Redefining a Social Contract

By Rama Ayman

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #5
Bahá'í­ National Center: Wilmette, Illinois, USA
March 31 – April 2, 1995
(see list of papers from #5)


    Why do we work? Why do we have an obligation to work? And why do we feel we have to work well? Such questions have intrigued the minds of individuals as diverse as the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and the avaricious French aristocrats of the fifteenth century. Indeed, understanding the reasons to work beyond acquiring the necessities and luxuries of life has perplexed the human soul since the first glimmers of the work place arose on the horizon of an ever-advancing civilization.

    In modem secular society, especially in the Western world, several conceptual constructs have provided frameworks for rationalizing a work ethic that obligates the individual to excel in his/her occupation both in quality and in quantity. Such a rationalization has provided the warp and woof for the drive to enhance productivity and performance. Three of the most popular conceptual frameworks define work as a means of sustenance; a vehicle for economic transactions; a moral imperative. Each framework ultimately defines work as a social contract which binds the individual to society. Namely, the individual works, and in return he/she receives his/her sustenance, material rewards, or moral rewards.

    The Bahá'í Faith has revolutionized modem work ethics by making a paradigm shift from the previous frameworks that define work as a means to obtain a reward. This paradigm shift, in effect, formulates an opposition. to the current underpinning of the concept of work a social contract. The Faith opposes the view that work is simply a means to obtain a reward, whether material or spiritual. Instead, it defines work as a spiritual obligation-an engagement exalted to worship of God (Kitáb-i-Aqdas #33). In the Aqdas Bahá'u'lláh obligates the individual to engage in some occupation (#33), and for the first time in religious history, He forbids both idleness and sloth and the act of begging (#147). Bahá'u'lláh further states that the implementation of this new theological imperative is the mutual responsibility of society and the individual.

    Clearly the manifestation of this new paradigm in society will have a profound impact on how individuals view work. No longer defining work as merely an economic or an ethical task, humanity will view work as a spiritual act--a means of one's spiritual growth. Thus, the paradigm will change society's perspective of how it defines itself and how it functions on a day to day basis.

    This presentation will be three-fold: It will elaborate on the paradigm shift introduced by Bahá'u'lláh in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas regarding the concept of work; it will contrast His definition to those current in society, and it will discuss the resulting implications of this paradigm shift on the workings of current society.

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