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Charity via empowerment

Huzaima Bukhari

“Charity is injurious unless it helps the recipient to become independent of it”―John D Rockefeller

When a man came begging to our holy Prophet, Hazrat Muhammad (PBUH) for a couple of dirhams, instead of giving him alms he (PBUH) bought him, for the same amount, an axe and a rope. This was providing him with the means to earn a decent livelihood. In other words, the two dirhams were used to empower him with the capacity to make more dirhams without compromising his self-respect. As the saying goes: “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”.

One of the worst and most inhuman forms of seeking money, is through begging. Even worse is the tossing of some coins in the beggar’s bowl and sighing with satisfaction at this act of charity, as if one has absolved oneself of a great responsibility. The word ‘charity’ by itself is full of negative implications as in the words of an enlightened friend: “It denigrates or degrades human potentials and it is insulting to the recipient.”

Perhaps George Sand has more brusquely expressed the effect charity has on the recipient and the giver when he says: “Charity degrades those who receive it and hardens those who dispense it.”

It goes without saying that all organized religions and various humanist ideologies place immense stress on ‘charity’ or ‘khairat’ (Urdu version of ‘charity’) and majority of their orthodox followers comply relentlessly without once understanding the real spirit behind it.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica:

“Charity, in Christian thought, the highest form of love, signifying the reciprocal love between God and man that is made manifest in unselfish love of one’s fellow men. St. Paul’s classical description of charity is found in the New Testament (I Cor. 13). In Christian theology and ethics, charity (a translation of the Greek word agapē, also meaning “love”) is most eloquently shown in the life, teachings, and death of Jesus Christ. St. Augustine summarized much of Christian thought about charity when he wrote: “Charity is a virtue which, when our affections are perfectly ordered, unites us to God, for by it we love him.” Using this definition and others from the Christian tradition, the medieval theologians, especially St. Thomas Aquinas, placed charity in the context of the other Christian virtues and specified its role as “the foundation or root” of them all.”

Similarly, the word ‘khairat’ which is derived from Arabic language as explained by https://www.urdupoint.com/dictionary/urdu-to-english/khairaat-meaning-in-english/15669.html means “blessings, good work, good deeds.” If someone wants to adopt it as a male name, it goes onto providing the meaning of each letter in the following manner:

K for knowledge—an avid learner

H for hero—as you appear to many

A for altruism—the unselfish you

I for interest—you show in others

R for resourceful—in any challenge that comes your way

A for adorable

T for tough—for you are not easily broken

We have little understanding about charity other than doling out money either to individuals or so-called ‘charitable’ organizations that in turn provide food, clothes, education and health facilities etc. to the poor and needy. This means that a certain class of society is condemned to stay impoverished and forever remain dependent upon the beneficial contributions of the rich and mighty that consider it their prerogative to make sure the receivers are truly grateful for their act of humanitarianism. The selfish among them in turn, secure tax exemptions and political favours to grab high positions of prestige and power on the basis of their ‘charitable’ work while the rest are happy to purge their enormous wealth by parting with just a minor fraction.

Since the true concept of ‘charity’ has become illusive it now amounts to encouraging beggary for which it was never meant as against love and empowerment for which it was originally created. When anyone brings up the issue of empowerment, the mighty echelons of society start shuddering and getting insecure at the idea of low-castes rubbing shoulders with their children. The very thought of marrying their ‘high-born’ daughter to the emancipated son of their serf, causes sleepless nights. The spiritual leaders dislike the notion that a person who, till yesterday was touching his knees with exaltation, should look into his eyes and question his authority or verdict. The husband wielding complete control over his wife loses his mind at the idea of her taking over the reins of her own life.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee rightly said: “Empowering the individual means empowering the nation. And empowerment is best served through rapid economic growth with rapid social change” but how many of us are ready to embrace this kind of a social turn-around?

We are more than willing to provide a paltry sum of money to residents of low-income groups so they can manage to just make their ends meet but are quick to turn down the scheme of creating a corporate body and make hundreds more shareholders/employees in the dividends of say, a manufacturing concern to be controlled and run by them, providing ample opportunity to truly grow into a gigantic holding benefitting everyone. In the absence of a level playing field for all, it’s no wonder that we have multi-layered social classes where some are dependent on the generosity of the upper classes and forever at their command. This clearly speaks of the prevailing injustice which manifests itself in the form of glorified beggars. According to Ralph Nader: “A society that has more justice is a society that needs little charity,” of course relating to ‘charity’ in the form of money and in kind.

However, more than that if ‘charity’ is recognized as love and compassion for the living and as doing of good deeds, the implications would be totally different from what they are observed as of today. Where there is true love (not the obsessive or possessive kind), there will always be the desire to see the objective of one’s affections happy and free from anxiety. In other words, one hopes to empower those persons in a way which keeps them independent and raises their self-esteem. This can only be done by teaching them skills—both mental and physical, giving them one’s time, transferring one’s knowledge, lending a helping hand to make them stand on their own, lifting them up from shambles and allowing them to participate productively in life. Giving of charity is worthless by a person whose heart is devoid of love for the recipients. The best charity is that empowerment process by which people, organizations and societies at large can acquire mastery over their lives.

Such a beautiful theme of ‘charity’ has been converted into negativity by proponents of vested-interest and fake ideologies to perpetuate their self-styled high ended false images. One needs to understand the fact that heaven on earth can only be created not by simply leading alone at the front but by taking along and strengthening all those who happen to fall in one’s circle of associates.


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

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