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Islam and Work
Oct 1, 2007

A person is not a machine that can remain indifferent to their surroundings. It is a duty for every person to work for their parents and relatives if they are a child or for their children if they are parents. In fact, a person should work for all of humanity, regardless or not, based purely on the fact that they are human. When we look at it from this perspective, we can see that each tree that is planted, each piece of cloth that is woven, each shoe that is made, each instrument that is invented, each technique that is developed is not done just for personal needs, or even just for one’s close relatives . Such products of our work are presented to other human beings so that all can benefit.

There are two different types of rules in the universe. One of these consists of the principles of the sciences, such as physics, chemistry, astronomy, astrophysics, biology and medicine, all of which occur in the universe. These sciences can be considered to be the “book of the universe.” This book does not have a language in the usual sense, but contains signs of God that are read through the eyes of wisdom. The second of these sciences consists of the rules that God has sent to us through the prophets; there is the Qur’an, brought by Prophet Muhammad, as well as revelations brought by other prophets, like the Psalms, the Torah, and the New Testament. It is essential that the revelations and the Book of the Universe, along with their contents, are known and the requirements within them adhered to. Generally speaking, the reward of reading and applying the Book of the Universe is granted in this world. The reward of adherence to the Qur’an is given in the Hereafter. Therefore, if believers only read and adhere to the sections concerned with worship in the Qur’an, they will be rewarded only in the Hereafter. If they read the Book of the Universe and adhere to it, they will be rewarded in this world. Happiness in both worlds is dependent on both these books being read and applied in balance. In actual fact, these two books are like the two sides of one reality. The same hand and authority is present in both. God, Who presents the universe to us, with all its richness and depth, speaks of this in the Qur’an. He tells us about ourselves-we are also a part of the Book of the Universe-through the Qur’an.

Within the guidelines of physical laws, He tells us about all creatures. He informs us of the irrevocable damage that will occur when something is missing from either of these two books. The verses in the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet concerning work are focused for the most part on earning a livelihood. This situation should not be interpreted to mean working in a limited circle and neglecting other areas. There are two essential components concerning working. One of these is the necessity for the individual to work to secure their basic needs in order to survive, that is, working for their livelihood. The second is to work on the principles of making life easier. The Prophet encouraged working on both these points and personally taught the Companions how to work. In the Hadiths of the Prophet, working for earning a living has been is esteemed. For example “There are some sins that neither prayer, nor fasting or Pilgrimage can assist in forgiving, they can only be forgiven through the work carried out for one’s livelihood,”1 “No human being has eaten anything more virtuous then what they have earned themselves. A messenger of God, the Prophet David also used to eat what he had worked for.”2 It is also worthwhile to mention the following events to highlight this point. One day the Prophet met with Sa’d ibn Muadh and shook hands. The Prophet saw that the hands of Sa’d were calloused and asked the reason why, to which the latter replied ‘they are like this because I was working for my family’. Then the Prophet stated that ‘here are the hands that God likes.’” The Prophet set an example through working himself and also in teaching others how to work. On one occasion, after telling a man who was begging how bad begging was, the Prophet asked him, “Do you have nothing in your home?” to which the man replied he had nothing other than a cloth and a pot. Upon this, the Prophet asked the man to bring those to him. Then the Prophet auctioned off these objects to the Companions, raising two dirhams (the currency of the time). He gave the two dirhams to the man, telling him to use one dirham for his family and to buy a rope and an axe with the remaining dirham. The man came back with the rope and axe and the Prophet told him to cut and gather wood from the forest and sell this at the market, giving him a fifteen-day period. After a fortnight the man returned with ten dirhams.4 It is important to note that one aspect of how this topic is dealt with in both the Qur’an and the Hadiths is the balance between the two worlds. This balance is described in Sura Qasas, verse 77: With the things that God has endowed on you try to gain the Hereafter. Do not forget your share from the world. The Prophet indicates this balance in the hadith “do you know who is best of you? Those who do not forgo their world for the Hereafter or their Hereafter for their world, people who are this way will gain both the Hereafter and this world and will not be relianton any other.” It is apt to focus at this point on the theme of reliance on God (tawakkul). Understanding the connection between resigning oneself to God’s will and working has occasionally been problematical in the Muslim world. Even though reliance on God means to expect results from God and to have full faith in Him after having completed all the necessary requirements, there have been, amongst Muslim communities, those who have come to believe that reliance onGod means abandoning all rationale and believing that work is against such an entrustment of oneself in God’s hands. These people have argued that resignation to God’s hands means “to trust purely in God and refrain from carrying out any activities in relation to work; to do so enables people to connect with God and provide protection against (attaching one’s heart to) worldly possessions.” It is also possible to find religious principles that endorse this belief. People who think in this way give the following hadith as proof of their ideas “Your God orders as follows ‘O Mankind! Put aside time to worship so that I may fill your heart with richness and your hands with livelihood. O Mankind! Do not stray from me, otherwise I will fill your heart with poverty and your hands with preoccupation.’” “Whoever leaves all other activities and gives themselves over to the worship of God will fulfill all requirements for livelihood from where they least expect it. Whoever devotes themselves to the world, then God will make them a deputy to the world.” However such an understanding of placing oneself completely in God’s hand can only be applicable and reserved to those few who have devoted themselves purely to worship; it is not for the general public. The grindstone of social life is working. If there was no labor, communal life will come to a standstill. What we are saying is not that everyone forego the requirements of this trust, but rather they should hold steadfast, and the heart should be content after having done all that is necessary, and wait for the outcome. An Arab asked the Prophet “O Prophet, shall I rely on God after I tie my camel or after I let it go? To which the Prophet replied “Tie your camel then put your faith in God’s hands.”7 This answer is enough to resolve the issue. It is appropriate to give an explanation of the hadith that is used as evidence for reliance on God, but which is often misinterpreted. In this hadith the Prophet says “Had you placed yourselves in God’s hands sincerely, you would be fed like the birds. Birds leave their nests in the morning hungry and return full.” This hadith, on the surface, seems to mean that one should not do anything but wait for everything from God. But if you look at the sentences carefully, you will see that it stresses that the birds leave their nests to look for food and that they find their food in this manner; they do not stay in their nests waiting for food to come to them. Accordingly, true reliance on God means to do all that is necessary, then to wait for the results from God. This hadith also clearly highlights the difference between reliance on God and laziness. In fact, the annotator Qurtubi points out that the verse “Take your provisions for the Hajj. In truth, the best provision is righteousness and piety…” (Baqara 2:197) which deals with the pilgrimage, is another warning. He quotes this hadith in parallel to the following event: “The Yemenis who come to Mecca without provision to perform their Pilgrimage, begging there to satisfy their hunger then classing themselves as ones who have put themselves in Gods hands. When this verse was revealed it was a warning for people to get their own provisions on their travels.”9 It can be understood from the statement that “the best of provisions is piety” that it is considered pious to be content with what one gets without asking for more from others.

