Begging in an Islamic community

Q60 :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?

A60 : Perhaps people have some justification in thinking that an Islamic community is one in which beggars go around in the streets, able always to rely 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. Some people may wonder how we can call the payment of money an act of worship. Islam looks at worship in a much wider perspective than the strict sense of devotion and rituals. 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. When we look carefully at the zakah system, as outlined in Islam, we can easily find out that zakah is not a handful of pilasters, or halalahs, or a couple of Riyals given to a beggar, nor is it some victuals to silence the pangs of hunger. Zakah is a complete self-financing system which aims to eradicate poverty and achieve a fair distribution of wealth. The first thing about zakah is that it is a duty defined by Allah who will eventually question people about its fulfillment. When the Prophet was once asked by some people to give them a portion of zakah money, the Prophet told them that 'Allah has not assigned the task of distributing zakah either to a Prophet given a message, or an angel who occupies a high position. He Himself has ruled over its distribution, dividing it among eight classes of people.' The Prophet then told those who requested to be paid some money from the zakah fund that if they belonged to any of those classes, he would willingly pay them, but he would not exceed that limit. He also stated that "No share of zakah may be paid to a person who is self-sufficient or to one who is physically strong." He meant that the one who is physically strong should find it easy to obtain a job and earn his livelihood. 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. Scholars have discussed how much a poor person is to be given of zakah. Many scholars are of the view that he is to be given enough to satisfy his needs for the rest of his life. That does not mean that his annual needs are calculated and then multiplied by the number of years he is expected to live. Rather, he is helped to have a job which generates for him enough income to meet his needs. This is a far cry from the picture you have painted of paupers roaming the streets in a Muslim community to be helped with a Riyal here and half a Riyal there. 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.

Our Dialogue ( Source : Arab News - Jeddah )