Islamic Business Ethics (Part 1)

Islam and Life
Unity between the present life and the life to come, both come under the same Divine jurisdiction
Islamic Architecture

There are nearly 1.5 Billion Muslims worldwide; about one fifth of the total world population.

As is the case with any universal religion, a great cultural diversity does exist among them.

Similarly, the extent of religious commitment and practice varies considerably between individuals and cultures. This poses a major challenge in attempting to deal with business ethics from a religious perspective.

While cultural-specific or country-specific studies are needed, a “linking pin” connecting them may be helpful. That “pin” is normative Islam based on its universally accepted sources and teachings. An implicit assumption here is that such teachings are likely to influence the mindset and actions of their adherents in some degree or the other. As most readers may not be fully familiar with Islam, a brief introduction about it may be helpful.

Islam: A Brief Introduction

The term “Islam” is derived from the Arabic root (slm) which means peace, submission, and acceptance. Religiously, the term means to achieve peace with Allah (God); with oneself (inner peace) and with the creation of Allah (God) through submission to Him; putting one’s trust in Him and acceptance of His guidance and injunctions.

This broad definition explains why Islam is more than a religion in the commonly limited meaning, which concerns itself mainly with the spiritual and ritual aspects of life. In fact, the term “religion” is an imperfect translation of the Arabic term “deen” which means literally a way of living. That way of living embraces the creedal, spiritual, moral, social, educational, economic and political aspects of life.

A topic like business ethics is an integral part of the normative religious practice. If this is the case, then it is essential to be clear about the sources of such normative practices, sources which will be frequently referred to in this chapter.

There are two primary sources of normative Islamic teachings. The first and most important source is the Quran (commonly misspelled Koran). Muslims accept the Quran as the verbatim word of God, revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) over a period of 22 years (610-632 C.E.) and dictated word-for-word by Archangel Gabriel.

The second primary source is called “Sunnah” or “Hadith”, which means the words, actions and approvals of Prophet Muhammad. While the words of Hadith are not those of God (verbatim), they are believed, however, to be another form of revelation to Prophet Muhammad, in meaning only. Both primary sources provide broad principles and guidelines in conducting the normative Islamic life.

These broad principles and precepts, such as social justice, mutual consultation (shura) or moral conduct are not subject to nullification or change. They are presumed to be valid for all times and places. The human endeavor is limited to understanding and implementing them in a manner that is suited to the needs of time, place and circumstances. While these sources focus on broader and guiding principles, they also contain injunctions that are more specific due to their importance.

Norms of Business in Islam

The human is born into this world owning nothing that he/she earned and departs from the earthly life with no assets that he/she saved.

The growing complexity and diversity of business dealings of life in general generates a legitimate question: what defines a normative Islamic position in respect to a new issue or problem which is not directly addressed in the two primary sources of Islam? A built-in mechanism to deal with this is called Ijtihad or the exertion of effort by a learned scholar so as to find answers to new questions or solutions to new problems.

In the process of Ijtihad, the scholar is guided by the principles and spirit of Islamic law in arriving at his opinion. As Ijtihad is a human endeavor, influenced by the needs of time, place and circumstances, such opinions may vary as well. They may vary even under the same circumstances. However, a cardinal rule is that if there is a clear and conclusive text in the Quran or Hadith on any issue, it cannot be replaced or supplanted by any scholar’s opinion. This chapter focuses mainly on widely accepted principles and norms relating to business ethics as stipulated in the two primary sources of Islam.

These principles and norms, however, do not exist in vacuum, apart from the Islamic worldview and the role of ethics in such worldview. At the center of this worldview is belief in and devotion to Allah (God), who is the source of all bounties and the ultimate authority in defining what is ethical and what is not. This belief is examined in the next section.

Allah: Source of All Bounties

The human is born into this world owning nothing that he/she earned and departs from the earthly life with no assets that he/she saved. Between one’s birth and physical death, the human is utterly dependant on God's bounties. God is the only Creator, Sustainer and Cherisher of the Universe. As such, it is useful to begin with an exposition of Islam's conception of Allah (God). This conception may be summed up in the key term Tawheed (monotheism); the cornerstone of Islam, the foundation of its ethics and approach to life and the basis of its systems and institutions and the primary determinant of one's relationship to the natural and social order. It may be helpful to begin with the explanation of the meaning of Tawheed before examining its implications.

The Meaning of Tawheed

Tawheed is an Arabic term, which has often been translated into English as “monotheism"; the belief in one God, as opposed to dualism, Polytheism or Atheism. Such a definition does not fully capture the deeper meaning of Tawheed. As a theological term, it means the oneness, uniqueness and incomparability of Allah (God) to any of His creatures. Based on the Quran, there are three crucial requirements of Tawheed:

To believe in the one and only true God (Allah) as the sole Creator, Sustainer and Cherisher of the universe

To believe that God (Allah) alone is worthy of worship and of the unshared Divine authority. To believe in the unity of the essence and attributes of God, which are all attributes of absolute perfection.

Implications of Tawheed

This comprehensive meaning of the unity of Allah implies other types of unity:

Unity of the basic Divine message to mankind which was communicated in various revelatory forms. The Quran makes it incumbent on its adherents to believe in, love and honor all Prophets and Messengers of God. They are viewed as one brotherhood, and as links in the revelatory chain throughout human history. This chain, according to the Quran was completed and culminated with the advent of the last messenger Muhammad.

The Prophet is presented in the Quran not only as the seal and last of all Prophets, but also as the only messenger whose mandate and mission embraces the whole world. His teachings complete and culminate all earlier forms of revelation. Unity of the human race, created by God and descendants of the same Parents. This depicts humanity as a large family characterized with unity in Diversity. Conceptually, this should shape one's attitudes towards other humans Muslims and “non-Muslims” alike. Unity between all aspects of human livings on earth as they all come under the jurisdiction of God.

To compartmentalize life into religious and secular, spiritual and mundane is contrary to the essence of Tawheed. Unity between the present life and the life to come, both come under the same Divine jurisdiction. As such, individual and collective decision-making is guided by a time scale, which is not limited by one's life span, the life of one or more generations, or even the life of all generations.

Every action has consequences both in this life and in the life to come.

(To be continued In-Shaa-Allah …)
This article is republished with the author's kind permission
Related Links:
Zakah – Obligatory Charity: Purifying Wealth
Lessons from Islamic and Ethical Finance
Prophet Muhammad & The Power of Giving
The Partnership Between Body and Soul
Alternative News and a Leaflet Led me to Islam

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