By Muhammad Yunus & Ashfaque Ullah Syed
16 June, 2015
(Published exclusively on New Age Islam with Permission of the authors and publishers)
17. Social Responsibility
17.1. Qur’anic Warning against Selfishness
In some of its early passages (Suras 89 and 90), 1 the Qur’an warns it audience of their innate selfishness, their inordinate greed for riches, their eagerness to consume their inheritance, and their lack of concern for the poor.
“As for man, whenever his Lord tries him by honouring him, and bestowing favour on him, he says: ‘My Lord has honoured me (89:15). But when He tries him, and restricts his provision for him, he says: ‘My Lord has disgraced me’ (16). Nay! But you do not respect the orphan (17), nor do you encourage (others) to feed the poor (18) and you consume inheritance with all-consuming greed (19) and you love wealth with intense passion” (89:20).
“We have created man in distress (90:4). Does he think no one has power over him (5)? He says, I have used up much wealth (6). Does he think that no one sees him (7)? Did I not make for him two eyes (8), and a tongue, and two lips (9), and guided him to the two highways (10)? But he does not brave the steep (one) (11). And what will make you understand what the steep (one) is (12)? (It is) freeing a slave (13), or feeding during famine (14) an orphaned relative (15), or the needy (lying) in the dust (16). Then he will be of those who believe, who exhort to patience, and exhort to mercy” (90:17).
17.2. Broader Social Responsibilities
With the progress of the revelation, the Qur’an becomes more explicit and categorical in reminding its audience of their broader social responsibilities, and declares:
“Give their due to relatives, and to the needy and the traveller (Ibn Al-Sabil), 2 and do not squander wastefully (17:26), for those who squander are the brethren of Satan, and Satan is ungrateful to his Lord (27). But if you (have to) turn away from them awaiting God's mercy which you may expect, then (at least) speak to them courteously (28). Do not keep your hands chained to your neck, nor stretch it out to (the limits) of its reach - lest you sit back blamed and destitute” (17:29).
“Give their due to relatives, and to the needy and the traveler.2 This is best for those who seek God’s favour,* and it is they who shall succeed” (30:38). *[Lit., ‘Countenance of God’]
17.3. Kindness to People of All Faiths
In its legislative phase in the Medinite period, the Qur’an reiterates its precepts on social responsibilities (2:215, 2:177, 4:36-38), warns against miserliness and ostentation (4:37/38) and enjoins helping out all people regardless of faith (4:36).
“They ask you (O Muhammad,) what they should spend. Say: ‘Whatever fair (earnings) you spend, should be on (your) parents, relatives, orphans, the needy and the traveler’2 (Remember,) whatever good you do, God remains Cognizant of it” (2:215).
“(God does not love) those who are miserly and encourage people (to be) miserly, or hide what God has given them of His bounty. (Remember,) We have prepared a humiliating punishment for the disbelievers (4:37): those who spend their wealth for publicity, but have no faith in God or the hereafter. (Remember,) anyone who takes Satan for a friend, has an evil companion” (4:38)
“Serve God; associate none with Him; be kind to parents, relatives (Qurba), orphans, and the needy; to the neighbour close to you (Qurba) and the neighbour who is a stranger, to the fellow (sahib)3 by your side and the traveler,2 and to those under your lawful trust. Surely God does not love the arrogant and the conceited” (4:36).
The verse speaks about two categories of people described as Qurba: a word that traditionally connotes relative, as rendered in its first appearance. However, the word literally means ‘the close ones.’ Therefore, in the second instance it understandably stands for people who are close enough, but not necessarily relatives.4 The subsequent reference to the neighbor who is a ‘stranger’ neither a relative, nor ‘close enough,’ must therefore include anyone, regardless of religion, nationality, or race. In other words, this verse explicitly calls for kindness to all people including strangers who may belong to other faiths, nationalities or races.
17.4. Kindness to Parents
Due to various reasons - social, economical and financial, children often ignore or do not take care of their parents and are at times harsh and rude to them. Hence, to maintain family harmony and justice, the Qur’an commands the believers to be kind to parents (29:8/Ch. 11.2; 17:23/24, 31:14/15, 46:15).
