Charity in Islam

Dr. Bilal A. Bhat, Intizar Ahmad

Dr. Bilal A. Bhat & Intizar Ahmad
Islam calls upon its followers to reach out with open hands, and give in charity as a way of life. In the Quran, charity is often mentioned along with prayer, as one of the factors that identify true believers. In addition, the Quran frequently uses the words “regular charity,” so charity is best as an ongoing and consistent activity, not just a one-off here and there for a special cause. Charity should be part of the very fiber of your personality as a Muslim. The existence of countless starving, poor, hungry and destitute Muslims and non-Muslims in the world points to the need for this essential teaching to be put into practice. Affluent Muslims may not realize how their wealth could strengthen whole communities. Giving charity correctly is crucial to both the well-being of the needy as well as the ultimate happiness of the wealthy. The Prophet emphasized this principle repeatedly. Several different categories of charity are defined in Islam, the two most important being zakat (obligatory charity) and sadaqa (voluntary charity). Zakat is a specific, standardized percentage of one’s extra wealth (over and above the necessities of life) that must be given to the poor and those in need. Sadaqa can be given to anyone in many forms including a smile, wise advice, or helping to build a home or masjid. The Prophet said: “Your smile for your brother is a charity. Your removal of stones, thorns or bones from the paths of people is a charity. Your guidance of a person who is lost is a charity.” (Bukhari) Another Hadith 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 Prophet said: “The believer’s shade on the Day of Resurrection will be his charity.” (Al-Tirmidhi) On the day when all other shade will be gone, Allah will shade and shelter those who give charity and care for the poor. The Muslim’s sacrifice in this life will be their protection on the Day of Judgment. By sacrificing part of one’s wealth and giving it in charity, the individual is guaranteeing protection for themselves from tragedy and misfortune. The Prophet said: “Give charity without delay, for it stands in the way of calamity.” (Al-Tirmidhi) It is considered better to give charity than receive it. One should be wary of repeatedly soliciting and taking from sadaqa and zakat funds. Those who refrain from taking these funds (so that more will be left for the other needy) will be provided for by Allah and be made self-reliant by Him. The Prophet said: “The upper hand is better than the lower hand (he who gives is better than him who takes). One should start giving first to his dependents. And the best object of charity is that which is given by a wealthy person (from the money left after his expenses). And whoever abstains from asking others for some financial help, Allah will give him and save him from asking others, Allah will make him self-sufficient.” (Al-Bukhari) The Prophet said: “If anyone would like Allah to save him from the hardships of the Day of Resurrection, he should give more time to his debtor who is short of money, or remit his debt altogether.” (Muslim) If someone owes you money, it is considered charity if you show mercy, give the debtor more time to pay back his loan, or even cancel out the person’s debt. If charity is a person’s shade on the Day of Judgment, canceling a person’s debt will also serve as a protection. It is acceptable to give one’s charity to those in need in one’s own family. The Prophet said: “To give something to a poor man brings one reward, while giving the same to a needy relation brings two: one for charity and the other for respecting the family ties.” (Al-Tirmidhi) It is important to note that we should be careful of greed. The longer one holds onto money and fails to share it as charity, the harder it may be later on to part with that hoarded wealth. Hiding away one’s wealth and depriving the needy of even a small kindness will not only come back to haunt the greedy, but their misfortune will be multiplied and they will be led down a misguided path. The Prophet said: “Avoid doing injustice to others, for on the Day of Judgment, it will turn into manifold darkness, and safeguard yourself against miserliness, for it ruined those who were before you. It incited them to murder and treating the unlawful as lawful.” (Muslim) If a person performs a deed that continues to benefit others in a good way, the performer of the deed will continue to collect the rewards for her single act for as long as it benefits others (even after the person passes away). This is referred to as sadaqa jariyah, or perpetual charity. The Prophet said: “When a person dies his works end, except for three: ongoing charity, knowledge that is benefited from, and a righteous child who prays for him.” (Muslim, Al-Tirmidhi, others) The degree of the reward is dependent on the degree and significance of the benefit of the charitable act, and to what degree the charity was given for the sake of Allah.
