Work and Earning Livelihood in the Light Quran and Sunnah

It is He Who has made the earth submissive to you; so traverse its paths and eat of what He provides you….(67:15)

The fundamental attitude of Islam toward man’s position in the world is that Allah Subhanahu wa Ta’ala has made the earth for the benefit of man, to whom He has given control over it. It is the duty of man to profit from this favor and to exert himself to seek Allah’s bounties throughout the earth.

 

The Obligation to Work If One Is Able

It is not permitted to the Muslim to avoid working for a living on the pretext of devoting his life to worship or trust in Allah, as gold and silver certainly do not fall from the sky. It is also not permissible for him to depend on charity while he is able to earn what is sufficient for his own and his family’s needs through his own efforts. In this regard, the Prophet (peace be on him) has said, 

“Charity is halal neither for the rich nor for the able bodied.” (‘Reported by al-Tirmidhi.)

The Prophet (peace be on him) made it haram for the Muslim to beg from others without dire necessity thus losing his honor and his dignity. He said, 

“He who begs without need is like a person holding a burning coal in his hand.” (Reported by al-Bayhaqi and by Ibn Khazimah in his Sahih.) 

He also said, Anyone who begs from people in order to increase his wealth will have his face scratched on the Day of Resurrection, and will eat burning stones from hell; so let him reduce it (his punishment) or let him increase it as he pleases. (Reported by al-Tirmidhi. (The meaning here is that it is up to him to decrease his punishment by not begging, and vice-versa. Trans.)) 

Again, he said, “A person keeps on begging until he meets Allah (on the Day of Resurrection) with no flesh on his face.” (Reported by al-Bukhari and Muslim.) 

By such strong admonitions, the Prophet (peace be on him) intended to train the Muslim to safeguard his dignity, to develop self-reliance, and to be far-removed from dependence on others.

 

When Begging is Allowable

The Prophet (peace be on him) was, however, aware of situations of necessity. If, under the pressure of need, one is forced to ask for financial help from the government or from individuals, he is blameless. Said Allah’s messenger (peace be on him): Begging is similar to scratching the flesh off your face; so if someone wants to save his face he should avoid it, except for asking from the ruler or asking in case of dire need. (Reported by Abu Daoud and al-Nisai.)

In his Sahih, Muslim reported Abu Bishr Qubaysah ibn al-Makharaf as saying, “I agreed to pay himalah (an amount of money paid to two quarreling parties in order to make peace between them) and came to the Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) asking for help. Thereupon the Prophet (peace be on him) said, ‘Wait until alms (sadaqah) are brought to us and we will give you from that. Qubaysah,’ he continued, ‘asking for money is not permissible except in three cases: for a man who takes it upon himself to pay himalah, he may ask people for help until the designated amount is received and then he should stop asking. For a man who suffers calamity and loses his property, it is permissible for him to ask until he is able to stand on his own feet. For a man who is starving, until three reliable persons from his community say, “That man is reduced to hunger; it is permissible for him to ask until he is able to stand on his own feet.” Except for these, Qubaysah, begging is fire, it is eating fire.’ (Reported by Abu Daoud and al-Nisai.)

 

Dignity of Work

Some people regard certain kinds of work or professions as contemptible. However, the Prophet (peace be on him) denied the validity of this notion. He taught his Companions that the whole of a human being’s dignity is tied up with his work—any sort of work —and that real disgrace and humiliation consist of depending on other people’s help.

He said, It is better that a person should take a rope and bring a bundle of wood on his back to sell so that Allah may preserve his honor, than that he should beg from people, (regardless of) whether they give to him or refuse him. (Reported by al-Bukhari and Muslim.)

The Muslim can earn his livelihood by agriculture, trade, or industry or by any profession or employment as long as it does not involve doing, supporting, or propagating anything haram.

 

Earning Through Agriculture

In the Qur’an, while referring to His bounties and favors to man, Allah Ta’ala mentions the principles required for the pursuit of agriculture. He has spread out the earth and made it suitable and fertile for cultivation and production; this is a bounty to human beings which they ought to recall and to be thankful for: And Allah has spread out the earth for you, so that you may make your way through its spacious paths. (71:19-20)


And He has spread out the earth for (His) creatures. In it is fruit, and date palms with spathes, and husked corn, and scented herbs. Then which of the favors of your Lord will you deny? (55:10-13)

He has also provided water in abundance. He sends it down as rain and makes it flow in streams to revive the earth after it is dead. 

