Charity of Islam open to all humanity

Friday Khutba by Dr Zahid Aziz, for Lahore Ahmadiyya UK, 12 May 2023

“Say: Who is it that delivers you from the calamities of the land and the sea? (When) you call upon Him, in humility and in secret: If He deliver us from this, we will certainly be of the grateful ones. Say: Allah delivers you from this and from every distress, yet you set up partners (with Him).” — ch. 6, v. 63–64

قُلۡ مَنۡ یُّنَجِّیۡکُمۡ مِّنۡ ظُلُمٰتِ الۡبَرِّ وَ الۡبَحۡرِ تَدۡعُوۡنَہٗ تَضَرُّعًا وَّ خُفۡیَۃً ۚ لَئِنۡ اَنۡجٰىنَا مِنۡ ہٰذِہٖ لَنَکُوۡنَنَّ مِنَ الشّٰکِرِیۡنَ ﴿۶۳  قُلِ اللّٰہُ یُنَجِّیۡکُمۡ مِّنۡہَا وَ مِنۡ کُلِّ کَرۡبٍ ثُمَّ اَنۡتُمۡ تُشۡرِکُوۡنَ ﴿۶۴

Last week I dealt with the verse beginning: “Mankind is a single nation” (2:213). There is another aspect of mankind being a single nation that I want to mention. Just as all nations have the blessings of food, water, minerals, animals, vegetation, heat and shade, likewise they are all subject to the same disasters. Earthquakes, floods, fires, droughts, diseases, etc. strike all of them. When they strike one nation in particular, other nations come to its assistance. The suffering nations believe and feel that they have the right to expect help from others in their hour of need, and the others feel duty-bound to help them. This is also what makes humanity a single nation.

Regarding helping others, there is a verse in the Quran which says: “And when it is said to them: Spend (i.e., on good and charitable works) out of what Allah has given you, those who disbelieve say to those who believe: Shall we feed him whom, if Allah please, He could feed?” (36:47) Here the words “those who disbelieve” do not mean people who are called non-Muslims, and the words “those who believe” do not mean people who are called Muslims. By “those who disbelieve” are meant people who are behaving practically in rejection of the teachings of the Quran, and by “those who believe” are meant people who behave as the Quran requires believers to behave. This distinction is not about names but about behaviour. This verse says that believers urge other people to spend to feed the hungry, while the disbelievers say that this is the fate and destiny of the poor that they should be without food, they say it is a law of nature, or it is the poor’s own fault. Some people hold it as a religious belief that the deprived and destitute ones are being punished by God for their sins committed in a past life. Islam rejects such a belief. There are also non-religious, apparently rational-minded experts who say that famine is a necessary natural occurrence in order to stop the population increasing too much. Some ideologies say that the weak should be allowed to perish so that the population is overall stronger. According to the Quran, such considerations should not prevent us from helping the poor, the needy and the weak. If it is God’s will for them that they are in distress, it is God’s will for us to help them.

There was a famous English economist and population expert by the name of Thomas Malthus, who lived in the 1700s and 1800s, who is well-known for his theory that human population always rises much faster than food production. Since the popu­la­tion increase was much more among the poorer people, Malthus’ theory gave public authorities such as the British government the idea that they reduce help for the poor because “helping the poor only encourages them to have more children and thereby exacerbate poverty”, as someone has put it. At the time of his theory, there were some old systems that had been established in England for providing assistance to the poor. Supporters of his theory now claimed that this assistance led to the poor becoming idle and dependent on handouts. An article on this subject says: “Poverty was not seen as a social problem: destitution was felt to be the result of character weakness.” As a result, stricter controls of helping the poor were introduced through a new law, called the “Poor Law”. A famous writer and historian of the time, Thomas Carlyle, criticised this and he wrote:

“The New Poor Law is an announcement … that whosoever will not work ought not to live. Can the poor man that is willing to work always find work and live by his work? A man willing but unable to find work is … the saddest thing under the sun”.

All these attitudes, stemming from the theory of Thomas Malthus, remind us of the words from the verse of the Quran, which I quoted above, in which those who refuse to give in charity say: “Shall we feed him whom, if Allah please, He could feed?” (36:47). Their argument is that to feed the poor is to go against the laws of nature, because nature requires that they remain poor, and not being properly fed, they die soon, which will leave more resources for other people.

