Adab 07: The Proprieties of Earning a Living
Ustadh Tabraze Azam dives deep into the proprieties of earning a lawful income, its virtues, and its rewards in this life and in the life to come.
The trustworthy, honest trader will be with the prophets, the truthful, and the martyrs [on the Day of Judgement], said the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace. (Tirmidhi)
When we live up to the ideals and deep, moral standards of the religion, we can be hopeful of something tremendous from Allah in the hereafter. After all, this life is merely a means to the next, and not an end-goal in and of itself. Earning a livelihood is something that most of us can probably relate to, but our fast-paced lives, however, can sometimes hinder our ability to simply pause for a moment and review our trajectory into eternity. Seldom is a moment of contemplation void of any lasting benefit when it is for Allah.
As we try to reconnect with our faith and live it more faithfully, with propriety, we should recall the words of Allah in which He informs us that He “made the day for livelihood.” (Sura al Naba’ 78:11) Thus, it is Allah’s favor upon us by which we are blessed with days in which we can fulfill the purpose of that time. A believer is a “son of his moment,” namely, somebody concerned with being in the right places at the right times, and doing what will be most pleasing to Allah therein. With gratitude, we can come to appreciate the most menial of tasks, and with gratitude, Allah increases us in ways we couldn’t otherwise imagine.
With this in mind, let us now turn our attention to some of the proper manners to be upheld in seeking a living for Allah.
Righteous Intentions (Niyya Saliha)
The Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, reminded us that a believer’s intention is better than his action or work itself (Bayhaqi, Shu‘ab al-Iman). Accordingly, getting our intentions right will ensure that we receive a splendid, unspeakable reward from Allah Most High even if we’re not prosperous, even if we don’t fulfil our hopes and dreams and even if it simply wasn’t meant to be. This is a huge mercy.
What, then, should we intend? Above all, to seek the pleasure of Allah Most High as this is the point of life itself. When you have such a noble intention, the most mundane of tasks can transform into something sacred. But given the difficulty of maintaining such a lofty state, the scholars recommend having secondary intentions which act as the pathways to the central intention.
Thus, intend to:
- 1) abstain from begging,
- 2) abstain from coveting what others have,
- 3) become financially strong and independent,
- 4) provide for your dependants,
- 5) uphold the values and ethics of the Sacred Law of integrity, commanding the good and otherwise,
- 6) fulfil a personal and a communal obligation (fard ‘ayn/kifaya),
- 7) make regular charitable donations,
- 8) be of service to Allah’s creation, and similarly any other intention that comes to mind of virtuous matters.
Reliance (Tawakkul) upon Allah Most High
Our Master ‘Umar, Allah be pleased with him, reported that Allah’s Messenger, Allah bless him and give him peace, said, “If you relied upon Allah as He should be relied upon, He would give you sustenance just as the birds are given sustenance: they leave hungry in the morning, and return satiated in the evening.” (Tirmidhi) He, Allah bless him and give him peace, also told the Bedouin man who asked about the manner of true reliance (tawakkul) to “tie the camel, and then rely upon Allah.” (Tirmidhi)
Reliance, as defined by Jurjani in his Ta‘rifat, is confidence and contentment with what is Allah’s, and despair with respect to what is in the hands of people. Namely, realising that Allah alone is the sole doer, and consequently, that it is not people who will prevent your livelihood from reaching you as they are intrinsically incapable and needy. Rather, He is the Sufficer (al-Wakil), and He alone gives and constricts as He wills. So what’s the point of taking the means? Because the lawgiver commanded it.
True reliance upon Allah isn’t negated by taking the means as the two matters are distinct. Reliance upon Allah is a state of the heart whereas taking the means (asbab) is an action of the limbs. When the two are conjoined, the fullest and truest meaning of reliance is realised. And this is why Imam Birgivi wrote, “Taking the outward means which normally lead to the outcomes desired doesn’t negate reliance at all, and this is why earning a living is an obligation.” (Al-Tariqa al-Muhammadiyya)
Practizing a Lawful and Dignified Trade
The Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, instructed us, “No one eats any food better than the one who eats from what he earns by work of his own hands. The Prophet of Allah, Dawud, peace be upon him, used to eat from what he earned by the work of his own hands.” (Bukhari) Note that this is a metaphor for earning a living and not that the best line of work is carpentry, baking or any other work in which the hands are directly used! Moreover, the Prophet Dawud, Allah bless him and give him peace, wasn’t in need of such work and wealth as he was the Caliph of the entire earth at the time. However, the tradition (hadith) informs us of the nobility of the rank of working and his desire to do what was superior and more pleasing to Allah Most High.
When choosing a line of work, look for the kind of opportunities which you are deeply interested in, and also allow you to fulfill your potential, yet at the same time, don’t infringe upon any of your religious obligations. Primarily, this latter point entails that your very line of work needs to be lawful. Engaging in, encouraging or abetting sin is destructive to your hereafter. Keep such lines of work at a healthy distance so that you don’t have to explain yourself, or worse, bear the consequences, later. If you’re unsure regarding the legality or otherwise of your work, you should consult a reliable scholar before making any serious decisions.
