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Problem solving: an Islamic management approach


Rodrigue Fontaine
Management and Science University, Shah Alam, Malaysia
Abstract
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to present a problem-solving model that incorporates Islamic values and concerns. A secondary aim is to acquaint readers with the field of management from an Islamic perspective (MIP). Design/methodology/approach Using an emic research approach, the paper discusses from the Koran and prophetic statements. These are then linked to a generic problem-solving model that acts as an ideal for Muslims to aspire to. Findings Several findings stand out: The focus in the international business literature has been on the Koran alone. This is misleading as prophetic statements are more specific than the verses of the Koran and particularize the Koran. Six prophetic statements in particular have been highlighted by Muslim scholars and these are discussed in this paper. The A6H problem-solving model is similar to other problem solving models but there are filter mechanisms that reflect Muslim values. The medical analogy in particular allows students to identify the root cause of the problem as oppose to its symptoms. The discussion relates the A6H model to the cross-cultural literature in general. Originality/value This paper deals with problem solving from an Islamic management perspective. This is a new topic in the MIP literture. Keywords Problem solving, Islam, Management development, Systems theory, Malaysia Paper type Conceptual paper

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Introduction Reviewing textbooks in International Business is a strange experience. Although most of them state that there is a link between religious values and cultural values and then proceed to review the major religions, the information about Islam seems inadequate. At best, there is a paragraph with little information (for example, Hodgetts and Luthans, 2003; Cullen and Parboteeah, 2005). At worst, the information is misleading (Hill, 2000). There is generally a reference to the Koran but no reference to prophetic statements. The work of Muslim scholars in management is rarely mentioned though the last ten years have witnessed the emergence of a field known as management from an Islamic perspective (MIP). Typically, scholars in this field go through the Koran, the prophetic statements and the life of the Prophet Muhammad to deduce guiding principles or Islamic values that are relevant to management. Muslim management writers have discussed the role of Islam in relation to planning, organizing, leading and controlling (Jabnoun, 1994; Ahmad, 2006). Faridi (1997) edited a series of paper on the general islamization of organizational behaviour. Ali (2005) looked at the Islamic perspective in relation to work ethics, group behaviour, decision styles, leadership and human resource processes. Areas that are often discussed are conflict resolution (Jabnoun, 1994; Ahmad, 2006) and leadership. Generally, the themes that run through this literature include: . the need for Muslims to adhere to religious values and principles at work;
Cross Cultural Management: An International Journal Vol. 15 No. 3, 2008 pp. 264-274 # Emerald Group Publishing Limited 1352-7606 DOI 10.1108/13527600810892549
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the need for social justice; and the need to compete successfully in a dynamic context.

Although Islam unites different ethnic groups around the world, these ethnic groups still have different cultures so that they may interpret the same religious principles in

different ways. To date, there has been little discussion about problem solving in the MIP literature. Aims of this study This study has two aims. The first is to acquaint scholars with the methodology related to MIP. The second is to present a problem solving model that incorporates Islamic concerns. This model is taught in at least one private university in Malaysia as part of an elective management subject. This model forms the basis of Islamic Leadership course offered by the same private university to corporate clients. The challenge of problem solving Robertson (2001, pp. 3-16) says that a problem exists when there is a goal to be reached and it is not clear how to reach it. Some problems are well defined, whereas others are ill defined. Generally, psychologists argue that individuals, irrespective of their cultural background, solve problems in the same way. Nisbett (2003) disagrees. He says that people from different cultures solve problems differently, not simply because they have different cultural values but because they reason differently. Irrespectively of how people from different cultures reason, there is an agreement that most people are not effective at solving problems (Nutt, 1999). A number of explanations have been offered. For example, attempts to solve problems are often unstructured and without a clear methodology (Jones, 1998). Sterman (2000) says that most people use unscientific reasoning and have defensive routines. They are often dealing with ambiguous information, they misunderst cause and effects and they have flawed cognitive maps. Sterman (2000) stresses that even smart people are generally unable to solve problems effectively. Some authors distinguish between tame problems and wicked problems (McLucas, 2003). Tame problems The problem can be clearly defined. The formulation and solving of the problem are separate. Solutions can be tested. A tame problem has a closure. Explaining a tame problem is a gap between what is and what ought to be. Wicked problems They have no definitive formulation. Different people cannot agree what the problem is. Understanding the problem corresponds to solving it. No solution is correct or false. Solutions can only be good or bad relative to one another. There is no end to a wicked problem. It requires constant vigilance. There is no definitive explanation as to wicked problems. This paper will focus on wicked problems. When individuals deal with wicked problems, they tend to resort on their gut feeling as they become overwhelmed by the complexity of the problem. Complexity means that there are many variables to consider and it is difficult to understand the link between causes and effects. Systems thinking, in particular, looks at how individuals deal with wicked problem. Systems thinkers argue that in order to make sense of complexity, one needs an appropriate vocabulary and appropriate tools (Herasymowych and Senko, 2002). Individuals make decisions (D) with intended consequences (IC) and unintended consequences (UC). Thus, D IC UC

