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Just because you give your Zakat, is it ok to over-eat and over-spend?

Pakistanis open their wallets in Ramazan, but do they open their hearts?

Pakistani Muslim women shop for bangles at a market in Karachi ahead of Eid ul Fitr. PHOTO: AFP

Ramazan – the month of giving. As one of the world’s most charitable nations, and with the desire to earn an even higher reward than other months, Pakistanis open their hearts and wallets in Ramazan.

The same holds true for Muslims all over the world. This is heart-warming and wonderful, but with just one exception. Somehow, somewhere, we have made this “giving” a justification for extravagance, excessive spending, and consequent showing off. The common understanding is that if I am giving my prescribed percentage of Zakat, and also a bit of additional charity, it justifies any amount of money that I squander.

This, then, is a deeply flawed and worrisome understanding of the concept of charity. Charity, primarily, is meant to keep the flow of money going in society instead of allowing it to stagnate in a few hands and a few bank accounts. Instead, the economic divide is getting wider. Despite the affluent giving so much charity, the poor are literally dying of poverty. Clearly, we are missing a key part of this whole equation.

It is then no wonder that in Pakistan, the 18 million richest people’s total consumption is 1.5 times more than the poorest 72 million people. Studies show that among the four key signs of perpetuating poverty, the first is that the poor remain poor and the rich remain rich. There is no level playing field for everyone, despite our charities, and our overspending has something to do with it.

Imagine this. I get my domestic helper a decent dress for Eid worth Rs1,500 or more. And that, in my head, makes it okay for me to spend on up to three dresses for Eid, shoes and accessories amounting to Rs20,000 – more than 10 times of what I gave. In summers, even the middle class Pakistani woman will end up spending thousands on an average of sixsummer wear ensembles. Upper scale lawn dresses are known to cost even up to Rs7,000 or more each. But what she will give away as her summer charity is not the same quantity or quality.

While from among the upper-middle class, or those whom we can crudely call the rich, people with tender hearts give generously to the less privileged. Yet many of them will feel no guilt in spending even a thousand dollars on a handbag as a feel-good factor. Our weddings cost millions, resembling lavish fairy tales. Maintaining ourselves and our homes costs us exorbitantly. From our prayer beads to our cell phones, everything is opulent or “classy”. There is a resulting disconnect between people from different economic strata in Pakistan.

In Ramazan, instead of being reminded by the hunger pangs that a hungry child in Tharparkar goes through, we numb the few spiritual lessons we get with “all you can eat” deals. Sales lure us into buying separate designer clothes for taraweeh prayers, others for Eid prayers, and yet others for the family Eid dinner. The month, instead of being an intended exercise in self-control, becomes a festival of overabundance. What is left of the piety that we may have gained through worship is blown away within the three days of Eid. And throughout it all, we are telling ourselves that it is okay because we give so much charity.

To keep consumption of anything under check and balance is part of the ethics in any religion. In Christianity, the seven deadly sins are on the same page, gluttony being one of them, which is the over-consumption or obsession with food, and we see a lot of that in Ramazan, including related sins of greed, sloth, pride and envy.

Islam has not stopped us from eating or dressing well. It has not given us any prescribed limit beyond which we cannot spend. It has, however, given us a framework and examples from the lives of the Prophet (PBUH), his family and his companions as role models. Among them, there were men and women who were very poor. Others were extremely rich, and were known for the profuse amounts of charity they gave. What made them different from us, however, was that they exercised a degree of self-restrain when it came to spending. While they may have led comfortable lives, they were careful not to make evident the economic gulf between themselves and the less privileged. And to build those bridges, they did two things – they spent lesser on themselves than they could afford to, and they gave charity more than they needed to. In so doing, step by step, the gap lessened.

One may counter this idea by debating why we should be made to feel guilty if Allah (SWT) has given us more. That part is justified, and true, and if you look after your community and people around you, you may have done a part of your share. But looking at the bigger picture, let us exercise a little sensitivity when flaunting wealth. Ostentation and overspending willaffect others – both those who are on the lower tiers of the social pyramid, and also contemporaries who are silently competing. The rat race has and will continue to prove that prophetic tradition correct in which the Prophet (PBUH) expressed his fear that the biggest trial for his followers would be wealth. Even those strictly adhering to tenets of religion fall into this trap – they see use of intoxicants and promiscuous lifestyles as serious sins, but see over-spending, over-eating and flaunting of wealth as permissible.

In Pakistan, this causes deeper problems. Poverty, insecurity, economic frustration and jealousy are resulting in an angry and violent collective temperament. When they cannot get it by just means, they steal it, loot it and even resort to crime and violence. While this is not acceptable, this is a bitter reality. And somewhere, we are part of this equation and are indirectly responsible for it.

