14 – Charity and Economic Freedom in Islam

Charity and Economic Freedom in Islam

The discussion I will present here is regarding the act of charity in the way of God in light of our previous discussion regarding economic freedoms in Islam. We said that Islam believes in the economy of the people. Islam does not make the economic activity exclusive to the government rather it allows individuals of the society to strive, to perform the activity, to acquire wealth. It is natural that the necessary result of this way of thinking is that if a need exists in the Islamic society, all the individuals of the society without any exception, those who were able to acquire some wealth, are responsible for filling that vacuum in proportion to the difference in their abilities. Islam does not say that people should acquire wealth and should only spend that wealth on their individual expenditures. Rather, Islam says that people should acquire wealth and from the wealth they acquire, they should fulfil ordinary requirements of their lives and their needs, and give in charity the remainder in the way of God.

وَيَسْأَلُونَكَ مَاذَا يُنفِقُونَ قُلِ الْعَفْوَ

(And they ask you as to what they should spend. Say, ‘All that is surplus.’) [1]

‘They ask you as to from what should they spend and give in charity.’ Apparently, the context of the verse is that the questioner asked as to what types of commodities should be spent in charity. But the Quran has reverted the question; it doesn’t answer as to from which kind of commodity one should spend and from which ones one shouldn’t, rather it answers saying, ‘Say, ‘From that which is surplus’’. Whatever is necessary and needed for your life, spend it on yourself, but all that is not the real need of life, spend that in charity in the way of God. This is an Islamic principle. Therefore it is very natural that according to the view of Islam, amassing wealth is considered a non-Islamic action about which I presented the following verse previously:

وَالَّذِينَ يَكْنِزُونَ الذَّهَبَ وَالْفِضَّةَ وَلَا يُنفِقُونَهَا فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ فَبَشِّرْهُم بِعَذَابٍ أَلِيمٍ

Those who treasure up gold and silver, and do not spend it in the way of Allah, inform them of a painful punishment [2]

As I said there, this informing of the painful punishment signifies that treasuring of gold and silver, which in today’s terms is upholding wealth and not giving it away in the way of God, is a stimulus of God’s anger and it can be said that it is a greater sin. This is the point of view of Islam regarding spending in charity.

Here I will stray a bit to the margins of the main topic we have been following in this series [which is freedom] and make charity as the main point of the discussion. I do not mean to have an analytical, deductive and philosophical discussion. Rather I am willing to mention Islamic texts, some of the Islamic texts regarding charity. Today we must constantly keep in mind the view of Quran and Islam regarding wealth and spending it in charity and act upon it, because the method of Islam is not to speak of something without performing the action or only philosophising it in the mind, or reasoning, discussing and giving formulae that have no result.

وَأَنفِقُوا فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ وَلَا تُلْقُوا بِأَيْدِيكُمْ إِلَى التَّهْلُكَةِ

Spend in the way of Allah, and do not cast yourselves with your own hands into destruction[3]

There is a narration narrated in some of the commentaries under this verse that in one of the battles of Muslims against Rome in which the companion of the Noble Prophet (s),  Abū Ayyūb Anṣārī, was present, one of the soldiers of Islam who was a brave and impetuous man, went into the battlfield, fought and breached the enemy lines until he reached the heart of the enemy forces. Some individuals on this side who were watching him cried out: سبحان الله القی بنفسه الی التّهلکة, i.e. this person has cast himself into destruction, i.e. they were pointing towards the verse of the Quran which said, ‘and do not cast yourselves with your own hands into destruction’. Abū Ayyūb Anṣārī was present there; he saw that these people are making mistake regarding the meaning of that verse and thought that the meaning of a Muslim not casting himself into destruction with his own hands is that he should not attack the heart of the enemy forces and were condemning this Muslim youth due to his bravery. He cried out and said: Be quiet, this verse was revealed about us, we were there, and we know for what this verse was revealed. The circumstances were in this way that when Islam acquired some honour after passing of few years after the hijrah and the helpers of Islam increased, we Anṣārs thought to ourselves: well, during early days the muhājirs were in need of our help and we used to help them and used to assist in the expenditures of the Islamic society, today it would be better that we spend on ourselves a bit and we should go after our professions and works and availing the necessities of life appropriate of luxurious life. In this way, we would have become negligent of performing jihād and charity in the way of God. In this situation, this verse was revealed and said to us: spend in the way of God and do not cast yourselves into destruction through this wrong thinking. Abū Ayyūb Anṣārī said: The destruction lies in this that a Muslim remains bound to his wealth, his life, his family and becomes neglectful of Divine responsibilities of jihād and charity. Destruction is not this that a brave person resists the enemy of God even though his life falls in danger. This is the understanding of the Muslims of the early Islam regarding the verse ‘Spend in the way of Allah, and do not cast yourselves with your own hands into destruction’.

