The Conscientious Quagmire of Charity
by Abu Faydan Faridi
Many people are in a fix about how to deal with the very complex issue of giving to beggars of all ages and genders that are literally flooding the streets of Karachi – or any other present-day rural mendicant scene anywhere.
The gist of the confusion lies in the awareness that there are so many fakes and professional beggars among the people, who by their demeanor are giving the impression that they are needy, and thus the fear of mistaking a fraud for a genuinely destitute person and thus ‘wasting’ one’s noble intentions on an undeserving scoundrel prevents one from digging into one’s pocket. On the other hand, by not giving, one’s noble intentions are altogether frustrated, so there is the big question: what is worse, a ‘wasted’ or a ‘frustrated’ noble intention?
Something ironic has happened that, were it not so pathetic, would almost seem comical: pursuing the quest of giving relief to the poor victim of social injustice, one all of a sudden finds oneself to be the victim of one’s own conscience. Something is obviously wrong here, and this rat is not roaming somewhere out there, but nesting in our own house, because poverty has existed ever since Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden, and charity has been coexisting along with poverty as its complementary opposite for just as long.
What is wrong is our perception of it and our approach to it.
Our wrong perception of it is that by being charitable, we are helping others to overcome a misery in which their destiny has cast them, and our wrong approach to it is that since it is coming out of our pocket, we are entitled to judge whether any cause or person deserves to be supported or not.
The strong emphasis that Islam places particularly on sadaqah (non-mandatory charity) but also on zakah (in its literary sense of being a purification) focuses almost entirely on the benefit to the giver, and not to the receiver, and there is a good reason for that. Allah – subhanahu wa ta’ala – states that He puts increase into sadaqah, just like He divests usury of all benefit and …” [2:276 – Al Baqara].
Giving is about detachment, letting go, and any attention to the consequence of the charitable act, or to the destiny of the given charity stands in blatant contravention to this, because if the giver worries about what will happen to his gift, it means, he or she still holds on to it, does not surrender the control over his/her possession.
One very important aspect of charity is spontaneity, which also gets violated by giving ones rational mind room to question or weigh the ‘effectiveness’ of one’s act. The Prophet is reported to have said, ‘Give to a beggar even if he comes riding on a horse’. What is the meaning of admonishing to give, even if the one asking comes on horseback, if not to discard the internal strife of the reason, arguing that if the man owns a horse, he is clearly not needy, and my charity could be spent on a more deserving cause?
We are not here to put right things that lie beyond our sphere of influence, and the given conditions of genuine poverty as well as its ruthless and fraudulent exploitation are surely not within this sphere, unless we hold some civic office or our Rabb has put it otherwise into our lap as a jihad project.
On the individual scale the correct approach is to follow ones heart (without taking permission from the head first) even at the danger of financing another fix for a heroin addict, because we can never know whether the momentary relief he would be getting from it is exactly the divine intent, when striking our heart with a reflection of His Compassion; His Mercy and Generosity in sustaining His Creation do not discriminate between who deserves and who doesn’t, they are totally unconditional and we should strive to adapt to this sunnah of His too.
بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ
Fast for the Body – Feast for the Soul
One of the most difficult things for the sons and daughters of Adam is to break habits, especially those which are not ‘bad habits’ as such, because with these, our conscience does not lend us a helping hand.
Contrary to the general notion, the gracious month of Ramadan is not about fasting in the sense of depriving our body of nourishment. In fact, people usually gain weight and suffer from the effects of overeating during the interval when eating is permitted in this month. Of course, this was not intended by God, when He gave the concession to break the fast.
Ramadan is, as a matter of fact, all about breaking habits. This is the real and inner meaning of fasting, because by breaking habits we deprive ourselves of certain indulgences, apart from the satisfaction of our physical needs, which have virtually become part of our nature.
