This essay is part of the Islamic Moral Theology and the Future (IMTF) Project, generously supported by the John Templeton Foundation, and co-led by Maria Dakake and Martin Nguyen. It is specifically part of the roundtable discussion that is responding to Nguyen's second lead essay for the project. See Dakake's second lead essay for a parallel line of inquiry. Click here to read all past contributions to Dakake and Nguyen's respective lines of inquiry.
Before death takes away what you are given,
Give away what there is to give.
A number of reports released over the last decade by Oxfam and similar organizations have drawn attention to the mind-boggling disparity of wealth between the rich and the poor. The most privileged one percent, we learn, own almost as much as half of the world’s total wealth. A fractional minority of them, the 2153 billionaires who make up .0000002705 percent of the population, own as much as the poorest sixty-percent. The ten richest men on the planet own as much combined wealth as many nations, such as Brazil and Spain. And the richest eight of them own more than the entire bottom half of those who inhabit the planet. The list goes on.
Those most adversely effected by this unequal distribution are the economically disenfranchised––and their numbers are far from insignificant. Particularly troubling is the impact of these conditions on the young. One billion children throughout the globe lack basic access to nutrition, sanitation, clean water, housing and education, a condition referred to as “multidimensional poverty.” And 365 million of them live in “extreme poverty,” defined as surviving on less then $1.90 a day.
Covid-19, rising energy prices, and overall inflation have only aggravated the global wealth gap. As more than 160 million people were forced into poverty in the two years since the pandemic began, the fortunes of the world’s ten richest men more than doubled.
Covid-19, rising energy prices, and overall inflation have only aggravated the global wealth gap. As more than 160 million people were forced into poverty in the two years since the pandemic began, the fortunes of the world’s ten richest men more than doubled. According to current estimates, as a consequence of this inequality at least twenty-one thousand people die a day––one person every four seconds (and these are modest estimates). In my own Albertan town of Lethbridge, located in one of the most prosperous nations of the world, we saw firsthand the economic effects of the pandemic, as the homeless began to appear on the streets in unprecedented numbers. Such a sight was witnessed, in fact, across Canada. Meanwhile, the wealth of the nation’s billionaires increased by 57.1 percent.
While the causes for such a predicament are complex, it is clear that much of the blame must fall squarely at the feet of a global economic structure, a predatory capitalism that rewards not work but the wealthy, and punishes not the greedy but the poor. Numerous factors, all the way from tax evasions and self-serving political influence by the rich, to dismally low-wage labor by the voiceless underprivileged, have contributed to expanding the gulf between the world’s haves and have-nots, rendering life a crippling battle for survival for the poorest among us, the “wretched of the earth.”
Although many of us feel powerless in the face of a political and economic juggernaut whose monstrosity grows by the day, we can, each of us, in our own little ways, contribute to offsetting at least some of this inequality by adopting simpler, more austere lifestyles, coupled with––and the coupling here is key––greater charity. We can all participate, to borrow a Jewish term, in tikkun, in the process of healing, mending, and tending to the wounds of the world.
Numerous reports have revealed that even a fractional tax on the planet’s richest, channeled toward the poor, would go a long way towards providing them better access to the most basic amenities of life. But with current trends, no one is holding their breath.
Zakāt or the alms-tax in Islam helps underscore, for Muslims, just how important it is to live charitably. Indeed, it is significant that one of Islam’s five core pillars places concern for other people’s well-being at the center of religious consciousness. As the well-known hadith states, “None of you is a believer if he eats his fill while his neighbor goes hungry”––with “neighbor” here acquiring a new meaning in the context of a global village. One may even argue, in view of the wealth that is currently available in the world alongside its grotesquely unequal distribution, that there was perhaps no other time in history in which the cultivation of such a virtue as charitableness was as important.
The etymology of the word zakāt is instructive, as it helps us better understand something of Islam’s philosophy of wealth. The word derives from the trilateral z-k-y root, which means “to purify,” and from which we also get the technical term, central to Sufism, tazkiyat al-nafs, “purifying the self” (cf. Q 91:9-10).
The etymology of the word zakāt is instructive, as it helps us better understand something of Islam’s philosophy of wealth. The word derives from the trilateral z-k-y root, which means “to purify,” and from which we also get the technical term, central to Sufism, tazkiyat al-nafs, “purifying the self” (cf. Q 91:9-10). The idea is that our wealth stands in need of cleansing. While it is true that most of us are not involved in outright theft or embezzlement, most of us probably are involved, indirectly and without our knowledge, in unethical or questionable monetary transactions. The possibilities of this are particularly augmented in a world characterized, as it is, by our economic interdependence. We are all intricately bound to vast monetary webs the reach of which extends into some dark and exploitive corners, and from which we may be removed, in some case, by only a few degrees of separation. Through a trickle effect, some of that tainted wealth, whether it be through child-labor or sweat shops, may find its way into our bank accounts. By giving some of what we receive, especially to the poor, we help cleanse and decontaminate what we retain, so that what stays with us, what we spend on ourselves and our loved ones, carries baraka, “grace,” the source of an unquantifiable flourishing.