And it is He Who sends down water from the sky. With it We then bring forth vegetation of all kinds; from some We produce green (crops) out of which We produce grain heaped up at the harvest…. (6:99) 

Then let man look at his food, how We pour forth water in abundance, then We split the earth into fragments and produce therein corn and grapes and nutritious plants. (80:24-28)

Further, He sends the winds, with “good tidings” to drive the clouds and scatter the seeds: And We have spread out the earth and placed firm hills therein, and produced in it all kinds of things in due balance. And We have made means of sustenance in it for you and for those whom you are not the providers. And there is not a thing but its sources are with Us, and We send it down only in appointed measures. And We send the fertilizing winds, and send down the rain from the sky and give it to you to drink, although you are not the guardians of its stores. (15:19-22)

In all these Qur’anic verses there is encouragement for man to engage in agricultural activity, for it has been made easy for him as a divine favor.

The Prophet (peace be on him) said, When a Muslim plants a plant or cultivates a crop, no bird or human being eats from it without its being accounted as a (rewardable) charity for him. (Reported by al-Bukhari and Muslim.) 

He also said, When a Muslim plants a plant, anything eaten of it or stolen from it, until the Day of Ressurection, is accounted as a charity for him. (Reported by Muslim.) 

The implication of these ahadith is that the reward of the person who plants a tree or a crop continues as long as the produce of this tree or crop is eaten or used, even though he may have sold it to someone else. The scholars have said,
It is Allah’s generosity that He continues to add to the reward of a person even after his death, just as when he was alive, for six things: for the charity whose benefits continue, for knowledge which is used, for righteous children who pray for him, for the trees he planted, for the crops he sowed, and for territorial borders he guarded.

Once a man passed Abu al-Darda while he was planting a walnut tree. The man said, “Are you planting this even though you are a very old man? This tree will not bear fruit for many years.” “What of it?” Abu al-Darda replied. “Others will eat of its fruit, and the reward will be mine.”

One of the Companions of the Prophet (peace be on him) said that he had heard the Messenger of Allah say, If anyone plants a tree, patiently protects it, and looks after it until it bears fruit, Allah the Mighty and Glorious will count as charity for him anything for which its fruits are used. (Reported by Ahmad.)

On the basis of these sayings of the Prophet (peace be on him), some scholars have argued that agriculture is the best of occupations. Others say that manufacturing and working with the hands are best, while still others consider trade to be the best. (See al-Qastalani’s commentary on al-Bukhari.) In trying to reconcile these positions, some researchersay that it all dependupon circumstances: if food is scarce, agriculture is the best if people need goods, trade is the best; while if manufactured goods are needed, industry is the best. This conditional preference seems to be in the closest agreement with modern scientific thought.

 

Prohibited Crops

It is haram to cultivate a plant, such as hashish and the like which is haram for eating or which has no other known use except what is harmful. The case of tobacco is of this nature; whatever be the classification of smoking, whetherharam or makruh, the growing of tobacco is similarly classified. We ourselves prefer to classify smoking as haram.

It is not a valid excuse for the Muslim to say that he is growing the haram crop in order to sell it to non-Muslims, for the Muslim is never permitted to be a party to the propagation of what is haram. This is similar to a Muslim’s raising pigs in order to sell them to Christians, which is clearly unlawful. As we have seen, even a halal item such as grapes cannot be sold to others if it is known that they will use them to make wine.

 

Industries and Professions

Agriculture is essential, and Islam persuades people to engage in it by pointing to the benefits in this world, and the rewards in the Hereafter resulting from it. However, from the Islamic point of view it would be extremely undesirable if people limited their economic efforts solely to agriculture, a situation analagous to supposing that the inexhaustible oceans had no use other than the extraction of pearls from their depths. Warning Muslims that confining their activity only to agriculture and pastoral pursuits would expose them to various dangers such as defeat, humiliation, and the loss of religious freedom, the Prophet (peace be on him) said, 

If you deal in usury, calling it by other names, and hang onto the tails of cows, being satisfied with cultivation and ceasing to perform jihad, (Striving or fighting in the cause of Allah. (Trans.))Allah will inflict a disgrace upon you which will not be removed until you return to your religion. (Reported by Abu Daoud.)

