By Badi Shams
The economic field can be very confusing for the common man and the expert alike. There are many approaches to examining economics and its workings. As Baha’is we believe that a lack of spirituality has led to rampant greed and selfishness, creating poverty and misery for millions of people. Spirituality is the key to healing the root cause of the problems rather than attempting to manage the symptoms. Based on the Baha’i Teachings, this material aims to provide some insight and suggestions for taking steps to lay the foundation for a better economic future.
Our economic system is failing. It cannot meet the needs of humanity. The evidence is that the gap between the rich and the poor is getting wider and that has led to the suffering of masses of humanity. The solutions that can change this situation have been denied. It is time to re-examine the fundamental assumptions that this system was built on and replace them with spiritual ones. We need to build an economic system to help mankind to achieve its goal of an ever-advancing civilization, a world where there is no economic injustice and people have all the necessities of life so that they can live peaceful and fulfilling lives. A shift in thinking is needed. We have the solutions to build a new system; all we need is the will. Everyone has the power to contribute.
HISTORY AND PROBLEMS
Before presenting some suggestions for its remedy, it is useful to understand the history of the present economic system and its basic assumptions that are responsible for the present problems. This is a brief overview purposely stated in simple language that does not require the knowledge of economics to be understood.
Economic activities have been part of man’s life and the barter economy has been with him since the Stone Age. To survive he had to barter goods for goods. After the period of hunting and gathering came centuries of an agriculture economy in which the means of exchange included coins, pieces of gold or silver, bones, feathers and other items until the use of paper currency was introduced. The agriculture economy was very simple and limited in its activity. Nothing of significance changed until the invention of the steam engine in 1712. This led to the revolution of industries and mass production, which brought the need for imports and exports to feed the ever-expanding economy. Roads and railways had to be constructed. At the same time, a banking system was needed to handle all these new economic activities. Thus began our modern economic system.
Adam Smith (1723-1790), who is considered the father of modern economics, made assumptions and, based on his observations, built his economic system. One of the assumptions he made was that man always acts in his own interests and wants to maximize his satisfaction, so he believed that self-interest in free-market economies leads to economic prosperity.
The other assumptions which he mentioned in his famous book, “Wealth of Nations”, included the use of the term “invisible hand” a metaphor to describe the self-regulation of the market. He also advocated “laissez-faire”. This meant that government should not interfere and markets should be left alone to take care of any problems. He expounded upon how rational self-interest and competition can lead to economic prosperity.
These two fundamental principles of the economic system introduced by Adam Smith were adopted by other economists. The principle of maximizing satisfaction created a sense of individualism which was praised and was the source of inspiration for many. But this trend of thought created a breeding ground for greed and exploitation. This resulted in society ignoring the plight of the poor and needy. The spirit of giving and sharing became obsolete. And gradually the gap between the rich and poor grew greater. To this day when people give their wealth to charity, many question why. Accumulating wealth was and still is considered the highest achievement in a person’s life. Becoming rich became the goal of every man and the cost of achieving this goal was not questioned.
For study purposes economics can be divided into many categories. Most economists regarded economics as a branch of social sciences and formulated many mathematical formulas to create a more efficient economic system. Man’s role was reduced to being one of the factors of production: labor. Economic systems concerned themselves with providing man with more material goods. Economists devoted their time to keeping up with the changes in society and helping us to make sense of the material side of life. They made an impact and contributed to the improvement of the economic system.
But there was no room for the moral and spiritual aspects of man’s life in the system. Money cannot and should not be the only means of measuring our life’s achievements. Unfortunately, the system does not recognize that man’s spiritual aspirations need to be the goal for an economic system, a system that provides him with tools so that he can work towards his spiritual destiny and spiritual goals. Since the true purpose of economics was not considered, it is no surprise that it has led to so many crises.
There were however a few economists who did see the cracks in economic assumptions and they raised the alarm. They suggested a Moral Economics. They believed that economic theory does not address areas such as family, health, love, culture, spirituality and environment that make life meaningful and rich. They felt that economic policy should include not only goods that can be exchanged for money but also values that have no price tag on them. One of these economists, Eugen Loeb, in his book “Humanomics: How We Can Make the Economy Serve Us-Not Destroy Us” declared:
In my view . . . economics is responsible for our deepening crisis. I am convinced that we will not be able to solve our basic problems unless we build a science of economy which enables us to navigate our ‘spaceship earth’ toward humane ends; a ‘humanomics.’
