Almsgiving, Property, Wealth

Almsgiving, Property, Wealth: A Muslim Perspective

The idea of giving in Islamic thinking is deep rooted. Islamic teachings on property, wealth, and almsgiving or charity are based on divine guidance of the Qur'an, the divinely guided exemplary practice of the prophet, (the sunnah), and the deductions of the jurists from both sources of the Qur'an and the sunnah. According to the Qur'anic revelation God is good and kind. The divine attributes such as the Giver, (el-mu'tee), The Provider (el-rezzaq), the benefactor (el-vahhab) form the divine ground for human charity, goodness, and kindness. God has bountifully and generously given blessings as a prime model for those who have faith in such a God. Muslim jurists have formulated on the basis of both the Qur'anic teaching and the prophet Muhammad’s Sunnah five institutes one of which is known as Almsgiving (Zakaat) literally meaning purification of one's wealth by giving out of it the poor due. Zakaat is a sort of worship to God, by spending out one's possessions. It was made a religious law upon the rich to give out a certain amount of their possessions to the poor.

Sacrificing one’s wealth as a religious obligation for the good of the poor, the needy, and the helpless is based on a broader notion of equality among human beings. The Qur'an and the prophet's example aim at justice and equality as necessary foundations for peace, fraternity, and unity. These latter ideals are seen as prerequisites for the highest good which is human happiness.

Spending out of one's possessions is a divine commandment for those who have more than they need. There are many Hadiths which encourage believers to give, and threaten those who reject or fail to give, for example: “A badoween came to the prophet and said: Lead me to an act if I do it I will enter the paradise. The prophet answered: You worship Allah without associating anything with Him, conduct the written prayer, give out the prescribed alms, and fast the month of Ramadan. The badoween said: I swear by Him in whose hands lies my soul. I will never add anything to this. When the man left, the prophet said: Whoever is pleased to see a man from the people of paradise let him look at this man.” (Bukhari, Vol.I, p.131) Every individual believer is encouraged to give charity. The concept of sharing is a divine institute next to prayer (salah).

The revelation is clear that God is the real owner of all that is and has the ultimate authority on everything that is. Zakaat as the obligatory giving is part of a larger notion of giving, spending (infaq) or charity (sadaqah). The Qur’an discourages the attitude of hoarding wealth and close handedness. Dedication of one's possessions to the service of God is considered a form of worship. Sadaqahs are used in the tradition as voluntary pious acts. They are believed to have expiatory effects. According to a popular hadith sadaqah lengthens life and prevents affliction. Another well-known hadith is “If anyone goes to bed with a full stomach and his neighbor is starving he is not one of us” (…). The Qur'an divinely establishes the institute of giving by many verses such as "the saved ones are those who have faith in the unseen, conduct prayer and out of what we have provided them they spend." (The Qur’an 2/3). The sadaqahs and zakaats are to be given from possessions which are acquired legitimately and purely from the goods which God has provided.

The term sadaqah is a derivative of the core notion of sadaqah meaning truthfulness or being true to God and to oneself. This implies that by giving to the poor one becomes truthful to God who is the true Giver. This is related to another core idea that ownership belongs in the real sense to God and the human being is only a steward, a tenant or a trustee. Since human beings are not the true owners of their possessions and they have no final authority on their wealth. The Qur'an rejects that the acquisition of wealth was possible only through man’s own effort, teaching that it is God who gives wealth in the true sense. The common understanding is that sadaqah implies a non-obligatory or supererogatory optional spending on the poor, while zakaat is applied for the obligatory giving. Zakaat is applied as a religious tax on one's possessions with the indication that one's property becomes pure when the portion of the poor in it is given out. The Qur'an explains in the following verse the areas for zakaat: "The alms are only for the poor and the needy, and those who collect them, and those whose hearts to be reconciled, and to free the captives, and the debtors and for the cause of Allah and for the wayfarers; a duty imposed by Allah. Allah is Knower, Wise” (9/60). 

In the juristic tradition there has developed a concept of the necessary means such as dwellings, personal possessions, furniture, tools, instruments, riding and draft animals which are not commercial merchandise which apply to the necessary standard of living that everyone must have. Those who have above that standard are eligible for giving, and those who have less than the standard are eligible for receiving. The amount of portion for each good is called nisbah which is specified as to the livestock and the land products. The tenth of the land product must go as zakaat.  On gold and silver to which merchandise, financial instruments, stocks and bonds are included as liquid assets the nisbah is 2.5% of the total value of the asset each year. Likewise the nisbah for the animals varies according to the kind of the animals as sheep, goats, cows and camels. One of every forty sheep is to be reserved as zakaat. The amount of zakaat also varies according to the sort of the crops as raisins or dates or wheat or barley etc. Such measuring was seen as a manifestation of care for justice and for many other principles such as balance, harmony, capacity, ease, and necessity. 