“Never will you attain the good [reward] until you spend [in the way of Allah ] from that which you love. And whatever you spend – indeed, Allah is Knowing of it.” [Quran 3:92]
The Muslim community is not merely a religious community in a narrow sense. Historically, it also represented a context where moral and social values of the faith could be translated into action as the Muslim community expanded through conversion and conquest. As giving and ethics became integrally connected to evolving Muslim practice, procedures for collection and distribution of individual charitable giving gradually became institutionalized. According to the Quran, true sovereignty belongs to God. The Prophet [peace be upon him], his successors, the community and even the state act merely as the instruments by which moral and spiritual ideals can be translated into society. Individuals within society are trustees through whom the moral and spiritual vision of the Quran is fulfilled in personal and community life. They are thus accountable for the way they use their resources and wealth, and they earn religious merit by utilizing them in a socially beneficial way. The Quran emphasizes social solidarity as an ideal that enjoins both justice and generosity (Q16:90). While condemning the hoarders of wealth (Q3:180), it upholds as truly virtuous those who spend from their resources to assist others (Q57:18). The necessity and value of giving are articulated in the Quran through a number of terms. The meanings of these terms are integrated with one another, and they are often used interchangeably. The most significant terms are sadaqa and zakat. While the word sadaqa and its various forms have come to be interpreted in the more restricted sense of voluntary rather than obligatory giving, in its original context sadaqa reflects the idea of righteousness or truth, endowing acts of giving with moral agency. Many derivatives of sadaqa are found in the Quran. One passage (Q9:104-5) links God’s acceptance of repentance with sadaqa, thus suggesting its value as an expiation. Such a theme is further extended by linking fasting and sadaqa (Q2:196) as ways of fulfilling obligations of the Hajj (Pilgrimage) if, for example, illness prevents its completion. Thus not every sadaqa needs to be a gift of material value. It can also consist of voluntary effort freely given (Q9:79). The Quran is critical of those who give in order to appear generous. Sadaqa is better given discreetly to those in need rather than for the purpose of public acknowledgement (Q2:271). In fact, ostentatious public behaviour renders a charitable act self-serving, thereby negating or compromising its value (Q2:264). The Quran not only elaborates the uses to which sadaqa may be put, but also specifies the types of recipient who ought to benefit from it (Q9:60). Worthy recipients include those afflicted by poverty and those in need and incapable of assisting themselves. Over time, the term zakat came to be distinguished by Muslim jurists from sadaqa and conceived as obligatory almsgiving. This restricted sense is not obvious in the Quran, where the term is often used interchangeably with sadaqa (eg Q9:60). As used in the Quran, zakat suggests that giving is simultaneously cleansing of oneself and one’s property; through sharing, it enhances the capacity of others. This kind of giving is compared in the Quran to rain that further nourishes a fertile garden whose yield is doubled (Q2:265). The word zakat is explicitly linked to other primary acts of belief and practice of the faith, further extending the principle of almsgiving and intertwining the practice of sadaqa and zakat. It was prophetic practice that provided indications for the more specific institutionalization and modes of collection of zakat. In general, one was to give according to one’s capacity, based on what had been generated from resources in one’s possession. While generosity is commended, due attention to family as well as personal needs is also emphasized. Giving is also associated with reward from God in the verse that urges individuals to offer God ‘a beautiful loan’, which through God’s bounty will be multiplied many times over (Q2:245; Q57:11). Since God is deemed to be the ultimate giver, such offerings are interpreted merely as acts of returning to God what is ultimately due to His generosity. With the growth of the Muslim Umma in Medina, procedures for the collection and distribution of sadaqa and zakat were elaborated within the interconnected and evolving political, moral and social order. By the time of the Prophet’s death in 632 CE a framework of practices governing the collection and distribution of the sadaqa and zakat contributions had already developed. The record of this period suggests that the early Muslim community oversaw and directed the assessment, collection and distribution of dues, entrusting specially appointed collectors to distribute the dues to the intended recipients. Even in the Prophet’s time giving was not left simply at the level of voluntary action; attempts were made to create an institutional structure. Zakat thus becomes an obligatory contribution while sadaqa is conceived of as supererogatory – beyond the demands of duty. In distinguishing between zakat and sadaqa, jurists pointed out that while the former had limits attached to it and its uses were specified, sadaqa could be unlimited.
