It’s safe to say that one of the hallmarks of Ramadan is Muslims’ generosity. From maghrib time on the first evening as the news of the blessed month’s arrival spreads, so too do the links to fundraising pages, charity adverts and television appeals. Muslims give millions in the month of Ramadan, with Islam Channel breaking records last year to raise over £1 million in one night. Muslims in the UK alone are regularly expected to donate over £100 million across the whole month.
As one of the most beloved acts to Allah, a means of attaining closeness to him and purifying our wealth, the importance of giving charity cannot be overstated.
However, for many, charity has become the default response to any and every problem witnessed in the world. It is not only viewed as a spiritual obligation, but as a fundamental means of change. Our community has broad brushed issues facing those in the developing world, equating the aftermath of a natural disaster with poverty as a result of poor governance, with the blanket labeling of each as a charity case.
Whilst charity undoubtedly has its uses, today, these have been exaggerated. Donating money has been promoted as the only tool that Muslims have at achieving change, with the high status given to it in Islam presented as evidence.
Yet when one looks at how Islam approaches the issue of poverty and economic progress, it is clear that charity features much less than may be expected.
The nation state approach
One of the most defining aspects of Islam is its propensity to address the needs of society on social and judicial levels. From the very earliest revelations till the final sermon, Prophet Muhammad (saws) taught the importance of equitable treatment of the poor and encouraged alms giving by openhanded individuals, and the distribution of wealth from a governmental level via the collection of zakat and other taxes.
Contemporary state politics however makes no such obligation upon its citizens. Charitable endeavors are left to the discretion of humanitarians and government donations are most often for appeasement and political maneuvering.
Under capitalism, charity work is often used to create funding for vital medical research, as with cancer, dementia and other life threatening illnesses. Likewise in creating employment, charities play an unusually large part in re-educating and targeting the work force. The rise in immigration has seen a growth in charities helping re-settle families, even providing basic necessities to those made to live on a paltry amount.
The role of the state has been diminished; aside from increasing spending on defence and foreign investment, in an age of austerity, most government spending has been so gravely cut that charities and co-operatives have been forced to step in to provide basic welfare services.
Read more: Social welfare: Between capitalism & Islam
Muslims in the West have been exposed to ideological states that conduct themselves in this way, where the rule of law and preservation of life means at least more than many developing nations. Consequently, to some extent it is natural that our community has adopted this model of charitable giving, where the assumption is that wherever there is a need, where poverty is rife, where education is lacking, and even where natural disaster and genocide have occurred, the individual is responsible to step in and provide relief.
The Islamic approach
As previously expressed it’s absolutely normal for any Muslim to feel the obligation of assisting mankind in times of urgency and need; this is the natural humanity innate in us all.
However it is time we as Muslims accept that many of our efforts, from providing long term food and medical care in developing countries, to actually funding basic state infrastructure, hospitals, dams and villages, is first and foremost the realm of the governmental responsibility.
The argument that certain nations cannot or do not provide for their citizens may reflect the reality on the ground, but as Muslims we don’t need to limit our actions to the reality.
Islam has clearly stipulated the responsibility of the Muslim ruler, whose role is not that of prestige and fame, but primarily one of servitude to the people, not living in the lap of luxury while the people suffer. Additionally, scholars have elucidated the various departments that existed in Islam’s history to deal with expenditures, as well as the detailed taxes stipulated by Muhammad (saws) to fund the public treasury the Bait-ul Maal, of which zakat it just one.
From the outset, Islam enshrines the right to food, clothing and shelter as a priority for all Muslims, superseding that of collective growth at the risk of inequality.
“The Son of Adam has no better right than that he would have a house wherein he may live, a piece of clothing whereby he may hide his nakedness and a piece of bread and some water.” (Tirmidhi)
Furthermore, Islam’s economic restrictions would prevent a Muslim country from entering into the interest-ridden commitments of international institutions such as the World Bank, which hamper the economic progress of the majority of the population. Justice according to Islam, in word and deed is not to ally with those who impose huge debt and stringent policies upon the poor and favor laws that provide loopholes for the rich and multinational companies, with the elusive promise of long-term progress for all.
Islam also mandates that natural resources are designated as public property through the hadith:
“The Muslims are partners in three things, waters, feeding pastures and fire (fuel).” (Ahmad)
Consequently, the privatization of basic necessities and then charging for use is forbidden.
This is not to discount the role of individual Muslims in facilitating economic prosperity; the existence of waqf, endowments, allows investment into local infrastructure. Ideally overseen by a Muslim state, Islamic finance practioners and analysts are increasingly identifying how the establishment of traditional charitable trusts can facilitate long-term development.
During the Ottoman empire, women, who retained the right to their private income and inheritance, often used their wealth to establish schools, hospitals, caravansaries, soup kitchens and mosques, such that they were responsible for nearly a third 20-30% of all waqf projects.
Read more: Khadijah (ra): A standard working mother?
As Muslims we are keen to marvel in the perfection of Allah’s creation, yet we sometimes forget that Allah’s system of laws, the Sharia, is also a perfect standard of life.
“Shall I seek other than Allah as a source of law, when He has revealed to you this book which is fully detailed?” (6:114)
In the absence of any correct and holistic form of Shariah being implemented today, we can at least speak against the unjust systems that create the lasting cycles of poverty we witness around the world today.
It is these policies that have stifled growth and led to a culture of desperation, which has allowed for foreign interference via the government or NGOs, that promote social and economic models often inconsistent with Islamic values; such as projects that encourage women in the developing world to work, leaving young children to be unsupervised, which often results in older children sacrificing their education to manage the home and eventually taking up further menial jobs.
These policies are fundamentally devoid of the Islamic perspective of progress, development and education.
It is undoubtedly praiseworthy that through various charities, villages may be served by water wells and become self sufficient in basic farming techniques, but the reality is that the problems have become too vast and too deep.
The purpose of charity is that it is a purification of our wealth and a cure for our sick hearts, which are attached to this temporary dunya. Charity is a means of forgiveness and purification; it is a challenge to our nafs. It also does bring benefit to the poor, but it was never intended to be a replacement for state structures or Islamic governance. It was not intended to become the business or indeed global industry that it is today.
What Allah (swt) has planned for this Ummah to suffer, our obligation is to help where and whenever we can; no one can say they are not in need of the great rewards attached to this noble, selfless act.
But as global citizens, aware about the current socio-political structures and Islamic laws and governance, we must account those in positions of power from the basis of Islam and call them to account. In doing so we fulfill another vital obligation and inshaAllah pave the way for a more just and enlightened future.
“There will be rulers, you will find some of their actions as ma’rouf (good) and some as munkar (bad). The one who recognizes these matters will be safe, the one who forbids it will be free of sin, but the one who agreed and followed these actions will neither be safe nor free of sin” (Sahih Muslim)
Aisha Hasan is the founder of the Qarawiyyin Project. A Middle East researcher in London, she is also an aalima student and a Quran teacher. She has been active in the community for several years, appearing on television, radio shows and delivering talks at universities around the country.