In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Dispenser of Grace
وَنُرِيدُ أَنْ نَمُنَّ عَلَى الَّذِينَ اسْتُضْعِفُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ وَنَجْعَلَهُمْ أَئِمَّةً وَنَجْعَلَهُمُ الْوَارِثِينَ
We wished to be Gracious
to those who were being oppressed on the earth,
by making them leaders and inheritors of the land
(Surah al-Qasas, 28:5)
Since this jumu’ah service takes place on Workers Day, it is fitting for us to reflect on the struggle of workers for dignity and a living wage. In this khutbah I would like to address two interrelated questions:
- What is the perspective of Islam on the question of labour ethics and worker rights? and;
- How should we, as conscientious Muslims, support solidarity campaigns for economic justice for marginalised and exploited workers?
An Islamic Theology of Labour
Islam’s philosophy or theology of labour rests on three cardinal principles:
First and foremost, Islam views work or `amal as an act of worship (`ibada) similar to prayer and fasting through which an individual can attain the pleasure of God. To underscore this, the Prophet Muhammad (may Allah’s everlasting peace and blessings be upon him) once shook the hand of a man whose hands were very course and full of blisters. On finding out that the reason for the rough condition of the man’s hands was because of his hard manual work, the Prophet (pbuh) kissed the hands of the labourer. He prayed for him and spoke very highly of those who labour over against those who sit idle or go begging.
The illustrious companions of the Prophet (pbuh) imbibed this comprehensive concept of `ibada (worship) which extolled labour and hard work. Once the second khalipha after the demise of the Prophet, `Umar ibn al-Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him), witnessed a group of believers who were dedicating themselves solely to performing prayers (salah) and seclusion in the masjid (`ìtikaf). He inquired about them and was informed that because of their exclusive devotion to prayers they had earned the title of al- mutawakkilun (those who placed their trust in God to provide for them). On hearing this, `Umar reprimanded them for distorting the true meaning of al-tawakkul (placing one’s trust in God). He corrected the people’s perverted concept of what constituted true worship of God by proclaiming that such people should not be called al-mutawakkilun but rather al-muta’akkilun (from the Arabic work ‘akl (literally meaning those who eat away the property of others). In other words, they are so-called ‘freeloaders” who refuse to work in order to earn their livelihood and erroneously believe that God will provide them their sustenance if they dedicate themselves exclusively to prayers and seclusion. `Umar ordered these sincere but misguided believers to leave the masjid and do something productive with their lives.
The above examples from the life of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his illustrious successors teaches us the true meaning of our religion al-Islam, which advocates a delicate balance between living our lives in this world and for the hereafter. In the Islamic theology of labour, therefore, the ideal goal of the conscientious believer is to aspire to produce more than he or she consumes.
The second cardinal principle upon which Islam’s philosophy or theology of labour rests is that in an ideal Muslim society there should be no class divisions. Both manual labourers; the so-called blue collar workers and those who work primarily with their intellects; white collar workers are to be regarded as equivalent workers. Attitudes of disdain for manual work and elitism should have no place in an ideal Islamic society.
Even those who hold high public office such as government leaders should be regarded as workers. They should not regard themselves or be viewed as a superior class but rather as servant leaders. In this regard I would like to share an instructive story:
During the reign of Mu`awiyya, roughly three decades after the death of the Prophet (pbuh), a very pious man by the name of Abu Muslim greeted the khalipha with the following words; Assalamu ‘Alayka Ayyuhal Ajir (literally meaning: peace be upon you; O Worker!). The people around Mu`awiyya admonished him by saying: you do not mean ajir (worker) you mean amir (ruler)? Abu Muslim said no; I said peace be upon you ajir (worker), for he is indeed a worker, who is fulfilling a public trust and God will reward him if he executes his work with justice and hold him to account if he oppresses the people. Mu`awiyya got the message and asked the people to leave Abu Muslim alone.
The third and related cardinal principle upon which Islam’s philosophy or theology of labour rests is that workers should be treated benevolently by being paid a just wage. In this regard the companion `Abdullah ibn `Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) narrates that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) exhorted us as followers:
قَبْلَ أَنْ يَجِفَّ عَرَقُهُ أَعْطُوا الأَجِيرَ أَجْرَهُ
“Pay the worker his wages before his sweat dries“
(This hadith can be found in the collections of al-Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah)
The literal interpretation of this hadith suggests that the Sunnah recommendation is that the payment of wages for work done should be made as soon as possible and not postponed. This notion is reinforced by the second khalipha `Umar bin Khattab. `Umar (may God be pleased with him) who preferred paying laborers daily. The spirit of the hadith, however, suggests that what the Prophet (pbuh) was really getting at was to advise his followers to take great care to treat workers with benevolence and justice.