“Your Lord has decreed that you serve none except Him, and be kind to parents. If one or both of them reaches old age with you - never say uff*, nor scold them, and speak to them in noble words (17:23); and lower your shoulder (of humility) to them with affection, and say: ‘My Lord! Have mercy on both of them - as they nurtured me (when I was) small’” (17:24). *[An Arabic utterance, indicative of deep frustration]
“We have enjoined on man (kindness) to his parents. His mother bore him with spell after spell of weakness, and his weaning takes two years. So be grateful to Me and to your parents, and (remember,) the journey is to Me (31:14). If they press you to associate with Me that, of which you have no knowledge - do not obey them (in religion,) but give them company in this world decently, and follow the path of one who turns to Me. (Remember,) you will (eventually) return to Me, and I will tell you what you did” (31:15).
“We have enjoined on man kindness to his parents. His mother bore him with hardship, and gave him birth painfully. His bearing and his weaning are for thirty months,5 until he grows strong. Then when he attains full maturity reaching forty years, let him say: ‘My Lord, inspire me to be grateful for the favour you have bestowed on me and on my parents, and (dispose me) to do good deeds that you approve, and be gracious to me in respect of my offspring. Indeed, I turn to You (in repentance), and I am among those who submit (Muslimun)’” (46:15).
1. 107:3/Ch. 7.1; 51:19, 69:34.
2. The expression Ibn Al-Sabil literally means ‘the son of the street.’ Traditionally, it is translated, befittingly, as traveller, as at the time of the revelation (and through to the recent centuries) many travellers ended up as destitute and homeless in foreign lands, without any means to returning to their homelands. In today’s context the expression may be applied to the countless homeless people that may be found taking shelter on street sides, parks, under highways and on the pavements near railway stations in many parts of the world.
3. The word sahab connotes any human being - an inmate, a companion, colleague, an associate, or anyone for that matter, who comes our way.
4. Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’an, Gibraltar 1980, Chap. 4, Note 47.
5. The 30-months period of hardship mentioned in 46:15 as against two years (24-months) in 31:14 for only weaning is due to inclusion of six months of ‘bearing' period (haml) in 46:15. This is understandably because the embryo is barely six centimetres long at the end of ten weeks, and forms an effective burden of pregnancy only after the third month of pregnancy. [W.J.Hamilton, Introduction to Biology, 3rd edition,U.K. 1976, p. 115.]
18. Spending Money on the Needy
At an early stage of the revelation, the Qur’an introduces its revolutionary concept of sharing of one’s income with the needy in a highly poetic imagery:
“By the night as it covers (the day) (92:1), by the day and its glory (2), and by the creation of the male and the female (3) - your striving is to diverse ends (4). As for him who gives and heeds (5), and endorses goodness (6), We shall facilitate for him the easy (way) (7). And as for him who is miserly and (feels) self-sufficient (8), and belies goodness (9), We shall facilitate for him the (path to) hardship (10). His wealth will be of no avail as he goes down (to his grave)” (92:11).
The bulk of Qur’anic verses on spending for the needy were revealed in the Medinite period when Muslims were flourishing and many of them were in a position to spend for their needy relatives and fellowmen. Its statements take into account the behavioural aspects and crafty machinations of human mind, as can be clearly seen in the renderings of its verses.
18.1. To Spend In one’s Lifetime 1
“Who is it that will lend God a generous loan, which He will multiply for him many folds? (Remember,) God can take away as well as give in abundance, and you (all) will (eventually) return to Him” (2:245)
“You who believe, spend of what We have given you before there comes a Day in which there will be no bartering, no friendship, and no intercession; and as for the disbelievers - they are the unjust” (2:254).
“You who believe, let neither your wealth nor your children distract you from God’s remembrance. Those who do so – it is they who will be the losers (63:9). So spend (in charity) out of what We have given you before death comes to any of you, and he says: ‘My Lord, why not grant me delay for a short while that I give in charity and be among the righteous’” (63:10).
18.2. To Budget the Charity within One’s Means
“Spend in God's way, yet do not expose yourself to ruin through your own hands, and do good – for indeed, God loves the compassionate” (2:195).
18.3. Charity May Be Given Openly or Secretly
“And whatever you may spend (in charity) or promise you swear, surely God knows it; but there are no helpers for the unjust (2:270). If you (give in) charity openly, it is fine, but if you keep it secret and give it to the needy, it is even better for you, and it will atone for some of your sins. (Remember,) God is Informed of what you do (271). It is not up to you (O Muhammad,) to guide them, since God (alone) guides whom He wills. Whatever you spend for a good (cause) is for yourself - as you do not spend but to please God - and whatever you spend for a good (cause), shall be repaid to you in full, and you shall not be wronged” (2:272).
“Those who spend their wealth (in charity) - night and day, secretly and openly - they have their reward with their Lord: there will be no fear upon them nor shall they grieve”(2:274).
