As every day brings the blessed month of Ramadan closer to us, we are reminded that the Messenger of Allah ﷺ would be more generous in Ramadan than in any other month of the year. But this generosity was not just something he did – it was part of who he was, a legacy that Muslims have carried with them through the generations. To truly understand the spirit of giving, we remember and reflect on the spirits of those who gave.
Stories of generosity are far from rare in Islamic history, and reflecting on the legacies of the generous inspires us to build our own legacies. There are some stories that inspire us not only to give more, but to give better. Those who understood the greater goal of business, not simply to create money for a few, but to better society for all. The power of this mindset—one focused on giving and investing, rather than hoarding and amassing—is a great enough vehicle to transform entire societies. Three personalities from Islamic history embody this true spirit of giving in Islam.
First, there is Uthman ibn Affan: skillful trader, wealthy community member. Uthman used his wealth to provide relief during an economic drought in Madinah. The city was struggling, and Uthman noticed that scarce resources like water were in the hands of a few men – not dissimilar from the income inequality we face in America today. To confront this economic disparity, he negotiated a settlement with a well owner in Madinah, in which he would alternate days of usage with the owner. During his days of ownership, he did not charge the community to use the water, until eventually no one used the well on the owner’s day. The owner was forced to sell his share to Uthman, and Uthman let all the people of Madinah drink freely.
Then there is Mansa Musa: wealthy West African king, devout Muslim. In the early 1300s, he left his kingdom of Mali and began a pilgrimage to Mecca. He is known to be one of the richest men to have ever lived, but he is best known for his Hajj. He carried 180,000 kg of gold with him, and if that is not difficult enough to imagine, consider this: he gave it all away. He was said to have taken more than 500 people with him on that Hajj, each carrying a staff of solid gold. When passing through Cairo, he gave away so much gold that the price of gold worldwide fell, and the economy was affected worldwide. Talk about controlling the money markets—his giving literally changed the economy of the world.
And finally, there is the story of Fatima: guardian of knowledge. In the 800s CE in Fez, Morocco, a pious man named Muhammad ibn Abdullah Al Fihri lived with his wife and two daughters. He was known to be a successful businessman, and he ensured that his daughters received a broad religious and secular education. When he passed away, his daughter Fatima dedicated her life to using her inherited wealth for a greater good. Realizing how crowded the masajid were in Fez, Fatima spearheaded a campaign to fund and oversee the construction of the Al-Qarawaiyyin Masjid. She fasted every day for two years during construction until the masjid opened in Ramadan, and she was the first to offer two rak’ahs of thanks. This was not an ordinary masjid, it was an institution of learning that granted degrees and hosted courses in subjects ranging from fiqh to medicine. It is the oldest continuous degree granting institution in the world, thriving to this day. The great historian Ibn Khaldun was a student there, and he described Fatima as a spark that started a fire of learning.
Knowing our traditions and sharing these stories can be transformative in our personal and community lives. When we frame history as our collective story, we begin to understand our legacy and our roles in the march toward our collective healing.
We are at the cusp of continuing a legacy. Faced with challenges that feel limiting, as a community we feel vulnerable and susceptible to an overwhelming tide that can swallow us up if we let it. And yet when we zoom out, it is clear to see the tremendous blessings all around us. There are things to rejoice over; there is hope for the taking. We are fortunate to be a highly educated community, replete with doctors, artists, engineers, thought-leaders, lawyers, business-owners, and a wide array of other professionals who have invested in their own education and the education of their children. We are bursting at the seams with resources within an incredibly wealthy community. And while we live in a time and place of abundance, the world around us is spread thin with a scarcity that calls us to account for the undeniable imbalance of resources. As Muslims, to enjoy a win for the “haves” is to accept a defeat for the “have nots.” Perhaps instead of talking about the spirit of giving, we should acknowledge more simply that the spirit of Islam is to give. A body without a spirit is dead, and ignoring this essence of our faith will undoubtedly result in a spiritual death for our vibrant community.
Uthman, Musa, Fatima. Remember their names, but most importantly, honor them by carrying their torch this Ramadan. Remembrance without action is a hollow body: beautiful but lifeless, tragic in its futility. We have potential waiting to be realized. We have institutions of learning and prayer waiting to be built. Not only the structures, but the people who will become custodians of this message moving forward. How can you be the next Uthman, the next Mansa Musa, the next Fatima Al Fihri? The first step is a new mantra: we give not to give, but rather to build. For ourselves, our children, and for generations to come. To restore balance, and to work together for a better world. This is power of giving to build – it changes generations, not just not nations.
Abdullah ibn Mas’ud (may God be pleased with him) said; “In the life of this world, everyone is a guest and his wealth is a loan. The guest will part and the loan will be returned.” The only true way to own wealth in this realm is to have it testify for you beyond the grave. Take ownership of your wealth and let the spirit of giving thrive through your generosity, lest it grows weary of our inattention and seeks out more able vessels. Feel it nipping at the back of your heels, like an anxious wind colliding with your stillness, reminding you to move. Reminding you that Ramadan is not just about giving more time in prayer and dhikr, but about giving more of your wealth and yourselves in order to build a better tomorrow, in sha Allah.
By Shad Imam , 08 Jun 2016