The Concept of Charity in Islam


By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan


Charity, preached by every religion of the world, is a way of bringing justice to society. And justice is the essence of religion, Islam has therefore made charity, that is zakat, obligatory and binding upon all those who embrace the faith; it has been made into an institution in order to give in permanence and regularity.

All human beings, according to Islam, have been created by one and the same God, and for this reason they belong to one great brotherhood. All being descendants of the same progenitor, Adam and Eve, they should naturally be each other's well-wishers. They must willingly come to one another's assistance, like members of the same large family. Islam has, therefore, laid the greatest of emphasis on the support of destitute and disabled members of society. It is a sacred duty of the wealthy to give part of their possessions to fulfill the needs of the deprived sections of the community.

A society can flourish only when its members do not spend all their wealth on the satisfaction of their own desires but reserve a portion of it for parents, relatives neighbors, the poor and the incapacitated. As the saying goes: Charity begins at home. A true believer is thus always prepared, after meeting the needs of his family, to assist other people in need of his help.

There are two forms of charity in Islam - obligatory and voluntary, called zakat and sadaqa respectively. Zakah, from the verb zaka, which signifies "to thrive," "to be wholesome," "to be pure" means purification. Giving up of a portion of the wealth one may possess in excess of what is needed for sustenance, is to "purify" or legalize it so that the remainder may lawfully be used by the alms giver.

Deducting zakat from one's earnings is a material acknowledgment of the fact that the actual giver is God. Since the giver is God, the recipient is duty bound to spend it in His cause.

The law of zakat is to take from those who have wealth and give it away to those who do not. This rotation of wealth is a way to balance social inequality.

Islam has established this institution to make concern for the poor a permanent and compulsory duty. This means an annual contribution of two and a half percent of one's income to public welfare. The rate on other types of wealth such as agricultural produce and jewelry is more. It is incumbent on minors and adults, males and females, living or dead.

Islamic law empowers the Islamic State or Community to collect such contributions and keep a separate account of them. The funds thus accumulated must be spent on the eight categories specified in the Qur'an(2:177) namely, the poor and the destitute, the wayfarer, the bankrupt, the needy, converts, captives, the collectors of zakat, and in the cause of God. The last category allows such funds to be used for the general welfare of the community - for the education of the people, for public works, and for any other need of the Muslim community.

Zakat in spirit is an act of worship while in its external form it is the carrying out of social service. It is thus not just the payment of a tax as it is generally understood but is rather an act of religious significance. Its importance is underscored by the fact that the Qur'an treats it at par with salat(prayer). The Qur'an frequently enjoins the believers 'to perform the worship and pay the zakat.' It goes to the extent of saying that one cannot attain righteousness unless one spends out of one's wealth for the love of God: "By no means shall you attain righteousness, unless you give of that which you love."(3:92)

So the test of charity lies not in giving away something we have discarded but the things that we value greatly, something that we love. It is unselfishness that God demands. It may be in any form - one's personal efforts, talents, skill, learning, property or possessions.

The demand of Islam that all its followers should spend their wealth freely on the common good of society cannot be fully met by the payment of the obligatory levy of zakat. According to a hadith the Prophet observed: "In one's wealth there is a due (to God and His men) besides zakat." Hadrat Ali, the fourth Caliph, explained this hadith thus: "God has ordained that the rich are to pay out of their wealth to that extent which is sufficient for the needs of the poor; so that if they do not find food and clothing, or any other need remains to be fulfilled, it would be because the rich are not doing their duty, and for this God will take them to task on the Day of Judgment."

According to Abdullah ibn Umar, the great religious scholar of the first phase of Islam, "If the zakat levy is insufficient to meet the needs of the poor; then it is the duty of the rich of every town to put the poor on their feet."

Abu Zar Ghifari, a companion of the Prophet, reported that the Prophet, while sitting in the shade of the Kabah wall, said, "They are the losers." Abu Zar enquired, "who are they, O Messenger of God?" The Prophet replied: "Those who pile up heaps of wealth and(pointing in all directions with his hands) do not spend like this and this." (Bukhari and Muslim)

There are many verses in the Qur'an and many traditions of the Prophet making it quite clear that there is a due over and above zakat and that the wealthy are not relieved of their duties solely on payment of zakat.

The Qur'an uses the word 'haq,' the right of the poor; so what the wealthy man is asked to give is not charity but that which should come back to the poor, as a matter of right.

