The holiday of May Day (1st of May) is a creation of an international labour movement. It pays tribute to social and economic achievements of workers and the strength, prosperity and well-being that the country has earned in lieu of its workers’ diligent contribution.
This idea spread with the growth of many labour organizations. Today, it is celebrated in many industrial centres of the world, including Pakistan. However, a vital question perturbs one’s mind. Apart from the clichéd speeches, parades and distribution of a couple of cheques among some poor workers, what is the overall achievement of this holiday that claims to commemorate a high standard of living and economic and political democracy of the labour class?
On May Day, I witness the daily wagers on the road, still striving hard to take home bread for the night’s meal, maids mopping floors and getting a piece of the Begum Sahiba’s (lady of the house) mind if they dare ask for a holiday. Some white collar employees discreetly turn up at the office for some important assignment their boss has decided to hand over to them on the eve of April 30th.
Justice is generally done to those who otherwise enjoy a higher place in the management hierarchy. They probably don’t even care whether or not they are granted a holiday, because they can manage a getaway every now and then, even in the form of an international conference, meeting, etc.
At the advent of Islam, dignity of labour was one of its winning cards, when slaves, such as Bilal (rta), earned the same honour as the elites of Madinah, such as the hypocrite Abdullah Ibn Ubay. Islam did not establish holidays. It carved out a way of life that demanded respect for the rights of workers. Allah (swt) did not give Muslims a choice to act otherwise. He (swt) made it mandatory to serve those who served us, regardless of race and religion, cast and creed.
Though one might look down upon the institution of slavery, ironically, slaves in the Prophet’s (sa) time enjoyed far more dignity and rights than most of our servants or workers today. Islam did not permit anyone to take a free man into captivity and to turn him into a slave. Only prisoners of war were taken as slaves. Their captivity was such that they were neither locked up nor shackled. They were allowed freedom of movement within certain parameters as well as permitted to assimilate in the society.
The rights prescribed for slaves hold applicable for all those who are employed by us today. Let us look at some of the remarkable standards of humanity set by the early Muslims.
It was a regular practice of many of the companions of the Prophet (sa) to manumit slaves as per the Quranic injunction: “But he has not attempted to pass on the path that is steep (i.e., the path which will lead to goodness and success). And what will make you know the path that is steep? (It is) freeing a neck (slave).” (Al-Balad 90:11-13)
Most prominent among them were Abu Bakr (rta), Usman Ghani (rta), Abdur Rahman Ibn Awf (rta) and Abdullah Ibn Umar (rta) – they purchased and manumitted slaves who were being persecuted for their conversion to Islam. It is stated that some of the Prophet’s (sa) companions released 8000 slaves a day.
Abu Hurairah (rta) has narrated that Allah’s Apostle (sa) said: “Whoever frees a Muslim slave, Allah will save all the parts of his body from the hellfire, as he has freed the body parts of the slave.” (Bukhari)
Today, freeing of slaves equates to liberating workers from the burden of debts, or as accepting to be their guarantors for securing interest-free loans, facilitating the release of prisoners, etc.
Narrated by Anas Ibn Malik (rta): “I served the Prophet (sa) for ten years, and he never said to me ‘uff” [a minor harsh word denoting impatience] and never blamed me by saying: ‘Why did you do this or why didn’t you do so?’” (Bukhari)
Abu Masud Al-Ansari (rta) has narrated: “Once, I was beating a slave of mine, when I heard a voice from behind saying: ‘You should know, O Abu Masud, Allah is more capable upon you than you on him.’ I looked and saw he was the Messenger of Allah (sa). I replied: ‘O Messenger of Allah (sa), he is free for the sake of Allah.’ Then, the Prophet (sa) said: ‘If you had not done that, fire would have scorched you.’” (Muslim)
Ibn Umar (rta) reported: “I heard the Messenger of Allah (sa) saying: ‘When your servant brings food for you and you do not seat him with you, you should at least give him a morsel or two out of it, because he has prepared it himself.’” (Bukhari)
Abu Musa Al-Ashari (rta) has narrated that the Prophet (sa) said: “He, who has a slave girl and teaches her good manners, educates her, then manumits and marries her, will get a double reward, and any slave, who observes Allah’s rights and his master’s rights, will get a double reward.” (Bukhari)
The Prophet (sa) ordered that the slaves be treated well, clothed well and fed well. He also insisted that they be taught. As a result, many became Fuqaha and transmitters of Hadeeths, Imams and commanders in the Muslim army. Prominent among these are Salman Al-Farsi (rta), Zaid Ibn Harithah (rta), Usamah Ibn Zaid (rta) and Bilal Ibn Rabah (rta).
When the Amir-ul-Mumineen Umar Ibn Al-Khattab (rta) set off for the historical journey to Jerusalem at the time of its conquest, he left with meager provision which he shared with his slave, who accompanied him.
Umar (rta) took turns with his slave riding the camel, so much so that when they entered the city, it was the slave’s turn on the camels’ back, and Umar (rta) was holding its halter.
Nowhere in the annals of history do we get a better example of human dignity and equality than in Islam. What we need is to follow the Quran and the Sunnah strictly. No holiday can establish the dignity and rights of labourers in any society. Only we can!
Just ask yourself, if you would want to have a boss or employer like yourself?
Some extremely despicable practices with regard to our servants and workers in society must be consciously undone. They include: maligning them, back-biting about them, constantly taunting them, finding minute excuses to scold them, accusing them of lying, especially if they don’t turn up for work, instantly suspecting them of theft as soon as some object goes missing, serving them in utensils kept separately, passing our faded rags to clothe them, feeding them tasteless leftovers and saving the grand gourmet for the rest of the house, incessantly reminding them of worthless favours, beating them and in some cases even torturing and abusing them.
We should all be mindful that the Creator (swt) is watching us, and He (swt) never appreciates injustices done to His creations!