By Dr. Mona S. Al Munajjed
Zakat is a major tool of Islamic social financing and a foundation for promoting sustainable community development
In the month of Ramadan, when more than 1.8 billion Muslims fast and strive to give charity, it seems timely to look at traditions and trends in charitable giving and philanthropy.
I was fascinated to find out that the richest man of all time was Mansa Musa I, the emperor of Mali and first king of Timbuktu, whose wealth is estimated today at $400bn. In 1324, Musa performed pilgrimage to Makkah, and on his stop in Cairo it is said he gave away so much gold to the poor that he devalued gold across North Africa for ten years. Musa not only gave charitably but he was also a philanthropist, as he funded literature and built schools, libraries and mosques.
One hundred years ago, Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-American industrialist, donated most of his wealth, over $350m (about $4.8bn today), to charity and philanthropy, declaring that the rich have a moral obligation to give away their fortunes to make a better world. His contemporary, John D. Rockefeller Sr, oil industry magnate, donated $540m during his lifetime to various religious, educational and scientific causes.
Among the modern-day billionaires, according to Forbes (March 2019), the most charitable include Americans Warren Buffet (lifetime donation $35.8bn), Bill Gates ($35.1bn), and George Soros ($32bn), Azim Premji (India, $21bn), Christopher Hohn (UK, $4.5bn), Carlos Slim Helu, (Mexico, $4.2bn), Li Ka Shing (Hong Kong, $3.2bn), and from Switzerland Hansjoerg Wyss ($1.9bn) and Stephan Schmidheiny ($1.5bn).
The rich have a moral obligation to give away their fortunes to make a better world today
But let’s not get overwhelmed by these vast sums, and look at the roots of giving. Throughout the centuries, providing relief, support and donations to the less fortunate has been linked to religious roots and cultural influence in many religious faiths.
Charitable giving is fundamental in Islam. Sadaqa refers to the voluntary giving of charity without seeking any return but for the sake of gratifying God. Sadaqa may also be given in a smile, advice, food for the poor or helping to build a home or a mosque. Zakat, one of the five pillars of Islam, is obligatory and requires Muslims to give annually 2.5 percent of their accumulated wealth. Zakat is a major tool of Islamic social financing, and a foundation for promoting sustainable community development. Globally, Muslims give at least $1 trillion annually to philanthropic causes.
Charitable giving is also a basic tenet of Christianity and considered one of the Seven Virtues. During Lent, for example, Christians are urged to pray, fast and give alms (money or goods) to people in need. To love one’s neighbour is one of the greatest commandments of Christianity and giving to the poor will be rewarded.
But although giving is fundamental to most major religions, there is discrepancy in the generosity of different countries. According to World Giving Index 2018, which ranks countries according to the percentage of the population that engages in charitable giving and volunteer work, the five most generous are Indonesia (59 percent), Australia (59 percent), New Zealand (58 percent), USA (58 percent), and Ireland (58 percent). Bahrain ranked 10th (53 percent), UAE 12th (51 percent), Kuwait 33rd (33 percent) and Saudi Arabia 51st (37 percent).
Indonesia, mainly a Muslim country, sees most citizens give Zakat, and the Gulf region similarly has a long culture of traditional charity. However, in Gulf countries, names and donation sizes are not divulged, as Islam emphasises secret giving as superior to public shows of generosity. This respects the dignity of recipients and inhibits the donor from arrogance. Traditional private charity is still the preferred way of giving through direct donations and financial aid to the poor and to non-profit organisations. Therefore, there is no organised data for the region regarding individuals and their donations.
The UAE declared 2017 the Year of Giving, promoting business social responsibility, volunteering and giving back to the community. The UAE lists 29 charitable organisations in 2019, including Emirates Charity Portal, Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Foundation, The Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Charitable and Humanitarian Foundation, and Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s foundations.
In Saudi Arabia, there are almost 1,000 non-profit organisations, charitable foundations and associations. Major foundations include King Faisal Foundation, King Khalid Foundation, King Abdullah Foundation, Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz Foundation, Misk Foundation and Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation. Vision 2030 calls for responsibility towards society where values of giving, compassion, cooperation and empathy are deeply rooted. It wants the non-profit sector to take a greater role in healthcare, education, housing, and cultural/social programmes. It also seeks to promote the development of non-profit organisations, facilitate training to staff and promote both volunteering and careers in the sector.
The tradition of charitable giving exists strongly in the USA. According to Giving USA 2018, Americans gave around $410bn to charities in 2017, perhaps reflecting an apparently booming economy, a strong stock market and generous taxation benefits for charitable giving.
However, India and China appear to be less generous. Although India has 19 billionaires in 2019, it is ranked 124th in the Index (22 percent). China has 41 billionaires, yet it lies at the bottom of the list at number 142 (17 percent). What are the reasons for this apparent lack of munificence?
In Gulf countries, names and donation sizes are not divulged, as Islam emphasises secret giving as superior to public shows of generosity
For Hindus, charity (danam) is an important part of religious duty. Informal giving may well be unreported, but Indian families are large and many believe that their entire wealth should be left to succeeding generations. However, wealthy families such as Birla, Bajaj, Godrej and Tata have an extensive tradition of giving, and, according to the latest India Philanthropy Report 2019, private giving from individuals continues to grow. Bollywood actors Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan are among those who devote much of their wealth to charity and good causes. Azim Premji, the chairman of Wipro IT services, has donated $21bn through his foundation and is the first Indian to sign the Giving Pledge launched by Warren Buffett with Bill and Melinda Gates to encourage billionaires to entrust most of their wealth to charity.
Traditionally in China in Confucian ethical teaching, giving is to support others for whom one has compassion. But under Maoist rule, the state was supposed to look after everyone and charities were deemed unnecessary. Nowadays, a major natural disaster can attract spontaneous support from millions of Chinese, but voluntary action for the public good has not yet become integral in people’s lives. Lack of transparency, mistrust of motives and government policy on registration and taxation have constrained the growth of China’s philanthropic sector.
Today, giving is expanding beyond community-based charity, to engage in problems of poverty, unemployment, education, science and social entrepreneurship. Charity is becoming global, strategic and organised, addressing the roots of problems beyond conventional personal giving. Donors prefer to invest their money in a fund with a social mission that will give a return and establish endowments that are a long-term funding strategy.
We all have a stake in what happens to others. We all benefit when someone finds a job that will help them provide for their family, or when we make a positive impact on society. When we donate money or our time we experience happiness and mental wellbeing because we give happiness to others or lessen their misery. And as Carnegie, the father of modern philanthropy argued: “To try to make the world in some way better than you found it is to have a noble motive in life.”