Road. This is the world of the golden web. This is the world where you could have a financial document that was drawn up in Cairo and have it honoured in Shanghai by a Muslim banker. A brilliant global mercantile civilization. Unusual for a religion to accomplish that. So often you think of religions generally as encouraging just a preoccupation with the life of the soul and the life to come.
But the holy Prophet, sallAllahu alayhi wa sallam, how does he begin? He begins as merchant. As-Saadiq Al-Amin the truthful and the trusted merchant. So that his house, according to the books of the seerah, becomes the place where you can leave your valuables a kind of safe deposit facility in the city of Makkah. This is an age before combination locks. This is an age before a security camera. This is an age before banks. In Makkah if you are buying and selling and you had goods or money that you wish to keep in a safe place, you would leave it in the house of Al-Amin alayhi salam. He was part of the commercial life of his community. I found this particularly inspirational.
We remember how he was earning a living and how his first wife Khadijah Al-Kubra radhiAllahu ‘anha was his employer. I don’t know of any other founder of world religion who is in business, who is employed by woman, who is a merchant. Very remarkable. As a result, from that time to this day, the mercantile calling has been regarded as an honourable context for the exploration of a quite scrupulous religiosity. It’s not about dunya and deen in opposite corners of one’s life and that serving one represents concessions in the other. Instead, islamic civilization, generation after generation after generation, has produced brilliant mercantile personalities and institutions and trading routes that have transformed the economy of the world.
Now we know that this comes about through a certain subtlety in the approach to wealth. So perhaps this should be the first thing we reflect on.when we use the slightly but not inappropriately or incongrously modern category of business ethics to look at how Muslims traditionally saw how you get to heaven through rather than despite running a business
Some of the Sahaba radhi Allahu ‘anhum were really poor. Or really poor, and were rich and then became poor. Like Abu Bakr As-siddiq radhiAllahu ‘anhu, basically all of his wealth went in supporting the poor, the orphans, the muhajireen the widows. This was his calling. This was his nature and he was loved as a result.
Sayyidina Uthman, his title in Islam is Al-ghani (The Wealthy). That’s another interesting thing about Islam. We can go to great mosques in Istanbul and you see the four names of the khulafaa ar-rashidun: Abu Bakr As-siddiq, Umar Al-faruq, Uthman Al-ghani… That may be strange but there he is. And we honour him for that.
Why? Because of the saying of the Holy Prophet sallAllahu alayhi wa sallam, when some came to him, poor people came to him complaining, and they said:
Ya Rasul Allah, dhahaba ahlu dufuri bil fujur yusalluna kamaa nusalli wa yatasaddaquna wa laa natasaddaq
They said O Messenger of Allah the rich folks have got all the great rewards because they pray as we pray and they give sadaqa and we’re not able.
Fa qaala al-Mustafa alayhi salat wa salam dhaalika fadlu lillahi yu’tihi man yashaa
That’s Allah’s Grace He gives it to whom He will.
None of this in our subtle religion, which says really what counts is the quality of your heart, means that any particular economic group has any necessary merit. And generally we believe that soft-heartedness attaches primarily to the fuqaraa. And the Holy Prophet ‘alayhi salat wa salam was himself one who made the choice to live with the poor. But there is this possibility that Uthman and so many of the other of the Sahaba of the early Muslims represent, which is part of the shumuliyya the comprehensiveness of Islam. There are many points in society from which one can face the qiblah and many contexts in which one can seek salvation.
This again is part of the excellence the itqaan of our civilization and was one reason why it was possible for this civilization to be focused absolutely on Almighty God and for mosques to be built from east to west so quickly, including some of the most magnificent structures in the history of architecture. At the same time we have this wonderful economic system and this structure of trade, which really defined the medieval world and dominated global trade, until the 15th in the 16th century, when the trade routes were fundamentally dislocated by Columbus, the crossing of the Atlantic, the silver route from the New World and the map of the world and commerce started to look very very different–the Portuguese the Dutch and others starting to circumvent the Islamic world–and the traditional sources of prosperity in our communities, which had been managed so brilliantly and so well for so long started to fall into disuse. We have this honourable tradition, this tradition of mercantile piety, which is the basis for the understanding of business ethics in Islam.
