My business ethics text listed some reasons for why we fail to make ethical decisions, and I will go through those in a minute, but what I found most concerning was that in a list of nations in the order of how corrupt their governments and institutions were, many Muslim countries were ranked among the most corrupt. Although this shouldn’t be new information to anyone, it really struck a chord with me because I couldn’t help but feel that Islam gave us the remedy to these social ills and Muslims are failing miserably at doing this beautiful religion any justice.
Excuse #1: Everybody else does it
A prime example of this is copying your friend’s homework in high school, or college. Of course you don’t mean to cheat, but class is in 45 minutes and you don’t have time to think through the problems yourself. So, you will be getting a grade for work that you didn’t really do.
Another one that comes to mind is downloading music, movies and anything else you can’t get for free in a store. It has become so common that we don’t even give it a second thought. Just because our legal system is still in the process of creating more comprehensive laws that protect intellectual property, it doesn’t make it okay for us to steal.
The Messenger of Allah ﷺ warned us not to be an Imma’ah. The Imma’ah is the one who if the people are doing good, does good; and if the people are doing bad, does bad. Rather, he ordered us to be steadfast in doing what’s right at all times.
Excuse #2: If we don’t do it, someone else will
The first thing that comes to mind is an article I came across in the New York Times about Muslim businesses that sell alcohol, cigarettes, pork and other non-halal goods because they believed that those items spurred their business; to stop selling those things would be the death of their business because they would miss out on the big bucks and everyone would just go somewhere else.
This excuse makes more sense in a capitalist mind frame. I say this for two reasons, the first is because in Islam we have the concept of rizq (sustenance) being pre-determined that is dispensed to your given that you put in the effort.
“And in the heaven is your provision and whatever you are promised. Then by the Lord of the heaven and earth, indeed, it is truth – just as [sure as] it is that you are speaking.” (Qur’an, 51:22-23)
Having this in mind, it makes no sense whatsoever to try and increase your income by doing something that is illegal or unethical. Muslims should be under no illusion that doing anything haram (unlawful) could increase their sustenance or make them better off. They may enjoy temporary financial gains, but at what expense?
The second reason is because capitalism is all about wealth-maximization. In other words, to do whatever it takes to win. By making financial gain your number one priority, ethics are the first thing to go out the window, along with justice and social responsibility.
Excuse #3: That’s the way it has always been done
The example that comes to mind is women removing their hijab (headscarf) on their wedding day. Random example, I know, but it was one of those things that I saw as a sort of norm in Egyptian culture and seemed to be acceptable just because of the sheer number of people that did it.
Abu Sa’id al-Khudri, may Allah be pleased with him, reported that the Messenger of Allah ﷺ had said:
“Whoever among you sees anything objectionable, let him change it with his hand, if he is not able, then with his tongue, and if he is not even able to do so, then with his heart, and the latter is the weakest form of faith.” – Muslim
We are all reformers in our own right. Islam requires us to enjoin good and forbid evil. Social reform isn’t achieved overnight; it begins with you making the choice to do the right thing.
Obviously, changing your family’s understanding of hijab or overhauling your company’s corporate culture isn’t something you can do alone. The hadith acknowledges that, and we are advised to at the very least make the change in our own hearts. Consequently it would be reflected through our actions and we would gradually teach others by example.
Excuse #4: We’ll wait until the lawyers tell us it’s wrong
I was recently told the story of a school that had been instructing its employees to report lower income so they could meet the requirements for their desired tax bracket. In addition they were going as far as explaining the process of applying for benefits from the council (welfare) to their staff with the promise of higher income. Not only were they shortchanging the government for the tax they should have been paying, but they were also encouraging others to apply for benefits they didn’t need.
When an employee that had a confrontation with the school (not over this issue) took legal action against them they offered to settle outside of court, as long as the employee didn’t report them to tax authorities.
Isn’t it enough that Allah (subhanahu wa ta`ala – exalted is He) sees what we are doing? Does it have to come to local authorities’ attention before we decide to stop what we are doing? Actions speak louder than words, and it is now the case that we fear people more than we fear Allah (swt).
Excuse #5: It doesn’t really hurt anyone
There are tons of examples of this, from littering to wasting water. I won’t bore you with specifics, but pay close attention to what I am about to tell you: there are approximately 6.9 billion people on this planet. If all of them think like you, we are going to be in big trouble.
Change starts with the individual.
Excuse #6: The system is unfair
So is life. Just remember that we will stand before God alone, and He is fair.
Excuse #7: I was just following orders
Returning to the example of the school, the first employee that was told to get involved with their tax scam should have refused and left. It would have forced them to at least think twice before asking that of someone again. However, as people continued to gradually buy into this culture of dishonesty, it became acceptable.
The Messenger Muhammad ﷺ clearly said:
“There is no obedience [to any creation] in disobedience to Allah.” (Bukhari & Muslim)
Excuse # 8: It’s a gray area
On the authority of An-Numan Ibn Bashir, who said: “I heard the messenger of Allah ﷺ say:
“That which is lawful is plain and that which is unlawful is plain and between the two of them are doubtful matters about which not many people know. Thus he who avoids doubtful matters clears himself in regard to his religion and his honor, but he who falls into doubtful matters falls into that which is unlawful, like the shepherd who pastures around a sanctuary, all but grazing therein. Truly every king has a sanctuary, and truly Allah’s sanctuary is His prohibitions. Truly in the body there is a morsel of flesh which, if it be good, all the body is good and which, if it be diseased, all of it is diseased. Truly it is the heart.” (Bukhari & Muslim)
This hadith nails it. It’s basically telling us not to play around in or near the gray areas because we can fall into the black. We are better safe than sorry, and should try our best to avoid actions whose permissibility is in question.
The leadership in a large corporation wanted to take a huge step that would be considered unethical but not illegal. So when deciding whether to go ahead with it or not, the CEO asked them if they would feel comfortable with their decision being published as tomorrow’s newspaper headline. His statement made everyone scrutinize their decision a little more, and as a result they abandoned the idea.
This brings to mind yet another hadith, where the Messenger of Allahﷺ says:
“Al-Birr (piety & righteousness) entails good conduct, while Al-Ithm (evil) is that which crosses your mind and which you hate for people to find out about.”
In closing I just want to emphasize how fortunate we are as Muslims to have such clear guidance when it comes to dealing with the ethical aspects of our day-to-day lives. Unfortunately we aren’t applying these solutions as we should and are lagging behind when we should be shining examples of the best morals and behaviors.
May Allah (swt) bless us with better morals, manners, and conduct in general. Ameen.