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Alms and Charity: Virtues of Zakat: Part 17

Alms and Charity: Virtues of Zakat: Part 17



The comparative virtue of secretly and openly giving zakat or sadaqa differ according to place and time. Although it may be better, on occasions, to give openly, at other times, opting to pay secretly may provide a wiser option. Verses and hadiths elaborating on both these circumstances afford us different clues in relation to this point. For example, “To give alms in public is good, but to give charity to the poor secretly is better for you and will atone for some of your sins,” (Baqara 2:271) “Those who spend their wealth by night and day, in private and public, shall be rewarded by their Lord”(Baqara 2:274). Based on these Qur’anic statements, we ascertain the diverse benefits of secret and open charities depending on time and place. Yet, Muslim scholars have preponderantly advised an open payment of zakat while recommending the secret offering of other charities.

Though an open payment may act as an encouragement to others, a secret payment forestalls the emergence of vices, like pride, arrogance about one’s means, and showing off. A person may be able to steer clear of these vices while performing zakat, which is, after all, an imperative obligation which is supposed to be performed with the intention of purifying the wealth; however, as for sadaqa, a voluntary activity, falling prey to these vices may come more easily. It is for this reason while enumerating the seven groups of people to be shaded under the shade of the Throne, on a horrendous Day where no other shade exists, the Messenger of God also includes, “those whose left sides are oblivious to what their right sides have given (as to a charity).”

Therefore, it is essential to give voluntary sadaqa or charities secretly, and for this reason, it is said that a supererogatory sadaqa given in secret is 70 times more virtuous and valuable than that which is given openly. The Noble Messenger articulated the following: “Goodness never exhausts, sins are not forgotten, and God never dies; so do as you wish.”8 Indeed God is Alive and Eternal, a Watcher and Guard over all things perpetrated. As verified by this additional declaration: We have shown him the right path, whether he be grateful or ungrateful” (Insan 76:3). In other words, the human may either nurture profound gratitude towards the Being Who has, through innumerable ways, made him aware of His transcendent existence, or ungratefully, throw into dissipation all his privileges, including himself, by shamefully choosing the path of disgraceful rebellion.

Note that giving explicitly may involve a degree of disdain on behalf of the benefactor as s/he acquires a personal insight to the needs, condition, and circumstances of the beneficiary.  In addition, a hadith such as, “The hand which gives is better than the hand which receives,” might spuriously justify disdain in souls lacking full insight into the Message. But clearly, disdaining and abasing a Muslim has indubitably been decreed forbidden.

A further difficulty arises if the recipient is not known to be poor by the public—someone who has kept his/her need quiet, so to speak—in which case giving the sadaqa overtly may incur the ill-thought from both the donor and others that the recipient is accepting the donation without a genuine need. Here, then, is another example of how each act of faith becomes both an opportunity and a trial—for it is not right to indulge in such thoughts about others, and we risk rapidly and completely annulling any potential benefits to ourselves if we fail to check our tendencies to judge or criticize in this way. Thus, in order to fend off Satan’s whispers and the personal embarrassment the poor may experience, the best method remains that of our predecessors—one in which we secretively place the sadaqa in a location which is easily accessible by those in need, and then swiftly leave.

Perhaps we could make an exception for those towering spiritual figures who, by virtue of having already conquered their own egos, are not easily affected by the side-effects which plague the majority, and by whose leadership in the field of charity, many more souls might be drawn into random giving. For these noble individuals, visibility in the act of sadaqa might be appropriate. But this would certainly be an atypical situation—not a recommended practice for the average person.

Putting the Qur’anic balance into the picture, it can be ascertained that, occasionally, it is preferable to opt for an open payment of zakat, however, as mentioned earlier: To give alms in public is good, but to give charity to the poor secretly is better for you, and will atone for some of your sins. God has knowledge of all that you do” (Baqara 2: 272). There is a balance, in other words. In similar fashion to salat (prayer) and sawm (fasting), the performance of obligatory actions is an instrument of public encouragement, as well as clearing its performer from likely incriminations. The highly potent and symbolic words of the Prophet in reference to those deliberately falling back from congregational salats were as follows: “I have contemplated leaving a deputy to lead, then burst in on those who, without excuse, fall back from salats, and set their houses ablaze.” In addition, the outer manifestation of a life of faith, of an adherence to the practice of Islam, is not a trivial matter, as verified by another hadith “Whoever performs our salat, faces our qibla (the direction turned  towards  during salat, towards the Sacred Ka‘ba), and eats what we slaughter is a Muslim under the guarantee of God and His Messenger.”

In effect, the belief of a Muslim is reflected and generally understood by others in terms of the publicly performed obligatory deeds; therefore, there is benefit in offering these openly, to dispel any possible suspicion and spare witnesses from the easy temptation of judging another believer; in addition, public contributions of zakat provide an inspiration to those outside of the faith who might feel invited to submit after witnessing the all-encompassing mercy espoused by the Qur’an.

