The religion of good works
Friday Khutba by Dr Zahid Aziz, for Lahore Ahmadiyya UK, 26 August 2022
“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 acts of kindness!” — ch. 107 (1:7)
اَرَءَیۡتَ الَّذِیۡ یُکَذِّبُ بِالدِّیۡنِ ؕ﴿۱﴾ فَذٰلِکَ الَّذِیۡ یَدُعُّ الۡیَتِیۡمَ ۙ﴿۲﴾ وَ لَا یَحُضُّ عَلٰی طَعَامِ الۡمِسۡکِیۡنِ ؕ﴿۳﴾ فَوَیۡلٌ لِّلۡمُصَلِّیۡنَ ۙ﴿۴﴾ الَّذِیۡنَ ہُمۡ عَنۡ صَلَاتِہِمۡ سَاہُوۡنَ ۙ﴿۵﴾ الَّذِیۡنَ ہُمۡ یُرَآءُوۡنَ ۙ﴿۶﴾ وَ یَمۡنَعُوۡنَ الۡمَاعُوۡنَ ٪﴿۷﴾
This is one of the earliest revelations to the Holy Prophet which came to him shortly after he was appointed as Messenger of God. It is a well-known short chapter of the Holy Quran. It is noticeable that the earliest revelations in the Quran lay stress on doing good to the needy and the poor. The first verse asks the Holy Prophet, or the reader of the Quran, who do you think is a denier of religion or dīn? But the dīn or religion of Islam, as we now know it, had not yet been revealed. There was no adhan, or call to prayer, no set five times a day prayers as were later established, no fasting in Ramadan, no Zakāt, no Ḥajj like the one later established, nor was there anything ḥalāl or ḥarām. Today, a person denying any of these would be considered as denying the dīn. At that time the only religion as taught to Muslims was belief in One God without any partner, worship of Him alone and belief in the Holy Prophet Muhammad as Messenger. Leaving aside these basic beliefs, what could a person deny at that time which would constitute denying the religion?
This short chapter talks about a dīn or religion which already existed before most of the structure which defines Islam was revealed to the world. And that is the religion of helping those who are helpless and in need. To fail to do that is to deny and reject religion. The Quran is here saying: Whatever religion God is going to establish in the coming years through His Messenger, anyone who deals with orphans in a rough manner or fails to feed the needy and to urge others to feed the needy, has already denied that religion. If you are set on behaving like this, then there is no point in teaching you any details of religion. This point is brought out in the next verses. We are told that the praying ones will suffer misfortune and a bad end (this is the meaning of “woe” to them) if they don’t pay any heed or attention to their prayers, and are unmindful of them. Any good they do, is just for the sake of being seen to be doing good, and they fail to do even small, daily and minor acts of kindness towards others. As I said, even before prayer was regulated in Islam, with set words and motions and times of prayer, people are told that their prayers will be useless if they learn nothing from them about helping others, and although they perform apparent acts of goodness, whether it is prayer or charity, these are actually selfish acts, done to make them look good in the eyes of others. They don’t perform the small, easily-done acts of goodness. This may be because such acts are done instinctively and naturally, without any pre-planning, but it is not in their character to do so. Also, it may be because they cannot get any fame or publicity in the world through such small acts, because they can’t claim to have done something very great by, for example, lending your neighbour a cup of sugar.
The good acts mentioned here are all a part of human nature. So we find people all over the world wanting to do them, and we also notice that the more that knowledge, education and enlightenment spreads, the more concern people and societies show for the poor and the needy. Here in this country of the UK, during the 1800s orphans, and abandoned children and the poor were treated very badly. You can read about this in novels written at the time, such as the story of Oliver Twist. Children with no one to look after them were sent to institutions called workhouses and even before their teenage years they were put to work. Then concerned individuals began to recognise this maltreatment and injustice. Charitable organisations were formed to help them. Later on, society realised that this help had to be provided not as a charity but as a right of these people to be provided by the government. This right is also mentioned in an early revelation in the Quran. In ch. 51, Sūrah Al-Dhāriyāt, it is said that the righteous are those who, in the first place, are doers of good to others. Their next quality mentioned is that they pray during the night and in the morning. Then it is stated:
“And in their wealth there is a right or ḥaqq (i.e., due share) for those who ask for assistance and those who are deprived” (51:19).
