Islamic Perspectives on Management and Organization

David Weir (Liverpool Hope University, Liverpool, UK, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK Ecole Superieure de Commerce, Rennes, France)

International Journal of Islamic and Middle Eastern Finance and Management

ISSN: 1753-8394

Article publication date: 4 April 2008



Weir, D. (2008), "Islamic Perspectives on Management and Organization", International Journal of Islamic and Middle Eastern Finance and Management, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 84-87.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Abbas Ali is one of the best‐known and most widely respected researchers and writers on the management and business systems of the Arab Middle East and a prolific contributor to the literature on business competitiveness. He teaches at a leading American business school and is thus familiar with the mainstream business literature as well as with the classical texts of Islamic theory. He is, therefore, eminently well‐qualified for the task he has set himself which is wide‐ranging and of substantial significance, not least at the present time. He has succeeded in making a contribution that in every way constitutes a landmark in the field. This book is of the utmost importance for students and practitioners of Islamic management.

Ali starts with a review of business and trade in Islamic thought in the historical context of the rise of Islam and the political and social environment at the time of the prophet and shows how the new religion spoke to the needs of a desert people with strong rivalries between tribes and conflicts over access to pasture and water. He shows how the universality of the Islamic message nonetheless formed a basis of appeal to city dwellers and to the mercantile classes. Indeed, he points to the centrality of commerce and trade in Islamic thinking and argues that this constituted a change of emphasis from previous religions that had denigrated commerce. Christianity has always had a mixed view of commerce, epitomized by the New Testament story of Christ's sweeping of the merchants from the temple.

In the second chapter which discusses human nature and motivation Ali starts with an outline of Wrightsman's trait theory, then moves into a discussion of Islamic assumptions about human nature comparing these with a set of assumptions that he ascribes to Christianity and Judaism as the two other religions “of the book”. This comparison raises many questions as it is somewhat eclectic and the characterisations of the assumptions will not necessarily be accepted by exponents of these other faiths. There are other theories that would seem as relevant as this particular version of trait theory.

But this approach may start useful discussions. Ali bases a discussion of developmental psychology on Erikson and Graves but does not discuss in any detail other approaches to motivation. Again the approach is eclectic and there are other theories that could have been accorded equal treatment but it gives Ali the opportunity to describe the developmental aspects of the four levels of existence of Sawala, Ammara, Lawama and Mutamainna before integrating these into a most useful and comprehensive table. As he concludes in this chapter, there is a consistency between these Islamic perspectives and what he identifies as “humanistic and complex organisation perspectives” but this conclusion is stated rather than proven by the arguments deployed. This comparison would be well worth developing as undoubtedly it could be of interest to HR specialists and practitioners.

Ali then returns to the historical framework and describes the leading schools of Islamic thought in historical context including the period after the death of the prophet and under the Caliphate, and moving on to the Abbasid and Fatimid periods before moving on to the Tafwiz, Ikhtiar, Mutazila, Ibn‐Rushd (Averroes) and Ikhwan‐us‐safa schools. He shows that debates about freedom of choice and leadership, autocracy and democracy engaged these discussions. But the scope is very broad and the treatment is inevitably summary. This section is of importance because it will serve to disabuse some of the simplistic and denigratory accounts of Islamic thought that portray it as simplistic, authoritarian and isolated. Scholars who want to study these topics in greater depth will find the recent guide to Arabic philosophy by Adamson and Taylor (2005) a very useful follow‐up to Ali's introduction. Other scholars like Hayes (1975), for example, could also have been drawn on in this discussion.

The fourth chapter deals with Islamic work ethic and values and again Ali links contemporary research findings to the historical context in which these ideas emerged in Islam but the dual focus on the past and present means that there is some repetition of points made in earlier chapters and, for example, an identical quote from Dessler occurs on page 12 and again on page 50. The discussion of the levels of Sawala, Ammara, Lawama and Mutamainna, does not develop that of the previous chapter very much as is arguably rather repetitious. As Ali points out work is central to Islamic philosophy and is regarded as inherently virtuous. He describes the Islamic Work Ethic and reports on interesting research designed to measure the IWE empirically and describes the importance of trust and reciprocation in Islamic thinking about inter‐personal relationships in business. This analysis can tie in with other research in both middle eastern and western contexts.

Chapter 5 introduces the structure and functions of groups and rehearses the importance of the Ummah based on the community of believers rather than simply on family or tribal affiliation. The discussion of group functions and process seems to be mainly based on western traditions of research rather than trying to give explicit recognition to how these concepts really work in group process in the Islamic world. Here, again, there is scope for further development and specification of the argument, drawing out the various contemporary usages of the Ummah, as inclusive and exclusive as well as the historical significance of Sharia law under different contexts, for example, by referencing the special status of the people who formed part of the Dhimmi. This could have related to several economic and financial issues, for example, the relation of taxation as a means of avoiding the implications of Jihad. Ali contents himself with pointing out helpfully that “at best, most Muslim societies are mosaic” without really characterising this notion of mosaic or describing in what precise ways these societies are “mosaic” in ways in which other societies are not.