Conventional economics has become, despite its remarkable degree of sophistication, not only a useless tool, but a dangerous one. Its deceptive application has created a crisis which threatens the very foundations of our civilization. (Eugen Loebl, Humanomics, 1)
We live in a very confusing time, particularly after the economic market crash of 2008, which almost destroyed the whole economic system and forced governments to take desperate measures to save the system and avoid universal chaos. The crash was caused by unchecked greed, which led to a destructiveness that only a lack of morality can create. Many think that terrorism, conflicts and other forms of violence are due to differences in religion or ideologies. But if we dig deeper we may find that the underlying factor in many cases is a deep sense of resentment from the “have nots” toward the “haves”. Poverty and powerlessness create resentment since every human being feels entitled to a bare minimum means of existence. With their deep resentment, terrorists find a cause in religion and various ideologies to justify their actions. But the Baha’i Writings explain that the whole question of economics is divine or spiritual in nature and that is a better foundation than selfishness or greediness. With this approach, man has a divine destiny and is not ruled just by man-made laws and regulations. It is fundamentally different because the Baha’i economic system is based on man’s heart; it is founded solidly on the human spirit.
Abdu’l-Bahá explains the nature of economics, and the remedy for its problems:
The secrets of the whole economic question are Divine in nature, and are concerned with the world of the heart and spirit. In the Baha’i Teachings this is most completely explained, and without the consideration of the Baha’i Teachings, it is impossible to bring about a better state. (Abdu’l-Bahá, The Baha’i World, Volume 1V, 448)
Shoghi Effendi shed more light on this:
…By the statement ‘the economic solution is Divine in nature’ is meant that religion alone can, in the last resort, bring in man’s nature such a fundamental change as to enable him to adjust the economic relationships of society. It is only in this way that man can control the economic forces that threaten to disrupt the foundations of his existence, and thus assert his mastery over the forces of nature. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, 551)
The Baha’i Economic System will occur when the transformation of man and society has been accomplished and with it man’s awareness of his spiritual station and his destiny. He will have subordinated his animal nature and will therefore behave less selfishly. At this time it is almost impossible to imagine a society which has spiritually grown to that extent. But by introducing more of the spiritual qualities into our lives we are laying the foundation for such a society and such an economic system. Some of our goals may seem idealistic but that is exactly what we are, idealists. We are dreaming of a better world and are ready to take steps toward establishing Bahá’u’lláh’s World Commonwealth. No great achievement can take place without a goal or dream. Without such dreams the ever-advancing civilization would not have progressed from the Stone Age to where we are now.
Since we do not have the Bahá’i economic system in place as yet, we may think that we cannot do anything to bring it about and we must wait for its arrival. But that is not really true. There is so much we can do as individuals in our communities that is economic in nature and we can do it with the realization that we are participating in a new form of economic activity. Our participation will set the example for the role of spirituality in solving the economic problems of the world and at the same time prepare the ground for the time when the World Commonwealth will come into being.
The Universal House of Justice reminds us that the time has come to pay greater attention to the economic side of our lives and take steps to improve the economic prosperity of the world:
Although Baha’u’llah does not set out in His Revelation a detailed economic system, a constant theme throughout the entire corpus of His teachings is the reorganization of human society. Consideration of this theme inevitably gives rise to questions of economics. Of course, the future order conceived by Baha’u’llah is far beyond anything that can be imagined by the present generation. Nevertheless, its eventual emergence will depend on strenuous effort by His followers to put His teachings into effect today. With this in mind, we hope that the comments below will stimulate thoughtful, ongoing reflection by the friends. The aim is to learn about how to participate in the material affairs of society in a way that is consistent with the divine precepts and how, in practical terms, collective prosperity can be advanced through justice and generosity, collaboration and mutual assistance. (The Universal House of Justice, 1 March, 2017)
To complete this task it is helpful to imagine yourself in the future using the power of your imagination. When you are able to do that, to grasp the beauty of peace, love and harmony and to see how the sufferings and misery have been removed and man no longer has to fight to survive in his economic life, then you will bring yourself back to the present and hopefully you will start making small changes in your economic activities that will lead to the fundamental changes in society and that will lay the foundation for a new and wonderful economic behavior based on spirituality and not greed.
Abdu’l-Bahá often talked about very complex subjects but He made them simple and easy to understand and my personal belief is that economics doesn’t have to be daunting or confusing, especially when it comes to action. The following suggestions are intended to be clear and straightforward in order to encourage you to participate in economic actions with increased awareness. They are meant for everyone, whether or not you are knowledgeable about economics. Hopefully, these suggestions, based on the Baha’i Writings, will empower you to act and make a fundamental change in your character and your everyday economic actions. You may then realize what an amazing power we have as individuals to transform society in every way, including economic ways:
- Focus on the important questions of life. After answering the questions “Who am I” and “What is the purpose of my life”, the equally important question of “How much is enough?” should be answered. One of the biggest problems everyone faces is that we do not get a chance to understand who we are and what constitutes the purpose of our lives. Also we are so busy that we do not ask how much money is enough. How much do we need to live a fruitful life? Practice contentment. Life distracts us from asking ourselves these fundamental questions. Answering these questions can guide us to meet the tests and difficulties in life.
