Selflessness

During a journey, ‘Abd Allāh b. Ja‘far (may Allah be pleased with him) stopped by a date orchard. The caretaker of the orchard was a black slave. Somebody had just brought three slices of bread to the slave, when a dog came by him. The slave gave one slice of the bread to the dog. The dog ate it. Then, the slave gave him the second slice. The dog ate that too. He gave the last slice of bread to the dog and the dog ate it. ‘Abd Allāh, having witnessed what had happened, asked the slave, “What is your wage?”

The slave replied:

“My wage is the three slices of bread, as you saw.”

‘Abd Allāh then asked:

“Why did you give it all to the dog?”

The slave replied:

“Usually there are no dogs around here. This dog must have come here from afar. I could not let him go hungry.”

‘Abd Allāh asked:

“But what are you going to eat today?”

The slave replied:

“I will be patient. I have turned over my day’s earnings to this hungry creature of Allah.”

‘Abd Allāh said:

Subhān Allah! People say I am very generous. This slave is more generous than I am!”

Following this, he bought the orchard and the slave. He gave the slave his freedom and donated the orchard to him. (The story is narrated in Kimyā-i Sa‘ādah by Imam al‑Ghazālī)

Islam, out of which such kind, compassionate and tender people have emerged, has made zakāh (poor tax) obligatory to forestall enmity and jealousy, and to maintain social equity and love between the poor and the rich. It also encourages voluntary charity, which is a conscientious obligation to establish Islamic brotherhood at a higher level. Thus, Islam allows each believer to develop a rich heart while enabling him to reach the zenith of selflessness. After confirming the oneness of Allah, the real goal of the religion is to establish peace in the society by raising kind, considerate and thoughtful people. This perfection is attained only through the feelings of affection and compassion which reside in the heart, and as their consequence give rise to the ability to share one’s earnings regardless of one’s own needs. Rising beyond this, these feelings may nourish the desire to share all that one has. This is what we call īthār (selflesness) in Arabic.

Mercy is a fire that is never extinguished in the heart of a Muslim. In this world, it is the distinguishing essence of being human which leads us through the heart to union with our Lord. A compassionate Muslim is generous, humble, and a person of service. At the same time, he is a doctor of hearts who injects life into the souls of others. A compassionate believer is a person who strives at all times to offer all of his or her services with love and compassion, and is a source of hope and faith for the people around him or her. A believer is always on the first line of every struggle which bestows peace to the hearts of others. Likewise, with their words, acts, and presence, believers undertake a constructive role against every type of misery, suffering and pain. They are always at the side of the sorrowful, troubled, abandoned and hopeless, because the first fruit of faith in a Muslim is mercy and compassion. Human morality and values are perfected with the Qur’an. For this reason, when we open the Qur’an, the first divine attributes that we come across are the Most Merciful and the Most Compassionate. Our Lord gives us the good tidings that He is the most compassionate of the compassionate ones, and He orders His servants to embody the qualities of His morality. In turn, a believer’s heart which is filled with love for their Lord must project mercy and compassion towards all of Allah’s creatures. The consequence of loving Allah is to turn towards His creatures with love and compassion. A lover of Allah conceives of making sacrifices as a pleasure, and as a measure of the degree of his love for the Beloved.

Thus, giving charity for Allah’s creation is an expression of love for Allah. Indeed, there are many kinds of sadaqa (charity for the sake of Allah). The highest point of giving, as we mentioned above, is īthār (selflessness). This is the quality of putting the needs of others above one’s own needs. Selflessness is the highest level of sensitivity which every mature believer is obliged to conscientiously reflect upon in his social conduct. Entering the flourishing climate of selflessness is only possible with a kind heart and a kind soul, because real selflessness is giving without fearing poverty. This state is exhibited to perfection and in a most beautiful way in the lives of prophets and the friends of Allah. Of course, it is not for everyone to climb to such a zenith and reach such high stars. But, based on the reality that the closer we can get to these horizons the more blessings we earn, even the smallest step in the path of selflessness is an eternal gain that cannot be abandoned.

