Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
They ask you as to what they should spend. Say, ‘Whatever good you spend, let it be for parents, relatives, orphans, the needy, and the traveler.’ And whatever good that you may do, Allah indeed knows it. (Chapter 2: Verse 215)
It is a sign of healthy faith that the believers were asking the Prophet questions. More specifically, they asked about matters that were not obligated knowing fully-well that the answer may lead to obligation and restriction. The Messenger (peace be upon him) said: “Don’t ask me about things that I did not bring up, for those who came before you perished by the frequency and multiplicity of their questions and their disagreement with their prophets. If I command you of something, then do it the best that you can, and if I forbid something then leave it.” The companions asked about the finer details of life; a phenomenon that confirms their love for God’s teachings, and their desire to base all their actions on the foundation of Islam.
Amr ibn al-Jamouh asked the question in this verse, and he was an old man. He said: O Messenger of God, I have a lot of wealth, so what should I give in charity and to whom? He did not ask just for himself; he meant to ask the question that was on the mind of many. Thus, Allah gave a general answer to all believers.
Take note of the phrase: ‘They ask you as to what they should spend’ because it shows that spending was understood and accepted. The companions were not wondering whether they should spend or not spend, they just wanted to know what the best way to give is. God answers: “Say, ‘Whatever good you spend, let it be for parents, relatives, orphans, the needy, and the traveler.” At first glance, it may seem that the question was about what to spend, yet the answer came regarding to whom the spending goes. But if you take a closer look, you will notice that Allah –The All-Wise- had answered the original question: He said that spending must be from whatever ‘good’ you have; whether knowledge, wisdom, physical help or money that you earned from lawful means. Allah added the advice of who deserves to receive your good wealth. The ones to whom good and wealth are given should be from your close social circles. In other words, your parents, close relatives, and neighbours. God wants you to have secure, well-supported family, friends, and neighbours. In this way, the entire community will be taken care of. When you help those in need from your family, and when each one of us does the same, all will be taken care of. My circle of close relatives and neighbours will intersect with your circle of close relatives and neighbours. God further extends this care to the orphans and the poor to ensure that all members of the community are well cared for.
As mentioned earlier the questioner in this verse was Amr ibn al-Jamouh. He is a man with an amazing story. He was lame limping when he walked. God had excused the blind and the lame from fighting. Ibn al-Jamuh came to the Prophet (peace be upon him) when he was about to leave for battle and said: ‘O Messenger of God, do not deprive me of being by your side in battle; my children do not allow me to go because of my lame leg.’ The Prophet (peace be upon him) said to him: "God has excused you amongst those He has excused.” He answered: "but, O Messenger of Allah, it is my wish to step onto the ground of paradise with this lame leg."
This was the person who asked about what Muslims should spend. God says: ‘let it be for parents, relatives, orphans, the needy, and the traveller.’ Here you may ask: Is every orphan in need? Perhaps the orphan inherited plenty of money; We answer that the issue here is not limited to fulfilling the financial needs of orphans; rather it is to stand beside the weak and show social solidarity. When a child becomes an orphan -even if he or she inherits plenty of money- he or she is still in dire need of compassion and parental support. Such care will bring about the feelings as if the father is still alive, and will drive away the feelings of envy towards other children who have their biological fathers besides them. If the orphan is neglected, he or she may rail against God and the entire society for the father’s death. The orphan may question: "why am I the one whose father died? Why me??" But when the orphan feels that all people are taking care of him or her in a fatherly manner, he or she will feel secure. In a truly Islamic society, those who have their biological fathers only receive the love of one father, whereas the orphan receives the loving care of many people. As a result, love spreads in the Muslim society as people feel content with what God has decreed for them. No one objects to fate, blames God or the society for the misfortunes of life. God may have taken the child’s father, but He –the All-Merciful- gave this child many fathers in return. Those who deny an orphan affection and kindness because his or her father left enough money are ignoring the tremendous moral and emotional reward of love. It is not a question of material needs, but an emotional, spiritual and personal need.
I would like to take a moment to remind you that Allah –the All-Wise- does not take a parent away from a child while there is a need for him or her on earth. I am sure that you can think back to a situation in your own life when you heard about the death of a father or mother of young children. You probably grieved and wondered about how the children would fare without one or both parents. After some years, when you meet those same children, you often find that they achieved a lot in their lives. They may own successful businesses or be highly educated and have families of their own. When a parent passes, God showers the children with an abundance of mercy.
This brings us back to the verse, after spending on orphans, Allah asks you to spend on the needy and the traveller. A traveller is a person who is far from family and wealth.
The verse ends with: “And whatever good that you may do, Allah indeed knows it.” God is addressing your human nature that expects to be rewarded and recognized by other people after you help someone or do them a favour. Allah is reminding you to seek your rewards from Him and no one else. In other words, do not let others know that you spend on relatives, orphans, and the traveller, because those who you want to tell cannot reward you or benefit you in any meaningful way. God’s knowledge of your deeds is sufficient for you. When you spend to help others and look for people’s approval, you often get the opposite result. You may face indifference, denial, envy and even defamation. You end up losing the money that you spent and losing the reward of the Hereafter. On the Day of Judgment, God will say to those who spend to be praised by people: “You spent so people would say: ‘so and so is generous,' and they said it; I will leave you to collect your reward from the ones you wanted to please.” God says:
You who believe, do not void out your charitable deeds with flaunting and hurtful words, like someone who spends his wealth only to be seen by people, not believing in God and the Last Day. Such a person is like a rock with soil on it: heavy rain falls and leaves it completely bare. Such people get no rewards for their works: God does not guide the disbelievers. (2:264)
Thus, your sole purpose when spending to help others should be God’s pleasure. You will find your rewards multiplied many times over when you need it the most on the Day of Resurrection. Moreover, God will endear you to the hearts of the people around you. Spending in secret is one of the best deeds you can do. Prophet Muhammad –peace be upon him- said: “There are seven types of people to whom God will provide shade on the day when there will be no shade except the shade of the Almighty. They are: a just ruler; a young person who grew up in the worship of God; a person whose heart is in love with mosques; two people who befriend each other in God’s cause and separate in God’s cause; a man who was seduced by a woman with status and beauty, yet he said ‘No, I fear God’; a person who spends secretly in God’s way so his left hand does not know what his right hand gave, and a person who remembers God in solitude and his eyes fill with tears."
Giving secretly is best when it comes to voluntary charity –also known as Sadaqa-; but when it comes to the obligatory alms –Zakat-, it is better to give publicly so others would follow your lead and fulfill their obligation. Similarly, it is better to perform obligatory prayer openly in mosques, while optional and voluntary prayers are better offered in private.