By Ziauddin Sardar
May 19, 2008
The Qur'an is concerned that we understand the nature and purpose of charity, and hence that there are right and wrong ways in which it can be dispensed. For believers, it is a way of "affirmation of their own faith". Charity is about accepting an obligation towards and responsibility for the conditions in which our fellow citizens, our fellow human beings live.
One of the most fundamental teachings of the Qur'an, indeed the foundation of its vision, is that we cannot be good in isolation. The real affirmation of faith is to appreciate the common humanity of all people and work to improve life for everyone. This improvement must be achieved by respecting, preserving and uplifting their human dignity.
The objective of charity is to create a world of justice and equity, of opportunity for all. This must include intervening to tackle the problem of poverty which erodes human dignity and blights the potential of those who endure it.
The entire thrust of the attitude towards charity set out in this passage is that it is not about emphasising the division between the haves and the have-nots but eradicating it. We achieve this as much through the act of giving to charity as in the effects of that giving in the lives of its recipients.
So the Qur'an suggests something very profound: that given in charity should consist of the best we have, not the kind of things we would ourselves disdain. Charity is not about giving away our cast-offs. It is not about a paternalistic attitude that looks down on those in need and suggests that second best is good enough for the poor. Charity is not about hand-me-downs, it is the helping hand up.
Giving in charity is distinct from Zakat, the obligatory poor due, a tax payable by all Muslims on an annual basis. Zakat is one of the pillars of Islam and it creates a communal fund designed to be used for specific social welfare purposes. These verses make clear that paying Zakat is not the end of our obligation and responsibility to others. Wherever need endures, so too does our obligation to do whatever is in our power by distributing and sharing the good things we have been given.
While giving in charity is necessary to achieve the objective of the Qur'an - the betterment of each individual person and of society and humanity as a whole - it has some major pitfalls. If charity is to be about eradicating the distinctions between the poor and the wealthy then it must not become a vanity project. It must not serve to illustrate how much more some people have than others.
A harsh word can undermine all the good that charity may bring: "a kind word and forgiveness is better than a charitable deed followed by hurtful (words)" (verse 264), the kind that humiliate those in need by making them feel inadequate because they are poor. And in like manner charity distributed to stress one's benevolence defeats its purpose of improving understanding of the plight of others by focusing on the person who gives.
Charity is not given to gain favours, to acquire status in society, or to draw attention to oneself - "to be seen by men" - all of which motives are rather common in contemporary society. I cannot argue with the objective of Band Aid and Comic Relief, but shouldn't we question whether they have become a convention that depends on drawing attention to our giving, on suggesting that only if we get fun and entertainment and a pat on the back for our efforts are we prepared to give to those in need.
Are we really doing the right thing in encouraging kids to go from door to door rustling up sponsorship so that they can give money to charity? Is that exactly how we should teach the etiquette of charity to the next generation? While there is nothing wrong in giving charity openly, ultimately what we have to learn is there never should or can be compassion fatigue because charity is solely for the pleasure of God, whose compassion is infinite. It is an act of worship that connects you directly to God and should be private and discreet if we are to appreciate and understand it's real meaning.
I love the similes used in this passage. We have "grains of corn", "garden on a hill", arable land that benefits from rainfall, and rocky land that cannot grow anything. The similes introduce a new kind of logic - where things increase by subtraction. So spending one's wealth to support humanity and humane causes, is likened to "grains of corn that produce seven ears, each bearing a hundred grains" (verse 261). In this way, one actually adds to one's wealth by subtracting from it!
If you are true to the technique of giving, you "double" your yield: your reward in the heavens and here in this world, like a garden on a hill that benefits from rainfall. But if you do not follow the basic rules for giving than you are "like a like a rock with earth on it: heavy rain falls and leaves it completely bare" (verse 264) - it is in fact not charity at all but a pretentious act designed to gain fame and fortune, perhaps increase your sales or fill column inches in newspapers and slots on television.