Avoiding the Unlawful (Haram) and Offensive (Makruh)
The basis in transactions is the verse of the Qur’an, “You who believe, do not wrongfully consume each other’s wealth but trade by mutual consent.” (Sura al Nisa’ 4:29) The masterful Ottoman Qur’anic exegete, Abu al-Su‘ud Effendi, clarified that “wrongfully” means anything that is contrary to the Sacred Law, whether that is by way of theft, misappropriation, deception, gambling, engaging in usurious dealings, or anything else that the Sacred Law interdicted.
Our religion encourages us to engage in trade, but it is imperative that we avoid the kind of unethical behavior that many, unfortunately, fall into, let alone sin. The recognition that lack of clarity in transactions leads to unnecessary disputes and argumentation, for example, should move us to do something about it. Appreciate that things sometimes go wrong so be clear with one another about the terms of your agreement so that you don’t lose each other in mere worldliness. The way out, then, is to be grounded in sufficient law, or fiqh, which will ensure that you don’t fall into the religiously blameworthy or unlawful altogether.
As part of a longer tradition, the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, said, “Do not be resentfully envious of one another, do not artificially inflate prices against one another, do not loathe one another, do not give a cold shoulder to one another, do not undercut one another in business transactions, but be, servants of Allah, brothers.” (Muslim)
Learning A Trade Well (Itqan) and Doing A Good Job (Ihsan)
Allah Most High says, “Indeed, We granted David a great privilege from Us, commanding: ‘O mountains! Echo his hymns! And the birds as well.’ We made iron mouldable for him, instructing: ‘Make full-length armor, perfectly balancing the links. And work righteousness O family of David! Indeed, I am All-Seeing of what you do.’” (Sura Saba 34:10-11) Something we can take away from this latter verse is the Divine injunction to the Prophet Dawud, Allah bless him and give him peace, to perfect his trade and not simply to produce something that others couldn’t.
Allah’s Messenger, Allah bless him and give him peace, continually guiding us to what Allah loves, is reported to have once stated, “Allah is pleased when any of you does some action and perfects it.” (Tabarani) One of the hallmarks of believers is that they work, not only to produce, but to beautify. The trait of excellence, or ihsan, is deeply rooted in tradition and a foundational principle of the prophetic way. Practically, if you’re doing something, do it well. Don’t sell yourself short, and be an example to others in the trade, particularly when you are noticeably religious in societies where Islam is something unfamiliar.
Exhibiting Mercy (Rahma) and Other Praiseworthy Traits in Dealings
Whether you run your own business or work for another, you should always try to keep your heart in the right place, and at the same time, exhibit what you can of lofty, prophetic character traits. Taking it easy with people, particularly with those of lesser means, is a sure way of attaining the great good foretold by the Noble Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace. Jabir ibn ‘Abdullah reported that Allah’s Messenger, Allah bless him and give him peace, said, “May Allah show mercy to a man who is generous and easy-going when he sells, when he buys and when he asks for settlement.” (Bukhari)
Use the opportunity of work to remember your Lord and reset your intentions. Imam Sha‘rani related that his teacher and guide, ‘Ali al-Khawass, used to supplicate to Allah upon opening his store every morning, “O Lord, make this a means of benefiting your creation.”
Likewise, there is great virtue in remembering Allah in the marketplaces or in places of general heedlessness. Make it a point to say the takbir (Allahu akbar), tahmid (Alhamdu li Llah), tahlil (La ilaha illa Llah) and tasbih (Subhana Llah) at least once in the morning and once in the afternoon in seeking the closeness of Allah Most High. If you have more motivation, you can recite the blessed words of the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, “There is no god but Allah. He is alone and has no partner. To Him belongs sovereignty and to Him belongs all praise. He gives life and He gives death. He is alive and does not die. In His hand is all good, and He has power over all things.” (Tirmidhi)
Giving from What You Love: Charity (Sadaqa) and the Afterlife
Allah Most High says, “You will never achieve righteousness until you donate some of what you cherish. And whatever you give is certainly well known to Allah.” (Sura Al-‘Imran, 3:92) Further, the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, informed us that charity is a “proof.” (Muslim) A proof of what? Faith. When you give, you are showing your deep certitude and faith in Allah Most High, in the truth of the prophetic message, in the veracity of the hereafter and everything that entails.
The best of giving is when it is selfless, sincerely for Allah and swiftly forgotten. Consistent donations, even if only slight, are superior to sporadic payments, even if large. Charity wards off calamities, wipes out sins, cleanses and purifies wealth and draws you nearer to your Ever-Merciful Lord.
Finally, it behooves us to recognize that the reality of earning a living is that it is Allah Most High who is the Provider (al-Razzaq). The wage which you earn is merely a means which He has created, and, at the end of the day, He is the one who creates sustenance (rizq) through it. So although wealth may sometimes come and go, know that it doesn’t intrinsically aid one.
The ultimate objective is to be ever-cognizant of the Divine, and to travel toward Him with a deep desire to live an ethical, pleasing life: the kind of life the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) directed us towards. “Say, O Prophet, ‘If you sincerely love Allah, then follow me; Allah will love you and forgive your sins. For Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.’” (Sura Aal ‘Imran, 3:31)
And Allah alone gives success.