Work Hard, Pray Hard

Do Muslim Americans embody the Protestant work ethic better than their Protestant counterparts?

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In his classic work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, German sociologist Max Weber argued that early Protestants were uniquely suited to build the foundations of European capitalism thanks to their religious values, which prioritized hard work over spiritual contemplation and eternal salvation.

Weber, of course, was mostly concerned with the distinction between the two dominant European religions, Protestantism and Catholicism, but could the notion of a heaven-sent work ethic apply to other faiths as well? Consider Islam, which, after all, was founded by a trader -- Mohammed -- who once said that a "truthful, honest merchant is with the prophets." Indeed, some recent data suggest Muslims may now embody Weber's Protestant work ethic better than Protestants do.

In a paper recently published in the Journal of Business Ethics, Yavuz Fahir Zulfikar conducted a survey of a sample group of Americans of different faiths to measure attitudes toward pride in work, profit, and upward striving. He found that Protestants and Catholics had nearly identical average scores, but Muslims ranked more than 5 points higher (65 out of a maximum 95). The study follows similar research, with similar results, from Britain, Ireland, and Turkey.

In his classic work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, German sociologist Max Weber argued that early Protestants were uniquely suited to build the foundations of European capitalism thanks to their religious values, which prioritized hard work over spiritual contemplation and eternal salvation.

Weber, of course, was mostly concerned with the distinction between the two dominant European religions, Protestantism and Catholicism, but could the notion of a heaven-sent work ethic apply to other faiths as well? Consider Islam, which, after all, was founded by a trader — Mohammed — who once said that a "truthful, honest merchant is with the prophets." Indeed, some recent data suggest Muslims may now embody Weber’s Protestant work ethic better than Protestants do.

In a paper recently published in the Journal of Business Ethics, Yavuz Fahir Zulfikar conducted a survey of a sample group of Americans of different faiths to measure attitudes toward pride in work, profit, and upward striving. He found that Protestants and Catholics had nearly identical average scores, but Muslims ranked more than 5 points higher (65 out of a maximum 95). The study follows similar research, with similar results, from Britain, Ireland, and Turkey.

"Muslims are not that different from Protestants," says Zulfikar, an administrator at the University of North Carolina. "Work is seen as a service and almost as worship to God. Being idle is never a good thing in Islam."

Muslim Americans tend to be more committed to their faith than members of other religions, and recent immigrants of all nationalities tend to be more entrepreneurial than native-born citizens — just look at Silicon Valley, where half of America’s top start-up technology firms were founded by immigrants. Maybe assimilation is the problem: Give Muslims in the United States a few more generations, and they’ll end up like today’s slacker Catholics and Protestants.

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.