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When IC > UC, the solution proposed still has some positive effect. When UC > IC, the proposed solution tends to make things worse. Often, unsuccessful individuals use the same problem solving strategies that have failed in the past and blame others instead of recognizing that their problem solving strategy is flawed (Senge, 1990). A summary of the Islamic worldview In this study, the word Muslim refers to Sunni Muslims as Shia Muslims have a different belief system and they have their own secondary source of Islamic Law. Muslims have explained their world in terms of beliefs, actions and good manners. Actions are divided into acts of worship and acts that do not pertain to acts of worship (often called human transactions). This conceptualisation is derived from the Koran and the prophetic statements. The Koran tells Muslims what to do (e.g. pray five times a day) whereas the prophetic statements tell Muslims how to do it. Muslims believe that both the Koran and the prophetic statements are divine revelation. Many areas related to the Islamic world-view have been well defined by religious scholars. The area related to human transactions is generally ill defined although guiding principles do exist. Many issues pertaining to how Muslims should behave at work have been vaguely discussed and the MIP project is supposed to fill that gap. To date, MIP scholars have not looked at a problem-solving model systematically. This paper will elaborate on such a model. The author has named this the A6H model. The A stands for a chapter in the Koran called al Asr (which means Time) and 6H indicates that the model rests upon six prophetic statements (known as hadith hence the H). Problem solving models There are many problem-solving models with varying degrees of complexity. Often they include at least four stages. The stages are briefly described below. (1) Stage 1: define the problem by highlighting the gap between expectation and reality. (2) Stage 2: analyse the problem by asking insightful questions. (3) Stage 3: list all alternative solutions. In stage 3, evaluating alternatives is not attempted. (4) Stage 4: decide which alternative is the best. In the A6H model, the four stages are retained. When analysing a problem though, practicing Muslims naturally understand the problem through the perspective of their religious values. Specifically, in the A6H model, one uses the chapter Al Asr and six prophetic statements as a filter mechanism. The rest of this study will elaborate on the components of the A6H. It is important to bear in mind that the Islamic methodology is different from classical social science. Muslims assume that human beings can never discover the precise laws that guide this world through human experience alone. At best, these can only be conjectures. Muslims assume that the only certainties can be derived from the study of the Koran and the prophetic statements. It is assumed that this methodology is acceptable as it reflects an emic research paradigm. Symptoms and causes In problem solving, a useful analogy is that of a doctor seeking to understand the symptoms and causes of a disease. This analogy strikes a chord for Muslims because the Koran describes itself as a cure for mankind. The following three prophetic

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statements show that the Prophet (peace be upon him or PBUH) used to structure his thoughts using this approach: (1) The Prophet (PBUH) said, I advise you to be aware of God and to listen and obey even if a slave is a leader over you. Certainly, the one who will live among you will see lots of differences. So stick to my way and the way of the rightlyguided successors. Bite unto that with your molar teeth. And avoid newlyintroduced matters. Verily, every newly-introduced matter is an heresy and every heresy is going astray.

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The Prophet (PBUH) identified a symptom (differences between the Muslims) and a cause (Muslims not sticking to the Prophets way). (2) The Prophet (PBUH) said, Soon the Nations will call one another to attack you as diners call one another to the platter. Someone asked, Will it be because we are few in numbers? He replied, No, you will be many but you will be like foam of the sea. God will remove fear and respect from the hearts of your enemies and He will fill your hearts with weakness. Somebody asked, What will be this weakness? He said, Love of this world and hatred of death.

