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Wealth, Poverty and Spirituality

July 15, 2012, in Articles > Baha'i Life, by

As an individual fortunate enough to have been raised with both the material comforts of the United States as well as the spiritual teachings of the Baha’i Faith, I often think about the relationship between wealth, poverty, and spirituality.

A number of questions naturally arise when considering this: Are wealth and material development important, or simply a distraction from spiritual development? Is it wrong for me to enjoy physical comfort and material prosperity? Is choosing to renounce the material advancement of the West, for example, by moving to a less developed part of the world a noble sacrifice or an unnecessary infliction of physical suffering upon oneself?

Throughout the history of religion, wealth and spirituality have often appeared to be in conflict with one another. One of the most well known Christian verses supporting this notion is Jesus Christ’s aphorism that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” 1

This sentiment is similarly echoed by Baha’u’llah, the Prophet-Founder of the Baha’i Faith, in His collection of short spiritual maxims and statements known as the Hidden Words.

Baha’u’llah declares, unambiguously:

O ye that pride yourselves on mortal riches! Know ye in truth that wealth is a mighty barrier between the seeker and his desire, the lover and his beloved. The rich, but for a few, shall in no wise attain the court of His presence nor enter the city of content and resignation.

Persian Hidden Words, no. 53

In the estimation of the Messengers of God, material poverty is often described as a blessing rather than a curse. Christ famously prophesized that the “meek” would be the ones to inherit the earth.

The following passage from Baha’u’llah, once again taken from the Hidden Words, is telling:

Be not troubled in poverty nor confident in riches, for poverty is followed by riches, and riches are followed by poverty. Yet to be poor in all save God is a wondrous gift, belittle not the value thereof, for in the end it will make thee rich in God.

Ibid.

When initially studying the teachings of the various religions, it may in fact appear that wealth is to be avoided while poverty is to be embraced. However, while the teachings of Baha’u’llah, Christ, and many of the other Messengers of God are remarkably similar on this subject, the Baha’i Faith also teaches that the interpretation and application of these teachings need to be revised given the exigencies of the current age.

In former religious dispensations, the mark of spirituality was often the complete renunciation of the physical world, which at times took the form of exclusion, isolation, and physical deprivation. However, the Baha’i Faith in fact discourages such monasticism and asceticism.

“Living in seclusion or practising asceticism is not acceptable in the presence of God,” Baha’u’llah asserts. The reason given for this prohibition is twofold.

First, such seclusion prevents individuals from pursuing a craft or profession that benefits the rest of humanity. In the Baha’i Faith, all individuals are strongly encouraged to “obtain a livelihood by sweat of the brow and bodily exertion” 2 and work is described as a sacred act of worship on the same plane as prayer and meditation – at least if it is performed in a spirit of sacrifice.

But perhaps even more interesting, given the previous quotations regarding wealth and poverty, is the second reason Baha’u’llah forbids such extreme forms of self-deprivation.

Baha’u’llah states:

Should a man wish to adorn himself with the ornaments of the earth, to wear its apparels, or partake of the benefits it can bestow, no harm can befall him…. Eat ye, O people, of the good things which God hath allowed you, and deprive not yourselves from His wondrous bounties. Render thanks and praise unto Him, and be of them that are truly thankful.

Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah

In some respects, these two concepts may appear to be somewhat contradictory.

Why would Baha’u’llah warn of the dangers of wealth and praise the benefits of poverty on the one hand while encouraging us to “adorn [ourselves] with the ornaments of the earth” on the other? If poverty is a blessing, why would Baha’u’llah prohibit us from the extreme forms of self-renunciation commonly practiced by the pious of former religious dispensations?

From my perspective, this apparent paradox can be most easily resolved by considering whether wealth is being treated as a means or simply an end. While Baha’u’llah repeatedly warns of the dangers of wealth, it is not material luxury itself that is inherently dangerous, but rather the attachment to and pursuit of wealth as a primary purpose of existence.

In the above quote from Baha’u’llah, in which He sanctions the enjoyment of all the material pleasures this world has to offer, He places one important caveat upon this statement: one may take full advantage of the benefits of this physical world “if he alloweth nothing whatever to intervene between him and God.”

Although this distinction is often lost in discussions of wealth, particularly in the West, this concept has long been a central principle of Buddhism.

E. F. Schumacher, a well known researcher and theorist who has written extensively on the principles of “Buddhist Economics,” summarizes this perspective nicely: “It is not wealth that stands in the way of liberation but the attachment to wealth; not the enjoyment of pleasurable things but the craving for them.”

