The Economic Role of Human Labour in Islam, By Ayatollah Shaheed Beheshti
The Almighty has put abundant natural resources at the disposal of man and has provided him with all that is necessary for life. There is no doubt that these resources have been provided to him so that he may make the best use of them in his life and not merely for watching them from a distance, or for disregarding them, resorting to monastic life and abandoning the world. Islam denounces renunciation. It is reported that the holy Prophet has said: “There is no monasticism in Islam “.
Labour is the key of utilizing natural resources
Man can be benefited by the natural resources only if he works, exerts himself and makes efforts. Suppose a thirsty man is passing by a spring of sweet water. This spring has been created for his use so that he may quench his thirst. But his thirst can be quenched only if he at least stretches out his hand, takes a handful of water and drinks it. Suppose a hungry man passes by a wild chestnut tree. Its nuts, natural food, are available to satiate his hunger. But at least he has to stretch out his hand, pick the nuts and put them in his mouth. Hence work and only work is the key of utilizing the natural resources, which have been described by the Qur’an as the treasures of Allah’s mercy.
When that thirsty person stretched out his hand to the spring and took a handful of water or that hungry person plucked a few chestnuts, it is in the fitness of things that we acknowledge that that handful of water or those chestnuts belong to him, and that none has a right to snatch them from his hand and use them. This right and this bond between man and work is the bond of ownership.
From the study of the economic teachings of Islam we deduce that ownership is the fruit of labour only. When man applies his labour to natural resources, they become his property. His work may be elaborate and complicated or may be very easy and simple such as lifting a thing from its source, taking a handful of water from a river, a canal or a spring, plucking a number of fruits from a wild tree, picking a thorny plant from the forest or catching a bird. In the Islamic jurisprudence such acts are called `acquiring’. If a person acquires a thing from such natural sources, as cannot be appropriated exclusively by anyone, technically called `Mubahat ; it is his.
In certain cases it is not so easy to reach a natural source. One has to plan and exert himself to get what he requires. Suppose there is a thirsty person and he wants to get water, but there is no water above ground. Then he will have to dig a well, arrange a bucket and a rope, and then draw water. Or alternatively he will have to make a pump and install it, or dig several wells and connect them by means of an arterial channel, till the water reaches the surface of the earth.
To encourage man to undertake such jobs it is necessary that his right to what he produces is acknowledged and he is assured that the more he will exert himself, the more prosperous his life will be. Of course, while giving him such a right, it is essential to take all aspects of human life into consideration. His encouragement should not pave the way for his indulging in the oppression and exploitation of others and consequently result in their discouragement and disheartening.
That is why Islam, while recognizing man’s ownership of the products of his labour, has also placed certain restrictions on personal property.
No gain without work
From an overall study of the economic teachings of Islam it may be deduced that the gain which anyone may make in life depends on his work. Nobody has a right to live on the labour of others without performing any useful work himself. The holy Prophet has been reported to have said: “Accursed is he who puts his burden on others”. (Wasail al-Shi’ah, vol. 12, p. 18).
It is reported that a supporter of the Commander of the Faithful, Imam Ali (P) requested him for financial aid. He was expecting that the Imam would grant. him a sum from Bayt al‑Mall, the exchequer.
But the Imam said:
“This money is neither mine nor yours. It is the output of the fights of the Muslims and the present of their swords. If you took part in the fighting you are entitled to a share. Otherwise nothing out of the produce of their labour will be given to others”. (Nahj al‑Balaghah, vol. II p. 226).
In order to safeguard the interests of those who work and exert themselves, the economic system of Islam is against any gains without work. It does not want to give the idle and cunning self‑seekers an opportunity to live on the labour of others and deprive the diligent and industrious workers and their families of the bread earned by them by the sweat of their brow. Unemployment and idleness both are harmful to the individual and to the society.
Imam Musa al‑Kazim (P) is reported to have said: “Allah hates the idle, sleepy man”.
From the Islamic point of view a man who works hard to earn his livelihood is as good as a fighter in the way of Allah. Fighting in the way of Allah aims at strengthening the basis of human virtues and spreading social justice, whereas unemployment and idleness deal a hard blow to both of them.
