Giving is a universal human phenomenon. It is practiced everywhere and by different nations and cultures. The celebrated sociologist of religion, Max Weber said: “In Islam, the giving of alms was one of the five commandments incumbent upon members of the faith. Giving of alms was the good work enjoined in ancient Hinduism, in Confucianism, and in early Judaism. In ancient Buddhism, the giving of alms was originally the only activity of the pious layman that really mattered. Finally, in ancient Christianity, the giving of alms attained almost the dignity of a sacrament, and even in the time of Augustine, faith without alms was not regarded as genuine.”
The practice of giving differs from one culture to another and changes within the same culture in response to the nature and magnitude of the challenges it has to face.
There are various terms and nomenclatures in the Quran that carry the connotation and meaning of charity and describe the practice of giving. The spectrum ranges from recognizing the right of the poor in the wealth of the rich, and at the other end of the spectrum even saving may become unacceptable at the time of a crisis. This suggests the presence of a dynamic and dialectic relationship between the concept and practice of giving and the social challenges and priorities that dictate the form and mode of giving.
If I ask today what should be the response to the crisis of poverty and hunger that affects millions of people over large areas of the world, the answer should be stated in a language that emergently mobilizes all our human and physical resources to save people and make a difference in their lives.
What were the new paradigms that Quran used to nudge the people to adopt giving as an important aspect of their civic responsibility? The interrogation of the early revealed verses of Quran is one of the best methods to identify such paradigms. The early verses focused on the social diseases that prevailed at that time in the form of poverty, hunger, and the exploitation of the weak by the powerful. People who are traumatized and overwhelmed by such social conditions find it very difficult to connect with a message that does not address their suffering. Mohammad, like all the prophets, was the first to own their issues, bring them to the consciousness of the society, and suggest ways to change the status quo.
I will share with you three Quranic paradigms that shuffled the whole social map and changed the pattern of thinking as a prerequisite for change in social behavior regarding the practice of giving. Henry David Thoreau realized the need to work on basic paradigms when he said: “For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root.”
The first paradigm revealed the connection between giving and the general concept of religion.
From the early moments of the message of Islam, Quran asserted that religion is a universal human phenomenon; and those who denied the divine message and rejected to worship God are- in effect- following their own religion. Quran urged Prophet Mohammad to say to them:“To you be your religion, and to me mine.” [109:6]
In modern time, sociologists and anthropologists who studied the different human cultures and their religious practices came to the same conclusion that religion is a universal human phenomenon. The celebrated French social scientist, Alexis De Tocqueville, who came to the United States in the Eighteenth Century and wrote his Corpus Magnum, Democracy in America, said: “Irreligion is unknown.”
In view of all this, we can say that religion is a system of belief that gives direction and meaning to our actions in this life.
Arabia was not an exception and had its own religion. According to historians, namely the contemporary North African Historian, Hisham Ja’it, religion in Arabia did not mean only tenets of belief and religious rituals, but also reflected culture, identity, and way of life. Therefore, Quran did not argue whether the Makkans had or did not have a religion. Also, Prophet Mohammad did not say to them: You do not have a religion, and I am bringing you one. His message was mainly about a new approach to the concept of religion, and the quality of religion. Through Quran he asked the following question: “Have you seen the one who denies the religion?” [107:1]
When we look at the answer, we find that Quran did not say that the one who denies religion is the one who disbelieves in God and his prophets, but put before us a new definition of religion by adding to it a new dimension- the dimension of human responsibility. Quran is saying: Those who absolve themselves from their social responsibilities are practically denying and betraying their religion. Here is the answer:“Then such is the one who repulses the orphan and encourages not the feeding of the indigent.” [107:2-3]
From the beginning Quran was formulating a new concept about religion by focusing on its strong connection to human actions. Religion is relevant and meaningful in human life when it is translated into mercy and kindness, especially to those who are unfortunate like the orphan and the indigent. Mecca was suffering from social and economic imbalance, the exploitation of the weak by the powerful, and the disenfranchisement of the poor. Mecca was in dire need of a new paradigm, a new pattern of thinking that takes its understanding about religion to the highest level possible. In order to make its point stronger about the understanding of religion in practice, Quran brings before us a practical demonstration from real life: “Woe to the worshippers who are heedless of their prayers, those who show off, and refuse to provide the simplest supply.” [107: 4-7]
Prayer, as a major religious practice, loses its meaning when it is disconnected from life. Prayer is meant to bring us closer to God and consequently closer to the people, and to make us more recognizant of their needs.
By Dr. Walid Khayr
(to be continued next month)