Charitable giving in Islam

Azim Nanji

Compassion, social justice, sharing and strengthening – all these are encompassed in the Quranic articulation of the ethical concept of charitable giving. This ethic aims not only to correct social ills but also to reflect the moral and spiritual value attached to the use of wealth, resources and effort for the welfare of individuals and communities.

‘We believe in Allah and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Isma`il, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus and that given to (all) Prophets from their Lord; we make no difference between one and another of them, and we bow to Allah (in Islam).’  (Q2:136)

‘The parable of those who spend their substance in the way of Allah is that of a grain of corn: it grows seven ears and each ear has a hundred grains … Those who spend their substance in the cause of Allah, and do not follow up their gifts with reminders of their generosity or with injury, for them their reward is with their Lord; on them shall be no fear nor shall they grieve. Kind words and the covering of faults are better than charity followed by injury. Allah is free of all wants, and he is Most Forbearing.’

‘The Prophet, peace be upon him, said, "Charity is obligatory every day on every joint of a human being. If one helps a person in matters concerning his riding animal by helping him to ride it or by lifting his luggage on to it, all this will be regarded charity. A good word, and every step one takes to offer the compulsory congregational prayer, is regarded as charity; and guiding somebody on the road is regarded as charity."’ (Sahih Al Bukhari, narrated by Abu Huraira)

The Quranic perspective on the sharing of wealth and resources is rooted in certain essential ideals:

The absence of a dichotomy between spiritual and material endeavours in human life. Acts sanctioned as part of faith are linked to the daily conditions of life in the world.

The nature, purpose and function of the Muslim community (Umma). The Umma is perceived as ‘the best of communities created to commit to the good and to struggle against the bad’ (Q3:110).

The trusteeship of wealth and property. Those who possess wealth are accountable for the way in which it is earned and expended.

These essential ideals, among others, establish the basis for both the underlying moral sense and the actual practice of charitable giving in Islam.

The Muslim community

The Umma is not merely a religious community in a narrow sense. Historically, it also represented a context where moral and social values of the faith could be translated into action as the Muslim community expanded through conversion and conquest. As giving and ethics became integrally connected to evolving Muslim practice, procedures for collection and distribution of individual charitable giving gradually became institutionalized.

According to the Quran, true sovereignty belongs to God. The Prophet [peace be upon him], his successors, the community and even the state act merely as the instruments by which moral and spiritual ideals can be translated into society. Individuals within society are trustees through whom the moral and spiritual vision of the Quran is fulfilled in personal and community life. They are thus accountable for the way they use their resources and wealth, and they earn religious merit by utilizing them in a socially beneficial way. The Quran emphasizes social solidarity as an ideal that enjoins both justice and generosity (Q16:90). While condemning the hoarders of wealth (Q3:180), it upholds as truly virtuous those who spend from their resources to assist others (Q57:18).

The necessity and value of giving are articulated in the Quran through a number of terms. The meanings of these terms are integrated with one another, and they are often used interchangeably. The most significant terms are sadaqa and zakat.


While the word sadaqa and its various forms have come to be interpreted in the more restricted sense of voluntary rather than obligatory giving, in its original context sadaqa reflects the idea of righteousness or truth, endowing acts of giving with moral agency.

Many derivatives of sadaqa are found in the Quran. One passage (Q9:104-5) links God’s acceptance of repentance with sadaqa, thus suggesting its value as an expiation. Such a theme is further extended by linking fasting and sadaqa (Q2:196) as ways of fulfilling obligations of the Hajj (Pilgrimage) if, for example, illness prevents its completion. Thus not every sadaqa needs to be a gift of material value. It can also consist of voluntary effort freely given (Q9:79).

The Quran is critical of those who give in order to appear generous. Sadaqa is better given discreetly to those in need rather than for the purpose of public acknowledgement (Q2:271). In fact, ostentatious public behaviour renders a charitable act self-serving, thereby negating or compromising its value (Q2:264).

The Quran not only elaborates the uses to which sadaqa may be put, but also specifies the types of recipient who ought to benefit from it (Q9:60). Worthy recipients include those afflicted by poverty and those in need and incapable of assisting themselves.


Over time, the term zakat came to be distinguished by Muslim jurists from sadaqa and conceived as obligatory almsgiving. This restricted sense is not obvious in the Quran, where the term is often used interchangeably with sadaqa (eg Q9:60).

