American life is defined by the intersection of three institutional sectors: public, private, and non-profit. Public denotes governmental institutions, like the IRS through which we pay for federal institutions like the National Park Service. The private sector is dominated by for-profit corporations, such as Apple, which manufactured the laptop through which I am writing this article. Non-profits, the smallest sector of the three, consist of a whole range of entities, such as hospitals, universities, and religious organizations.
It is within this context that the Qur’anic teachings regarding charitable giving are implemented for the Muslim of the United States. The verb n-f-q, indicating spending, is used dozens of times in the Qur’an. For example, verse 254 of Surah al-Baqara states, “You who believe, give from what We have provided for you, before the Day comes when there is no bargaining, no friendship, and no intercession. It is the disbelievers who are wrong.”
The same verb is also found in the hadith literature, such as this hadith related in Muslim’s Sahih: “Of the dinar you spend as a contribution in Allah’s path, or to set free a slave, or as a sadaqa given to a needy, or to support your family, the one yielding the greatest reward is that which you spent on your family.”
This hadith gives us a broad understanding of charitable giving in Islam. Buying a laptop from Apple for your child who is going off to college can be an act of worship, even though it has nothing to do with the non-profit sector. But for many Muslims in America, there is also the desire to effect social change through charitable giving. In fact, it is the socio-economic lifeblood of the American Muslim community, and the causes for which we give are myriad. There are approximately 7 broad categories of giving:
Social Service Organizations (Islamic Relief, I.M.A.N., etc.)
Representative Institutions of Maraji’ (for the Shi’i community exclusively, and which may be connected to any of the previous 6 categories)
We find ourselves donating to these organizations in a variety of settings. Sometimes it is at fundraising dinner. At other times, we might have some zakat or khums to pay, and write a check to the appropriate organization(s). On occasion, we may be moved by media coverage to donate to help those suffering in our country or around the world. In all situations, the socio-political reality is the same. We write a check/use our credit card/pull cash out of our wallet, and it goes into the bank account of a registered non-profit, and they send us a receipt and use the funds for whatever purpose they were designated.
But behind that material facade is something deeper, and ultimately more important. It is the internal spiritual attitude of the person giving the money, and their ascent towards sincerity (ikhlas). It is the metaphysics of charitable giving.
We can see this process in the Qur’an, which lays out at least three different attitudes towards charitable giving. In the case of the three sections that will be quoted, the immediate context is feeding the hungry. In the context of Islam in the United States, it is most likely that such an act would be accomplished by making a donation, perhaps to Islamic Relief to provide emergency food assistance to the victims of a natural disaster or man-made calamity.
At the lowest level is the attitude of those who mock faith openly. Verse 47 of Surah Ya Sin states: “and when they are told, ‘Give to others out of what God has provided for you,’ the disbelievers say to the believers, ‘Why should we feed those that God could feed if He wanted? You must be deeply misguided.’”
Not only does a person at this level not give, they blame God for the misery that inspires people of faith to give. They twist the concept of an All-Powerful Deity to become an excuse for their own selfishness. The average Muslim is not so bold as to speak this way, but it is possible that this may be what they think in their hearts. In a very subtle way, they may whisper to themselves, “Why do I have to give up this money I have been saving for something I want?! If God is so powerful, why doesn’t He just feed them?!” In light of the massive scale of the hardship millions of Syrians are undergoing, in addition to many other worthy causes worldwide and at home, the possibility of slipping into this type of thinking is very real, even for someone who outwardly identifies as a Muslim and donates to Muslim community institutions. Right now, our world needs billions and billions of dollars to help people facing real difficulties. What that means for any individual is that even if we gave every surplus we have, there will still be a need. In such a reality, it is very possible to slip into this type of thinking, and may God protect us from it, ameen.
At a better level is the level described in Surah al-Ma’un:
“[Prophet], have you considered the person who denies the Judgement? It is he who pushes aside the orphan and does not urge others to feed the needy. So woe to those who pray but are heedless of their prayer; those who are all show and forbid common kindnesses.”
At this level, a person is actively engaged in the community, most notably through attendance at communal worship. But their religiosity does not deeply effect them at the level of concern for humanity. There is a disconnect between their performance of religion, and the way they treat other human beings. This is so common that it has become a trope in discussions about contemporary Islam. At this level, one is not necessarily actively opposed to charitable giving, as in the case of the first level. Rather, one is veiled from such concerns by an obsession with the outward trappings of religiosity. One has left the utter contempt for religion characterized by the first level, which is undoubtedly a good thing. But while doing so, one has strayed by failing to see that Islam has two essential elements: worship of the Creator and service to the creation.
The first and second levels highlight the struggle between the inward and the outward. The third and highest level is where the two become integrated. Verses 8-11 of Surah al-Insan states:
“They give food to the poor, the orphan, and the captive, though they love it themselves, saying, ‘We feed you for the sake of God alone: We seek neither recompense nor thanks from you. We fear the Day of our Lord––a woefully grim Day.’ So God will save them from the woes of that Day, [and] give them radiance and gladness.”
At this level, the one we should all aspire towards, giving is completely detached from any hope of worldly reward or benefit. It is only for God, whether it be $1 dollar or $1,000,000 dollars. No need to sit on a board of directors. No need to even receive a thank you card. This transforms charitable giving into a transcendental search for the Divine Pleasure (ridwan). It becomes a very tangible way in which a human being expresses their hope and fear in God alone, for Allah does not announce from the Heavens that He has accepted this effort. As we learn from another hadith in Sahih Muslim:
“Then a man will be brought forward whom Allah generously provided for, giving him various kinds of wealth, and Allah will recall to him the benefits given, and the man will acknowledge them, to which Allah will say, ‘And what have you done with them?’ The man will answer, ‘I have not left a single kind of expenditure You love to see made, except that I have spent on it for Your sake.’ Allah will say, ‘You lie. You did it so as to be called generous, and it has already been said.’ Then he will be sentenced and dragged away on his face to be flung into the fire.”
Giving is only the first step. Giving with sincerity is the more elusive goal. One never knows whether or not Allah has accepted one’s charitable giving. But we must still strive to purify ourselves of any ulterior motive, recognizing that whatever we have given was first given to us from al-Razzaq, and only One can reward us beyond our imaginations. The metaphysics of charitable giving is to take the most worldly thing possible – money – and turn it into an expression of our realization of the Oneness of God.
Editor’s note: R. David Coolidge is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Public Service at the NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. Before joining NYU Wagner, Coolidge was Associate University Chaplain for the Muslim Community at Brown University and a Muslim Advisor at Dartmouth College. He was also an Adjunct Instructor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at St. Francis College. In addition to his work and studies within higher education, Coolidge has been involved with various American Muslim institutions including the Ta’leef Collective and the Islamic Center at NYU.