Thus, in addition to agriculture, the Muslim must develop such industries, crafts, and professions as are essential for the life of a community, for the strength of a free and powerful nation, and for the posterity and wealth of a country. As the great scholars and jurists have explained, the essential industries and professions are not merely permitted by the Islamic Shari’ah, they are in fact an obligation on the Muslim community as a whole. Such obligations are termed “the obligations of sufficiency” (fard kifiyah); that is to say, the Muslim community must include among its members people engaged in every essential science, industry, and profession in numbers sufficient to meet its needs. If there is a shortage of qualified persons in some field of essential science or industry, the entire Muslim community is blameworthy, especially those in positions of authority. Imam al-Ghazzali says:

Sciences whose knowledge is deemed fard kifayah comprise every area which is indispensable for the welfare of this world, such as the following: medicine, which is necessary for the life of the body; arithmetic, for daily transactions and the division of legacies and inheritances, as well as others besides. These are the sciences without which, because of their absence, a community would be reduced to narrow straits. But should one who can practice them arise in the community, it would suffice, and the obligation to acquire their knowledge would cease to be binding upon the rest of the community.


No one should be surprised when we say that medicine as well as arithmetic are of the sciences which are fard kifayah, as are the basic industries, such as agriculture, weaving, politics, and even cupping and tailoring. For if a town should lack a cupper, extinction would overtake its people and they would be driven to expose themselves to destruction. Has not He Who has sent down the malady also sent down the remedy, given guidance for its use, and prepared the means for administering it? It is not, therefore, permissible to expose oneself to destruction by neglecting the remedy. (Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din, vol. 1 (The Book of Knowledge) translated by Nabih Amin Faris Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, Lahore, Pakistan, 1966, p. 37)

The Qur’an mentions many industries, terming them Allah’s favor and bounty. Allah Ta’ala says concerning David (Daoud), 

…And We made iron soft for him (commanding): Make thou coats of mail and balance the links…. (34:10-11) 

And We taught him the art of making garments (of mail) to protect you from your violence. Will you then be thankful? (21:80)


He says about Solomon: …And We made a fountain of molten copper flow for him; and of the jinn there were those who worked in front of him by his Lord’s permission. And if any of them turned aside from Our command, We made him taste the penalty of the blazing fire. They worked for him as he desired, (making) synagogues and statues, basins as large as reservoirs and boilers built into the ground. Give thanks, O House of David…. (34:12-13)


And He says about Duhl-Qarnayn and his building the high dam: He said, ‘That in which my Lord has established me is better (than tribute). Therefore, (if you) help me with your strength, I will erect a barrier between you and them. Give me blocks of iron.’ Then when he had filled up the space between the two cliffs, he said, ‘Blow (with your billows).’ Then when he had set it afire, he said, ‘Give me molten copper to pour on it.’ Thus, they were unable to scale it, nor were they able to dig through it.’ (18:95-97)

Allah mentions the story of Noah (Nuh) and the construction of the ark, and He also mentions great ships the size of mountains which sail the seas: 

And among His signs are the ships on the sea, like mountains. (42:32)

The Qur’an also mentions hunting in all its varied forms, from the catching of fish and the pursuit of land animals to diving in the deep for pearls, coral, and the like.

In addition to this, the Qur’an has informed us about the value of iron in such emphatic terms as are apt to be found in any other previous book, religious or secular. After mentioning the sending of prophets to the people and revealing the scriptures, Allah Ta’ala says: 

…And We send down iron, in which there is great strength and benefits for mankind….(57:25)

It is not surprising that the surah containing this verse was given the title of Al-Hadid (Iron).

Any sort of work which fills a need in the society or brings real benefit is regarded as good, provided the person performs it in a proper manner, as is required by Islam. Islam gave dignity to many professions which people considered lowly and degrading—for example, the occupation of shepherding. Although people do not usually look upon shepherds with esteem or honor, the Prophet (peace be on him) said,

 ‘Allah did not send a prophet without his having tended sheep’, They asked, ‘You too, O Messenger of Allah? He replied, ‘Yes. I tended sheep for wages for the people of Makkah’.(‘Reported by al-Bukhari.)

Muhammad (peace be on him), the Messenger of Allah and the Seal of the Prophets, used to tend sheep! Moreover they were not even his own sheep but belonged to the people of Makkah, and he tended them for fixed wages. He told his Companions this in order to teach them that honor belongs to those who work, and not to those who sit idle and are parasites.

