They ask you what they should spend [in charity]. Say, ‘Anything good you spend of your wealth should go to parents and the near of kin, to orphans and the needy, and to travellers in need. God is well aware of whatever good you do.’ (215)
Fighting is ordained for you, even though it is hateful to you. But it may well be that you hate a thing while it is good for you, and it may well be that you love a thing while it is bad for you. God knows, whereas you do not know. (216)
They ask you about fighting in the sacred month. Say, ‘Fighting in it is a grave offence, but to turn people away from God’s path, to disbelieve in Him and in the Sacred Mosque, and to expel its people from it — [all this] is far more grave in God’s sight.’ Religious persecution is worse than killing. They shall not cease to fight you until they force you to renounce your faith, if they can. But whoever of you renounces his faith and dies an unbeliever, his works shall come to nothing in this world and in the world to come. Such people are destined for hell, wherein they shall abide. (217)
Those who have believed and those who have forsaken their homeland and striven hard for God’s cause are indeed the ones who may look forward to God’s mercy. God is much-Forgiving, Merciful. (218)
They ask you about intoxicants and games of chance. Say, ‘In both there is great evil although they have some benefits for people, but their evil is far greater than their benefit.’ They ask you what they should spend in charity; say, ‘Whatever you can spare.’ Thus God makes plain His revelations so that you may reflect (219)
upon this life and the life to come. They ask you about orphans; say, ‘To improve their conditions is best. If you mix their affairs with yours, remember that they are your brothers. God knows him who spoils things and him who improves. Had God so willed, He would indeed have overburdened you. God is indeed Almighty, Wise.’ (220)
The most notable feature of the next passage is that it deals with specific religious rulings. These come in the form of answers to questions, reflecting a degree of alertness in the Muslim community, and an eagerness to know and understand the requirements and obligations of their new faith. It shows a desire on their part to live up to the demands of Islam in every aspect of everyday life. This is indeed the mark of a true Muslim: to learn Islamic rulings with respect to every detail, no matter how trivial. No action is taken before establishing the position of Islam on it: if sanctioned and approved, it becomes part of a Muslim’s way of life; otherwise, it is shunned and avoided. This sensitivity is second nature to every true Muslim.
Questions were raised as a result of hostile propaganda spread by some Arabian Jews, hypocrites, and unbelievers among the Arabs. Muslims would then put those questions to the Prophet Muĥammad, either to seek clarification or to dispel doubts stirred by that poisonous propaganda. Revelation would often be received by the Prophet giving comprehensive and final answers. This process informs and educates the Muslims about their religion and pre-empts any hostile schemes or designs being contemplated against them.
This illustrates the dynamics of the battles the Qur’ān was fighting to enlighten individual Muslims and to reinforce the Muslim community in combating outside threats.
This passage covers questions relating to charity: what and how much should be given and to whom. There are questions on fighting during the sacred months, drinking and gambling, and the treatment of orphans. We will discuss the reasons that gave rise to these questions as we discuss the relevant verses.
Balancing Kindness and Personal Preferences
They ask you what they should spend [in charity]. Say, Anything good you spend of your wealth should go to parents and the near of kin, to orphans and the needy, and to travellers in need. God is well aware of whatever good you do. (Verse 215)
The subject of charity had already been dealt with in several Qur’ānic passages that preceded the revelation of the present verse. The circumstances that witnessed the birth of Islam made voluntary financial contributions by Muslims absolutely essential in order for the community to emerge and consolidate its position, considering the great difficulties and threat of war it was facing. It was also essential as an expression of solidarity and cohesion within the community, and to eliminate inequality and reinforce loyalty and self-sufficiency. All these are indispensable qualities for building up a true and practical sense of community among the Muslims.
At this point we are told that some Muslims asked “what they should spend [in charily].” (Verse 215) The question is about the type of money Muslims may give in charity. The reply speaks of the nature of charitable spending and defines the most important beneficiaries. The phraseology of the answer, “Say, ‘Anything good you spend of your wealth,’“ indicates, first of all, that whatever is given in charity is good for the donor, the recipient and the community as a whole. It is good in itself and it is done for good reasons. It also implies that people should give from the best of what they have and share it with others. As well as benefitting the needy, this would purify the donor’s heart and soul and give charity and altruism real meaning.
