Islamic Perspectives

Which charity is best?

By Adil Salahi
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We are always confronted by people who request charity. They may have a genuine case which needs help. How does Islam view such people and their action? Hakeem ibn Hazam, one of the Prophet’s companions, used to request the Prophet’s help, knowing that he did not refuse anyone. After giving him on several occasions, the Prophet (peace be upon him) said to him a few words that are highly significant. Hakeem quotes the Prophet as saying: “The upper hand is better than the lower one. Start with your dependents. The best charity is that which is taken from what is in excess of one’s needs. Whoever seeks to be contented God will grant him content, and whoever seeks to be self-sufficient will have God’s help in being so.” (Related by Al-Bukhari).

 The Hadith focuses on two important points: the first compares the one who gives and the one who takes, and the other is giving to charity what we are in need of. We will look briefly at both points.

 The majority of scholars agree that, in the context of the Hadith, the “upper hand” and the “lower hand” refer to the one who gives and the one who requests help, respectively. Thus the Hadith urges people who have plenty to give away to those in need, while at the same time it urges the ones in need to refrain from requesting charity. The ‘lower hand’ does not refer to the one who takes without asking, if he needs help; otherwise, people who really deserve help will refrain from taking zakat and charity, which could lead to defeating the very purpose of zakat, which is a very important and basic principle of Islam. Besides, taking zakat and charity when one is in need is perfectly permissible. It is contrary to Islamic principles that a person who does something permissible will be considered, as a result of doing it, lower than one who fulfills a duty incumbent on him. Indeed, the one who takes what is permissible to take may well be a better and more God-fearing than the one who gives. Ibn Al-Arabi says: “The lower hand is certainly that of the one who begs; not the one who takes without begging.” Ibn Hajar says: “The preference here is between giving and taking, which does not necessarily mean that the giver is a better person than the taker in every case.” What he means is that giving is better than taking, but the taker may well be the better of the two.

 The second point concerns giving away what one needs. Al-Bukhari says: “Charity can only be paid when one has what is sufficient for one’s needs and the needs of one’s dependents. It is not acceptable that one gives to charity what is needed for his own essentials and the essentials of his dependents. Nor is it acceptable to give to charity when one is in debt. The repayment of one’s debt takes priority over charity, or sadaqah. To give to charity what one needs to repay one’s debts constitutes wasting other people’s money, which no one is allowed to do.

 The question arises whether one can give in charity all that one has, leaving oneself poor, in need of help. It is well known that when the Prophet urged his companions to contribute to the equipment of the army, Abu Bakr donated all his money. The Prophet accepted that. However, this related to that particular occasion. Otherwise, scholars have made clear that this is permissible only if the donor is in full control of his mind and faculties, has no commitments and is able to withstand the resulting difficulty. Failing that, or if he has dependents who are not equally ready to tolerate the resulting poverty, he must not give away all his money. The best charity, as the Prophet outlines, is that which is given out of what one has in excess of what meets his own and his dependents’ needs.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 August 2011 on page no. 28

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