By: Dr. Corrie Block
The Business of Being a Muslim
Ethical Observations from a Christian Colleague
I have worked in the MENA region as a Business Development Consultant for several years now. Meeting with Islamic CEO’s and Managing Directors over meals and boardroom tables alike, I have learned some excellent business practices. I have also seen a few reoccurring behaviours that cause me some concern. I offer to you here some suggestions for integrating your Islamic faith into your business, from a foreigner’s perspective.
- Let the Contract Stand: In my experience, Islamic businessmen often renegotiate contracts even after they are signed. I don’t know if this is cultural, but I don’t think it’s Islamic. In my understanding of your faith, a simple handshake should be enough for me to be able to trust you at your word. It is honouring to your religion when I can say that my Muslim colleague is the kind of person that never breaks his word, never reneges on a commitment, and only renegotiates a contract in extreme circumstances.
- 2. Trust Your Brother: In my experience there is sometimes very little trust between Islamic business professionals in the Arab world. Even in companies where family is dominant, trust between brothers can be rare. Much of the decision making I see defaults to simple measures of control: who has the higher rank, the most investment, the most cash, or which of the brothers is oldest. As a non-Muslim, I expect you to distrust me a little at first, and I make it my business to earn your trust, but it undermines my hope that I will ever be able to do so when you find it so hard to trust each other.
- Be Innovative. Innovation is a dirty word in some boardrooms here. I understand that from a religious perspective, Muslims are cautious not to create anything new, wanting to protect its purity and tradition. I admire this quality. However, when traditionalism spills over into business practice, corporate governance, or growth strategy, it can be a real limiter of success. Innovation in business is not anti-Islamic, from what I understand. Being creative, restructuring, and managing trends well is just good stewardship of your employees and resources. Learn to discern between religion and culture in innovation, and you’ll have a lot better opportunities for growth.
- Be Honourable. The Islamic religion requires you to be generous, kind, peaceable, and honest. I know this, so I expect it from you. Your Prophet (PBUH) was an excellent trader, and what did people say about his character? No one could fault his integrity. Your key to success is not to manage your honour by appearing honourable, but to actually be honourable. I can usually tell the difference. Others are watching how you live, and we non-Muslims judge the value of your religion by the behaviours of Muslims. We don’t care how rich you are or what’s printed on your business card, we care that you are good stewards of the truth that God has given you. Live and do business in such a way that we will want what you have.
- Hire Young Talent. It seems to be a religious tendency that the voices of the youth are quickly invalidated among Muslims. They are told to sit, listen, memorize. Yet many of the world’s best entrepreneurs were under the age of 25 when they launched their radical plans. The chances of your executive leadership coming up with those kinds of transformative ideas without fresh viewpoints are very small. You know it, and I know it. So why are many Islamic business leaders still so reluctant to listen to the youth or hire a fresh voice? Experience is certainly a major asset, but having experienced leaders balanced with fresh voices improves the chances of effective collaborative ideation.
- Diversity Breeds Creativity. I am a white Canadian Christian. In my experience, I am very often the only non-Arab or only non-Muslim in the rooms in which I sit. I am quite adept at being the foreign voice. Sometimes my ideas are received with skepticism, but more and more, my Islamic colleagues are learning that having alternative, even opposing viewpoints at the table, encourages innovation and creativity. Having a diverse group of minds in collaboration allows for a broader base of information and experiences to bear upon producing solutions to problems or creating new streams of business.
- Base Your Strategy on Research. I’ve seen this several times: a General Manager has a hunch about something, throws a million dirhams at it, and wonders what happened when it fails. Sometimes, it can bring down a whole company. The solution is not to hire a new assistant, or to fire your marketing crew. What you need is the right information. Again, I don’t know if it’s a cultural observation, but I’m quite sure it’s not religious. The Prophet (PBUH) very often sent scouts to gather information before making a major strategy decision. Follow his lead here. Make your executive decisions based on hard facts, and you’ll find your chances of success improving greatly.
- Share Your Faith. If I’m in business with a good Muslim for a few months and they have not shared their faith with me, then I can safely assume that they either aren’t very Islamic, or that they don’t care if I’m in heaven with them after we die. I don’t yet agree with all of the tenets of Islam, but that does not mean I don’t want to hear how your faith informs your life and business. I’m not offended if you want to share the five pillars with me again, or tell me how the Qur’an influences your practice of family values. If you don’t share your faith, it’s because either it’s not important enough to talk about, or I’m not important enough to share it with. I’m listening.
These recommendations are based on observed tendencies that are certainly not true of every Muslim I’ve done business with. Also, if you find yourself reacting to these observations it is not my desire to embarrass you. As a business consultant, offering potentially uncomfortable or unflattering feedback is often a part of my job. I tell it like I see it, and my hope is that any improvement you make based on these humble suggestions, leads to your success. In these cases, the success that I’m looking for is that you would be a strong representative of your faith to me as a non-Muslim colleague, and that your business would be blessed by God due to your excellent stewardship of the responsibilities he has entrusted to you.
Dr. Corrie Block is a Business Development Consultant based in Dubai. He is a Member of the UK Institute of Consulting, holds a Masters in Leadership, a PhD in Arab and Islamic Studies, and is presently completing his Doctorate in Business Administration. He has provided leadership and strategy consulting in more than 30 countries, speaks four languages including Arabic, and is a published author on business consulting.