Islamic work ethic: a critical review

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<ul><li><p>Islamic workethic</p><p>5</p><p>Cross Cultural Management: AnInternational JournalVol. 15 No. 1, 2008</p><p>pp. 5-19# Emerald Group Publishing Limited</p><p>1352-7606DOI 10.1108/13527600810848791</p><p>Islamic work ethic: a criticalreviewAbbas J. Ali</p><p>School of International Management, Eberly College of Business andInformation Technology, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana,</p><p>Pennsylvania, USA, and</p><p>Abdullah Al-OwaihanKuwait University, Safat, Kuwait</p><p>Abstract</p><p>Purpose The purpose of this paper is to present a coherent but critical treatment of Islamic workethic (IWE). It explores the nature of IWE in the context of cultural and political evolution and offersa cultural and religious perspective pertaining to organization and management.Design/methodology/approach It briefly investigates the economic and cultural conditions thatfacilitate the emergence of work ethics and the centrality of trade in Islamic culture. The paper, then,reviews the pillars and foundations of IWE and investigates various empirical studies conducted invarious countries.Findings IWE has economic as well as moral and social dimensions. These along with basicelements of IWE seem to provide the faithful with a sense of worthiness and strengthenorganizational commitment and continuity. That is, work is viewed not as an end in itself, but as ameans to foster personal growth and social relations.Practical implications Offers managers and consults various avenues on how to designteamwork and new methods of change that focus on producing results which reinforce existingcommitment and enthusiasm. As justice and generosity in the workplace are considered virtues,issues of a hiring and firing become part of a broader concern with consequences far beyond theorganization.Originality/value IWE is a multidimensional concept. It links an organizations prosperity andcontinuity to societal welfare. Its four elements effort, competition, transparency and morallyresponsible conduct have the promise to strengthen commerce and economic progress in todaysworld.</p><p>Keywords Work ethic, Islam, Culture, Managers, Motivation (psychology)</p><p>Paper type General review</p><p>IntroductionResearchers have frequently attributed the rise and evolution of work ethics tochanging economic and religious environments in the Western world. Theseresearchers claim that economic expansion in Europe and later in the USA created newforms of economic enterprises and subsequently changed the nature and meaning ofwork. Zuboff (1983) argued that as industrial capitalism emerged in the 18th centuryemployees faced the demands of new work and asked themselves why they should doit. Zuboff indicated that the answer came from the employers rather than fromemployees. Employers sought a theory of productive behavior which offered thepromise of engaging the spirit as well as the body of the worker. He argued that theconceptualization of work ethic was necessary to ease the management of the newlyinvented work organization.</p><p>The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available</p><p>The author wishes to thank Professor Helen T. Bailie for her comments on an earlier version ofthis paper.</p></li><li><p>CCM15,1</p><p>6</p><p>While Calvinism viewed work as the glorification of God, Barbash (1983) and Welsh(2005) traced most of the modern conviction about work to the era of the industrialrevolution. Barbash, in particular, asserted that work ethic as a concept was theproduct of an era of scarcity and deprivation when workers either worked or starved.He (p. 232) viewed work ethic as an ideology propagated by the middle classes for theworking classes with enough plausibility and truth to make it credible. Ferguson(2004) and Diddams and Whittington (2003) seem to agree that work ethic is a productof the 19th century. These authors, along with others, have concluded that theexistence of work ethic is a phenomenon that is linked to and associated with theemergence of industrial revolution and the rise of contemporary capitalism.</p><p>Perhaps, the attribution of the presence of and interest in work ethic primarily to thereligious-economic conditions in the 19th century is influenced by the fact that inEurope, prior to the industrial revolution, work was not held in high esteem. Theprevailing religious and social norms were neither appreciative nor in favor of workper se. For example, Adam Smith, in the Wealth of the Nations (published in 1776),indicated that businessmen are an order of men, whose interest is never the same withthat of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress thepublic and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressedit (quoted in Koontz et al., 1980, p. 31). This negative view of work may induceresearchers in the west to attribute the evolving positive view of work to the emergenceof the Protestantism in Christian Europe and the corresponding rise of the industrialrevolution. In fact, this belief was strengthened after Max Weber published his seminalessay on,The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Since this publication,researchers have given increasing attention to work ethic and the role of religion inadvancing economic growth and the accumulation of wealth.