Almsgiving in Islam, preceded by a bit more on prayer

 

The sun goes down over the Grand Canyon State.
A sunset in Arizona (Wikimedia Commons)
Some people don’t, but I love the desert. I find it beautiful. And, in the winter, I love its weather.

 

Remarkably, although the duty of prayer is often mentioned in the Qur’an, that book never specifically mentions a duty of praying formally five times daily. One legend says that Muhammad received the commandment of five daily prayers during his miraculous ascension into heaven from the Temple Mount at Jerusalem. Origi­nally, so the story goes, the Lord imposed a duty of fifty prayers daily on Muhammad and the Muslims. Then, when Muhammad was descending from the presence of God, he encountered Moses. The Prophet told him of the requirement for fifty prayers a day. Moses was horrified. “Go back to the Lord,” he told Muhammad, “and ask for a lower number. Verily, your people will never be able to bear fifty prayers a day. I tried during my lifetime with the children of Israel, but they couldn’t manage it.” So Muhammad went back up to the presence of God and got a reduction to ten prayers a day. This still was too much for Moses, though, and he sent Muhammad back up to gain yet a greater reduction. Finally, Muhammad got the num­ber down to five. “Oh no!” Moses said. “I tried the children of Israel with just five, and they still couldn’t handle it. Go back!” This time, Muhammad refused. “I’ve asked until I’m ashamed,” he is supposed to have said, “and I’m too embarrassed to ask again.”[1]

 

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The Qur’an’s oft-stated concern for widows, orphans, and the poor is taken very seriously by many Muslims. Islamic governments gen­erally collect a tax, known as zakaat, to be distributed among the poor, which is set at two-and-one-half percent of one’s annual sav­ings after personal and business expenditures. Additionally, private Muslims are likely to give at least small amounts of money to beg­gars as they walk down the street. I have learned a great deal by going around Cairo with Near Eastern friends who unhesitatingly place coins in the outstretched hands of poor people on the side­walks, at the doors of mosques, and in the commuter trains. They are (and I have asked them about this) quite unconcerned with the question of whether the objects of their charity really merit such generosity. The answer to that question, they say, is known only to God. Their duty is to give. It isn’t enough simply to have warm feel­ings toward the poor. (We are speaking here, I should point out, of personal charity. Institutional giving certainly needs to establish criteria by which to distinguish those who deserve assistance from those who, for whatever reason, do not.)

 

[1] The popular tales of Muhammad’s heavenly journey are interesting for many rea­sons—not the least of which is their patently anthropomorphic character. (One goes toward God, and leaves him, and talks to him as if he were a man seated on a throne.)

 

Posted from Phoenix, Arizona

 

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