There’ve been many classical sources in Islamic civilization that talk about this. They usually speak in terms of Adab Al-Kasb or sometimes Adab Al-Kasb wal Ma’isha. — hundreds of books on this, the adab, the courtesies of gaining a living. Kasb means to acquire and of ma’isha of life itself and of engaging with others. These two things are often treated together. Imam Al Ghazali has a very remarkable book in his Ihya ‘Ulumi Deen where he talks about kasb and I think of all of the works of our civilization this is the one that speaks to me most and that has stood the test of time.
Redistribution of Accumulated Capital
One can speak abundantly about the underlying principles of our economic vision, which of course with the zakat system, ensure that very long term perpetuations of capital, if it’s justly declared, become difficult. One reason why the feudal system never developed in the Muslim world the way it did in the West is that capital tended to get eaten away by the zakat. And when you died it was distributed not to your elder son, as in England and the European world, but to a range of successors.
Accumulated capital was always broken up with each generation and was helped to be redistributed. So the feudal system, we never really had it in the world of Islam. You see people rising to positions of economic eminence and descending quite rapidly as well with the usual fortunes of the world politics and and trade. That’s a big difference. The inheritance laws and the zakat laws made that fundamental distinction between medieval Islam and medieval Christendom a possibility.
There’s other things that experts in Sharia will be able to tell you about: a particular tax on mineral wealth, certain ways in which land taxes can be levied–fairly light compared to a lot of taxes that we have to put up with in Europe nowadays, but still they were there. And the purpose of it was always very clear: to ensure the circulation of wealth.
Remember some of the earliest and firmest passages to be revealed in the holy Quran were against the plutocrats of Mecca because they didn’t share with the poor. Some of the earliest things that it says even before it talks about prayer and other things:
alhaakumu takaathur, we know this verse, hatta zurtumul maqaabir.
Rivalry in worldly increase has distracted you until you go to your graves.
The opponents of the blessed Prophet sallallahu alayhi wa sallam were merchants of the wrong kind–those whose wealth had hardened their hearts and who were kicking around their slaves and persecuting the early Muslims and maltreating the orphans and hoarding their wealth. So this is clearly an important principle in the Qur’anic revelation, one of the first things that had to be stated.
And we find that this vision, of there being necessarily the circulation of wealth and a real concern for the poor, generated in classical Islamic civilization a much smaller polarization between the super-rich and the super poor than you find in say the modern United States, the land of opportunity. In fact there aren’t as many opportunities as people think to get up the ladder. And with the new tax regime in the United States probably the polarization will continue. It’s one of the scandals of the modern world and perhaps one of the Achilles heels of the modern world.
An interesting study done recently at the University of Maryland in America looking at the history of civilizations and their rise and fall said that there’s two factors that are likely to precipitate the collapse of modern civilization. The first is the environmental crisis. We may run out of oxygen. And the second is the growing disparity between the super rich and the poor, which is going to create social unease and unrest increasingly in an ever-increasing number of countries. A very interesting piece of research, actually done by an Iranian Muslim researcher Safa Motesharrei. You can look it up on the Internet. So two things that can bring about the collapse of the civilization.
In the context of the Islamic world, that didn’t happen because we had these mechanisms: as-sadaqah, az-zakat, other forms of charitable giving, the waqf institution that recycled and recycled and recycled.
I was reading a paper recently about the waqf institutions in Istanbul before they were taken over and destroyed by the Republican Turkish nationalists in the 1920s. A third of the land in Istanbul was owned by awqaaf. The function of the awqaaf was essentially charitable. You have a kind of social services provided but not by the state but by the generosity of individual people. Usually people who are leaving something as wasiyah in their wills for providing a soup kitchen, or a public water fountain, or a little hospital, or whatever it might be. Our civilization has an excellent record of delivering but without endless state intervention. The beauty of the Islamic model is that the state actually doesn’t do very much but the masses, because of their religious commitment, do a lot.