</p><p>While the evolution of work ethic and the meaning of work in the Western worldmay correspond to the nature of the European society and its held values and beliefs,one should not overlook the fact that other societies and civilizations have their ownwork ethic and beliefs. Their experiences may not mirror those of the West. More likely,these societies have had developed conceptualization and views of work that manifesttheir cultural realities. This is especially true for Confucian and Islamic civilizations.Over centuries, both civilizations have accumulated a wealth of knowledge andexperience pertaining to work and economic enterprises. Their achievements were atestimony to the existence of thriving cultures.</p><p>Since the early days of Islam, in particular, Muslims have offered uniqueperspectives on work and have formulated specific conceptualization of work ethic. Inall probability, their articulation of work ethic and desired behavior has reinforced theirfaith and accelerated social and economic changes that were seldom experienced inArabia, the birth place of Islam. Indeed, as documented in the following sections, thepositive meaning that was attached to work was at that time a novel development andarguably is in tune with todays contemporary thinking. For example, Ibn Khaldun andAbd al-Rahman (1989, p. 273), the medieval Arab sociologist, argued that engaging inbusiness serves four objectives: facilitating cooperation and mutual understandingamong people, satisfying the needs of people, increasing wealth and influence andspurning the growth of cities. Previously, the Ikhwan-us-Safa (Brothers of Purity) whorose in the tenth century have used terms corresponding to contemporarycategorization of management and organizational behavior in describing the centralityand meaning of work. They indicated that engagement in trade and manufacturingserved physical, psychological, social and spiritual purposes. Specifically (Vol. 1,</p></li><li><p>Islamic workethic</p><p>7</p><p>p. 286), they identified the following reasons for pursuing business activities:alleviation of poverty; motivating people to be persistent and engaging creatively in anappropriate profession; complementing the human soul with verified knowledge, goodmanners, useful ideas and responsible deeds; and reaching salvation. Ikhwan-us-Safanot only stressed (pp. 288-90) that the benefits from work differ across industry andprofession but also offered a strong rationale for treating any type of work as anhonorable task and the perfection of work as the most blessed action by God.</p><p>Unlike work ethic in Judaism and Christianity, Islamic work ethic (IWE) has beenmisunderstood or ignored in management and organization studies. This is becausemanagement scholars have no ready access to the wealth of literature in Islampertaining to business and organization. In this context, it is useful to note that Islamshares some similarities with the other two monotheistic religions: Judaism andChristianity. Nevertheless, in terms of work, Islam differs from both religions. InJudaism, for example, there is an emphasis on the specific and relevant and on the roleof man on earth. In contrast, Christianity places greater emphasis on general andunspecific guidelines in life and mostly on spiritual aspects (Ali and Gibbs, 1998).Islam, on the other hand, provides detailed regulations of human life and at the sametime maintains the spiritual perspectives implied in Christianity. Work in Islam,therefore, is situated in the core of the faith and is considered as an integral part in life.Furthermore, in Muslim societies the sayings of Prophet Mohamed and Quranic textare an integral part of socio-political discourse. Therefore, the use of these sourcesbecome imperative in any discussion of IWE.</p><p>This paper is designed to address the nature of IWE and the place of work inIslamic faith. The paper provides a brief analysis of the economic and culturalconditions that facilitate the emergence of work ethics and the centrality of trade inIslamic culture. The paper, then, will discuss the foundations and the pillars of IWE.Furthermore, the paper highlights IWE in practice by reflecting on recent empiricalstudies and provides relevant implications.</p><p>The place of trade in Islamic thinkingFrom the beginning, Islam has viewed commercial activities not only as a divinecalling but also a necessary aspect of human life, a source of social gratification andpsychological pleasure. The Quran instructs Muslims to persistently work wheneverand wherever it is available: disperse through the land and seek of the bounty of God(Quran, 62:10) and God hath permitted trade and forbidden usury (2:275). TheProphet Mohammed preached that merchants should perform tasks that were not onlymorally required, but that were essential for the survival and flourishing of a society.He declared, I commend the merchants to you, for they are the couriers of the horizonsand Gods trusted servants on earth and the honest, truthful Muslim merchant willstand with the martyrs on the Day of Judgment.