Whether through her influence as TV host, her work with the UN, or her efforts as a philanthropist and activist, Muna AbuSulayman’s career has been dedicated to serving people in need around the world. I spoke with Muna about what drives her to be in service of others, and why it’s important for her to work for the greater good.
Muna AbuSulayman is one of those rare public figures who seems to have done it all.
Continuously listed by business publications and websites as one of the most influential Arabs in the world, Muna has enjoyed a unique cross-sector career spanning two decades, working in areas such as education, sustainable development, female empowerment, entrepreneurship, social development, philanthropy, investment, and the media.
As well as working with global organisations such as the UN (for whom she was the first Saudi UN Goodwill Ambassador for the UNDP), the World Bank, and the World Economic Forum, Muna was the founding secretary general of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation, and also the first Saudi woman to become a regional TV personality with her long-running and ever-popular show Kalam Nawa’em.
Her work around the world has also been tied to her faith, not least in her work to bridge the gap between the West and Islam in certain sectors, but also through the creation of centres of Islamic Studies at Harvard, Georgetown, Edinburgh and Cambridge Universities, plus a Fellowship Program at Exeter University.
I’ve had the pleasure of several fascinating conversations with Muna over the years, but there was something I hadn’t yet asked until now. With such a prominent global presence both professionally and spiritually, what drives her to walk both paths so purposefully, and why does her faith play such an important role?
“For me, the concept of Khilafa is a very powerful concept,” she replies.
“It’s the idea that we were put on this Earth for a purpose. It’s about community, it’s about the Earth, and the ecosystem, whether that’s environmental, social or economic. And ultimately, I think, it’s about goodness.”
“We are put on this Earth for a purpose. It’s about community, it’s about the Earth, and the ecosystem, whether that’s environmental, social or economic.”
The term ‘Khilafa’ translates as ‘representative’, and has a particularly profound meaning in Islam, as well as other spiritual traditions. It relates to being a steward, a caretaker – with a responsibility to protect and care for the earth and everything within it, whether plants, animals, ecosystems, or fellow human beings. A common thread that connects Abrahamic faiths, Eastern religions, and countless other traditions across the world.
It’s a concept that should be as integral to the professional world as it is people’s personal lives. And with an increased focus on healthy workplace environments, CSR initiatives, environmental awareness, alignment with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and many other aspects of people and planet, it is gradually becoming so.
With regard to taking care of fellow humans, we should certainly see our talents, networks, reputations, and ingenuity as an opportunity to serve others. In design terms, for example, we can reframe personal, community and global challenges as design problems to be solved. Viewing things through this lens, where our capabilities are a trust and a responsibility to serve and empower others, adds new layers of meaning and purpose to our work, whatever it may be.
“That’s a very important part of how I live my life,” continues Muna. “It’s important to how I see the world and how I see my roles in it, whether they are personal, like being a mom, as a leader, or somebody who chooses to contribute in other ways. It's always about doing things in a way that would bring a greater good.”
She explains that another spiritual concept that helps to guide her professional life is ‘Tawakkul ala Allah’, or having complete reliance on God, and having perfect trust in His plans’.
“For me, it’s the belief that if you do your best in whatever you are doing, God will also provide – that he will put people in your path to help you, and send you signs.
“My father always called these signs ‘Altaf Allah’ (loosely translated as ‘kindness of Allah). There are all these little things that are signs that come to you and say that you are going to be ok. I mean, bad things happen to people all the time. I'm not saying that you will lead a great life all the time, but it's that God is there with you and you see it in small ways.
“I'll give you an example. So one of the most important meetings that I've ever had to go to was a week after Davos at the World Economic Forum. Now, I'm somebody who hates snow, I hate cold weather. I hate it so much that I didn't want to go because it is so, so cold there in Switzerland. But I tell myself, "You have to do this. This is important”. So I go there and I take the car from Zurich all the way to Davos.
“I'm waiting for the snow, but it's all green, there's no snow at all. I keep waiting for the snow, all dressed up in as many layers as I can, but there was no snow at all. For the whole week. They told me that this hasn't happened in 30 years or something, and I'm like, "This is a sign from God that I’m supposed to be here”.
“It felt like God was saying, "This is important for the path that you have put yourself on. And you know what, I'm going to show you that you're on the right path. I'm going to give you this little gift, because you really hate snow”.
“And that's where I had the meeting with Cambridge University to be able to create the Islamic Centre there.
“So you have to look for the signs, because this is the thing that helps you when you're alone and you're struggling or you are having a problem. You have to look for the helpers. The helpers can come in as people, or they can help come in as coincidences, or they come in as a small communication from God, like, "I'm here”.
Working for justice
Another way Muna blends the professional and spiritual aspects of her life is through a dedication to diversity and justice – two elements that she holds at the core of her faith and have informed the way she approaches business.
“My father always said that if things are not about diversity and justice, it's not about Islam,” she says. “And there’s justice with layers — you talk to the most vulnerable first. So it's always children first, their rights supersede other people, then there's women and the elderly and then men.
“My father always said that if things are not about diversity and justice, it's not about Islam.”
“So it is not just about equality, it’s about equity. Some people will need more help and you have to keep that in mind. If you don't, then the end result is unjust.
“Economically, I think there are issues with capitalism that go against the Islamic economic system, but within capitalism we have a big responsibility. You have to have compassionate capitalism, and I think Utham Ibn Affan is the best example of that within Islam.
