Talk Given for Lifenet Radio
June 2, 2003
In recent times, many people have hotly debated the connections between Islam and Christianity, Islam and Judaism, as well as issues such as jihad, the status of women and the possible connections of Islam with democracy. I know that lifenet radio is primarily concerned with issues relating to poverty; and I think its listeners might be interested in hearing something about the importance of charity in Islam. In the New Testament, Jesus gives his followers a choice, saying that you cannot serve two masters; you cannot serve both God and Mammon. The word “mammon” comes from the Greek word “mamonia” which means “wealth;” hence the choice that Christ offers is between God and the riches of this world.
Interestingly, one of the prayers of the prophet Muhammad was as follows:
“O Lord, keep me in the company of the poor. Let me die in poverty, and raise me with the poor on the Day of Judgment.” Why is there such a caution about acquiring riches in the world? Why is there such an emphasis on charity in these religions? Before trying to answer these questions, I’d like to present a very brief introduction to Islam, its basic beliefs and its connections with Christianity and Judaism. I’d like to begin by presenting to our listeners a side of Islam that they not often exposed to. We hear a great deal on certain news networks about Islam and violence; even in the Islamic world, we hear a great deal about martyrs and holy war. Yet I would argue that Islam has an emphasis on charity, forgiveness and knowledge. We can see this emphasis in many of the sayings of the prophet Muhammad (S), and I’d like to give a selection of these sayings, so as to give a sense of the beauty of Islam:
“The world is green and beautiful
and God has appointed you His stewards over it.”
“The best richness is the Richness of the Soul,
The best provision is piety,
The most profound philosophy is the fear of God,
“God is gentle
and loves gentleness in all things.”
and all things in it are valuable
but the most valuable thing in the world is
a virtuous woman.”
“He is not a believer
who eats his fill
while his neighbour
remains hungry by his side.”
Charity, then, is a duty incumbent upon every Muslim in the form of zakat , which is a small percentage of one’s income that must be given to the poor and needy. However, charity has a much broader significance in Islam. The prophet Muhammad said:
“Charity is incumbent upon every human limb
every day upon which the sun rises.
To bring about a just reconciliation
between two contestants is charity…
A good word is charity…
To remove obstacles in the street is charity,
Smiling upon the face of your brother is charity.”
The prophet also warned against extravagance. He said: “For every act of extravagance, a righteous cause is left by the wayside.” In other words, what we spend wastefully, we could spend where our wealth is truly needed. The prophet (S) also explained that even the slightest charity, such as the giving of a piece of fruit, could save one from damnation. And he warned that the riches of this world represented a test: they are one of the major temptations that will distract us from our spiritual betterment and our remembrance of God. The prophet (S) is reported to have said: “Charity does not decrease anyone’s wealth…”
There are many examples of charity in the life of the prophet Muhammad. Such charity takes the form not only of giving food and money but also acts of patience, forbearance, forgiveness and our attempts to increase our knowledge and understanding. Indeed, the prophet’s example is of of the two main sources of authority in Islam, the other being the Qur’an which Muslims believe to be the direct Word of God as revealed to Muhammad (S).
Today, it has become more important than ever for Muslims to try to understand the example of conduct set by the prophet Muhammad (S). The Qur’an enjoins the prophet Muhammad (S) to “hold to forgiveness; Command what is right; But turn away from the ignorant” (VII. 199). The practice of forgiveness in the prophet’s own life is often overlooked, even by Muslims. There are numerous examples, of which I will only cite two. When the prophet entered Mecca in 630 A.D. at the head of ten thousand men, he declared a general amnesty for those who had opposed him. He even forgave those who had conspired to assassinate him. A second example is from the early days of the prophet’s mission, when there were many people in Mecca who opposed Islam. One woman in particular hated the prophet; and each day, as he passed her house, she made a habit of throwing garbage upon him. He made no response, except to continue walking. She would pile this garbage up daily in readiness. One day, as the prophet was walking past her house, he noticed that there was no garbage, and inquired as to the woman’s whereabouts. He was told that she was too sick to get up. He went into the woman’s house and spoke kindly to her; his compassion overwhelmed her and she accepted Islam.
An important component in a charitable outlook is knowledge. And despite the misunderstandings between Islam and the West, I am optimistic that we can advance toward mutual understanding. There are good people – of all creeds – who are attempting to address this problem of ignorance. Many American churches have entered into inter-faith dialogues with Mosques and their congregations are anxious to learn about Islam and its affiliations with Christianity and Judaism. American universities and schools are increasingly fostering a knowledge of various cultures and religions. For their part, many scholars – Muslim and non-Muslim – are writing intelligently on many aspects of Islam, including the status it gives to women, the true meanings of jihad , its emphasis on charity tolerance and forgiveness, and its connections with other religions. If we wish to honour the injunction to charity, we must accept a responsibility to do our part in promoting understanding between people of different faiths and cultures, and in acquiring the knowledge that will enable us to do this.