Considering that Ramazan is a good time for introspection, it might be good to try and aim for moderation in spending so that we may control the glaring economic disparity in our society.

Dignity restored: The blessing of being ‘dry’

Read this & realize your blessings! You can save a woman’s life by donating to Koohi goth Fistula Hospital Karachi.

Published: June 30, 2013

Only 30 surgeons in Pakistan can treat the condition. PHOTO: SARAH MUNIR

KARACHI: It is 99.9% a disease of extremely poor women. Nobody from the affluent families will suffer from it. So long as its poor women, no one cares, says Dr Shershah Syed, the man responsible for setting up Koohi Goth Hospital, the only primary healthcare facility for women suffering from the condition called fistula.

He has made possible the treatment of 10,000 women suffering from the unthinkable medical condition. Yet, it’s not enough. Every year, the list of women who are suffering from a fistula increases by 5,000 approximately, and trained surgeons in Pakistan who can perform the surgery that can cure them are just 30! Yet, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Selling goats to get treatment

Nineteen-year-old Noorbano from Khuzdar, Balochistan, is one such woman. She walks slowly towards the dining area from her bed in the recovery ward of the Koohi Goth Hospital. Her wounds are still raw. She has had three surgeries and has three more to go. “I developed the fistula during the birth of my second baby who did not survive. I would keep leaking all the time. Nobody even wanted to sit next to me,” she explains with the help of a translator. “It’s my husband who supported me. He had a few goats which he sold for my treatment. We travelled from Khuzdar to Hub and from there to Karachi. It was worth it,” she says with a smile.

As fistula is directly related to poverty and lack of resources, Balochistan has the most patients, followed by rural areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh.



Pakistan’s understated scandal

“Is it not the biggest scandal that 30,000 young women are dying every year due to pregnancy-related causes and no one cares?” says Dr Shershah.

The women suffering from obstetric fistula develop the condition when child birth is not done by trained medical persons and the nearest hospital is at times hours away in rural Pakistan with no infrastructure or money to travel. “If the labour is prolonged, which is mostly when the woman is having her first baby, the baby’s head may get stuck in the birth canal in a way that it keeps pushing against the thin wall between the bladder or rectum and the wall of the birth canal, thereby causing and tear,” says Dr Suboohi Mehdi, one of the surgeons at Koohi Goth Hospital.

Another way a fistula may be formed is when an unskilled surgeon performs a surgery and by mistake causes a cut in the bladder or rectum.

Apart from treating women at the Koohi Goth facility, completely free of cost, a midwifery school is training midwives to help women deliver safely. Surgeons are trained to perform the surgeries, and teams then setup small units all over Pakistan. The patients are taught life skills and vocations during the long rehabilitation process. The hospital relies on donations for its running.

The answer lies in efforts for better maternal health for the women of Pakistan.

“The dream is very simple – that every woman has a right  to basic obstetric care, in case of an emergency, at her doorstep, free of charge. And it can be done,” says a hopeful Dr Shershah.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 30th, 2013.

Charity 101

I love the word “Zakat”. This Arabic word’s root shoots off many words that give a meaning of purification. The often used beautiful word “Tazkiyah” is from the same root word, which means purification of the soul. In the process of Tazkiyah (for Tazkiyah is a life-long journey, not a destination) we are advised to think of our heart and soul as a barren piece of land. We pull out the unwanted weeds and shrubs of hatred, rancor, arrogance, pride and selfishness, and we plant on this newly cleaned soil the seeds of good deeds and qualities like love, forgiveness, humility and generosity.

Zakat, the obligatory charity in Islam, precisely does that. It purifies our wealth as well as our souls.

In addition to this 2.5 % of obligatory charity we are strongly motivated to give more and more and more. For our own good. Because humans are a meaning-seeking species. We need to feel good about ourselves. Just like we have an inherent need to worship a Divine Being, we also have an inherent need to be beneficial to others, unless our souls get corrupted. The act of giving is beautiful. We end up getting more than we give. And the act of hoarding, or holding back, ironically, takes away a lot.

Today, as I came home after a fruitful and in-depth discussion pertaining to charity in an Islamic learning forum, so many thoughts about charity are overflowing in my head and heart. These are some practical tips and thoughts and things I have learnt over time, and I hope to practice. Whatever I forget, I would love for you to add in the form of comments.