However, giving from the best of what one has is not a condition of generosity, as the Qur’ān urges elsewhere that people should give from neither the best nor the worst, but from the average, of what they have. In its inimitable style, the Qur’ān in the present passage is aiming to persuade people to rise to a higher level of excellence and generosity by giving what is closer and dearer to their hearts.
As to whom charity should be directed, the verse explains: “to parents and the near of kin, to orphans and the needy, and to travellers in need” The verse gives a list of categories of people brought together through ties of family, kinship, compassion, and an integral strong framework of human social welfare, nurtured and promoted by religious faith.
This relationship was further defined by the Prophet who was reported to have said: “Start by being charitable to yourself. If you have something left, then to your immediate family. When you have something left after having looked after your family, then give to your relatives. If you have more, then to all others.” [Related by Muslim]
This example reveals the Islamic highly effective and common sense approach in guiding human individuals. It begins from man’s natural aptitudes and inclinations and takes him gradually and gently upwards to where it wants him to be. As he progresses and improves his human condition, he would not find himself overstrained or being forcibly dragged to fulfill his duties, or find that his natural needs and talents are being suppressed or thwarted. While his eyes and aspirations are cast as high as possible, and his heart and soul reach out towards God Almighty, man’s feet would be set firmly on the ground.
God knows that human beings tend to be selfish, and so He directs them to see to their own needs before those of others. God allows man to enjoy the good things of life, in moderation, and only when man has looked properly after himself does God direct him to be charitable towards others. The Prophet Muĥammad is quoted as saying: “The most noble charity is that made once one’s own needs are fulfilled; the upper (giving) hand is better than the lower (receiving) hand. Start with your dependants.” [Related by Muslim] Jābir ibn `Abdullāh, a Companion of the Prophet, reports: “A man once offered a lump of gold, the size of an egg, to the Prophet saying that he is giving it for charity and that it was all he had, but the Prophet turned away from him. The man came to the Prophet again from the right, then from the left, then from the back, saying the same thing. Every time the Prophet turned away from him. At last the Prophet took the lump of gold and threw it at him. Had it hit him, he would have been hurt. The Prophet then said, ‘A person would come with all he possesses and say he wants to give it away to charity. He then goes to beg from others. The best charity is that made when one’s own needs have been fulfilled.” [Related by Abū Dāwūd]
God also knows that human beings favour their immediate family and relatives, their parents and children, and so He urges them to give willingly to these relatives, thereby satisfying a natural human tendency, which is both legitimate and sensible, while benefitting a section of the community. For, unless these relatives are helped they would continue to be a burden on the rest of society, and it is far more dignified for them to be cared for by members of their own family. This is bound to bring people closer together and spread love and harmony within immediate and extended families, the vital nucleus of the larger human society.
Beyond that, man is required to show generosity towards a whole range of other human groups such as young orphans and those members of society who are helpless but are too sensitive to ask for help. Another group are those stranded travellers or immigrants, some of whom may be well-off but for reasons beyond their control are unable to have access to their money. The first Muslim community in Madinah had a sizeable section of such people, most of whom were migrants from Makkah who had left all their belongings behind.
All these are members of the Muslim community and Islam urges the well-off to act charitably towards them. It encourages people’s natural kindness and good-will to purify the hearts and souls of the donors, who give generously and willingly, and to ensure the welfare of those in need, thereby achieving greater cohesion and solidarity among the community in a smooth, fair and equitable manner.
The verse goes on to link such commendable charity with God Almighty, saying: “God is well aware of whatever good you do.” (Verse 215) God is aware of the deed as well as of the intention behind it. Thus, it will not go to waste. He has taken note of it and, being just, He will give a suitable reward for it.
This educational approach directs man’s heart and soul towards God Almighty with ease and deliberation. It picks man up from wherever he is and takes him to far wider horizons of civility and humanity which he would never reach without God’s guidance and grace.
What Things We May Love
The next verse deals with the duty of taking up arms for a legitimate cause: “Fighting is ordained for you, even though it is hateful to you. But it may well be that you hate a thing while it is good for you, and it may well be that you love a thing while it is bad for you. God knows, whereas you do not know.” (Verse 216)
To take up arms in support of a cause blessed by God is a demanding duty, but is nevertheless necessary because it serves the good of Muslim individuals and communities as well as that of mankind as a whole. It also underpins what is good and right.
