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Islam and Spiritualism ( 10 Jun 2015, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Spiritual and Sociological Significance of the Islamic Concept and Practice of Charity

By Prof. Henry Francis B. Espiritu, New Age Islam

11 June, 2015

1. The Universe as Almighty Allah’s Perpetual Act of Charity (Sadaqah)

            According to Islam; Almighty Allah, the One and Only God, created the whole of creation out of the overflowing of His generosity and merciful love for His creatures.  One of the Blessed Names of Allah Almighty is Al-Wadud, which means, “the Loving Well-wisher of one-and-all”. Almighty Allah’s Name, Al-Wadud (The All-Loving) demonstrates that it is Allah’s nature to perpetually manifest compassion and love to the whole ongoing universe; and this divine love flows towards His creation as the means for the preservation of the cosmos. This divine well-wishing is Almighty Allah’s perpetual act of charity and mercy to all his creatures (See, Hazrat Ibn Arabi, Ahkam al-Quran. Lucknow, India: Isha’at Islami Kutabkhana, 1979; pp. 175-180). As human beings whose source of origin and dependence of existence come from Almighty Allah’s munificence, we should spiritually manifest God’s attribute of Al-Wadud by being charitable to everyone and by being a genuine well-wisher to fellow humans; especially to those who are in dire need of our assistance. For this reason, Islam, being a religion of genuine mercy and compassion, greatly stressed on the duty of all Muslims to support the poor and the needy in society. All Muslims, with no exceptions, are enjoined to manifest kindness and charity to the deprived and the distressed fellow humans. In the words of Hazrat Abdullah Baba Bulleh Shah, a great Sufi saint of Punjab: “No one is so poor that he cannot give something to his fellow humans. No one is so deprived of Allah’s provisions that he can turn a blind eye to the cries of the needy” (Hazrat Baba Bulleh Shah Qadri, Abyaat-e-Baba Bulleh Shah. Multan: Majlis-e-Baba Bulleh Shah, 1986; p. 54).

In the perspective of Islamic sociology as practiced by the exemplar, the Holy Prophet Muhammad, the act of charity as prescribed by the Divine Law (Shari’ah) is a way of bringing societal equity and is an effective means of manifesting justice to one’s community. Islam, as a religion that seeks to manifest Divine justice to the world has elevated charity to the level of sacred obligation to all those who name themselves Muslims (Al-Qur’an, Surah Baqarah: 177; Surah Insan: 8, 9). The Muslim Ummah can take great strides in spiritual development towards genuine Islamic Renaissance when believers, purged out of their greed, vanity, and caprice begin to generously and cheerfully spend a portion of their wealth in charity to the destitute for the sole purpose of winning Almighty Allah’s pleasure (Raza). A genuine believer curbs his animalistic instincts, extravagant passions, and capricious wants by constant acts of charity and by performing meritorious deeds of benevolence to the needy, the unloved, and the impoverished.

2. Zakah and Sadaqah as Concrete Manifestations of the Islamic Understanding of Charity

Islam establishes two kinds of charities: Zakah and sadaqah. Zakah, in Arabic literally means, “to bloom,” “to be wholesome,” “to be pure”, and “to refine a thing”, to prune a branch (See Shaykh Nasser al-Hurayni. Qamus-e-Alam; 6th abridged edition. Cairo, Egypt: Sayyidah Maimoonah Press, 1963, in the Zakah entry). Zakah implies spiritual purification from the entanglements of our material possessions. Giving up a fragment of our resources which we own in excess of what is needed for our survival, is to “purify” and to make our resources “wholesome” so that it may be cleansed from monetary greed and worldly attachments. Deducting Zakah from one’s income is a spiritual discipline and a fitting acknowledgment of the fact that the actual giver of bounties is God, from whose benevolence all blessings emanate. Since the Provider of every provision is God, we the recipient of His kindness is duty bound to spend some portion of His provisions for His cause and for His good pleasure.

The distribution of our Zakah also signifies that true Muslims can let go of their wealth by utilizing it for the service of humanity. True Muslims are they who prioritize Allah’s Laws and service to humanity as having topmost precedence in their lives. True Muslims are those who can sacrifice a portion of their wealth in behalf of suffering humanity. The Islamic law governing Zakah is to take from those who have wealth and give it away to those who do not. This circulation of wealth is a way to balance social inequality and to spiritually promote distributive justice. The Holy Prophet of Islam established the institution of Zakah to make concern for the poor a permanent and compulsory duty to those who called themselves Muslims. The commandment of paying charity, in its form as Zakah is mentioned in the Quran-an twenty-seven (27) times along with the establishment of the daily formal liturgical prayers (Salah) (See; Osman Nuri Topbas Effendi, Islam: Spirit and Form. Istanbul: Erkam Publishers, 2003; pp.189-190). This shows the significance that Almighty Allah attached to this pillar of Islamic faith.

