Economics and Business

The Islamic Philosophy of Labor and Crafts: The View of the Ikhwan al-Safa’, Isfahani, and Ibn Khaldun

Early Islamic economic philosophy adopted or adapted the ancient economic philosophical legacy; particularly, from Bryson, whose work was available in the tenth-century in anonymous Arabic translations. These philosophical texts influenced Muslim educational and economic monographs, 1 especially Persian works on slaves, servants, and merchants.2 In those days, free people could not easily perform the menial tasks of the family and the state. The family is a microcosm of the social function of the state and, therefore, operates on the same principles as the state. Since servants are vital to the smooth functioning of the family and society, masters should be grateful to God for their labor and always treat them with kindness and benevolence. Masters should know that their servants suffer exhaustion and fatigue, just as they do. Therefore, masters should be just toward them.3

In the mercantile domain, al-Dimashqi, partially reproducing Bryson’s teachings, provides practical advice for tradespeople in his Isharat ila Mahasin al-Tijarah, probably between the ninth and twelfth centuries. The author justifies trade and states that a wealthy man is worthy of respect. His affluence reflects his elevated nature: If inherited, he is noble; if acquired, he is strong in character. Wealth does not indicate riches, and many rich men squander their wealth. However, those who preserve their wealth and spend it carefully are truly rich. They are moderate in spending, and so will never spend more than their income.

For the classical religious perspective, we turn to the view of al-Shaybani, a student of Imam Abu Hanifah who focused on labor, not on the merchant’s profession. He looked at how one could profit through trade, crafts, agriculture, and salaried work, as well as the religious ethics associated with this economic activity. For him, acquiring wealth is a religious duty, provided it is done by lawful means. God created humanity dependent on four things: food, drink, clothing, and housing. The pursuit of wealth is a fact of social organization, but no single individual can master all of the crafts required to fulfill his or her basic needs. Therefore, people must cooperate with each other. As a religious justification of labor, he gives the example of prayer. Prayer is only possible with ablution, which means someone must extract water from the well. Prayer is only possible with clothing, which means someone has to know the craft of weaving. He recommends frugality and moderate expenditure. If people eat to satisfy hunger, why should there be a variety of dishes? This is wasteful (israf). Unlike al-Dimashqi, his arguments are more religious than philosophical.4

This positive attitude to labor is echoed in the writings of the Ikhwan al-Safa’(tenth century [hereinafter the Ikhwan]), al-Raghib al-Isfahani (eleventh century), and Ibn Khaldun (fourteenth century). The aim of this essay is to compare their views on labor, not to trace their influences, which would require separate treatment. However, we could presume the direct or indirect influence of figures such as the Ikhwan. A study into the attitudes toward labor is important for understanding a society’s economic rise or decline.

I chose these three figures because they all have a positive attitude toward labor and agree with the three essential crafts set out by the Ikhwan. Isfahani is significant not only because he follows the Ikhwan, but because he introduced a significant addition to the essential crafts: that of ruling. Ghazali merely copied Isfahani’s classification, so I did not choose him for comparison. Although Ibn Khaldun is a much later figure, he wrote extensively on the crafts and gave their study a new direction. His view of labor and wealth provides us with a scientific explanation for the economic rise and fall of civilizations. Thus, I chose these three figures because they represent three different strands on labor within the Islamic legacy.

The growth of an urban working class during the ninth century, a time when artisans and laborers played an important role in expanding cities, account for the surge of literature on laborers and labor. A fuller discussion on the subject took place in the tenth century, which dealt with the superiority of commerce over menial labor as well as the value of labor as opposed to those who negated it. Otherworldly Sufis of the ascetic (zuhdi) type cultivated a fatalistic attitude by renouncing worldly possessions and preferring dependence on God’s favors for providing them with food, shelter, and clothing. The Hanbalites, including Ibn Taymiyyah, attacked this kind of asceticism, arguing that engaging in hard labor for material gain was completely within Islam.5 Such Sufis as al-Talib al-Makki rejected the zuhdi attitude, as did such intellectuals as al-Dimashqi6 and al-Raghib al-Isfahani. The latter, as we will see below, condemned lazy ascetics and supported the principle of lawful labor as essential for earning a living.

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