The issue that should be paid attention to regarding charity, which I will present very cursorily so that the other verses that I wanted to present can be covered, is this that for the eradication of poverty in the society, for filling the financial vacuums in the society, for making all individuals of the society partners in administering the society, the best way and the most successful means are those which Islam has specified. I.e. those who have the ability, to whatever extent they can, they should assist in general expenses of the society, the general consumption of the society. One instance of which is to help the poor, but it is not limited to helping the poor. It cannot happen that in an Islamic society some people acquire wealth and imagine that whatever they have ‘I have indeed been given [all] this because of the knowledge that I have [4]’, i.e. they speak the words of Qārūn. When it was said to Qārūn that you are accumulating all this wealth, he would say: I have acquired this through my cleverness, my knowledge and my efforts; it’s my reward. This is wrong thinking that one says that whatever I have acquired, I have done it through my own efforts, cleverness and wisdom, and hence it is my reward. No. The matter is not such in Islamic logic. The matter is in this way that all have the responsibility to help in fulfilling social needs. If, in this current society of ours, the eradication of poverty from the society is taken into consideration with the help of some planning through the assistance of the people, surely within a few years, the condition of the society and face of the country shall be transformed. It is the case in every part of the world. However, on a global level, in poor as well as wealthy countries there are issues of the same kind and even more severe ones which are out of the scope of our discussion here; we are having this discussion in the framework of our own society.

Therefore, for bringing into existence financial balance in the society, for preventing the society from becoming bipolar with regards to wealth, for preventing the extravagance and financial corruption from coming into existence, for preventing poverty from coming into existence, the best way and the most successful method is this method of charity. That’s why you see that in the Quran many verses, tens of verses are regarding charity. These verses speak in different ways, for instance, in the Quran, as I presume, in seven or eight verses, jihād with wealth is put besides jihād with one’s life; just as the jihād with one’s life is obligatory, the jihād with one’s wealth is also obligatory.

وَتُجَاهِدُونَ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ بِأَمْوَالِكُمْ وَأَنفُسِكُمْ

wage jihad in the way of Allah with your wealth and yourselves[5]

Life and wealth, are given attention to in one line, in one level, in one tone in this verse.

This was regarding the issue of charity. Here I have spent some time to extract verses from the noble word of God. What I will present here is just a small part of the verses regarding charity. My purpose here is that we accustom ourselves to receiving the Islamic realities from the tongue of the Quran, Islamic texts and narrations and think in a text-oriented way. We should remember the advice of the Quran because it is more effective, its luminosity is more, the hearts are affected by it more and because the verses of the Quran are nearer to the reality, i.e. the reality of Islamic thought.

One section of the verses is that which says that one should give in charity from that which is best. There are a few verses in this regard. This is a practice, a test.

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا أَنفِقُوا مِن طَيِّبَاتِ مَا كَسَبْتُمْ وَمِمَّا أَخْرَجْنَا لَكُم مِّنَ الْأَرْضِ ۖ وَلَا تَيَمَّمُوا الْخَبِيثَ مِنْهُ تُنفِقُونَ

O you who have faith! Spend of the good things you have earned [through trade and the like] and of what We bring forth for you from the earth, and do not aim to give the bad part of it, [6]

I.e. O you who have believed in God, spend in the way of Allah from the best, from the most beautiful, from that which is more exquisite and valuable. Do not go after bad things to spend them in charity. Do not wish to spend in the way of God that which is extra, the extra [unwanted] clothes, the extra food, that what you wouldn’t utilise yourself. No. From the best of what you have, spend in the way of Allah. This was the verse from the chapter of Baqarah. There is a verse from the chapter of Āl ‘Imrān which is renowned and is there in everybody’s minds:

لَن تَنَالُوا الْبِرَّ حَتَّىٰ تُنفِقُوا مِمَّا تُحِبُّ

(You will never attain piety until you spend out of what you hold dear) [7]

One should give away in the way of God that which is dearer to him, that which he likes more.

A group of verses is regarding the fact that charity in the way of God is worship like prayers (ṣalāt) and ostentation invalidates it. If we perform charity so that people say: ‘Great, that person spent in the way of God’,  so that they praise us, this spoils the action and invalidates it:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لَا تُبْطِلُوا صَدَقَاتِكُم بِالْمَنِّ وَالْأَذَىٰ كَالَّذِي يُنفِقُ مَالَهُ رِئَاءَ النَّاسِ

O you who have faith! Do not render your charities void by reproaches and affronts, like those who spend their wealth to be seen by people [8]

Here it becomes clear that the person who gives away his wealth to show people, for ostentation, he too invalidates his action.

