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Charity begins at home!

Huzaima Bukhari

“True charity is the desire to be useful to others with no thought of recompense”—Emanuel Swedenborg, (1688-1772) Swedish Lutheran theologian, scientist, philosopher, revelator and mystic

Collins English Dictionary defines ‘charity’ as, the giving of help, money, food etc. to those in need; an institution or organization set up to provide help, money etc. to those in need; the help, money etc. given to the people in need, alms; but perhaps, the most striking meaning is a kindly and lenient attitude towards people. Over time this has been reduced to giving of charity, a matter of pride and taking of charity, humiliating that has in reality overturned the true spirit of the concept of charity. Contrary to popular belief that ‘charity begins at home’ is a biblical statement, it was actually coined by Sir Thomas Browne in Religio Medici (1642):

Charity begins at home, is the voice of the world: yet is every man his greatest enemy.” The idea has, however, been adapted from the Bible where in 1-Timothy 5:8 tremendous stress is placed on caring for one’s family: “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

To cut it short, the act of ‘giving’ is charity. Giving to one’s family, neighbours, the needy and even friends, all constitutes charity but the most important thing is that the underlying notion of giving should be free from all expectations as well as favour because these are the elements that convert charity into a matter of pride, sowing the seeds of arrogance in the minds of the benefactors. If giving away one’s wealth is not instilling humbleness, it is nothing more than the satisfaction of one’s inflated ego and not an act that can be termed as charity. John Wyclif, way back in 1382 said: “Charite schuld bigyne at himself” and satirist John Marston in his play Histrio-Mastix (published in 1680) writes:

“True charity beginneth first at home,
Heere in your bosomes dwell your deere-lov’d hearts,
Feed them with joy; first crowne their appetites,
And then cast water on the care-scroch’d face,
Let your own longings first be satisfied,
All other pitty is but foolish pryde.”

All these stalwarts mean to say that by giving charity to ourselves we actually do not fall in the category of beggars as most of us consider beneficiaries of charity to be so. In fact the position of all living beings before the Al-Mighty is that of perpetual beggars since we have to look up to Him for all our needs. The way He doles out charity to the rich and poor whether believers or non-believers should be enough to reduce mankind at least, to the utmost level of humility but man falters here and thinks that whatever rewards he gets is on account of his own efforts therefore, it is purely his personal discretion with whom to share his blessings which he may regard as providing for, as in the case of his family; and charity, where he is supposedly going beyond his duty and being generous to the needy.

The study of scriptures reveals a perspective that seems to nullify beggars and imposes extreme responsibilities upon the shoulders of those who are blessed with resources and abundance of wealth. According to the Torah as described by Rabbi Baruch S Davidson, whosoever are granted the means have been chosen to be givers as opposed to others who, due to reasons known to the Creator, were chosen to be receivers. Thus the practice of Judaism requires that if by divine providence, one is exposed to someone’s need, it is indicative that something has to be done about it in the form of money, an encouraging word or at least a smile. This is other than 10% (maaser) of one’s earnings which must be set aside for charitable purposes.

Christianity places charity as the highest form of love between God and man that manifests itself in man’s unselfish love for his fellow men and which is most eloquently shown in the life, teachings and death of Jesus Christ: (The New Testament (I Cor. 13). St Augustine sums up Christian thought about charity in the following words: “Charity is a virtue which, when our affections are perfectly ordered, unites us to God, for by it we love him.”

The Hindu ideology also holds charity as one of its fundamental principles. The Rigveda discusses “dana” (giving) in the Vedas, relating it to “satya” (truth) and in another hymn points to the guilt one should feel from not giving to those in need.

Jamal Krafess, the Director General of Islamic Relief, Switzerland writes in his treatise, The Influence of the Muslim Religion in Humanitarian Aid: “The study of Quranic and hadith texts gives a clear idea of the intensity of the force with which the Muslim religion has stimulated humanitarian action. This is both a ritual and an obligation. When a Muslim undertakes a humanitarian action he does so primarily as an act of worship, to be nearer to God. He expects a reward in this life or in the hereafter. He cannot declare himself a believer if he does not come to the aid of his fellow men. In his eyes piety is indissociable from pity.”

With all leading schools of thought united on the concept of charity as being kind and benevolent towards other living beings with no discrimination in terms of differences in faith and ideologies, it becomes very difficult to understand why conflict is so rampant in the entire world where there exist extremely orthodox followers of these religions. Besides, it is also hard to perceive, why anyone would not want to pool in resources according to their ability for the general welfare of mankind. Yet we have hoarders of wealth, tax evaders, secret vaults and banks where the rich stow away their wealth only to lose it all on their passing away. What a shame! While living, they are overcome with haughtiness and look down upon those to whom they give charity. If only they know that in discharging their duty of sharing their wealth it is not a cause for ego inflation and the beneficiary should never have to pay with his dignity. This would have brought both peace and prosperity, not just for a handful but all the peoples living on this planet.


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

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