In another early revelation the same words are used but instead of just saying “a right” it says: “a known right” (70:24), ḥaqq-un ma‘lūm. In other words, it is a right which should be defined in the law or constitution. Of course, we have to realise that when assistance to the poor and needy is provided by a state institution, it does not at all absolve the individual from performing this duty himself, voluntarily, towards those whom he knows are in need. In fact, the individual cannot make any moral progress unless he or she puts the desperate needs of others above the fulfilment of his own personal desires.
There is another chapter of the Quran, which is a revelation from the time when the Holy Prophet had just started his mission, laying stress on the need to help the oppressed and the poor. It says first:
“Have We not given him (every human) two eyes, and a tongue and two lips, and pointed out to him the two conspicuous ways?” (ch. 90, verses 8–10).
The “two conspicuous ways” means the right and the wrong paths which are clearly visible. Using his eyes, a human can read and acquire information. He can also see what is happening in the world and the good behaviour and bad behaviour by people around him. Then he has a tongue and lips. Using these he can ask questions to obtain more information and clarify what he doesn’t understand. He can also contribute to knowledge and teach it to people. Besides giving a human being these capacities, of learning and teaching, God sent revelation which shows him the path of self-destruction and the path of self-development. The next verses call the path of self-development as the “uphill road”. They say:
“But he does not attempt the uphill road. And what will make you comprehend what the uphill road is? (It is) to free a slave, or to feed in a day of hunger an orphan (who is) near of kin, or the poor man lying in the dust” (90:11–16).
Here again, as in ch. 107, before mentioning belief in any religious doctrine or any religious practice, we are told that man must climb the uphill road of relieving the distress of others. The next verse says: “Then he is of those who believe and exhort one another to patience, and exhort one another to mercy” (90:17). So it is after the actions of helping the destitute that a person can be counted as a believer and belonging to the community of believers. It is a great pity that in these deeds of freeing slaves and feeding and uplifting the poor, if taken literally, Muslim nations have lagged far behind the non-Muslim nations of modern times. Because of this, the Muslim nations failed to fulfil the criteria of believers as given in this chapter of the Quran.
It should also be remembered that by “freeing a slave” is not just meant in the literal sense of obtaining the freedom of a person who is owned by, and is the property of, another human being. It includes freeing people from the clutches of oppressors such as money lenders or from other kinds of abusers. It also includes freeing people from mental slavery or from slavery to wrong customs. But it also includes freeing your own self from slavery to your low and selfish desires. Feeding an orphan could also mean providing education and knowledge to those deprived of it, thereby feeding their brains and minds with intellectual and spiritual food. Again, it need not mean other people, but you yourself could be that orphan deprived of knowledge. The poor man lying in the dust can be people who are too weak to rise up from the low kind of life they are living, because they lack knowledge or strength of character. Again, that can apply not only to someone else but ourselves as well.
The same chapter, just before these verses, tells us that a time will come when a person will say: “I have wasted much wealth” (ch. 90, v. 6). That will be the case if he had been following the downhill road, if none of his wealth had been spent on removing the burdens of others or on his own improvement. According to the Holy Prophet Muhammad, wealth and knowledge fall in the same category as regards their utility. There is a well-known hadith that envy is not allowed except in two cases: that you envy someone “to whom Allah has given wealth and the power to spend it in the way of truth” and “to whom Allah has given knowledge and he judges according to it and teaches it” (Bukhari, hadith 73). Notice the “and” here. So the wasting of wealth mentioned in this chapter extends also to wasting of knowledge. Knowledge can be wasted by not acting upon it, not teaching it to others, or misusing it to benefit one’s own selfish desires rather than to help others.
Near the beginning of this chapter, Allah takes an oath by “the begetter and he whom he begot!” — wa wālid-in wa ma walad (ch. 90, v. 3), which in more modern English is: “the father and the offspring whom he produced!”. In other words, look at the father and the child he produced! Generally it is said that by father is meant Abraham and by his offspring is meant the Holy Prophet Muhammad. But in view of the later mention of freeing slaves and feeding the orphans of your kin and the poor man, by the father could also be meant the believer who helps the dispossessed out of their distress, and by the offspring are meant the people whom he thus helps. So a believer is told to become like a father to these destitute people and give them new lives, therefore in a sense giving birth to them.
May Allah enable us to follow the religion and dīn of doing good to other humans. — Ameen.