</p><p>During the first six centuries of Islams Golden Age (since the sixth century),knowledge, trade, industry, agriculture and construction of complex organizationsflourished. Work and creativity were honored in all their forms. Quranic principles andprophetic prescriptions served as guides for Muslims in conducting their business andfamily affairs. Izzeddin (1953, pp. 30-1) examined the contributions of the Arab/Muslimpeople, during the golden age, to organized works, noting that:</p><p>The industries and trades were organized in corporations or guilds. These corporations wereof great social importance. They maintained the standard of craftsmanship and preventedunderhand competition, thereby insuring a friendly society. Based on religious and moral</p></li><li><p>CCM15,1</p><p>8</p><p>foundations, they impressed upon their members a sense of duty toward ones craft andtoward one another. Honesty and sobriety were characteristic qualities of Moslem artisans. Atradition of mutual aid prevailed.</p><p>It was during this Golden Age that highly esteemed professional organizationsemerged. These organizations were instrumental in setting a standard of conduct andaccepted ethical behavior in the marketplace. Merchants and craftsmen were lookedupon with respect and admiration. The status of merchants and trade in Arab-Islamicthinking was reflected in the Prophet Mohammeds saying: He who brings supplies toour market is like a warrior in the war for God and the truthful, honest merchant iswith the prophets, and the truthful ones, and the martyrs (quoted in Ali, 1977, p. 294).Likewise, Imam Ali (1989, AD 598-661), in his letter to the Governor of Egypt (329-30),demonstrated his esteem for merchants as he urged the Governor to:</p><p>Take good care of the merchants and artisans, and ensure their well-being whether they aresettled or traveling, or working on their own. Those are the providers of benefits and goods,which they bring from far away by sea or by land through mountains and valleys, securingthem for people who are unable to reach them. Those are the people who will assure you adurable peace and respected allegiance. Give them due care in your vicinity and in other areasof your land.</p><p>This view concerning the merchant classes was in direct contrast to the beliefs thatprevailed among other civilizations that prospered before or after the Islamic empire.For example, Dessler (1986, p. 15) pointed out that in ancient Greece Business ingeneral, and money-lending in particular, were . . . carried out by slaves and less-than-respected citizens; manual workers and merchants, in fact, were not permittedcitizenship in the Greek democracy. Likewise, an earlier Jewish belief viewed work assinful activity, if man does not find his food like animals and birds but must earned it,that is due to sin (Lipset, 1990, p. 2).</p><p>Rationales for engaging in economic activitiesIn the early stage of its inception, Islam, positioned itself as the leading force forpromoting economic growth and development by its emphasis on trade. The centralityand necessity of trade in early Islamic thinking and practice was profoundly differentfrom the prevailing cultural norms. Islamic view of trade and work, however, wasgrounded in a deep understanding of the necessary social and economic conditions thatwere considered crucial in strengthening the foundation of the new faith and state.That is, Mohamed not only recognized the need for preparing the ground work,through trade, for eventual victory against his immediate rivals, the elite of Mecca whocontrolled trade, but also the necessity of trade in the formation of social and politicalnetworks and in spreading his spiritual message to other regions. Trade was viewed, inearly Islamic thinking, as an instrument for realizing religious, political, social andeconomic goals. That is, involvement and participation in economic activities was notmerely considered a divine call but also as a means to sustain a thriving and healthycommunity.</p><p>In pre-Islam, the elite of Mecca assumed the leading roles in trade. It was mostly thiselite class that organized a campaign against Mohamed and his message, despite the factthat Mohamedwas a merchant, married to a merchant whose name was Khadija, and whowas herself from a noble family that engaged in trade. The Meccans elite saw the newmessage as a threat to their established roles and their domination of other tribes and traderoutes. Fearing their reprisal, Mohamed sought various avenues to escape their abuse.</p></li><li><p>Islamic workethic</p><p>9</p><p>In AD 622, Mohamed emigrated from Mecca to another city Yethreb (Medina) andsought to build a viable community. In this citystate, Mohamed assumed religious andpolitical responsibilities along with the role of social arbitrato...</p></li></ul>