The Qur’an tells the story of the Prophet Moses (Muse) (peace be on him) who worked for eight years as a hired man to gain the hand of an old man’s daughter in marriage. Moses was an excellent worker and employee; the old man’s daughter had displayed real insight into his character. She said, 

O my father, employ him; truly, the best for thee to employ is the strong and trustworthy one. (28:26)

Ibn ‘Abbas said, “David was a maker of coats of mail and shields, Adam was a farmer, Noah a carpenter, Idris a tailor, and Moses a shepherd.”(Reported by al-Hakim.) 

Since every prophet of Allah had some occupation, the Muslim should derive satisfaction in his occupation or profession. A hadith states: 

Noone earns his food better than the onewho worked with his hands, and the prophet of Allah, David earned his food by working with his hands. (Reported by al-Bukhari and others.)

 

Industries and Professions Condemned by Islam

Islam has prohibited certain professions and industries to its followers because they are harmful to the beliefs, morals, honor, or good manners of the society.

Prostitution: 

Prostitution, for example, is legal in many countries of the West; permits and licenses are issued to those who ply this trade, and prostitutes enjoy rights similar to other professionals. Islam absolutely rejects and condemns this practice, and forbids any female, free or slave, to earn money by selling her sexuality.

During the period of jahiliyyah some people used to exact a daily tribute from their female slaves without caring in what manner they earned this money to pay their masters. A majority of them had to resort to prostitution; some masters even forced their slave-girls to prostitution in order to earn a paltry fee. When Islam came, it lifted this disgraceful burden from its sons and daughters. Allah Ta’ala revealed, 

…And do not force your slave-girls to prostitution if they desire chastity, in order that you may seek the pleasures of this world’s life…. (24:33)

Ibn ‘Abbas narrated that Ibn Ubayy, the chief of the hypocrites of Madinah, came to the Prophet (peace be on him), bringing with him a very beautiful slave-girl named M’uadhah, and saying, “O Messenger of Allah! She belongs to such and such orphans. Will you not allow her to commit fornication so that they may receive the price of it?” “No!” replied the Prophet (peace be on him). (Tafsir of Fakhr al-Deen al-Razi, vol. 23, p. 320.)

Thus the Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) forbade this abominable profession, regardless of who might derive benefit from it, rejecting any claim concerning need, distress, or any other worthy purpose in order that Muslim society might remain pure of such degrading practices.

Dancing and Other Erotic Arts: 

Similarly, Islam does not permit sexually exciting dancing or any other erotic activity, such as suggestive or obscene songs, provocative dramas, and every type of rubbish which some people today term “art” and “progress.”

The fact is that Islam prohibits every sort of sexual contact and sexual relationship outside marriage. This is the secret behind the significant words of the Qur’an prohibiting fornication and adultery (both of which are known as zinain Arabic). 

And do not come near zina; indeed, it is an abomination and an evil way. (17:32)

This indicates that not only is zina forbidden, but likewise anything which brings one near to it. Everything to which we have referred above, as people are well aware, for example, provocative dances and songs, constitutes “coming near zina;” these things are certainly intended to tempt, excite, and lead one toward such sin. And what havoc they wreak in the lives of people!

Making Statues and Similar Articles: 

As we have already seen, Islam prohibits the acquisition of statues and even more strongly the making of them. Al-Bukhari reported on the authority of Sa’id ibn Abu al-Hasan that the latter said, “I was with Ibn ‘Abbas when a man came and said to him, ‘O Ibn ‘Abbas, I earn my living with my own hands. I make these figures.’ ‘I shall tell you,’ said Ibn ‘Abbas ‘only what I heard from the Messenger of Allah (peace be on him). I heard him say, 

‘Allah will punish anyone who makes figures until he breathes spirit into them, which he can never do.’


Seeing the man extremely upset, Ibn ‘Abbas added, ‘What ails you? If you must make figures, then make them of trees or of something which has no soul.’ ”(Reported by al-Bukhari.) 

And the same obviously applies to the making of idols and the like.

As for drawing, painting, or photography, we stated previously that they are either permitted or at worst disapproved, depending on what comes closest to the spirit of the Islamic legislation. Of course, as was explained earlier, their subject matter should not be sexually provocative, as, for example, the erotic parts of the female body or a man and woman in a state of intimacy, and should not be of someone sacred or respected, such as the angels or the prophets.