As used in the Quran, zakat suggests that giving is simultaneously cleansing of oneself and one’s property; through sharing, it enhances the capacity of others. This kind of giving is compared in the Quran to rain that further nourishes a fertile garden whose yield is doubled (Q2:265). The word zakat is explicitly linked to other primary acts of belief and practice of the faith, further extending the principle of almsgiving and intertwining the practice of sadaqa and zakat.

It was prophetic practice that provided indications for the more specific institutionalization and modes of collection of zakat. In general, one was to give according to one’s capacity, based on what had been generated from resources in one’s possession. While generosity is commended, due attention to family as well as personal needs is also emphasized.

Giving is also associated with reward from God in the verse that urges individuals to offer God ‘a beautiful loan’, which through God’s bounty will be multiplied many times over (Q2:245; Q57:11). Since God is deemed to be the ultimate giver, such offerings are interpreted merely as acts of returning to God what is ultimately due to His generosity.

The institutionalisation of Quranic values

With the growth of the Muslim Umma in Medina, procedures for the collection and distribution of sadaqa and zakat were elaborated within the interconnected and evolving political, moral and social order. In an essay exploring the use of the Quranic term Haqq (the real or the true), Clifford Geertz remarks that the interconnectedness of ‘the right’ and ‘the real’ is a constant in all aspects of the application of Islamic ideals to society.[1]

By the time of the Prophet’s death in 632CE a framework of practices governing the collection and distribution of the sadaqa and zakat contributions had already developed. The record of this period suggests that the early Muslim community oversaw and directed the assessment, collection and distribution of dues, entrusting specially appointed collectors to distribute the dues to the intended recipients. Even in the Prophet’s time giving was not left simply at the level of voluntary action; attempts were made to create an institutional structure. Shia sources also emphasize the need to entrust zakat to the rightful authorities.

This effort to create a fiscal framework for the use of such donations in keeping with Quranic values is articulated more elaborately in the juristic literature produced by succeeding generations of Muslim scholars and jurists. Zakat thus becomes an obligatory contribution while sadaqa is conceived of as supererogatory – beyond the demands of duty.

In distinguishing between zakat and sadaqa, jurists pointed out that while the former had limits attached to it and its uses were specified, sadaqa could be unlimited. The Shii Imam, Jafar al-Sadiq, is said to have emphasized that sadaqa spent in the way of God includes a variety of good works. Moreover, there are no constraints regarding to whom sadaqa can be given. Jurists often cite the Quranic narrative of Joseph in which his brothers, not aware of his true identity, ask him for charity to help the family in their time of temporary distress (Q12:88) as an example of sadaqa.

The model of the Prophet

Early Muslim scholars devoted significant effort to developing as complete a picture as possible of the Prophet’s life, actions and words in the hadith, the accounts transmitted by his family, companions and others from the early generations of Muslims. Scholars then developed this record of his life into an exemplary precedent, the Sunna, a moral and ethical reference point for the community.

In some of the hadith, sadaqa encompasses every good deed and all kinds of assistance, even removing an obstacle from the road that would hinder travellers. It also includes actions such as the planting of things from which human beings, birds and animals might benefit in the future. Some of the Prophet’s sayings emphasize the non-monetary and non-material value of almsgiving, so that a poor man’s offering of a small amount is deemed to be more meritorious than a rich person’s donation of a large sum. The Prophet’s own behaviour was perceived as exemplary in the matter of almsgiving and his generous and selfless behaviour a model to be emulated.

Endowments (awqaf)

Among the institutions that developed out of Prophetic precedent were those that expressed the Quranic value of ‘gifting to God a beautiful loan’ (Q73:20; 64:17). Such acts of giving, which placed resources such as land or buildings into perpetual trust for charitable uses, became a very important part of Muslim practice. These pious endowments (awqaf; singular waqf) allowed a founder to extend his or her giving beyond the immediately visible objects of charity and even beyond the lifetime of the founder.

Endowments were used to endow mosques, madrasas (centres of learning), hospitals, water fountains and other facilities that were beneficial for the public. Notable Muslims, descendants of the Prophet, and many women contributed significantly to their community and the larger society through these philanthropic works. Such acts and their benefits were not restricted to Muslims. Certain narratives of the Prophet’s life as well as Quranic verses indicate that both Muslims and non-Muslims can be beneficiaries of charitable acts and gifts, just as they are encouraged to give alms and establish charitable works to benefit the communities of which they are a part. Indeed, the waqf came to be considered the true institutional expression of the precept so often mentioned in the Quran of expending even the treasured portions of one’s possessions for good causes.

