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Islamic Work Ethics

Islamic Work Ethics

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Islamic workethic
Cross Cultural Management: AnInternational JournalVol. 15 No. 1, 2008pp. 5-19
Emerald Group Publishing Limited
1352-7606DOI 10.1108/13527600810848791
Islamic work ethic: a criticalreview
Abbas J. Ali
School of International Management, Eberly College of Business and  Information Technology, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, Pennsylvania, USA, and 
Abdullah Al-Owaihan
 Kuwait University, Safat, Kuwait 
– 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.
– 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.
– 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.
– IWE is a multidimensional concept. It links an organization’s prosperity andcontinuity to societal welfare. Its four elements – effort, competition, transparency and morallyresponsible conduct – have the promise to strengthen commerce and economic progress in today’sworld.
Work ethic, Islam, Culture, Managers, Motivation (psychology)
Paper type
General review
Researchers 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 of work. 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 newlyinventedwork organization.
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
The author wishes to thank Professor Helen T. Bailie for her comments on an earlier version of this paper.
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 contemporarycapitalism.Perhaps, the attribution of the presence of and interest inwork 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 work
 per 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 workto 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 seminalessayon,
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 inadvancingeconomic growthandthe accumulation of wealth.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. Theirexperiences 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 atestimonyto the existence of thriving cultures.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 today’s 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,
Islamic workethic
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 andthe perfection ofwork as the most blessed action by God.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. In Judaism, 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 sourcesbecomeimperativein anydiscussion of IWE.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.
The place of trade in Islamic thinking
From 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 God’s trusted servants on earth’’ and ‘‘the honest, truthful Muslim merchant willstandwith the martyrs on the Dayof Judgment’’.During the first six centuries of Islam’s 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 goldenage, toorganizedworks,noting that:
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

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