He smiled at me, revealing a row of impeccable pearly white teeth. I’m not normally moved by a grin to stop in my tracks, but on this occasion a saying of the Prophet Muhammad, God grant him peace and blessings, flashed in my mind on how smiling at a fellow human being is an act of charity.
Since stumbling on this Hadith several years ago, I’ve become more receptive to how I share and respond to the simple gestures of kindness I encounter. In that moment, the young man’s vibrant smile and welcoming demeanour felt like a gift that I should acknowledge.
So I stopped, and we briefly exchanged niceties about how wonderful it was to be outside on an especially sunny August afternoon in London. He was a street fundraiser and I had willingly entered his open-air office, the door quickly closing behind me.
I imagined this gentleman, whose name I soon learned was Dale, spent much of that afternoon on the busy intersection in London’s financial district, trying to attract the attention of the streams of well-paid professionals leaving their offices, in hopes a handful of us would agree to donate to a cause that would no doubt be a worthy one.
Usually, I would be one of the hundreds of souls rushing past, smiling back but politely declining to entertain an interruption. Yet on that afternoon, as Dale described how his charity was seeking donors to help ease the burden of the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War, the look of genuine concern on his face moved me to listen intently.
The statistics are harrowing; one in every five Syrians has escaped the country, according to one estimate. That’s more than four million people, many struggling for basic survival in refugee camps scattered from Jordan and Lebanon to Serbia and Croatia. Dale’s charity is one of dozens trying to ease that pain by providing basic amenities like hygiene kits, water, food, blankets, clothing, as well as psychological support.
Having emerged from Ramadan just weeks earlier, I had already distributed my annual zakat, 2.5 percent of my assets, to various charitable causes, with the biggest proportion going to various refugee-relief efforts. So as I stood there on that Wednesday evening, I hesitated to drain my savings further. I had already done my part, hadn’t I?
Perhaps he could sense my indecision, for just as I tried to wiggle myself away, Dale interceded gently with words that rushed into my heart, drowning out any doubts circling in my head: “If you feel that you can spare the £8 a month and not affect your lifestyle, then it would be great if you can contribute.”
When he put it that way, I realized I surely could spare a sum that would buy about 3.5 cappuccinos or, as he suggested, a weekly loaf of bread. There were several charities already taking quantities of cash from my bank account each month, yet I couldn’t deny that I was blessed with a financial freedom I would not have fathomed only a few years ago.
Since embracing Islam, a state of presence where I strive to surrender to the Divine, in the past six years, I’ve developed a soft spot for responding to pleas for help. In the Quran, prayer and charity are continually mentioned together in the symmetrical rhythm of the Holy Book’s verses. We’re reminded often in the same line to be steadfast in prayer and practice “regular” charity. Since I pray five times a day I naturally presumed I should consistently give generously from my possessions.
My understanding of wealth changed during this spiritual transformation. I moved from claiming ownership of my possessions to regarding them as tools of my worldly existence which ultimately belongs to God. As my income grew, I regarded it as a sign that my Sustainer was entrusting me with resources not simply to improve my personal wellbeing, but to look out for the welfare of my loved ones and my community.
The more I shared, both materially and spiritually, the more I discovered that every morsel I gave would be returned to me in abundance, a process beautifully expressed in this Quranic verse.
The parable of those who spend
of their wealth in the way of God
is that of a grain of corn:
It grows seven ears, and each ear has a hundred grains.
God gives manifold increase to whom He pleases;
And God cares for all and He knows all things.
In the Hadith describing the power of a smile, the Prophet spoke of how every person has the obligation to be charitable each day of her life. His definition, while including monetary contributions, was much more vast.
“The doors of goodness are many,” he said. “Enjoining good, forbidding evil, removing harm from the road, listening to the deaf, leading the blind, guiding one to the object of his need, hurrying with the strength of one’s legs to one in sorrow who is asking for help, and supporting the feeble with the strength of one’s arms. All of these are charity prescribed for you.”
There’s an inherent equality nestled in this idea: We all have a role in ensuring we build a society where love, affection and generosity flow freely. Since each person has equal access to God in all moments, I’m trying to take to heart the idea that I should do whatever I can to dismantle the barriers that prevent individual assets from moving between people to alleviate disparities.
After filling out the forms on that Wednesday afternoon to add another small monthly contribution toward easing the massive refugee crisis, I was humbled by the sense that I had received far more than I gave. Before walking away, Dale and I exchanged smiles once more. I found myself carrying that grin on my face all the way home.