Abdu’l-Baha, the eldest son of Baha’u’llah, synthesizes much of the previous quotations in the following statement:

It should not be imagined that the writer’s earlier remarks constitute a denunciation of wealth or a commendation of poverty. Wealth is praiseworthy in the highest degree, if it is acquired by an individual’s own efforts and the grace of God, in commerce, agriculture, art and industry, and if it be expended for philanthropic purposes.

The Secret of Divine Civilization

With these teachings in mind, we can see that there is nothing inherently wrong with material prosperity. However, there is one more point regarding the Baha’i Faith’s teachings on wealth that should be noted.

One of the central principles of the Baha’i Faith is that the world is currently in a state of disequilibrium, particularly in regards to wealth. Thus, as Abdu’l-Baha’s above quote alludes to, one of the most urgent tasks for Baha’is is to devise ways to more justly and equitably distribute resources among all of humanity. We must not only be detached from wealth and material comforts, but also strive to help all of humanity meet their physical needs and reduce the deleterious effects of poverty.

If we were to try and summarize all of these teachings in a few points, they would therefore go something like this:

  1. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the benefits of this material existence.
  2. However, wealth can be one of the greatest hindrances to spiritual growth and, particularly for those of us blessed with material prosperity, we must be ever mindful of our tendency to become attached to luxuries and physical comfort.
  3. While there is nothing inherently wrong with wealth, the extreme inequalities of wealth and poverty are detrimental to the spiritual and social development of humanity.
  4. The Baha’i Faith is actively working toward ensuring the just and fruitful distribution of wealth and resources for the enjoyment of all of humanity.

What are your thoughts on how to strike the right balance in your own lives, and on the efforts to achieve economic justice on a global level? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!


Footnotes & Citations
  1. Matthew 19:24, King James Bible[]
  2. Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 186[]
Posted by

Matt Giani

Matt Giani is a research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on stratification and social mobility in education, with an emphasis on helping underprivileged students make successful transitions to college after high school. Matt draws his inspiration from his exuberant daughter Clara, his incredible wife Shadi, and the Baha'i teachings.

Discussion 18 Comments

A well-written essay in my view, encapsulating the main themes from the Writings on this vitally important topic.

Ian Dogby (July 7, 2012 at 6:35 AM)

Loved your article – don’t know how to reblog it to my blog – next best thing – Facebook- will put on

Esther Bradley-DeTally (July 7, 2012 at 12:01 AM)

If you go to the following link, a sub-section of my website, you will find some additional perspectives on the environment from a Baha’i who has been associated with this latest of the Abrahamic religions for nearly 60 years: http://www.ronpriceepoch.com/Environmental.html

RonPrice (July 7, 2012 at 1:52 AM)

Thanks so much for this wonderful post Matt! I’m really hoping to read more from you!

Naysan (July 7, 2012 at 3:11 AM)

Great Article Matt!

Roya (July 7, 2012 at 4:29 AM)

Thank you all so much! This is my first time writing for Baha’i Blog so I appreciate all of your positive feedback!

I actually just realized that I forgot one of the most important points I wanted to communicate with this post, an idea in response to the question: “How can I make sure I stay detached from wealth and material comforts?”

There are surely many ways to do so, but in my opinion one of the most effective is to simply say the short obligatory prayer daily. The phrase in this prayer, “…I testify, at this moment, to my powerlessness and to Thy might, to my poverty and to Thy wealth…” is a great way to remind ourselves daily of the true source of wealth (God). If we keep this in mind I think it can help us stay detached from worldly things.

That’s it for now, thanks again everyone!

Matt Giani (July 7, 2012 at 2:31 PM)

Thank you for this post. It is very well written and well thought out. I just found this blog and I’m loving it!

Nayyan (July 7, 2012 at 8:08 AM)

This is great, Matt! I really enjoyed reading this. I hope you have more articles to come =)

Colby Badiyan (August 8, 2012 at 12:49 AM)

nice article! defintely requires lot of thinking, and selfless actions.

siraj parmer (August 8, 2012 at 3:51 AM)

Kudos on this wonderful essay!! It is tough to know whether we’re striking actually striking a balance in American given the culture in which we are embedded, but for me giving to the Fund and paying down debt in an accelerated way is one way that I seek to achieve a balance. When it comes to this issue, I think it is important to both challenge ourselves to achieve a higher standard and be forgiving of ourselves as well. I don’t believe guilt is ever productive, but realizing the ability to strive harder and rise to greater heights can motivate us to transform.

