Last week was that most contested U.S. family holiday, Thanksgiving. No, I’m not going to revisit the numerous points of contestation. I’m hoping we’ve heard them all and maybe even participated in support for or against some of the contests.
I’m actually reflecting on thanks, and even more, on giving.
One of the five pillars upon which Islam stands is Zakah, the required “poor-due” or almsgiving. Like tithing, the 10% of earnings required in certain branches of Christianity, Zakah is enumerated. It is 2.5% of your unused wealth.
For comparison sake…if I earn $25,000 a year and I use all of it to pay my bills, clear my debts and maybe even invest a little, I owe nothing in Zakah. In tithing, I’d have to pay $2500 on that amount (more than one month’s salary). If, as a Muslim, I had a saving account from some of those earnings, sometimes spending for emergencies and special occasions and sometimes replenishing it, but the account balance never went below $1000 over the course of a year, I would then owe $25 in Zakah.
There are differences of opinion about terms and conditions—like what constitutes an asset, subjected to the obligation of paying Zakah—or about when it must be paid as an annual due. The Qur’an gives simple and clear indications about what it should be paid towards: the poor, the needy (family or non-family), orphans, those who are hungry, travelers (i.e. refugees) and as a means for persuading hearts. It can never be used to pay salaries of any religious leaders and officials or for building and repair of the mosque, and other administrative structures—even in disadvantaged communities. This differs then from tithing, which goes for the preacher’s salary (including his or her car or mortgage), or for building, maintaining, or expanding church buildings.
In addition to Zakah, Muslims make voluntary offerings, called sadaqah, which is more akin to what we understand in the west as charity, because it can be applied to any thing, given at any time, and of any amount. It is from this pool then that mosque funds would be raised or from which would come any other needs in the administration of the community. So certain needs are met by informal, voluntary giving, but not from the obligatory Zakah.
After September 11th a conflict arose when the US homeland security froze the assets of certain Muslim charitable organizations because funds might/did (?) go to organizations designated as “terrorists”. This created a quandary for Muslims giving Zakah which must be given out in a very rapid turnover. The problem is further exacerbated when we consider that a single organization can both oppose the US and do community development for the poor. But that is not the focus of my blog.
Rather, I return to my previous discussion about Vipassana, and why I did not make a voluntary donation on the last day.
The word Zakah has its origin in the same root form as the word for “purification”. The idea is one may acquire by any honest and fair means ANY amount of wealth they are capable to raise or wish to have. Ours is not a religion that prefers poverty over wealth, or which ascribes greater piety to poverty. To work hard, earn, spend, and then give charitably is the higher virtue. However to “purify” that wealth, this small 2.5 percentage must be given annually for those who are in poverty.
Although some verses and statements of the Prophet also talk about the attitude of the one who gives (like: Do not follow giving by humiliating the one who has received), the point of emphasis is the altruism to please the Creator and serve His/Her creation. Thus the gift is not given in any expectation of (worldly) return. There is no association between giving as a means to thereby be open to more bounty—“give so you may receive”.
Zakah is a religious duty. How one feels about it personally is not as important as the requirement to give the fixed amount due. There is a long treatise by Imam al-Ghazali (d. 1111, the most prolific Sufi, Philosopher, and legal thinker of all the Islamic intellectual traditions) in which he elaborates three levels of giving. Fulfilling mere duty is the lowest level. It is however, acceptable. Islamic Zakah is fulfilled via these enumerated conditions, with a resulting rubber stamp for the remainder of one’s wealth which is thereby purified for enjoyment, investment and benefit.
No one talks so much about the other two levels of giving al-Ghazali describes. These are closer to what I associated with the statements by the Master Guru at my Vipassana. He not only emphasized giving and doing out of “love and compassion” he also criticized giving out of duty alone. When I questioned the Resident Guru about the difference between giving (and serving my five children) for duty whenever I could not give (or serve) out of love and compassion, he told me, this would be answered in the next few days.
It remained unanswered when my Vipassana was completed. Instead, I was left with the repetition that giving out of duty alone was inferior to giving from love and compassion. In fact, I was impressed with the idea that as one lifts up out of their own sankhara (attachments, whether positive desires or negative aversions) one would feel an overflow of abundance. We were prescribed how to direct that abundant overflow towards all others: wishing for them “peace, happiness and liberation”. I took this literally. When I did not feel it towards the actual logistical imbalances of the conditions for women versus the conditions for men at this particular Vipassana center, I was actually still quite angry. I did not wish to taint my giving when I had not attained the level as it was so clearly described.
In my next blog, I will discuss these imbalances and the implications for my own personal experience of Vipassana. Despite all the benefits of the program in general, these particulars were quite illuminating relative to my life work on gender justice, equality, and balance
amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives. Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.