In Islam, religious injunctions of the Shariah (Divine Law) are divided into two aspects; Huquq-ul-Llahi (Divine rights) and Huquq-ul-Ibad (rights of other persons). Zakah is a form of worship since it belongs to the rights of Allah that believers dispense charity. Allah Himself in no uncertain terms commanded the giving of charity. Charity-giving belongs also to the rights of other persons because for Islam the needy in the society have also rights over a portion of our wealth. Therefore, the bestowing of charity to the needy is one of the Islamic pillars that intersect both the rights of Allah and the rights of society. Charity-giving is both a divine worship and a societal duty of all Muslims. This is why the Qur’an juxtaposes the command to give Zakah together with the command to keep one’s daily prayers. If the believers do not pay his charity, his prayers will not be answered. In the words of the Holy Prophet;

“If a person prays but does not give his alms-due, his prayers are worthless and valueless in the sight of Allah; and Allah will not listen to his supplications” (Hadith quoted by Osman Nuri Topbas Effendi, Islam: Spirit and Form; p. 190).

To emphasize further, Zakah in its spiritual dimension is an act of worship while in its external form it is the carrying out of community service (Khidmat). It is therefore not just the external payment of a tax as it is apparently understood but is rather an act of deep sacred significance befitting divine worship. Its importance is underlined by the fact that the Qur-an treats it as being equal to Salah (five daily prayers). The Qur'an frequently enjoins the believers “to perform prayers and to pay the zakah.” 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:

“You cannot attain to righteousness, unless you spend out of what you love. And what you spend, Allah surely knows it” (Al-Quran-an Ahl-Imran: 92).

Therefore, from the aforementioned Quranic passage, it is clearly articulated that the test of charity lies not in giving away something we have discarded but the things that we value greatly, something that we cherish. It is the sincerity in giving-up what we love and hold dear that greatly pleases Allah Almighty. 

3. The Socio-Ethical Significance of the Prophetic Injunction to Dispense Charity to the Needy

The requirement of Islam that all its adherents should spend their wealth freely for the common good of society is not only limited to the payment of the obligatory collection of Zakah. According to a Hadith, the Prophet observed:

In one's wealth there is a charity due to God and His people, and this is Zakah; but over this, one can dispense his wealth generously by way of voluntary almsgiving (sadaqah) based on his sincere intention (Ikhlas) (See: An-Nasaai, As-Siyam 2; Al-Infaq, 6).

Soon after the death of the Prophet, the first holy Caliph of Islam, Hazrat Abu Bakr Siddiq, strongly emphasized on the need to be mindful of the giving of charity as clearly expressed in the abovementioned Hadith to the wayward Arabs who apostatized from Islam by their denying of Zakah as one of the pillars of faith. Hazrat Abu Bakr admonished the Arab dissidents in this manner:

Allah 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 negligence, Allah will take them to task on the Day of Judgment. Consequently, those who give the rights of the poor by paying Zakah, Allah’s mercy and forgiveness will descend on them with abundance—and the poor will pray for their forgiveness and will bless them (Hazrat Maseehullah Khan Chishti Sherwani, The Peerless Abu Bakr Siddique Akbar: The Confidant of the Prophet. Azaadville, South Africa: Darool-Uloom Azaadville, 1968; p. 52).

Aside from Zakah, the expenditure of the people in need in an Islamic society is covered by the faithful’s freewill and voluntary charity called sadaqah (from Arabic, meaning, “righteousness” from the root Sadaqah, “to speak the truth”, “to be true”, “to be truthful”, and “to be faithful”, “to be honest”, “to be trustworthy”)—a very wide term used in the Qur’an (See Shaykh Nasser al-Hurayni. Qamus-e-Alam 6th abridged edition, op.cit., in the Sadaqah entry). According to the great Sufi saint and mystic, Hazrat Muhaiyuddin Ibn Arabi, almsgiving is called Sadaqah to indicate the truthfulness (Sidq) and sincerity (Ikhlas) of the giver's inward faith. Hazrat Ibn Arabi goes on to say that Siddiqah is a voluntary act of worship, a choice made out of one's own freewill. If the act of giving Sadaqah is something forced-upon or done out of compulsion, it has no religious merit whatsoever (Hazrat Muhaiyuddin Ibn Arabi, Ahkam al-Quran, op., cit.; p. 180). Hazrat Ibn Arabi says:

For if man makes the giving of Siddiqah incumbent for himself out of love for Allah; then Allah Almighty likewise makes it incumbent upon Himself to have mercy upon such a person and forgive his transgressions (Hazrat Ibn Arabi, Ibid; p. 181).

The only difference between Siddiqah and Zakah is that Siddiqah is the product of human sensitivity on the part of the donor to give alms voluntarily as befitting his sense of mercifulness towards the needy; whereas Zakah is given on the basis of a fixed and obligatory percentage of the giver’s property (Nisab) as specified in Islamic jurisprudence (Shari’ah). In the case of Zakah, there is a system of collection set up under Islamic law and there are persons appointed as collectors and custodians of these dues. The money thus collected is meant for the general welfare of the community. In the case of Siddiqah, the bequest is made directly and spontaneously from one individual to another and the amount given is based on the discretion of the giver depending on the discerned need of the receiver (Maulana Muhammad Ali Lahori, The Living Thoughts of Prophet Muhammad. pp.120-121). Thus the spirit of kindness and well wishing is the essence of the Islamic dynamics of charity. The giver is not to expect any reward from the beneficiary, as his only motive is to gain closeness to Allah. Although a true and sincere believer does not yearn to be reciprocated by Allah, yet Almighty Allah Himself promises that there awaits for the giver an abundant reward coming from His grace—whatever God deems best to confer on His servant, His servants accept these graces (ni’mah) and blessings (Barakah) with profuse thanksgiving (Shukr) (See Al-Qur’an, Surah An’am: 160).

