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18 February 2020

Ethics of generosity

The writer teaches Histories and Cultures of Muslim Societies at a private university in Pakistan.

GIVING of one’s charitable feelings to the needy has been an integral part of human society since time immemorial. This tradition is now being extended beyond the personal level to institutional, societal and state levels.

The magnitude of giving has also multiplied. The best part is that giving is no longer limited to one’s community, religion or city.

When a natural or man-made disaster befalls a community or society, people and states in many parts of the world come forward to donate, in cash and kind, to the affected people.

Human beings must feel proud of this development — of moving beyond one’s clan or community, creed or caste, state or society, to reach far-flung areas affected by disasters.

Giving can take many forms: sharing professional knowledge, experience, time, cash or kind, inspiring through words or deeds, giving honest advice, consoling an aggrieved person, supporting the elderly, and so on.

In Islam, we have been advised to share our resources — whatever they may be — with others, not just when we are self-sufficient, but also sharing whatever we have in however small measure.

Muslim communities are considered among the most generous when it comes to giving. Giving is part of a Muslim’s daily life, not just an occasional act. Even a generous and genuine smile is considered sadaqa, nay even ibadah (worship). The Quran exemplifies and ennobles giving in this way: “The likeness of those who spend their wealth in Allah’s way is as the likeness of a grain which groweth seven ears, in every ear a hundred grains. Allah giveth increase manifold to whom He will. …” (2:261).

In Muslim ethics, giving is guided by a few key principles. First: giving without boasting or showing off. The Quran very meaningfully says one should give from what God has given, so there is no question of being boastful.

You give because you have been given. Be generous as God has been generous with you in granting you so many bounties. It is part of being grateful (mashkoor) to God.

Second, giving without hurting the dignity of the receiver.

This is done by forgetting the generous deed and not causing hurt to the receiver by constantly reminding him or her of the favours done. An Urdu saying captures this very well: ‘neki kar darya mein daal’ (do a good deed and throw it in the river).

In Islam it is better to say a few good words than to show off your charity to receivers.

The Quran also says: “Those who spend their wealth for the cause of Allah and afterward make not reproach and injury to follow that which they have spent; their reward is with their Lord. ...” (2:262). This means doing good to others in a way that when your right hand does a favour, your left hand does not know it, ie helping somebody away from the gaze of others.

Third, help the needy in a way that you don’t teach them how to eat fish; but how to fish. I add to this: teach them in a way so that one day they are able to develop fish farms to produce fish.

If we only teach people how to fish, where is the fish going to come from? The purpose of this approach is that one does not give charity only to get a reward but to enable the needy to stand, one day, on their feet. The receivers of charity today should in the long run become givers to the needy.

Thus, Islam teaches us a way of generosity that ultimately aims to enable its believers (and others in its environs) to become givers (of charity) rather than receivers.

This is perhaps the context in which the Prophet (PBUH) reportedly has said that the upper (giving) hand is better than the lower (receiving) hand, encouraging us to become givers rather than receivers.

In sum, the ethics of giving should respect the dignity of the needy and help them in the best possible manner; it should aim to eliminate poverty rather than directly or indirectly encourage it.

As part of the education of our young, we should encourage giving with the purpose of improving the quality of life of the needy and vulnerable.

In both secular and religious education systems, as well as in homes, religious sermons and social forums, charity and voluntary service to humanity must be encouraged.

The motto of the Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy in this regard is worth noting: “Give effectively, give intelligently, give smoothly, give strategically.”
Courtesy: DAWN