Furthermore, in the case of non-payment for services rendered, the person defaulting on their obligation is severely referred to in another authentic prophetic tradition (hadith) as one of the three types of people who will be an “enemy of God” on the Day of Judgment.
In yet another prophetic tradition (hadith) narrated by the companion Abu Dharr (may God be pleased with him) the Prophet (pbuh) exhorted benevolent and just treatment of workers under your care in the following manner:
Your employees are your brothers and they are entrusted to you by God. So whosoever has a brother employee under his management, let him feed him/her as he eats and clothe them with the like of what he wears. Do not give them work that will overburden them and if you give them such task then provide them assistance.” (Sahih al-Bukhari)
The above hadith teaches us that an employer should consider their employees as members of their own family. For instance, in the case of setting working hours, employers are advised not to coerce employees to work beyond their capacities and if the workload is “excessive” then they are told to share the burden.
In the Islamic theology of labour all workers, whether they are so-called labourers or executive workers, male or female, they should be equally respected and justly remunerated in terms of the quantity and quality of their efforts and productivity. As far as the average fair wage is concerned, wages must be fixed in a reasonable way with respect to the circumstances of both employers and employees. Thus, Islamic juristic discourses suggest that salaries should be at least at a level that would enable employees to fulfill all their and their families’ essential needs in a humane manner.
In early Islamic history, one of the governmental jobs was to appoint a Muhtasib, an ethics officer or ombudsman, whose job was to settle wage disputes and to ensure that the minimum acceptable wages are the average wages for similar works performed by others.
It should be the ethical responsibility of all employers to ensure that their employees are paid fairly and treated justly and with dignity – whether you employ people in your businesses or your homes. This is especially pertinent to many of us who employ domestic workers and gardeners. We should be mindful of our ethical responsibility as employers and guard against exploiting these workers just because we think they are desperate for work.
Solidarity with Workers
In the second part of my khutbah I would like to provide some modest advice as to how we, inspired by the above-elucidated Islamic theology of labour, can support solidarity campaigns for economic justice for marginalised and exploited workers.
First, as conscientious Muslims, it is incumbent upon us to take a keen interest in the struggles of the poor and working class. In this regard we are currently witnessing some significant realignment of power and ideological debates in the trade union movement that could have serious implications for the struggle for social justice.
Today’s May Day celebrations, for example, are characterized by deep divisions within the labour movement. At the heart of these divisions is the question of the Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU’s) longstanding alliance with the ruling ANC party. Detractors argue that the state has become predatory, many of its leader’s careerists, enriching themselves rather than serving the needs of the poor and the working class. In light of this they have called on COSATU to break of its longstanding alliance with the ANC. This has led to the expulsion of one of COSATU’s largest affiliates, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) in December 2104. NUMSA is currently working on the creation of an alternative Trade Union Federation and has launched a “United Front” together with some key civil society organizations to explore the possibility of launching a Workers Party. As conscientious Muslims we need to assiduously follow these critical developments over the next few months.
Second, armed with a deep grasp of the critical issues facing the labour movement we need to actively support solidarity campaigns for economic justice for marginalised and exploited workers. Currently there is a growing social movement that seeks greater socio-economic justice and dignity for all South Africans and I encourage you to become an active participant in this movement.
In this regard during the past two years, since the heroic strike by Western Cape farmworkers in 2013, the CMRM congregation has been making a modest contribution to strengthening a farmworkers union, known as CSAAWU. In December we installed a small library on one of the farms and hope to follow this up with ongoing relief efforts but with a greater empahisis on literacy. I call upon our congregation to help us provide even greater support to this union representing the “poorest of the poor” in the future.
Last but not least, as conscientious Muslims we need to take great care that we treat those who work for us with benevolence and to remunerate them fairly and justly for services delivered. It was distressing to hear from the President of the Muslim Youth Movement of South Africa, Thandile Kona, during a pre-khutbah talk he delivered at this masjid in August 2014 informing us about a prominent Eastern Cape businessman, who single handedly established a masjid but was exploiting his workers by not paying them a living wage. Such crass perversion of the noble teachings of Islam should be combated. The best way of doing so is to embody the Islamic theology of labour by supporting the struggle of workers for dignity and a living wage.
On this Worker’s Day I call upon myself and you to reflect on our work ethics and labour justice. We ask Allah to help us to live balanced lives unencumbered by idleness, inertia, and most of all to inspire us to support solidarity campaigns for socio-economic justice for marginalised and exploited workers.
At this sacred hour of jumu`ah please join me in a supplication (du`a) that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) has taught us that we should frequently recite:
Allahumma akfini bi halalika ‘an haramika
wa aghnini bi fadlika ‘amman siwak
(O Allah, suffice me with what You have permitted,
So that I have no need of that which You have forbidden,
And make me independent of means by Your bounty,
So that I have no need of anyone besides you.