Again, the Prophet (PBUH) identified a symptoms (nations attacking Muslim lands) and a cause (Muslims loving of this world). (3) The Prophet (PBUH) said, Hasten to do good deeds before tribulations comes like patches of dark night, where a man will be a believer in the morning and will be a disbeliever by evening or he will be a believer in the evening and a disbeliever in the morning, and one of you will sell his religion for some little worldly gain.

The Prophet (PBUH) identified a symptom (disbelief) and a cause (worldly desires). The importance of these statements may not seem obvious to non-Muslims. However, prophetic statements are the second source of Islamic knowledge after the Koran. Prophetic statements are thus analysed and discussed very seriously by Muslim scholars. In none of these statements does the Prophet (PBUH) blame non-Muslims for the problems that Muslims face today. In these troubled times, this point should be stressed. Lastly, the fact that the Prophet (PBUH) provides answers by stating symptoms and causes validates the medical analogy in problem solving. The Koranic paradigm: Al Asr The Koran contains 6,000 verses divided into 114 chapters. The summary of the Koran is found in a chapter called Al Asr (Ahmad, 1993). The translation of this chapter is:
By Time Verily mankind is in a loss Except those who have faith and do righteous actions and those who encourage one another to the truth and those who encourage one another to have patience.

Ahmad (1993) explains that this chapter states the minimum conditions for those who wish to enter Paradise after they die. These conditions are:
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To having the correct faith. To do righteous deeds.

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To encourage one another to the truth. To encourage one another to have patience.

These four concepts form the basis of the value system of practicing Muslims. Thus, when solving a problem, Muslims would:

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(1) Not perceive a problem in a way that goes against their faith. This has many direct and indirect implications. Khalifa (2001), for example, says that practicing Muslims work to please God. With the right intention, work becomes an act of worship. Practicing Muslims work in order to generate surplus wealth so that this surplus wealth can then be donated to charity and contributes to ones good deeds. Lastly, this work needs to conform to Islams ethical system. This requires religious knowledge and actions that are consistent with Islamic teachings. Khalifa (2001) argues that Muslims and non-Muslims do the same thing but for fundamentally different reasons. Khalifa argues that a person who does not believe in Life After Death works for himself and his actions are sometimes contrary to the well being of the society. However, a practicing Muslim will work in order to help others as helping others seeking Gods pleasure will help him on the Day of Judgment. Thus, helping others is not altruism in the Western sense but a question of protecting ones own interest. (2) Not considering solutions that lead to unethical action. (3) The idea of encouraging one another to the truth has been explained in detail by Zarabozo (1999). Both parties understand that advising one another is one of the most important social responsibilities for Muslims. Advice should be given and taken with open-mindness and absolute sincerity. (4) Patience is a wide concept in Islam (Zarabozo, 1999). Muslims divide patience into three sub-categories: being patient in doing acts of worship, being patient in refraining from committing sin and being patient when dealing with others. Six prophetic statements Prophetic statements play a vital role in how Muslims understand their religion. In fact, without these statements, Muslims cannot practice Islam. There are a number of religious books other than the Koran in which these statements have been recorded. Al Bukhari and Muslim are considered almost as authentic as the Koran. These prophetic statements particularize the verses of the Koran that otherwise have a general meaning. Zarobozo (1999, p. 115) writes:
Iman Ahmed [a great scholar] stated that the foundation of Islam revolves around three hadith: Actions are but by intentions, Whoever introduces anything in this affair of our that is not from it shall have it rejected and The permissible is clear and the forbidden is clear. Abu Dawood [another great scholar] said that understanding Islam revolves around five hadith: Actions are but by intentions, The religion is sincere advice, The permissible is clear and the forbidden is clear, There is no harming nor reciprocating of harm and Whatever I forbid you, remain away from. Whatever I order you to do, fulfil as much as you can.

By combining the statements of Ahmad and Abu Dawood, one obtains six prophetic statements that encompass a Muslims entire life. These statements will be briefly explained.

