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The Visage of Benevolence in the West

If today's developed nations allocate an amount of their yearly budget and a fraction of their economic resources for the development of backward and underdeveloped nations, their action, in the first place, is not inspired by pure humanitarian motives or by sheer benevolence. Rather, it is because if the purchasing power of underdeveloped nations collapses and they are unable to consume the industrial products of the industrialised countries, their economies will suffer due to a decline in foreign trade. Hence maintenance of a relative economic equilibrium between the two sides is the basic motive behind this kind of aid.

Many individual acts of benevolence, too, serve as a means of satisfying selfish needs and there is no trace of sincerity in them; rather, mostly they serve as a bridge for attaining personal objectives. However, human merit as a source of benevolence has its sole place in man's character and, therefore, while making a judgement concerning the value of an act, it is not proper to consider solely the consequences. We should not look for an arithmetical equation for determining the value of a good act by equating it with its results. Arithmetics alone cannot resolve ethical issues.

Alexis Carrel paints the visage of benevolence in the West in the following description:

The motive behind our actions is either personal gain-more than anything else, financial advantage-or the satisfaction of our exhibitionist tendencies, the desire for title, recognition, and social status. This quest for personal gain often conceals itself under the garb of hypocrisy and hides behind the mask of philanthropy. One can observe such instances of treachery in military circles, universities, offices and courts ....

The very meaning of honour has been distorted. Those who dedicate themselves to a great purpose or strive in an unassuming manner appear to be crazy and contemptible. The signs of self-seeking effort can be seen everywhere-in the lady who engages in charitable undertakings without being concerned with helping the destitute in the depth of her heart, but who wishes either to become the leader of some institution or earn the Legion of Honour, or to make a profit by opening a lucrative venture; in the famous physician who recommends a medicine to his pupils and patients because he has been secretly bribed by its manufacturer; in the scholar whose efforts are not for the sake of advancement of knowledge, but for the hope of occupying an academic chair and the financial advantages associated with it; in the medical scientists who do not observe any code of morality either in conducting tests on their patients or in their medical care; in the students who tempt the college office clerk in order to obtain question papers before the examinations; in the pupil who sells the vitaminized sweets gifted by some charitable institution in the black market. Often the ugly and brutal face of avarice hides under the mask of altruism, scholarship, and philanthropy. We are fond of money, for money procures everything and gives us power before everything else. Almost everyone can be bought, either with money or with things that wealth can provide and the wealthy can offer as a temptation. Ultimately money helps us satisfy our base lusts. 5

The following story represents an example of the conduct and the way of thinking of those who were brought up under the influence of Islam's teachings. The story helps us understand the real character of the Islamic view of benevolence and charity.

One day a man came to the Noble Messenger (s) and declared that he was hungry and tired. The Prophet immediately sent someone to his house to fetch food for the man. He was told with regret by the Prophet's wife that there was nothing except water in the house. Disappointed that he could not feed the man, the Prophet turned to his Companions and asked them: "Can anyone of you accept him as a guest?" Thereupon, one of the men belonging to the Ansar extended his hospitality to the man. When he reached home he found that there was enough food only for the children. He told his wife to make arrangements to provide food for the guest. At the time of dinner, he put the lamp out so that the guest should think that he too was eating the dinner with him!

The great Prophet of Islam said:

"It is obligatory on every Muslim to do an act of charity every day" Someone said to him, "But who can afford to give charity every day?" The Prophet (S) replied: "If you remove troublesome stones and obstacles from the public way that is also considered an act of charity." 6

It should be noted that the Prophet (s) mentioned lifting of stones from the road used by Muslims as a charitable and godly action because that is the least that a man without any means can accomplish. That is, someone whose status does not allow him to lift stones from highways should accomplish bigger tasks. Those who have plenteous means of all kinds must perform acts of benevolence and charity in proportion to their capacity, because there must be a proportionate relationship between an individual's means and his works.

Once, one of my friends who was an influential social worker said to me: "My daily programme every morning after leaving home and before taking up my routine work is to consider it my duty to perform some act of altruism though it may involve guiding someone who has sought my counsel regarding his work. This is part of my fixed programme in life."

Truly, if all Muslims and concerned human beings should decide to put into action the programme suggested by the Holy Prophet of Islam and should everyone perform an act of charity in proportion to his means and in accordance with his profession, the wheels of social life would rotate more smoothly and many of the people's problems and difficulties would be solved in this way.


5. Carrel, op. cit pp. 15-16.

6. Al-Majlisi, Bihar al-anwar, vol. xv, p. 131.

Adapted from: "Ethics and Spiritual Growth" by: "Sayyid Mujtaba Musawi Lari"

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