Leaders vs. Caliphs: We need to rethink Muslim working culture

It doesn’t take long to ask: ‘is what I’m doing really fair? What is the meaning and purpose of my actions? What do I sacrifice? What are the potential consequences? Who could suffer from it?’

It doesn’t take long to ask: ‘is what I’m doing really fair? What is the meaning and purpose of my actions? What do I sacrifice? What are the potential consequences? Who could suffer from it?’

It doesn’t take long to ask: ‘is what I’m doing really fair? What is the meaning and purpose of my actions? What do I sacrifice? What are the potential consequences? Who could suffer from it?’

Ever hoped to find a safe space in a Muslim organisation but instead experienced a toxic working culture?

I have been participating, working in, studying and writing about the Muslim charity sector for 10 years now as part of my research work. Through interviews and observations, I’ve heard growing numbers of people feeling disappointed and heartbroken. Many times I heard about things like spaces ‘full of Muslims but empty of Islam’, volunteers treated like numbers, employees pushed to run after ‘performance’ and ‘results’, aggressive fundraising strategies with distressing images for provoking guilt, volunteers taking selfies with unaccredited African children, and CEOs boasting about their holidays on luxury yachts. How Islamic are these practices for organisations often with ‘Muslim’ or ‘Islamic’ in their names?

Recently, Amnesty International has seen its reputation completely ruined for its work environment, which pushed several employees to kill themselves.

Islamophobes, politicians and the media are waiting for the opportunity to strike at every wrong move from Muslim communities. If we don’t want the next scandal to come from us, and instead see organisations we can be proud of, it is perhaps time to reflect on what we call ‘leadership’.

1. Don’t simply copy what works

Some people genuinely believe that turning the Ummah into a cash machine will empower the community and reduce Islamophobia. They are not the first ones. By turning the church into a corporation, American Christian televangelists have been raising millions with their charity shows, but they soon became egoistic profit-driven enterprises because there was no accountability and religion became just a product without meaning. Our tradition establishes boundaries for the sake of human dignity. While capitalism relied on workers’ exploitation for making countries rise as superpowers, the same practices in the fashion industry led to the death of brothers and sisters in South Asia (think the Rana Plaza disaster). Are we willing to take the whole package uncritically just because others call it ‘success’?

2. Take these 5 minutes

It doesn’t take long to ask: ‘is what I’m doing really fair? What is the meaning and purpose of my actions? What do I sacrifice? What are the potential consequences? Who could suffer from it?’

Intentions are not enough (remember the controversies around the Pepsi and Gillette adverts). See the time spent avoiding a scandal or a social media storm as a safety net which can save you from severe damage. Our tradition is a tradition of consultation. Thus, send that email or ask directly people around. Be mindful of those who suffer injustices and misrepresentation. Think of how it will be received by women, brothers and sisters who are minorities, physically challenged, neurodiverse, working class, etc… and importantly, those who are connected to the community at the grassroots and know what’s going on daily.

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3. Think ‘Caliph’ instead of ‘Leader’

We don’t need more Muslim leaders, we need Caliphs. The idea of a leader is inherited from the mythological imaginary of Greek solitary heroes solving problems by force through their power or intelligence like Hercules or Ulysses; they have become archetypes for modern ‘leaders’: the army general crushing opponents, the CEO annihilating competition or the President who rules out other candidates. As a consequence, we have understood traits like being loud, arrogant and over-confident as qualities of ‘leadership’. The problem is that we are overlooking other human qualities like empathy, compassion, patience or resilience which are essential for team cohesion. Perhaps it is time to remember that the Qur’an mentions that human beings were created as caliphs (Qur’an 2:30). ‘Khilafa’ means ‘stewardship’ in English: someone who takes care. Prophets and the first Caliphs were people whose greatest power was turning foes into friends and repairing things rather than destroying. The Prophet himself was quiet, soft-spoken and patient; he didn’t lead teams putting himself in front of everyone; he facilitated talents and skills in the community for a common goal.

4. Mind the neoliberal culture

Neoliberalism is the global culture of competition that tells people that if you want to reach happiness and safety, you need to become rich, famous or influential. The Revelation came for warning us from this lie: read Surat At-Takathur, read the story of Qaroon whose wealth led to his loss. Following the middle-way suggests looking for a balance and knowing where to stop when it’s enough. While it is reasonable wanting to reach a certain level of safety or enjoying hard-earned money (some of the companions were quite wealthy), reaching these goals often means being validated by those who have more power. When we seek validation, it often pushes us to sacrifice our ethics, faith, values, culture or identity in the face of the dominant society. It is a test to see how do we handle these privileges. However, people will always scrutinise your background, ethnicity, political views, religiosity and if people think you have the ‘wrong’ kind of views, anyone can fall from glory in the bat of an eye. Rumi said: ‘if you want money more than anything, you will be bought and sold.’

5. Think mental health

After interviewing psychotherapists or coaches working personally with charity executives, scholars and other key figures of the community, many of them suffer from split personality and mental health issues because of the demands of the work environment. Because we’re not looking at the right things as measures of ‘success’, some coaches told me that some of their clients: ‘although being adults at key positions of power have the emotional maturity of teenagers.’ In the more severe cases, not taking care of one’s well being can lead to conditions like depression, addictions or self-harm. It is nothing new that unhappy, vulnerable or insecure people are not indicators of a healthy business. Consequently, any situation of overworking, bullying, racist or misogynistic jokes, are red lines. A healthy work environment is something one cultivates in the long run.

6. Select better role models

We are constantly dreaming of seeing a ‘Muslim Richard Branson’, a ‘Muslim Mark Zuckerberg’ or even a ‘Muslim Rupert Murdoch’… but why do we never dream of becoming a British or American (or else) Ibn Arabi, Malcolm X or Rabia AlAdawiyya? Even if the Prophet is the ultimate role model, history has enough examples of impactful Muslim figures, men and women, from all cultures and backgrounds, in all fields and disciplines. Do we really want to restrict our role models to white men who believe in money?

It is understandably difficult for people, especially those who come from finance, law or even sciences to abandon habits inherited from their sector once they enter the charity industry; we live in a world where being selfish, egoistic, arrogant or misogynistic are essential traits for survival in the modern corporate world. But doing things differently is possible; I’ve seen people with solid ethics managing organisations in an exemplary manner. Islam came to show the right example. We need organisations and CEOs to do the same.

Also, let’s not minimise the impact of small: success doesn’t have to be measured in money or numbers. I really want to believe that the Prophets didn’t die for us to build financial empires and turn the Qur’an into a management handbook. Let’s have a look at small grassroots charities; even if their management or impact is not comparable to bigger ones, they show how human bonds, empathy, compassion, and emotions make a difference while staying faithful to our ethics, even if you can’t measure them with numbers.

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