There is no question that one of the benefits of zakāt, and beyond that, any charity (ṣadaqa) that extends beyond the bare requirements of the Law––and Muslims know they are encouraged to expend “in the cause of God” far beyond the bare minimum––is that it helps cultivate “detachment” or zuhd. We have a tendency as human beings to hold on to what we own, when in truth, we will eventually be separated from it all. Either our wealth and possessions will be taken away from us by circumstances that lie outside of our control, or we will be taken away from them, through death. By actively cultivating charitableness, we help develop the virtue of zuhd, and the nurturing of zuhd in turn makes it easier for us to let go and give, since zuhd is based, at least in part, on a knowledge of the ephemeral nature of our relationship with the world. There is, one may say, a circular, heliotropic relation between the two qualities, just as there is between their corresponding vices of covetousness and miserliness. One feeds off the other.
Both the virtues of detachment and generosity have deep roots in the sunna. The austerity and simplicity of the Prophet is well-known, there being no end to the stories that recount these aspects of his personality in the biographical literature. The same may be said about his gift-giving and charitableness. In Qāḍī ‘Iyāḍ’s (d. 1149) Book of Healing, in a chapter on the generosity of the Prophet, he notes how the companions said of him that “he was never asked for anything which he refused,” that he was “the most generous of people,” and that he would “give the gift of a man who had no fear of poverty.” This last point is particularly important, since we tend to think that when we give we lose, that we open ourselves to material inconvenience, hardship and even poverty. The sunna teaches otherwise, a theme echoed in most of the religious traditions of the world.
One of the dangers in gift-giving (charitable or otherwise) is that the benefactor, consciously or unconsciously, wishes to put the beneficiary in a position of debt. Dissatisfied with the monetary cost of the gift, he wishes to gain through giving by transforming the act into a transaction; or worse, the potential gain may inspire the act of benefaction itself, from its very outset. This is why Kant astutely observed that some people detest receiving gifts from others, because of the subordinate position it places them in relation to their benefactors, and the obligations of gratitude that, on their end, must necessarily follow.
Describing the ideal conditions of charity, the dispensers of zakāt and ṣadaqa are encouraged to remind themselves, in their own hearts, We feed you for the sake of God, and desire neither reward nor gratitude from you (Q 76:9).
Those attentive to the deceptive nature of the self (nafs) in Muslim tradition, were acutely conscious of this possibility, and emphasized in their meditations on sincerity (ikhlāṣ), the need to make sure that one’s motivation behind any act of giving was nothing but divine pleasure. The importance of cultivating such a state is itself rooted in the Quran. Describing the ideal conditions of charity, the dispensers of zakāt and ṣadaqa are encouraged to remind themselves, in their own hearts, We feed you for the sake of God, and desire neither reward nor gratitude from you (Q 76:9). This was one reason why Rūmī (d. 1273) would tell his disciples that the reason he did not thank them for any of their services was not because he was ignorant of how to express gratitude, but so they might receive all of their recompense from God.
One of the benefits of such a theocentric approach to giving is that it removes the desire, ideally, for a return from the recipient, or for that matter, from third parties who wish the recipients well. In the present climate, what this means is that charitable generosity towards the impoverished need not be incentivized, for Muslims at least (as well as others who share this vision of reality), through some gain, direct or indirect, that they may be offered in the form of a tangible return. It also frees the poor and needy who receive help from feeling bound or indebted to their creaturely benefactors, since the help that came to them, came from the only real benefactor in existence, the divine Giver.
As the Oxfam reports I referenced above reveal, we live in a world marked simultaneously by great abundance and scarcity––abundance for the few and scarcity for the many. It behooves those of us who live on the side of the spectrum marked by access to plentiful resources, who have more than we actually need, to share what we have with those who do not. But this must be done in a way that respects the dignity and integrity of every recipient, especially because fortunes could easily turn, and some of the haves of the world could find themselves, through a twist of fate, on the other end of the table. History has no shortage of such examples.
Atif Khalil is an Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Lethbridge (Alberta, Canada), where he has been teaching for fifteen years. He is the author of Repentance and the Return to God: Tawba in Early Sufism (Albany: SUNY Press, 2018), and more than thirty academic articles on Sufism, Islamic Theology and Philosophy, Virtue Ethics, the Judeo-Islamic Tradition, Orientalism, and the contemporary study of Islam. He is co-editor of In Search of the Lost Heart (Albany: SUNY Press, 2012) and Mysticism and Ethics in Islam (Beirut: AUB Press, 2022). At present, he is working on a monograph on the theory and practice of dhikr in Sufism, and another one on the mystical ethics of Ibn ‘Arabi. In 2009 he completed his doctorate at the Center for Religious Studies at the University of Toronto.
 Qāḍī ‘Iyāḍ, al-Shifā’ (Damascus: Maktaba al-Ghazālī, 2000), 155.
 Immanuel Kant, The Doctrine of Virtue: Part II of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. Mary G. Gregor (Harper and Row: New York, 1964), 127-128 [457-458].
 “If I appear to be remiss in gratitude and appreciation and in offering thanks for the kindness and support you show me directly and indirectly, this is not out of arrogance or indifference, or because I do not know what it behooves the recipient of a favor to say or do. But I was aware of the purity of your faith, that you do these things sincerely for the sake of God; so I leave it to God to thank you Himself. If I were to concern myself in thanking you and praising you, it would be as though some part of the reward that God is going to give you had already been paid.” Rūmī, Fīhī mā fīhī, trans. as Signs of the Unseen: The Discourses of Jalal al-Din Rumi by W. M. Thackston (Boston: Shambhala Books, 1999), 114.