The two sides of piety

1) “(Piety is)… abiding by what is allowed and prohibited,in other words, adhering to what the religion says to ‘do’ and ‘not to do.’

2) “Abiding by the laws of creation, in other words, acting in accordance with the prevalent rules in the universe.” “It is important not to neglect this aspect of reliance on God. If we look at the life of the Prophet we can see that he lived his life by reading the rules of the universe and adhering to them, without neglecting all the causative factors. For example, he asked his Companions to “extinguish all fires in the house before going to sleep.” In this and similar examples one can see that it is important to adhere to causative factors so that no harm comes to the house through a fire.”10 Umar ibn Khattab, who was well aware of this fact, expelled all the Yemeni people who used to beg, saying they had resigned to God’s will, from the streets of Medina. He told them that they had not actually resigned themselves to God’s will, but rather they were like parasites. He went on to say that “One who resigns themselves to God’s will plants a seed”11

It can be seen from this that resignation to God’s will and work are not opposed to one another. Scholars who see no contrast between working and resignation to God’s will have offered the following explanation: “One can work and place their faith in God’s hands at one and the same time. Reliance on God means placing your faith in God and believing that everything is from God and the place for this is in the heart. Fulfilling the requirement of causes is through the organs. Accordingly, it is possible for things to do with the heart and the organs to co-exist in one person”12 It is also possible to give the following explanation: As much as it part of God’s will that we expect results from God, it is also His wish for us to adhere to the causal factors. Therefore it is inconceivable that these two wishes contradict one another. On the contrary, adherence to these two wishes is compulsory and it is the one who adheres to these who will be successful in both this and the other world. In conclusion, we can say that both the Qur’an and the Sunna glorify any form of work that increases productivity and production. In other words, in line with Islamic principles, Islam places great value on any production that meets the needs for continuing life or to making life easier and more enjoyable. This being the case, it is also possible to see that the Muslim world does not present a picture that is parallel to this thought. This must be related to ideas that are placed in our mentality through basic teachings. We see it as necessary to rethink these values that have been embodied in our minds.


1. Sahawi, Ahsanut Taqasim, Beirut, 1994, p. 157.

2. Bayhaqi, Sunanul Kubra, Ijara, 15.

3. Sarahsi, Al-Mabsut, vol.30, p:246, Darul Marifa, Beirut.

4. Abu Dawud, Zakat, 26; Ibn Maja, Tijarat, 25.

5. Ajluni, Kashful Khafa, I, 393.

6. Tirmidhi, Qiyama, 30; Ibn Maja, Zuhd, 2.

7. Tirmidhi, Qiyama, 60.

8. Tirmidhi, Zuhd, 33; Ibn Maja, Zuhd, 14.

9. Qurtubi, al-Jamiu li Ahkamul Qur’an, 2:411.

10. F. Gulen, Kirik Testi (Broken Jug), Istanbul 2004, p. 165.

11. Ibn Abud Dunya, Kitabut-Tawakkul, p.1; Ahmet Naim, The Principles of Islamic Ethics, p.70).

12. Bajuri, Sharhu Jawharatit Tawhid, p.442–446; Kushayri, ar-Risala, p. 163.