The Cobbler Principle – Advice for Muslims in the Workplace
Something I hear a lot from many young professional Muslims is their perceived struggle to balance an enriched spiritual life with a working professional one. Many young Muslims in their adolescence, as part of their growth as Muslims pick up on the teachings of our pious predecessors with regards to the dunya, or “lower world”. They learn that greed, avarice, arrogance, love of wealth/power/status, were shunned by all the people of piety and righteousness throughout history, whether they were prophets, awliya – saints, or siddiqun – truthful ones. This isn’t reserved for the Islamic tradition, zuhd or asceticism is found in most world religions, particularly in the eastern traditions.
But for those of us here in the western world, putting food on our table isn’t cheap, and neither is keeping a roof over our heads, so as our blossoming younger generation leave the bliss and idleness of university life, the reality of living in the modern world dawns on them. Gone are the days of spending sleepless nights in the ISoc prayer room engulfed in prayer and meditation, to be replaced with an early night in because you have to catch the tube at 8 in the morning (and get up for the dawn prayer before that). For many Muslims who tend to be in the early 20s to mid 30s category, this starkness of life can have a negative effect, and leaves many people wondering “Where am I going with my life?”, “Am I doing the right thing by chasing the world?” and so on.
The fact this happens to many people, particularly of those of a spiritual disposition, highlights something that was glaringly missed by them in their formative years, that is the realisation that everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen, are by the decree of God. Now many people on reading that will say they have known that all along, but notice the use of the word realisation. The fact that divine decree and destiny are fundamental aspects of Islamic theology, means it is understood and accepted by everyone, but the realisation of the fact is quite different. What that entails is to become submitted to, and acceptive of what life has dealt to you. A principle known in the Islamic tradition as sabr, a higher form of patience that entails both inward and outward calm in the face of either uncertainty or affliction.
So how does this translate to the workplace? One train of thought that I talk about with Muslims is what I have come to call “The Cobbler Principle”, i.e. approach your employment like a cobbler. A cobbler (an old-timey shoemaker), would get up in the morning, go to work, do what he needs to do, and come home. He works to suffice himself in this world, his drive in life is not to make shoes, that’s his occupation and he keeps it that way, for a Muslim the motivation for life is God, but for life to go on one needs to work, so work provides the means to carry on moving towards God. And that has many multifaceted results. Work provides one with money to give to charity, it provides the ability to perform the pilgrimage, it enables one to provide for ones family, which is a religious obligation and by definition an act of worship, and quite importantly for us in the west in the long run, it provides a means for us to become a more economically independent and politically more influential demographic of society.
If God has decreed for you that you are to work, it is the responsibility of a Muslim to be accepting and patient of that decree, and then to ensure it doesn’t take one away from the remembrance of God, rather he or she should turn that work itself into remembrance by understanding the realisation of God’s divine decree, and mould one’s intention to fulfil that purpose. God willing people will find themselves more relaxed and at peace with themselves in the workplace, and that will result in a more spiritual outlook on life.