2. Live a simple life, a life like Abdu’l-Bahá. Living a simple life brings peace of mind and removes some of the distractions of our life journey. There are many studies that indicate that simplicity reduces stress in life and creates a sense of freedom from the burden of material possessions. It is a decision made by many who have become tired of our consumer world.
3. Change your mind set. You need to believe that you are essentially a spiritual being and that you have a spiritual purpose in your life. You need to realize your spiritual destiny and act accordingly. This mind set will help you to have a healthy approach to your material life. Every change begins first in your mind.
4. Pay a fair price. If you feel that the price is too low, pay more than the asking price. The Báb practiced this when He worked as a merchant. One of the nicest things related to economic activities is the commitment of fair-minded people to disregard existing prices and pay more because they believe their estimate of the price to be fair.
5. Share the profits with employees. Abdu’l-Bahá taught us how important it is for the workers to have a share of the profits. Besides profit-sharing, there are many ways to help. Get medical coverage for employees. Support the emotional and physical wellbeing of employees. Taking care of workers is a privilege and an opportunity to be of service to people. Looking for such opportunities is a rewarding act.
6. Pay fair wages, not based on what society dictates. The Baha’i Writings provide guidance in terms of fairness of wages rather than following the minimum wage guidelines. We can pay more if we think that is fair.
7. Be honest in your dealings. Present an item for sale with all the facts. In our society, we tend to misrepresent a product or share only enough information to present it in the best possible light. Truthfulness is the foundation of all the virtues. When selling your car, house or other possessions, clearly describe the real condition, mentioning the negative points as well as the positive points.
8. Provide the best quality of service or the best product possible and do so in a spirit of service. We are privileged to have the assurance that by doing our job well we have actually demonstrated an act of worship. Make customer satisfaction a goal. There is more to our jobs than just earning money. How satisfying it is to know that the customer is happy and we have played a part in it. Being proud of our work is a blessing millions do not have. They make money but are not happy and satisfied inside.
9. Look for opportunities to extend to co-workers and co-operate in the workplace. Most workplaces are very isolating and individuals work by themselves. To reach out and extend help and to treat each other fairly creates a wonderful spirit and working environment. Extend help to others, even your competitors. Be a cause of unity by seeing them as you would see your own employees or colleagues and doing as much as you can to help them.
10. Be content with a reasonable margin of profit. There is no end to greed in our society so being satisfied with earning a certain profit will create a sense of contentment and provide an example to others. This is an extension of how much is enough. There is nothing wrong with being satisfied and content with a set amount of profit.
11. Update yourself with the latest information to provide a better service and to be a leader in your field and be punctual. Being on time at work increases the efficiency of the system and demonstrates respect for others. If time is money, then one should not waste it.
12. Remember that your actions are the best manifestation of your beliefs and be conscious of them. The cliché is true that actions speak louder than words. We should be an example for others since we are the ones to lead society towards an ever-advancing civilization.
13. If you are lending money, ask for a reasonable interest rate and not the maximum rate. Baha’u’llah has advised us that the rate of interest needs to be fair and reasonable. Banks should not be the only ones setting interest rates.
14. Resist the consumer mentality which exists in our society. Fighting this tendency is very important for our economic life and our spiritual development. Consumerism has become a disease that is spreading fast and its forces are paralyzing the progress of our souls.
15. Be knowledgeable about advertising. Advertisements conceal the information we need to buy a product and they make false claims, using psychological methods, in order to make a sale. Advertising is present in all areas of our economic life. Selling has become very sophisticated and one has to be very savvy to navigate through all the false claims of advertising and read between the lines.
16. Spiritually justify every expense. With so much poverty in the world today, we have to answer to our conscience for any unnecessary spending. We have been advised to be frugal in our spending. It is very useful to have that “policeman” inside us to check our spending.
17. Avoid wastage in the workplace and suggest ways to cut down on waste. This also counteracts the depletion of our resources.
18. Protect the environment in your business and personal life. We owe it to future generations to protect the environment. What a sad situation it would be if mankind grows spiritually in the future but the damage is done and our environment is destroyed.
19. Increase your economic and business knowledge. The more we know about how economics works, the better we will be able to forecast the future.
20. Volunteer in your community whenever possible with the spirit of service, following Abdu’l-Bahá’s example. He served mankind all of His life.
21. Give to the Bahá’i Fund and also support worthy charitable organizations. Every act of giving is a small step toward reducing the gap between rich and poor.