Manufacturing Intoxicants and Drugs: 

Earlier we saw that Islam prohibits any participation in the promotion of alcoholic beverages, whether it be in their manufacture, distribution, or consumption, and that anyone who participates in any of these is cursed by the Messenger of Allah (peace be on him). The case of other intoxicants and drugs, such as hashish, cocaine, and the like, is the same; manufacturing, distributing, or consuming any of them isharam. In short, Islam prohibits the Muslim to work in any industry, business or profession which deals in, or promotes, anything which is haram.

 

Trade

The Qur’an and the Hadith of the Prophet (peace be on him) urge Muslims to engage in trade and commerce, and to undertake journeys for what the Qur’an refers to as “seeking the bounty of Allah.” In fact, Allah mentions those who travel for the purpose of trade side by side with those who fight in His cause: 

…Others travel through the land, seeking the bounty of Allah, and still others fight in the cause of Allah…. (73:20)

Allah mentions merchant ships, which are the principal means of transporting goods throughout the world, as one of His favors to mankind, encouraging people to engage in exports and imports. He says: 

…And thou sees the ships in it (the ocean), cleaving the waves, that you may seek of His bounty and that you may be thankful. (35:12)

In other places He describes the winds, associating them with the movement of ships: 

And among His signs is that He sends the winds as heralds of good tidings and in order that you may taste His mercy, and that the ships may sail by His command and that you may seek of His bounty, and in order that you may be thankful. (30:46)

The Qur’an mentions this at other places as a reminder of Allah’s power and wisdom: 

Verily, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day, and in the ships which sail upon the ocean with what is of benefit to mankind…are signs…. (2:164) 

And among His signs are the ships on the sea, like mountains. (42:32)

Allah reminds the people of Makkah that He caused their city to become a commercial center of the Arabian peninsula: 

…And have We not established for them a secure sanctuary, to which is brought produce of all kinds, provision from Ourselves…? (28:57)

Thus was answered Abraham’s prayer: Our Lord! Verily, I have settled some of my progeny in a valley without cultivation by Thy Sacred House, Our Lord, in order that they may establish salat. Then incline the hearts of some of the people with love toward them, and provide them with fruits in order that they may be grateful. (14:37)

Allah counted it as His favor upon the Quraish that He facilitated for them their two commercial journeys each year, the journey to Yemen in winter and to Syria in summer; they traveled in security because of their guardianship of the House (Ka’aba). Accordingly, they should show their gratitude to the Lord of the House by acknowledging and worshipping Him alone: 

For the security of the Quraish, their security in journeying by winter and summer, let them worship the Lord of this House, Who provides them with food against hunger and makes them safe against fear. (106:1-4)

Islam has provided a great opportunity for international trade each year. The annual Hajj season brings together at one place millions of Muslims from all over the world: 

…They will come to thee (Makkah) on foot and on every (kind of) lean camel; they will come from every deep ravine, in order that they may witness the benefits (provided) for them and celebrate the name of Allah…. (22:27-28)


Commercial activity is unquestionably one of these benefits. Al-Bukhari reported that the Muslims were reluctant to do business during the hajj, fearing that this might compromise the sincerity of their intentions or the purity of their worship. The verses of the Qur’an were then revealed, stating clearly and distinctly that, 

It is no sin for youto seek the bounty of your Lord (during the hajj)…. (2:198)

The Qur’an lauds those who go to the mosques often, glorifying their Lord morning and evening: Men whom neither business nor sale can divert from the remembrance of Allah, nor from regularity in salat or from giving zakat…. (24:37) 


In the view of Islam, the true believers are not those who remain in the mosques, nor the mystics or recluses in their places of retreat. The true Believers are men of action, whose distinguishing characteristic is that the affairs of the busy world do not make them forget their obligations to their Creator. These are some of the teachings of the Qur’an concerning trade and commerce.

The Prophet (peace be on him), by his words and deeds, delineated the rules of trade, encouraging, indeed, urging the Muslims to engage in it. Among some of his sayings are the following: 

“An honest and trustworthy merchant will be with the martyrs on the Day of Resurrection.” (Reported by Ibn Majah and al-Hakim, who classified it as “sound.”) 

“An honest and trustworthy merchant will be with the prophets, the truthful, and the martyrs.” (Reported by al-Hakim and al-Tirmidhi, with good transmitters.) 

