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.

The garden hose lesson

Fewer options are often a good thing.

When you’ve got restrictions and limitations on what you can do, this in itself becomes a new opportunity.

You don’t have to decide certain things because they’ve already been taken off the table for you.

You have no choice but to focus. And focus the key to meaningful work.

It’s like when you’re spraying with a garden hose.

What happens when you partially cover the tip of the hose with your finger?

By forcing the water through a smaller area, you increase the pressure and the spray goes further.

The downside of the plan

Sometimes, I find myself getting stuck because I want to do things in a certain order. I want to do A, B, C and D and I want to do it in that order. So when I get stuck on C, I’ll stay stuck there. I’ll leave the project for a bit. And then I feel this weird guilt about leaving the project so long that it blocks me from coming back. Of course the longer I stay away, the harder it is to come back. And the cycle continues.

So I need to let go of that original plan. Doing A, B, and D is better than doing only A and B. Who cares if C is missing. I might have been the only person that expected it to be there in the first place. No one might actually notice. And maybe, just by going ahead with D I’m able to figure out how to do C later. And in the end, I’ll have all the pieces I originally intended.

Now that I write this out, I realize I should have known this already. When we write exams, they tell us that if we get stuck with a question, we should just move on. Don’t stay stuck there. Keep going until you find a question you can answer and then go back to do the ones you can’t.

Make a plan, but when it becomes an obstacle to the work, let it go.

Working and watching

There’s a tiny little thrill we get from seeing the results of our work — stats going up, likes, comments, page views, a little edit on the back end that makes a website look better, a reply to an email.  It’s fun to keep checking these things.  To sit back and watch.

But it’s not where the real satisfaction comes from.  That’s like the icing.  It’s nice and sweet.

The cake is doing the work.  That’s the enjoyment that fills you.



Maintaining momentum

When you’re on a roll, getting things done is so much easier. You’re confident, you know how to do it, it’s easy to keep going.

Inertia, in this case, is on your side. An object in motion remains in motion until an external force acts upon it.

Unfortunately, this inertia of motion is fragile. It doesn’t take much to break it. You get lazy, confused, not sure what to do, overwhelmed, something comes up, something else demands your attention and seems more important so you skip a day. That day becomes two days, three days, a week, a month and before you know it, this good habit that you had built, this project you were working on gets put on the shelf for a year or more.

So when you’re on a roll, protecting and maintaining that momentum is a high priority. An interruption isn’t just a pause for a day. It could be years. It could be the end of that project all together.

And if you do lose momentum, do whatever you can to restart. Break the task down to something smaller. Keep breaking it down. Lower the bar until you can’t help but trip over it.

When you’re going, keep going. Don’t let anything get in your way. There’s too much at stake here.

And if you stop, don’t just sit there. Get up. And get yourself going again.

Non-fixed resources

Some resources aren’t fixed.  They become more available to you the more you use them.
It’s like how muscles grow with use and shrink when left idle.  In this case, you don’t have to carefully decide what you’re using that muscle for.  What’s important is that you’re using it.
You can walk, do housework, go to the gym, lift weights, play with kids — the more you move, the more you can move.
The ability to concentrate on deep work is also like this.  Whether you’re reading a difficult text, writing something for publication, preparing a presentation, the more you use this muscle, the stronger it gets.
The same goes for ideas.  The more ideas you come up with, whether good or bad, the more ideas will come to you.
So the key here is not to be too picky and wait for the ideal activity, application or idea. Move, concentrate, come up with ideas.  Don’t worry about doing the best thing.  Do something.  And keep doing it.  So you can do more.

Non-monetary compensation

Some non-monetary things people will exchange their valuable time and effort for:

– learning
– training
– experience
– opportunities for growth
– respect
– status
– purpose
– sense of belonging
– camaraderie
– being part of something meaningful
– social interaction
– the satisfaction of doing good work
– fun

When people leave one job for another, it’s often because of a shortage of these intangibles rather than a shortage of money.