By no means shall you attain righteousness, unless you give of that which you love.
- Holy Quran 3: 92
The idea that helping others is part of a meaningful life has been around for thousands of years. For Muslims, charity is a central aspect of their faith and practice. In Islam, a culture of giving is interwoven into the fabric of its forms of worship. Helping the poor is a religious mandate. The traditions of humanitarian stewardship and egalitarian values are at the foundation of Islamic beliefs. Governed by a worldview in which all things come from God and finally return to God, Muslims are taught to live as trustees of God’s blessings. Islam is a complete way of life and one important facet is that there is a duty to serve those who are less privileged than us. The equitable division of the wealth of society and bounty of the earth between all people, regardless of their social station, through the instrument of charity, is seen not just as an act of piety but a cardinal obligation for Muslims. Ramadan is the focal point of philanthropy and during this month, Islam’s obligation to give to the poor intensifies.
The Arab societies have elaborate and nuanced social codes demanding excessive generosity and hospitality to visitors and strangers. This is embedded in the ancient Arab proverb:
"A guest is greeted like a prince, held like a captive [to your generosity] and departs like a poet [to sing your praises]."
Muslims are taught to live as trustees of God’s blessings. Along with fasting and prayers, charity is a cardinal act of piety. The Holy Qur’an provides both a spiritual framework for the possession of wealth, and practical guidelines for its dispensation. The Qur’an enjoins that if we believe that all things ultimately belong to God, then it behoves on us to spend everything in accordance with the plan of God. Frugality with self and generosity with others underpins the Qur’anic message of charity.
Muslims give in the form of either Zakah or Zakat, which is mandatory giving, or Sadaqa, which is voluntary and meant to go beyond the mere religious obligations. Ramadan threads nearly 2 billion Muslims around the world together under a common tradition. This social bond is deepened in Ramadan through Zakat. Zakat is more of a social contract between rich and poor societies where serving others in distress and hardship is an unconditional moral command. The idea of zakat is based on the direct, legitimate claim of the poor on the wealth of the rich. Zakat means purification and comes from the Arabic verb Zakah, which also signifies “to thrive,” “to be pure” and “to be wholesome.” Muslims "purify" their wealth by giving a portion of it every year in charity. As the Qur’an says:
“Of their goods, take Zakat, so that you might purify and sanctify them.” (Q9:103).
In the Islamic faith, five foundational goals - known as Maqasid al Sharia, include the protection of faith, progeny, life, wealth and intellect. According to the rules of the Qur’an, all Muslims, on whom Zakat is mandatory, must donate at least 2.5 per cent of their assets each year for the benefit of the poor, destitute and others – classified as mustahik. The 2.5 per cent rate only applies to cash, gold and silver, and commercial items. There are other rates for farm and mining produce, and for animals.
In the Islamic belief, the spending of wealth for the sake of Allah, the Almighty, purifies the heart of the love of material wealth and sharpens the impulses of benevolence. In a way, the man who spends of his wealth affirms the truth that nothing is dearer to him in life than the love of Allah and that he is fully prepared to sacrifice everything for His sake. The Qur’an emphasizes:
“And be steadfast in prayer and regular in charity: And whatever good ye send forth for your souls before you, ye shall find it with Allah” (Q2:110) Zakat is a right that the poor have over us as for, “those in whose wealth there is a recognised right for the needy and the poor” (Q 70:24-25).
Zakat is levied on five categories of property — food grains, fruit, camels, cattle, sheep, and goats, gold and silver; and movable goods — and is payable each year after one year’s possession. The beneficiaries of Zakat are mentioned in the Quran:
“(Zakat) charity is only for the poor, and the needy and those employed to administer it and those whose hearts are made to incline (to truth), and (to free) the captives and those in debt, and in the way of Allah and for the wayfarer”. (Q9:60).
Deeply embedded in the Islamic concept of Zakat are the notions of welfare, altruism and justice which can be seen as a way of harnessing human potential to resolve insurmountable challenges to human society. In other words, charity and altruism are rooted in the basic concern for the welfare of others, while Islam has added to it the notion of justice, which is seen as a way of building a just and equitable society. According to the Qur’an:
“The likeness of those who spend their wealth in the way of Allah is as the likeness of a grain that sprouts seven spikes. In every spike there are 100 grains, and Allah multiplies for whom He will”. (Q 2:261).
In the Qur’an, the significance of Zakat appears to be equal to prayer as an expression of faith. The two are often mentioned simultaneously in the symmetrical rhythm of the Holy Book's verses.
It is the human predilection for riches that the Qur’an cautions against, yet it acknowledges that spiritually immature souls may jeopardise their own moral standing by indulging in reckless acts of charity that leave them destitute. Some verses (including Q17:29 and 25:67) speak of maintaining a balance between extravagance and parsimony. This is in recognition of human nature, which has the dual impulses of compassion and an inherent love of wealth. In this way, Islam’s legal teachings counsel temperance and prudence; whereas Islam’s spiritual teachings urge selflessness and generosity.
In the Islamic paradigm, charity is not restricted just to money or physical goods. It also covers all actins based on a simple understanding that what really ties an individual to a common humanity is compassion.
A well known saying of the Prophet illustrates the importance of every part of a person’s body performing a charity:
“A charity is due for every joint in each person on every day the sun comes up: to act justly between two people is a charity; to help a man with his mount, lifting him onto it or hoisting up his belongings onto it, is a charity; a good word is a charity; and removing a harmful thing from the road is a charity.” (Al-Bukhari, Muslim)
The real magic of giving lies in the way you give. It must not be with an eye on the returns. Giving with motives attached not only nullifies one’s own happiness but also burdens the receiver. After planting your seeds, you should expect absolutely nothing in return. It is nobler to follow the Biblical injunction. “Let not thy right hand know what thy left hand doeth.” When you give to someone with no strings attached you are as nourished as the receiver. The Qur’an reiterates:
“They feed with food -despite their own desire for it-
the indigent, and the orphan and the captive (saying):
‘We feed you purely for the sake of God.
We desire no reward from you, nor thankfulness.’”
Kahlil Gibran emphasizes that we should give with our whole being, with our whole heart, a pouring out of our entire love – remember, half a seed cannot germinate. He writes in The Prophet: “You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.” He further suggests: “Give while the season of giving is here so that your coffer is not empty when you die.”
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