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The Problem of Wages

So far we have been able to establish one basic distinction between Islâm and Capitalism with regards to the distribution of wealth - and this distinction is related to the subject of interest. Now, there is another distinction between the two which one must bear in mind, and which concerns the relationship between the employer and the employee. This would necessitate a discussion of the problem of wages.

The violent reaction against the Capitalist system in the present age is largely an outcome of the conflicts between employers and employees and of the problems arising from the fixation of wages. Since the Capitalist economy is based on the principle of selfish and unqualified private ownership, the relationship of “Supply and Demand” between the employer and the employee is only a mechanical, harsh, and formal relationship which rests on undiluted self-interest. The employer respects the humanity of the employee (laborer) only so far as he is obliged to do so in the interest of his own business. As soon as he no longer feels this obligation, he readily adopts oppressive measures. On the other hand, the employee is interested in the work of the employer and prepared to carry out his orders only so long as his livelihood depends on the employer. The moment this dependence is over, he will unscrupulously shirk his work and even go on strike. This results in a perpetual struggle between the Laborer and the Capitalist, making it impossible for a healthy rapport to emerge between the two.

On the contrary, although Islâm does admit the principle of supply and demand as affecting, to a certain extent, the relationship between the employer and employee, yet it has at the same time imposed certain restrictions on the supply as well as the demand of labor in such a manner that their business relationship no longer remains merely mechanical, but becomes almost fraternal. As to what should the attitude of the employer be towards the employee, the Holy Qur’ân has made it quite explicit in a short but comprehensive phrase, while citing the words of Hazrat Shu’aib ( ). Hazrat Shu’aib ( ) stood in the position of the employer for Hazrat Musa ( ) and said:


“I do not desire to lay (an undue) burden of labor on you. If Allâh wills, you will certainly find me to be one of the righteous.”


This verse makes it quite clear that an employer who is a Muslim and whose ultimate goal in life is hence to become “righteous”, cannot be “righteous” until and unless he has the desire to protect his employee from the burden of unnecessary labor. The Holy Prophet ( ) has elucidated this point further in explicit terms:


“Your brethren are your servants whom Allâh has made your subordinate. So, the man who has his brother as his subordinate, should give him to eat from what he himself eats, and to wear what he himself wears. And do not put on them the burden of any labor which may exhaust them. And if you have to put any such burden on them, then help them yourselves (in this work).”[1]

Another tradition says:


“Pay his wages to the worker before his sweat gets dried.”[2]

The Holy Prophet ( ) also said that there are three people who will find him on the Day of Judgement as their enemy. One of these three is:


“The man who employs a worker on wages, then takes the full measure of work from him, but does not pay him his wages.”[3]

How solicitous the Holy Prophet ( ) was about the rights of the laborer can be gauged from a tradition which comes down from Hazrat Ali ( ). He reports that before his departure from this world, the last words of the Holy Prophet ( ) were:


“Take heed of the (daily) prayers and of (the rights of) those who are subordinate to you.”[4]

In consequence of these injunctions, the laborer was able to receive a dignified and brotherly position in Islâmic society, and we find countless examples of this in the history of the Early Period of Islâm. One can say with absolute confidence and certainty that it is not possible to safe-guard the rights of the laborer in a better way.

On the other hand, Islâm has laid down certain other injunctions which bind the employee as well, and has thus made his relations with the employer still more congenial. From the Islâmic point of view, the laborer, in undertaking the responsibility of doing some work for an employer, enters into a contract which he must honor not only for earning his livelihood but also for his felicity in the other world which is his real and ultimate goal. The Holy Qur’ân has this to say on the subject:


“O believers, fulfil your bonds.”


And further on:


“Surely the best man you can hire is the one who is strong and trustworthy.”


And still further:


“Woe to those who are dishonest in weighing and measuring- those who exact full measure when they receive their due from others, but give less than due when they measure or weigh for them.”


According to the elucidations of the jurists of Islâm (Fuqahâ), the word “ ” (underweighing and undermeasuring) in this verse includes in its connotation even the laborer who receives in full the wages that have been agreed upon, and yet does not give the full measure of work, and employs that portion of time which he has given away to the employer in doing some other work, contrary to the wishes of his employer. These injunctions, thus, declare the shirking of work to be a great sin, and make it quite clear to the employee that once he has taken upon himself the responsibility of doing some work for an employer, the work has now become his own, and that he is under the obligation to complete it with perfect honesty, application, and zeal, otherwise he will not be able to attain the felicity in the other world which is his real and ultimate goal.

With regard to the problem of wages, in short, Islâm, while admitting to a certain extent the principle of “supply and demand” has at the same time laid down certain injunctions for the employer and the employee both, so that the system of supply and demand has come to be based on human sympathy and brotherhood, and not on self-interest.

One may possibly have a doubt here- that the nature of the injunctions laid down by the Qur’ân and the Sunnah in order to control the employer and the employee both, is similar to that of moral precepts, which have no validity from the economic or legal point of view. But such an objection would arise from an improper understanding of the spirit of Islâm. One should all the time bear in mind that Islâm is not a mere economic system, but a complete code of life in which all the spheres of human life function as inter-related parts of a whole. The attempt to consider any one of these spheres in isolation from others would necessarily produce many misunderstandings. The true aspect of each of these spheres can emerge only when it is given its proper place within the total code of life, and is viewed in this perspective. So, it would not be possible to exclude these so-called “moral precepts” from any discussion of the Islâmic economy.

Then there is another distinctive feature of Islâm. If one takes a larger view, even these “moral precepts” are in reality legal injunctions, for the reward or the punishment of the other world finally depends on them- and it is the reward and punishment which has the fundamental importance in the life of a Muslim. It is just this “Doctrine of the Other World” which has not only given the authority of Law to Ethics, but has also been at the back of “laws” in the technical sense. If you carefully consider the Qur’ânic idiom, you will find that the notions of “fear of Allâh” and “solicitude for the other world” are always appended to every legal or ethical injunction. The secret behind it is that, in fact, man can never be made to abide by laws merely out of fear of human force or coercion until and unless “solicitude for the other world” is there to keep a constant watch over each and every action, movement or thought of man. As for that, the several thousand year old history of mankind, which has been full of numberless oppressions, inequities and crimes inspite of all the legal imperatives, can easily bear witness to this irrefutable fact. And, in particular, the so-called “civilized world” of today has made it clear like day-light that the speed with which crimes have been increasing is far greater than the speed with which legal machinery is being strengthened to overtake them.

So, the fond belief that the relations between the employer and the employee can be improved with the help of legal provisions is no more than a self-delusion of the worst sort. Its real remedy is only the “solicitude for the other world”- and nothing else. And Islâm has put all possible emphasis on just truth in this matter.

The modern mind, which has gotten itself entangled in the confusions of the worldly life and has thus lost the capacity to look beyond matter, may perhaps find it difficult to understand this truth. But it is certain that if mankind is at all destined to attain a peaceful existence, it will, after a hundred pitfalls, arrive finally at the truth which the Holy Qur’ân has stressed again and again. The world has already witnessed sufficiently the veracity of this Qur’ânic concept during the time when Islâm was really functioning as a system in actual practice. In the history of that period, one would seek in vain for an example of the conflicts between employers and employees which have been upturning our world for some time past. It was just these “moral precepts” of the Qur’ân and the Sunnah which made a practical demonstration of how this problem could be solved in a satisfactory way, and because of which the history of the Early Period of Islâm is almost free from the violent disputes and workers’ strikes of today.


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Last modified 08/12/05 09:25 AM - Iqra - ISSN #1062-2756