I want you to think of an act of charity or generosity that has inspired you, restored your faith in humanity, or moved you to help someone. What characterized that act of charity? What made it hit home for you?
Acts of charity that touch our hearts are often ones that stem from a place of selflessness and genuine care and concern for others. They lack egotistical motives, and are done despite much sacrifice and for reasons greater than material, superficial gains. One of my favorite tales of generosity comes from the Holy Qur’an. It describes acts of selfless giving that are unmatched in history, and ones that can serve as examples for anyone who wishes to do good in this world.
The story is described in Surat Al-Insaan, verse 8 (1):
وَيُطْعِمُونَ الطَّعَامَ عَلَىٰ حُبِّهِ مِسْكِينًا وَيَتِيمًا وَأَسِيراً
“And they give food out of love for Him [God] to the poor and the orphan and the captive”
These sounds like regular acts of charity, until you hear the story behind them (2, 3):
One day, Prophet Muhammad’s grandchildren, Hassan and Husayn, who were toddlers at the time, fell very ill. The Prophet advised their concerned parents, Imam Ali ibn Abu Talib and Lady Fatima (the Prophet’s daughter), to make a vow to God that if Hassan and Hussain recovered, they would fast for three days – and make a vow they did. By the grace of God, Hassan and Husayn recovered, and the family (along with their maid, Fitha) began to fast. What ensued are events that display the utmost level of generosity.
The family fasted their first day, and as they were about to break their fast on the small amount of bread they had, there was a knock on their door. It was a destitute man who said, “Oh Household of the Prophet, I am a poor Muslim and I am hungry – will you give me food?” Without hesitation, the family gave up the little they had to the needy man, and slept that night having only had water to break their fast. And with this they began their second day of fasting.
As they were about to break their fast on day two, they heard a knock on the door. It was an orphan who stood outside their door, begging for food. Just like the night before, the family gave up their bread and broke their fast on water alone.
You can probably guess where the story is going from here.
On the third and final fasting day, someone knocked on the holy family’s door. It was a (recently released, non-Muslim) prisoner who, just like those before him, pleaded for food. Once again, the family gave up all they had.
By the end of the three days, the family was extremely drained and physically exhausted, but had, nonetheless, fulfilled their vow.
This family’s incredible act of charity sets an excellent example for all of us and provides us with many morals and lessons.
First, despite their physical state and the toll of their charity on their bodies, the family did not complain or reject those who knocked on their doors. Each day they gave benevolently while disregarding their own hunger and desire for food. This begs the question: why did they do this? What kept them motivated, determined, and unrelentingly generous?
Subsequent verses (Al-Insaan 9, 10) provide a clear answer:
إِنَّمَا نُطْعِمُكُمْ لِوَجْهِ اللَّهِ لَا نُرِيدُ مِنْكُمْ جَزَاءً وَلَا شُكُورًا
(9) We only feed you for God’s sake; we desire from you neither reward nor thanks
إِنَّا نَخَافُ مِنْ رَبِّنَا يَوْمًا عَبُوسًا قَمْطَرِيرًا
(10) Surely we fear from our Lord a stern, distressful day.
These verses leave no doubt about the family’s motivations. They had given all their food out of love for God and fear of a day when they will be asked about what they did when someone begged at their door for help. They could have rejected the needy on the basis that they had very little food and needed it to keep them going for the remaining days of fasting. Alternatively, they could have donated some of their food so that they are not deprived of a share of it themselves. Neither option would have been sinful. But they did not do that. They made no excuses. They rejected no one. They thought not about their own worldly nourishment, but about what is most pleasing to God and their obligation to help the destitute in their community.
What makes this story even more incredible is their desire not to be thanked or given a reward for their actions. Think about something that is extremely precious to you and imagine having to give it up. Would you expect to be thanked? Recognized? Given credit? Nowadays, we expect to be praised for simply taking someone’s picture (how many times have you seen “photo creds to me!” on social media?). However, this family did not seek glory or fame through their charity, nor did they wish to be called philanthropists or have their name trending on social media. Their intentions were purely for God and humanity, and their minds on Judgement Day. Although their physical state was deteriorating day by day, they were gaining heights on the scales of spirituality, ethics, and humanity.
It is recorded that Imam Husayn said in his adult years: “The most generous of the people is the person who gives to those from whom he has no hope of return” (4). Not only did he and his family not want to be thanked or rewarded, there was also not much the needy could give them anyway. The needy possessed nothing such that they had to beg strangers for a bite of food. They could offer no fame or money, no land or power. But that did not make a difference for the Household of the Prophet, who saw them as people in need of compassion and mercy. Indeed, this family, through their actions, manifested the mercy of God towards His creations.
This story also highlights the importance of fulfilling one’s promises. Despite their circumstances, the family never went back on their vow to fast for three days. How often do we go back on our word for the most silly and superficial reasons? How many times do we break a promise because it is inconvenient, or because we are forgetful or find no personal benefit from the promise. Fulfilling vows is one of the most important acts in Islam (see Surat Al-Insaan, verse 7), and this family demonstrated that no matter the situation, going back on a sincere and righteous promise is unacceptable.
Finally, it is worth pointing out that the captive who came to the holy family’s door is thought to have been a non-Muslim who had been recently freed from imprisonment. Although the verse does not say explicitly that he was a non-Muslim, given the use of the word “أَسِيراً” (captive) and the context at the time, scholars suggest that it refers to a non-Muslim (3). Why does this matter? Because the interaction between the family and someone of a different religion demonstrates that caring for the needy does not end where our differences start. By giving a non-Muslim captive all of their food, the holy family shows us that support for the destitute is blind to factors such as religion and social status. Someone sincerely asking for our help should not be rejected nor should their rights be stamped upon if we are looking to please God and serve humanity.
What I find particularly intriguing is that this story is recorded in and central to the chapter called “The Human.” It is as if we are being told that these individuals are the best examples of human beings and that their actions, and perhaps more importantly, their intentions, define humanity. For is it not the most beautiful act to give so generously, despite one’s own needs and desires, for the sake of God rather than worldly gains, and expect nothing in return? Is it not stories like this that awaken something deep within us that cannot be stimulated by anything material or worldly? Is it not deeds like this that keep the world spinning and give hope to the hopeless, strength to the weak, guidance to the lost, and inspiration to those who want to do good? Is the human being not in need of examples like Ali, Fatima, Hassan, and Husayn, who show us that it is possible to give without losing something ourselves?
Read through the pages of history and tell me if you find anyone who has contributed more to humanity than this family has. Through their actions, they gave not only to the poor, the orphan, and the captive, but to me, and to you, and everyone who has been blessed to know their story. There is no doubt that the members of this humble family have earned their right as role models for every human across the lands and the generations.