All the expenditure of people in need in an Islamic society is covered by sadaqat (meaning literally 'righteousness' from the root sadaqa, to speak the truth, to be true) - a very wide term used in the Qur'an. (In Islamic literature, this is referred to as sadaqat al tatawwu, or spontaneous alms-giving). According to Ibn Arabi(Akham al-Quran, 2/946-7), alms-giving is called sadaqat to indicate the sincerity(sidk) of the giver's religious belief. He goes on to say that sadaqat is a voluntary act of worship, a choice made of one's own free will. If the act is other than voluntary, it has no religious merit. "For man makes it obligatory for himself, just as God makes mercy obligatory for Himself towards those who repent." The only difference between sadaqat and zakat(the latter being a terms widely used in Quran and the hadith) is that while both kinds of alms-giving are necessarily voluntary (that being the reason for the word sadaqat covering both forms of contribution) the former is the result of an inspiration on the part of the donor as befits certain sets of circumstances, whereas zakat is given on the basis of a fixed percentage of the donor's wealth, (nisab) so that the amount given will vary not according to the needs of a particular donee, but according to the earnings of the donor. In the case of zakat there is also a system of collection set up under Islamic law and there are persons appointed as collectors of these dues. The money thus collected is meant for the general benefit of the community. In the case of sadaqat, the bequest is made directly and spontaneously from one individual to another and the amount given is at the discretion of the giver.

If a very high standard has been set for charity, it is because zakat and sadaqat are performed by believers not just as moral obligations to society, but as sincere endeavors to gain God's pleasure. In his commentary on the Quran, Abdullah Yusuf Ali writes:

  1. "It must be in the way of God
  2. It must expect no reward in this world
  3. It must not be followed by reference or reminders to the acts of charity
  4. Still less should any annoyance or injury be caused to the recipient e.g. by boasting that the giver relieved the person in the hour of need.
"

Thus the spirit of kindness and well wishing is the essence of charity. The giver is not to expect any reward from the beneficiary as there awaits for him an abundant reward from God - material, moral and spiritual - what God deems it best to confer on His servant.

The Quran in verses 264 and 271 of the second chapter, warns us against spending "to be seen of men". This is false charity. Alms-giving with this motive is worse than not giving away anything at all. In verse 265 God gives a beautiful parable to illustrate the true nature of charity. It is like a field with good soil on a hillside. it catches good showers of rain and the moisture penetrates the soil. The favourable conditions increase in output enormously. So a man of true charity is spiritually healthy. He is the most likely to attract God's bounties. The Quran goes on to give four parables to explain the truly spiritual nature of charity (2:261:206). These parables explain how true charity bears on the whole of our lives.

Since charity is purely for the sake of God, it has value only if something good and valuable is given. It should be lawfully earned or acquired by the giver. It should include such things as are of use and value to others. Charity is, in the words of the Prophet, to place a thing in the palm of God. It is therefore obvious that placing worthless things in the hand of God dishonours Him.

There are some people who think that acts of charity would ruin them. Abdullah Yusuf Ali comments on such doubts: "No kind or generous act ever ruled one." We have never heard of anyone who, due to his generosity to good causes, has been impoverished. It is because God has promised to shower such a person with greater bounties(2:268). On the other hand, false generosity, that is, extravagant expenditure for show or self indulgence does lead people to ruin.

In verse 273 the Quran states that "Charity is for those in need." This is general principle which enjoins us to help people in need, be they good or bad, on the right path or not, Muslims or non-Muslims. We are not supposed to judge in these matters. The chief ends in charity, as reiterated here, should be God's pleasure and our own spiritual good. This verse in the first instance was revealed in Madina, but it is of general applications.

The concept of charity in Islam is thus linked with justice. It is not limited to the redressal of grievances. It implies apart from the removal of handicaps, the recognition of the right that every human being has to attain the fullness of life.

The spirit of helping others to earn God's pleasure is best reflected in Muslim society in the field of education. Inspired by traditions of the Prophet that the greatest charity for a Muslim being to learn something and then teaching it to others(Ahmad) Muslims in large numbers have devoted themselves to other's education generation after generation.

