What Does It Mean to Be Charitable?

It might sound weird, but even though I’d been a Christian all my life until I converted to Islam, I’ve never gotten into the habit of giving to others. Oh, I’d do anything for anyone who approached me for help, but I never systematically gave to any organization or individual, except for the offerings I gave at church.

Christians are supposed to tithe 10% of their income (it’s not clear whether that’s net or gross), but the closest I ever came to that was when I pledged to give a set amount each year. But it wasn’t 10%. From time to time we would have extra collections for special causes. But there’s less emphasis on the individual giving directly to other individuals.  Most denominations have committees that direct their charitable and missionary activities. Christians are used to giving to the church and letting the church decide how the money is going to be spent.

Nor have I done much volunteer work. When I was married to my first husband, the minister, I went on mission trips with the youth group to help the poor in rural Tennessee, but that was part of my “job” as a minister’s wife. I used to give gifts to children at the local children’s home every Christmas. But that was about it.

Now I belong to a religion which sets charity on a equal footing with my confession of faith, my daily prayers, fasting and the holy pilgrimage to Mecca. Especially during Ramadan. I am to be generous in aid and hospitality to family and friends and to the poor. And I haven’t the slightest idea how to start.

I know there is something called zakat, which is 2.5% of one’s wealth to be spent to alleviate the suffering of the poor and eliminate inequality. Since I don’t understand exactly what constitutes “wealth,” I don’t know how to figure the amount I’m supposed to contribute. But even if I wasn’t required to pay one penny in zakat, I’m still mandated to practice charity. Paying zakat doesn’t let me off the hook, the way paying your tithe or pledge does in Christian churches.

That doesn’t mean that Christians are not supposed to personally help others. After all, there’s the story of the Good Samaritan in the New Testament. It’s quite clear from that story that Jesus (pbuh) felt the same way about charity as Muslims do. (Small wonder, since Muslims believe that Jesus was one of Allah’s prophets.)

So, what qualifies as charity in the eyes of Allah? I know that the Prophet (pbuh) considered even the way we treat others as a form of charity. Treating others kindly is something I can do. But if I’m going to be serious about being a Muslim, I feel that I have to do far more than be a nice person.

My temptation is to find something to donate money to and let those organizations do all the work. And I’m sure that would be acceptable. But how much better it would be if I, as a Muslim, actually gave of my time and energy to do something for others, especially if those I help are not necessarily Muslims? Then I could practice charity and da’wa at the same time.

I pray that Allah would show me what He would have me do, that He will give me the strength to do it, and that I will let go of my self-centeredness and willingly open myself up to other people, Insha’allah.