The connection between the many Quranic verses on expending effort and wealth for good causes ‘in the way of God’ and the waqf became so well established that tasbil (‘to set [something] in a path or way’) became synonymous with tauqif (to establish a waqf). In modern Arabic, tasbil has virtually no other meaning.

Despite some disagreement between early jurists, the one absolutely cardinal point on which all jurists agree is that the basic purpose of the waqf is ‘a good work’ (qurbah, literally, ‘closeness’) or ‘an approach to God’ (taqarrub).

The institution was so extensively used in most Islamic societies that it became an important instrument for binding society together. Even the lives of the humble were integrated into society by the waqf. With so much wealth tied up in them, awaqf could become important instruments of civil society if they were well administered and used for the public good (and not just for the perpetuation of family wealth).

When in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, nation-states assumed control of awqaf to a degree virtually unknown in earlier Islamic societies, many Muslims abandoned this major form of institutional charity, deeply wounding a valuable, flourishing tradition of civil society in the Muslim world.

Modern contexts

Practices such as zakat, sadaqa and the waqf offer opportunities to rethink the relevance of historical social welfare and charitable practices in contemporary Muslim social and economic life. As the majority of Muslims live in what is considered the developing world, the fundamental Quranic values of social justice and equitable distribution of resources should figure prominently in discussions of the relevance of religion to public policies and of private philanthropic action to the welfare of society.

Some modern Muslim thinkers have advocated the integration of zakat into the overall tax system in Muslim countries to develop further the ideal social welfare state. In recent times, Sudan and Pakistan have adopted specific policies to incorporate zakat into their fiscal framework rather than leave it as a private and personal. In the case of Pakistan, a zakat fund was created in 1979 to disburse mandatory contributions through a centralized state bureaucracy for a variety of causes. Other Muslim countries endowed with greater wealth or natural resources have implemented policies of providing assistance, in the context of zakat, to poorer Muslim countries.

It is within the framework of voluntary giving, however, that the most innovative and sustainable adaptations of the Quranic spirit have occurred. Many Muslims in many parts of the world, individually or as a community, have translated Quranic philanthropic values – along with broader humanistic values of compassion and service – into voluntary associations and charitable organizations. They generally target the most vulnerable groups in societies: the poor, the unemployed, women and children and, increasingly, refugees and victims of war and violence.

1 C Geertz (1983) Local Knowledge New York: Basic Books, p 189. Other Western scholars of Muslim civilization, including the late Marshall Hodgson, have made much the same point.

Professor Azim Nanji is Director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies, London. He would like to thank Professor Roy Parviz Mottahedeh (Harvard University) for his contribution on waqf, and Professor Abdulaziz Sachedina (University of Virginia), Professor Muhammad Khalid Masud (International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, Leiden), and Mr Arif Jamal (Institute of Ismaili Studies) for their valuable suggestions and assistance in reviewing the paper.

For more information please contact the Institute of Ismaili Studies, 42–44 Grosvenor Gardens, London SW1W 0EB, UK.
Tel +44 207 881 6000
Fax +44 207 881 6040

Professor Nanji can be contacted via email at

Aga Khan Foundation

The Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) is a private, non-denominational development agency established by His Highness the Aga Khan in 1967. Its mission is to promote creative and effective solutions to problems that impede social development, primarily in Asia and East Africa. It is a modern vehicle for traditional philanthropy in the Ismaili Muslim community, of which the Aga Khan is the 49th hereditary Imam, or spiritual leader.

Created under Swiss law, the AKF has branches in seven countries (Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Tanzania and Uganda) and independent affiliates in a further four (UK, Canada, USA and Portugal). It currently has 120 projects in 12 countries; programme interests include health, education, rural development and NGO enhancement. Its budget for 1999 is $87 million, which comes from the Aga Khan, public donations, and grants from multinational, bilateral and private development agencies.

One of the Foundation’s advantages is its membership in the Aga Khan Development Network, a group of agencies working to improve living conditions and opportunities in specific regions of the developing world. Their separate mandates range from education and health to architecture, rural development and the promotion of private sector enterprise.

Inspiration for the creation of these institutions, some of them over 100 years old, derives from the Muslim ethic of compassion for the most vulnerable in society. Network institutions draw on the Ismaili community’s traditions of philanthropy, volunteerism, self-help, education and social welfare. In every country, they work for the common good of all citizens, regardless of their origin or religion.

For further information about AKF contact Communications Director Katherine Hinckley at the Geneva headquarters.
Tel +41 22 909 7210
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Muslim scholar

Praise is to Allah for the awareness, the motivation of this article. May Allah continue to bless you in the use of the pen and in other activities.

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