“He became extremely rich during the Prophet’s time. He was able to profit, but was able to help so many people as a result.”
Uthman Ibn Affan was a close companion of Prophet Muhammed, and became the third Caliph, or ruler of the Mulsims, following the death of the Prophet and the first two Caliphs – Abu Bakr As-Siddiq, and Umar ibn al-Khattab. A prosperous merchant, he contributed generously and extensively to Muslims in the early years of Islam, giving money to the needy, buying slaves in order to free them, equipping soldiers, and other noble acts.“This kind of intention of what you want to do through your work is very important,” continues Muna. “And it can carry over into a lot of things you do. For example, I don’t like to have unpaid volunteers. I mean, sometimes if you’re doing a non-profit, that’s something else, but I believe everybody should be paid and paid well for their efforts. We shouldn’t take advantage of people’s goodwill.”
“Intention of what you want to do through your work is very important.”
Investing with the right intention
Intention, or Niyyah is a very important concept for Muna, who admits that she needs to ensure she has the right intentions before going into any project.
“Take investing for example,” she says. “One thing I’ve invested in is the mass translation of English journals into Arabic using Artificial Intelligence. I really believe that this is important, and if we don’t put the effort into having major translations, then the Arab world could miss out on another 100 years of innovation, and being leaders in the world.
“Nobody else was investing in this, and people said they didn’t see the value of it, but I really believed in it. The thing is, for me, I speak English perfectly well and don’t need translations, so in actual fact, the fewer people who can read these journals and compete with me on that front is better for me on a professional level. But that wasn’t the point at all.
“What we’re really trying to do is give that little boy in highschool in Al Jaza’ir, for example, access to the kind of knowledge and resources that he would never have had otherwise. Providing free resources on aeronautics, or whatever he wants to study, will help him to become more productive, and open up his potential and possibilities. That’s what’s important.”
What Muna is describing really speaks to me. In a classic design sense, you identify problems and apply tools, teams and technology to solve them. But with the addition of Niyyah, Ihsan (excellence) and Ikhlas (sincerity), your problem-solving can become even more meaningful – an even greater source of benefit and inspiration to the audiences you’re designing for.
What’s important is to see these concepts as applicable to the modern day. When I’ve spoken to people about designing with Ihsan and Ikhlas, many have immediately assumed I was talking about traditional arts such as calligraphy, tiling and mosaics – perhaps assuming they are not transferable to today’s fast-moving, digital world, where attention, distraction, and the bottom line are so prevalent. But it’s exactly for this reason that Ihsan and Ikhlas should be be part of our processes today, whether designing apps, games, products on shelves, business strategies, or workplace structures – so it’s truly heartening to see people such as Muna doing so in a very public way.
Inspiration from the past
While applying these principles is important in the present day, doing so sometimes requires inspiration from the past. So I ask Muna whether there are any leaders or role models from history who have influenced her blending of work and spirituality.
“The first person that comes to mind is Khadija, the wife of the Prophet,” she says.
“She was somebody who supported her husband, but was also a very successful merchant on her own. She was able to figure out who should be leading her caravans, she was making money, and was a very strong woman in business, in her faith, and in life generally.
“Another one that sticks in my mind is Fatima Al-Fihri.”
Fatima Al-Fihri founded the Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque in 859 AD in Fez Morocco, which became one of the leading spiritual and educational centres of the Islamic Golden Age, and developed into Al-Qarawiyyin University – considered the oldest existing university in the world.
“I remember when I went to Morocco, I think in 2012. I went to the university, and I remember sitting there and crying. People were looking at me, and I was telling them "No, you don't understand!”. This idea of a university being surrounded by the mosque and being built out of the mosque — it felt like so many threads in my life joined together there. It was extremely powerful being there and thinking about this woman and what she achieved — still is achieving.
“There was a sign on one of the pillars in the area that I was sitting, and it showed what the courses are that they're teaching the young kids — English and accounting, and so on. So it wasn’t just about having this beautiful mosque. — it was also about having a place for the people of the neighbourhood to come and learn useful skills for free, or maybe for very little money. Being there was just a very powerful moment.
“Another example that I really like is Helen Keller.”
Having lost her sight and hearing aged just 19 months, Helen Keller is a symbol of courage, determination, and inspiration, having overcome the odds to fulfil her dreams. With the help of her instructor and lifelong companion, Anne Sullivan – who used pioneering ‘touch teaching’ techniques – Keller become a renowned author, disability rights advocate, political activist and lecturer in the early 20th century.
“In fact, while Helen Keller herself was admirable and amazing, the person that I have always felt an affinity with is Mrs. Anne Sullivan,” says Muna. “She was the person who was able to unlock Helen’s potential, to unlock this amazing resilience, amazing insight and amazing capability. She actually took Helen Keller in when she was older, when her parents died. She really had Altaf Allah.”
It’s fair to say that many aspiring media personalities, entrepreneurs, and social activists might count Muna on their own lists of role models, given her professional success, and the way she has exercised spirituality throughout.
Speaking with her, it’s clear how earnest she is when it comes to being of genuine benefit to others, and a key reminder for me from our conversation is that this level of sincerity and service not only has a place in today’s workplace, but that they can elevate our work to become more impactful, more meaningful and more far-reaching that we might have ever thought possible.