He summarizes some of the ways in which as he perceives the current situation, Muslim societies are unique, including:

… concurrent membership in many different social groups, continuing sectarian, regional, tribal and communal rivalry. A phenomenon of alternating fusion and fission, self‐censorship and a mindset that … discourages from publicly revealing the wrongdoings of others.

As well as a weakness in agencies for change.

These points are in general well taken and they need to be referred to some more general level of theorisation before the reader will be easily convinced that these weaknesses are not shared by other societies. The framework of “neo‐patriarchy” proposed by Sharabi (1988), for example, could be one such framework, but it is not discussed here. These sections are provocative and will undoubtedly lead the interested reader to delve further into these complex topics.

In Chapter 6, Ali moves on to a consideration of power and authority again using the approach of quoting historical points of reference to interpret contemporary patterns of behaviour. The Arab tradition of story‐telling is well exemplified in some of the apt examples used by Ali and some of these discussions could be usefully related to other more theoretical framings, for example, the approaches of Czarinaswka in terms of story‐telling and Lukes and Rawls as philosophers rather than to the same positionings in terms of Islamic traditions and interpretations in the holy books that has been used in previous chapters.

The discussion of the Diwan in Kuwaiti society is interesting but too brief and this is rather frustrating for there is much more to be said about this specifically Arab approach to decision‐making that is at once consensual and autocratic and could have informed the next chapter which discusses decision styles and group dynamics. The Diwan as a type of decision‐making that is characteristic of Muslim societies but is also compatible with state of the art western management approaches to decision‐making is worthy of much more development. The integration of western and Islamic theories is well done in this chapter and the table on pages 120 and 121 is especially informative.

The account of leadership and organisation is again rooted in a selected group of western theories and Ali builds on these to provide interesting models of prophetic, caliphal, and Islamic model of leadership before going on to model the factors influencing authoritarian tendencies. As Ali points out in concluding this chapter “leadership concepts and practices in Muslim societies suffer… from a serious crisis” (p. 158) but it is not clear in the absence of a comparative perspective whether these features that engender the current crisis are endemic to the Islamic world or are shared by other societies.

Organizational structure is discussed in the next chapter and Ali discusses the increasing bureaucracy deriving from the increasing complexity of the post‐Caliphate states. Ali provides a number of interesting organization charts including a interesting example of a “manufacturing organization during the medieval era”. He argues against Weber's view that bureaucracy inevitably generates hierarchy and quotes Mottadeh to the effect that the bureaucrats in the Caliphate at least operated as an autonomous professional group. There is much fascinating material here for historians as well as contemporary organisation theorists to ponder.

His conclusion that “the evolution of formal structures of organizations in the Muslim world resembles that of the rest of the world” (p. 187) is bold because his own arguments indicate that there is more to say about this and that it is in the ways in which these formal structures have evolved and are continuing to evolve that is indeed very different. There is nothing in this chapter, for example, about Sharia boards which are an increasing feature of Islamic organisations and not merely in the financial and banking sectors. In fact there is not much about these sectors at all and that is a pity because it is in these sectors that there has been much recent impetus to the creation of specifically Islamic forms of organisation and control.

The chapters on human resource management and on organizational development usefully introduce discussions of training, management development, performance evaluation and compensation and Ali provides another useful comparison on page 230 of intervention methods.

This is an important book. It defines a field and covers an immense swathe of historical time and references some very diverse materials not all of which will be known even to experts in this field (and there are not many of those). But it lacks a consistency of theoretical focus and the arguments do not always compel because the treatment lacks a consistent comparative perspective and in this context some repetition of examples is unnecessary. In a further edition, Ali will wish to introduce more examples from the burgeoning Islamic Finance movement where sources exist in writers like Al‐Sadr (2000) and An‐Nabhani (1990). The contemporary debates in Islamic economic thinking are represented, for example, in Haneef (1995) as well as in Ramadan (2001).

Some authorities in fact, such as Tariq Ramadan, Sharabi, Said, Wilson (Niblock and Wilson, 1999) and Dadfar (1993), for example, are not referenced and they should be even if it was to be disagreed with. At this price there should be no typos like “medicated” for “mediated”. But these criticisms should not detract from what is at once a highly useful introduction to this important field of study and a provocative introduction to some of the classical traditions of Islam. In this context, Ali has made an important contribution.


Adamson, P. and Taylor, R.C. (2005), The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Al‐Sadr, M.B. (2000), Our Economics, Book Extra, London (translated by Kadom Shubber).

An‐Nabhani, T. (1990), The Economic System in Islam, Al‐Quilafah Publications, London.

Dadfar, H. (1993), “In search of Arab management, direction and identity”, Proceedings of the First Arab Management Conference, University of Bradford Management Centre.

Haneef, M.A. (1995), Contemporary Islamic Economic Thought, S. Abdul Majeed Co., Kuala Lumpur.

Hayes, J. (1975), The Genius of Arab Civilization: Source of Renaissance, New York University Press, New York, NY.

Niblock, T. and Wilson, R. (1999), The Political Economy of the Middle East, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham.

Ramadan, T. (2001), Islam, the West and the Challenges of Modernity, The Islamic Foundation, Markenfield, Leicester.

Sharabi, H. (1988), Neo‐Patriarchy: A Theory of Distorted Change in Arab Society, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Related articles