It’s also important that we, as a collective, develop an understanding of the holistic purpose of material resources. Of course, we should use money to benefit ourselves and our families, but what about the human family? How responsible should we feel towards members of the human family who are deeply impoverished to the point of starvation? I think the ‘materialistic framework’ encourages us to place boundaries around our money, and these boundaries can lead to an unhealthy approach to material resources and the development of vices such as ‘greed’, over-consumption, and attachment to luxury. In a lot of ways, the way we spend money or accumulate wealth is an expression of the scope of our hearts. Once a substantial collection of ‘hearts’ learn to embrace all of humanity as members of their own families, these extremes of wealth and poverty will fade away.

Jamar (November 11, 2012 at 7:35 PM)

Just came across this blog this morning. I really enjoyed the balance of perspective the article presented. It shed a light on my own perspectives and brought the words of the writings in to illumine my understandings. Thank you!

Munirih Sparrow (November 11, 2012 at 4:11 PM)

Good article. Concise and straight to the point. Hoping to read more from you.
I will try to share it with some none baha’is, with every opportunity that comes my way.

Thank you.

Beatrice (January 1, 2013 at 4:36 PM)

Some of you may find of interest a book that I wrote on the topic of wealth. The title is: “The Binary Elements of Wealth.” and subtitled.it, “Hyper-linking the material and Spiritual.” It can be found on Amazon.

Below is a short brief found on the books back cover.

Wealth… So desired, yet so illusive… to so many. Why? Empowered by the surprising answer, the reader learns of wealth’s true meaning and more! The book resolves as an unwarranted quandary, the age-old conflict between the material and the spiritual. It exposes the tangible and the intangible as the hyper-linked binary elements of all assets, liabilities, and worth. Offering practical applications to everyday life, the work further reveals wealth’s hidden dual personality. The result of gaining this understanding leads to the betterment of our tangible existence and the tranquility of our souls. When seeing the material as the hardware of existence and recognizing the spiritual as the software of life, the reader will gain an improved quality of life, will grasps that the physical is not a springboard for temptation, and will further learn that the creation of wealth is not a material dilemma. The author warns that divorcing the material and spiritual is always personally endangering and socially apocalyptic. He shows the clear logical reasons why human worth is a divine bestowal, and that the human spirit is indeed intrepid. By coupling the universal aspirations of worth, independence, and fulfillment-the three themes of the trilogy-he offers a unique solution to the enigma of time: past, present, and future. “Wealth is not solely measured in gold, riches, or treasure, but possesses an inseparable spiritual element,” so states the author.

James Tate (January 1, 2013 at 12:11 PM)

This is a great article, however I think by mentioning only half of the Hidden Words (53) about wealth, give the opposite essence of the “wealth” in the Baha’i Faith….. it goes further with:

“53: O YE THAT PRIDE YOURSELVES ON MORTAL RICHES!…”

O YE THAT PRIDE YOURSELVES ON MORTAL RICHES! Know ye in truth that wealth is a mighty barrier between the seeker and his desire, the lover and his beloved. The rich, but for a few, shall in no wise attain the court of His presence nor enter the city of content and resignation.
*
Well is it then with him, who, being rich, is not hindered by his riches from the eternal kingdom, nor deprived by them of imperishable dominion. By the Most Great Name! The splendor of such a wealthy man shall illuminate the dwellers of heaven even as the sun enlightens the people of the earth!

I believe this part is the key to the progress of the world both spiritually (being wealthy but not its prisoner), and financially ( being wealthy and able to make changes and provide for those less fortunate people) as well as the individuals.

Looking forward to read more articles from you.

Annie P. (June 6, 2013 at 6:24 PM)

Abdul’Baha states in one passage that wealth provides for the immediate advancement of mankind (not an exact quote) and then in the Seven Valleys Baha’u’llah also states that poverty, and thus wealth are of several different degrees, many of which are spiritual in nature. We are meant to give to the Huquq in the utmost joy and in the Summons of the Lord of Hosts Baha’u’llah tells us that whatever we give of our substance God will give double in return.

Joseph Davis (August 8, 2013 at 6:22 AM)

stumbled upon your blog and I love it! Will be reading more 😉

Sahar maknouni (December 12, 2014 at 9:09 AM)

Fantastic article!!! Now I want more 🙂 I’d be interested in your thoughts about the applications of the Law of God in attaining wealth. Thanks!

Janna (April 4, 2018 at 4:01 PM)

Remember Matthew 5:3 Blessed are the poor IN SPIRIT for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven, and Baha’u’llah’s “poverty is my Glory” (7 & 4). Could this be about focusing on Baha’u’llah alone, since we are lights, not bodies?

Tom Halstead (December 12, 2018 at 12:35 PM)

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