As with all the obligations it prescribes, Islam takes into account the limits of human nature. In the case of war, it does not only acknowledge the efforts and the sacrifices it demands, but also man’s instinctive reluctance to prosecute it. Islam does not deny, contradict or suppress human nature, but always seeks an appropriate approach to deal with the issues it proposes. It clearly allows for the fact that certain obligations in this life are demanding, unappealing or even detestable, but at the same time it indicates that there is a greater cause to be served by fulfilling them, which might not be readily obvious to the human mind, finite as it is. It opens up new avenues of hope and achievement. For, no one can tell for certain whether there is not some unforeseen good beyond an impending evil. Only God, the omniscient, knows the future outcome of present actions, and man cannot even pretend to have that privilege.
This comforting thought revives man’s hopes and optimism, drawing him closer to God with more self-confidence and reassurance.
By this effective educational approach, Islam nurtures in man a deeper sense of loyalty and readiness to sacrifice and to scale greater heights of excellence and achievement. It allows him to face his responsibilities with courage and enthusiasm, safe in the knowledge that God’s blessings and support are not far behind. This motivates him to persevere in the face of adversity, because a pleasant and favourable outcome might be waiting for him. It also restrains man’s cravings so that he is not carried away by his pleasures and desires, which could end in pain and sorrow.
It is a remarkably simple, but profound, approach that is in harmony with human nature and honest in addressing it. It is undeniable that man, weak and short-sighted as he is, would reject something which is in fact good for him, or covet something which is in fact evil and harmful. The fact is that God alone has knowledge of everything; people are often ignorant or hampered by prejudice and their own shortcomings.
This opens up a whole new world, hitherto unknown, and brings to light new factors of cause and effect, into which man’s fears, hopes and behaviour blend smoothly, under God’s benevolent and omniscient presence. By accepting the fact that whatever God ordains is always for the best, man enters a world of total serenity, security and faith. It is the world of peace which God has recommended to the believers even as He calls upon them to take up arms and fight, because real peace is that of the soul and the conscience that on experiences in the heat of battle.
The implications of this Qur’ānic principle are not limited to fighting, which is only one example of a necessary evil that may ultimately result in something good, but extend to all aspects of a believer’s life. The Muslims who left Madinah, on the eve of the Battle of Badr in 624 CE, to intercept the Quraysh trade caravan traveling from Syria to Makkah, were hoping that they would take it over without having to fight. However, God willed it that the caravan would escape and the Muslims find themselves facing the Quraysh army which was intent on subduing them. The outcome was a resounding victory for Islam and the Muslims which was infinitely better than the trade caravan and its valuable commodities. What the Muslims aimed for was much inferior to what God had in store for them. God knows and people do not.
In an episode involving the Prophet Moses, the Qur’ān tells us how, as he embarked on a journey accompanied by his boy servant, the boy unwittingly left heir provisions of fish behind and it found its way back into the sea. The narrative goes on, saying: “And after they had marched on for some distance, Moses said to his servant: ‘Bring us our mid-day meal; we are indeed worn out by this our journey’ Said [the servant]: Do you recall when we betook ourselves to that rock for rest. There I forgot the fish — and none but Satan made me thus forget to mention it! — and it took its way into the sea. How strange! [Moses] said: “That is [the place] we are seeking!’ So they turned back, retracing their footsteps, and found one of Our servants, on whom We had bestowed Our mercy and whom We had endowed with knowledge of Our own.” (18: 62-65) What seemed an oversight by the servant turned out to be a fortunate turn of events that brought Moses into contact with the learned man, which was the very purpose of the journey.
We could all recall instances, from personal experience, in which we dreaded certain situations that had turned out to be of great benefit, as well as others which looked appealing and lucrative but ended in disaster. Often, people bitterly regret missing out on certain things, but as time goes by they realize that God had spared them certain adverse consequences; while others undergo intense suffering that could drive them to the edge of despair, but would eventually bring opportunities of incredible happiness and prosperity.
Man simply cannot pretend to know where his good lies, but God knows for certain, a fact that man must accept and act upon by submitting himself to God alone. This is what the Qur’ān teaches, and this is the approach it adopts to convince people to submit to the will and judgement of God Almighty.
