Peace, one and all…
In a beautiful passage, the Quran speaks of the collection and distribution of the compulsory alms-tax (the zakat):
‘Alms are only for the poor and for the needy and for those employed to collect and for bringing hearts together and for freeing captives and for those in debt and for the cause of God and for the traveler – an obligation [imposed] by God. And God is Knowing and Wise’ (9:60)
This verse has long been understood as being the basis of an organised collection system, by which that alms-tax is collected. Whilst this is certainly true, a closer examination draws out a number of deeper connections.
Although this compulsory alms tax is most often described as zakat (from a root meaning ‘purification’), in this verse a different term is used. If we look a little closer at this verse, we can draw this out more clearly. The word used here is sadaqat, literally meaning ‘charity’. Significantly, this word derives from a root denoting truth and truthfulness. Thus, we can say that charity is a practical means of engaging with truth, of manifesting truth in everyday life. To engage in regular charity is thus a means of visualising and actualising truth. Moreover, given that this verse refers to the compulsory zakat, it forcefully underlines two further points: all that we own comes to us from God, of ourselves we own nothing. Secondly, a just and equitable, organised tax system is a collective means of manifesting this truth. Religion is not merely a matter of private observance, it is also concerned with social justice.
‘Sadaqa is only for … bringing hearts together and for freeing captives and for those in debt and for the cause of God and for the wayfarer…’
Charity is thus a means of bringing peoples together, and for the cause of God, which is here tied to freeing humanity from captivity and debt.
Sadaqa is thus connected with love, with truth, in a spiritual, personal and collective sense. It is therefore an aspect of justice, particularly in the social realm. To give charity to others, in an arranged, socially accepted manner, is to do justice – and to do justice is to manifest the equilibrium of love. Indeed, the more we realise this, the more deeply we are able to access truth, to plumb the depths of sadaqa. Charity is thus a means of approaching Truth.
Charity is a function of our humanity, and is a means of enhancing relationships with others. This is why the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) speaks of sadaqa in terms of its social utility, as in the following examples:
‘Charity given to one’s relatives twice multiplies its reward’ (al-Tabarani)
‘A kind word is charity’ (al-Bukhari and Muslim)
‘God has never dignified anyone due to his ignorance, nor humiliated anyone due to his knowledge. And wealth is never diminished as a result of charity’ (al-Daylami)
‘Two qualities are never coupled in a believer: miserlinenss and immorality’ (al-Bukhari)
This verse also points towards a deeper, existential truth: we are utterly dependent upon God in every aspect of our lives, in each new moment and place. This becomes clear when we look again at this verse:
‘Sadaqat is only for al-fuqara’ and al-masakin…’
Fuqara’ means those who are absolutely poor, without any other means, whilst masakin means those who are destitute, and therefore weak. Elsewhere, the Quran describes this poverty and weakness in interesting terms:
‘O mankind! You are those in need of God (literally, ‘you are the fuqara’), and God is the Free of Need (al-Ghani), the Praiseworthy (al-Hamid)’ 35:15
In other words, poverty and utter dependence are the hallmarks of the human relationship with God. Not only does God give us all that we need, we are also dependent upon God in each new moment. That the verse before us should come in Surah Tawba, or the Chapter of Repentance, is also significant – especially when it is remembered that classical Sufism understood tawba as the first stage of the spiritual journey.
Our poverty and God’s overflowing grace forms a relationship, and our breath is a living moment by moment transcription of this reality. That is, we can experience this now, in our very breath. Mevlevi tradition uses breathing techniques in its formal zikr, especially connected to the testimony of faith (the shahadah) – la ilaha illa Allah. With each exhalaltion, the practice is to breathe la ilaha (‘there is no god…’) as a means of letting go of every limitation, of realising our utter contingency. Each inhalation is accompanied by illa Allah (‘except God’) – in which our chest fills with God-given breath, with an organic awareness of Divine presence. This verse alludes to this process: we acknowledge our dependence on God, we literally breathe it by emptying and we receive a new in-breath, from the Infinite Tresuries of God, al-Ghani al-Hamid.
May God help us become open handed! May God help us realise the truth of our dependence upon Him, in each new new moment and circumstance.
Wa akhiru da`wana an il hamdu lillahi rabbil alameen.