Now I move on to a question which is asked from time to time: Is a Muslim prohibited by Islam from giving in charity to a non-Muslim? According to the above verse of the Quran it is the Muslims who should be urging people to spend to feed the poor, and it is the unbelievers who refuse to do so by arguing that it is their fate and destiny to suffer from hunger. But those Muslims who say that they should not give in charity to non-Muslims are, in effect, behaving like the unbelievers. These particular Muslims are saying about non-Muslims: How can we give in charity to those whom Allah has left in a state of unbelief? If Allah had wanted them to receive charity, He would have made them believers and then He would have given them charity through us.

In the verse I recited at the beginning, the Quran addressing mankind in general says that God “delivers you from the calamities of the land and the sea? (When) you call upon Him, in humility and in secret: If He deliver us from this, we will certainly be of the grateful ones. Say: Allah delivers you from this and from every distress, yet you set up partners (with Him)” (6:63–64). Allah Himself says here that He removes the distress of anyone, whomsoever it might be, who turns to Him, despite Allah know­ing that after the removal of the distress, that person will still remain an unbeliever. What Allah does is an example for us to follow. If someone in distress turns to us for help, we cannot reject that person’s plea by saying that he is an unbeliever and will still remain an unbeliever, worshipping things other than Allah, even after we help him.

During the life of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, there was a drought at Makkah for some years which continued after he had been forced by the people of Makkah to leave the city. It is said that this drought came upon them because they persecuted him. People were reduced to eating hides, carcasses and dead animals. Abu Sufyan, who was one of the heads of the mortal enemies of the Holy Prophet in Makkah, came to him in Madinah and said: “O Muhammad! You order people to obey Allah and to do good to relatives; surely the people of your tribe are dying, so pray to Allah for them.” So the Holy Prophet prayed for an end to the drought that his oppo­nents were suffering (Bukhari, hadith 1007). The Holy Prophet did not say: Why should I pray for the removal of their drought, when it has been brought about by the will of Allah, and if Allah had willed, He would have fed them?

And as this example of the Holy Prophet entitles Muslims to pray for the removal of distresses suffered by people who don’t accept Islam, it certainly entitles them to provide material help as well. Because when we pray for something to happen, then we are also required by Allah to do whatever is in our power to do lawfully, to bring about that result. In this report in Bukhari, Abu Sufyan makes the point to the Holy Prophet: “You order people to obey Allah and to do good to relatives.” This shows that wherever the Quran tells us to do good to the near of kin, and to spend on them, it includes all near rela­tives regardless of their religion. For instance, it says: “What­ever wealth you spend, it is for the parents and the near of kin and the orphans and the needy and the traveller” (2:215). Among all of these, there could be both Muslims and non-Muslims. In fact, at the time when this verse was revealed it was very common that the parents and the near of kin of a Muslim would be non-Muslims. They could be idol-worshippers, or Jews, or Christians. So could orphans, the needy, travellers be of any religion.

There is a verse in the Quran even clearly referring to giving in charity to non-Muslims. It says: “Their guidance is not your duty, but Allah guides whom He pleases. And whatever good thing you spend, it is to your good. And you do not spend but to seek Allah’s pleasure” (2:272). The words “their guidance is not your duty” convey that, when a Muslim spends to help others, it does not become his duty to ensure that those whom he is helping are on the right path in terms of religion or religious behaviour. A Muslim’s duty is to be charitable towards all who need help, regardless of who they are. In the classical commentary of the Quran by Ibn Kathir it is stated under this verse that Ibn Abbas said that Muslims initially disliked giving charity to their idol-worshipping relatives. But later, when they enquired about it, this verse was revealed. Someone else’s opinion is also quoted who said: “This verse means that you give charity to seek Allah’s pleasure. Therefore you will not be asked about the deeds or wickedness of those who receive it.”

There is that well-known short chapter near the end of the Quran: “Have you seen him who denies religion? That is the one who is rough to the orphan, and does not urge the feeding of the needy. So woe to the praying ones, who are unmindful of their prayer, who do (good) to be seen, and refrain from (small) acts of kindness!” (ch. 107). This chapter does not mention the religion of the recipients of charity, i.e., that the orphan, the needy, those who would benefit from small acts of kindness should be Muslims. What matters is not the religion of the receivers of charity, but that the givers of charity are acting in the true spirit of their own religion. Those who withhold help for the needy and spurn them, yet claim to be religious by praying and making a display of such deeds as make them look religious, they are in fact deniers of religion and unmindful of its true spirit.

So may Allah enable us as Muslims to extend our help and open our charity to any section of humanity in need, ameen.