Imagine the situation. You’re working in a supermarket stacking the shelves and helping customers find things (that are right in front of them), and bantering with the team in the backroom. Life is good. But then disaster strikes, and you’re asked to stack the alcohol aisle. Or maybe you’re asked to swipe things at the checkout. Or perhaps you have to offer customers the latest deal available from Tesco Banking.
Haram or halal?
Or what about the Taxi driver who has to drive people to and from the pub or nightclub at night? Is he an accessory to the actions of his clients and consequently sinful?
And what about the banker, lawyer, or accountant who works in the financial industry? He will inevitably have to interact with transactions that involve some kind of interest-related element.
Is your job haram?
The jobs that are affected are numerous and include working as an accountant, a lawyer, an actuary, a banking analyst, a management consultant, an HMRC worker, a debt collector, and even serving haram food at a restaurant.
So what do we do in these situations?
Well, like most things in fiqh, there are two positions. They are roughly this:
- “You are helping this individual/company in carrying out some impermissible act and therefore, even if your job in particular is not directly linked to the haram act, you are still culpable and your income and job is not permissible according to the Shariah.”
- “You are helping this individual/company in carrying out some impermissible act but because these individuals have full control over their own actions and because your role is not haram per se, it is acceptable for you to take your income for your halal job.”
So which view is right?
Well there are a number of contextual issues to take into account to inform our decision-making.
Firstly, it is vital to remember that we are not living in a country where things like interest, alcohol, and pork are prohibited. Indeed, I don’t think there is a single country in the world where this is the case right now. Given that, the possibility for alternative jobs is drastically reduced.
Secondly, with the rise of globalisation we have seen companies growing larger and larger. There has been an explosion in large multinational corporations with their fingers in many pies, and for these companies it is near inevitable that somewhere down the line there will be some haram activity mixed in. Given that, a large number of available jobs are at these companies, and so a large number of people will be getting at least a portion of their income from haram sources.
Thirdly, we are operating in a legal, economic, and political framework that is structured around interest. Every financial agreement that we sign will have some interest-related element, whether it be with our utility company, a mobile phone contract, or a rental agreement with our landlord or tenant. Chances are we’ve all signed up to either pay or receive interest. So when talking about interest it is important for us and Islamic scholars to not see the contract in isolation.
Fourthly, in the particular case of the supermarket checkout example, the legal status of these staff are not as agents of the company who are selling the product to you on the company’s behalf, but rather they are being paid for the job of processing food and swiping it. In other words they’re getting paid to do what you could do yourself in the self-checkout aisle. So for these employees the second opinion can be availed of.
Fifthly, in the case of the financial industries, preparing and signing off on interest-based agreements – like some lawyers have to – is not on, but working on and preparing all sorts of other contracts and clauses that a bank or investment company may require are usually okay. As an accountant you are simply auditing after the fact so that is fine, and as an actuary you are doing a job that is halal per se (assessing risks, modelling), so again the second position can be applicable. Even in banks, there are a wide number of departments. If you are working in an investment bank on the trading floor buying and selling shares, that is probably okay compared to if you are brokering interest-based deals, which is highly likely not.
So all this context leads us to be slightly less strict in our interpretations of the Shariah, and the latter opinion, that of Imam Abu Hanifah is perfectly acceptable to adopt. However, there are some important checklists to fulfil to make sure you’re not abusing this Shari’ position.
A quick few rule of thumbs:
- Is your job actually acceptable per se? So if you are an IT manager your job is intrinsically acceptable, but if you’re a loan-issuer at a bank your job is intrinsically unacceptable. If you’re selling credit cards then your job is intrinsically unacceptable. If you are selling lottery tickets and alcohol at your newsagent then your job is intrinsically unacceptable.
- Where is the money coming from which you will get paid for? So if you’re an IT manager for a bank and the majority of its money comes from interest-based loans, then the source of the funds is impermissible But if you’re an IT manager in a bank where the majority of the funds come from advisory work, mergers & acquisitions, trading, then the source of the money is largely acceptable. For the scholars who hold the opinion the source of the money doesn’t matter, but if you are choosing between two jobs where one’s source of income is haram, then you should choose the other one.
- Are there alternatives? This is important in the context of restaurant waiters. There are many halal restaurants one can work at instead of a haram one, so scholars do not accept that one can work in a restaurant where one will serve the customer haram products. Now in the case of supermarkets, for example, the situation is slightly different, as there every supermarket sells haram products and so it is an unavoidable part of being in that industry.
- How proximate are you to the sin? A Taxi driver dropping off a customer to a pub is still at a relative distance to the action of drinking alcohol, while someone preparing a loan agreement is much more proximate to the action of trading in interest.
The reality of the matter is that jobs are messy, ambiguous affairs where you will be doing lots of things that may not have thought you would be doing before you started. One can’t just turn around and say, “oh, you’re an accountant? Let’s look at the fiqh list of approved employments – ah that’s haram and that’s halal. Simple.” Job roles change from week to week and month to month and so there isn’t really a cookie cutter Shari’ answer to these questions.
Instead the best thing to consult is a scholar you trust, but also your own conscience. You might be able to sway the scholar by presenting your job in one particular light but you can’t fool yourself.
Sources used for some rulings in this post: