The Importance of Charity
By: Shaheed Ayatullah Abdul Husain Dastghaib Shirazi
Some of the ayats that deal with the subject of charity emphasise it to such an extent that if one gives away all his belongings while he himself is in need of them, he has not been extravagant. On the contrary it is one of the recommended actions and is liked by Allah (S.w.T.). As the following ayat of Qur’an states: “...and prefer (them) before themselves though poverty may afflict them, and whoever is preserved from the niggardliness of his soul, these it is that are the successful ones.” (Surah al-Hashr 59:9)
Preferring others to ourselves means that even though we are in need of something that we have, we give it to someone else who also needs it. We prefer to fulfill the other person’s needs rather than our own. This is the spirit of sacrifice mentioned in the Holy Qur’an. In another place we have, “And they give food out of love for Him to the poor and the orphan and the captive...” (Surah al-Insān 76:8)
Majority of the Mufassirīn (commentator of Qur’an) agree that the above verse was revealed in praise of ‘Ali (a.s.), Fatemah Zahra (S), Imam Hasan (a.s.), Imam Husain (a.s.) and their maid, Fizza when they had fasted for Three days consecutively and every day at the time of breaking the fast they gave the bread in the way of Allah (S.w.T.) and contended themselves by ending the fast with plain water.
A person enquired from Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (a.s.), “What is the best charity?” Imam (a.s.) replied, “One who himself does not possess anything but toils and earns and gives it in the way of Allah. Have you not seen the ayat of Qur’an:
“And they give food out of love for Him to the poor and the orphan and the captive...?” (al-Kāfi)
A report from a Sunni narrator Asim bin Kalīb is mentioned in Tafsīr Minhaj us-Sādiqīn. He reports that a beggar came to the Holy Prophet (S) and requested him for something. The Messenger of Allah (S) sent someone to his residence to get something for the beggar but he was informed that there was nothing at home. The Holy Prophet (S) announced among the companions as to who will render help to this poor man. ‘Ali (a.s.) volunteered, saying, “This destitute shall be my guest tonight.”
He (a.s.) took him home and informed Hazrat Zahra (S) about his condition. Janabe Fatemah Zahra (S) said, “O ‘Ali! We have food enough for only one person and I had kept it for my daughter Zainab but you may do as you wish.”
Imam (a.s.) said, “It would be better to put the children to sleep and put out the lamp because such a less quantity of food will be insulting before the guest.”
Janabe Fatemah (S) did as instructed and the food was placed before the guest. He began to eat and the food was not yet finished when he said, “I am full and the Almighty Allah has given barakat in your food.” Thus he departed happily.
In another narration it is mentioned that afterwards ‘Ali (a.s.), Janabe Fatemah (S), Imam Hasan (a.s.), Imam Husain (a.s.), Janabe Fizza and Janabe Zainab satiated themselves with the remaining food and the happenings were reported to the Holy Prophet (S) the next day, and the following verse was revealed:
“...and prefer (them) before themselves though poverty may afflict them, and whoever is preserved from the niggardliness of his soul, these it is that are the successful ones.” (Surah al-Hashr 59:9)
It is recorded in al-Kāfi that Samā enquired from Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (a.s.): “If a person has just enough food to sustain him for a day, is it incumbent upon him to give from it to a needy person? Or if one has provisions for a month, only enough for him; is he required to give to those who are destitute? Similarly the one who has stocks for a year or any appointed period. Is it in any way incumbent for him to curtail his own needs and give a part of it to the needy? Would he be implicated if he doesn’t?
Imam (a.s.) explained, “There are two aspects of this matter, one is that the best of you are those who do good and prefers others over oneself. They are inclined towards sacrifice and charity. Regarding them Allah says, “...and prefer (them) over themselves.”
The second point is that though one who keeps only the necessary quantity for himself is not blamed, yet the hand of one who gives is better than the hand of one who takes. You must take precedence in helping those who depend upon you.”
Amir ul-Mu’minīn ‘Ali (a.s.) says, “Selflessness is one of the highest degrees of belief.”
The Holy Prophet (S) says, “There is no goodness in Isrāf and there is no Isrāf in goodness.” (Safinat’ul-Bihār)
We must always practise moderation
In addition to these verses we also have ayats that emphasise moderation in spending. For example: “And do not make your hand to be shackled to your neck nor stretch it forth to the utmost (limit) of its stretching forth, lest you should (afterwards) sit down blamed, stripped off.” (Surah al-‘Isrā’, 17:29)
The above ayat is commanding the believers not to exceed limits in spending, so as to avoid its ramifications. The Almighty Allah says in the Holy Qur’an: “And they who when they spend, are neither extravagant nor parsimonious, and (keep) between these the just mean.” (Surah al-Furqān 25:67)
Ibn Abi Umair has related that a person asked Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (a.s.) the meaning of the ayat,
“...and pay the due of it on the Day of its reaping, and do not act extravagantly; surely He does not love the extravagant.” (Surah al-An’ām 6:141)
Imam (a.s.) explained, “There was a man from the helpers (ansār) who was a cultivator. When he received his income he spent it all on the helpless and distributed it among the poor. As a result nothing remained for his family. So the Holy Qur’an has termed it as extravagance and said that he should pay the fixed taxes from farming but he must not be extravagant because Allah did not like extravagant people.”
Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (a.s.) says, “One who spends all his wealth in charity has certainly done Isrāf.” (Faqih)
Reconciling the two types of verses
In order to reconcile the differing verses, the scholars have mentioned some clauses. In the Sharh of al-Kāfi we find that according to Tabarsi it is possible that the arguments in favour of selflessness pertain to the times of poverty, for example the initial period of Islam and the recommendation emphasising moderation in charity pertain to prosperous times. Or they may differ according to the economic condition of the one who seeks help, i.e. some people deserve to be helped even by sacrificing ones own needs and there are some people who need not be helped at the cost of ones own needs. It also depends upon the person who is being charitable. If he possesses complete and perfect faith, there is no harm if he exceeds the limits of generosity to fulfill the needs of people, but if an ordinary person donates everything and is himself impoverished, he will not be able to bear it. In this case it is advisable for him to stay within limits in charity. Thus except for the divine personalities and extremely pious people the masses can be said to belong to the latter category. Therefore the ayat, “And do not make your hand...” (Surah al-‘Isrā’, 17:29)
is addressed to the Holy Prophet (S) but it is meant for the guidance of the common Muslims. Muhammad Ibn Makki was of the opinion that the rules of charity vary with person to person. The traditions, which imply extreme selflessness, are only for those who give their personal belongings to the needy and the traditions that hint a moderation even in charity are meant for those who have wife, children and family etc. Such a person cannot prefer others to his own children. He cannot give away whatever is necessary for his family to other needy people. Sacrifice of our own needs is allowed but it is not permitted to give away the requirements of our family and children. The honourable scholar has also stated that it is makrūh (detestable) for a man to donate his total wealth in charity unless he is sure he will be able to bear the consequences. Also it is necessary that he does not have the responsibility of a family or children. (Dārus Salām of Nūri)
Sayyid Muhammad Kadhim Yazdi also remarks that according to the Holy Qur’an, sunnat of the Holy Prophet (S) and the unanimous opinion of the scholars, Isrāf is Harām, there is no objection against this verdict. Isrāf is the expenditure on useless things which is considered as wasteful by common sense; whether the amount spent is appropriate to the occasion or not.
Is Isrāf possible in charitable deeds? Some of the scholars including Sayyid Muhammad Kadhim Yazdi believe that it is possible. Some well-known jurists have stated the contrary. According to the traditions, “There is no goodness in Isrāf and no Isrāf in goodness.” But we should know that the former opinion is more precautionary on the basis of other traditions on this subject.
After quoting the traditions of Ibn Abi Umair and Sahih of Bazanti and other sources, the late Sayyid says, “The ayats and narrations denouncing wasteful expenditure revoke (mansookh) the ayat of selfless sacrifice.” Therefore it apears that it is not proper to sacrifice and to give gifts extravagantly which are not appropriate to the status of the donor, or which common sense perceives such generosity to be excessive. There is no logic in giving and taking of such gifts and donations. As mentioned earlier wasteful spending in necessary matters is also prohibited. The only exception being the expenses of Hajj and Umra which are not subject to any limits. The Holy Prophet (S) says, “No spending is more likeable to Allah than one which is moderate and except for over-spending in Hajj, He dislikes all types of extravagance.” (Safinat’ul-Bihār)
No extravagance in charitable acts
The author of the present work is very strongly of the opinion that there is no extravagance in charity. Even if a person gives his total wealth with the intention pleasing Allah (S.w.T.) and of achieving Divine blessings he does not do anything unacceptable. He justifies his opinion on the basis of a few of the many ayats.
The ayat, “And do not move your hand...”
is a lenient prohibition and does not mention the act as Harām or Makrūh. Also the ayat, “And they who when they spend, are neither extravagant nor parsimonious, and (keep) between these the just mean.”
May pertain to household expenditure and not to that which is spent in the way of Allah. It may also mean that those who are not stingy and also not extravagant are the obedient creatures of the Beneficent Lord. As regards the ayat, “eat of its fruit when it bears fruit,...and do not act extravagantly” and “surely He does not love the extravagant...”
we can say that both these sentences form a single statement. The tradition, which explains the ayat also shows that the two are interrelated. Though it is true that a person who donates the entire crop in charity and does not keep anything for his family and children certainly commits Isrāf. Charity and selflessness is permitted, but feeding and clothing his dependents is Wajib upon him. One who deprives his dependents of the basic needs and gives everything in charity has acted against Divine commands. But if he feels assured that he will be able to fulfill the needs of his family from other sources or that his dependents will not claim their rights from him, it is permitted for him to give everything away for the sake of Allah. This can be supported by the examples from the lives of the Holy Imams (a.s.).
For example, Hazrat Amir ul-Mu’minīn ‘Ali (a.s.) had time and again performed such sacrifice of his total belongings. Once he sold his orchard for twelve thousand Dirhams and distributed the complete amount among the poor and needy. He did not save anything for his family, but ‘Ali (a.s.) and other great personalities never deprived their own dependents. Whenever they performed such charitable deeds they had faith in themselves that they would be able to provide their families from some other means.
Whatever has been stated with regard to the ayats prohibiting over-spending can also be supported with the tradition of the Holy Prophet (S) wherein he denounced the person who spends all his wealth and dies leaving his minor children destitute and helpless. It is prohibited for a person to spend his complete wealth in charity when he knows that after him his children will be in need of it. If he leaves a legacy for his children who have no other source of income; the legacy shall also be in the way of Allah.
It is for this reason that drawing a will for more that a third of one’s total property is prohibited. It is also commanded for those who have young children to will for less than a third of their wealth.
The traditions of selflessness apply to only special circumstances. Extreme generosity is not prohibited and whatever has been said about the meaning of the ayats explains the tradition of Ibn Abi Umair. The narration of Sahih of Bazanti may imply that, it is not proper to over-spend where Imam (a.s.) has prohibited extravagance. The tradition of Faqih may concern those people who spend in recommended ways, where it is incumbent for them not to spend.
The tradition of Imam (a.s.) may also be a refutation of the Sufis’ assertion that extreme selflessness is incumbent and the Imams (a.s.) have also pointed out that spending for ones family’s needs is also like spending in the way of Allah (S.w.T.). The words of tradition also imply that moderation in ways of charity is emphasised with a gentle command. In other words over-spending in charity is only a recommended prohibition whereas we are aware of the incomparable charitable acts of the Holy Prophet (S) and the Imams (a.s.), and verses that were revealed in the praise of these deeds (The ayat of ‘Halatā’ and the verse of ‘Najva’).
Moreover, we see that Imam Hasan (a.s.) in his life gave half his wealth in charity to the poor and needy, on Three occasions. The charitable deeds of Imam Husain (a.s.) and other Imam (a.s.) are also well known. Imam Riďa (a.s.) donated his total wealth in charity at Khurasan on the day of Arafat. When Fazl ibn Sahl pointed out that Imam (a.s.) has suffered a great loss, Imam (a.s.) replied that, “Whatever I received as my share is sufficient.”
Again on the day of Navroz when he assumed the seat of heir apparent of Ma’mūn under duress, he gave away all the presents and gifts to a single poet who had recited in praise of Ahl ul-Bayt (a.s.).
Hazrat Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (a.s.) has been reported to have said, “If all the world becomes my property and becomes a single morsel and I place it in the mouth of a single believer; I will not consider myself extravagant.”
Imam Hasan al-Askari (a.s.) says: “If all the world becomes a morsel and I give to a true worshipper of Allah I will feel I have not fulfilled his rights completely and if I give even a gulp of water to a starving disbeliever; I consider myself extravagant.”
These two narrations expound the fact that even if the whole world is gifted to a sincere and a pious believer it will not be extravagance, because he deserves it.
Numerous instances of selflessness of pious scholars have been recorded. Some of these righteous people have seen the rewards of their charity in their worldly life. Rawzātul Jannat contains an incident regarding Muhaqqiq Ardebeli that during the times of famine he used to give away to the poor whatever he had. He used to live in poverty himself. One day when he had donated all his possessions his wife became angry with him that he had deprived his children in such times when food was scarce. He left his home and went to the mosque and sat there in Ehtekāf. An unknown person arrived at the door of his house and handed sacks of wheat and flour saying that master Ardebeli sent it and that he was in Ehtekāf at the mosque of Kufa. When Muhaqqiq Ardebeli returned home from Ehtekāf his wife told him that he had sent very fine wheat and flour. When he learnt of the details he realized that it was a Divine favour upon him and fell down in prostration to thank the Almighty. Many times it was seen that the Muhaqqiq left home with an expensive turban but if he encountered a beggar he tore a piece from it and gave it in alms. On numerous occasions he returned home bare-head.
Isrāf in belief and actions
Until now we have discussed extravagance in monetary terms but since the dictionary meaning of Isrāf is “exceeding limits” and “extremism” the same laws apply to beliefs and actions. Isrāf in belief implies believing about oneself or others something that is untrue and inappropriate. For example the belief of Fir’on that he was God. As he told the people, ‘I do not know any of the gods except myself.’ The Almighty Allah has mentioned him as ‘one who crossed the limits.’
“...surely Fir’on was lofty in the land; and most surely he was of the extravagant.” (Surah Yūnus 10:83)
Regarding those who do not believe in Allah (S.w.T.), Prophethood, Imams, Qiyāma etc.
The Almighty Allah (S.w.T.) says in the Holy Qur’an, “And thus do We recompense him who is extravagant and does not believe in the communications of his Lord; and certainly the chastisement of the Hereafter is severer and more lasting.” (Surah Tā Hā 20:127)
Performing detestable acts and avoiding advisable deeds is Isrāf in action. For example the homosexual inclinations of the people of Prophet Lut (a.s.) have been termed as extravagance:
“Most surely you come to males in lust besides females; nay, you are an extravagant people.” (Surah al-Ar’āf 7:81)
In fact all the sins of actions and speech are a kind of extremism and every sinner is said to have crossed the limits. The Almighty says: “Say: O my servants! Who have acted extravagantly against their own souls, do not despair of the Mercy of Allah; surely Allah forgives the faults altogether; surely He is the Forgiving, the Merciful.” (Surah az-Zumar 39:53)
But we must not despair of our deficiencies. If we turn to Allah (S.w.T.) He shall certainly forgive. We on our part should make a sincere effort not to be wasteful in our daily lives and not to exceed the limits in whatever we are engaged in. Moderation has to be practiced by us even in routine acts like eating, sleeping and talking. As the tradition says, “Verily Allah hates the one who eats excessively and the one who sleeps excessively.”
For those who wish to study the subject in more detail we recommend the book Me’rajus Sa’adat. This book discusses the method of living in accordance with Islamic principles