It is not surprising that the Prophet (peace be on him) held the status of an honest merchant to be equal to that of a soldier or a martyr in the cause of Allah. His evaluation is confirmed by the experiences of life, since striving in the cause of Allah is not limited to the battlefield but extends to the economic front as well.

The Prophet (peace be on him) promised merchants a high status with Allah and a great reward in the Hereafter. We observe that the motivating force behind much trading activity is greed and profit-making by any means; “Money makes money” and “Business begets business” are the motives of much trading activity. Any merchant who remains within the bounds of honesty and fair-dealing in such an atmosphere is a fighter against his desires, meriting the status of a warrior in the cause of Allah.

The lure of business is great, and it can turn a businessman’s attention exclusively to numbers, counting his capital and the profits of his business. Even during the Prophet’s own lifetime the following incident occurred: while the Prophet (peace be on him) was addressing a gathering, the news came that a caravan of merchandise had arrived. The people rushed out, leaving the Prophet (peace be on him) behind, upon which Allah Ta’ala admonished them: 

But when they see some business or amusement, they disperse to it and leave thee standing. Say: ‘What is with Allah is better than amusement and than business; and Allah is the best of providers.’ (62:11)

Accordingly, a person who, in a vortex of commercial activity, can remain steadfast, with the fear of Allah in his heart and the mention of Him on his lips, most certainly deserves to be in the company of the favored of Allah: the prophets, the witnesses to the truth, and the martyrs in His cause.

The example of the Prophet (peace be on him) in relation to business and trade is sufficient in itself. On the other hand he was eager to nurture the spiritual aspect; thus, he built the mosque in Madinah on the foundation of piety and seeking the pleasure of Allah, as a gathering place for worship, as a university for teaching and learning, as the headquarters for the call toward Islam, and as the seat of the government. On the other hand, he was equally eager to develop the economic aspect; thus, he established an Islamic marketplace in which the Jews had not the authority they had previously possessed in the marketplace of Banu Qaynqa’. The Prophet (peace be on him) himself organized the rules of business dealing, explaining and teaching its various aspects. There was to be no cheating nor misrepresentation, nor hoarding, nor undercutting, and the like. These topics will form the subject of our discussion under the heading of “Human Affairs” in the chapter entitled “The Halal and the Haram in the Daily Life of Muslims.”

Among the Companions of the Prophet (peace be n him) we find skilled traders as well as craftsmen, farmers, and every other kind of professional person and worker. In their midst was the Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) to whom the Speech of Allah came down, who was visited by Jibril, the Trustworthy Spirit, bringing the revelations from Allah, and who guided the people by the Light of these heavenly messages.

Each of the Companions loved this noble Messenger (peace be on him) from the depths of his being; he wished nothing more than to be in his company and disliked nothing more than being parted from him. Yet we find that each of them was busy with his work, this one journeying over the earth on a business trip, that one working in his palm-grove and farm, and yet another busy with his craft. Anyone who missed any part of the teaching of the Messenger (peace be on him) asked his friends about whatever he could, and the Prophet told those who listened to him to pass on his instructions to those who were absent. Among his Companions, the Helpers (Ansar, or people of Madinah) were, by and large, farmers and growers of date-palms, while the majority of the Immigrants from Makkah (Muhajireen) were engaged in trade and business.

Here is ‘Abdur Rahman ibn ‘Auf, the Muhajir, and here is Sa’d ibn al-Rabi’, the Ansar, who were made brothers-in-Allah by the Prophet (peace be on him) when the Muslims of Makkah migrated to Madinah. S’ad offered ‘Abdur Rahman half of his property, one of his two houses, and asked him to choose one of his two wives so that he might divorce her. This noble sacrifice was gratefully declined by a noble excuse. “May Allah bless you in your wealth and your family,” said ‘Abdur Rahman to Sa’d. “I have no need for them. Only tell me which market has the most trading activity.” “The Bani Qaynqa’ Market,” said Sa’d. ‘Abdur Rahman went to the market with some cheese and butter, and spent the day buying and selling. He continued his trading activity until he became one of the wealthiest men among the Muslims, leaving behind a huge estate when he died.

And here is Abu Bakr al-Siddiq who was a trader. Even on the day on which he was elected caliph by the Muslims, he had been planning to go to the market. And here is ‘Umar, who said about himself, “Going to the market kept me from listening to the hadith of Allah’s Messenger (peace be on him).” And here are also ‘Uthman and great many others who were engaged in trade and commerce.

