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HomeISFIRE Vol 10– Issue 4 August 2020Islam And The Hierarchy Of Needs: Finding A Life Balance

Islam And The Hierarchy Of Needs: Finding A Life Balance


A theoretical review

What makes us do the things we do? Motivation. Some people said that motivation is a mysterious force. Yet, it leads us to understand what we feel enthusiastic about and energised for. The reason behind this phenomenon is always interesting to discuss. But still, it is something intangible. The same motivations can appear in different behaviours. Likewise, different motivations can be reflected in the same behaviour. However, it is not that simple to fathom motivation since many different theories exist. The question is: are these theories still relevant today?

In dealing with human necessities, motivation is often argued to be based on the way people satisfy their needs and put emphasis on the underlying factor. Maslow with his ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ supports the idea, along with the other American psychologists (Alderfer, Herzberg, and McClelland). However, the theory is greatly criticised by experts for its incomplete universality and general acceptability as it involves only American subjects (Gambrel & Cianci, 20031; Bouzenita & Boulanouar, 20162). Indeed, many aspects applied in such a great country are not compatible in other places, for instance, Asia and Africa.

Back to the ‘hierarchy’; Maslow suggests that the next level need cannot be activated before the lower-level need is satisfied; hence, the needs are interdependent. Commenting on this issue seems risky, given that Maslow’s premise has been ingrained for a long time ago. Nowadays, personalisation exists. Everyone has their preference, meaning that the implication of the need hierarchy may differ. Different people act differently. In response to the presumption, Alderfer stated if the needs at a higher level cannot be activated, the ones at a lower level can be reactivated. Combining Maslow and Alderfer, a person might presumably never achieve the highest level of needs.

As the unsatisfied needs are being kept unsatisfied, humans instinctively move to seek meaning, satisfy their inner thirst and achieve certain values. Unavailability of such opportunities in the workplace will cause demotivation and even worse, depersonalisation.

Put aside all the American-centred definitions, causality is also considered as a perspective of motivation. According to Adam3, Vroom4, and Lock5 — experts in motivation theory — each of us behaves to seek equity, based on expectation and as the result of goal setting. Equity and expectation can be complex concerning different process and variable for different people as behaviour is also influenced by external circumstances. Expressed by another American psychologist, Skinner, behaviour with positive consequences is likely to be repeated that is so-called as optimum motivation, while negative ones will not.

An Islamic perspective

Apart from the debate, those above-mentioned thoughts do not cover the afterlife. Moving away from such worldly conceptions, those motivation theories can be grouped into one big striking commonality: a materialistic dimension that is defined in various stances. The separation of life into two areas: sacred (holy) and profane (secular) is the rationale why individuals cannot live their work-life, which is supposed to be mutually inclusive with the spiritual and religious practices. Even so, it seems there is no universal principle that can holistically explain everyone’s motivation since the way people behave is manifested by the perception of environmental, geographical, and historical elements.

The discussion on motivation has become the forerunner of spirituality and religiosity discourse. Spirituality and spiritual needs aim at achieving self-development and the highest potential of an individual. Satisfied spiritual and religious needs inspire and nurture people to not only perform to the best version of themselves but also to do what is required. Unfortunately, the traditional management literature focuses only on bodily matters, while does little on the spiritual side.

Theories under the traditional management indeed assert the definition of motivation, but they are not truly capable of motivating. Neither Maslow nor other scientists incorporated spirituality in their theories; then, why are the critiques more focused merely on Maslow? Because he is the pioneer in providing a framework of human motives with a visually eye-catching five-level pyramid that makes it distinctive. Recent updates have shown a change in the pyramid to become seven-level by putting self-transcendence. Yet, it has not been perceived as an answer to spiritual needs and its relation to the material ones. Why?

First, the concept of needs in Maslow’s is not the same as in Islam. Islam divides human needs into mental, physiological, and spiritual (Nusair 19856; Ali 19857). Although Maslow had revised the hierarchy, it does not comprehend the Islamic perspective. Human needs are not arranged like in Maslow’s idea. In accordance with the concept of freedom of choice (ikhtiyar) in Islam, responsibilities upon choices are carried along. The choices are followed by efforts, then reliance on God (tawakkul), and ends by the perfect contentment with God’s will or decree (rida).

As revealed in the Quran (9:105), “Do [as you will], for Allah will see your deeds, and [so, will] His Messenger and the believers. And you will be returned to the Knower of the unseen and the witnessed, and He will inform you of what you used to do.” Naturally, humans are stimulated to distinguish the good from the bad by accepting the outcome, which is resulted in the carried-along responsibility. The more one does good deeds, the more one is capable of obtaining rewards. So is the punishment for bad actions. The next question would be ‘what drives them?’. It is what we called iman (faith) and taqwa (God-consciousness) (Alawneh 19988; Ather et al. 20119).

“The discussion on motivation has become the forerunner of spirituality and religiosity discourse.”

Maslow’s interdependency lies in the progression principles — remember the concept of satisfying lower-level needs prior to the higher level — while Islam encourages Muslims to balance the material and spiritual aspects, and each level of Maslow’s hierarchy is supposed to be imbued by spirituality. There is no elaboration of material and spiritual interaction in the hierarchical model. That condition will remain unchanged even if spiritual needs are placed at the top or the bottom, noting his findings that a satisfied need is not a motivator of behaviour.

Second, there is no reflection of human expectation towards the hereafter in Maslow’s concept. Regardless of Maslow’s background, Western countries separate the world from the hereafter while Islam encourages a material-spiritual balance as well as a world hereafter as stated in the Quran (28:77), “But seek, through that which Allah has given you, the home of the Hereafter; and [yet] do not forget your share of the world.” It implies a focus on the hereafter without ignoring the share of this life.

The Islamic ontological perspective is not incorporated in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In addition to the alleged ethnocentrism, non-universality and invalidity, the following mindsets distinguish Maslow’s theory from an Islamic point of view:

(a) materialistic basis;

(b) the absence of spiritual aspect and different interconnectedness between material and spiritual need and

(c) world orientation, disregarding the hereafter.

Here Islam can elaborate.

According to Maqasid al-Shari’a (the objectives of Islamic law), human needs are grouped into three descending categories of significance: dharuriyyat (essential), hajiyyat (complementary), tahsiniyyat (embellishment). Dharuriyyat is the must-exist necessities that if not fulfilled will result in an imperfect human life as well as threaten the safety of humanity both in this world and the hereafter. This is inherent in the preservation of religion, life, intellect, progeny and wealth. Hajiyyat is the complementary needs to remove hardships and difficulties that are contained in the process of satisfying the necessities. Tahsiniyyat refers to things that embellish people’s lives by adding quality to the necessities.

The five necessities are the minimal requirements to sustain human livelihood, which are not applied in the hierarchical model. They also include human relationship with God, society, and the environment. Religion is seen as the most fundamental element, however, the other four remain the same. By emphasising dichotomous pairs (e.g. material-spiritual and individual-social), the three-stage categorisation encourages people in real life to have a proper balance to be able to achieve human welfare in this world and the hereafter.

Regardless of Maslow’s background, Western countries separate the world from the hereafter while Islam encourages a material-spiritual balance.


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