Production, distribution, services etc.
From the economic point of view of Islam useful work is not confined to such productive activities as agriculture, animal husbandry and industry. Distribution, services and every useful work which meets any human need, is recognized as an economic work, and it is the right of the person who performs it to be benefited by it and to manage the affairs of his life with profit from it.
A farmer tills the land, scatters seeds in it, irrigates it, weeds it and sprays insecticides on it. At the time of harvest he gathers the produce and prepares it for consumption. But all the consumers cannot come to the farmer to purchase their requirements.
Here the requirement of social life paves the way for another essential and useful work. It is necessary that someone else should come, take the commodities of this farmer and other producers and make them available to the consumers. He may carry his wares to the doors of the consumers as a pedlar or may open a shop in the area where the consumers live. In either case it is his job to collect the required commodities from the centres of their production and to sell them to the consumers.
The distribution, that is carrying the goods to the consumer, is in itself a positive, useful and essential work. It is necessary that he who undertakes it must get some profit. It is for this reason that the price of the commodities purchased from a shop or a pedlar is always somewhat higher than the price of the same commodities if purchased direct from a producer.
In healthy economy this difference of price remains within the limit of the value of the additional work undertaken by the distributor in carrying the commodities to the consumer. He is not allowed to make large profit by the goods by purchasing them from the producer at a nominal price and selling them to the consumer at exorbitant rates. The work which is performed by the distributor is called trade and commerce.
There are certain requirements of human life which are neither met by production nor by distribution. When your child falls ill, you take him to the physician. The physician must perform some work to cure him. This work is useful and essential. But is it production or distribution? It is neither. Then what is it? It is a service to you and to your child, a very valuable and effective service. In consideration for his services the physician must get such remuneration as may provide him with the means of living.
In social life there are many occupations which can be considered neither to be a part of production nor that of distribution, but the wheels of life do not revolve without them. In modern terminology they are called services. Under the Islamic economy every kind of useful and essential work, whatever be its nature, production, distribution or services, is acknowledged to be of value, and hence it should fetch a suitable profit.
False work or a device for exploitation
According to the economic principles of Islam only useful and value‑generating activity is considered to be true work, that is the work that facilitates basic human life and makes it more pleasant. A thorough study of some Islamic traditions makes it clear that under Islamic economy there is no place for the activities which have no effective role in production, distribution or services. Nobody has a right to contemplate any profit on account of such superfluous and fruitless work.
Imam al Sadiq (P) is reported to have said:
“I don’t like to hire a water‑mill and let the same for a higher rent, without at least offering a security for it or adding anything to it or equipping it better”. (Wasail al Shi’ah, vol. 13, p. 259).
Imam al Baqir (P) was asked: “Is it lawful if a craftsman takes an order, but without doing anything himself transfers it to someone else and in this process makes some profit?”
The Imam replied: “He should not do so”.
In another version of the report it has been added:
“He should not do so, unless he has carried out the order partly”. (Wasail al Shi’ah, vol. 13, p. 264 ‑ 265).
A coppersmith referred his case to Imam al Sadiq (P). He said: “I sometimes take an order and then transfer the job to the apprentices working under me on the condition that they will get only 2/3 of the wages settled”.
The Imam said: “This is improper, unless you join them in carrying out the job”. (Wasail al Shi’ah, vol. 13, p. 266).
One of the very effective factors in the increase of the prices is the existence of several middlemen through whose hands the commodity passes from producer to consumer, each of them demanding income for himself without performing any useful and essential work. From the above traditions it may be deduced that so long as these middlemen carry out a useful role at least from the distribution point of view, they are entitled to get profit in proportion to their work, but those middlemen who simply slow down the process of distribution deserve no profit. They should be stopped from carrying out their false work which is only a device for exploiting the producer and the consumer.
The brother of Imam al Kazim (P) asked him:
“Can a man, who has bought some foodstuff, sell it to another person before actually taking possession of the same? ”
The Imam replied: “If he sells at profit, he can’t; but if he sells it at the cost price, there is no objection”.