Fighting in the Sacred Months
They ask you about fighting in the sacred month. Say, ‘Fighting in it is a grave offence, but to turn people away from God’s path, to disbelieve in Him and in the Sacred Mosque, and to expel its people from it — [all this] is far more grave in God’s sight.’ Religious persecution is worse than killing. They shall not cease to fight you until they force you to renounce your faith, if they can. But whoever of you renounces his faith and dies an unbeliever, his works shall come to nothing in this world and in the world to come. Such people are destined for hell, wherein they shall abide. (Verse 217)
Several reports indicate that these verses were revealed in connection with an expedition of eight Muslims from the Muhājirūn [i.e. those who migrated with the Prophet to Madinah], led by `Abdullāh ibn Jaĥsh, dispatched by the Prophet Muĥammad prior to the great Battle of Badr, with sealed instructions and ordered not to open them before the company had travelled for two nights. When opened, the instructions read as follows: “When you have read this letter of mine proceed until you reach the Nakhlah valley, between Makkah and Ţā’if. Once there, monitor the movements of the Quraysh and gather news of their activities. Do not force any of your men to go with you.”
On reading those instructions, `Abdullāh ibn Jaĥsh, the group commander, said, “To hear is to obey.” He informed his Companions, giving them the choice to join him or return to Madinah. They all agreed to go ahead. They took a route through the Ĥijāz, but on the way the camel mounted by Sa`d ibn Abī Waqqāş and `Utbah ibn Ghazwān went missing and they stayed behind to look for it. The other six went on and, as they reached the valley, a small trade caravan belonging to the Quraysh, passed by. Four people, including `Amr ibn al-Ĥadramī, were travelling with it. The task force attacked it, killing `Amr ibn al-Ĥadramī and apprehending two of the other three men, while the fourth escaped. They did this thinking it was the last day of Jumādā II, whereas in fact it was the first day of Rajab, one of the months recognized as sacred by the Arabs, when no fighting may take place, and whose sanctity was endorsed by Islam.
When the expedition returned to Madinah, the Prophet said to them, “I never ordered you to fight during the sacred month,” and refused to accept the caravan or the two prisoners. Members of the expedition were reproached by their fellow Muslims and they were in despair, while the Quraysh accused the Prophet and his followers of violating a sacred month by killing one man, abducting two others, and seizing the caravan. Some Jews in Madinah saw the incident as an omen of impending war between the Muslims and the Quraysh.
The atmosphere became charged with intrigue and propaganda. The Muslims were depicted as self-serving renegades who would not hesitate to violate age-old sanctities. It was at that point that the revelations were received confirming the sanctity of the sacred months and condemning all acts of killing during them, but putting the whole episode involving the expedition in the right perspective.
It was the unbelievers who had declared war against the Muslims, rather than the other way round. They obstructed the spread of Islam, and spared no effort in turning people away from it, resorting to oppression and persecution. They refused to believe in God or respect the Sacred Mosque. Over a period of thirteen long years, they repeatedly violated the sanctity of Makkah by their relentless and violent opposition to Islam and by persecuting Muslim converts whom they had eventually driven out of their homes and families.
These vile and shameless acts the pagan Arabs had perpetrated against Islam and the Muslims were far more grievous violations of the sanctity of the Sacred Mosque and the sacred months. They persecuted people in order to force them to renounce their faith. That is a much more grievous crime. The smoke screen had fallen down, and the pagan Arabs could no longer hide behind a wall of false piety, putting the Muslims on the defensive and accusing them of the very aggressions they themselves had committed.
Islam is a practical and realistic way of life which is not based on rigid idealistic dogma. It takes life as it is and deals with the realities of problems and situations as and when they arise, and provides practical, effective and realistic solutions.
In this instance, the idolater Arabs were the aggressors, who were seen to treat sanctities of religion and tradition with utter contempt.
They stood in active opposition to Islam, using all forms of intimidation and enticement to disconcert the Muslims, break up their ranks, drive them out of their homes and bar them from their land. At the same time, they falsely claimed the higher moral ground, protesting in the name of religion and accusing Muĥammad and his followers of breaching the sanctity of the sacred months.
How should Islam deal with such people? Should it recommend a utopian approach? It could not possibly advise its followers to stand idle while their opponents were using every available means to stifle them. Islam aims to stamp out oppression and evil, and curtail the powers of aggression and injustice, to allow the good and righteous to prevail and prevent religious sanctities being used as a shield for the perpetration of tyranny and corruption.