According to the narration of Abū Hurayra (may Allah be pleased with him), a man came to the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) and said: “O Prophet of Allah! I am hungry!” The Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) sent somebody to one of his wives and they asked for some food. But the mother of the believers said, “I swear by Allah Who sent you as a Prophet that there is nothing at home other than water.” Upon hearing the same thing from his other wives, the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) turned to his Companions and asked: “Who wants to have this person as a guest tonight?” Someone from the Ansār, said, “I will have him as my guest, O Prophet of Allah!” and he took that poor man to his home. When they arrived at the house he asked his wife: “Is there anything to eat?” She said: “No, there is only enough food for our children.” The companion said: “Then keep the children busy. If they want food, put them to bed and make them sleep. When the guest arrives, turn off the light. We will pretend to be eating.” When the guest arrived they all sat down for food. The guest ate and satisfied his hunger, whereas they only feigned to eat. Since there was no light the guest did not see that his hosts were not eating. They slept in hunger. In the morning the companion went to the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace). When the Prophet saw him, he said, “Because of what you did for your guest last night, Allah is very pleased with you.” (Bukhārī, Muslim).

Even though Sheikh Mahmud Sami Ramazanoğlu, a friend of Allah, had a degree in law, he did not practice this career out of fear of violating a person’s rights. Instead, he preferred to be a bookkeeper at a store in Tahtakale, Istanbul. He would cross the Bosphorus to Karakoy by boat, and from Karakoy to Tahtakale he used to walk instead of taking the bus. By making this sacrifice, he was able to give his bus fare as charity. The states of consciousness and morals of the great personalities are beautiful examples for us. Even by making small sacrifices in personal comfort, in the decoration of our homes, or in our daily expenses, we can adopt their example and share in their high morality.

Selflessness (īthār) at the same time extends beyond generosity (sakhāwa), because generosity is sacrificing wealth that is not needed. Selflessness, however, is giving something that is needed. The spiritual rewards of selflessness are in proportion to the sacrifice of the servant. Allah praised the Ansār who turned over their wealth to the Muhājirūn (those Muslims who fled persecution in Makkah) and chose to take care of their needs before their own needs as is said in the following verse: “But they give them preference over themselves, even though poverty was their own lot. And those who are saved from the covetousness of their own souls, they are the ones that achieve prosperity.” (Hashr, 59:9).

Once when ‘Umar b. Khattāb (may Allah be pleased with him) was on his way to Jerusalem, and it was his servant’s turn to ride the camel, he insisted that his servant stay on the camel even though they had arrived at the entrance of the city. They entered Jerusalem with the servant riding the camel and ‘Umar was walking. This is an example of īthār, or selflessness. This shows that charity is not always monetary. The actions described above are also kinds of charity.

Selflessness, which is the highest level of charity, is in essence tearing something off from oneself and giving it out, turning over one’s share to his brother in religion. It is a special kind of charity that belongs to Prophets, Companions, friends of Allah, and righteous servants (sālihūn).

The following incident involving ‘Alī b. Abī Tālib (may Allah be pleased with him) and his noble wife Fātima (may Allah be pleased with her) demonstrates selflessness in the best way: Ibn ‘Abbās (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated that ‘Alī and Fātima fasted for three days to fulfill their pledge to Allah when their sons Hasan and Husayn recovered after an illness. The first day they cooked a dish with barley flour for breaking their fast, and just as they were about to break their fast there was a knock at the door. It was a poor person who was hungry. The family gave the food they had to this person willingly for the sake of Allah and they broke their fast with water only. The second day, when it was time to break their fast an orphan came to their door. They gave their food to this orphan and broke their fast with water again. The third day, a slave came to them asking for help. They showed great patience and selflessness and gave their food to the slave.

This unparalleled generosity, selflessness and beautiful morality was confirmed and extolled by the following verses, where Allah said:

And they feed, for the love of Allah, the indigent, the orphan, and the captive, (saying), “We feed you for the sake of Allah alone: No reward do we desire from you, nor thanks. We only fear a day of frowning and distress from the side of our Lord”. But Allah will deliver them from the evil of that day, and will shed over them brightness and a (blissful) joy. (Insān, 76:8-11)

None among Allah’s creations can be compared with the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) regarding generosity, charity and selflessness. His generosity was far beyond the generosity of ordinary people. He was generous with his knowledge, his wealth and his soul, through sacrifice in the path of Allah, explaining the religion, leading people to the right path, feeding the hungry, advising the ignorant and helping the needy while relieving their burden. (Altinoluk Sohbetleri, V.III, p. 56).

Safwān b. Umayya, who was one of the most well-known pagans among Quraysh, was with the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) during the wars of Hunayn and Tā’if, even though he was not a Muslim. While they were walking in Jīrāna, the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) saw that Safwān was looking in surprise at some of the booty that had been collected. He asked Safwān: “Do you like it?”

When he answered “Yes” the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) said: “Take it! It is all yours.” Upon this, Safwān took shahāda and became a Muslim, saying, “No heart other than the heart of a Prophet can be this generous.” (Islam Tarihi, p. 474).