22. Have or adopt a financial goal in life. As we have teaching plans in the Faith and other goals and plans in our life, it is important to have an individual financial plan. Goals encourage discipline. This is very important. It is almost impossible to have a comfortable financial life without planning.
23. Avoid debt as much as possible since too many financial burdens damage the quality of our spiritual and human life. Investigate the rate of interest on mortgages, loans and credit to reduce cost. Volumes can be written about this subject. Debts are one of the most destructive factors to quality of life that should be avoided.
24. Create a habit of saving. Life is full of uncertainty and change and having some money for a rainy day creates peace of mind. Saving should be part of our financial goals. It is a wonderful habit to have. It is not easy to save with the pressure of our consumer mentality today but nevertheless it is very important.
25. Spread the word about honest and fair businesses and professionals. It is like giving them free advertising. They need all the help they can get. It is very empowering for them and for us when we can help them.
26. Don’t buy the latest models if the old ones are in working order and provide the same service. Having the latest of everything creates an unnecessary economic burden for an individual which in turn decreases the quality of life. Be practical about material possessions and avoid buying the new and improved version even though everyone is doing it.
27. Avoid keeping up with the Joneses. That is the worst kind of spending. It is also a sign of spiritual and emotional immaturity. And we see it happen every day. It is really sad that people want the approval of others, while their spiritual destiny is in jeopardy.
28. Support the concept of one world currency. If we have fewer currencies to exchange, life becomes much easier and this is a good step in the right direction towards world unity.
29. Don’t follow society’s shortcuts with regards to taxation. There are claims made which can perhaps be legally justified but are morally wrong.
30. Make honest insurance claims. We have all faced the dilemma of what to claim when an accident happens, what is legal and what is moral. Not every legal claim is necessarily moral.
31. Make fair expense claims at work. It has become a common practice to claim the maximum amount even if it is not used but we have the duty to be honest about them.
32. Do not abuse sick leave. It is not necessary to use the maximum number of days of sick leave allotted to you if you are not sick.
33. Return to the store when you realize you have been undercharged or receive too much change for your purchase. This is practicing the virtue of honesty. Watch the face of the cashier when you do this. He or she is probably wondering, “Who are these people?” The answer is that we are the people from the future, where honesty is the norm.
34. Resist society’s corrupt practices of bribery and cheating. In some places in the world, giving bribes is a way of life and that is a test and an opportunity to avoid this illegal and immoral practice.
35. Regard service first and profit second. This seems idealistic in society but for Bahá’is it is considered a way of life. And in the long run, it is the best advertisement one can buy for free.
36. Participate in social and economic projects. We can help to change the world for the better by getting involved in these projects. And they are a valuable way of learning and contributing. With more experience in social activities we will be able to make a greater contribution in the future.
37. Do not support the idea of the end justifying the means when it comes to promotion at work or getting a contract or applying for a job. Our goal is to grow spiritually and these practices do not help us to grow. That is the worst kind of numbing our conscience.
38. Be honest in a job interview. Society has adopted the practice of magnifying the positive and minimizing or omitting the negative but in reality it is a form of lying. It will feel strange to us and to the interviewer but we have to start being totally honest.
39. Be truthful in filling out forms or tenders. Exaggerating the numbers has become a way of life but it is not the Bahá’i way of life. It is a very hard thing to do when competing but we can have the satisfaction that Baha’u’llah is happy with us.
40. Do not sacrifice your values in order to get a promotion or contract even though there is nothing wrong with being ambitious and wanting to progress through the ranks. Some would do anything to get a promotion but we cannot follow that practice. We have to think about promoting our soul to a higher level of spirituality.
41. Use good quality material in production. Do not use harmful ingredients. Educate yourself about the ingredients so no harm comes as a result.
42. Protect the poor and underprivileged section of our society in any way you can. It is our spiritual duty and privilege. They have been entrusted to our care by Baha’u’llah.
43. Give your Huqúqu’lláh (the Right of God), understanding fully that this gift is a privilege and is not a tax. Give with a sense of sharing rather than a sense of loss. This is your opportunity to practice generosity. Giving is the best practical step for bridging the gap between the rich and poor.
44. Create a consciousness that your welfare, wellbeing and happiness depend on the welfare, wellbeing and happiness of every poor, needy and underprivileged person in the world; that the real meaning of the oneness of mankind will come into being when we see others as members of our family:
Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. Deal ye one with another with the utmost love and harmony, with friendliness and fellowship. (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, 288)
45. Remind yourself that money is a tool and not the goal of your life. The biggest mistake that most people make is that they forget that we have not been created to make money. That should not be our life’s goal. Money should be seen as an effective tool to serve mankind and to improve the spiritual and economic life of ourselves and others. This is the key that can make a person happy or sad at the end of our physical lives. Since we cannot take it with us, why not spend it for the good of mankind.
