Spend, Even When You’re Destitute – Shaykh Muhammad Adeyinka Mendes

What is the benefit of giving charity and spending on others even when you’re destitute and dirt poor? When you can’t pay your rent, when you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel… We revisit some of the gems from Shaykh Muhammad Mendes when he was at SeekersHub Toronto.

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Resources for seekers:

Charity in the Qurʾān: Preservation of the Inherent Dignity of Recipients

When he was at a stoplight behind a long row of cars a couple of weeks ago, Shaykh Shuaib Ally noticed a man by the side of the road, going from car to car, asking for change.

When he saw the car in front of me, his attitude noticeably brightened, and he walked up to it happily in a confident manner, far removed from the way he had been going about his business before.
The woman in the car had already rolled down her window, and they started exchanging pleasantries, even before he had reached her car or she had given him anything. It seemed to me from the exchange that they already knew each other. He probably regularly saw her when she drove that route, and she had likely made it a habit of giving him some money every time she saw him.
This encounter stayed with me. I thought about it again when I was reading the exegesis of verses describing the righteous: ‘In their wealth, there is a right; for the one who asks, and the one prevented from work’ [51:26]; as well as: ‘Those whom, from their wealth, is a known right, for the one who asks, and the one prevented from work’ [70:29].

With dignity intact

The Qurʾān describes the giving of the righteous right or a due, meaning that they recognize that they aren’t doing anybody else a favour by giving them something they otherwise had no right to. Rather, they consider it a due being returned to the recipient, and a right being fulfilled. They realize that God has placed this wealth in their hands as a trust, and part of fulfilling that trust is to disburse it to those in need.

Ibn ʿĀshūr, the Mālikī exegete, has a related take on the use of ‘right’ in these verses. He says that from the perspective of the giver: “it is as if they have considered the recipient as actual co-owners of their wealth. They do this because of their inherent desire to take into account the feelings of the recipient.”

The recipient too recognizes this. That is why they aren’t made to feel inferior for asking for it, or being in a position in which they must take it. When they take something that is their due and their right, they can do so with their dignity intact. It is not the case that they have been given it as handout, such that they have to feel that their personal honor has been in some way compromised, or that they are beholden to others.
The Qurʾān also calls what is given something set or known. This indicates that the giver already has an idea that they have put aside a set amount to be disbursed to others. This is to say that their mental preparation is to give, not that they need to be convinced to do so.
The recipient also knows this – that the person has money set aside to give. This too preserves their inherent dignity, because they don’t feel like they need to beg them to give them something. Rather, they already know that there is something there for them, irrespective of whether the amount is small or large.
This may be one of the reasons why the trait is so praiseworthy in the Qurʾān, because not only does a person give, but their overall orientation towards giving affects how they give and the manner in which they perceive others. In doing so, they not only benefit others financially, but also positively affect the psychology and behaviour of the recipient as well.

charity in the Quran

Credits: Danny Hahn

Giving privately is best

The situation I described above also reminds me of other instances in the Qurʾān in which a premium is placed on giving due consideration to the dignity and personhood of recipients.
One such indication is found in the special praise reserved for giving in private. The Qur’an says, ‘If you give openly in charity – how excellent that is!  If you conceal the charity, and give it to the poor, it is better for you…’ [2.271].
This concern with privately-given charity is meant to ensure one’s own sincerity in giving by focusing the act of charity rather than the self, and also on the needs of others. At the same time, it is a means of preserving the inherent dignity of the recipient’s personhood, because the public act of giving exposes what is often considered their inferior position to others.

Give what is good

A second indication can be found in the way the Qurʾān demands that what is given to recipients is also what the donors themselves would actually themselves use. It says, “Its expiation is to feed ten poor people, out of what you would normally feed your families” [5:89].
The reason for this is that those involved in charitable efforts might sometimes suffice themselves with the provision of low quality food or itens to those in need, thinking that those in need should be happy with whatever they get.
However, this treats recipients in an undignified manner, as they can see that they are being provided with something that the giver would not themselves consider suitable for normal consumption.
The general Qurʾānic principle, as established in this verse, is to be attuned to the needs of others; to act in a manner that at once assists, while also preserving their human dignity.

Speak kindly

The manner in which the man and the woman that I described above spoke to each other, also reminds me of the important connection the Qurʾān draws between giving and speaking kindly. This is meant to offset any shame or resentment a person who is forced to ask and receive might naturally feel. This is highlighted in a number of verses dealing with this theme.

As the default, the Qurʾān prohibits us from speaking harshly to beggars [93:10]. When a person is forced into a situation in which they have to ask others for assistance, their doing so is generally indicative of an underlying need. If a person does not want to assist them, the least they can do is not exacerbate their situation by speaking unkindly, thereby humiliating them.

