LONDON, England — Generosity is a trait we learn to value from a young age. People are taught to value charity and to give to those who are less fortunate. Hurricane Katrina serves as an important example of the tremendous capacity of human generosity as people from every corner of the U.S. mobilized relief efforts, providing food banks, bake sales, clothing drives and shelter kitchens to help victims in New Orleans. But generosity is certainly not limited to Americans; it seems to be a much more timeless and innate human quality that transcends all contexts including geography, ethnicity and religion.
In fact, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Muslim communities are considered among the most generous when it comes to giving. Islamic charity is not an occasional act, but rather a part of the daily life of all Muslims. The Quran, the religious text of Islam, considers generous and genuine giving to be sadaqa, nay or ibadah, meaning worship. Hence, charity is an act equally as pious as honoring Allah, the Arabic word for God.
Muslim ethics on giving are guided by three main principles that aim to eliminate poverty, while simultaneously preserving the dignity of those receiving charity.
3 Guiding Principles of Giving
- Giving without boasting
- Giving without hurting the dignity of the needy
- Giving so that the receiver becomes self-sufficient
In Islam, giving is essential to the idea of mashkoor, or being grateful to Allah, because it imitates His generosity to humanity. Similarly, charity is meant to be a selfless act of humility that does not necessitate recognition from others.
The following Urdu saying embodies the second guiding principle of giving: neki kar darya mein daal, which translates to “do a good deed and throw it in the river.” In essence, the giver does not expect anything in return for his or her charity.
The third principle of giving in Islam aims at establishing a sustainable relationship between giver and receiver. Instead of creating a cycle of dependency, Muslim ethics encourages charity that will one day allow those in need to provide for themselves. Ultimately, for Muslims, charity aims to lift people out of poverty, improve their quality of life and transform all receivers into givers. The following motto of the Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy echoes this purpose: “Give effectively, give intelligently, give smoothly, give strategically.”
Many Islamic charities are not only grounded in these three guiding principles of giving, but they also have substantial monetary capacities, according to a report by the Islamic Research and Training Institute (IRTI) and Thomson Reuters.
Islamic alms and endowments, known as zakat and awqaf, have existed for centuries, and many Muslim charitable organizations today have billions of dollars of asset pools that have the potential to reduce poverty in many regions of the world. Zakat donations alone could help alleviate poverty in countries with large Muslim populations, including Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Singapore.
The IRTI report concluded that in 2012 zakat donations in Indonesia amounted to $231.6 million, and $105 million in Pakistan in 2011. Malaysia, with one of the largest donation pools, collected $497 million in 2011. According to the report’s estimates, India received the most zakat contributions in 2011 amounting to $1.5 billion.
Unfortunately, billions of dollars of zakat and awqaf assets held by Muslim charitable organizations remain idle as a result of poor bookkeeping and lack of professional management. Poor administration of extensive awqaf real estate portfolios keeps valuable assets from reaching Muslim populations that need the most aid.
Azami Omar, director of the IRTI, also suggests “institutions in this sector need to address the issue of sustainability in the supply of funds.” Sustainable management entails employing adequately trained professionals who are well versed in modern financial management techniques. While there is much work to be done in the management and allocation of funds of many Muslim charity-based and NGO institutions, there are examples of successful Muslim charities that have got it right. One such organization is the Sufra Food Bank & Kitchen, located in northwest London.
Sufra, meaning, “come to the table” in Arabic, opened in October 2013 and now prepares up to 40 food packages a week for large families, young couples, and single parents alike. Volunteers fill blue plastic bags with all kinds of food items ranging from cereal and soup cans, to pasta, rice and baby food. The amount of food distributed depends on the size of the family, but most packages last for at least five days.
Although Christian charities dominate many of the food banks in the UK, Sufra is among the growing number of Muslim organizations addressing hunger and poverty. Yet, religious affiliation is not a concern of Sufra’s patrons, who are more worried about feeding their families than the background of the volunteers. “I didn’t even think about it. These guys have been a big help,” says Stephen Lashbrook, a young father who frequents the Muslim charity.
Mohammed Sadiq Mamdani, director of Sufra’s parent charity, Al-Mizan, responds to the conservative criticisms that accuse Sufra for giving handouts to people who take advantage of free food. “We don’t encourage dependency… we are simply responding to the reality of food poverty.” This attitude also underpins the third guiding principle of giving in Muslim ethics.
According to an article in the Guardian last month, many mosques in the UK serve as points of distribution for food going out to local charities, and more than 90 percent of the people who use those charities are white, non-Muslims. Yet, poverty doesn’t discriminate, as both Muslim and non-Muslim communities have experienced increased poverty rates throughout the UK.
Pioneers of Muslim charitable organizations come from a religious background that values sustainable charity and aims to alleviate poverty in a respectful and humble manner. These are not foreign principles, in fact, they are quite universal to all faiths and humanitarian belief systems. The fight against poverty is also universal, and it will certainly take multi-faith efforts to make lasting changes. With proper management and organization, Muslim charities around the world have both the ethical and economic capacity to make great strides in poverty reduction.