Islam assiduously respects those who honour religious sanctities, but it would not allow such sanctities to be used as a pretext for the persecution or suppression of the believers, or to deprive them of their legitimate rights. It further affirms that such acts should not go unpunished.
By the same token, Islam forbids backbiting, slander and injustice, for instance, but makes it clear that this does not apply in cases of people who are known for their corruption or bad reputation, or who commit an injustice. To protect such behaviour is liable to be misconstrued as weakness, and could only encourage further corruption and injustice.
Nevertheless, Islam maintains its own high moral principles and does not recommend resort to the same obscene methods used by its detractors. It simply directs the Muslims to stand up to those who offend against them, and reserves for them the right to appropriately and publicly punish them. It is only when justice is established and wrongdoing is contained that sanctities can be protected and preserved.
Islam is utterly unequivocal on this point. It makes no excuses, nor allows anyone to take advantage of its lenient and tolerant attitude. The Qur’ān, in this instance, provides the Muslim community with the solid ground on which to stand in its fight against evil and corruption. It gives Muslims clear and definite principles to allow them to forge ahead with their mission with certainty, self-assurance and total peace of conscience.
The Ultimate Aim of Islam’s Enemies
The verse then goes on to state, in no uncertain terms, how determined the unbelievers are in pursuing their goal of destroying the Muslims’ faith, saying: “They shall not cease to fight you until they force you to renounce your faith, if they can.” (Verse 217)
This objective is common to all enemies of Islam everywhere, to whom its very existence and success seem to be a source of deep resentment and consternation. They are profoundly alarmed by Islam’s inherent strength and resilience. The clarity of its ideas and the rigour of its principles seem to evoke their displeasure and hostility because Islam represents a bedrock of resistance against falsehood, tyranny and corruption. This morbid attitude towards Islam lies behind most of the hostile and bigoted policies and designs directed against Muslim groups and communities in many parts of the world.
The methods and means of achieving this unholy goal may vary from one case to another, but the aim remains constant: to force Muslims to abandon their faith. This campaign never abates or relaxes. Fresh impetus is added at every stage, and greater resources are deployed whenever deemed necessary.
Hence, the Qur’ān urges caution and persistence, warning of dire consequences if Muslims give in to pressure or relinquish their position. It says: “But whoever of you renounces his faith and dies an unbeliever, his works shall come to nothing in this world and in the world to come. Such people are destined for hell, wherein they shall abide.” (Verse 217)
The Arabic term, ĥabiţat, used to describe the futility of the works of those who renounce their faith, conjures up an image very familiar to the Arabs. It is what happens to a camel that grazes in polluted pastures and ends up with an inflated belly, and dies. The impact of this metaphor could not have been lost on them.
It is almost inconceivable for someone who has truly experienced the faith of Islam to renounce it completely, unless that person has been irredeemably corrupted. Renouncing the faith of Islam, no matter how severe a pressure one is subjected to, can only result in total loss, both in this world as well as in the world to come. This is not to say that it is not justifiable under extreme duress, when one could feign desertion of one’s faith to save oneself from danger or death, while one continues to believe in one’s heart and conscience. Deliberate and conscious apostasy, on the other hand, is a gross and loathsome offence.
The warning given in this verse remains true for the rest of time. Muslims are exhorted never to desert their faith, no matter what difficulties they have to put up with. When they are in difficulty, they should persevere, endure and look to God for help and salvation. No matter what hardships they undergo, Muslims are guaranteed one of two ends: victory or martyrdom.
Above all, there is God’s grace and mercy, reserved for those who struggle for His cause. No one with true faith can ever despair of God’s mercy: “Those who have believed and those who have forsaken their homeland and striven hard for God’s cause are indeed the ones who may look forward to God’s mercy. God is much-Forgiving, Merciful.” (Verse 218)
As long as a believer continues to trust in God’s grace, he shall never be disappointed. Those early Muslims from Makkah, who had given up everything for their faith, lived up to their belief, strove hard, and received the appropriate rewards. They deservedly won God’s forgiveness and mercy, pointing the way to those who would come after them.