Knowledge is the most wonderful thing in the whole universe. That is why there is nothing greater then knowledge being imparted by one human being to another. Muslims on a large scale have engaged themselves in receiving education and imparting it to others, individually as well as by establishing maktabs and madrasas, that is, primary schools and Colleges. These educational institutions established in the house of the teachers or in separate buildings, generally made no charges for instruction. During the medieval period, these madrasas flourished in tens of thousands throughout the Muslim world. The wealthy people helped in running these madrasas, not only though zakat, but also by making endowments, (wakf) of their properties as these madrasas. The income from these properties met the needs of these schools. The orphans and poor people were given stipends over and above free board and lodging (Promotion of Learning in India madrasas W.N. H. 104-5)

Sadaqa in the form of wakf is known as sadaqa-e-jaria, i.e. permanent alms. Helping someone to establish himself in business, giving someone a proper education; helping someone to recover from some disease by monetary assistance to looking after the orphans and the destitute; giving scholarships to students, all such charitable works, come under sadaka jaria - that is why so many centres of social welfare have continued to function in the Muslim community. It is unfortunate that the figures of individuals assisting people in need are not available. There are such traditions as stress the importance of giving sadaqa in the holy month of Ramazan. Therefore, in this month of fasting, almost all those who can afford it help the poor people in one way or another. The reward for giving voluntary alms in secret is seventy times that of giving it publicly(Al-Baydawi, Anwar al-Tanazil, 2/211).

Sadaqat is a very wide term and is used in the Quran to cover all kinds of charity. Its scope is so vast that even the poor who can have nothing tangible to give can offer sadaqa in the shape of a smile or a glass of water to a thirsty person, or they may even just utter a kindly word. Good conduct is frequently termed sadaqa in the hadith. Planting something from which a person, bird or animal later eats also counts as sadaqa. In this extended sense, acts of loving kindness, even greeting another with a cheerful face, is regarded as sadaqa. In short, every good deal is sadaqa.

The Practice of Sadaqa

Inspired by the verses of the Quran and the traditions and practices of the Prophet and his companions, the giving of Sadaqa to individuals or institutions remained widespread among the Muslims. The Prophet was the most generous of men. He used to give with his own hand. When asked for anything, he never refused. If he had nothing to give, he would borrow from one of his companions and pay him later.

The Prophet's wives were also known for their alms-giving. Of them Zaynab bint Jahsh was the most generous and was called by the Prophet "the longest in arm." She was also known as the "mother of the poor" (umm al-masakin) for her alms-giving. Aisha, the youngest wife of the Prophet too was known as the mother of the poor."(Al-Ghazali, Ihya ulum al-din, vol-1/298). Whenever anyone uttered words of blessing for her, she used to return the same with some aims. After them we have shining examples of generosity set by the pious caliphs. Once when the Prophet urged them to give sadaka . Umar bin al Khattab brought half of what he owned, but only to find that once again Abu Bakr had outdone him by giving away all that he had.There is very interesting example of the generosity of Usman, the third Caliph. During the Caliphate of Abu Bakr people were in great distress due to a drought. The Caliph told them to remain patient, for God would soon relieve them. Before long Usman's caravan arrived with its merchandise from Syria. There were one thousand camels in it, all of them loaded with wheat and foodstuffs from Syria. When the news got around Madina, all the great traders of Madina rapidly converged on Usman's house. When he emerged to meet them, they expressed their urgent desire to purchase the foodstuffs so that they could pass it on to those towns people who needed it.

Ushering them inside, he asked them how much profit they were prepared to give him on the merchandise. "Twelve dirhams on every ten dirhams worth," they replied. "But I can get a better price," said Usman. "Then we'll give you fourteen," Usman again said that he could get a better price, whereupon they put their price up to fifteen dirhams. But Usman stood firm. Bewildered by his attitude, they asked him who could give him a better price, considering that all of the merchants of Madina were already assembled there "I can get ten dirhams for every dirhams's worth," he told them, then asked them if any one of them could give a better price than that. No one spoke up. Then Usman recited the verse of the Quran which says that those who do good will be rewarded tenfold (6:60). He explained to them that he intended to give away all the wheat and other foodstuffs to the needy people of Madina.

According to the teachings of Islam the giving of sadaqa serves a number of functions. Sadaqa first and foremost act as expiation for sins. The believers are asked to give sadaqa immediately following any transgression (Ihya-e-Ulumuddin, Al-Ghazzali, 1/298). Voluntary alms-giving can also compensate for any shortcoming in the past payment of zakat, Sadaqa also gives protection against all kinds of evil. Sadaqa wards off affliction in this world, questioning in the grave and punishment on Judgment Day. (Ismail Hakki, Tafsir Ruh-alBayan, 1/418). It is therefore recommended to give sadaqa by night and by day, in secret and in public to seek God's pleasure (Quran, 2:274). The constant giving of a little is said to please God more than the occasional giving of much. Sadaqa is also a means of moral edification.

Date: 30 March 2000

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