The idea being conveyed here is that genuine charity, given generously, constantly and continuously, "by night and by day, in private and in public" (verse 274), will not make you poor but rich. This is why in this passage we are told no less than three times that "those who spend their wealth in God's causes" should have confidence in their actions: there is "no fear for them, nor will they grieve" (verses 263, 274 and 277).
But what are "God's causes"? The "needy" are described as "wholly occupied in God's way and cannot travel in the land (for trade)" (verse 273). "God's way" here does not mean engagement solely in what are conventionally seen as religious activities. Rather, it means serving, and providing services for, humanity at large: working for betterment of society, seeking socially beneficial knowledge, researching diseases to fight illness, building schools and hospitals, helping refugees and displaced people, providing support to victims of natural disasters or man's inhumanity to man, and fighting injustice, inequity, and social ills. Such "needy" individuals and social institutions, too preoccupied with serving humanity, cannot engage in economic activities but need the constant and continuous support of the believers to survive and flourish. When the Qur'an talks about giving charity openly it is referring to subscriptions for works of public utility, for the advancement of social and public welfare.
And it seems to me to that to practice genuine charity, as described here; we must jettison the idea that because we have the means we somehow know more and know better than other people. I am thinking particularly about the attitudes associated with foreign aid, which often creates dependence rather than self-reliance, that gives technology and services which enable donor nations to make a net profit on the deal, or which fail to harness the existing knowledge and skills of the recipients.
The call to give to charity, emphasised again and again in this passage, can be seen as the Qur'an's way of urging the Muslims to establish charity as a tangible and perpetual institution for the social transformation of society. In classical Islam, such institutions were known as Waqfs, or "pious foundations". Muslims seeking spiritual advancement would not only perform good works but would also leave a legacy in the form of property or a plot of land as a trust for the benefit of humanity. The individual establishing the Waqf would specify its purpose clearly and appoint a legally responsible person or group to carry out its function with knowledge and experience. Such trusts supported universities and hospitals, scholarship and learning, and funded research and travel. As George Makdisi shows in his detailed study, The Rise of Colleges, waqfs played a vital part supporting the flourishing of science and civilisation in classical Islam.
Contemporary Muslims, I believe, have forgotten the intellectual, educational, scientific and cultural dimensions of charity. Charity amongst Muslims is now associated almost solely with building mosques and responding to natural disasters. We need to recover the scope, imagination and creativity these verses imply in ways relevant to the extent of need in contemporary society at home and abroad.
The Pleasures of Generosity
By Madeleine Bunting
May 19, 2008
The first of these - 261-267 - are wonderful verses. I love the imagery of the land. It has a practicality and immediate accessibility. It resonates with anyone who has seen how a flood can wash earth away and leave the pitted, barren surface of rock; it's a powerful image of the soul, the fragility of the characteristics which will ensure its fertility.
That fragility is reiterated in the images of a fertile garden of palm trees and vines and how they can be blasted by a whirlwind. I see in this a vivid reminder of how precarious human goodness is, rather than a more straightforward reading that this verse is about the power of God to punish.
The essence of the teaching is also so important - don't boast about your giving nor accompany it with "hurtful words". I see in the latter a reference to all the many ways in which charity can be accompanied by patronising self-satisfaction.
One of the most memorable things I have learnt from Islam was contained in a comment a Muslim friend once made to me that a gift should be accompanied by thanks - not by the recipient but by the giver: they should thank the person for giving them the opportunity to give. It has stuck with me for years and I try to apply it in many different ways. It is always the giver who needs to give thanks because they are experiencing one of life's great pleasures.
Just a couple of specific points on which it would be good to hear Zia expand. Firstly, I was a little troubled by the idea that "Satan threatens you with the prospect of poverty". Does that mean that the poor are stigmatised as having been the object of punishment? And secondly, a more obvious issue which I hope Zia will tackle is usury. It's a fascinating issue - usury was also subject to a ban by Christians for much of their first millennium.