The highest of virtues

The act of giving is a central aspect of Islamic faith and practice, writes Islamic scholar Sheikh Hamza Yusuf and Mahan Mirza

The 13th century Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote that charity “extends not only to the love of God, but also to the love of our neighbour.” The Latin root of charity, caritas, is itself an expression of the love of humanity. Similarly, philanthropy was first coined by Aeschylus as an adjective in Prometheus Bound to describe Prometheus as “loving humanity” (philanthropos tropos). Throughout history and across all traditions, the virtue of giving, whether it is gifts to our loved ones or alms to the less fortunate among us, has always been associated with love and divinity.

Judaism has the obligation of tzedekah, and in Buddhism and Hinduism almsgiving is an act of respect towards the monk or the priest. In every faith tradition, giving is considered among the highest of virtues. For Muslims, the act of giving is a central aspect of Islamic faith and practice. Governed by a worldview in which all things come from God and ultimately return to God, Muslims are taught to live as trustees of God’s blessings on earth and to serve as vicegerents of God. The idea of trusteeship is embedded in the meaning of the word ‘Caliph’, which was adopted in Islamic political thought to mean 'ruler'.

Alms giving, or zakat, is an annual obligation for Muslims and one of the five pillars of Islam. Stemming from the tri-literal root z-k-w, the word relates to purification, signifying the cleansing of one’s lawfully earned income from any taint or impurity. As such, zakat benefits both the giver and the receiver. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is reported to have said that people have a right to receive charity from a wealthy individual beyond mere zakat.  Such supererogatory acts of charity fall under the umbrella of sadaqah.

The tri-literal root of sadaqah is s-d-q, which has many meanings depending on the derivative form of the word, but two key meanings are truthfulness (sidq) and friendship (siddīq). So charity in Islam can be viewed as an act that demonstrates the truth of our love of God, and also of one’s fraternal love of our fellow human beings, the same twin notions echoed in Aquinas’ words regarding charity.

The Quranic injunction of giving has guided Muslims across lands since the dawn of the religion 1,400 years ago. It has spawned an extraordinary tradition of philanthropy, exemplified in the 9th century by Fatima al-Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy Tunisian immigrant to Morocco, who used her inheritance to endow both a mosque and the world’s oldest university, the al-Qarawiyyin University in Fes.

The Quran provides both a spiritual framework for the possession of wealth, and practical guidelines for its dispensation. If we believe that all things, ultimately, belong to God, then it behooves us to spend everything we have beyond what is necessary for the sake of God. This is categorically stated in the Quran (verse 2:219), “They ask thee how much they are to spend; say: ‘What is beyond your needs.’”

For Muslims, the Prophet’s (pbuh) life serves as a model for alms and charity. It is reported that any surplus wealth that came to the Prophet’s (pbuh) household was distributed before dawn. One report narrates that upon inquiring about the meat of a sacrificial goat, the Prophet (pbuh) was told that the shoulder had been saved, because it was known that it was his favorite, while the rest had been distributed among the people. On hearing this, the Prophet (pbuh) replied that, to the contrary, everything but the shoulder – which would be consumed – had been saved.

It is the human predilection for riches that the Quran cautions against, yet it acknowledges that spiritually immature souls may jeopardise their own moral standing by regretting reckless acts of charity that leave them destitute. Some verses (including 17:29 and 25:67) speak of maintaining a balance between extravagance and parsimony. This is in recognition of human nature, which has the dual impulses of compassion and an inherent love of wealth. In this way, Islam’s legal teachings counsel temperance and prudence, whereas Islam’s spiritual teachings urge selflessness and generosity.

It is generosity that impels the spread of wealth in all corners of society, especially among people who are the casualties of commerce, not its beneficiaries. It is a Quranic principle that wealth should not merely circulate among the wealthy, and the verses on spending (infāq) appear adjacent to the verses on the prohibition of usury (ribā). On the one hand, wealth apparently decreases by the act of giving it away, and on the other, it apparently increases by fixing rates of return. From an Islamic perspective, the increase of one’s wealth from ribā is transient and illusory, far outweighed by a net loss to soul and society, most grievously in the hereafter.

So in addition to purification of our wealth through charity (zakat), another meaning that stems from the root z-k-w is ‘to grow’. The spreading of wealth, then, benefits the commonweal, while the hoarding of wealth blights it. It is worth noting that the word for pure gold in classical Arabic (‘iqyan) is derived from the word for an infant’s faeces (al-iqī). Wealth is like manure — when it is spread around, many things grow, but when it is hoarded, a great stench rises.

Zakat, as a minimum requisite or pillar, thus lays the foundation of charitable giving in Islam. It is both a means of purification for the individual, as well as a source of growth for the health and healing of society. An oft-repeated story in the Muslim world tells of a Shah in Persia who came upon an old man planting an olive tree, which takes decades to produce good fruit. When asked why he is planting a tree that will not benefit him, the old man replies, “Those who came before me planted, and we benefited. I am planting so that those who come after me shall benefit.”

Intrinsic to the obligation of giving in Islam is the universal truism that a love of humanity and a love of God beget charitable deeds.

About the writer

Sheikh Hamza Yusuf is a leading Islamic scholar and the cofounder and president of Zaytuna College. Mahan Mirza is Dean of Faculty at the college.