The actions of Abu Bakr and Ali, may God be pleased with them, who had totally comprehended the balance displayed in the Qur’an, are exemplary. The former, having had dirhams worth of wealth, donated a quarter of it at night, another quarter at day, another quarter in secret and the last quarter in public; thus he actualized all the facets emphasized in the Qur’an. The latter openly donating his 4 dirhams, and then remarked, “O God, let this be an encouragement”; while during a secret donation, he prayed “Only for your sake my Lord.” While giving at night, he prayed again: “May my night be alight;” and during the day, he uttered, “O God illuminate my day.” There it is a display of the Companions’ astounding sensitivity and their profound vitality in bringing Islam to life.


The awesome balance set by Islam in all fields is also visible in the fundamentals of offering and collecting zakat. While instructing the collectors to avoid collecting the “best possession,”  the benefactors are themselves encouraged to choose to give their best as an invaluable means of reaching the spiritual summit, a fact attested to by the Qur’an“You will not attain righteousness until you spend of what you love” (Al Imran 3:92). Anas ibn Malik narrates the following in relation: “Of the Ansar (Medinan Muslims),” Abu Talha was one of the richest, and Bayruha—a garden across the Masjid al-Nabawi (the grand mosque at Medina), was his most beloved possession. The Messenger of God, on occasions, used to enter it and drink from its clean water. When the verse, “You will not attain righteousness until you spend of what you love” (Baqara 3:92) was revealed, Abu Talha went to the Prophet and proclaimed the following: “If this is what the Almighty God has decreed in His Book, then from now on Bayruha, my most prized possession, is a charity for God. I anticipate its rewards and benefits from Him alone. O Messenger of God! Do with it as you wish.” The Prophet responded delightfully, “How beautiful! This will bring a multitude of rewards and a copious recompense in the afterlife. I have heard your words on this subject, but if you ask me, divide it between your relatives,” and upon this Abu Talha divided it between his relatives. ”Indeed, it is evident that in order to become an ideal servant of God, one must donate, for His sake, one’s most cherished items. Those who aspire to Paradise undoubtedly will present, with paramount pleasure, their best crops and produce.

In a hadith conveyed by Abu Hurayra, the Messenger of God reveals, “Whoever donates an amount equivalent to a handful of dates out of his pure earnings—and certainly God accepts only that is pure—God will take it and, just how one of you rears his foal, he will raise it to the size of a mountain.”

Through another hadith, again transmitted by Abu Hurayra, the Prophet earnestly announced, “O humankind! God is Pure and He only accepts what is pure. God has also commanded the believers what He has commanded the Prophets, namely “O Messengers! Eat of the pure things and act with righteousness” (Mu’minun 23:51); and for the believers, “O you who believe! Eat of the good and clean things which We have provided for you, and be grateful to God, if it is He whom you worship” (Baqara 2:172).

In tandem, a person must put himself in the shoes of the recipient, and thus avoid giving substandard or defective items. The Qur’an elaborates the following caution in relation to this very fact:“…and seek not the bad (with intent) to spend of it (in charity)” (Baqara 2:267). In other words, one must be absolutely alert in preventing any illicitness, such as this has been forbidden by God, from coalescing with one’s donations—either accidentally or by virtue of neglect on our part.

Consequently, all manner of “filth” must be kept well at bay from honest and pure earnings, and the charity should be presented from the purest portion—the portion which the benefactor himself would gladly accept in the reverse scenario, were he to find himself the recipient instead. In practical terms, this means ensuring that gains are not secured through means which are, themselves, illicit; and to make certain that the offering meets the highest trade standard, in terms of both the quality of the goods and their real value.

During the blissful era of the Prophet, people used to leave bunches of dates at the Masjid al-Nabawi for the poor to eat. One day, after having seen a few defective bunches, the Prophet (upon whom be peace) pointed with his stick and said, “If the owner of this charity wished, he would have donated a finer bunch. Its owner will, in turn, be reciprocated with a similarly defective return in the afterlife.”


After having reached its nisab, a property on which a year has elapsed becomes subject to zakat. Yet, the generally prevalent practice is to offer it during the month of Ramadan. Although this remains the overall accepted routine, there are others who maintain that zakat should best be given before its deadline or during the season of harvest. All these views, certainly, are predicated upon various proofs, which can be recapitulated as follows.


The practice of giving zakat in Ramadan is by and large based on two notions—namely to benefit from the special month’s blessings, and to put a smile on the faces of the poor in preparation for Eid. While it remains essential to perform deeds within their specific time frames and in line with their particular requirements, their performance at sacred times and places, it is hoped, brings even greater rewards. For instance, offering salat at the Ka’ba or Masjid al-Nabawi is considered more valuable in comparison to other places. This is actually implied by the words of the Noble Prophet, who declared that there are only three mosques in the world that, on their own, are worth traveling to—Ka‘ba in Mecca, Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina, and Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem.

As for timing, the blessings of Ramadan are evidently manifest; it is considered the “sultan” of the other eleven months, containing a night superior to a thousand months. Therefore, completing an obligation like zakat within the parameters of Ramadan is believed to be an opportunity to greater rewards, as well as serving its prime role of relieving its benefactor from a compulsory duty in a timely, scheduled manner. Narrated by Anas ibn Malik, the ensuing hadith alludes to this. The Prophet was asked, “What is the most virtuous fast after the fast of Ramadan?” He responded, “The fast of (the months of) Shaban, in reverence to Ramadan.” He was then asked: “Which sadaqa is of greater virtue?” And he replied, “Sadaqa given in Ramadan.”

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