I came across a poem the other and it really struck me. I pondered over it for some while and marveled at how precisely it depicted a small aspect of our world – a small but significant aspect. It's far beyond me to try and translate the poem into English, but the gist of the matter was something like this:
The other day as I walked out hurriedly, I happened upon a beggar. He was poor, destitute, hungry, and just lying there hoping for just anyone to extend a helping hand that would get him through the day. I hesitated, then handed him some money hoping this act of kindness would go a long way. As I walked away, proud of myself and my good deed, a quiet laborer stood under the sun, watching silently. The look in his eyes spoke a thousand words. He would return back to his hard job after this five minute break, work in the heat, under the scorching sun. All this, to earn the little that would help him get through the day. All this to earn an honest living, even if it meant being invisible in the world.
It was an interesting depiction for me. Personally, I've never given that much thought to it. As much as I've sympathized with the struggle of our laborers, I have always shrugged it off as the duty of the state to provide them with adequate pay and living conditions. It is the government's job, indeed. But that doesn't provide us with the excuse of forgetting this integral class of society.
Islam has always considered the human resource as the most significant in society and the economic system. Why isn't this ingrained in our social consciousness as a whole?
The Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him and his progeny) has said, "No one can consume anything more blessed than the results of his work." Islam has consistently valued labor and given it privilege and importance. The teachings go so far as to call it the best among the seventy parts of Ibadah (worship).
A human being who is productive and useful to society obtains the right of being a representative of Allah in this world. An individual's productive power is valued to the extent that it is hailed as performing a religious obligation. As said by Prophet Muhammad, "Trying to earn a lawful livelihood is an obligation in addition to the duties that are obligatory."
I'm reminded of the story of the man during the Prophet's time who retired from employment and dedicated himself to nothing but prayers. The Prophet stopped and told him to go and find work, to work for the community, as it will be more valuable to Allah than prayer upon prayer would be.
Islam also provides us with a system of equity, where equal pay is given for equal work, and no work is to go unrewarded. The Prophet and Imams (peace be upon them) regarded someone's working to obtain subsistence of his family as being as sacred as doing Jihad – striving – for Allah's approval, and as fasting during the day and as performing Salat during the night.
Over the course of history, all of Allah's messengers have played their productive roles in society as well: Prophet Dawud was a blacksmith, Prophet Musa was a shepherd, and Prophet Nuh made pottery (peace be upon them all). None of these tasks seem to hold the same stature in society like that of a lawyer or a merchant or a doctor, but Islam stresses on the significance of this class of society in its entirety.
It is our duty to recognize the work and efforts of our laborers, and to understand the vital role they play in our communities – from the man who works at the auto-repair shop to the security guard who spends the entire night up so that you could sleep safely in your beds. No one is asking for handouts and charity, but what they do deserve is the respect that our religion has given to them. They deserve to stand at an equal footing with a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, or a businessman, and to be regarded as equally integral for the well-being and advancement of our communities.