THANKS-giving by amina wadud

Amina Wadud 2 I am Muslim, by choice, practice and vocation

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. 

Categories: General, Islam, Ritual

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17 replies

  1. Interesting text About Zakah! Thank you!


  2. Thankyou.
    As a Muslim, I know zakah and sadaqah but it was a pleasure to read, when both the practice and the principles of it are so elegantly expressed.


  3. This sounds like the Christian touting of the gospel above the law. Like Muslims, Jews believe that the law should be followed with or without the heart being fully there. And why not? Giving to others is not only about “me” and “my purity of heart.” Funny how the ego (I, me, my) keeps slipping back in even when it is not supposed to be the focus.

    I look forward to your next blog.


  4. You always write such interesting blogs that I, too, look forward to them. I’m editing a book by a Muslim scholar who lives in Pakistan. When I sent him a link, he said he’d heard of you.


    • Thanks Barbara, I’m sure he has. I’m not at all sure WHAT he has heard, and am not in the least curious. I recently had to bow out of a conference I was planning to present at in Pakistan, and one of the organizers wrote to me and asked me how the US government could prevent me from attending. I thought how the heck did THAT rumor get started?! I think I’m finally getting this media stuff. If you know it’s not true..ignore


  5. Some observations after reflecting on my own experience: Often times I believe that acting out of duty to family when I am exhausted, irritated, not feeling the love, not feeling the compassion, is a high form of compassion. After reflecting on it, I wonder if in duty one must be deeply aware of the “mere” humanity of the other person. Doing what needs to be done seems to be at the heart of it.

    There is this wonderful book by a Danish (I think) guy who tries to be a Zen monk in Japan and fails utterly. The only time his Roshi said he had progressed was when meditation was ending and one monk went to get the tea for everyone. The monk came back but had forgotten the cups. The Danish man just got up and went and got the cups with out thinking. He did what needed to be done in the moment. There was no feeling of compassion. There was nothing there but a human moment. Cups were needed and he got them.

    I don’t know about you, but I find it easy to be compassionate when I do things because I am feeling love toward the person. What’s the trick in that? To give out of duty is, I think, a way of giving to all of humanity through the individuals who are before you. If we could give to all out of this kind of duty (do what needs to be done, as we can do it, whenever the need arises) would that not be the embodiment of compassion (and justice)?

    Just reflecting on your words here…coffee in hand…thanks for the opportunity to talk about it. I’m probably getting my terms mixed up. What did the guru even mean by duty after all?

    (There is of course the self-abuse of giving out of duty and the abuse of others [been there, done all that], but I’m talking about something else here)


  6. Thanks Laury,

    I couldn’t have said it better myself. In Islamic mysticism they call this sort of duty to humanity “adab”. I can even dislike you, but never, ever treat you with anything but respect, as a kind of adab: etiquette of decency and humanity.

    For the people I do not love, who in fact are the overwhelming majority of humankind, they too deserve to be treated with grace and decorum.

    Furthermore, as to the criticism I did not understand against compassion through duty alone, I can say as you did here, I’m not sure what was meant.

    For now, I keep to the combination: when over come with the abundance, I serve/give out of love. Otherwise, I serve and give out of compassionate duty and I’m totally okay with it.


    • Thanks Amina, you know I feel kinda really slow on the uptake. Got a big old degree in Sufism and I never really grasped this in terms of adab. I always read it as respect, manners, propriety, etc, but never decency and humanity owed to all. For that reason, it never made sense to me because the sources were always talking about decency and humanity but the translators were always discussing it in terms of propriety, etc. It never clicked. I am sure there are plenty of people who do translate it and discuss it that way, but I seem to have missed it. Thank you for that! Better to be living it to some degree, than getting it intellectually, though, lol.


  7. I find this conversation fascinating. Thanks, Amina and Laury. I agree with you that it’s harder to give when you feel no great love for the person who needs help, and as a result, giving out of duty may be more “compassionate” in that sense. From my reading of Buddhist literature, I have the feeling that awareness of one’s own motivations and as a result, ease in living is one of the goals, as well as compassion, of course. But it seems to me that the two go hand-in-hand. If you feel compassionate, then giving/living is easier. Buddhism is about developing new habits, and I believe that giving out of duty certainly qualifies as at least the beginning of compassion, from a Buddhist perspective.


    • Thanks Nancy. I am working my way through this deep re-consideration of compassionate giving. It is probably that my simultaneous retired Professor-observer met my believing devotee and as I asked the question before the standard answer was given, I had my expectations up way high. I mean, I not only already knew about but practiced compassionate giving/service from duty I think maybe I came to expect I would JUMP up to actually feel love all the time and for every one. I don’t, but as I said, I practice what my tradition calls adab and treat all human beings with respect and dignity (well, most of the time and some times, I’m just a bit of of —–!).


      • Does anyone remember Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon? There is this moment in which one of the characters becomes a Bodhisattva and feels this incredible pain of compassion–feeling everyone. Seemed like Jesus on the Cross and I thought, ‘yeah, that’s not for me’. Scared me, actually. But then Jesus on the Cross has always scared me when you get down to what he really did (just cracked Proverb of Ashes, so I’m feeling the resonation there). I’ve never studied Buddhism except when I was a TA in grad school for a Japanese Buddhism class (the book by the Dutch fellow I read for that class). Nancy and Amina, is Bodhisattva compassion Christic?


  8. Of course, it’s complicated, since there are many forms of Buddhism. But in Mahayana Buddhism, it seems to be true that Boddhisattvas are Christ-like, in that they renounce Nirvana (i.e. escaping the round of life-death-rebirth) out of compassion for other sentient beings


  9. Perhaps there are instances when NOT giving may be a more compassionate action? For example, in my country there was a time when street children sold flowers or were begging. The government started a campaign to educate both the citizens and the tourists NOT to give charity to these children as they were being exploited by the adults and the more the children earned in this way—the more children were being exploited in this “industry”.
    To be human and yet restrain from helping the helpless is a difficult thing to do yet there may be instances when one must restrain from the “easy solution” (giving money) and instead working towards sending these children to schools, educating them, so they may have a better life….may be a more beneficial solution…?….

    Perhaps when we begin to think of helping humanity—there are two ways to understand it, that is, temporary solutions such as charity and perhaps more lasting solutions such as systemic justice…..?……When both are balanced, they can create a more complete way?

    I think perhaps we need to be aware that what may seem like a “good” action (charity) may have harmful, and in some cases toxic, consequences….so thoughtful giving either out of duty or compassion is more important than thoughtless giving….?….


    • I agree. From an Islamic perspective “withholding” is also compassionate giving for this very reason. The name al-Rahman, The Caring/Merciful, is a bit like an umbrella name under which and through the other divine names function. al-Rahim, Compassion, functions under divine Care but it more encompassing than other names such as withholding. So when God withholds, God withholds through care and compassion. Since we started out talking about mothering, knowing how to withhold through compassion (even compassionate duty) would seem to be a specialty of parenting! And divine Justice likewise functions through divine Care or Mercy. So seeking justice for real change would also be compassion.


  10. Indeed, systemic justice is better than charity! And as they say in our tradition.. Actions are in accordance to their intentions. For surely some people give charity to relieve their guilt…while some give it to relieve the poverty they see. I thus consider the simultaneous responsibility to give charity and reform unjust systems twin halves of the good citizens of the earth, when we have the means. Thanks for your comment.


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