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Islam: The Many Reasons for Charity

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In the Islamic tradition, there are different forms of giving. The one that is best known is zakat or almsgiving—one of the Five Pillars of Islam. It is usually defined as a mandatory way of redistributing wealth. In the days of Islamic empires, it was very much institutionalized, like a tax system, where citizens were expected to give a percentage of their income to satisfy the needs of the community. In the modern world, we see charity as a much more personal act, but in the ancient Islamic world it was much more a community duty. Having said that, there is another important aspect to giving in the Islamic tradition, one that is centered on the idea of purification (one of the meanings of zakat is purification). Being charitable is a way of purifying your material deeds, and thus never losing track of the most important goal, which is serving God—in this case, by serving your fellow humans. Today, where there is no longer an Islamic empire, almsgiving still exists, but it doesn't mean that it goes automatically to the Muslim community. It can go to other charitable causes as a way of providing stability and solidarity within society. The whole goal of almsgiving is about social stability and improving the relationships between human beings. During the month of Ramadan, for example, charity becomes even more important as a way of feeding anyone in need, not just Muslims. It is seen as a way to provide civil cohesion and peace. Besides zakat, there are multiple other ways a person can give, preferably in secret. It is known as sadaqa. Sometimes people ask, 'If you don't have any money, how can you fulfill this duty?' According to one of the prophet Mohammed's sayings: 'Even meeting your brother with a cheerful face is charity.' Mohammed was asked, "What if a person has nothing?" The Prophet replied, "He should work with his own hands for his benefit and then give something out of such earnings in charity." The companions asked, "What if he is not able to work?" The Prophet said, "He should help poor and needy persons." The companions further asked, "What if he cannot do even that?" The Prophet said, "He should urge others to do good." The companions said, "What if he lacks that also?" The Prophet replied, "He should check himself from doing evil. That is also charity."