A very learned man in Egypt once told me that habits – good ones as well as bad ones – are actually invisible creatures of our own making, which we beget as soon as we carry out any action. These creatures then come back to us and urge us to repeat the very action, which brought them into existence, because our repetition of that action is the sustenance that keeps them alive. The more often we repeat it, the stronger such a creature becomes. The stronger it becomes, the more powerful becomes its soliciting, until it reaches dimensions of irresistibility, and we cannot but give in to its compelling demands. This is quite a gruesome scenario when it comes to bad habits. Imagine some hideous monster standing behind a drug addict or a gambler, whose will power it has crushed completely; that poor fellow will stop at nothing to do its bidding, i.e. satisfy his addiction.
On the other hand, there are also beautiful creatures, which fill joy and happiness in the hearts and souls of those who are by habit benevolent and charitable and benefit by the goodness of these virtues. These kinds of habits need not be broken, because they have an intrinsic attribute of self-denial and sacrifice, otherwise they could not possibly lead to real happiness.
Our habits pertaining to the satisfaction of physical needs are not particularly good or bad in the sense used above; they are simply habits. Ramadan uproots them entirely along with a lot of other habitual routines, which we perceive to some degree as hardship, because of our habit-loving nature. It is, of course, not proper for us to ask, why Allah ordains what He prescribed for His bondmen and women; He does what He pleases, and no one can question Him. We can rest assured, however, that His intention has never been, nor ever is, to oppress us, and that all that is prescribed for us is for our own good. It gives us protection against the machinations of Shaytan, our ancient foe, evoking the self-destructive tendencies of our lower self (nafs), and it facilitates us in the achievement of our very purpose of existence, which is the gnosis and inevitable love of God that ensues as a result.
Among all forms of Islamic worship, the fast has been given a very special place. The Noble Prophet – Blessings of Allah upon him – has informed us in a hadith qudsi (extra-qur`anic Divine Revelation) that Allah declares the fast to be purely for Him. Hence it is obvious that the fast of Ramadan is not a physical affair, but an intensely spiritual one!
Man is a very complex being, whose essence is the soul, and his other components and faculties are but offshoots of this essence, enveloping it, as it were. Respectively, the performance of worship also has multi-layered aspects to it. To consider and perform worship as a physical exercise only is to degrade it to mere “pious gymnastics”. By doing this we deprive worship of its very meaning, and fall utterly short of fulfilling our obligation of gratitude towards our Creator, who has endowed us more generously than any other of our fellow creatures in this world – perhaps in all the worlds.
Let us have a closer look at the implications thereof in regard to the fast. Our being does not only consist of a stomach and sexual organs, for which the fast has – perhaps because of their particularly ferocious appetite – literally been defined. What of the mind, the senses, the hands, the feet and the tongue? If we aspire to be “sound” Muslims, then the fast– perhaps in a particularly intense manner – involves all of these parts of our being as well. As do all other forms of worship, such as prayer, charity, pilgrimage and jihad. Otherwise, we are spiritually not much more than “partially paralyzed” worshippers.
What does the fast of the mind and its faculties, along with the organs controlled by it, imply? The key to this question is habit. What do we think about most of the time? What gives us the greatest pleasure to look at and listen to? What do we do, and which places do we frequent, in our free time? What do we talk about, and with whom? An in-depth analysis of these questions would overstep the scope of this feature, but there is perhaps no need for it either, because if we pose these questions to ourselves with some degree of honesty and self-critique, our conscience will give us very clear answers.
This much can be said, however, that all the things we think and do, which do not benefit anyone, but which we indulge in only for their own sake, deriving partial satisfaction from them, are the most befitting areas for abstinence or fast. This applies all the more to those impure and detrimental occupations, which we know we should shun. To break such habits, Ramadan offers a most advantageous opportunity.
If our thoughts revolve most of the time around worldly loss and gain, to the point that we cannot divert our attention even during prayers, a good “fasting practice” is to put apart a short time of our day and meditate about what our state will be in the grave, where our worldly pursuits will have abandoned us, and perhaps take a tasbih and recite some istighfar, while focusing on the meaning and purpose of what we are reciting. If we are fond of listening to and reading gossip, the traditional practice of reading or listening to the Qur’an (preferably along with a translation) is not only a formidable fasting practice for the faculties involved in seeing and/or hearing, but enhances them at the same time. I could go on and on, but as already indicated, our conscience is a very reliable advisor in this matter. Training ourselves to listen to this divinely inspired counselor, instead of the insatiable demands of our animal nature, is another very virtuous fasting practice.
