By Eyad Alnaslah
“Congratulations on your offer,” read the email, after the Vice President called to congratulate me and ask when I planned on starting with the firm.
I read the email three, maybe four times. It was an offer from one of the biggest investment firms in the world. It was an unmatchable offer that came with a six-digit salary, not including bonuses, from a firm overlooking the mesmerizing Southern California beaches.
I initially interviewed with this firm to see what other opportunities were out there in the market. Though I had no need to leave my current job, I wanted to refresh my interview skills, meet new professionals in my industry and maybe consider an offer – which I recommend all my brothers, sisters and colleagues to do once in a while.
The offer then became a reality. The salary, the prestige, the connections, the beach all floated by in my head. But I needed to clear that out of my mind – quickly.
The firm I interviewed with generates its revenue primarily from bonds and other debt investments – investments deemed impermissible in Islam since the profits are considered to be riba (monetary interest). My job as the senior accountant would not be on the investments side (trading bonds and debt investments), but rather working in operations and financial reporting. My salary, however, would be from the revenue generated from these investments.
This firm is said to be “worshipped on Wall Street.” However, I had to remember the One I worship, and remember what pleases and displeases Him! Indeed those who engage in what pleases Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) have the ultimate prestige and wealth, and those who displease Him set themselves up for poverty and destruction. Allah (swt) reminds us:
“Satan promises you with poverty and orders you to immorality, while Allah promises you forgiveness from Him and bounty. And Allah is all-Encompassing and Knowing.” (Qur’an 2:268)
Allah (swt) blesses us with wealth, each in a different way, in different capacities, to see what will we do with this wealth. We should ultimately use it to continue worshipping Him in various ways, not allow the dollar to consume our lives and make us forget Allah (swt).
I continued reading over the offer letter, and then, given my potential role and responsibilities, did some research regarding the permissibility of working in such investment firms. There were so many opinions on this topic, each with its own references and rebuttals. Then I began to fall into what is known as “confirmation bias,” a state in which one searches and identifies only the information that reaffirms his or her own predetermined beliefs and opinions. The offer was enticing, and so I began to look for sources that would grant my job its permissibility. This mentality, as I knew yet still began to fall into, is very dangerous for the heart, and especially detrimental to someone seeking to learn and educate himself or herself. There is no real, substantial education if one remains close-minded to intellectual debate and conversation. This mentality can also lead one to start compromising his or her principles – justifying something that is impermissible and beginning to believe that it is allowed, only to serve one’s interests, feelings, beliefs or desires.
I had exactly one week to make a decision to accept or decline the offer. The following thoughts roamed my head for days –
“I will be able to represent Muslims and share my knowledge of finances with them!” I was not sure how, but I was telling myself that this could be my excuse to accept the job. I erased this from my thought process.
“Interest is everywhere, you cannot avoid it.” That is not true. There are plenty of opportunities for someone to work for a respectable firm and make a respectable income. Alhamdulillah (praise be to God), I have a good job and I am happy. There is no necessity or excuse to justify taking this job.
“I would not be actively engaged in riba, my job would be far removed from the four categories of those cursed (in a Prophetic tradition or hadith) by engaging in riba – the receiver, the giver, the writer (of the agreement/transaction), and the witnesses.” In reality, I was actually too close to riba as my salary would be directly derived from riba. The Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) described the spread of riba like the spread of dust; I may not be in the dirt (riba) but I would be close enough that the dirt’s dust would reach me. In any case, did I really want to work in and contribute to a system that is based on riba and encourages investors to make profits from what displeases Allah (swt)? No, thanks.
A distant relative found out about my offer and told me, “Man, you should take it! Any girl will accept you [for marriage] with that kind of cash… You can buy her the biggest rock and throw the nicest wedding party.” I will share my reflection on this in Part II.
As for the job offers that we Muslims living in the West are presented with, I would like to give an example to everyone, specifically those of our dear sisters who do not work themselves, because we care about them and want there to be more understanding between Mars and Venus.
Do you know how at times it can be really challenging for sisters to wear the hijab (headscarf) and dress modestly? It can be especially hard when they go out to shop and have to find something that is Islamically acceptable, but a lot of things out there are not. They have to really look for clothes that are modest and even have to alter some clothes to make it happen. Sometimes they find the right fit or style and that makes their lives easier, and other times it is not that easy. Maybe sometimes in their heads, they try to justify a certain skirt or blazer, but in fact know it should probably be a little bit looser or less attention-grabbing. It is an obligation to wear the hijab and they want to make sure it is done correctly to please Allah (swt), right?
