In Islam, labor is considered a virtuous deed and obligatory upon all able bodied person in society. Man has many needs to fulfill: food, water, clothing, shelter, medicine, education etc. and since he is required to fulfill these needs for himself and his family through lawful means, he is obliged to work. So while work is mandatory, begging is highly discouraged unless extremely necessary. From this understanding, work to provide sustenance for oneself and one’s family is considered as an act of worship. This can be illustrated by the following incident:
Once the Prophet (PBUH) was sitting with his companions and they happened to see a young man busy working in the early hours of the morning. The companions watched him and commented on how beneficial it would be if he put his effort in worshipping Allah (S.W.T.) instead. When he heard this, the Holy Prophet (PBUH) said to them:” Do not say that! Because if he is working to be independent and self-sufficient, it is in the way of Allah (S.W.T.). Even if he were striving to earn a living in order to support his family, it would still be a noble act. It is only when a person takes pride in his efforts and money that he is working in way of Shaitan.
Also, ‘Aaishah (Prophet`s wife) said: “The Prophet’s companions worked hard to support themselves.”
Umar ibn-ul-Khattab, the second caliph of Islam, said: “Let not one of you sit in his house rather than actively seeking sustenance saying: ‘O God provide for me.’ When you know quite well that the sky does not rain gold and silver.”
From this we learn the importance of work in Islam and it is highly encouraged in order to promote growth in society. At the same time, it has instituted laws to manage workers and prevent them from being abused or exploited.
Long before trade unions or labor unions were even dreamed to be in existence, Islam made a clear path forward of what workers’ rights are and how they are to be fulfilled and protected. Notably, by fulfilling these rights, one serves The Creator because these rights are given to us by The Creator Himself and explained to us by His Final messenger Muhammad (PBUH). We see our rights through the guidance God Almighty.
These rights are only manifestations of belief in The One God who created man at all levels and tests them through their behavior. God Almighty does not want His creation to be exploited or abused. Hence, He through His Final Messenger to mankind has informed us that exploitation and injustice must not be practiced. Instead, fair treatment and justice must be the basis for all human relations.
Allah Almighty says in the Quran as translated:
“Do they distribute the mercy of your Lord? It is We who have apportioned among them their livelihood in the life of this world and have raised some of them above others in degrees [of rank] that they may make use of one another for service. But the mercy of your Lord is better than whatever they accumulate.” [Az-Zukhruf 43:32]
Finally, mankind will be gathered back unto his Lord and will be questioned if he violated the rights of God’s creation and particularly his fellow human beings. Thus, workers must be treated with dignity and honor regardless of the kind of work they are performing, as long as this work is lawful.
The Prophet (PBUH) said: “He upon whom his brother has a right, be it of the nature of money or honor, let him compensate for it before he is made to compensate for it on a day when there will be neither dinar nor dirham to deal with. Instead, if he has a good deed in his account it will be taken away from him and given to the person he had wronged. And if he has no good deeds in his account, sins of the other person will be taken from him and added to his account” (al-Bukhari).
Islamic Labor Rights Related to Employer-Employee Relationship
The first discourse is what should be the relationship between the employer and employee? Yes, one does the work and the other pays, but is it just this simple mechanical process? Or is there something more than work and money?
The Prophet of Islam (PBUH) answered this for us in both words and deeds.
He infused justice, love, and dignity in all those around him. He spread the power of brotherhood and wanted employers to respect their employees on the footing of brotherhood. He worked both as an employer and as an employee.
As an employee, he worked as a shepherd in his early years and then went onto become a successful businessman. He performed each duty with the highest standards of discipline and trust. Suffice to say that all of this happened long before his prophethood.
As an employer, he used to sit on the floor and eat with his servant boy Anas ibn Malik, who served him for ten years. Anas is reported to have said that the Prophet (PBUH) never rebuked him for anything: “When I did something, he never questioned my manner of doing it; and when I did not do something, he never questioned my failure to do it. He was the most good-natured of all men.”
The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is reported to have said: Your employees are your brothers upon whom Allah has given you authority, so if a Muslim has another person under his control, he/she should feed them with the like of what one eats and clothe them with the like of what one wears and you should not overburden them with what they cannot bear and if you do so, help them in their jobs.
Abu Huraira reported that the Messenger of Allah (PBUH) said, “Someone who eats with his servant, rides a donkey in the markets, and ties up his sheep and milks it is not proud.”
From this guidance, the Prophet (PBUH) emphasized that at the end of the day this employee happens to be your brother in humanity, your brother in faith and should be treated with respect. Employers and employees all must be honest and must deal with each other justly and with respect.
