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'Charity' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

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This article explains the role of charity in Islamic teachings and Muslim societies. The article is reprinted from The Islamic World: Past and Present in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


Since the days of Muhammad, followers of Islam have supported many educational, religious, and social welfare causes. Governments and individuals regularly contribute to charitable activities. In the Islamic world, giving serves both social and spiritual purposes.

 Setting Aside for Giving

The Arabic word waqf refers to the practice of reserving property and the income it generates for a charitable donation. This custom dates back to ancient times, when the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans dedicated properties for educational and religious purposes. Today variations of waqf and charitable giving exist throughout the world and in all cultures.

Three different types of waqf exist in the Islamic world. Religious waqf includes mosques and real estate that provides funds for their operation. The first religious waqf was the Kaaba in Mecca. Philanthropic waqf promotes the interests of the poor as well as the general public by providing funding for libraries, schools, and health services. It may also be used for loans to small businesses and the construction of roads and bridges. Muhammad initiated philanthropic waqf when he donated seven orchards to assist the poor and needy. The third type, a posterity or family waqf, benefits the family and descendants of its founder.

Several rules govern the creation of a waqf. The property must be something of real or enduring value, such as land, buildings, herds, jewelry, tools, or books. The donation must be an act of charity that is made on a permanent basis. At the time of donation, the founder must be legally fit and able to make the donation. The founder specifies the conditions for waqf and decides who will manage it. These conditions must be followed as long as they are in accordance with Islamic law. All revenues generated by waqf must be used for the original purpose set forth by its founder.

By the early 1800s, corruption had become common in the management of waqf properties. Muslim governments established agencies to regulate the practice. During the colonial period of the 1800s and 1900s, and after independence, many government leaders seized possession of waqf properties. Today however, a growing number of Muslim countries seek to revive the custom of privately-run waqf foundations.

Helping the Poor

Zakat, setting aside a portion of one's wealth for the poor, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Both the Qur'an and sunnah require this form of personal giving. All Muslims who are able must give 2.5 percent of their net worth annually. Wealth counted for zakat includes gold, silver, livestock, crops, currency, and items that can be quickly converted to cash, such as stocks and bonds. Early caliphs decreed that failing to pay zakat violated the law.

Zakat serves both a functional and a religious role in Islamic societies. It helps redistribute some wealth to the poor in order to reduce tension among the classes and promote a greater sense of community. Zakat also stimulates the economy. It encourages wealthy Muslims to invest in physical assets, such as equipment, factories, and tools, because such assets are not included when calculating a person's net worth. This type of giving also increases the purchasing power of the lower classes. On a religious level, paying zakat provides a sense of completion for satisfying a pillar requirement. In addition, giving enables Muslims to overcome greed and materialism in favor of spiritual advancement.

The secular, or nonreligious, governments set up by colonial powers in the 1800s and 1900s eroded zakat practices. Secular tax systems replaced mandated religious giving. Recently, however, several Muslim states have restored zakat. Since the 1980s, Sudan and Pakistan have established agencies to collect and distribute zakat funds.

Sadaqah is a voluntary offering, above and beyond what is required, that may serve a variety of purposes besides charity. According to the Qur'an, sadaqah can be a way of atoning for offenses. Some Muslims use sadaqah to compensate for failing to perform certain rituals.


"Charity." In The Islamic World: Past and Present edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

How to Cite This Page

"Muslim Journeys | Item #176: 'Charity' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", April 17, 2024


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