“Those who are patient in seeking the favor* of their Lord and keep up prayer and spend (in charity) of what We have given them, secretly and openly, and repel evil with good – it is they who shall attain (fulfilment in) the eternal abode” (13:22). *[Lit., ‘Countenance’]
18.4. Not To Hurt The Recipient’s Sentiments
“Those who spend their wealth in God’s way, and do not follow up on what is spent with reproach or with abuse - for them, their reward is with their Lord - there will be no fear upon them, nor shall they grieve” (2:262).
“Kind words and forgiveness are better than an act of charity followed by abuse. (Remember,) God is Self-Sufficient and Gracious” (2:263).
“You who believe, do not nullify your charity by reproach or abuse, like someone who spends his wealth only to be seen in public - while he does not believe in God, nor in the hereafter. His example is that of a boulder with some soil on it; when rainstorm strikes it, leaves it barren: they can do nothing with whatever they have earned. (Remember,) God does not guide the disbelieving people” (2:264)
18.5. Ignoring Ill Feelings While Helping Others
“Let not the resourceful among you who have abundance swear not to give to relatives, needy, and those who fled along God’s way. Let them forgive and overlook. Don’t you like that God should forgive you? (Remember,) God is Most Forgiving and Merciful” (24:22).
18.6. Giving Only the Good Things in Charity
“You who believe, spend (in charity) of the good things you have earned, and from what We have produced for you from the earth. Do not choose the bad things from it for your spending, that you would not take except with disdain; and know that God is Self-Sufficient and Praiseworthy” (2:267).
“You can never acquire virtue (birr)* unless you spend (in charity) what you care for. (Remember,) whatever you spend – surely God remains Cognizant of it” (3:92). *[Lit., ‘moral excellence’]
18.7. Curbing One’s Inborn Greed and Desires
“Your wealth and your children are only a trial, while God (holds) a splendid reward with Him (64:15). So heed God as best you can, listen, obey and spend (in charity) for your own good. And anyone who curbs his inborn greed – it is they who shall succeed (64:16). (Remember,) if you give a generous loan to God, He will multiply it for you, and forgive you, for God is Appreciative and Gracious” (64:17)
“Anyone who fears (to face) the Presence of his Lord and restrains his soul from lowly desires (79:40) – surely the garden will be (his) abode” (79:41).
18.8. The Recipient Categories of Charity
“Charities are for the poor (Fuqara’) and the needy (Masakin) and the workers (who administer) them, and for those who have embraced faith*, and for (freeing) the slaves, and for (assisting) debtors, and (for spending) in God's way, and for the traveller (ibn al-sabil)2 – an ordinance (Faridah) from God. (Remember,) God is All-Knowing and Wise” (9:60) *[Lit., ‘whose hearts have reconciled’]
1. The underlined stipulation of this verse from Surah al- Maidah revealed in the concluding phase of the revelation, legislates charity (Sadaqah) as a compulsory obligation (Faridah) for all Muslims, who can afford to give charity. Later Caliph Umar institutionalized it as the Zakat (Ch. 46)
2. According to a written clarification of Caliph Umar to the Custodian of the Zakat fund,3 the words Fuqara’ and Masakin in the opening part of the verse, rendered as ‘the poor and the needy’, represent the poor and needy from Muslims (Fuqara’), and non-Muslims (Masakin) respectively. Thus the rendering of the verse should ideally read:“Charity is (meant) for the poor (Muslims,) and the poor (of any other religion)…”
3: The verse calls for giving charity to, among others, i) those who have embraced faith, and ii) slaves for buying their freedom. The slaves who embraced faith are included in the former category (i). Therefore, the slaves who are to be given charity to buy their freedom (ii above), must be the non-Muslim ones.
18.9. The Qur’an Discourages Beggary
“(Charity is for) the poor (fuqara’), who being confined in God’s cause, are unable to exert on earth (for livelihood). The ignorant think them to be self-sufficient because of their modesty, but you shall know them by their looks, as they do not beg of people with impunity. (Remember,) whatever good (things) you spend – surely God remains Cognizant of it” (2:273).
The verse indicates the Qur’an’s general disapproval of beggary. The Qur’an however does not emphasize this point in its broader message as disasters and calamities force their victims to ask for help.
1. 57:11, 57:18.
2. See Note 2/Ch. 17 for broader meaning.
3. Shibli Noumani, al-Faruq, 1898, Karachi reprint 1991, p. 250.
Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. KhaledAbou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.