The Qur’ānic Method of Education
The sūrah goes on to give the Islamic rulings on drinking and gambling, two of the most popular indulgences among the Arabs at the time, who had little else of importance to occupy their minds or their time:
They ask you about intoxicants and games of chance. Say, ‘In both there is great evil although they have some benefits for people, but their evil is far greater than their benefit. (Verse 219)
Prior to the revelation of this verse, drinking and gambling were tolerated but never condoned. We do not have a single statement in the Qur’ān which may be construed as making them permissible. God, however, carefully charted the way He wanted the newly born Muslim community to take, marking it step by step, so that it would he able to fulfil the role He has assigned to it. The time had to come when such wasteful pastimes would be condemned and rooted out of the Muslim community whose role in the life and history of mankind demanded the dedication and full conscious participation of everyone in that community. Unlike godless societies, past, present and future, a Muslim community has no room for escapism or excessive diversions. The Qur’ānic approach in banning these practices was measured and deliberate.
This statement was’ the first step towards a universal ban on drinking and gambling in Muslim society. While good and evil could often intermingle and be confused with one another, making it impossible in the human world for things to be purely good or purely evil, the main criteria for whether something could be permissible or prohibited is the preponderance of good or evil associated with it. This statement is a good example of the judicious Qur’ānic approach discernible in many Islamic legal and practical rulings and teachings.
We often find that in matters of faith or abstract belief, Islam gives specific and definite pronouncements, but when it comes to matters of tradition or complex social practices, it takes a more pragmatic and measured approach, preparing the ground for smoother adoption and implementation.
On the question of God’s oneness, for example, Islam gave its final ruling right at the outset, without any hesitation or room for compromise. That is an essential question of faith. Unless the concept of God’s oneness is firmly established in a community, it cannot be truly Islamic.
Drinking and gambling are well-entrenched social habits that require careful treatment. The first step was to raise in people’s minds an inner consciousness of their harmful effects, advising that they would be better avoided. The second step came later on, which directed Muslims: “Believers, do not attempt to pray when you are drunk, [but wait] until you know what you are saying.” (4: 43)
There are five prayers to be performed at set times every day. The time interval between one prayer and the next is not long enough for a drinking person to regain sobriety. This restricts the opportunity to drink and helps habitual drinkers to give it up altogether.
The third and final step in banning drinking came in the verse which says: “Believers, intoxicants, games of chance, idolatrous practices and divining arrows are abominations devised by Satan. Therefore, turn away from them, so that you may be successful.” (5: 90)
Dealing with Slavery
At the advent of Islam, slavery was an established social and economic practice known all over the world. Any movement towards the abolition of slavery would require radical social change and far- reaching economic reforms and adjustments, as well as international treaties and conventions to govern the treatment of war prisoners. Islam never condoned slavery. There is not a single statement in the Qur’ān that recommends or approves of slavery or the enslavement of war prisoners. Slavery was a widespread practice with considerable bearing on the world economy. Moreover, it was an international tradition that prisoners of war were made slaves. Hence, there was no alternative but to phase it out gradually and progressively.
Apart from war captives and slave children, Islam opted for eliminating the root causes and drying up the sources of slavery, with an overriding objective to avoid social upheaval, and it strove to provide the basic guarantees of a decent living and dignity for freed slaves.
As for war captives, Islam could not unilaterally forgo imposing slavery on war prisoners since non-Muslim states continued to do so with Muslim prisoners in times of war. Were it to do so, it would have immediately put the Muslims at a disadvantage vis-a-vis their enemies. If any Muslim soldiers were taken prisoners, they would be certain to be made slaves, while prisoners taken by Muslims would remain free. On the other hand, were Islam to require that children born in slavery be immediately freed before creating the right social and economic environment that would absorb them as free citizens, they would have been left stranded, thrown into society with no means of living or welfare. They would have had no families to protect them against descending into poverty or moral delinquency.
For these, and other, reasons it would have been premature for Islam to immediately and unilaterally abolish slavery. However, taking the well-entrenched social conditions into account and while not banning the enslavement of war captives, the Qur’ān did not specifically order that they should be held in bondage. Instead, the Qur’ān advises the Muslims: “when you meet the unbelievers [in war] smite their necks until you overcome them fully, then bind [the captives] firmly. Thereafter, [set them free,] either by an act of grace or against ransom, so that war lays down its burdens.” (47: 4) This gave the Muslim authorities the choice to deal with war captives according to the prevailing circumstances and the nature of the conflict and the enemy they were facing. War captives could be released, exchanged or, if necessary, held in bondage.
