Q: Giving alms and charity and feeding the poor is highly recommended in the Qur’an and the Hadith. Does it not encourage pauperism in the community? As a result of this we frequently see people who are physically and mentally fit and able to work but they prefer to resort to pauperism as an easy way of making money. There are always reports about beggars amassing a great wealth out of what they get from other people. As you realize, pauperism has been abolished by law in many civilized countries. Why then is the Islamic world lagging behind in eradicating this awful social evil which injures the human dignity to a great extent? Can we set certain parameters to allow certain categories to live on charity on a license?
A: Perhaps people have some justification in thinking that the Muslim community is one in which beggars go around in the streets, always relying on Muslims’ unfailing charitable sense. It is indeed this permanently alert sense of charity that leads to the cases which you have mentioned of those who beg, pretending to be very poor, yet amassing a great wealth. But is this truly the sort of behavior Islam encourages or even approves?
One thing is certain: Islam finds poverty repugnant and does not allow its followers to accept it as a matter of fact, but requires them to take positive action to stamp it out. Islam has in fact put in place specific legislation to combat poverty and ensure its eradication. That legislation is embodied in the provision governing zakah which is the third pillar upon which the structure of Islam is built. Every Muslim is liable to pay zakah provided that he is in possession of an amount of money which exceeds the threshold of zakah. A specific percentage is required to be put aside immediately once a person becomes liable to pay zakah. It should be pointed out that zakah is not a favor granted by the rich to the poor, nor is it a voluntary charity which makes the poor keenly aware they need to receive favors from the rich. Zakah is indeed an act of worship required of all Muslims provided that they meet certain conditions.
In the fulfillment of this religious duty of zakah, Islam treats the person who pays zakah and the one who receives it as equal. Both seek to win Allah’s pleasure. The payer by the fulfillment of his duty, setting aside every year the amount of zakah he is required to pay and ensuring its payment to those who deserve it, and the recipient by trying to maintain the straight path of Islam as he goes about meeting the needs of his family.
The eight classes of beneficiaries of zakah are outlined in verse 60 of surah 9 which may be given in translation as follows:
“Charitable alms may only be paid to the poor, and the needy, and those who are employed (to conduct its collection and distribution), and those whose hearts are to be won over, and for the freeing of slaves, and relieving insolvent debtors, and for serving Allah’s cause, and to help stranded wayfarers. It is a binding duty imposed by Allah, and Allah is well knowing, wise.”
When you look at those eight classes of people, perhaps the first thing to draw your attention is that those engaged in the collection and distribution of zakah are to be paid from zakah funds. This is what we mean by the system being self-financing. The system looks after those who are chronically attached to whom reference is made in the first two beneficiaries, and it looks after those whose need is accidental, such as stranded wayfarers and who have incurred debts but cannot pay them back. In addition to payment for the freeing of slaves (and slaves no longer exist in society), the system also addressed certain tasks that serve the Muslim community as a whole.
Islam does not like that a certain group in society continues to depend on zakah. It wants poverty to be terminated. Hence, the poor are given enough to meet their needs. Moreover, a poor person who is able to work is helped to find employment. This is a far cry from the picture you have painted of paupers roaming the streets in a Muslim community. Indeed, Islam does not approve of begging. It makes it a sin that a person should beg when he has enough to satisfy his immediate needs.
All begging is forbidden in Islam except in one of three situations, as outlined by the Prophet who says: “Begging is not permissible except for one of three: a man who has taken upon himself a large payment (for a good purpose such as achieving peace between two warring tribes), he may ask others for help until he can fulfill his pledge; a man who has suffered a disaster that has left him without money, so he may ask other people’s help until he can meet his needs by himself, and a man who has suffered a financial loss to an extent that makes three wise people in his community say that he has suffered such a loss. He may ask other people’s help until he can get his situation straightened.” (Related by Muslim)
This is clear that it is not permissible from the Islamic point of view to beg. We on our part, must not encourage beggars unless we know that the person who is asking for help belongs to one of the three types that are allowed to seek other people’s help.
We can say with all certainty that if Islam is properly implemented in a community, that community will steadily progress towards the eradication of poverty, until all its people attain the standard of self-sufficiency.