So here goes:

  • Give for the sake of giving. For the seeking of the pleasure of Allah. Without expectation of thanks or gratitude. Without the expectation that now your maid will do your work more obediently and more readily. Without the expectation that the poor relatives that you are giving charity to will sing your praises or do your odd jobs. For when we give charity with the expectation of return, it is not really pure… is not really Zakat. It is being given for the sake of vanity, and not in the spirit of giving.
  • We usually are the closest to God when we are in pain or fear. A bad dream. An accident. An illness. Financial turmoil. All these make us “givers” overnight. Out comes the money and the food in charity. But as a hadith of The Prophet (saw) rightly points out, the best charity is that which you give not when the going gets tough but when it is all smooth. So give charity also in your happiest days. As a form of gratitude.
  • Charity should not be just money. It should include your time and effort. When God has given us enough, one of the easiest things is to hand over an envelope to someone. Very few of us take ownership of what we are spending our charity on. We sometimes sponsor a child’s education but do not even know the name of that child or her progress. Which is why then our charity has no soul….no human-centredness. It is important that we spent time and energy finding out where and on whom to spend charity. And use some physical labour as a form of charity. Zaynab bint Jahash (ra) wife of The Prophet (saw), a woman from a noble lineage, specially use to work at tanning leather and the money she earned, she gave away in charity. There is a certain joy in physically or mentally working at earning what you give in charity. Also, visit the people you give the charity to. See their lives. Share their insecurities. Tire yourself in the pursuit of the pleasure of Allah. The joy shall be multiplied, as will be the reward.
  • The forms of charity can be multiple. Ahadith tell us that even a smile is sadaqa. Helping someone lift a heavy load is sadaqa. Removing a harmful thing such as thorns (or plastic bags today) is sadqa. Every time, at a wedding reception, I see the carpet gathered in a way that someone might trip over it, I think to myself “Rasool Ullah (saw) would have straightened this, and this would be sadaqa”. Dropping off someone in your car is sadaqa. Offering someone your seat is sadaqa.
  • Talking of the word “sadaqa”, well, it is more than something that wards off evils and bad omens. It is anything that you do with “Sidq”…..with the truest intention……to please Allah. It can be obligatory Sadaqa like Zakaat, and it can be voluntary Sadaqa which you give in addition to your Zakaat. It is not just kaala bakra (Black sacrificial goat) and the meat trimmings on the roof for the vultures. It is any and everything you spend or do to make Allah happy.
  • The biggest loss and waste is when we DO give charity but we waste it away. We waste it by reminding the person we give it to of our favour Ehsaan jitaana…..kills the whole purpose doesn’t it? Or we show-off our charity. Or we do follow it with harsh behaviour towards the person we gave it to. If we do that, we are the biggest losers.
  • Start by giving charity in your closest circles. Look around for close relatives and people working for you. Special reward is mentioned for spending on those relatives who are never thankful, for they are a real test of our ego. Our ego holds us back from spending on people close to us. So spend on them, specially the rude or political ones. Even though you can see their true colours and even if they don’t deserve it, spend on them. For Allah spends on us and gives us even though we do not deserve all the blessings that He showers us with.
  • Involve your family and friends. Moms, specially, can do a great job at this. Encourage kids to give and share. Make your child give charity instead of you giving it yourself. Make sure your child and spouse and family see you giving, and let them participate in that. Let your kids give tiny bits out of their pocket money and share their doughnuts with street children. Families that collectively give more charity are happier families. And it is a great bonding experience.
  • Don’t just give food left overs and used clothes. Give, also, the best out of what God has given you. This helps lessen greed and increases reliance on Allah. And Allah, in some form, returns to you better than what you gave.
  • Give charity even when you are financially in a bit of a slump. Even small amounts and acts of charity are necessary for our self-esteem. Also, have faith. You will get it all back. Remember how Aisha (ra) gave away all her food in charity and Allah returned to her a meat platter by the evening.
  • DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT scold beggars, even if you decide to not give them anything. You do not have the right to be rude to them.
  • Be thankful, inwardly at least, to people who are needy. They are your gateway to heaven and are giving you easy chances at good deeds.
  • If you cannot give too much charity yourself, be a collector, a fund raiser. Spread goodness and aid good causes. Ahadith tell us that even the collector or storekeeper of the charity gets reward as if he spent that money in charity himself, and the donor’s reward is not decreased either. Allah is Ar-Rahman…..He is looking for excuses to forgive and reward us. Use those excuses.

Charity is something we do for ourselves, not for the poor and the needy only. We benefit from it in many ways. A society in which economic disparity is under check and money is not stagnant in the hands of a few rich people is a happier and less evil society, with less crime rates. On a personal level, our soul is nourished by giving charity, and Allah’s blessings shower upon us in unseen ways.

May Allah’s Blessings and Mercy be on all of us.