Our daytime abstinence from food, drink and sex could hardly be of any gratification for the Creator of the universe. What pleases Allah is that we sacrifice some of our habits for His sake only, without any apparent benefit to ourselves. Of course, the Pleasure of the Creator is certain to have very rewarding repercussions on our lives! These may not necessarily be in the form of worldly benefits and physical comforts – although they may just as well be, if we consider the scientifically proven benefits of a properly conducted fast on our health. Their main effect will be a definite uplifting of our souls, by which not only our own lives, but the entire social environment around us will be illuminated and permeated by bliss. This is the reason for the very special atmosphere, which prevails in all Muslim communities throughout Ramadan everywhere in the world. It is the practical interpretation of a well-known hadith, which states that the devils are tied up during Ramadan.
On a few occasions I have had the misfortune of having to spend this blessed month, or part of it, in non-Muslim countries. I can assure you that Allah’s Blessings, which descend on the Muslims during this month, is an unfathomable, almost tangible reality. Not taking advantage of them by actively and wholly participating in this generous feast for the soul is like going into the shower with an umbrella.
Man has been engaged in the search for knowledge and answers to questions regarding life and the origin and destiny of the universe for as long as he has been living on this earth, which – according to (evolutionary) scientific opinion – is some one and a half million years. Given that man is the only physical creature, as far as we know, to be endowed with an intellect, and has been searching for so long, is it not amazing that he has still not made much headway as to finding the answers to those essential questions? The reason for this can only be one of two: Either human intellect is so limited that it is inadequate to explore dimensions of existence that lie beyond the material realm of the cosmic set-up, or otherwise, the urgency of the quest has somewhat waned in the existential awareness of man.
The first ‘reason’ is not really tenable, because throughout human history there have always been enlightened individuals, who were either naturally gifted, or attained the realization of the subtler senses of perception, by which they had inspirational access to cosmic intelligence and cognizance of realities beyond the material edifice of creation. That leaves us with the pathetic reality that man in general, and particularly in our time has suffered a downward shift in his priorities, as a result of which his main concerns have become material affluence, physical comfort and sensual satisfaction to the total negligence of his spiritual needs.
Considerable progress has certainly been made in coordinating the co-existence of various life forms and fellow citizens on the planet, so that it is unlikely that you will become the breakfast of some other carnivore while going to the butcher on Saturday morning to buy the lamb chops for Sunday’s lunch. And of course life has become so much easier. Technological development has provided us comforts that our ancestors could never have dreamed of, and it continues to progress at such a breathtaking speed that one hardly has the opportunity to fully enjoy its gifts before they are outdated by newer, better ones. On the surface, it would appear as if ‘civilization’ has almost reached perfection, and that it is only a matter of time before all of mankind is able to reap the benefits, just as long as human beings play by the rules that they have set up and conditioned themselves to follow, as it is frequently projected in science-fiction.
But if we dig a little bit below this deceptive surface, and focus on the mental and spiritual condition of today’s man, in the realms that distinguishes us from our fellow inhabitants on this planet, we find quite a different picture. Some attitudes, orientations and behaviorisms, which were considered depravities and perversions in the past, are so widely practiced and defended that they have – or are just about to – become accepted social standards. Interestingly enough, this phenomenon manifests more strongly in the affluent and developed nations – the ‘First World’, as they are called − which are the standard bearers of technological progress. Most of the killer diseases of the past have come under control, and can be cured today, but at the same time, suicides, stress-related casualties, violence and terrorism are rising on a global scale. A large portion of scientific research and technological progress revolves around the development of timesaving processes and devices, but ironically, time has become the scarcest commodity in people’s lives.
