Contradictions in Charity: Giving in the Proper Spirit
By: Emna Baccar
April 21, 2015
The fact that charity is one of the five pillars of Islam speaks to its central role in a Muslim’s religious practice. Every year, Muslims who are capable are required to give a minimum of 2.5 percent of their wealth in what is called zakat, which literally means purification. Although this once a year charity is required, it is supposed to condition and inspire Muslims to continue giving voluntarily as an expression of love and gratefulness towards God. However, what is striking is that although termed voluntary, such continued charity to the poor and the hungry, the needy, and the orphan is actually an obligation, even outside the annual charity. It is so important in fact, that the Qur'an even equates forgoing the giving of charity as a denial of faith: “Have you seen the one who denies religion? For he is the one who drives away the orphan, and does not encourage the feeding of the poor.” (Qur'an 107:1-3)
It is because of the importance of charity to my faith that in the early morning I made my way over to a local mosque to assist in distributing food to the poor from their weekly food bank. When I arrived, I made my way to the cafeteria/kitchen area, where a long line of people with bags stood waiting to be served. I entered the kitchen and asked if I could help out, and so I joined in helping three other women fill the bags of those in line. Depending on how many people were in each person’s household, each would get at least one bag of produce, a bag of chicken, and a variety of canned goods, fruits, rice, bread, and other items. It was also great that the bank provided baby formula and baby food to those who had infants, which I definitely would have never thought of had it been me who had organized it.
Before going, it made me proud that local Muslim mosques were reaching out into their communities to feed the poor, not only helping to fulfill our duty as Muslims, but also doing our part to show that we are contributing members of America’s society. When I arrived at 9:15, the distribution was well underway and by the time I left at 11:00, I’m sure we had filled the bags of over 30 community members. However, by the end of my experience I was also extremely disappointed in what I saw.
Firstly, I felt it was extremely disorganized. The ladies would run around, haphazardly tossing food into bags without a proper system, to the point that the food would get damaged from the way it was packed and making it difficult to carry for those who came. Additionally, while the quality of the food was good in general, a good half of the cans given were dented and a majority of the fruit given out was bruised and old. Lastly, what made me extremely upset was the cultural bias that went into giving the food. While each participant did get at least one bag of produce, one bag of chicken, two cans and some other miscellaneous items, those who were of the same country that the ladies were from got special consideration. They were unfairly given more food than others and were also given the higher quality products in general.
For me, these actions presented barriers to giving charity in the proper Islamic spirit. The Prophet once said to love for your brother what you would love for yourself, this includes in giving. Giving bruised and barely edible fruits, along with damaging food because of carelessness, contradicts this spirit. Additionally, charity is based on need, not on whether someone is from the same country as you. People should be treated equally in regards to charity, the only reason to give more is because of a higher need.
On my way back from the food bank, these are the things I reflected on. While I’m sure these flaws are not present at every mosque, this one had some things to work on. However, I’m glad that as a community, this mosque has at least taken the step in engaging more deeply in its community, and I was happy to be part of that. I sincerely hope that in the future, it can further develop into upholding the high standards we hold for giving proper charity in the Islamic faith.