Unions and Collective Bargaining

The question of union legitimacy in Islamic discourse is quite crucial in that we do not find much reference to the concept of unions in Islamic jurisprudence. However, as explained by Belal (2005), most Islamic scholars working on the development of Islamic jurisprudence were quite alienated from the problems of the working class. While interpreting the Quran and hadith, they concluded that there are no references in these to labour unions and that trade unions are incompatible with Islam.

As argued by Jamal al Banna, there is minimal information on Islam and labour issues. Most talks on the subject revolved around the fact that many Prophets were workers like “Nuh (AS) was a carpenter, Idris (AS) was a tailor, Musa (AS) and, of course, our Prophet Mohammad (ﷺ), were shepherds. Two or three ahadith about work are frequently quoted, and that is the stock of trade of the traditionally Muslim thinker. Most of those who wrote about labour avoided any hint to trade unions as if they were taboo”.

Nonetheless, we suggest that Islam not only allows but also supports unionism. We need to see whether the primary sources of lawmaking in Islam, the Quran and Sunnah, allow for unionization and collective bargaining.[1] The Quran mentions a union leader (naqib) when it talks about the Jews and appointing of twelve leaders among them (05:12). Islam promotes collective action as it requires its believers to get together and pray in congregation.[2] Islam gives people the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining, however subject to certain general rules. It is of the view that this right should be used for the propagation of virtue and righteousness and forbidding people from evil or bad (while also not spreading the corruption) (09:71).

The Quran also requires its believers to help each other in doing good while calling for noncooperation in evil (05:02). The Quran not only asks believers to cooperate with each other but also makes it a distinguishing feature of a believing community, that is, commanding what is proper and forbidding what is improper (03:110). In a related hadith, the Prophet (ﷺ) said, “if anyone of you comes across an evil, he should try to stop it with his hand (using force), if he is not in a position to stop it with his hand then he should try to stop it through his tongue (meaning he should speak against it). If he is not even able to use his tongue, then he should at least condemn it in his heart. This is the weakest degree of faith”.[3] Looking through the perspective of the workplace, a union is the only institution that can have the power to speak against the whims of employer and which can protect workers’ rights through commanding the proper and forbidding the improper.

Unions and Collective Bargaining Traditiion

Under this analysis, the Quran compels formation of a group, if not the whole community, who will invite others to do good, command what is proper, and forbid what is improper (03: 104). Islam not only urges people to fight for their rights, but it also supports collective efforts. There is also a tradition of the Prophet (ﷺ) that encourages Muslims to help others whether they are oppressors or oppressed. When he was asked how people can help the oppressor and victim, he said, “helping the oppressed by helping him against the oppression and helping the oppressor by restraining him for the repression”.[4] The Prophet (ﷺ) also said: “When people see an oppressor but do not prevent him from doing evil, it is likely that Allah will punish them all”.[5] Islam asks people to be united, not divided, and thus it teaches people the value of group work and unity (03:103). We find a similar concept in hadith where it is said that “The hand of Allah is with the group”,[6] and people are encouraged to be part of a group.

Jamal Al-Banna, an Egyptian-born union leader, has written extensively on the subject of the compatibility of unions in Islam. He argues that the aims of both Islam and trade unions are justice, so not only are they compatible, but Islam encourages unionism, as is shown through the foregoing references to the Quran and hadith. In his work on trade unions, Al-Banna maintains that Islam gives everyone the right to a decent life, as explained in the verses (28:77, 51:19 and 70:24–25), and this right is given without hunger or fear, and it also becomes the reason for adoring and worshipping God (106:4). Given this verse, he considers that the unions’ main struggle is against two material needs: “food against hunger” and “security against fear”. He is of the view that Islam stands with the poor and is pro-worker in that it imposes Zakat (poor tax) on the rich to take care of the poor and working-class (09:60). Because of the above verses from the Quran, we can observe that unions are considered to be the protector of two fundamental rights, and unionization is instead encouraged.

Unions and Collective Bargaining Ibn Battuta

Looking at Muslim history, we find accounts of Guilds (predecessors of modern labour unions) in the medieval ages. We find out that guilds in the Muslim world were present even in the ninth century.[7] The travelogues of famous Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta (1958) talk about the existence of these craft associations (which worked as brotherhoods) in the fourteenth century in Anatolia, Turkey.

