Introduction to Islam

by Dr. Zahid Aziz


“You cannot attain to righteousness unless you spend (in charity) out of what you love.” (The Holy Quran, 3:92)

What is meant by charity in Islam?

Charity, for which the expression used in the Holy Quran is

“spending out of what God has given you”,

means using your energy, talent, resources, money, possessions, or whatever else, to help and do good to those in need. In Islam charity is very often mentioned alongside prayer because just as the latter is man’s relation with God, or man’s duty towards God, the former (charity) represents his relation with his fellow-beings, and indeed with all the creation of God. Prayer expresses love for God, submission to Him, and a desire to bring out the Divine qualities that lie hidden in every person. Charity is an expression of sympathy and benevolence towards God’s creation, putting into actual practice the lessons you learn in prayer.

Please give some examples of what are acts of charity in Islam.

Innumerable examples can be given because doing any kind of good to anyone, even to yourself to make you more capable of benefitting others, by using what God has given you, is an act of charity. Feeding the hungry, helping the poor, taking care of the destitute such as orphans, lending a hand to the disabled, helping an unemployed person to find a job, etc., are the more obvious examples of charity taught by Islam. But it also teaches that there are other, smaller acts of charity which one has the opportunity to do everyday. Helping someone in any way, showing the way to a stranger, speaking a kind word to cheer someone up, giving useful advice or imparting knowledge to someone, removing from the road something that could cause an accident, even simply refraining from hurting anyone, are all acts of charity in Islam.

Charity is usually thought to be giving money or alms to the begging poor, and is said to degrade them and make them feel inferior. This is not so in Islam, then?

Most certainly not. Firstly, charity in Islam is much broader than giving money to the poor, and can be exercised just as well even where there is no poverty, as shown above. Secondly, giving charity, or the doing of any good to someone, must be done as a duty, not to degrade them or to ask for thanks. The Holy Quran tells us:

“A kind word with forgiveness is better than charity followed by injury…. O you who believe, make not your charity worthless by reproach and injury, like him who spends his wealth to be seen by people….” (The Holy Quran, 2:263–264)

Thirdly, charity should be given solely out of love for God, out of the desire to do good to His creation, as the Quran says about the righteous:

“They give food, out of love for Him (Allah), to the poor, the orphan, and the slave, saying: We feed you only for Allah’s pleasure — we desire from you neither reward nor thanks.” (The Holy Quran, 76:8, 9)

How important is charity?

Being charitable is very strongly urged upon the Muslims, so much so that the Holy Prophet Muhammad has said that on every limb of the body, doing a charitable deed is due every day, whether it is with the hands, feet, or tongue. There is no person at all who cannot do a deed of charity to others. According to the Holy Prophet, if someone has nothing to give, he should work and earn, and give out of that; if he still does not have anything to give, he should help someone in distress; and if he is unable, for some reason, to do even that, he should try to do any good he can and refrain from doing any harm to anyone.

Apart from general charity, Islam has made compulsory a sort of tax on one’s possessions, known as Zakat, to be spent on the welfare of the disadvantaged. This is explained further below, under the heading, ‘Please explain what is Zakat?

To whom can a Muslim give in charity?

Just as acts of charity have the broadest possible significance in Islam, similarly the circle of those towards whom charity is to be exercised is the broadest that can be conceived. Starting with the people around us — our relations, friends, and neighbours — it extends to all Muslims, and to followers of other religions. In fact, a Muslim’s charity covers even animals. The Holy Quran emphasizes that one should keep a special look-out for those who may be in need but who do not ask for help (The Holy Quran, 2:273).

What kind of things should be given in charity?

In case of those acts of charity when we give something away, the Holy Quran teaches that we should only give good and useful things, not useless and worthless ones, and they should be the kind of things we like to have ourselves (The Holy Quran, 2:267). Moreover, things given in charity must have been earned or acquired lawfully by the person giving them away.

Please explain what is Zakat?

Just as Islam has prescribed a set form for prayer, to enable us to keep it up regularly, similarly it has given an outward form for charity and made it compulsory, in order to make it a regular duty. That outward form of charity is known as Zakat, and consists of giving a specified fraction of one’s wealth every year into a fund. This fund is administered by the Muslim community or Muslim government, and is used to help the poor, the disabled, the unemployed, and others in need.

Is Zakat just like a tax?

In the sense of being collected and spent by the Muslim government Zakat is like a tax. However, the great difference is that paying Zakat is a religious duty to be done out of obedience to God and sympathy for people. So giving Zakat is morally beneficial to the payer because it develops the spirit of self-sacrifice in him and curbs feelings of greed. Notice that the word ‘tax’ means a burden, but zakat means something which purifies you.

Why is general charity and Zakat a basic duty in Islam?

Because it brings out the best and highest qualities in a person, which is really the object of existence according to Islam. God has given to each person various capabilities and resources, such as knowledge, money, strength, some talent or skill, etc. Every individual must use whatever he or she has been given to benefit other people as well as the rest of God’s creation, and not for selfish ends. If this principle is neglected, then not only is there no relief for the distress and the suffering of the needy, but man’s increased selfishness makes him his fellow-man’s deadly enemy; and society as well as mankind become divided into factions and groups all trying to grab things from one another.