46. Spend an equal amount of energy in becoming detached from material possessions as you spend getting them, recognizing that they are a test and remembering what Baha’u’llah said:
Thou dost wish for gold and I desire thy freedom from it. Thou thinkest thyself rich in its possession, and I recognize thy wealth in thy sanctity therefrom. By My life! This is My Knowledge, and that that is thy fancy; how can My way accord with thine? (Baha’u’llah,The Hidden Words, Arabic no.56)
It is like a spiritual detoxification. But there is nothing inherently wrong with being rich as long as we are fully aware of its benefits and dangers. Baha’u’llah has allowed us to have all the luxuries we desire, as long as we are detached from them.
47. Remind yourself of your spiritual destination while pursuing financial goals, since materialism can slowly erode your spiritual life. Without constant reminders of our spiritual destiny, materialism can destroy our spiritual well-being. We need to have the “big picture” in our view all times so that we are not lost.
48. Live the Bahá’i Life. In a sense it is a simple statement to live the Bahá’i life but it requires an understanding of ourselves and our purpose in life. It is easier said than done. But that is the goal of our life and the most important part of our human existence.
49. Be considerate to those who rent from you. Be sensitive to their situation. If they are in trouble, be flexible with their rent payments. Let them miss a payment or part of a payment. Besides the spiritual satisfaction that you feel, you also gain a tenant who cares for you and your property and will use it as if it’s theirs. It even makes economic sense since you will probably reduce the cost of maintenance.
50. Develop virtues that are common to all religions and are the foundation for any system’s success. At the present time, acquiring the virtues seems idealistic but we have to remember that as we move closer to an ever-advancing civilization, acquiring these virtues will be commonplace and a fundamental part of the goals we want to achieve. They may not seem to be related to economics but they help us to gain spiritual and human qualities and, in turn, create a better society. Here is the list of virtues identified by The Virtues Project:
51. Deal with your insistent self or ego, otherwise it can undo any success or progress if it is not recognized as a serious threat to your good efforts. History is full of examples of how the ego created destruction throughout the ages. As a human being, our life in this world and our progress in the next world depend on the decisions we make. We make our own heaven and hell here on earth as a result of the choices we make. It is sad if we do not make the right decision and give our higher nature the upper hand. Because we are bombarded by advertisements and consumerism, nurturing our higher nature is very difficult and that is why we need to tune ourselves spiritually in order to make the right choice so that we get the rewards and benefits of that choice. We know that reading the Writings has been encouraged in our Faith and when we read the Holy Writings and meditate on them, our souls are uplifted and that affects our decision making. Bringing ourselves to account each day is also important. It is like a spiritual balance sheet so that we can perceive the good and the bad and make changes. This is such an important factor in our lives and we need to take spiritual nourishment every day so that our higher nature dominates our lower nature.
52. Recognize and nurture the four aspects of your being:
Most people ignore one aspect for the sake of others but we need all aspects to have balance in our lives. This sounds like a self-help mantra but awareness of all aspects of our being is essential to a realistic self-knowledge, the first step toward knowing God.
53. Be more vocal in a loving way about the changes that are needed for the improvement of the economic life of individuals and the society in which we live; in short, without being militant or aggressive, express your ideas and vision. We have a say in all matters and we can be the catalysts of positive change. We do not want to be political or militant, but we cannot forget that our job is providing vision and direction to a wayward humanity. It is like having the healing medicine and not giving it to the sick.
The history of economics has shown us that a system without spiritual guidance can lose its effectiveness and eventually becomes the problem. The Baha’i Writings are the guidance the world needs to remedy the injustice done to the poor and underprivileged part of society. It is a long road and progress will be slow but definitely it is the right direction to follow. The suggestions presented here may seem overwhelming and you may not be able to practice all those that apply to your situation. But it is not about the results; it is about sincere efforts. It is the pure intention that counts. These actions will become the basis of a foundation upon which Baha’u’llah’s World Commonwealth will be established for the new race of man. We have been given the privilege of starting the spiritual process.
Can we borrow money?
Yes, even ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had to borrow a large sum of money to facilitate a move of the Bahá’ís from Akká to Egypt:
Many of the Bahá’ís of ‘Akká needed financial support to be able to abandon, even for a short while, their homes and their means of living. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Himself borrowed a large sum of money from an American in Paris, to facilitate their move to Egypt. (H.M. Balyuzi, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – The Centre of the Covenant, p. 112)
The settlement of debts is a most important command:
The settlement of debts is a most important command set forth in the Book. Well is it with him who ascendeth unto God, without any obligations to Huququ’lláh and to His servants. (Bahá’u’lláh, Huququ’lláh, #22)
We must consider our debts as sacred and take precedence over any other thing, including making contributions to the Cause:
Our debts, however, should be considered as sacred and take precedence over any other thing [i.e., payment of debts comes before contributions to the Cause] for upon this principle does the foundation of our economic life rest. (Shoghi Effendi, Principles of Bahá’í Administration, p. 20)
Even though Shoghi Effendi would urge us to sacrifice as much as possible for the Fund, he discouraged us from incurring debts for that purpose. We are asked to give what we have, not what we do not possess, especially if such an act causes suffering to others.