Being Watched by Al-Raqeeb
Now Imam al-Ghazali in this book says the first principle to remember here is that you are remembered. That Allah subhana wa ta’ala is watching you.
Maa yalfizhu bi qawlin illa ladayhi raqeebun ‘ateed.
Never do we say a word but that there is One who is Vigorous and Vehement scrutinizing us at all times.
Allah is the Raqeeb. And that’s the basic ethical principle of Islamic business ethics.
The businessman can’t conceal anything from his Creator. To the extent that is Muslim, he knows that all of those accounts in Panama, Fonseca, you’ve read all of the news all of the wealthy especially in the United States and Europe salting away their wealth in various shell companies and smoke and mirror ways of avoiding taxation. That’s the secular strategy. But you can’t hide from the unblinking eye of the Almighty.
And the zakat is an obligation. And you have a moral obligation if you’re a citizen of a nation-state to pay your taxes in the nation-state and to avoid that is to play games with God.
The smart believer, the mukhlis, when he thinks about it, isn’t going to want to do that. So this is the basic principle. And the divine name that applies is Ar-Raqeeb.
The Achilles Heel of Business
The holy Prophet alayhi salatu salam–who grew up and existed in a world where he knew very well merchants and their tricks and the temptations and the games that they play and the deceit of which they are capable, the flipside, the darker side, of something that has its positive side of circulating wealth and bringing products and wealth to the world–he knew the great failing was deceit and lying.
So he says ‘alayhi salat wa salam in a hadith:
Li kulii shay’in aafa wa aaftul tijaara al-kathib.
Everything has its Achilles heel, its weak point, its hazardous area. And the weak point of business is telling lies.
Ouch. I know the temptation myself if I’m trying to sell something on eBay or whatever it might be, am I going to list everything about whatever it is that I’m selling frankly and honestly? Hmm… And there’s all kinds of things in Imam al-Ghazali’s book. This issue of ghabal, as they call it ,which is a kind of deceitful presentation of the goods as that which they are not, all comes under this prophetic anger against deceiving people.
Despite modern regulatory frameworks–and in England we have the Serious Fraud Office and we have the Department of Trade and millions and millions and millions of tax inspectors, have got no idea how many they are, but they’re putting us all under the microscope–the believer accepts that, but also as a man or woman of honour wants to be frank with his customers, wants to do things honourably. Because the image of the traditional merchants, the taajir, which is an honourable description in Muslim civilization, the image of that person is that he is following Al-Amin, The Trustworthy One.
Muslims converted the world not really through missionaries and trained people the way the Christians did it but largely through merchants. They went to places like Indonesia, they went to China, they went to East Africa to trade, to buy and sell stuff, but they were so magnificent and so respected and so honest, that people wanted to know more. What was it that have made them into these sober restrained dignified people rather than hustlers? What is it about the Muslim merchant that is so impressive? And he can be a brilliant trader, Islamic history is full of such people. But the person of dignity, of honour, because he knows that Allah is Raqeeb, he is being watched, he can’t hide anything. And this has always been something of which our civilization has been proud.
So this category of kathib of deceiving the customer really occupies most of Imam al-Ghazali’s book on business ethics. And some of the things might seem obsolete but in fact when you think about them they’re not really.
An Ottoman Guild’s Response to Overcharging Customers
So he talks about rikbaan for instance:
Naha RasulAllahi sallallahu alayhi wa sallam ‘ani rikbaan
He forbade the practice of overcharging strangers.
Imagine the traditional world. There’s no internet. There’s no standard currency system. There’s no banking system. You travel for days to another city and you buy and sell things. You’re not sure what the prices are. The temptation for the merchants in the bazaar is to up the prices because they can see that you don’t know. The Holy Prophet ‘alayhi salatu salam specifically forbade this. There’s a hadith in Bukhari and Muslim in which he does not allow you to do this.
