Islam is not only a religion of work, but it is a religion of beauty! Beauty is the expression of perfection or, let’s say, excellence in the case of humans. When work is not just done, but is performed in a way that it is organised and quality-improved to such extent that it yields results that are both good and appeasing to the heart and mind, it reaches the state of beauty that a Muslim is taught to try to achieve! Reading the Qur’an, time and again one is mesmerised by the connection that is made to the beauty of Allaah’s handiwork. These are lessons to the rational minds not only to recognise the Greatness of The Creator, but also to get inspired to work so as to produce the best possible results of quality and beauty at once. Allaah attracts our attention to His creation in beautiful verses that challenge our eyes and minds at once. He says:
“…Who created the seven heavens one above another; you see no incongruity in the creation of the Beneficent One; then look again, can you see any disorder? Again turn your vision a second time: (your) vision will come back to you dull and discomfited, in a state worn out .”
He also directs us to ponder:
“And you see the mountains, you think them to be firmly fixed, but they pass away as the passing away of the cloud– the handiwork of Allah, who disposes of all things in perfect order: for He is well acquainted with all that you do.”
It is well known that a Muslim is ordered to do good in this life. It first means to accept Allaah as the Creator and Sustainer, and Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him, PBUH) as His last prophet and messenger to Humankind. It also means performing acts of worship such as prayer, fasting, alms giving (zakat), pilgrimage, etc. In fact, the Islamic definition of ‘ibaadah (worship) encompasses every aspect of a person’s life, whether between him/her and Allaah, or between this person and his/her family, neighbours, countrymen, and the rest of humankind. A Muslim is accountable for all his/her acts which are supposed to be perfected in all their dimensions, be they personal, social, etc.
Hard work: a prerequisite for quality
In order to reach the levels of quality that Islam prescribes, a Muslim should get committed to hard work in all facets of his/her day-to-day dealings. One should uphold the principle of sweating to earn one’s living. The prophet (PBUH) taught his followers: “That one of you takes a rope, then bundles firewood on his back, and sells it in the market, is better for him than to ask people (for charity), who may give it to him or decline it”. He further said: “Whoever builds a structure without injustice or aggression, or plants a plant without injustice or aggression will be rewarded for it so long as the creatures of the Almighty God benefit from it.” As a matter of fact, Islam teaches us to work so as to serve humans as well as animals. The prophet PBUH said: “If a Muslim plants a plant and nurtures it so that a bird or a human or an animal eats from it, this (act) will be counted for him/her as an act of charity.”
As we can see, Islam places Work (in its most general sense) in high esteem so much so that, in a thought-provoking hadith, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said: “If the Day of Judgment arrives and one of you has a plant in his hand, then if he can plant it before he stands up, let him do so!”.
Striving for Quality is a goal of Islam:
Anything a Muslim does should be done so as to reach the best possible quality, results and reward.
Worship in its strictest meaning should be performed with utmost attention since it is directed to Allaah and should therefore be presented to Him with all the due respect. As such, whether in performing wuDHuu’ (ablutions), praying or reciting the Qur’an, etc., various hadith urge Muslims to perform their worship well.
A Muslim’s body is meant to be clean at all times since prayer is performed 5 times a day. Moreover, a Muslim’s clothes are not only to be clean but pleasant to the eye (while respecting the Islamic clothing code, of course!). Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said: “Allaah is Beauty; He loves beauty” which is an excellent teaching to develop refined tastes within the Muslim nation.
In a beautiful hadith, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said: “Allaah has prescribed ihsan (quality) in all things”. The word used is the very same one defined by the prophet (PBUH) in his well known hadith: “… ihsan is that you worship Allaah as if you see Him, for if you do not see Him, He (surely) sees you!”. Thus everything that a Muslim does, he/she should do it striving for ultimate quality, no matter what efforts this may take. In another hadith, the prophet (PBUH) said: “Verily, Allaah loves that any of you who does some work that he/she does it well.”
Quality Assurance: an International Trend
Having realised the crucial importance of the notion of quality and its impact on the development of nations, modern societies have refined their understanding of this notion. Indeed, it was initially (i.e. since the industrial revolution) rather limited to the improvement of manufacturing processes. Since then, the understanding of its importance has grown so much that quality improvement has become an area of study and research. Quality Assurance (QA) “… is not limited to the manufacturing, … (it) can be applied to any business or non-business activity: design work, administrative services, health care, consulting, banking, insurance, computer software development, retailing, transportation, education, translation”, etc. A whole area of modern management deals with QA as it applies to all walks of life; It is referred to in business as Total Quality Management.
In their strife to ensure quality in a systematic way, modern societies have defined standards of quality as well as processes and procedures for quality assurance. The various aforementioned sectors have developed their own QA standards and processes and Standards Bodies, i.e. institutions whose task is to ensure quality in specific areas related to their activities.
A well known and widely used standard of quality is that of ISO. For instance, “The ISO 9000 family of standards is related to quality management systems and designed to help organizations ensure that they meet the needs of customers and other stakeholders while meeting statutory and regulatory requirements related to the product. The standards are published by ISO, the International Standardization Organization, and are available through National standards bodies.” One also finds CMMI (Capability Maturity Model Integration), a process improvement training and certification program and service that was developed by Carnegie Mellon University. One also finds QA methodologies that have been developed for education, higher education, etc. The aim is to ensure that whatever the activity of the institution is, its output should always be of as high a quality as possible. The standards requirements summarise humankind’s accumulated knowledge and experience in the efficient and effective management of production, manufacturing, education, agriculture, health systems, etc.