Almsgiving, Property, Wealth: A Christian Perspective

Christianity has, from its earliest beginnings, regarded voluntary giving to relieve poverty as a central religious and moral obligation.  It has understood the holding of private property to be a limited right, contingent on providing for the needs of others.  And it has typically regarded wealth as a morally ambiguous value, providing opportunities for generosity, but inseparable from temptations to greed and social injustice.  In all three respects, Christianity reflects its Jewish heritage and perpetuates convictions prominent in the Old Testament.

During the long period of history reflected in the Hebrew Bible, political and social changes took place that deeply modified the understanding of economic morality.  During the nomadic and early settled periods, neither extreme wealth nor extreme poverty were conspicuous.  Family was the most vital social unit, the essential private property was family land, and care for the needy was typically provided by families for their own members.  As towns grew, and included residents of different family backgrounds, this continued to be the case.  The growth of large agricultural estates, however, introduced distinctions between employers and workers, often masters and slaves respectively, raising questions to which the Law responded with requirements of fair and timely payment of wages.  The Law also regulated terms of enslavement and conditions of emancipation.  The institution of slavery, it should be said, was not morally challenged in the Bible, and was accepted by Christian churches generally until the 18th century.

With the rise and frequent corruption of monarchy, Israel became familiar with the extremes of wealth and poverty.  From the time of Solomon, royal extravagance was paid for by conscript labor, exploitative taxes, appropriation of land, and enslavement of debtors.  Such abuses gave rise to prophetic denunciations of luxurious self-indulgence combined with indifference to widespread poverty.  Three categories of persons are cited again and again as representing the most vulnerable and neglected: widows, orphans, and resident aliens.

The Law introduced programs for the relief of poverty, mainly in the form of periodically setting aside portions of harvested crops to be collected and consumed by the poor.  It also tried to protect debtors by forbidding the taking of interest for loans, holding indispensable goods as security, and requiring that forfeited family land be periodically restored.

The New Testament shares with the Hebrew prophets an habitual distrust of wealth and of ambition for wealth.  By contrast the poor are singled out as primary beneficiaries of the salvation that approaches with Jesus' proclamation of the Kingdom Of God: "the poor have the Gospel preached to them."  Jesus' advice to a conscientious rich man is to distribute his wealth to the poor and then become a disciple.  The callousness of luxury and the absurdity of greed are satirized in some of Jesus' best-known parables, notably the story of a rich man who banqueted while a beggar starved at his gate, and of another who wasted his life expanding storage facilities for his ever-expanding wealth.  Jesus also introduces a characteristic warning, that philanthropy is often a form of hypocrisy, using ostentatious almsgiving to gain a reputation for virtue.

Outside the Gospels the New Testament maintains a consistently critical view of wealth and a deeply compassionate view of poverty.  The Jerusalem Christians are said to have pooled their assets so as to share them equally.  Early missionary journeys were combined with organized collecting of donations for poor Christian communities by those in better circumstances.  Although there can be no doubt that disinterest in wealth was facilitated for early Christians by their belief that the world's history was soon to end, it is significant that as that belief faded with the passage of time, concern for the poor did not.

Early Christian communities everywhere maintained a strong tradition of sharing and assisting.  Even their most illustrious enemy, the Emperor Julian, who tried and failed to reinstate pre-Christian paganism, conceded that Christianity would survive because it refused to tolerate poverty among its members.  When Christian moral teaching was first systematically formulated, notably by St. Ambrose, who had been a Roman official before he was a Christian bishop, compassionate provision for the poor was stressed and immoderate pursuit of wealth was denounced.  Early Christian theologians insisted that the material world had been created for all to share, whereas private property was a secondary development with only conditional claims.

During and after the Middle Ages, many monastic and related kinds of religious communities developed whose members committed themselves to austerity of life which included the renunciation of private property.  In addition, many of these religious, both male and female, devoted themselves to serving the poor.  The institutions that grew out of these beginnings became the most effective agencies of social welfare wherever Christianity spread, until quite recent times.  Ordinary Christians were taught that contributing to these services was an important religious obligation, and collections for the poor were regularly taken up in local parishes.

Following the Protestant Reformation, many of these institutions were abolished.  Luther, especially, gave the significance of a religious "calling" to work done in traditional secular occupations.  Among Calvinists, insistence on work as an antidote to temptation contributed to what would later be called the "work ethic."  Calvinists also led the way to reinterpreting the biblical prohibition of lending at interest, teaching that moderate compensation for creditors could encourage needed loans without oppressing borrowers. Protestant theological objections to Catholic monasticism were intensified by notorious corruption, including greed, within monasteries, some of which became objects of well-deserved satire.  Among Protestants, civic, parochial, and private charities assumed many of the tasks of providing for the poor.   In places where such tasks were habitually neglected, the poor became increasingly disaffected from churches largely populated by affluent gentry and their servants.