The 1st statement


Surely all actions are but driven by intentions and, verily, every man shall have what he intended. Thus, he whose migration [to Medinah] was for God and His Messenger (PBUH) then his migration was for God and His Messenger (PBUH); and he whose migration was to achieve a worldly benefit or to take a woman in marriage, his migration was for that which he migrated

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This statement highlights the importance of having the right intention. Many Muslims consider this as the most important point before they start any activity. Mundane activities like working can become acts of worship if they are done for Gods sake. When analysing a problem, a Muslim would naturally reflect whether solving a specific problem would be pleasing to God or not. This would have immediate bearings on the amount of effort a Muslim would invest in solving a problem. For example, a Muslim manager might spend a lot of effort resolving a misunderstanding between subordinates but less effort rectifying a faulty business process. The 2nd statement
Whoever introduces anything into this matter of ours that is not from it shall have it rejected

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Religious innovation is strictly prohibited. In mundane matters, religious innovations are rejected when they contradict clear Islamic principles. For example, new technology is clearly not a religious innovation but using technology to monitor the activities of staff to the extent that privacy is invaded and one ends up spying on ones staff could be considered an innovation. The 3rd statement
That which is lawful is clear and that which is unlawful is clear and between the two are doubtful matters about which not many people are knowledgeable. He who avoids these doubtful matters certainly clears himself in regards to his religion and his honour.

Muslims are told that every action falls into three categories: some things are clearly permissible, other things are clearly forbidden and some things are in between these two. These doubtful things are to be avoided. Obviously, this principle has many practical implications that fall outside the scope of this paper. In practice, many Muslims refer to scholars of Islamic Law to avoid doubtful things in business. The 4th statement
The religion is the naseehah (advising one another). The people said, To whom? The Prophet replied, To God and to His Book and to His Messenger and to the Leader of the Muslims and the common folk of the Muslims

Naseehah is often translated as giving sincere advice yet the word means much more than simply giving advice. It includes helping others in any way possible. It implies loving for your brother what you love for yourself. The statements clarifies that naseehah is to be given to: (1) God: this means that Muslims are sincere in their worship of God. (2) To his book: this means that Muslims believe in the Koran and apply it in their life. (3) To his messenger: this means that Muslims believe in Muhammad (PBUH) and follow his prophetic statements. (4) To the leaders of the Muslims: this means Muslims should obey their leaders and follow them when they are doing the right things. This includes praying for them

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and not obeying them when they are doing wrong things. Leadership is often associated with political leadership but can be extended to managers and supervisors. Part of naseehah to the ruler is that you do your job to the best of your ability and sincerely. The authors opinion is that the need to be a change-agent in organizations in general and the need to fix broken processes in particular is part of this advising the leaders. There is a bias in the MIP literature on values. Although the importance of values is not disputed, the authors perception is that most organizations in the Muslim world lack clear processes so that efficiency is virtually impossible. Further research needs to confirm this perception. (5) To the common folk: this includes advising people, teaching them, helping them, concealing their faults and commanding good and forbidding evil. This should be done in private so as not to shame people. This means, if you are a leader, taking your subordinates best interest in consideration. The Prophet (PBUH) said, There is no person whom God gives authority over others and he does not look after them in a sincere manner except that he will never get the scent of Paradise. You must appoint people based on merit. The Prophet (PBUH) said, If a person is in a position of authority among the Muslims and appoint someone to a post due to love or blood relations between them, he has betrayed God and his Messenger and has betrayed the Muslims. The notion of advising is thus quite vast. In the discussion provided it is clear that Muslims need to understand the short-term and long-term consequences of their actions. If they are unable to decide whether an advice or action will lead to a greater good then they are not obliged to act. However, if they know that their advice or action will lead to a social benefit, they are ethically obliged to act, even if it goes against their apparent worldly interest. The 5th statement
What I have forbidden you, stay away from. What I have ordered, do as much as you can

This statement states an important principle. It is more important to prevent harm than gain a benefit. The 6th hadith
There is not to be any causing of harm nor is there to be any reciprocating of harm