 

Prohibited Kinds of Trade

Islam does not prohibit any trade except those which involve injustice, cheating, making exorbitant profits, or the promotion of something which is haram.

It is haram to do business in alcoholic beverages, intoxicants, drugs, swine, idols, statues, or anything of this sort whose consumption and use Islam has prohibited. Any earnings from such business are sinful earnings, and the Fire is likely to be the abode for the flesh which has been nourished on such earnings. Honesty and trustworthiness in such businesses will not be counted as meritorious’ for Islam came to fight and destroy such practices.

However, there is no objection to trading in gold and silk because they are permitted to women, except if something is made of these materials exclusively for the use of men.

Even if the trading is in entirely halal things, a merchant must still adhere to many moral considerations so that he may not join the ranks of the wicked, for, 

“Indeed, the wicked will be in hell.” (82:14). One day when the Prophet (peace be on him) was going to the mosque, he saw some people engaged in selling.

“O merchants,” he called out to them. When they turned their faces toward him, some of them craning their necks to listen to what he had to say, he said,

Merchants will be raised up on the Day of Resurrection as wicked people, with the exception of those who fear Allah, do righteous deeds, and are truthful. (Reported by al-Tirmidhi Ibn Majah, Ibn Hibban, and al-Hakim.)

Waithelah ibn al-Asqa’ said, “We were business people. The Prophet (peace be on him) frequently came to us, and he would say, 

“Merchants, beware of lying.” (Reported by al-Tabarani)

Thus, he warned tagainst lying about their merchandise, since this is the weakness of merchants. Lying leads to wrongdoing, and that in turn leads to the Fire. The Prophet (peace be on him) warned in general against swearing and, in particular, against swearing to a lie, saying, 

On the Day of Ressurection Allah will not look at three (kinds of) persons nor purify them. One of them is the person who swears (to the truth) while lying about his merchandise. (Reported by Muslim and others.)

Abu Sa’id narrated, “An Arab with a sheep passed by me and I said, ‘Will you sell it for three dirhams?’ He replied, ‘No, by Allah!’ but then he sold it to me. I mentioned this to the Messenger of Allah (peace be on him), who remarked, He sold his Hereafter for this world. (Reported by Ibn Hibban in his Sahih.)

The merchant should beware of cheating, for the cheater is outside the community of Islam; he should beware of tampering with the scales when weighing; beware of hoarding lest he forfeit the protection of Allah and His Messenger (peace be on him); and beware of dealing in usury or interest (riba), for Allah has prohibited it, and the Prophet (peace be on him) has said, 

“A dirham of riba which a person consumes knowingly is worse than committing zina thirty-six times.” (Reported by Ahmad on the authority of sound transmitters.) We will elaborate on all these matters when we come to the topic “Human Affairs.”

 

Salaried Employment

The Muslim is free to seek employment in the service of the government, an organization, or an individual as long as he is able to do his work satisfactorily and carry out his duties. However, he is not permitted to seek a job for which he is unfit, especially if the job carries judicial or executive authority. Abu Hurairah reported the Prophet (peace be on him) as saying, 

Woe to the rulers, the leaders, and the trustees! On the Day of Resurrection some people will wish that they could be suspended between heaven and earth rather than having had the burden of their responsibilities. (Reported by Ibn Hibban in his Sahih, and by al-Hakim who authenticated its transmitters.)

Abu Dharr narrated, “I said, ‘Messenger of Allah! Will you not appoint me?’ The Prophet (peace be on him) patted me on the shoulder and then said, Abu Dharr, you are a weak person, and this is a trust; and on the Day of Resurrection it will be a cause of regret and shame except for the one who qualifies for it and fulfills his I responsibilities.” (Reported by Muslim.) 

The Prophet (peace be on him) said, There are three classes of judges, one of whom will be in the Garden and the other two in the Fire. The one who will be in the Garden is a man who knew the truth and judged accordingly. The one who knew the truth but misjudged and the one who judged for the people in ignorance will be in the fire. (Reported by Abu Daoud, al-Tirmidhi, and Ibn Majah.)

It is better for the Muslim not to aspire to a high position, even though he may be suited for it, and to seek for something else; for whoever considers the position as a means of fording it over others is a slave of that position, and whoever turns his face toward worldly glories will not receive guidance from heaven.

