In a world increasingly driven by consumer culture and financialisation, debt has become a ubiquitous aspect of life for many individuals and nations. Islam offers profound insights into the handling of debt, encouraging timely repayment and promoting a life free of debt. Debt is a serious matter in Islam. It is a responsibility that should not be taken lightly or neglected. The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) used to seek refuge with Allah from being overburdened by debt and he warned against lying and breaking promises when dealing with debt. In this article, we will explore some of the Islamic teachings and principles regarding debt and how to repay it in a timely and ethical manner.
THE ISLAMIC VIEW ON DEBT
Islam does not prohibit debt; it recognises the fact that people may face circumstances that necessitate borrowing. However, it emphasises caution, responsibility, and most importantly, the intention and effort to repay the debt promptly. One of the foundational elements in Islamic financial ethics is the prohibition of 'Riba' (usury or interest). This reflects, among many other things, the Islamic principle of social justice, ensuring that the burden of risk is not disproportionately placed on the borrower and preventing exploitative lending practices. Here, the Shariah protects the borrowers and debtors. The Shariah encourages lenders to go easy with debtors, and in fact, Shariah promotes helping those struggling with interest-free loans as well as grants.
THE VIRTUE OF PROMPT REPAYMENT
Shariah is a perfect balance. Whilst it has guidance addressed to the creditor to guide their conduct, Shariah also protects creditors and lenders, and has guidance addressed to borrowers and debtors. The following guidance shows how Shariah balances the rights and ensures everyone’s rights are upheld.
The virtues of repaying debts promptly are emphasised throughout the teachings of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). Paying off debt is a virtue and a means of attaining Allah's reward and forgiveness. It is a way of fulfilling one's duty and honouring one's trust. It is also a way of expressing gratitude and kindness to the creditor who helped the debtor in his time of need.
The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said, "Whoever takes a loan intending to repay it, Allah will help him, and whoever takes a loan intending to waste it, Allah will destroy him." [Sunan Ibn Majah]
He also said, "If anyone remits anything from a debt owed to him, he will have that amount recorded for him as a charity." [Sunan Abu Dawud]
In another Hadith it was reported: "The soul of the believer is suspended because of the debt until it is settled." [Tirmidhi] This Hadith indicates the serious implications of dying in a state of debt and underscores the urgency of repayment.
The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) would supplicate to Allah to save him from debt. He would say, “O Allah, I seek refuge in You from a soul that does not satisfy and from a heart that does not humble itself and from a supplication not heard and from knowledge that does not benefit and from a deed not raised up and from a debt that never ends.” (Musnad Ahmad)
In another narration, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) sought Allah’s refuge from debt. Abdullah ibn Umar narrates, "When the Prophet contracted a debt transaction, he would say: O Allah, I seek refuge in Thee from care and sorrow, from incapacity and laziness, from stinginess and cowardice, and I seek refuge in Thee from the burden of debt and from being humbled by people." [Abu Dawud]
Whilst prompt payment has been encouraged, unjustified delay has severe warnings. Abu Hurairah reported that the Messenger of Allah said: "Procrastination (delay) in repaying debts by a wealthy person is injustice." [Bukhari]
Hence, the AAOIFI Standards unequivocally state: “Default in payment by a debtor who is capable of paying the debt is Haram (prohibited).”
In one narration, he said: “Delay in payment by a solvent debtor would be a legal ground for his being publicly dishonoured and punished.” [Musnad Ahmad]
ADVICE TO THE CREDITORS
Islam is beautiful in that it addresses all parties with that which concerns them. Each party is given guidance to ensure that they are doing their best that they can do, that they are being the best version of themselves. Just as debtors are warned on delaying payment unnecessarily, creditors are encouraged to go easy. Giving loans to the needy is a noble act of charity and kindness in Islam. It is a way of helping others and relieving their distress.
The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said, "A man would give loans to the people and he would say to his servant: If the debtor is in hardship you should forgive the debt that perhaps Allah will relieve us. So when he met Allah, then Allah relieved him." [Sahih Bukhari]
It is also encouraged to give respite or deferment to the debtor if he is unable to pay on time. The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: “Whoever gives respite to one in difficulty, he will have (the reward of) an act of charity for each day. Whoever gives him respite after payment becomes due, will have (the reward of) an act of charity equal to (the amount of the loan) for each day.” [Sunan Ibn Majah]
Moreover, it is permissible to reduce the amount of the debt or waive it altogether as a gesture of generosity and goodwill. The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said, "If anyone remits anything from a debt owed to him he will have that amount recorded for him as a charity." [Sunan Abu Dawud]
DEBT AND SOCIETY: A BROADER PERSPECTIVE
Islam does not just focus on individual actions but also considers social responsibilities and collective well-being. Helping those in debt is seen as a meritorious act, leading to divine reward.
In one narration, it is stated, "Whoever relieves a believer's distress of the distressful aspects of this world, Allah will rescue him from a difficulty of the difficulties of the Hereafter… and whoever alleviates [the situation of] one in dire straits who cannot repay his debt, Allah will alleviate his lot in both this world and in the Hereafter." [Sahih Muslim]
THE PRACTICAL ASPECT: MANAGING DEBT
Given the emphasis on prompt debt repayment and avoiding debt where possible, Islam encourages pragmatic approaches to financial management. This includes effective budgeting, prudent spending, and exploration of viable income sources before resorting to borrowing. Furthermore, when borrowing is deemed necessary, it encourages a clear understanding and documentation of the debt terms to prevent future disputes or misunderstandings.
In the Islamic worldview, debt is not merely a financial issue but a matter involving ethics, morality, and social responsibility. While borrowing is not prohibited, there is a clear emphasis on the virtues of prompt repayment and the spiritual and ethical implications of living a debt-free life. Furthermore, the alleviation of others' debt is seen as a meritorious act, showcasing the communal and compassionate dimensions of Islamic financial ethics.This holistic approach can offer valuable insights for contemporary societies grappling with the ethical and societal implications of widespread indebtedness. Ultimately, the Islamic teachings on debt prompt individuals to practice responsible borrowing, timely repayment, and to strive for a life free from the burdens of debt.