If we consider the whole picture, it appears, as if simultaneously with the outward material progress, an inward ethical regression has been taking place. In other words, it seems that man is pampering all the outward and physical-material aspects of his existence, at the cost of his inward, spiritual assets, even though these constitute the very feature that makes him superior to his fellow creatures. So, what has gone wrong? … or is this the way, it is supposed to be?
The overall picture of humanity is composed of a multitude of smaller pictures, which portray the ‘lifescapes’ of the manifold human societies, and these in turn are compositions depicting smaller social units down to their individual members. To bring about a change in the big picture would require more than what intentional human endeavor could possibly devise. There are precedents in the history of human civilization, where societies had arrived at similar conditions, and in most cases the eventual change then came about in the form of some cataclysmic event or a violent martial subjugation of massive proportions; in a few instances also through a large-scale spiritual awakening at the grass-root level, granted by divine intervention. What appears to be most likely to happen from the present perspective is both, the cataclysm and the awakening more or less simultaneously…
Allah, has stated at several places in His Holy Book, that he could have guided mankind altogether had He desired so. This is a fairly strong indication that things have not gone out of hand, but that the situation is ‘tolerated’ by God. The Noble Prophet – may Allah’s Blessings abound with him – has also indicated that things would develop in this manner when he said that there would be no time after him, which is not worse than the period preceding it. In other words, until the end of this world, or of the current era of man’s existence, of which his earthly life-time was the apex, the situation of the human race would continually worsen. Obviously he was not referring to material comfort and affluence! Hence the overall situation of human kind is in perfect accord with the execution of the Divine Plan and destiny, and any human attempt to interfere with it would be as futile as trying to prevent the sun from setting.
At the same time, to adopt an attitude of total disinterest in one’s own individual situation, including the fulfillment of one’s social and private responsibilities, would be a very dangerous form of negligence – rather it would amount to outright ‘kufr’ [lit. meaning: disbelief, covering-up the truth, ingratitude]. Here lies the difference between Islam, which is trusting submission to the will of God, and fatalism, which is the cowardly refusal to make use of the strength and faculties God has placed at man’s disposal to fulfil his purpose in creation. Neither science nor philosophy have ever been − nor will ever be − able to provide an answer to the question of man’s purpose within creation. And the above described overall picture of man’s ‘evolution’ can at best serve as an indication towards where we have to look for an answer to this essential question, because mankind’s current situation is the direct result of man’s failure to fulfil his creational purpose.
If one asks the common Muslim scholastics about this purpose, they are always ready to quote the verse of the Holy Qur’an, where Allah – Pure and Exalted is He − states: “I did not create man and jinn except to worship Me.” Undoubtedly, this is the Supreme Truth in the Almighty, All-knowing Creator’s Own Holy Word. If ‘worship’ however is interpreted as meaning merely to perform a number of prescribed rituals, fasting, pilgrimage and giving a fixed amount of charity – as they explain when asked about the meaning of worship – it is hardly a satisfactory answer to the question of what our life is all about. There must be more to it.
Ibn Abbas, one of the blessed companions – may Allah be pleased with him – has given the explanation that “…except to worship Me” means “…except to know Me”, which would make the purpose of man’s existence the gnosis of his Creator. This is corroborated by a ‘hadith qudsi’, according to which God says, in connection with the act of bringing creation into existence: “I was a hidden treasure, and I loved to be known”. In another famous ‘hadith’ the Noble Prophet is reported to have said words to the effect: ‘Who has attained cognizance of his own self, has recognized his Lord.’
These three elements: worship of God, knowledge of God and self-knowledge, are interrelated and cannot be separated from each other.
Worship that is not based on, and does not lead to this knowledge, is but a futile exercise; and knowledge that does not prompt man to worship his Creator, is but useless mental ballast, and self-knowledge that excludes the acknowledgement of God is vanity and illusion. This threefold complexity holds the answer to the most essential question, which anyone, possessed of intellect, will be confronted with, once that intellect awakens: “What am I here for?”