I recently examined a PhD thesis which was about guilds, who would ensure that everybody behaved in an honourable way and did not bring that profession into disrepute. So in Sarejevo over 300 years ago, if you were in town and you were from some little village in the mountains, and you were overcharged something by somebody who was taking advantage of you, and the head of the guild came to hear about, it there’ll be a whole ceremony–the Ottomans love ceremony–but rather depressing if you were a merchant, because it meant that the guild master the yul atase would come in his splendid robes with his assistants and he would open the door of your shop and he would take green silk square embroidered with a verse of the Holy Quran and place it over the goods that you were selling and then he would leave and you had to sit there with your door open and you wouldn’t be allowed to sell anything until the yul atase had decided that you’d learned your lesson idea to come back and remove and fold up the cloth and recite some Qur’an and you could get back to business.
It’s not government, not the taxman, not anything, but this is how life was in the bazaar culture of classical Islamic civilization. It’s really dishonourable against what they called futuwwa, which I was also talking about the other day, unchivalrous to exploit your customer.
Weigh and Put in a Little Extra
Another hadith, it’s in Tirmidhi the Holy Prophet sallAllahu ‘alahi wa sallam when he went to somebody in the markets said zin fa arjih. And this has become a kind of proverb in the bazaars to this day. Weigh it and put in a little extra. It’s like the idea of the baker’s dozen. I don’t know if that means anything in South Africa but in England you would buy a dozen loaves of bread and the baker would add another loaf just in case the loaves turned out to be a little bit small that you haven’t been shortchanged. The baker’s dozen is 13.
That’s exactly what this sunnah practice is. If you’re weighing out the weights or the coins or the gold whatever it is into the scales, make sure that the scales don’t exactly balance, but they go clunk on the customer side–throw in something extra just to make sure you hear that clunk. That is part of the adab of the taajir: to make sure that you’re not guilty of shortchanging your customer.
Now that’s the kind of medieval image. How many of us actually go into shops and have things weighed up unless we’re selling your wife’s jewelry or something, certain emergencies maybe at the pawn broker, but basically that doesn’t happen. But the principle is certainly the same: Make sure that they get exactly what they are paying for.
And it’s the same with the khazzazine. Medieval Islam was a civilization that produced a lot of fabrics and silk and the khazzaz, according to the guilds, had to measure out, somebody might say I want a bolt of say silk that’s say 20 meters long, measure it and a little bit extra at the end. And this was kind of normal. Everybody did it.
Whoever Cheats Us is Not One of Us
You also have hadith in which the holy Prophet alayhi salat wa sallam forbids people from concealing the faults of their goods. There’s a hadith in which the holy Prophet sallallahu alayhi wa sallam marra ‘ala rajulun yabi’u ‘ala ta’aaman fa ‘ajabahu. He walked past a man in the market who is selling some food, probably corn and he liked it. Fa adkhala fihi yadan, so he put his hand inside it. Fa wajada balala, deep down he found it was damp, which is a disaster. Damp corn is going to rot. It probably already started to ferment. Maa hadhal balal, he said, why is it wet? And the man said assaabatu samaa, well it was raining. And the holy Prophet sallallahu alayhi wa sallam said fa halla ja’altahu fawqa ta’aam? If it the rain was falling on it how come it’s moist underneath why didn’t you put it on top of the food? And then he says the famous words man ghashana fa laysa minnaa whoever cheats us is not one of us.
It’s a quite drastic thing. He doesn’t mean you’re kaafir but if you cheat other people in the marketplace by selling them something, and there’s stone in the rice, or it’s actually poor quality and you’re claiming that it’s high quality, all of these are the tricks of so many trades–if you do that deliberately and knowingly, the Holy Prophet alayhi salatu salam has said something about you that is kind of dark and alarming: Whoever cheats us is not one of us.
Many of us can think of times in which this has happened. Nowadays, unfortunately, if you buy things in the market, especially touristy areas in the Arab world the miracle is if you don’t get cheated. Or riding a taxi. Our cultures have often become quite degenerate. And we do take advantage and the old dignity has been lost, which is such a shame, such a tragedy. But the Islamic principle is clear: man ghashana fa lays minna. Whoever cheats us is not one of us.