This alienation of the poor from main-stream Protestantism evoked a new evangelism, that focused on the lower classes and combined organized community assistance with missionary preaching.  Within the Church of England, John Wesley's reforms, which would become Methodism, set a powerful example.  Wesley's famous sermon, calling on Christians to gain as much wealth as possible precisely in order to expand their contribution to the needy, articulated an economic spirituality that could be easily understood.  New types of church organization, like the Salvation Army achieved outstanding success in efforts for both material and spiritual rescue of the urban poor.  Combined with these efforts were political campaigns for the correction of social abuses, and, in particular, for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade, whose defenders invariably pointed out that the Bible raised no explicit objections to them. 

With the Industrial Revolution, and the political and social revolutions that arose from it, Christian churches perceived the need of translating their economic morality into terms more directly applicable to industrial urban societies.  Attention was first concentrated on tensions between "capital" and "labor."  The right of private property was generally affirmed, in contrast to Communist doctrine, but counterbalanced by insistence on the obligations of employers to employees, the right of employees to organize in unions to protect their interests, and the duties of government to ensure humane wages and treatment, and to provide for the unemployed.  Stimulated by Marxist allegations that Christian religion encouraged postponing to the afterlife the satisfaction of workers' hopes and needs, Christian socialist parties arose in many European nations, making social justice their political ideology.  In American Protestantism, the Social Gospel Movement both sought theological foundations for social justice, and encouraged political action to promote it.

Roman Catholicism was a major participant in this trend, but without actively collaborating with other Christian churches.  Instead, a church-wide and uniform approach to social justice was assured by Vatican initiative, which generated a body of consistent and developing Catholic social teachings.  These have appeared in a series of papal encyclicals beginning with Pope Leo XIII in the mid-nineteenth century and continuing until the last pope, John-Paul II.  These documents have exerted great influence, and have taken progressive account of new moral developments in economic life.  Notably, they have moved the subject beyond national confines, emphasizing the duties of rich nations to assist poor and underdeveloped ones.  Within underdeveloped nations, especially in Latin America, a religious movement called Liberation Theology has encouraged organized resistance by the poor to exploitation in which both Christian governments and Christian churches have been complicit.  Out of that movement, the phrase "option for the poor" has come to signify a conviction that the condition of the poor is the surest indicator of a society's justice, and the primary objective of reform.

The ancient biblical ideal of almsgiving has remained active in Christian churches, but with an increasing emphasis on large-scale, organized, systematic remedies for the plight of the poor and the moral abuses of wealth.


Points of Agreement and Disagreement

Points of Agreement
Both Christian and Muslim teaching holds that the earth ultimately belongs to God; and that human beings are stewards. As Psalm 24 states: “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” This can also be seen in the story of the Garden of Eden, (Genesis 2:15) when “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden to till it and to keep it.” Recent Catholic social teaching, both from Pope John Paul II (“The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility”) and from the U.S. Bishops has emphasized that human beings are stewards, charged with caring for the earth as if they were trustees.

There is also common teaching in both Islam and Christianity that those with wealth and means are obliged to share their wealth with the poor. The teaching so the Qur’an and the teachings of Jesus are both very strict on this matter. For example, Jesus teaches: “No servant can serve two masters; for he will either hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Luke 16:13).  Those who hoard wealth and ignore the poor are repeatedly threatened with hell, in Jesus teachings and parables—for example, the parable of Lazarus and the rich man where Lazarus, the poor man who lay outside the rich man’s gate, is taken up into heaven, while the rich man himself is taken to hell (Luke 16). Or again his saying that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mark 10:25). Similarly, those who ignore duties to the poor are threatened with hell in the Qur’an. Muhammad, in his life, shared what he had with the poor to such an extent that he was often impoverished himself.

Points of Disagreement
There is a wide range of disagreement within each tradition (more than between the traditions) as to how much wealth is too much, and as to our obligations to the poor. If we were to follow Jesus’ teachings to the letter, we would have to give away all of our surplus wealth. This raises many questions. How could we save for retirement, or save for the needs of a family?  In point of fact, Jesus strictures on wealth in the gospels far greater than his strictures on sexual immorality, yet the Christian tradition for the most part has been very hard on those who were sexually promiscuous, whereas it has been comparatively quite to those who did  not share enough with the poor. Similarly, there are vast extremes of wealth and poverty in many Muslims countries (e.g. Saudi Arabia). Is this acceptable in Islamic teaching? Presumably there is disagreement on this mater within Islam.

Points for Further Discussion

One point to discuss is the question raised above: from a Christian perspective and from an Islamic perspective, how extensive are our obligations to the poor, and how much wealth can we legitimately possess, and, also, if we do have wealth, what should we do with it?

A second point for discussion is the obligations of wealth nations to poor nations. This point has been repeatedly stressed in Catholic social teaching, both from the popes and from the bishops.