But if it is without ostentation, then it is good to spend in the way of God in secret as well as openly. This should not cause some people to refrain from spending openly in charity. They should do it openly. It should be without ostentation. It being in the open, in front of others’ eyes is not problematic:

إِن تُبْدُوا الصَّدَقَاتِ فَنِعِمَّا هِيَ

If you disclose your charities, that is well[9]

How good it is that whatever you spend in charity, you disclose it, and then others see it, get encouraged, and the good action fills the environment of the society.

There are some verses in the Quran which make us understand that not performing charity in the way of God and being close-fisted with regards to good actions is a sign of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is not something apparent [it is through its signs that it is manifested]. The individuals, who claim to have faith (īmān), and when they are called faithless, they don’t like it, but are not ready to spend even a penny of their wealth in the way of God or are not willing to give an appropriate amount of their wealth in the way of God, such people are either hypocrites right now or there is fear that they will be hypocrites. At a place the Quran says regarding signs of hypocrites:

الْمُنَافِقُونَ وَالْمُنَافِقَاتُ بَعْضُهُم مِّن بَعْضٍ ۚ يَأْمُرُونَ بِالْمُنكَرِ وَيَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ الْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَقْبِضُونَ أَيْدِيَهُمْ

The hypocrites, men and women, are all alike: they bid what is wrong and forbid what is right; and are tight-fisted. [10]

They are closed-fisted, i.e. they do not spend in charity.

And at another place it says that there are some who pledge to God that if He gave them something, they will perform charity in the way of God:

وَمِنْهُم مَّنْ عَاهَدَ اللَّهَ لَئِنْ آتَانَا مِن فَضْلِهِ لَنَصَّدَّقَنَّ وَلَنَكُونَنَّ مِنَ الصَّالِحِينَ

Among them are those who made a pledge with Allah: ‘If He gives us out of His grace, we will surely give the zakat and we will surely be among the righteous.’

فَلَمَّا آتَاهُم مِّن فَضْلِهِ بَخِلُوا بِهِ وَتَوَلَّوا وَّهُم مُّعْرِضُونَ

But when He gave them out of His grace, they became tight fisted it and turned away, being disregardful.[11]

These people also, after they acquire things, show stinginess. Regarding them, God says:

فَأَعْقَبَهُمْ نِفَاقًا فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ إِلَىٰ يَوْمِ يَلْقَوْنَهُ بِمَا أَخْلَفُوا اللَّهَ مَا وَعَدُوهُ

So He caused hypocrisy to ensue in their hearts until the day they will encounter Him, because of their going back on what they had promised Allah [12]

Because they broke the covenant with God, He puts hypocrisy in their hearts. Therefore, to summarise, one of the signs of a hypocrite is that he is tight-fisted, i.e. he does not spend in charity. We can’t say that everybody who is tight-fisted is a hypocrite. But it is definitely one of the signs of a hypocrite.

In some verses, Divine punishment is promised to those who do not perform charity. The verse has a very severe tone:

خُذُوهُ فَغُلُّوهُ ثُمَّ الْجَحِيمَ صَلُّوهُ ثُمَّ فِي سِلْسِلَةٍ ذَرْعُهَا سَبْعُونَ ذِرَاعًا فَاسْلُكُوهُ إِنَّهُ كَانَ لَا يُؤْمِنُ بِاللَّهِ الْعَظِيمِ وَلَا يَحُضُّ عَلَىٰ طَعَامِ الْمِسْكِينِ

[The angels will be told:] ‘Seize him, and fetter him! Then put him into hell. Then bind him in a chain, seventy cubits in length. Indeed he had no faith in Allah, the All-supreme, and he did not urge the feeding of the needy [13]

Here it does not speak about not performing charity. It is about being indifferent towards the poverty of the poor and the needy. It is regarding being cold-blooded with respect to the needs of society. One must not be cold-blooded in this regard. Even that person who cannot perform charity should compel others to perform charity. At the end of the chapter of Munāfiqūn it says:

وَأَنفِقُوا مِن مَّا رَزَقْنَاكُم مِّن قَبْلِ أَن يَأْتِيَ أَحَدَكُمُ الْمَوْتُ فَيَقُولَ رَبِّ لَوْلَا أَخَّرْتَنِي إِلَىٰ أَجَلٍ قَرِيبٍ فَأَصَّدَّقَ وَأَكُن مِّنَ الصَّالِحِينَ

Spend out of what We have provided you before death comes to any of you, whereat he might say, ‘My Lord, why did You not respite me for a short time so that I could give charity and become one of the righteous!’ [14]

I.e. at the time when death comes after him, – death comes to everyone suddenly, all come face to face with death unexpectedly, they do not anticipate it – he suddenly comes to himself and says: O Lord! Extend the respite so that I may give away in the way of God, so that I can spend in charity. It is the ruing regarding the performance of charity with that wealth which now remains while he will be gone.