Guilds or craft associations were significant not only socially but also economically. They were organized around “trade, commerce as well as artisanal activities”.[8] The guilds in the medieval Islamic world were divided not only technically (according to trade) but also geographically. The guilds were hierarchically structured with the ranks of apprentice (mubtadi), journeyman (sani’), and master (mu’allim). They were headed by a shaikh, the head of the craft organization chosen by guild members and then confirmed by local authorities, usually the ombudsman/market supervisor).

The role of guilds in the economic sphere was to “regulate the production of goods, maintain a professional code of ethics, overseeing prices especially during times of crisis, maintaining good relations among members and supplying labour”. Among others, it was also the duty of the shaikh to regulate the conditions of labour, to initiate new journeymen and masters (by giving professional licenses), and to be the responsible head of the guild in all dealings with the government. As explained by Esposito et al. (2007), guilds operated and had religious rituals like Sufi orders, while at the same time, they were linked and controlled by the Muhtasib (market supervisor). As argued by Al-Banna (Al-Faruqi and Al-Banna 1984), this link of guilds with Sufi orders on the one hand and Muhtasib on the other proves that they were not only in keeping with Islam but also were legitimate and supported by the state.

As for strikes and lockouts, the Quran and hadith allow people to defend their rights in the face of injustice and consider those who die while fighting against injustice as martyrs in the way of God (quoted in Qutub 2000, p33). There is another hadith that says that anyone who died while defending his rights (himself, his family, belongings, religion) is like a martyr.[9] The Quran allows Jihad (fighting for one’s rights) on the precept of injustice, which means that a union or group “of workers can start a strike” when an injustice is done to the rights of workers. It permits the workers, or those against whom injustice is done to start a strike in the following words, “Permission (to fight in defence) is granted to those against whom (aggressive) war is waged. (This permission is granted to them) because they were oppressed and Allah is doubtlessly All-Powerful to help them (the oppressed)”. (22:39). This verse shows that if some workers are asking for their legitimate rights and they are not granted their rights; the workers have the option of starting a strike or a concerted activity against such injustice.

Moreover, the Quran characterizes those as “self-oppressors” who relinquish or abdicate their basic rights and let others do injustice against them (04:97). This verse also calls upon people to take action against injustice or, if they are not capable of taking action—in this case, a strike—they must move to some other place where they can exercise their fundamental rights. Islam also gives the unions right of protest in the verse, “Allah does not like that the evil should be uttered in public except by him who has been wronged” (04:148) if workers are not given their due rights. 

Unions and Collective Bargaining Right to strike 

Islam gives the right to strike, as it is a tool to undo injustice, but it also places certain limits on this right, as it does not favour those who transgress the boundaries (02:190). Islam does not like a disruption in society (05:64, 26:152), such as if unions create disorder and law and order problems (the concept of fasad fil arz). In such a case, trade unions can be disbanded or de-registered (05:33). Muslim jurists are of the view that although the prime objectives of Islamic law are “promoting benefit” and “relieving hardship”, the former is more important than the latter, and the larger interest of society takes precedence over individual or some group’s interests.[10]

As far as the rights of collective bargaining are concerned, we also find relevant passages in the Quran. Collective bargaining is relevant to the theory of contract, as explained above. As noted, a contract is valid only if the contracting parties have full freedom in negotiating the terms of the contract, if there is equality of bargaining power, if no coercion exists, and if the terms of the contract are in accordance with the Islamic values and teachings. Typical employment contracts between an employer and an individual employee are not on equal footing because the employer has greater bargaining power. A worker in need of employment and earning a living is ready to accept terms that may not be in his or her favour. These contracts of adhesion or “submission contracts” are not legal in the view of Islam (Al-Faruqi and Al-Banna 1984). Islam calls for a guardian to help the weaker party if one of the parties to the contract is in a relatively better position due to economic, physical, or intellectual advantage (02:282). This guardian, in the case of workers, is the union that will protect the rights of workers in negotiating a contract with the employer, because the union can face the employer on an equal footing.

A concept related to collective bargaining is consultation with workers and their representative unions. The Quran demands consultation in the following words, “consult with them about the matters (03:159)”, “their affairs (business) are conducted through consultation among themselves (42: 38)”, and “let each of you accept the advice of the other in a just way” (65:06). The Quran not only allows consultation, but it also promotes it, encouraging people to conduct their affairs after consultation with partners. It even does not speak favourably of those persons who “impose their own views on others” (28:83) without consulting them. Consultation is treated as a policy and not as an option. Regarding consultation with the workers on different workplace issues, Islam supports consultation with worker representatives instead of holding a referendum and taking views from all.[11] An essential outcome of the consultation is the increased cooperation between workers and employers.