As an example, it is explained by ISO that “ISO 9001:2008 specifies requirements for a quality management system where an organization (1) needs to demonstrate its ability to consistently provide products that meet customer and applicable statutory and regulatory requirements, and (2) aims to enhance customer satisfaction through the effective application of the system, including processes for its continual improvement”. It should be noted that the requirements of ISO 9001:2008 are generic in that they can apply to all organizations, regardless of type, size and product provided.
In Education and Higher Education also, quality management standards and systems have been developed. As such, various countries have installed independent, specialised bodies to define the quality standards and the auditing processes and their frequencies. Thus schools, high schools and universities are often required by their ministries to abide by the defined standards and undergo various review processes that ensure they are up to the standards or highlight their shortcomings, or even serious flaws, that need to be immediately addressed. This can go to the extent of closing schools and universities that are found below the standards.
We are not going to mention the standards applied in the USA, Germany, Japan, or South Korea, to mention but a few; the reader might say we are setting the target too high! We will only mention that various Arab countries are trying to keep up with these trends in terms of QA. We have in particular been impressed by what is being done in the Gulf countries, such as Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the UAE.
Portrait of a Failing Country
In Algeria, we unfortunately suffer very badly from the lack of quality (and quality assurance) in almost anything that is done!
The state of the road system, for instance, is appalling. It has become “normal” to see roads full of holes here and there, often without the least signal of danger especially in badly lit roads or not lit at all. If a road is paved, it is common (not to say inevitable) to find manholes that are not levelled with the road, leading to fairly deep holes that can be sources of danger to car drivers. Even when we were happy to see that grass and palm trees were being planted along the motorways in Algiers and thought that this is a praiseworthy effort to give some touch of beauty to our city, we got disappointed that the grass often grew tall going completely out of shape, and giving a very bad image of all the efforts that were spent. Again, one wonders how this could go on for weeks without being handled by the authorities in charge!
In hospitals and despite all the money that has been spent to improve them and refurbish them, one is stunned at the health standards that are often appalling. We have seen so much in public hospitals that we would urge the minister to launch investigations at how people are dying in our public hospitals and under whose responsibilities all this is happening. Or are we supposed to be content with the statement of faith “Allaah has so willed”?!
Even in areas related to intellectual work and media, such as TV production, sitcoms, Ramadan comedies, songs lyrics, etc., it is often mediocrity at work! Reading various newspapers articles on how such production is prepared and how fast this is done, one understands why the results are often very disappointing and the public is more and more frustrated at how tax payers’ money is being wasted! What notion of quality do such stakeholders apply to produce such “artwork” (which has nothing to do with “art” and even less with “entertainment”)? One finds absolutely no explanation to this.
We could go on and on, giving examples of all cases one could find that illustrate the total absence of the notion of quality assurance in our daily life. Sometimes, the very basics of respect of the citizen are not found. Unfortunately, this is also often due to the lack of education of the very citizen who demands that the state respects him/her while he/she does not uphold the very basics of citizenship and respect of the community. This can be seen in various districts where inhabitants throw their waste bags out of their windows instead of taking a few minutes to put them in the waste collection area (which is often not suitably prepared to remain clean, if it exists at all!!).
More generally, instead of standards of quality and quality assurance, we have rather noticed a tendency to go for quick fixtures rather than meticulous quality work. This is in our opinion due to various factors:
- The socialistic system that was implemented in Algeria from 1962 till 1989 has had a lasting impact on the Algerian mentality and behaviour in terms of work habits and standards of quality.
- Greed has spread to large portions of the population getting too many people to look for quick gains at the expense of quality and ethical values.
- The almost totally absent notion of QA and system of justice that rewards those who uphold QA and penalises those who fail to.
- The wide spread corruption has facilitated the “validation” of unfinished (often appalling) work, especially when the work is done for public institutions and companies.
What can be done?
Unfortunately, there is no easy fixture to such deep cultural and societal problems. It should all start with education, and from Kindergarten! This reminds us of the very interesting book “kindergarten is too late” by Masaru Ibuka, in which the author explains in a thorough way and based on the Japanese experience how many of the skills that kids can acquire have to be acquired at very young age. Before going to the advanced linguistic and artistic skills put forth by the author, we should obviously emphasise basics like love of work, beauty, quality refinement, cleanliness, respect of hierarchy, etc. This emphasis on education should go all the way through the various stages: primary, junior and high schools as well as the university, without forgetting a deep work that has to be done on the educators themselves.
The government should introduce and enforce the notion of quality assurance and control at all levels of all institutions, especially ministries, public companies, schools, universities, health sector, banking sector, factories, agricultural units, etc. It should also introduce a reward system for well-performing companies and institutions whether public or private (prizes, society memberships, etc.) as well as financial incentives such as tax reduction, etc. The government should also be tough on badly performing bodies and institutions. It should develop exchange programs with leaders in QA worldwide (like Germany, Japan, South Korea, etc.). Sometimes, we can just learn from other Arab countries in the areas they have been successful at.
But, nothing of this will be possible if we remain arrogant that we know it all and “have no lesson to take from others”, as is often the case in Algeria unfortunately!!
Ahmed Guessoum is a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Science and Technology Houari Boumediene (USTHB) in Algiers.
 [Sura 67 : al-mulk, verses 3-4]
 [Sura 27 : al-naml, verse 88]
 Narrated by Al-Bukhari.
 Narrated by Ahmad.
 Narrated by Al-Bukhari.
 Narrated by Ahmad.
 ‘Isam Talimah, Al-wa’y al-Islaamy, N° 532, 3/9/2010, http://alwaei.com/topics/view/article.php?sdd=2940&issue=527
 Narrated by Muslim.
 Narrated by Muslim.
 Narrated by Muslim.
 Classified as Sahih (valid) by Al-Albany.