Even though Shoghi Effendi would urge every believer to sacrifice as much as possible for the sake of contributing towards the fund of the National Assembly, yet he would discourage the friends to incur debts for that purpose. We are asked to give what we have, not what we do not possess, especially if such an act causes suffering to others. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 250)
Effects of Debt
Inter-governmental debts have imposed a severe strain on the masses of the people; upset the equilibrium of national budgets; crippled national industries, and led to an increase in the number of the unemployed:
That inter-governmental debts have imposed a severe strain on the masses of the people in Europe, have upset the equilibrium of national budgets, have crippled national industries, and led to an increase in the number of the unemployed, is no less apparent to an unprejudiced observer. (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 35)
The need to pay back our debts
Bahá’u’lláh tells us we need to settle our debts will all diligence and application:
Those who incur debts should strive to settle them with all diligence and application. (Bahá’u’lláh, The Compilation of Compilations vol II, p. 336)
‘Abdu’l-Bahá tells us that the secret to paying back debts is to first obtain spiritual health, which is conducive to physical health:
I hope thou wilt become as a rising light and obtain spiritual health—and spiritual health is conducive to physical health—so that thou mayest be enabled to liquidate thy debts and be strengthened to attain the blessing of the Forgiving Lord. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Tablets of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá v2, p. 305-306)
Shoghi Effendi felt so strongly about paying back money owed, that more than once he refused to allow those who he knew were in debt to make the pilgrimage, saying he must first pay his debts:
Economy was a very rigid principle with Shoghi Effendi and he had very stern ideas on money matters. He more than once refused to permit an individual to make the pilgrimage who he knew was in debt, saying he must first pay his debts. (Ruhiyyih Khanum, The Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, p. 57)
The House of Justice tells us that even if we owe money to Covenant-Breakers, we are still to pay it back:
If a Bahá’í owes a debt to a person who breaks the Covenant he must be sure that it is repaid and that his obligations are met. (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 186)
Before calculating our Right of God, we must first pay our debts:
In determining the amount a believer should pay, he should first deduct any debts and expenses he may have, and pay nineteen per cent of the remainder of his capital if it is equal to at least nineteen mithqals of gold. If you decide that you wish to observe this Law of the Aqdas at the present time, you should determine the total value of your inheritance in cash and other assets less any expenses or debts you may have, and consider the circumstances under which you may be able to pay Huququ’lláh on the net value of your inheritance. (Universal House of Justice, The Compilation of Compilations vol. I, p. 522)
How Do We Pay Our Debts?
God has promised that if we do the following, His confirmations shall descend and we will be enabled to pay off our debts.
- trust in God
- engage in our work
- practice economy
- always be occupied with the mention of Bahá’u’lláh
- seek no other hope and desire save God
Trust in God and engage in your work and practice economy; the confirmations of God shall descend and you will be enabled to pay off your debts. Be ye occupied always with the mention of Bahá’u’lláh and seek ye no other hope and desire save Him. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’í World Faith, p. 375)
Can we charge interest on loans?