Better than this, however, is to want to give to those asking. In a situation in which one has nothing to give and has to turn those asking away, the Qurʾān nevertheless commands us to speak kindly to them [17:28]. This is a means of consoling those asking and rehabilitating their dignity, even though they have not actually benefited materially from you. Because this benefits them psychologically, it is superior to harming or ignoring them.
If a person can give, the Qurʾān praises those who do so without following it up with reminding the recipient about it [2.262]. This is because doing so would then become a constant source of shame for the recipient.

charity in the Quran

Credits: Spyros Papaspyropoulos

One of the reasons people do not like to benefit materially from others is because they feel like they will then be beholden to the other. The Qurʾānic model shows that the outlook of a charitable person is to give without expecting anything in return; it is to benefit others without the idea that they will then hold some type of right over them.
Finally, there are some situations in which a person does not ask, but you know that they internally desire something because of their impoverished situation. The Qur’an describes such a situation: the estate of a deceased is being divided, and there are those present who have no legal share to claim, yet internally desire some of it [4.8]. In such a situation, the Qurʾān commands us to speak kindly to them, even though they have no legal claim to any of this wealth.

Kindness is excellence

The Qurʾān’s insistence on treating others with kindness when asked for charity is thus part of a general Qurʾānic theme of describing the attitude of those who give with excellence.
The Qurʾān is not only concerned with our benefiting others materially and financially. It also demonstrates a concern for us changing our orientation towards giving, in a way that not only benefits financially, but also psychologically. This new Qurʾānic outlook is one that situates giving in a context that takes into account and preserves the dignity of those who are in less desirable economic circumstances.
And God knows best.

Cover photo by Rui Duarte. Others by Danny Hahn and Spyros Papaspyropoulos.

Resources for Seekers

What Are the Rulings Related to Giving Money to Others? [Shafi’i School]

Answered by Ustadh Shuaib Ally
Question: Asalamu alaikum,
How should we react when people ask for money or food, but you don’t know if they are actually poor and there’s a possibility they will use it to buy cigarettes or alcohol? Are we not also encouraging them to beg more if we give money? Also since there is so much need, should we favor giving certain causes over others, concentrate on our locality or balance it out?
Answer: General Ruling of Giving
Giving to others is a highly recommended act, and encouraged in the Qur’an as well as in Prophetic tradition. The Qur’an says, in praising people of righteousness:
They give food to the poor, the orphan, and the captive, though they love it themselves, saying, ‘We feed you for the sake of God alone: We seek neither recompense nor thanks from you.We fear the Day of our Lord––a woefully grim Day.’ So God will save them from the woes of that Day, give them radiance and gladness (76:8-11).
Determining if one is Deserving
One should be generous in giving money or food, and does not need to know that the person asking is actually deserving. Having to ask is usually a sign of need, and people generally do not do so without some underlying need. It is important for people of faith to not judge others, because the condition or need of the person asking is not known.
Using your Donation for something Impermissible
If you are certain that your charity will be used for something impermissible, your charity in that case is also impermissible. However, one usually does not have this level of certainty. Conversely, one does not need to be certain that the person you’ve donated to will not use it for something impermissible. A person who is in a position to help others should do so within reasonable limits and consign the rest to Allah.
Worrying about the Result of your Charity

At an organizational level, one should exercise due diligence and take reasonable steps to ensure that they are supporting credible charities or organizations. At the personal level, the inability to do this prevents people from helping others. However, a person is not responsible for ensuring that the money they’ve donated is used in a pleasing manner; one is rather responsible for responding in ways that are kind, generous and dignified to the situation before them.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: a man said: I will give something in charity. So he went out with his charity and placed it in the hand of a thief. People started to say: A thief has been given charity! So he said: God, to you belongs all praise for the thief! I will still give in charity. So he went out with his charity and placed it in the hand of an adulteress. They started to say: Last night an adulteress was given charity! So he said: God, to you belongs all praise for the adulteress! I will still give in charity. So he went out with his charity and placed it in the hand of a rich person. They started to say: A rich person has been given charity?! He said: God, to you belongs all praise for the thief, the adulteress and the rich person. He later heard it being said to him: Perhaps your charity to the thief will cause him to refrain from theft, and the adulteress from her adultery; and cause the rich person to reflect, in that he gives from what Allah has given him (Agreed Upon).
Does Giving Encourage Bad Behaviour?
Giving does not generally encourage people to ask for more. Most people only do this because they are in actual need. What you are actually doing is helping yourself by responding in ways that are beautiful to the needs of others. The Qur’an reminds us that “What you give in charity is for yourselves”(2:272). The Prophet (peace be upon him) relates in a Hadith Qudsi that Allah says: Give, and you will be given (Agreed Upon).
Where to Give:
At a personal level, one should ensure that they take care of and provide for their families first before attempting to donate to other causes. Following that, one should seek out and support charities or organizations (either local or abroad) that provide wide and lasting benefit. Determining where specifically to give is a personal matter that depends on need, preference, common sense and one’s specific circumstance. The important issue isn’t what specific cause you donate to or what charity you patronize, but that you are doing something sustainable and measurable to make a difference.
Shuaib Ally