Domestic Workers’ Rights: An Islamic Perspective
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Author : Aman Yusuf

In the Indian sub-continent, many rich and middle-class households hire some kind of domestic workers to do their chores. According to available data, Indian homes have witnessed a 120% increase in domestic workers in the last decade. Over 50 million people are employed as domestic workers across India, with women constituting over 75% of this sector. Children too, are a part of this workforce; nearly 200,000 minors are estimated to be employed as help. This last part is particularly vexing, because this deprives children of their right to education, health, liberty and dignity.

There have been many cases of mistreatment of domestic workers as well. India’s domestic workers are often overworked, underpaid and abused. There are many cases of physical abuse, rape and even murder. Now let us examine what Islam says about the treatment of domestic workers.

First, let us review how Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) used to treat his domestic help.
How was his relationship with his domestic help and was there any incident ever where he (ﷺ) punished (physically or otherwise) any of his servants for making a mistake?

Anas ibn Malik
(May Allah be pleased with him)

Anas ibn Malik was the Prophet’s (ﷺ) domestic help and served him (ﷺ) for around 10 years.
Anas (May Allah be pleased with him) narrated: “I served the Prophet (ﷺ) for ten years. He (ﷺ) never said Uff and never blamed me by saying: ‘Why did you do so’ or why did you not do so?’ And the Messenger Of Allah (ﷺ) had the best character among all of the people. I never touched Khazz nor silk, nor anything softer than the hand of the Messenger of Allah, nor have I smelled musk, or a fragrance sweeter than the sweat of the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ). [Jami` at-Tirmidhi 2015]

In another hadith
Anas (May Allah be pleased with him), reported Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) as saying:

I served the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) for nine years, and I do not know (of any instance) when he said to me: ‘Why have you done this?’ or for anything which I did not do: ‘Why have you not done this?’ and he never found fault with me in anything.
[Sahih Muslim Book 30, Hadith 5723]

Imagine, any domestic help serving us for 10 long years and we never raising our voices at them, never scolding them, and above all never even frowning or showing displeasure by uttering the word “Uff” when they did anything wrong or was a delay in performing any task. Amazing! May we all understand what kind of patience Islam teaches us.

The Prophet (ﷺ) was so affectionate and caring towards Anas that he used to visit Anas’s mother and aunt and share a meal with them. Now, how many of us would do this?

Anas’s mother asked the Prophet (ﷺ) to make a prayer for her son. So, the Prophet (ﷺ) asked Allah to bless Anas and give him wealth and children. The Prophet’s prayer was answered. Later in his life, Anas acquired wealth, had children and grandchildren, and became a man of knowledge.

Anas ibn Malik (May Allah be pleased with him) has been the narrator of many ahadith due to him serving the Prophet (ﷺ) and observing the Prophet (ﷺ) so closely.

Treat them as Equals.

Now we come to the general instructions given by the Prophet (ﷺ) to the Ummah on how to treat domestic workers.

In a very popular narration –

Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) said, “They (servants) are only your brothers. Allah has placed them in your care. Therefore, whoever has a brother under his care, then let him feed him from what he eats himself, clothe him with what he clothes himself. Let him not overburden him with that which he cannot bear. And if he overburdens him, then let him lend him a hand.”
[Jami` at-Tirmidhi 1945]

What beautiful instructions have been given here!

We have to treat them with care, take them as brothers!

Treat them equally, feed them what we eat ourselves!

Provide clothing to them like what we provide to our family!

How many of us even think about doing this?

The last point is so significant here: we are instructed not to overburden them with work.

Moreover, if work gets too much then we must help them in completing the work.
Such compassion and empathy.

Have you seen such beautiful etiquettes anywhere else?

This Hadith applies also to female servants of course.

How did Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ)’s companions take heed to this guidance?

Here’s how:
One Companion, Abu Dharr (May Allah be pleased with him), upon hearing the Prophet’s (ﷺ) words, never again insulted or spoke harshly to a servant. Once he was seen walking in the markets with his servant, and the servant boy was wearing the exact same ornament on his clothes that Abu Dharr himself was wearing. Abu Dharr was careful to treat the servant as he would treat his own children.

In another narration –

Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) said, “When your servant prepares food for you and lays it for you — while he has suffered the inconvenience of heat and smoke when cooking — you should ask him to sit down and share the meal.” [Sahih al-Bukhari 5460]

Unfortunately, these days many of us might not even let the domestic help enter the same room while we are eating. Islam emerged as the torchbearer of equality and established protocols 1400 years ago.

Sadly, due to the actions of Muslims, Islam gets a bad name.

There should be no delay is paying the wages

Employers have a legal obligation to pay the wages that their employees earn. They also have an obligation to pay those wages on time. Such statements have been advocated in modern law not more than 50 years ago and have come in practice very recently. According to Islam, delay in paying wages is an injustice and is impermissible. Muslims are clearly instructed to not delay wages, and above all they have been strictly told that Allah (SWT) would be angry with those who do not pay the labourer his dues.

“Pay the laborer his wages before his sweat dries,” Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) said. [Ibn Majah Book 16, Hadith 2537]

The Prophet (ﷺ) explains that Allah on the Day of Judgment will be angry with and will be the opponent of the person who “employs a labourer and takes full work from him but does not pay him for his labour.” [Sahih al-Bukhari 2270]

 

Forgiving their mistakes

The domestic help, just like anyone of us, can make mistakes. According to Islam, patience and forgiveness are prescribed in these matters.

 

The Prophet’s (ﷺ) wife, Aisha (May Allah be pleased with her), said, “The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) never struck a woman or a child or a servant.”
[Sunan Abi Dawud 4786]

Once, a man came to Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) and asked, “O Prophet of Allah! (ﷺ) To what extent should we forgive the mistakes and faults of our servants?”

The Prophet (ﷺ) remained silent and when the man repeated the question for the third time, the Prophet (ﷺ) replied, “Seventy times a day.” [Jami` at-Tirmidhi 1949]

Many Muslims go by the literal meaning while reading Quran or Ahadith. Therefore, the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ), instead of stating a generic term many times in this hadith, gave a numeric value to denote the amount of times we need to forgive a servant, as many Muslims might not understand what would forgiving many times mean. For example, for some it may be 3 times, for many others it may be 10 times, and so on. The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) gave us a number, that too a very high one, 70 and for a reason. It is highly unlikely for a domestic worker to make more than 70 mistakes in a day, therefore, forgiving him/her 70 times in a day would mean all their mistakes in a given day.

Let us all take some time to ponder on what we have just read and then reflect as to how we treat our domestic workers.

Are we the right role models for people to look at and understand Islam?

Or are we giving a bad name to Islam because we do not follow the right path?

Islam is not a column we fill in any form where we have to name our religion.

Islam is a way of life, taught to us by Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ). We need to ensure we learn about Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ)’s teachings related to day to day life.

Yes, it is his Sunnah (ﷺ) and guidance, which makes Islam a religion of peace.

May Allah guide us to follow the right path and treat our domestic workers as per the example set by Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ). Ameen!

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