Against False Advertising
The Holy Prophet ‘alayhi salat wa salam also forbade us to describe the product in a way that was misleading. There’s even discussions in Sharia as to whether a contract on that basis can be the subject of its revocation. So if you go home and you find that the car you’ve just been sold, actually the odometer has been adjusted and it’s done a hundred thousand miles and not ten thousand miles and it’s obvious you’ve been done, in many cases the Shari’a will allow you to abrogate that contract of sale and take it back if you have documentation. The holy Prophet sallallaahu alayhi wassalam forbade people to sell things according to a description which is not accurate. There’s a long section in the Ihya at which sometimes is a bit mind-boggling because it evokes a time of scrupulousness that is almost unimaginable today.
The conversion of Jareer bin Abdullah, is one of the great sahaba: He takes his shahada and then he turns away fa akhadha rasulullah sallallahu alayhi wasallam thoba, the Holy Prophet brings him back. Not just the shahada, young man, he tells him, because Jareer is a man who is engaged in business, never to mis-describe his goods.
We don’t know why exactly this was his instruction to him, but from that time on Jareer became famous in the marketplace of Madina because when you went to buy from him, he would say, well this is actually not very good and there might be all kinds of problems with this thing. Fa shakaa ilayhi rajul fa qal law dawamta ‘ala hadha lam yanfudh laka bay’un qat. If you continue like this in your shop you’ll never sell anything. But he said, amrun baya’tu Rasul Allahi sallallahu alayhi wasallam ‘alahi, maa taraktu abada. Something on the basis of which I gave my bay’ah of the Holy Prophet sallallahu alayhi wa sallam I will never leave off.
You will also find that Imam Al-Ghazali talks about this as part of the spirituality of the honourable merchant. He says that acquiring wealth that benefits you is an almost arcane matter. It’s not just about trotting up figures but money does odd things. And there’s baraka fil maal. It’s very Islamic kind of conception: that if you follow these scrupulous principles when running your business, when running your shop, when driving your taxi, when filling out your tax return, whatever it may be, that the money that does come your way will become blessed. And all kinds of wonderful things will happen to you through that maal. Whereas other people may find they have a mountain of money but somehow it turns to ashes, no good comes of it. This is a subtle thing. Hard to imagine unless you’ve actually experienced it but it’s a very important part of Islamic way.
I guess advertising and dishonest advertising campaigns will come under this heading of mis-describing goods. And sometimes advertising can be really very esoteric and strange. particularly if its products that are really damaging like tobacco.
So the tobacco advertisement, you see the pack of Rothman’s and then you see the cowboy on his horse. And somehow seeing the cowboy and his horse is meant to make you rush out and buy a packet of Rothman’s. Very odd kind of psychology but they must have found that it works or they wouldn’t be spending millions and millions and millions on advertising. Ahat also is regarded as problematic.
It’s straightforwardness. It’s perfectly legitimate to make a profit but be straightforward. And make sure that you can go to bed relaxed as an honourable man in the evening even if you haven’t quite cut the profit that you hoped for.
Prayers for the Easy Buyer, Seller, Borrower and Lender
And other things which are not really Sharia related but to do with the adab and the ihsan of buying and selling. The Holy Prophet sallallahu alayhi wa sallam says in another hadith:
rahim Allahu imra’an sahla ashiraa sahlal bay’
May Allah have mercy on a man who is easy as he sells and easy as he buys
Imam al-Ghazali says this has many meanings. It has something to do with adab — not really grinding somebody who’s needy into the dust because you are in a position of kind of holding him to ransom. That you’re an easy guy to do business with. That you make allowances. That you don’t push for the final cent. And this is one of the meanings of it.
But it also means, and this is more subtle, and particularly in the old bazaar culture was important, that you differentiate in your transaction between rich and poor. That if a poor person comes to you, you can do something like, for instance, saying, well you can pay me later, with the intention of never asking that person for repayment. This is one of the traditional fadhail of Muslim culture that so as not to humiliate somebody by saying this is just a gift. To preserve their honour, they say, you can pay me later but the understanding is that it’s very unlikely that person will ever pay it back. This is common in traditional Islamic ethics and it’s part of what the Holy Prophet is getting at when he speaks of sahla ashiraa sahlal bay’. So don’t force things in a kind of unreasonable and greedy and discourteous way and again you’ll find that baraka will ensue.
