Humans are known to be generous, cooperative, and altruistic beings. We help strangers even at a cost to ourselves. Islam, being a faith of nature, emphasizes generosity, which comes in many forms, from charitable donations to volunteering, helping a stranger, and caring for loved ones. We often aid people in crises, be it through a food bank, blood bank, or in aid of a disaster on the other side of the world, even though we will unlikely meet the people we are helping. According to the Islamic doctrine, all wealth ultimately belongs to Allah the Almighty. As His creation, we are simply repaying from the bounties bestowed upon us.
In all religions, particularly in Islam, giving has been linked with the duty to pray. There is no separation between the two. Looking back at history, we find that in Greek and Roman cultures, the well-off elements of society were not expected to support or help the poor. While the word philanthropy is of Greek origin, the object of such actions were people of one’s own family and guests, not the poor. Even the ancient Greek moralists did not admonish people to concern themselves about the fate of the poor.
Not all ancient religions discarded the poor. The seven principles of the Goddess Ma’at guided ancient Egyptians (1). They had an obligation to support the cause of those without either power or possessions. Care for the poor and sick has been part of Taoism and Confucianism since the Sung Dynasty (960–1279). Zoroastrianism was an ethical religion with strong social components from the outset.
With the arrival of Judaism, however, giving charity for the sake of God became a significant duty and a virtue. We find this duty forming a central part in the Torah and in the biblical writings of Prophets that followed.
The Torah urges the children of Israel to be generous towards the poor in their midst. The prophets repeatedly warn against oppressing the poor and the needy (2).
In the Holy Qur’an, several verses establish the importance of charity (3), and the life of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) is a glorious example of charitable works (4). Zakat, a form of mandatory donation, is the third pillar of Islam, together with the commitment to faith, fasting, prayer, and pilgrimage, signifying the centrality of charity in Islam. While interpretation and practice of voluntary donations vary, a common core unites all practices forming this Islamic tradition.
The first and the foremost aim of Islam is the achievement of the well-being of humanity in this world and the next (5). The Holy Qur’an lays down a comprehensive, multi-layered concept of welfare as it refers to spiritual, moral, and socioeconomic well-being in this world and success in the Hereafter. In general, Muslims believe that society should achieve a common and public good.
Charity is the most necessary means towards the public good. It does not only refer to voluntary donations, but a multitude of deserving causes qualify as giving in the way of God.
The Prophet Muhammad (sa) advised that much attention should be paid to the education of the people and the bringing up of orphans by stating that “whoever looks after an orphan will be ‘like two fingers with him in paradise” (6).
Assistance to refugees and displaced people is also a common task undertaken by non-denominational charities, such as Humanity First. For example, when the Prophet Muhammad (sa) migrated to Madinah, he and his followers sought refuge in the houses of the inhabitants of Medina.
According to another Hadith (saying of the Holy Prophet (sa)), the concept of cooperation and responsibility for fellow Muslims is stressed by the Prophet Muhammad (sa) in these words:
“In mutual compassion, love, and kindness you will find the faithful like a body so that if one part feels pain, the whole body responds with wakefulness and fever” (7).
Regarding cooperation and responsibility on a social level to all human beings, the Holy Qur’an stresses that righteousness cannot be attained by the proper observance of the rituals only; it also requires acts of compassion and kindness. The test of true belief and genuine worship leads to compassionate living.
“It is not righteousness that you turn your faces to the East or the West, but truly righteous is he who believes in Allah and the Last Day and the angels and the Book and the Prophets, and spends his money for love of Him, on the kindred and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and those who ask for charity, and for ransoming the captives” (8).
Regarding responsibilities to orphans, Surah al-Baqarah states:
“And they ask thee concerning the orphans. Say: ‘Promotion of their welfare is an act of great goodness. And if you intermix with them, they are your brethren. And Allah knows the mischief-maker from the reformer. And if Allah had so willed, He would have put you to hardship. Surely, Allah is Mighty, Wise’” (9).
There is also advice for the protection of rights of refugees in the Holy Qur’an, for example, Surah al-Hashr states:
“And those who had established their home in this city (Madinah) before them and had accepted faith, love those who came to them for refuge, and find not in their breasts any desire for that which is given them (refugees), but prefer the refugees to themselves, even though poverty be their own lot. And whoso is rid of the covetousness of his own soul — it is these who will be successful” (10).
Surah an-Nisa also quotes the significance of welfare work in these words:
“And worship Allah and associate naught with Him, and show kindness to parents, and kindred, and orphans, and the needy, and to the neighbour that is a kinsman and the neighbour that is a stranger, and the companion by your side, and the wayfarer, and those whom your right hands possess. Surely, Allah loves not the proud and the boastful” (11).
Charitable giving is deemed one of the most important obligations in Islam, which impacts the well-being of an individual and the welfare of society as a whole. Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian (as), the founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, has expressed charitable giving and caring for the human condition elegantly by stating:
“It is our principle to have sympathy for the whole of mankind. If a person sees that fire has broken out in the house of a Hindu neighbour and he does not get up to help in putting it out, I tell you truly that he is not of me. If one of my followers sees a Christian being killed and does not go to his assistance to rescue him, then I tell you quite truly that he is not of us. I say it on oath that I have no enmity with any people” (12).
Charity is a central tenet of Islam, advocating that all wealth (monetary and non-monetary, such as health, time, etc.) belongs to God. Therefore, Muslims are obliged to share their wealth with those less fortunate. Charity, in ways however small, confers greater happiness upon us. In these acts of giving, we should never fear a lack of means. A generous spirit is itself great wealth. In all giving that is done selflessly, there is present the hand of God who multiplies it and returns it increased manifold.
This article appears in the February 2022 print edition.
1. The Seven Principles of Ma’at, https://iseumsanctuary.com/2020/07/12/the-seven-principles-of-maat/ [Accessed: December 21, 2021)
2. Tworuschka, Udo, et. al., “Poor, Care of the”, in: Religion Past and Present. Consulted online on 01 December 2021 http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1877-5888_rpp_COM_01062
3. Some of the verses of the Holy Qur’an that talk about charity are (2:272, 2:265, 2:264, 2:281, 2:277, 2:275, 2:274, 2:216, 2:111, 63:11, 24:57, 9:103, 33:36, 57:19, 5:56, 35:30, 34:40, 9:99)
4. Hafiz Muzaffar Ahmad, “Muhammad the Perfect Man.” Independent: 2013. (https://www.alislam.org/library/books/Muhammad-The-Perfect-Man.pdf) [Accessed: December 22, 2021]
5. The Holy Qur’an (2:202), (31:6-7), (7:158), (5:36), (9:89), (5:91), (7:9), (23:103)
6. Sahih Bukhari, Hadith no: 6005
7. Sahih Bukhari, Hadith no: 6011
8. The Holy Qur’an (2:178)
9. The Holy Qur’an (2:221)
10. The Holy Qur’an (59:10)
11. The Holy Qur’an (4:37)12. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, Siraj-e-Munir, Ruhani Khazain, Vol. 12, p. 28
Last modified: February 2022