Almighty Allah gives a very beautiful metaphor to illustrate the true heart of a sincere giver 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 inherent in the field increase the harvest enormously (Surah Baqarah: 265). Similarly, the bountiful heart of a person of genuine generosity is well pleasing to God Almighty. He invites God's graces and mercies to come to his life through his charitable giving. The sole intention (Niyyat) of the giver is solely to please Almighty Allah and to win His proximity—and not monetary rewards or worldly benefits that may accrue from one’s charitable giving.

The Qur’an states that “charity is for the poor and needy” (Surah Baqarah: 272, 273). This general principle 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 to judge the recipient of our charity by the abovementioned considerations. All who are needy needs our help no matter how different their culture, race or ethnicity and belief system to our own. The chief ends in charity, as reiterated here, should be God's pleasure and our own spiritual cultivation of a sensitive heart. It is by now very clear that the charity of the Muslim in the form of Siddiqah (voluntary charity) is not limited to fellow Muslims; it is to be given to the needy irrespective of his creedal, ideological and cultural differences (Maulana Muhammad Ali Lahori, The Living Thoughts of the Prophet Muhammad; pp. 96-97). Therefore, the sole purpose of our charitable giving is to gain our Almighty Allah’s pleasure (Raza) and to achieve His nearness (Qurbat). In the words of the Holy Quran-an:

Their guidance is not thy duty, but Allah guides whom he pleases. And whatever good thing you spend, it is to your good. And you spend not but to seek Allah’s pleasure (Surah Baqarah: 271-274).

To further elucidate the abovementioned Quranic passage, the Hadith likewise emphasized that “charity is like placing a thing of value in the palm of God” (Quoted in Osman Nuri Topbas Effendi, Islam: Spirit and Form, op. cit., p.189). Hence, it is incumbent to dispense charity with this Hadith in mind. God is the ultimate Recipient and Goal of our charity—it is for His good pleasure alone that we give alms to the needy in the community. We should therefore give our best alms by calling to mind this lofty spiritual perspective.

4. The Islamic Practice of Charity as Venue for Benevolent Concern and Social Responsibility

            There is great sociological and spiritual wisdom in the Prophet’s doctrine regarding charitable giving. The dispensing of charity, specifically in its forms of Zakah and Siddiqah prevent the monopolization of vast riches into the hands of the vested few. If the vast amounts of riches are concentrated in the hands of greedy individuals, it usually results in the oppression of the poor and the marginalized. The Holy Prophet’s all-encompassing social justice paved the way for an ethics of social responsibility for the rich to take care of the poor and for the poor not to have bitter resentment against the rich. Everyone in society: whether rich or poor, need each other to nurture one another’s capacity for humane sensitivity and cooperation leading to societal concord and harmony (Maulana Muhammad Ali, The Living Thoughts of the Prophet Muhammad; pp. 119-124).

A real Muslim is one whose spirit has been softened to the cries of the helpless “other”. A bonafide Muslim is one who weeps with compassion when he sees the woundedness of the world—and he effectively responds to this woundedness by acting accordingly through his sacrificial, heartfelt, and sincere giving. Charity is the perfect demonstration of a believer’s merciful and compassionate vulnerability to be available for others. The teachings of the Holy Prophet concerning charity show that Islam did not leave the poor and the needy at the mercy of the oppressors. Islam is interested in the spiritual development of humankind—in building a just society and in training the heart of humanity to manifest within its spirit the all-embracing attributes of Allah as the All-Loving One (Al-Wadud) and the All-Merciful One (Al-Rahman).

May Allah Almighty grant grace and mercy on us so that each one of us will be, Insha’Allah, harbingers and servants of mercy and compassion to a world that is so in need of these divine virtues. May all Muslims exhibit the glorious manifestations of Almighty Allah’s Names; Al-Wadud (The Most Loving), Ar-Rahman (The Most Compassionate), and Ar-Rahim (Most Merciful) in their lives by dispensing charitable deeds to the needy in their respective societies. Ameen, a thousand times, Ameen! 

Prof. Henry Francis B. Espiritu is Associate Professor-VI of Philosophy and Asian Studies at the University of the Philippines (UP), Cebu City. He was former Academic Coordinator of the Political Science Program at UP Cebu from 2011-2014. His research interests include Islamic Studies particularly Sunni (Hanafi) jurisprudence, Islamic feminist discourses, Islam in interfaith dialogue initiatives, Islamic environmentalism, the writings of Imam Al-Ghazali on pluralism and tolerance, Turkish Sufism, Muslim-Christian dialogue, Middle Eastern affairs, Peace Studies and Public Theology.