[This is the seventh in a series of my notes on the International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on Islamic Law and Ethics held in Herndon, VA in June 2014. These notes are NOT a transcript, but a lightly edited presentation of my perception of the discussion. The proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later time. Responsibility for any errors in the notes is mine alone. Names of participants (other than mine) in the general discussion have been omitted by request of the conference director.]
“Work Ethics in Muslim Culture: The Transformation of an Obligation Into a Right”
Mouez Khalfaoui, University of Tuebingen
In a clip from video “The Holy Game” we see educated young Tunisian men and women chanting, “Right, work, and worship.” They are claiming the right of work. The foundation is haqq and obligation. We looked for the history of work in our tradition. This revolution is a change of paradigms. For the first time, people are claiming their rights rather than obligations. In both hadith and Qur’an there is a positive attitude towards work, but in the context of wealth and poverty. A British author in the 1880s wrote that the Qur’an was reacting to the abuse of wealth, that prayer is better than work. By the 8th-9th century, we find a book attributed to Shabani with the theological debate about work with two streams of thinking. The pious people argue the duty of human beings is to pray and it is better to work on the alms of the rich than to work with one’s hands because the zakat they receive is their right. The second stream was that of the lawyers, which Michael Bonner connected to the change from micro to macro economy from the Ummayyads to the Abassids, from collecting alms from the rich to give to the poor to a thriving economy. Abu Bakr said was he fighting for the right of poor against the rich. By the coming of the Abassids new markets have been established and the Muslim state had the need for workers and traders and Shabani is trying to convince people it is better to work than to pray. Work has become an obligation for the benefit of the Muslim subjects and with it comes the obligation of obedience to the state. In the Quran we do not find the term obligation (wâjib), but the word haqq. In the period of the Abassids we do not find the term haqq, except with respect to God, but we find the word wâjib for man. Earlier scholars resisted the notion of punishment by the state for failure to fulfill an obligation, leaving punishment to God. Even in Ibn Khaldun, however, we find work is an obligation.
Until the Middle Ages work was an obligation rather than a right. In modern times we have Tartawi, inspired by the French, saying that work is an obligation. After the birth of the nation-state, we see the rise of the call to work hard to build a big nation. Bourghiba convinces even some of the religious authorities that the war of liberation is the lesser jihad and the duty to build the nation is the greater jihad, and publicly drinks water during Ramadan to underscore his point, again emphasizing obedience to the state.
The notion of haqq begins to appear in the educational curricula of the nation-states. Tunisia selectively chooses elements of human rights to demonstrate Tunisia’s commitment to modernity; but by establishing that women have a right to work, they have planted the idea that men also have a right to work and that the relation of the state to subject should be based on this notion of right and obligation. I conclude that although we had the concept of rights in early Islamic thought, it was forgotten for a long time and only recovered from the contact with the West and global society.
Asaad al-Saleh, University of Utah. You ignored the Sunna. There are many hadith that say you need to work, and even in the Qur’an there are verses that can be interpreted to include `amal ad-dunya. Scholars have said that if Allah had ordered you to give zakat, then he has ordered you to acquire wealth. I think there is a right in Islam not to be asked more than he or she can do. Obligations are paired with rights and obligations are waived when they are impossible.
Katrin Jomaa, University of Rhode Island. The paper is somewhat disjointed, but it is important. I was resistant to the claim that there was more emphasis on giving alms than work in the formative period. Yet on p. 5 you said there were two schools of thought, the ascetics and the legal scholars. You assert that the Quran gives no distinction between living on alms and living productively, but 4:95 criticizes “those who seek the goods of this life.”
Names omitted: This is about jihad in the context of war.
Jomaa. Well, I think it applies to the greater jihad as well. You say employment as a right is the last stage of development in Muslim society, which I think is too bold and unsupported. I don’t agree it comes from the modern nation-state, but I think the nation-state is not the last stage and is going through crisis. Why is right not discussed in early Muslim history? Because the rulers didn’t have the monopoly of power of the modern nation-state.
Name omitted. Text references (hadith and Qur’an) are problematic. The conversation turns to risq, bounty which God gives freely, and qasm, that which comes regardless of effort and that which is the consequence of what you do. Shabani was arguing against the followers of Ibn Qaram who said, “Don’t work and God will provide.” Tijâra (trade) and riba are concepts used in the Qur’an in a spiritual way. By the formative period I mean until the end of the 8th century. I dispute Bonner’s argument of the archeology of the hadith. In Sha`bani’s book we find arguments from the hadith and the sahaba that we do not find anymore. For example, Umar saying I would die on my horse, trading it is better than war. In San`ani we find evidence of qutb atikâf: which is better? Sitting in the mosque or trading. These legal categories are not sacred. Why didn’t they think of the concept of rights? It was not important for them. In the Abbasid time the Caliph was trying to present himself as the shadow of God and the concept of rights will undermine that. I am not speaking of the end of history but of the first stage of a new process of change, a lost concept that was recovered through modernity.
Name omitted. What is your understanding of the huqquq Allah (the rights of God) and huqquq insane (the rights of man)? Should the state provide work for its subjects?
Name omitted. The state also has the need to employ the citizen.
Name omitted. Rights seem to be a matter of agency.
Name omitted. If we were the hegemons, the West would ask why it doesn’t have this sophisticated five-fold system.
Name omitted. Why was the notion of right not developed even though it was present in Islamic discourse? We could say it was because of the dominance of fiqh. There is a fight over whose discourse outranks the other. I ask, “What is at stake in that question?”
Name omitted Rights by virtue of being a human being are absent in our current fiqh literature. If the ijtihad is not strictly legalistic but includes more it becomes not mere law but a moral/legal/ethical code.
Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad. Your narrative is that rights appear in the beginning, drop out for most of Islamic history, and return recently. I think this is an oversimplification. Consider G.A. Russell’s argument that Locke arrived at natural rights theory from his knowledge of Ibn Tufayl.
Khalfaoui. People are arguing within the legal culture of the paradigm of obedience.
Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute