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Charity: Too little or too much

We quoted last week several Hadiths making it clear that Islam prefers that people should steer a middle way when giving money for charity, without being stingy or careless. Even when a person is approaching death, the portion of his own estate he may leave for charity, relatives who are not his heirs, and good causes is set at a maximum of one-third. Another highly authentic Hadith that may be quoted in this regard is one related by both Al-Bukhari and Muslim quoting Saad ibn Abu Waqqas, a close companion of the Prophet: God’s messenger came to visit me when I was very ill at the time of his farewell pilgrimage. I said to him: “Messenger of God, you see how poorly I am and I have some property. I have no heirs other than my one daughter. May I leave two-thirds of my property for charity?” The Prophet said, “No.” I said, “Then, what about one-half?” Again the Prophet said, “No.” I asked again, “What about one-third?” He said, “You may leave one-third, even though one-third is plenty (or too much). To leave your heirs well off is better than leaving them in poverty, asking people for help. You will certainly be rewarded for any amount you give away for God’s sake, even the bite you put in your wife’s mouth.”

Abu Dawood and Al-Darimi transmit a report that may be seen to contradict what we have quoted above and last week. Both quote Umar ibn Al-Khattab as saying: One day, the Prophet asked us to donate to charity, and I happened to have some money. I thought that this provided me with the chance of doing better than Abu Bakr, if I could ever do better than him. I took half of my property and gave it to the Prophet. He asked: “What have you left for your family?” I said: “I have an equal amount to this.” Then Abu Bakr came with all his property. The Prophet asked him: “What have you left for your family?” He said: “I have left them with (faith in) God and His messenger.” I said: “I will never try to compete with you again.”

This report, however, which suggests that a believer is free to give away half or all his property for a cause to earn God’s pleasure and reward, relates to a case of emergency and jihad. The Prophet had learnt that the Byzantines had mobilized to invade Arabia, and the Muslims were going through a period of hardship, with farm produce at a very low level and blazing summer heat. Hence the Prophet encourages his well-off followers to donate for army equipment and to help others who did not have enough to provide themselves with mounts and arms. The Prophet needed an army to withstand a very long march to meet the Byzantines at Tabuk in north Arabia. That army was termed, “the hardship army,” and it was for equipping it that Abu Bakr donated all his wealth and Umar donated half his wealth, while Uthman donated 10,000 dinars, 300 fully equipped camels and 50 equipped horses. That donation had a profound effect on the Prophet who said: “My Lord, be pleased with Uthman, for I am pleased with him.”

These were exceptional circumstances, when the Muslim community was facing a very serious external threat. In fact, it was a situation of life and death for many Muslims and their newly born state. Hence the Prophet accepted such large donations like half the property of Umar and the whole property of Abu Bakr. But exception does not override the rule. In fact, it confirms it. The rule here is that the best charity is that which leaves the donor self-sufficient.

We may reflect on these verses in which God orders His messenger to donate to charity, and if he has nothing to give, then to speak kindly to those in need, as he hopes to get something of God’s favors when he can help the needy. It is in this context that God tells His messenger not to give away carelessly, so that he would not come to rue his actions. The best charity is that which leaves the donor in a good situation to look after himself and his dependents. It is not the charity that takes away his means so as to leave him poor. God says in the Qur’an: “Give to the near of kin their due, and also to the needy and the wayfarer. Do not squander your substance wastefully, for the wasteful squanderers are Satan’s brothers, and Satan has always been ungrateful to His Lord. But if you must turn aside from them in pursuit of an act of kindness you hope to receive from your Lord, then at least speak to them kindly. Do not be miserly, allowing your hand to remain shackled to your neck, nor stretch it out fully to maximum limit, lest you find yourself being blamed or reduced to destitution. Your Lord gives in abundance, or in scant measure, to whom He wills. He is indeed fully aware of all His servants, and sees them all.” (17: 26-30)

A believer may feel ashamed or guilty if he holds on to what he has without giving it away to poor and needy people. But God reassures us that it is He who gives some of His servants in plenty, while He gives others in a scant measure. That which He does has a wise purpose behind it. A believer, however, helps the poor and donates for charity, but leaves himself enough to look after his family and cater for any emergency. He is keen to belong to the believers described by God in the following terms: “Successful are the believers who humble themselves in their prayer, and turn away from all that is frivolous, and who pay out their zakah.” (23: 1-4)

I am not calling on believers to reduce what they give away in charity, but I am simply saying to them that they must not feel any sense of guilt or deprecate their own action when they hear that some devout people of the past used to give away every thing they earned. When all Muslims pay out their zakah on time, the eradication of poverty may not require anything more than such zakah or a little more in sadaqah or voluntary charity.

A believer who limits himself to spending a portion of his money, retaining the larger part for himself is neither guilty, nor failing to meet his duty. When he remains in funds, this means that he will be able to give to charity repeatedly. Giving away a little amount on a regular basis is better than giving a large donation once only. We should remember God’s statement: “They ask you what they should spend in charity; say, ‘Whatever you can spare’.”(2: 219)

Al-Qurtubi, a famous commentator on the Qur’an says that this means what a person can easily dispense with, without having to struggle within himself for giving it away. Thus, God tells us to spend in charity what we can spare without leaving ourselves in a position of need.



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