Selflessness is the most magnificent level of generosity. We have to remember that through such generous actions of the Prophet, his Companions, and the righteous servants of later generations (May Allah be pleased with them), many people who were stubborn in their denial became believers; many enemies became friends. Likewise, selflessness strengthened the love of many believers for their fellow believers. The Prophet of Allah (upon him blessings and peace) never refused a request if it was in his power to fulfill it. Once he had ninety thousand dirhams. He put them on a mat and distributed them to every needy person who came by.

The Quality of Giving Freely (birr)

The quality of being able to give freely, which is called birr in the Qur’an, is also a noble charity like īthār. The Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) who is the ideal example of all moral qualities, is a matchless great personality in this way too. The following story shows his sensitivity to giving preference to his Muslim brother over himself even in the smallest thing. One day the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) made two toothbrushes from a miswāq (a stick for brushing the teeth). One of them was very nice and straight, the other was crooked. The Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) gave the better one to his companion and kept the crooked one for himself. When his friend said, “This nice one is better for you, O the Messenger of Allah!”, the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) said: “The person will be questioned who accompanied someone even for an hour whether or not he was careful about the rights of friendship.” This way he showed that this right is only paid with the understanding of īthār and birr by choosing the need of a Muslim brother over his own (Ihyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn, V.II, p. 435).

The following story is another example of this kind of charity. One day the Companions were gathered around the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) in the mosque and they were listening to his sermon. The Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) recited this verse: “By no means shall you attain righteousness unless you give (freely) of that which you love: and whatever you give, Allah knows it well.” (Āl ‘Imrān, 3:92)

The Companions who were listening to the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) felt this verse in the depths of their hearts. They were trying to reckon if they were capable of giving what they liked the most. Suddenly a companion stood up. This companion, whose face was bright with the light of faith was Abū Talha (may Allah be pleased with him). He owned a big garden with six hundred date trees in it that was very close to the Prophet’s Masjid and he loved that garden very much. He used to invite the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) to his garden often and get his blessing.

Abū Talha said: “ Messenger of Allah! Of my property, that which I love most is the garden in the city which you are familiar with. At this moment, I wish to give it to the Messenger of Allah for the sake of Allah. You can dispose of it the way you see fit and give it to the poor.” After he spoke he went to the garden to carry out this decision. When Abū Talha reached the garden he found his wife sitting under the shade of a tree. Abū Talha did not enter the garden. His wife asked: “O Abū Talha! Why are you waiting outside? Come in!” Abū Talha said: “I cannot enter inside, you should also take your belongings and leave.” Upon this unexpected answer his wife asked in surprise: “Why, O Abū Talha, is not this garden ours?” “No, from now on this garden belongs to the poor people of Medina,” he said and gave the news of good tidings in the verse and told her eagerly of the act of charity he had performed. His wife asked, “Did you give it on behalf of the two of us or just yourself?” He answered, “On behalf of us.” He heard the following words from his wife in peace: “May Allah be pleased with you, Abū Talha! I thought of the same thing when I saw the poor people around us, but I could not find the courage to tell you. May Allah accept our charity. I am leaving the garden and coming with you, too!”

It is not difficult to predict the kind of climate of happiness that would surround the world if this moral quality became rooted in the souls of people. Imagine the beauty that would come out of this. This is what led Abū Talha to make such a sacrifice. The Messenger of Allah (upon him blessings and peace) encouraged even those who had very little to give charity. For example, even though Abū Dharr (may Allah be pleased with him) was one of the poorest Companions, he used to encourage him to give charity by saying, “O, Abū Dharr! When you cook soup, put in plenty of water and share it with your neighbors!” (Muslim, Birr, 142).

A believer must give out light like a full moon on a dark night, and be considerate, sensitive, kind, selfless, generous, merciful, compassionate, and full of enthusiasm for giving charity. There is a serious need for giving charity and being selfless in these days of economic crisis. We should not forget that we could be the ones struggling in poverty and need. For this reason, it is our debt of thanks to Allah to give charity to the ill, sorrowful, lonely, needy and hungry people and act in a selfless manner. We should share the bounties we have with the needy, so that those hearts which we fill with happiness will be a means of our spiritual progress in this world and a source of reward and happiness in the hereafter and happiness. O my Lord! Let all kinds of mercy be the endless treasure of our spiritual life.

Our Lord! Guide us to be embodiments of the selfless life of our Prophet Muhammad (upon him blessings and peace) and living manifestations of the selfless lives of the scholars of Islam who have followed his example!

Amin!