The order not to harm is general and is understood to include Muslims and non-Muslims. Discussion The discussion will focus on four themes: (1) The A6H model in respect to the cross cultural literature. (2) The ease that Malaysian students have in applying the A6H model. (3) The issue of ability and unintended consequences. (4) The role of prophetic statements in MIP. In respect to the first theme, there are three ways at viewing the A6H model: as part of a growing interest in non-American management, as part of the growing research on spirituality and religion at work and as part of the MIP literature. Kazmi (2006) writes,

I am of the opinion that MIP is part of a worldwide trend catalysed by two simultaneous development: the disenchantment with American management and the growing interest in non-American management models, several of which are rooted in unique cultural contexts such as the Chinese, European, Indian-Hindu and Japanese. Certainly, looking at cultural-based management systems allows the field of management, in general, to grow. Another perspective is that the A6H model is part of a growing interest in spirituality/religion in the workplace. When discussing this work with a colleague, he said that it sounded very similar to Christian management. Intrigued, the author read Julians (2001) God is my CEO and found many similarities between Christian values and Islamic values. The concepts and terminology are, of course, different but the end goal seems to be the same. Lastly, the A6H overlaps with the whole MIP literature. Many concepts discussed in other works are implied in the A6H model and the A6H model is implied in their work. Due to space constraint, this point cannot be discussed in detail but an example is found in Ali (2005, pp. 120-5). Ali reviews the decision-making style of executives in the Arab world and Iran (decision-making is stage 4 of the problem solving model). Ali points out that many Muslim countries have the same religion but different cultures that influences the decision-making style. Furthermore, often the ideal Islamic principle is held officially but violated in practice. Often, the intention of managers is not to create a situation of real consultation but rather to create a feeling of consultation (Ali, 2005, p. 122). Putting it another way, rather than going through the problem solving process to find the best decision, Ali hints at the possibility that decision makers go through the pretence of problem solving to arrive at the decision that has already been agreed. Research, of course, needs to confirm this possibility. It should be pointed out that Ali is one of the few researchers that discuss the importance of history in understanding the Muslim world today. For example, Ali (2005, p. 126) writes, For more than four hundred years (1412-1918), schooling was denied for the Arabs and illiteracy prevailed. Consequently, during these years the Arabs mistakenly treated foreign (Ottaman) practices and orientations as Islamic (e.g. adherence to specific rules, centrality of decision-making, outlawed imagination and independent thinking). What Ali says seems to be that the history of the four hundred years explains more about Muslim behaviour in the workplace that the values embedded in the Koran and the prophetic statements. Research needs to confirm this. In respect to the second theme, the A6H model has been taught in an elective subject to undergraduate students in a private university in Malaysia. In 2007, the A6H model was discussed over 14 weeks with a group of 25 students. Towards the end of the course, a two-day camp was organized. During this camp, the students were given a case study on Wal Mart taken from a strategic management textbook. They divided into groups and were required to apply the A6H model. Generally, they were able to do so. Two things are worth highlighting. (1) Initially, most groups were not able to correctly define the problem. They could describe the symptoms that Wal Mart faced but not the root cause. These symptoms were listed and they were asked to use the medical analogy. Very quickly, they whittled down the issues to one core problem. The medical analogy proved to be a powerful way of getting people focused on the right problem. During the final exam, most students stressed the importance of identifying the symptoms and the root cause.