Yes, it is lawful and proper to charge interest on money, and it should be treated like any other business transaction:
Therefore as a token of favour towards men We have prescribed that interest on money should be treated like other business transactions that are current amongst men. Thus, now that this lucid commandment hath descended from the heaven of the Will of God, it is lawful and proper to charge interest on money, that the people of the world may, in a spirit of amity and fellowship and with joy and gladness, devotedly engage themselves in magnifying the Name of Him Who is the Well-Beloved of all mankind. (Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 132-133)
It would be hard to find anyone to loan money without being able to charge interest:
One can seldom find a person who would manifest such consideration towards his fellow-man, his countryman or towards his own brother and would show such tender solicitude for him as to be well-disposed to grant him a loan on benevolent terms. [Such loans as bear no interest and are repayable whenever the borrower pleases] (Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 132-133)
If there were no prospect for gaining interest, the affairs of men would suffer collapse or dislocation:
As to thy question concerning interest and profit on gold and silver: Some years ago the following passage was revealed from the heaven of the All-Merciful in honour of the one who beareth the name of God, entitled Zaynu’l-Muqarrabin —upon him be the glory of the Most Glorious. He—exalted be His Word—saith: Many people stand in need of this. Because if there were no prospect for gaining interest, the affairs of men would suffer collapse or dislocation. (Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 132-133)
However, we’re forbidden to overcharge or extort money:
We have, according to the text of the Book, forbidden unto all men the practice of usury. (Bahá’u’lláh, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 200)
Instead, determining how much interest to charge must be based on justice, moderation and fairness:
Many ecclesiastics in Persia have, through innumerable designs and devices, been feeding on illicit gains obtained by usury. They have contrived ways to give its outward form a fair semblance of lawfulness. They make a plaything of the laws and ordinances of God, but they understand not. However, this is a matter that should be practised with moderation and fairness. Our Pen of Glory hath, as a token of wisdom and for the convenience of the people, desisted from laying down its limit. Nevertheless We exhort the loved ones of God to observe justice and fairness, and to do that which would prompt the friends of God to evince tender mercy and compassion towards each other. He is in truth the Counsellor, the Compassionate, the All-Bountiful. (Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 132)
Collecting money owed
Lenders must give their debtors respite until they have the ability to pay back what is owed:
These matters, however, depend on the existence of ability, for the making of a demand is contingent upon ability to meet it. By the Lord of the Book, the former is not permissible in the absence of the latter. To this testifieth the Verse: “Respite thy debtor till he findeth means to pay.” (Bahá’u’lláh, The Compilation of Compilations vol II, p. 336)
The Right of God is also considered a debt and Bahá’u’lláh tells us we need to first pay our obligation to it before going on pilgrimage:
Therefore it beseemeth thee to meet thine obligation to the Right of God first, then to direct thy steps toward His blessed House. This hath been brought to thine attention as a sign of favour. (Bahá’u’lláh, Compilation of Compilations, vol. I, p. 499)
Even after our death, we must ensure our debts to lenders and to the Right of God are paid before settling the estate:
Outstanding debts and payments of Huquq should be settled from the remainder of the estate, but if this is insufficient for the purpose, the shortfall should be met from his residence and personal clothing. (Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, p. 130)
Debts are to be paid back in the following order: the cost of burial, then debts, then the Right of God:
Thou hast asked which is to take precedence: the Huququ’lláh, the debts of the deceased, or the cost of burial. It is God’s command that the cost of burial take precedence, then payment of debts, then the Right of God. (Bahá’u’lláh, Lights of Guidance, p. 306)
If our estate is not sufficient to pay our debts, they are paid in proportion to their size:
QUESTION: Which is to take precedence: the Huququ’lláh, the debts of the deceased or the cost of the funeral and burial?
ANSWER: The funeral and burial take precedence, then settlement of debts, then payment of Huququ’lláh. Should the property of the deceased prove insufficient to cover his debts, the remainder of his estate should be distributed among these debts in proportion to their size. (Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, p. 109)
If we aren’t able to honor all of our debts, God will pay due recompense:
Verily He is the One Who will pay due recompense, the All-Rewarding, the All-Generous. (Bahá’u’lláh, Lights of Guidance, p. 306)
Consequences of not paying money back
Anyone who has the ability to settle his debts and doesn’t do it has not acted in the good pleasure of God:
In connection with the demands for payment of which thou hast written in thy letter, it is manifestly clear that anyone who hath the ability to settle his debts, and yet neglecteth to do so, hath not acted in accordance with the good pleasure of the one true God. (Bahá’u’lláh, The Compilation of Compilations vol II, p. 336)
Paying back our debts is a matter between us and God. No one can lose their voting rights for not liquidating their debts:
Your Assembly should not deprive him of his voting rights … because he cannot, or will not, liquidate his debts. (Shoghi Effendi, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Bahá’í Communities)
Advantages in paying back our debts
Paying our debts is a way to demonstrate trustworthiness, uprightness and the honouring of rights:
God’s binding commandments with respect to trustworthiness, uprightness and the honouring of rights have been recorded in clear and perspicuous language in all the sacred Books, Tablets, Scriptures and holy Writings. (Bahá’u’lláh, The Compilation of Compilations vol II, p. 336)
If we expect forgiveness from God, the first pre-requisite is to conduct ourselves honestly:
The Guardian suggests that you contact Mr. …, and press him to discharge his debt to the believer in Fiji whom he has so grievously wronged, pointing out to him that surely, if he expects any forgiveness from God, the first pre-requisite is to conduct himself honestly. (Shoghi Effendi, Letters from the Guardian to Australia and New Zealand, p. 103)
Well it is with those who are trustworthy in this area:
Well is it with him whom the fleeting vanities of the world have not deprived of a lasting adornment, and whom avarice and negligence have not shut out from the illumination of the sun of trustworthiness. (Bahá’u’lláh, The Compilation of Compilations vol II, p. 336)
Well is it with those who ascend unto God, without any obligations to Huququ’lláh or to God’s servants:
Well is it with him who ascendeth unto God, without any obligations to Huququ’lláh and to His servants. (Bahá’u’lláh, Huququ’lláh, #22)
Paying back our debts lays the foundation for economic success:
Our debts, however, should be considered as sacred and take precedence over any other thing . . . for upon this principle does the foundation of our economic life rest. (Shoghi Effendi, Principles of Bahá’í Administration, p. 20)
When we pay our debts, God will double our portion through the heaven of bounty:
God grant that all men may be graciously aided to observe that which the Tongue of the One true God hath uttered. And if they put into practice what We have set forth, God—exalted be His glory—will assuredly double their portion through the heaven of His bounty. Verily He is the Generous, the Forgiving, the Compassionate. (Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 132)
What About Bankruptcy?
