Charity. The first thing that comes to most people's minds is the giving of money, or non-perishables, or services to someone in need, no strings attached: Thanksgiving soup kitchens, Christmas hampers or the newest addition: Giving Tuesday.
The Oxford Dictionary defines it as 'the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need.'
It's quite an interesting concept...an attempt to equalize material imbalances in our society. Those with more, helping those with less. The funny thing is, this often one-dimensional definition of charity excludes people without commodities like extra money or extra time from the 'giving' group and often by default places them in the 'needing' group.
But charity is so much more than giving goods or services to those without. Charity can simply be making the world a better place.
"To judge justly between two people is charity.
To help a man with his mount, lifting him onto it or hoisting his belongings onto it is charity.
And the good word is charity.
And every step you take towards the prayer is charity.
And removing a harmful object from the road is charity."
"And the smiling in the face of your brother is charity."
These are some ways that charity is defined in Islam, in the words of Prophet Muhammad. It takes the traditional definition of 'the giving of goods or services'and adds an entirely spiritual dimension: just being an existence of good in society and in the world. You don't have to have something to give, be it a material thing or your time; you simply have to care about your fellow humanity.
It's something we could desperately use in our world today. Charity in its traditional sense has created two groups: the 'givers' associated with feelings of superiority or of being blessed and the 'receivers' associated with feelings of having made a mistake or of being weak. A definition of charity tied to the giving of goods and services alone defines wealth as the possession of tangible things, things that can be commoditised. And yes, today time is a commodity with a dollar value attached. Helping the homeless, boosting our children's future, taking care of the sick, and welcoming fleeing refugees...these issues are now discussed in terms of numbers. How many billions did the government spend and how much is the return in saved expenses, tax revenues, economic contributions, etc. Spreadsheets are drawn up and there must be a surplus on the giver's side in order for the transaction to go through.
But what about the transaction of goodness and positivity and love? These intangible things that cannot be commoditised are often forgotten in the discussion and are undervalued as a result. What if we all see wealth as possessing more than just tangible commodities...what if wealth was measured in how much positivity you had? Interestingly, a little country Bhutan is pioneering this idea. They have decided to stop measuring their country's progress and success using the GDP, Gross Domestic Product which is a monetary evaluation of all the goods and services produced in a time period. They now use something called GNH: Gross National Happiness. Decisions are made based on a positivity surplus, not a monetary one.
This would radically change our worlds...our society needs that holistic understanding of wealth and charity that Prophet Muhammad describes. Our wealth includes our goodness; charity involves more than just commodities. We could say that this definition of charity is still all about giving...only now it includes the giving of gentleness, the giving of caring, the giving of love.
Maryam Baksh is a graduate from the University of British Columbia. She is a member of the Muslim community in Vancouver and a busy young mother.
You can read more articles on our interfaith blog, Spiritually Speaking, HERE
* This article was published in the print edition of the Times Colonist on Saturday, February 23rd 2019