Viewed in terms of employment relations, these verses and Ahadith require employers not only to consult but also to codetermine workplace issues with unions. However, Islam also places a responsibility on the unions that they must keep the business secrets of employers and should not start blackmailing and giving this information to competitors. The Prophet (ﷺ) is quoted as saying, “The person who is consulted is in a position of trust”.[12]


[1] There is a tradition of the Prophet (ﷺ), which clearly explains the legitimacy, or illegitimacy of an action. It says, “The halal is that which Allah has made lawful in His Book and the haram is that which He has forbidden, and that concerning which He is silent He has permitted as a favor to you”. (Al-Tirmidhi :1726 and Ibn Majah: 3367). And because, Allah has not made unionization unlawful in Quran, therefore it is allowed. (Mishkat al Masabih: 4156).

 الحلالُ ما أحل اللهُ في كتابهِ، والحرامُ ما حرم اللهُ في كتابهِ، وما سكت عنهُ ؛ فهو مما عفا عنهُ

[2] A tradition of the Prophet (ﷺ) also says that “praying in congregation is twenty-seven times better than praying alone”. (Sahih al-Bukhari: 649)

[3] (Sahih Muslim: 49 a).

 مَنْ رَأَى مِنْكُمْ مُنْكَرًا فَلْيُغَيِّرْهُ بِيَدِهِ فَإِنْ لَمْ يَسْتَطِعْ فَبِلِسَانِهِ فَإِنْ لَمْ يَسْتَطِعْ فَبِقَلْبِهِ وَذَلِكَ أَضْعَفُ الإِيمَانِ

[4] Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) said, “Help your brother, whether he is an oppressor or he is an oppressed one. People asked, “O Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ)! It is all right to help him if he is oppressed, but how should we help him if he is an oppressor?” The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “By preventing him from oppressing others”. (Sahih al-Bukhari: 2444).

انْصُرْ أَخَاكَ ظَالِمًا أَوْ مَظْلُومًا ‏‏‏.‏ قَالُوا يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ هَذَا نَنْصُرُهُ مَظْلُومًا، فَكَيْفَ نَنْصُرُهُ ظَالِمًا قَالَ ‏‏ تَأْخُذُ فَوْقَ يَدَيْهِ

[5] (Jami` at-Tirmidhi: 2168).

إِنَّ النَّاسَ إِذَا رَأَوُا الظَّالِمَ فَلَمْ يَأْخُذُوا عَلَى يَدَيْهِ أَوْشَكَ أَنْ يَعُمَّهُمُ اللَّهُ بِعِقَابٍ مِنْهُ

[6] ( Jami` at-Tirmidhi: 2166).

يَدُ اللَّهِ مَعَ الْجَمَاعَةِ

[7] Lewis, B. 1937. The Islamic guilds. The Economic History Review 8 (1):20–37

[8] Esposito, J. L., M. A. Abdel Haleem, A. J. Arberry, and H. E. Kassis, eds. 2007. The Oxford encyclopedia of the Islamic world. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

[9] Sa’id b. Zaid reported God’s Messenger as saying, “He who is killed in defence of his religion is a martyr, he who is killed in self-defence is a martyr, he who is killed in defence of his property is a martyr, and he who is killed in defence of his family is a martyr”. (Mishkat al-Masabih: 3529)

مَنْ قُتِلَ دُونَ دِينِهِ فَهُوَ شَهِيدٌ وَمَنْ قُتِلَ دُونَ دَمِهِ فَهُوَ شَهِيدٌ وَمَنْ قُتِلَ دُونَ مَالِهِ فَهُوَ شَهِيدٌ وَمَنْ قُتِلَ دُونَ أَهْلِهِ فَهُوَ شَهِيدٌ

[10] We find the similar thinking in a hadith where the Prophet (ﷺ) set the standard on which usage of anything has to be judged, “the merit of utilization lies in the benefit it yields, in proportion to its harm”. (Al-Tirmidhi)

[11] “When the Muslims allowed freeing the captives of Hawazin the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ), said, “I do not know who among you has allowed it and who has not allowed it. So, go back so that your overseers can present your command to us”. The people went back and their overseers spoke to them and returned to the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ), and informed him that the people had willingly consented and allowed it”. Al-Bukhari.

[12] ( Jami` at-Tirmidhi: 2822).

الْمُسْتَشَارُ مُؤْتَمَنٌ