Narrated ‘Abdur Rahman ibn Samrah, “The Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) told me, Abdur Rahman, do not ask for governorship, for if you are appointed to it without asking, you will be helped, while if you are appointed to it at your request, you alone will be held responsible. (Reported by al-Bukhari and Muslim.)


Anas narrated that the Prophet (peace be on him) said, He who seeks the office of a judge, collecting recommendations, is left to himself, but for him who is compelled to accept it, Allah sends an angel to guide him. (Reported by Abu Daoud and al-Tirmidhi.)

If, however, a person knows that there is no one else qualified to do a particular job except himself, and that if he does not come forward to take it, public interests will be damaged, he should come forward. The Qur’an tells us the story of the prophet Joseph in which Joseph tells the ruler, 

Set me over the storehouses of the land; I am surely a knowledgeable custodian. (12:55)

These are the Islamic guidelines in relation to seeking positions in government and the like.

 

Prohibited Types of Employment

What we have said above concerning the permissibility of working as an employee of a government, organization, or individual, excludes those jobs which are injurious to the cause of Islam or which harm Muslims. Accordingly, it is not permissible for a Muslim to be an officer or soldier in an army which is fighting against Muslims, nor to work in a corporation or factory which manufactures armaments to be used against Muslims, nor in an organization which is hostile to Islam and fights its adherents.

Similarly, any service rendered in support of injustice or in promoting what is haram is itself haram. For example, it is prohibited to the Muslim to be an employee in an organization which deals in interest, in a bar or liquor shop, nightclub, dance hall, and the like.

It is not a valid excuse to say that one is neither using what is haram nor directly involved with it. As we have stated previously, it is a basic principle of Islam that whatever aids and assists the haram is itself haram. For this reason, the Prophet (peace be on him cursed the person who writes the document of interest and the person who witnesses it, as well as the person who consumes it. Similarly cursed is the person who brings the wine, the one who serves it, as well as the one who drinks it.

Again, under the compulsion of unavoidable necessity, the Muslim may seek temporary employment in such activities to the extent of what is required, but he should in the meantime be searching for other gainful employments until Allah opens a way for him, for indeed Allah does open the door for those who sincerely seek to avoid what is haram.

The Muslim is always to be on guard against temptation which may lead him toward doubtful activities, thereby weakening his faith and compromising his religion, no matter how large a profit or gain may be involved. The Prophet (peace be on him said), “Leave alone what puts you in doubt and turn toward what does not put you in doubt.” (Reported by Ahmad, al-Tirmidhi, al-Nisai, al- Hakim, and Ibn Hibban in his Sahih.)


He also said, “A person does not reach the rank of the God-fearing (muttaqeen) until he abandons what is harmless out of fear that it may be harmful.” (Reported by al-Tirmidhi.)

 

A General Rule in Earning a Living

The general rule in regard to earning a living is that Islam does not permit its followers to earn money in any way they like, rather it differentiates between lawful and unlawful methods based on the criterion of the overall well-being of the society. One may formulate as a general rule that any transaction in which one person’s gain results in another’s loss is unlawful, while any transaction which is fair and beneficial to all the parties concerned and which is transacted by mutual consent is lawful. 

O you who believe, do not consume your property among yourselves wrongfully, but let there be trade by mutual consent, and do not kill yourselves; indeed, Allah is ever merciful to you. And whoever does so in enmity and injustice, we shall cast him into the Fire; and that is easy for Allah. (4:29-30)

This verse lays down two conditions for a transaction: first, that the transaction should be with the mutual consent of the two parties; second, that the benefit to one party should not be a loss to the other.

In explaining the meaning of “Do not kill yourselves,” scholars give two interpretations, both of which are generally applicable here. The first is, “Do not kill each other,” and the second is, “do not kill yourselves by your own hands.” In either case, a person who makes someone else suffer for his own benefit is, in effect, shedding his blood and opening the door for others to do the same to him, thus leading to his own eventual ruin. Theft, bribery, gambling, cheating, fraud, misrepresentation, and interest, although some of these may carried out by mutual consent, do not satisfy the second condition implied in the saying of AlTa’ala, “And do not kill yourselves.” (See Abul ‘Ala Maududi’s book, Asas al-lqtisad (Economic Principles), p.152.)

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