For all of these three elements, God has put indications along the path of our life, “…signs on the horizon and within their selves”, as they are described in the Generous Qur’an.
The parameters of worship and of a correct life-transaction in our dealings with God, our fellow creatures and our own selves are clearly laid down in the legacy that the Noble Prophet Muhammad – Allah’s Blessings abound with him – has left behind, which are the Book of Allah and his ‘sunnah’, i.e. the example of his own life and conduct. As a matter of fact, all the prophets that God raised among or sent to various communities came with a Divine Revelation and the teaching of an exemplary pattern of conduct, which did not differ from each other in their essential content. Our insistence on the Muhammadan version should in no way be understood as a bias against, or denigration of the earlier revealed versions of the Divine Message, rather it is a confirmation of them!
The Book of Allah − the Generous Qur`an that was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad − decidedly upholds their confirmation in several places; it even makes it quasi a condition to believe in their authenticity, to be eligible for receiving guidance from the Qur’an! Having been born into it however, or deliberately chosen it as our Path, our adherence to the Muhammadan Way, is both, a matter of spiritual courtesy and one of spiritual expedience. The former, because it is the Light of the Noble Prophet – ‘alayhi_ssalatu wa_ssalam – through which we have received our guidance in the first place, and the latter, because his ‘package’ is the latest update of the Divine Message, commensurate with man’s current position in the ongoing process of human progress and development. Who would nowadays try to cross the ocean in a steamship or sailing vessel to reach a destination on the other side of the globe?
Apart from this, there have always been and will always be illumined human beings, who, by their life transaction, have become a living testimony to the functioning of the triad of worship, self-knowledge and Gnosis.
The significance of worship does not lie in the correct performance of rituals in the first place, but in serving the Creator within the creation − unconditionally and without self-interest. Then it is met with Divine Acceptance, and attracts the well Pleasure of God, and the servant is confirmed by his Master and helped and carried.
By experiencing this over and again, man’s vain delusions and wishful thinking regarding his own self are gradually shattered, and true self-knowledge emerges, realizing he does not wield any power, other than what the Author and Owner of all Power has empowered him to wield; that he does not have at his disposal any resources, other than what the Author and Owner of all Resources has entrusted him with as a short-term loan; that he has no control over anything whatsoever. The only thing, where he has been given a free hand is his intentions, but the power to independently enact those intentions he does not have. If he submits to these realizations, man cannot but arrive at the ultimate awareness that he is, as a matter of fact, on every level of his existence in the total and unconditional bondage of his Divine Creator and Sustainer.
One, who experiences this recognition of his own reality and of the Reality of his Creator Lord, at first as a witness, and eventually as a participating self, like a corpse in the hands of the Washer, would never give up this servitude for all the freedoms in the world. It is the quintessence of freedom; it is tasting God’s absolute unrestrictedness with his entire being; he becomes an expression of the Divine Attribute “Fa’alun lima yurid” – the Doer of what He pleases. These are the people, whose hearts He has enlightened to recognize His Truth, as mentioned earlier in this article, the people, whom God mentions as the exemplary recipients of His guidance in the oft- recited plea “…guide us to the Straight Path, the path of those whom You have favoured…”, in Surah Fatihah.
Although the potential for the conscious and perpetual experience of this Divine Encounter is present with every human being by virtue of His Own Spirit-Breath that God instilled into Adam, the majority of mankind does not attain it and they remain veiled from the reality of their selves instead of seeing it, as long as they dwell in this mortal body, because of their vain pursuit of enriching their selves in significance, status, power and possessions. Allah has nevertheless given man a natural indication of the direction in which to turn in order to attain some degree of self-knowledge. God has bestowed certain specific gifts, likings and inclinations in the nature of every one of us. If we follow and cultivate them, we are not only bound to find out a lot more about ourselves and His creation, but are also likely to spend our lives a great deal more fulfilled and happier than if we let them go waste for the sake of other pursuits or engagements that might, perhaps, earn us a little bit more in terms of material rewards, but also kill us inwardly, and thus deprive us of the time and the peace of mind to even enjoy it.