And there are yet many more verses. For instance, those verses which consider charity as giving a loan to God, and the likes of it which I have gathered.

Let me present a narration which clarifies the boundaries of this matter a little more . The narration is that the Messenger of God (s) entered his house and saw that Bilāl al-Ḥabashī, who was a servant of his, had kept some dates, a small box of dates in a corner. The Prophet’s (s) eyes fell upon those dates, and he said: whats this for, Oh Bilal? ما هذا یا بلال what is this that you have gathered? He said: O Messenger of God! Because sometimes guests come for you and when the guests are there, it is possible that there is nothing in the house while you want to serve food to the guests, so I have kept them for a day of need when a guest comes to you. اعدّ ذلک لاضیافک It is not even for your personal use; it is for the guests. Look at what the Prophet (s) says in his answer regarding a handful of dates which were kept for the guests:

اما تخشی ان تکون لک دخان فی نار جهنّم[15]

Do you not fear that these dates that you have gathered here will become the smoke of the fire of hell for you?!

It becomes clear here that at that time the people were in need. So, in other words, the Prophet (s) meant that: in a situation when the people outside are in need of this thing that you have gathered in your house, and you are withholding it in your house and do not give it to them, don’t you fear that God will make this a means for your chastisement? And then he said: انفق یا بلال Give in charity O Bilāl. و لا تخش من ذی العرش اقلالا And do not fear of scarcity from God, He will make the provisions reach. Now if one day a guest arrives and we have nothing, well, let it be so, God will provide insha’Allah. Do not fear that God will bring about defect and scarcity in your affair. Give in the way of God whenever it is necessary.

The Eighth Imam, ‘Alī ibn Mūsā al-Riḍā (a) wrote to his son Imam Jawād (a) and there he also employed the same words with a minute difference addressing Imam Jawād (a):

فانفق و لا تخش من ذی العرش اقتارا[16]

Spend in charity in the way of God O my son, and do not fear that God will put you in difficulty and destitution.

This is the way of thinking of Islam. And this type of thinking is not just for those in the society who are at an intermediate or lower financial level. Every time we announced a call for help, due to war or for floods or for various requirements, the first ones to answer the call were the middle class of the people. They came and gave away their jewellery  or some gold they had. The other person feels ashamed, and tears flow from the eyes, he sees that this household is weak and is able to give only a ring which is of not much worth outwardly even though its inner value is very much. It is such people who mostly come forward. This is not enough. In Islamic society, those who have more should give more. They should not think that their wealth will decrease. That what they acquire through giving is more valuable and greater by many ranks compared to that what they lose.

The Messenger of God (s) had once sacrificed a calf or a goat. The poor of Madinah came and the Prophet (s) cut the meat into pieces and gave it to them and they left. A shoulder-piece of this goat remained in the house. One of the wives of the Prophet (s) said: O Messenger of God! All of this goat is gone only the shoulder-piece is left. The Prophet (s) said: All of it has remained, only the shoulder-piece shall go away. This very shoulder-piece that you and me shall eat, which will be digested and destroyed, is the part which is really destroyed and gone, while the rest which we gave away remained with God.

They should not fear that whatever they give is gone. They should give away in the way of God and fulfil the requirements. We wish that through the call of Islam, through this admonishing and well-wishing call, those who have the ability should come forward and fulfil the requirements of the society. Charity should always be performed, and it should always be appreciated.


[1] Quran (2:219).

[2] Quran (9:34).

[3] Quran (2:195).

[4] Quran (28:78).

[5] Quran (61:11).

[6] Quran (2:267).

[7] Quran (3:92).

[8] Quran (2:264).

[9] Quran (2:271).

[10] Quran (9:67).

[11] Quran (9:75).

[12] Quran (9:77).

[13] Quran (69:30-34).

[14] Quran (63:10).

[15] Mīzān al-Ḥikmah, vol.12, p.388.

[16] Muḥammad ibn Ya‘qūb ibn Isḥāq al-Kulaynī, Al-Kāfī, Volume 4 (Tehran: Dār al-Kutub al-Islāmiyyah, 1407 A.H., Fourth print), 43, Ḥadīth: 5, Noor Software CD-ROM.

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