A similar struggle is experienced by a working Muslim when making sure that his or her income is Islamically permissible and that the fabric of the income is halal (permissible). We want to make sure that it pleases Allah (swt) because we want His blessings and to be rewarded for spending on our families, for the community and in charity from a halal income. There may be times when we have to let go of a certain job (like sisters may have to let go of a skirt) because the income or job is really not halal. In my case, I tried to justify, out of my weakness, a non-halal income, but thankfully I was guided and reminded by those close to me that it really was not acceptable. So I put that job offer back on the rack, trusting that Allah (swt) has the best in store for me and everyone now and in the future.
Therefore, I had to wake up. I told myself, despite the temptation and pressure, “Dude! Your salary would be coming from riba! Stop trying to justify the job just because it is a great offer!” Although I would not have been actively or directly engaging in riba, which is heavily denounced in the Qur’an and our Islamic faith, I might have been on occasion, and I did not want to build my life on something doubtful. I definitely did not want to stand in front of Allah (swt) with this either.
This concept is called wara’ (ورع) in Islam – an extra step to stay away from something, even if may be permissible, with the concern that it may lead to something impermissible, and in doing so staying away from the doubtful.
Our faith is at stake when we try to justify things that displease Allah (swt). After all, on the Day of Judgment, everyone will be asked about their decisions and actions. On that Day, Allah (swt) will ask about four things, as said in a Prophetic saying, one of which is our wealth, how we obtained it and how we spent it. Was I willing to stand in front of Allah (swt) and try to justify an income that was generated from interest? No, thanks.
There were three profound ahadith (narrations) that guided me—and all guidance is from Allah (swt)— in addition to the advice of scholars and close brothers whom I consulted—to deny this “great” offer.
“The halal is clear and the haram (impermissible) is clear, and between them are matters unclear that are unknown to most people. Whoever is wary of these unclear matters has absolved his religion and honor. And whoever indulges in them has indulged in the haram. It is like a shepherd who herds his sheep too close to preserved sanctuary, and they will eventually graze in it. Every king has a sanctuary, and the sanctuary of Allah is what He has made haram. There lies within the body a piece of flesh. If it is sound, the whole body is sound; and if it is corrupted, the whole body is corrupted. Verily this piece is the heart.” (Bukhari, Muslim)
With the guidance of Allah (swt), I decided to play it safe in the gray zone, decline the offer, and hope that Allah (swt) counts me among those that are honored, trying my best to protect my heart. There was too much ambiguity regarding its permissibility. To me, my heart did not feel settled taking this job. It was too risky and it would risk my relationship with Allah (swt). As a brother advised me, sometimes consulting your heart is the best way to go. This is actually part of the second hadith!
“Consult your heart. Righteousness is that about which the soul feels at ease and the heart feels tranquil. And wrongdoing is that which wavers in the soul and causes uneasiness in the chest, even though people have repeatedly given their legal opinion [in its favor].” (Musnad, Imam Ahmad and Al-Darimi)
And the third awesome hadith –
“Verily you will not leave something for the sake of Allah except that He compensates you with something better.” (Musnad, Imam Ahmad)
There are plenty of (better) opportunities out there besides this firm, no matter how big and prestigious it is. Allah (swt) is bigger than them, and He is the one Who honors. Allah (swt) is wealthier than them, and He is the one Who provides. Indeed, the Prophetic advice is the best advice.
Allah’s (swt) promise and offer is bigger than what any firm can promise or offer you. If we dedicate our lives and money for Allah (swt), He offers a salary no rational person can turn down; it really is an unmatchable salary offer – Jannah (Paradise).
A special thanks to Dr. Monzer Kahf (Professor, Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies), Br. Sabih Syed (Vice President, TCW Los Angeles), and Br. Omar Amin (Advisory Manager, PwC) for their advice in helping me make the right decision about the job offer, and a special thanks to Dr. Imad Bayoun (UC Riverside; Lecturer, Muslim American Society – MAS) and Sheikha Muslema Purmul (Al Azhar, Cairo) for editing this article.
(Please note that everyone’s circumstances are different and that this article is the opinion and conclusion that I have reached after my research. I would advise everyone for their specific situation to seek qualified scholarly opinions, preferably from those that have the knowledge and experience of Islamic law and the financial/economic/corporate law of their respective country and situation.)