Disrespect in today’s world is the greatest dishonor done to employees and this opens the door to abuse and exploitation. A relationship of employer-employee based on brotherhood will bring out the best of both parties. Employees treated with respect and dignity will generally work very hard with diligence and honesty. It is a win-win situation. While the opposite is also true: an employer who is rude and disrespectful to his employees will tend not to get the best of them and in fact they would try to “get back” at their employer which causes harm to both.
Islamic Labor Rights Related to Compensation
In Islam, appropriate compensation must be given to the work done. Abu Sa‘eed Al-Khudri narrated that the Prophet (PBUH), said: “Whoever employs someone to work for him, he must specify for him his wage in advance.” [‘Abdur-Razzaaq]
It is very un-Islamic for a person to work another human being and at the end pay him little or no wage. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) warned in a Hadith Qudsi in which Allah Almighty said: ‘I will be an opponent to three types of people on the Day of Resurrection: one who makes a covenant in My name but proves treacherous; one who sells a free person and eats his price; andone who employs a worker and takes full work from him but does not pay him for his labor’” (Al-Bukhari).
Stories can fill volumes how immigrant workers are being exploited by rich nations and multi-billion dollar companies across the globe. In some countries workers are not even given their wages for months while the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) warned:
“You should pay the laborer his wages before his sweat dries” (Sunan Ibn Mâjah(2443)). This hadith is quite clear and self-explanatory; workers are to be paid on time. If a person is hired to do a job, he should be paid immediately. However, if there is a contractual agreement that wages are to be paid weekly or monthly, then this is what must be done. The Prophet of Islam (PBUH) said: “The procrastination of the rich is [a form of] oppression.” He (PBUH) also said: “Whoever oppressed another for a hand span measure of land will have a collar of seven lands placed around his neck on the Day of Judgment.”
There should also be an agreement of what the compensation would be and both sides must fulfill their portion of the contract. We must keep in mind that just because a worker agrees to be paid $0.10 cents an hour for a job does not mean that an agreement has been reached. Rather, this is gross exploitation and often a result of poverty where people have no choice but to work under tremendous strain to put a morsel of food on the table for their families, while those who exploit them rake in billions of dollars in their coffers. In Islam, justice and fair dealing are to be upheld at all times and places.
Allah says in the Qur’an as translated: “Fulfill the measure and weight and do not deprive people of their due and cause not corruption upon the earth after its reformation.” (Al-A`raf 7:85)
Islamic Labor Rights Related to Having the Right to Rest
Workers should not be overburdened and overwhelmed with work. They have the right to have both physical and mental rest. They are also to be given time to offer their prayers. Indeed, when workers know that they fulfill their rights to their Creator they will be more enthused to perform their work with higher efficiency. Again, it is win-win for the employer and the employee.
At the same time, workers should have time for themselves and their families. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) generally spoke about giving the body its share of rest by saying “and your body and your family have a right on you” (Al-Bukhari). Then when a person becomes too old to work, he must be compensated. Old age pension was implemented by the Second Caliph Umar who said: “It is far from being humane to let one go helpless in old age after getting service from him in his youth”.
The Prophet (PBUH) also said, “Whoever lightens the work of his workers will have the reward on his scales.” In the labor force, unfortunately, there are places where whips are on the backs if they were to take a rest. Not to mention the horrors of child labor in so many countries. They are forced to work under hazardous conditions when at such a tender age, they should be playing or going to school. If this is not a curse to society and a crime against humanity then what is?
Fairness and justice towards workers is a noble cause and an act that leads to success and salvation. One of the stories that the Prophet (PBUH) mentioned about the previous nations included the following:
“While three persons were traveling, they were overtaken by rain and they took shelter in a cave in a mountain. A big rock fell from the mountain over the mouth of the cave and blocked it. They said to each other: ‘Think of such righteous deeds which you did for Allah’s sake only, and invoke Allah by mentioning those deeds so that Allah may relieve you from your difficulty.’ One of them said, ‘O Allah! I employed a laborer for wages equal to a faraq (a certain measure) of rice, and when he had finished his job he demanded his wages, but when I presented his due to him, he gave it up and refused to take it. Then I kept on sowing that rice for him (several times) until I managed to buy, with the price of the yield, some cows and their shepherd. Later on the laborer came back to me and said: ‘Be afraid of Allah, and do not be unjust to me and give me my due.’
I said to him: Go and take those cows and their shepherd. So he took them and went away. If You considered that I had done that for seeking Your pleasure, then please remove the remaining part of the rock. And the rock was shifted. … and each one mentioned a good deed until they were freed’” [al-Bukhari].
If employers followed these simple guidance that Islam had given over 14 centuries ago, the world of labor would be given their full rights and respect and in turn they will produce way beyond their call of duty. The worker will know that his employer is not seeking to exploit him and the employer will know that he has God-fearing workers who are honest and strive to do their best. Such an environment must be created for both the employer and the employee in order to succeed.