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(2) Initially, during the analysis stage, they analysed the problem in a free-flowing, unstructured approach. As a consequence, Islamic issues simply slipped from their mind and many ethical considerations were not discussed. After a while the author, as the facilitator, proposed to go through the six prophetic statements. Quickly, the discussion became structured and systematic. The experience indicates that the A6H model serves as a checklist. If one analyses a problem using the A6H model, one naturally covers all Islamic ethical issues. This experience provides anecdotal evidence that the A6H model allows Muslims to focus on Islamic issues and structure their discussion that allows them to have a better understanding of the problem. Further empirical research with practitioners need to confirm this. In respect to the third theme, at the heart of the Islamic perspective on problem solving, lies the issue of making decisions which benefits the society, either by doing something good or preventing a harm. One is not allowed to do something that is good for oneself and harmful for the society. Two critical issues are the ability to identify what benefits or harms the society and neutralizing of unintended consequences. The ability to identify what is beneficial and harmful for the society is defined as the ability of a decision-maker. This ability depends on the position in the society and the knowledge of the individual. Thus, an entrepreneur has the ability to change things within his organization and Islam deems him to be able and therefore, responsible before God to make things better within his organization. A junior manager might not have that ability and is thus not responsible before God (Holland, 1985; Zarabozo, 1999). Often though, decisions have unintended consequences and anticipating these is a sign of knowledge and wisdom. Zarabozo (1999) gives the example of Ibn Taymiyah, a scholar who lived in the twelfth century. During his time, Mongols invaded the Muslim lands. Zarabozo (1999, p. 1211) writes, Ibn Taimiya was with some of his companions when they saw a group of Mongols drinking alcohol. Ibn Taimiyas associates suggested that they stop them from drinking. Ibn Taimiya advised them not to do so. He told them that alcohol has been prohibited because it keeps people from remembering God and from the prayers. But in their case, their drinking keeps them away from killing people. Hence, it is better to leave them to their lesser crimes. The problem of identifying and neutralizing unintended consequences has been discussed in much detail in the systems thinking literature. Tools such as causal loop mapping or systems archetypes have been developed to help that process. As this study has highlighted, effective problem solving is very difficult due to the complexity of wicked problems. Often, decision makers with the best of intentions are not able to fully understand the unintended consequences of their actions and make things worst. A case in point is the research of David Stroh. Stroh (Saposnick, 2002) argued that the problem between Israel and Palestine will not be resolved without understanding the systems thinking implications of the conflict. Stroh reports that the use of causal loop diagrams in particular helps individuals appreciate the unintended consequences of their actions. More research needs to be done in this area. Lastly, the opening paragraph of this paper highlighted that non-Muslim crosscultural scholars have correctly pointed to the role of the Koran in the life of Muslims. Unfortunately, they have ignored altogether the prophetic statements. Yet, it is the prophetic statements contain specific guidelines that are of practical importance to managers operating in Islamic cultures like the Middle East. Knowing the six

prophetic statements discussed in this paper can be useful for expatriates who want to better understand and manage their employees. The limitations of the A6H model During the review process, a question was asked, How is the A6H model more appropriate over traditional models? As discussed, the A6H model serves as a checklist of the main ethical consideration pertaining to the Islamic faith. In that sense, it is very appropriate for Muslims. However, the nature of the Islamic faith requires that the verses of the Koran and the prophetic statements be positioned above the human intellect. Yet, the authors research in problem solving highlights the fact that wicked problems (i.e. problems with many variables) are very difficult to solve without using systems thinking. However, it would not be appropriate to state that systems thinking is part of the Islamic perspective on problem solving. The authors experience is that the A6H model is more appropriate than an unstructured approach to problem solving but that systems thinking can provide more insights than the A6H model alone. Obviously, research needs to validate these opinions. Conclusions This study has discussed the growing importance of MIP in Muslim countries. The MIP methodology focuses on understanding management issues by looking at the values and principles found in the Koran and the prophetic statements. This study proposed a systematic model that acts as a checklist of Islamic concerns in relation to problem solving. Muslims have specific issues related to faith, righteous deeds, encouraging people to the truth and encouraging people to be patient that means that they filter information in a different way. In the discussion, four themes were briefly touched upon. (1) This model in relation to the cross cultural literature generally. (2) The application of this model among Muslim students in Malaysia. (3) The problem of ability and identifying unintended consequences. (4) The importance of prophetic statements in the Islamic management literature. Clearly, much empirical research needs to confirm how Muslims actually solve problems in real life but maybe one can use the A6H model as the Islamic ideal that Muslims should aspire to. References
Ali, A. (2005), Islamic Perspectives on Management and Organization, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham. Ahmed, I. (1993), The Way to Salvation in the Light of Surah Al Asr, Abul Qasim Publishing House, Jeddah. Ahmad, K. (2006), Management from an Islamic Perspective, International Islamic University Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur. Cullen, J.B. and Parboteeah, K.P. (2005), Multinationals Management: A Strategic Approach, Thomson South Western, Mason, OH. Faridi, F.R. (Ed.) (1997), Islamic Principles of Business Organization and Management, Abdul Majeed & Co, Kuala Lumpur.

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