Finding God…At Work

Often, Muslims working in a contemporary, fast-moving, turbo-capitalistic-world workplace, feel guilty and uncertain and think that perhaps they’re selling out.In fact, ours is not a worldly religion, but a religion that teaches us to be at ease in the world.  

And our founder, the Holy Prophet, salla Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, was in the world.

He was not a monk or a nun.  He was part of his society.  He fully participated in the political and economical and social and marital life of his culture.

He was an economic actor.

So when we look at issues like this, we find that we’re able to go right back to the fountain head of the religion to see what he, himself, had to say about issues that are very contemporary, but in fact are part of the timeless language of human ethics.

This is about issues that are eternal — issues of charity, issues of empathy, issues of justice.  This is not a new innovation.

What I want to do, is consider a hadith — a well know saying of the Holy Prophet, salla Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam.  It’s narrated by Jabir bin Abdullah and it’s in the collection of Al Bukhari, so it’s rigorously authenticated.  And he says, sallaAllahu ‘alaihi wa sallam,

Rahima Allahu imra’an
sahla al-bay’ee
sahla ash-shiraa’ee
sahla al-qadaa’ee
sahla al-iqtidaa’ee

It’s one of those pithy, syncopated, rhyming statements that we often find in the hadith.

What it means is,

May God have mercy upon a person
who is easy in his buying,
and in his selling,
and in his taking of money in a loan,
and in his reclaiming of money that is owed to him.

Not a very elegant English translation, I’m afraid.  Even if you don’t know Arabic, you’ll know how zippy is the original.

And it’s a prayer from the Prophet, that God should have mercy on these people.

This may come as some kind of culture-shock, because we tend to assume nowadays–Muslims, like everybody else — that religion, spirituality, personal transformation, the “Hotline to God”, are things that happen in a beautiful sacred place, a little quiet backwater, perhaps a retreat centre, perhaps a place we go to on Friday or Saturday or Sunday, and the real world is out there, where we accumulate all kinds of bad vibes, which we then purge at a place of worship.

Sometimes we treat a place of worship as a kind of spa, where we go to decontaminate.

That’s a very unhealthy way of looking at what we do 5 or 6 days a week.

The Muslim vision is that of a totality.

Everything is to be incorporated into the Fundamental Human Project, which has to be, for Islam, as for all other religions, turning away from the self, towards the other — the Other with the big ‘O’ and also the other with the little ‘o’.

Turning away from our lower selfishness toward something that, in some strange but convincing way persuades us that it is what we really are, underneath.

The fundamental turning, which the Qur’an calls Tawbah, which we translate as repentance, means turning, turning away, and turning away from sin to righteousness, which is another way of expressing turning away from the rubbish within, to what is beautiful that God has placed within the soul.

So, when the Holy Prophet salla Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, is speaking about economic matters, and matters of business ethics, this doesn’t surprise us because everywhere belongs to God.  And everywhere is a place where God is to be celebrated — even the computer terminal in the estate agent or wherever it is that you work.  Muslims are invited to find a way of sanctifying every moment of those experiences.

Imam Al Ghazali, one of the great ethical thinkers of Islam used to say that humanity basically exists in three categories:

Rajulun shaghalathu dunyaahu ‘an ukhraahu, fa huwa min al halikeen

Category number one is the person whose worldly concerns distract him from his otherworldy concerns, and he is of the lost.

Wa rajulun shaghalthu ukhraahu ‘an dunyaahu, fa huwa inshaAllah min al faa-izeen

And a man who is distracted by his otherworldly concerns from his worldly concerns and he is, God willing, one of the successful

wa rajulun a’aanat-hu ukhraahu ‘ala dunyaahu wa dunyaahu ‘alaa ukhraahu fa huwa min al muqarrabeen

And a man whose worldly concerns help him in his otherworldly concerns and he is of those brought near to God.

So we move close to God, not by skirting the realities of the world but rather going through them.  And that takes some doing.  Particularly in the modern world, where it is fair to say that the average contemporary workplace is not primarily geared up for fostering the spiritual life of its employees.

But in any case, whether we’re Muslims or not, if we have any interest in what we call spirituality, it’s something we’re going to want to think carefully about.

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