The NSA of the United States tells us:
From time to time the National Spiritual Assembly receives inquiries from Local Spiritual Assemblies or individuals asking whether it is permissible for a Baha’i to file for bankruptcy. A Baha’i as a citizen has the right to avail himself of the laws pertaining to the payment of debts and thus is entitled make use of the provisions to declare bankruptcy. When faced with such a possibility, a Baha’i should, of course, obtain competent legal counsel. However, such a problem must be viewed in the light of the Baha’i Teachings. Shoghi Effendi wrote: “Our debts, however, should be considered as sacred and take precedence over any other thing for upon this principle does the foundation of our economic life rest.”
In the Tablet of the True Seeker, Baha’u’llah has counseled: “He should not wish for others that which he doth not wish for himself, nor promise that which he doth not fulfill.” These writings indicate the supreme importance of honoring our commitments. For a Baha’i, fulfilling a financial obligation is to be regarded as a sacred responsibility. Consequently, the Baha’i position on bankruptcy is that although the courts may absolve one of the legal obligation of making good on certain debts, a Baha’i’s moral and spiritual obligation to redeem his debts continues. (NSA of the USA, Baha’i National Review, September 1980, p. 4)
And the NSA of Canada adds:
A Bahá’í, who is an undischarged bankrupt, is not legally qualified to serve as a member of an incorporated Spiritual Assembly in Ontario. Following the election of the Spiritual Assembly at Ridvan, or whenever there is a by-election, it is essential to ensure that all members elected/appointed are legally qualified to serve as directors of an incorporated Spiritual Assembly. (NSA of Canada)
I’d like to end with a story told by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá of the kind of steadfastness he expects of us, in paying back our debts:
I had a servant who was black; his name was Isfandiyar. If a perfect man could be found in the world, that man was Isfandiyar. He was the essence of love, radiant with sanctity and perfection, luminous with light. Whenever I think of Isfandiyar, I am moved to tears, although he passed away fifty years ago. He was the faithful servant of Bahá’u’lláh and was entrusted with His secrets. For this reason the Shah of Persia wanted him and inquired continually as to his whereabouts.
Bahá’u’lláh was in prison, but the Shah had commanded many persons to find Isfandiyar. Perhaps more than one hundred officers were appointed to search for him. If they had succeeded in catching him, they would not have killed him at once. They would have cut his flesh into pieces to force him to tell them the secrets of Bahá’u’lláh. But Isfandiyar with the utmost dignity used to walk in the streets and bazaars.
One day he came to us. My mother, my sister and myself lived in a house near a corner. Because our enemies frequently injured us, we were intending to go to a place where they did not know us. I was a child at that time. At midnight Isfandiyar came in. My mother said, “O Isfandiyar, there are a hundred policemen seeking for you. If they catch you, they will not kill you at once but will torture you with fire. They will cut off your fingers. They will cut off your ears. They will put out your eyes to force you to tell them the secrets of Bahá’u’lláh. Go away! Do not stay here.”
He said, “I cannot go because I owe money in the street and in the stores. How can I go? They will say that the servant of Bahá’u’lláh has bought and consumed the goods and supplies of the storekeepers without paying for them. Unless I pay all these obligations, I cannot go. But if they take me, never mind. If they punish me, there is no harm in that. If they kill me, do not be grieved. But to go away is impossible. I must remain until I pay all I owe. Then I will go.”
For one month Isfandiyar went about in the streets and bazaars. He had things to sell, and from his earnings he gradually paid his creditors. In fact, they were not his debts but the debts of the court, for all our properties had been confiscated. Everything we had was taken away from us. The only things that remained were our debts. Isfandiyar paid them in full; not a single penny remained unpaid. Then he came to us, said good-bye and went away. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 426-427)
How has this helped you understand this topic better? Post your comments below!