Other ways of enslavement, and they were many, were totally banned. That was sure to minimize the number of slaves in society. Islam began by integrating those slaves as soon as they joined the Muslim community. It gave them the full right to buy their freedom through an agreement a slave would make with his master, who may not refuse him such a deal. Once an agreement of this sort is made, a slave has the right to work, own property, earn an independent income, and seek employment with other employers, in order to be able to raise the money to secure his freedom. That made it possible for slaves to gradually acquire an independent status in society and enjoy all the basic citizenship rights of the community, and they would become eligible for state welfare aid, which consists mainly of zakāt revenue. Furthermore, Islam urged its followers to help slaves financially to secure their freedom and incorporated the freeing of slaves into the legal code as a form of atonement for certain offences including manslaughter, reneging on an oath, and the ancient Arabian practice of a husband banishing his wife and saying that he considers her, for marital purposes, like his mother. With time, slavery was bound to be phased out, whereas a drastic or draconian approach to abolish it would have resulted in unnecessary social turmoil and disintegration.
The subsequent proliferation of slavery in Muslim societies had come about as a result of a gradual decline of the authority of Islam. This is a historical fact for which Islam may not be blamed. Islam cannot be held responsible for its incorrect implementation in certain periods or societies. Islam was, and remains, unchanged, but what had changed was people’s understanding of it an the way they translated its principles into social reality, which was often an aberration and a travesty of Islam for which it cannot be held accountable.
Any revival of Islamic life should, therefore, start from the authentic and established sources and principles of Islam and not be a continuation of a certain distorted historical legacy. This is an essential truth, both in abstract as well as practical terms, that cannot be overemphasized. Grossly mistaken conclusions are made regarding the Islamic view of history and on understanding the historic reality of Islam and how it operates in society. The leading culprits in this field are the socalled Orientalists, or Western scholars of Islam, and their students, including some sincere but very naïve Muslim scholars who were misled by them.
More Questions by Believers
The sūrah continues, answering other questions and laying down more fundamental Islamic principles. “They ask you what they should spend in charity; say, ‘Whatever you can spare.’ Thus God makes plain His revelations so that you may reflect upon this life and the life to come.” (Verses 219-220)
The answer given to this question the first time round, in verse 215, identified what could be given in charity and to whom, and here it identifies quantities. Anything above one’s basic reasonable personal needs should be considered available for donation to others, starting with those eligible among one’s nearest of kin, as already pointed out.
The present statement implies that the obligatory zakāt is not by itself sufficient as a means of wealth distribution, and this ruling, in my view, has not been overruled by the imposition of zakāt. Payment of zakāt by those liable to it does not exempt them from making additional donations and contributions to good causes. Zakāt is a duty levied by the ruling Muslim authority for allocation to the various causes specified in the Qur’ān (9: 60), beyond which Muslims continue to have an obligation towards God and fellow-Muslims in society. It may not exhaust one’s ability to give, or one’s desire to gain further blessings and pleasure from God Almighty. The Prophet Muĥammad is quoted in al-Jaşşāş’s Aĥkām al-Qur’ān as having said: “There is a duty on wealth other than zakāt.” If this duty is not discharged voluntarily, which is obviously more gracious and laudable, Muslim authorities have the power to collect funds over and above the obligatory zakāt, for spending in the public interest, in order to curb wastage or hoarding of wealth.
Muslims are then reminded that: “God makes plain His revelations so that you may reflect upon this life and the life to come.” (Verses 219-220) It would not suffice to consider only the realities of this life, which represents the more immediate and shorter part of the whole picture of human existence and all the responsibilities and relationships associated with it. That would only give a distorted understanding of the values and the criteria upon which life is built which would bring about the wrong kind of human behaviour.
The distribution and allocation of wealth, in particular, calls for total awareness of accountability in this life and in the life to come. One is always substantially rewarded, spiritually and morally, for what one gives in charity. Further reward comes in the contribution one makes to the welfare and well-being of society. These rewards may not, however, be readily apparent to everyone, which makes the rewards of the hereafter even more of an incentive to give generously and willingly and away from ostentation and pomposity.