And in one narration of this hadith it goes on to say:
sahlal qada sahlal iqtida
which means that when the believer repays his loans he does so easily.
He doesn’t endlessly make excuses. And trying to postpone it. And I can do a little bit with the money and pay it back next year instead of this year. And the games that often happen in the commercial world. Okay it’s a payment within 28 days but let me see if I can get three months because I can invest it in this product and get a little bit of money in the interim. That’s not the Islamic ethic. That if you owe something, sahlal qada means that you’re an easy guy to get your debt back from because it’s a matter of honor that you repay your debt.
And sahlal iqtada means that when you’re dunning somebody you’re asking for a loan to be repaid you make it really easy for them. You give them as long as it takes. In some cases you may just write it off. And this is again a Qur’anic virtue.
In kaana dha ‘usratin fa naziratun ilal maysara
If somebody is in difficult circumstances, so they owe you their rent for instance, and you’re banging on the door and saying, I have the legal right to chuck you out, the Qur’an is saying if the person is in difficulty then give them a period of time until things become easier for them. And this is also part of the merchant world because debt, owing, borrowing is part of the commercial existence.
So just to wrap it up these are the insights that the Imam is sending to us down the corridor of time from Central Asia nine centuries ago. But what we find is that most of these things actually still apply despite the inconceivable and possibly even unstable and dangerous complexity of the world economic and financial systems, we can recognize that there are certain things that are constant.
But the underlying principle is, Islam really likes the recycling of wealth from the rich to the poor, but Islam also honours the one who is wealthy as part of that process. And there is a pious dignity in the mercantile calling, which is a very high dignity and is part of the prophetic dignity itself. And that scrupulousness is going to make you experience the pleasure of that dignity, an honourable man, so that the money that is passed onto one’s descendants is insha’Allah 100% halal. And one is remembered as somebody who was decent to his customers, who was compassionate to debtors, who helped and supported employees, who was just a decent person in the business realm.
And I suspect it’s that, as well as the genius of the Sharia itself that made Islam such a brilliant mercantile civilization. The world’s greatest cities were in the world of Islam because the economy worked. Baghdad with a million people. Qurtuba with a million people. At a time when London had maybe 40,000. Because the system was run on the basis of itqan it was efficient it was well thought out. But also because the poor weren’t starving to death. And there were these facilities for the recycling of wealth but at the same time there was public respect for the decent merchant.
Remember the Prophet sallallahu alayhi assalam is, in this last hadith that I gave you, actually praying for the person who is in this situation of buying and selling and borrowing and lending. Rahim Allah, he says, May allah have mercy on that person. So we need to get this into our minds. Because very often especially in the modern strange culture we tend to assume that this is a very dunya kind of activity.
But in fact islamic civilization, I suspect better than any other pre-modern civilization, has created a context in which one can be absolutely 100% right with the Almighty and finding salvation through these akhlaq and these adab of the righteous merchant. And that so brilliant was the civilization, so much baraka flowed from the wealth of the people who conformed to these stringent but beautiful and ethical rules, that we created a civilization that was flourishing and sustainable for hundreds of years.
So those are some of the things that I have found in Imam al-Ghazali’s book on business ethics Adab Al-Kasb the courtesies of earning a living. I’d recommend that you all take a look at that book and you can do so because online Shaykh Seraj Hendricks Cape Town of the Zawiya mosque has done a video class on this very book of the Ihya Ulumu Deen. It’s well worth watching.
So may Allah inshaAllah bless us all in our buying and our selling, make us all people of honour and mercy and make us all remember that Allah subhana wa ta’ala is ala kulli shayin Raqib is the one who scrutinizes and observes all things. Allah bless you, bring you together, bless those who are in this congregation, bless your families, bless your country insha Allah and bring us together as Bani Adam in love compassion and unity barakAllahu fikum wal ‘afwu minkum assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah.