It is sometimes said that “business ethics” is an oxymoron. How can one do business and still be an ethical person? Isn’t business all about self-interest, greed and making exuberant profits?
Yes, it is true that the physical, earthly dimension of a human is based on two main characteristics: greed and anger. The former attracts whatever it perceives to be beneficial, and the latter repels whatever it perceives to be harmful. But the spiritual, heavenly dimension consists of mind and conscience which have the potential of controlling the elements of greed and anger. One whose spiritual powers control the physical powers is indeed an ethical person. And one who lives the life only by the elements of anger and greed has not actualized the potential of soaring from the worldly level to the heavenly level.
Adding the adjective “Islamic” to “business ethics” might surprise some. But one has to realize that Islam is not just a religion in the spiritual sense of the word – it is a way of life. There is no separation between the secular and the spiritual in Islam. There is no difference between the sphere of worship and the sphere of business. Islamic laws govern the family life of its followers as well as their social conduct.
Imam Ali (peace be upon him), as the ruler of the time, used to publicly announce in the market of Kufa: “Learn the Fiqh [Islamic law], then engage in trade. Learn the Fiqh, then engage in trade. Learn the Fiqh, then engage in trade.” So Muslims are expected to learn the religious laws of their trade and profession. Ignorance of the laws cannot be an excuse for committing sins.
The foundation of Islamic business ethics depends on delineating the purpose of human life. If you study the Qur’an’s verses (2:36-39) about Adam and Eve, and others verses (see 14:32-34 for example) about the earth, you can easily deduce the followings:
- This earth is our abode.
- This earth and its surrounding atmosphere have the resources to sustain our lives on it [if managed properly].
- Divine guidance will come to us and we are expected to follow it.
- Satan is our enemy and will try his best to misguide us.
- The life on this earth is for a fixed time only.
· The hereafter is the final destination. Whether the final destination will be blissful or painful depends on following or not following the divine guidance.
As a creation of God, a human being is expected to obey the Divine commandments in relationship to the self, to the fellow humans, and also towards the earth. We cannot forget the Satanic temptations that overwhelm many people. This three way interaction defines the perimeter of Islamic ethics in business sphere. And the guiding principles in these interactions are:
1. Obeying the Divine commandments. (2:38)
2. Dealing with others on basis of justice and fairness. “O you who believe! Be upright, for the sake of Allah, in testifying for fairness; and do not let the hatred of a people urge you to be unjust, be just (since) that is closer to piety. Fear (from displeasing) Allah, verily Allah is Aware of what you do.” (5:8).
3. Being moderate in personal life and in use of natural resources. “O you who believe! Neither forbid the (use of) good (things) that Allah has allowed for you nor exceed the limits because Allah does not love those who exceed the limits.” (5:87)
Sayyid Muhammad Rizvi is the resident scholar of the Jaffari Islamic Center in Toronto, Canada. He is the author of Business Ethics in Islam and numerous other books and articles dealing with Islamic affairs.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared in an earlier edition of Islamic Insights.