Charity Begins at Home

October 26, 2023
6 min

It is Ramadan again: the month to take our level of spirituality to a higher level; the month to make time for extra remembrance of God; the month to complete extra Quran reading; and – of course – the month to perform extra prayers alone and with others, at home or in the mosque.

However intense private devotion is not the only way to increase our connection to God: outwardly assisting others is also an integral part of worship. Last year, David Cameron recognised this publicly, saying: ‘I know one of the messages of Ramadan is the importance of charity and the act of giving to those less fortunate than ourselves. That tradition is not just a great Muslim tradition. It’s also a great British tradition, something we cherish right across our society, amongst people of every faith and none.’

So what exactly is this great British and Muslim tradition of charity? Atypical understanding of charity involves money or items being given by the rich to the poor, dividing people into receivers and givers, the weak and the strong. Yet the Arabic word for charity, sadaqa, comes from the root letters s-d-q, which actually has a much deeper meaning, referring to a true, sincere and upright companion. The equivalent Hebrew word tzedekah similarly derives from concepts of righteous, justice or fairness. Giving to the poor is not simply a generous act: it is an act of sincerity and justice.

In reality, people may give charity to others for reasons unrelated to sincerity, justice or getting closer to God. We may give to be seen by others. We may give as we don’t want to come across as stingy. We may give as we want to make the recipient asking for our charity to just leave us alone. We may give as we no longer want the item we are giving away. One year, my daughter scoured her entire toy collection only to appear triumphantly clutching a one-legged Barbie (the fate of the other leg remains a mystery), trying to convince me that orphans would really appreciate her carefully chosen gift. Of course, it is not only children who are guilty of this: our intention is all-important and we need to constantly check ourselves to ensure we are truly sincere in our motives. God says in the Qur’an: ‘By no means shall you attain to righteousness until you spend (benevolently) out of what you love; and whatever thing you spend, God surely knows it.’(3:92)

Yet charity is not simply about spending money, or keying in our credit card details online, much needed as that may be. Even those without money can give charity. It is well-known that Jesus taught: ‘Love they neighbour as yourself’. This concept was illustrated in the Bible with the story of the Good Samaritan, a man from a despised tribe who took care of a Jewish man who had been left for dead on the side of the road, while others crossed the road and ignored him. Muhammad reiterated this important message, saying: ‘None of you has faith in God until you love for your neighbour what you love for yourself.’He also emphasised: ‘There is no person who does not have the obligation of doing charity every day that the sun rises.’

And so ever since my children have been old enough to talk, my family has had a tradition that, when Ramadan starts, we make a Good Deed Calendar with the help of Microsoft Word and 30 strategically placed colourful Post-it notes. Each day of Ramadan, each child’s calendar reveals an age-appropriate action which they have thought of: help the teacher at school, wash up the dishes at home, take some biscuits to the neighbours, give away a toy to the orphans. As Eleanor Roosevelt reminded us, ‘Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home -so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.’

If we remain remote online donors, we may not understand who we are helping ot know what communities really need. In Greg Mortenson’s book “‘Three Cups of Tea”, he recounts how, after years of effort, he finally collected enough funds for a community in Afghanistan to build a school as he thought that was what they needed – but what the community wanted was a bridge. They needed to carry over supplies before they could build a school. A French Muslim organisation called “Soup for All” seems to have got its own concept of charity right, with volunteers working tirelessly to give away free meals to the homeless during Ramadan, making direct contact with people such as Patrick, a non-Muslim Frenchman in his forties living on the streets. Patrick is very happy with this particular project, explaining: “I love Ramadan because I love soup, and this month is the only time I am able to eat soup, unlike the rest of the year.”

Charity does not have to encourage dependence: it can be empowering for those who are helped. Muhammad lived a life of generosity towards others, yet also educated those around him to help themselves. One of his companions approached him in severe poverty three times in succession and each time was instead told: ‘If a person seeks something from me, I shall certainly grant it to him, but if he were to exhibit himself as being self-sufficient and free from want, God shall make him affluent.’ The companion was then inspired to borrow a pickaxe and workedhard to gather firewood which he sold, until he had enough to purchase his own pickaxe and eventually his very own camels.

The empowerment of others continues today, abroad and closer to home. Heifer International gives livestock and training to those in need in developing countries, and in exchange families agree to give one of its animal’s offspring to another family in need, creating a virtuous cycle of optimism. In the UK, old and sick people in care homes or hospices who are visited or just listened to feel there is a purpose to life again; local communities and networks are assisting young families and others in need; and educated adults are mentoring and motivating potential school drop-outs toimprove their life chances.

Muhammad has described how we can all give, whether adult or child, rich or poor, in Ramadan or in the rest of the year. In a well-known hadith, he explained: “Every good act is charity. Your smiling to your brother is charity; an exhortation of your fellowman to virtuous deeds is equal to alms-giving; your putting a wanderer on the right road is charity; your assisting the blind is charity; your removing stones, and thorns, and other obstructions from the road is charity; your giving water to the thirsty is charity. A man’s true wealth, as regards the Hereafter, is the good he does in this world to his fellow men. When he dies, people will say “what property has he left behind him?” But the angels will ask, “what good deeds has he sent before him?”

I had better help my children get their Good Deed Calendars ready for this Ramadan.  But I know that I should first start even closer to home –and that is with myself.