Early Muslim scholars devoted significant effort to developing as complete a picture as possible of the Prophet’s life, actions and words in the hadith, the accounts transmitted by his family, companions and others from the early generations of Muslims. Scholars then developed this record of his life into an exemplary precedent, the Sunna, a moral and ethical reference point for the community. In some of the hadith, sadaqa encompasses every good deed and all kinds of assistance, even removing an obstacle from the road that would hinder travellers. It also includes actions such as the planting of things from which human beings, birds and animals might benefit in the future. Some of the Prophet’s sayings emphasize the non-monetary and non-material value of almsgiving, so that a poor man’s offering of a small amount is deemed to be more meritorious than a rich person’s donation of a large sum. The Prophet’s own behaviour was perceived as exemplary in the matter of almsgiving and his generous and selfless behaviour a model to be emulated. Among the institutions that developed out of Prophetic precedent were those that expressed the Quranic value of ‘gifting to God a beautiful loan’ (Q73:20; 64:17). Such acts of giving, which placed resources such as land or buildings into perpetual trust for charitable uses, became a very important part of Muslim practice. These pious endowments (awqaf; singular waqf) allowed a founder to extend his or her giving beyond the immediately visible objects of charity and even beyond the lifetime of the founder. Endowments were used to endow mosques, madrasas (centres of learning), hospitals, water fountains and other facilities that were beneficial for the public. When in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, nation-states assumed control of awqaf to a degree virtually unknown in earlier Islamic societies, many Muslims abandoned this major form of institutional charity, deeply wounding a valuable, flourishing tradition of civil society in the Muslim world. Practices such as zakat, sadaqa and the waqf offer opportunities to rethink the relevance of historical social welfare and charitable practices in contemporary Muslim social and economic life. As the majority of Muslims live in what is considered the developing world, the fundamental Quranic values of social justice and equitable distribution of resources should figure prominently in discussions of the relevance of religion to public policies and of private philanthropic action to the welfare of society. Some modern Muslim thinkers have advocated the integration of zakat into the overall tax system in Muslim countries to develop further the ideal social welfare state. In recent times, Sudan and Pakistan have adopted specific policies to incorporate zakat into their fiscal framework rather than leave it as a private and personal. In the case of Pakistan, a zakat fund was created in 1979 to disburse mandatory contributions through a centralized state bureaucracy for a variety of causes. Other Muslim countries endowed with greater wealth or natural resources have implemented policies of providing assistance, in the context of zakat, to poorer Muslim countries. It is within the framework of voluntary giving, however, that the most innovative and sustainable adaptations of the Quranic spirit have occurred. Many Muslims in many parts of the world, individually or as a community, have translated Quranic philanthropic values – along with broader humanistic values of compassion and service – into voluntary associations and charitable organizations. They generally target the most vulnerable groups in societies: the poor, the unemployed, women and children and, increasingly, refugees and victims of war and violence. Thus Charity serves as a way to bring justice, balance and kindness to every society and community. It is our hope that the Muslim community fulfills their charitable duty correctly and does their part to eliminating poverty in communities everywhere. In the present lockdown to control COVID-19 spread, it is the duty of every human being to to provide support to the needy and destitute. Disasters natural or man made strike hardest on more vulnerable groups i.e., the poor, and especially women, children and the elderly so it is very important we take utmost care of these. May Allah grant us peace, sabr, health and guidance …Ameen!
(The authors write regularly on Islamic topics for Kashmir Horizon exclusively. Views are their own, bhat_bilal@rediffmail.com)

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