Poverty in the face of Plenty

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit four remarkable European cities – Helsinki, Stockholm, Berlin and London. I spent a week in each and never ran into a beggar. I certainly saw people who looked impoverished, but they didn’t  panhandle.

Immediately after my trip to Europe I went on a three-week vacation to India and for some reason I felt as if the entire nation were beggars. According to official estimates there are about 600,000 beggars in India. I don’t know how they counted them, but it seemed like a whole lot more to me.

It is not often that I visit countries with a population of 1.1 billion. My own country – Canada – has a population of just over 30 million.  I guess if one million Indians were beggars that wouldn’t be all that bad.

The European Union has close to half a billion people with a GDP of USD$14.5 trillion. That’s almost 35 per cent of the world’s GDP with a per capita of USD$30-$40,000. Contrast that with India’s GDP of USD$1 trillion and a per capita of only $3,700.

Still, India is the world’s fourth largest economy and its future is perhaps the brightest when contrasted with say China. One reason could be the fact that a staggering 600 million people are under the age of 25. India is also the largest arms importer in the developing world. The argument as to whether a strong China or a poor China is a threat to the rest of the world can be applied as well to India.

India is already running out of potable water. Between 1993 and 2003 an estimated 100,000 farmers committed suicide in India. And yet by the time we celebrate Christmas this year Indians would have purchased 10 million automobiles and 72 million cell phones. Strategic analysts will tell you that weapons, development and poverty is a deadly brew.

When I found myself surrounded by what I can only describe as stifling poverty I was at first tempted to dismiss it as another consequence of western greed. I heard myself say it was not my responsibility.

At the recent G-8 meeting in Germany $60 billion was pledged in aid to Africa. Given the role Europe has played in the underdevelopment of Africa you don’t need a calculator to conclude that its literally ‘a drop in the bucket.’ In other words, hardly enough to fix the problem.

In many ways blaming the rich for the poverty of the poor is an old and tattered book especially when I found myself walking along the causeway leading out to Haji Baba Ali’s Dargah in Mumbia. It appeared to me that begging was clearly a profession.

There have been shocking stories in Indian  newspapers about parents who deliberately disfigure their children in infancy so that they would have no other option in life but to settle on the family’s business. In high traffic areas beggars tend to operate as unions, you give to one and suddenly there are 10 of them following you around looking for the same handout.

After a few days alternating between blaming the rich and then occasionally blaming the poor, I was forced to recognize my own personal obligation. This realization came when I started to encounter a throng of ‘persistent beggars.’ These are the ones without fear. They will touch you, grab you and stare you in the face until you give them something.

Suddenly blaming others — the IMF, World Bank, the filthy rich, whether in Europe and North America – did very little to assuage the feeling of guilt I had began to experience.

I began asking myself how can I practice the art of according to the noble example of the blessed Messenger of God? To be honest, it wasn’t something I was prepared for.

I recalled a part of a hadith narrated by Abu Dharr Al-Ghifari. He reported that the Messenger said: “O Abu Dharr, the rich will be the impoverished ones on the Day of Resurrection except those whom Allah gives wealth which they in turn give in charity to those on their right, left, front and back, and does good deeds with it.”

There was also the hadith of the Prophet quizzing his companions about their judgment of people on the basis of their outward signs. An evidently wealthy man passed by and the companions judged him worthy of noble marriage and a favorable standing in society. A shabby looking man then passed by and the companions deemed him to be poor without any status in society or opportunity for a noble marriage. Then the Prophet revealed that the poor man was better than the rich one even if the latter were to fill the earth.

If that’s the status of the poor what about those who help them? Hakim bin Hizam said he asked the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, for some wealth and he obliged. He asked a second and third time and he got what he asked for each time. Then he reported that the Prophet said to him: “Wealth is like a green sweet fruit and whoever takes it without greed, God will bless it for him, but whoever takes it with greed, God will not bless it and he will be like someone who eats but is never satisfied. And the upper hand is better than the lower hand.” In other words, he who gives is better than he who accepts.

Christians often say: “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” I used to think this saying was from the Bible until I looked it up and found that Psalm 37: V.11 reads: “The meek shall inherit the earth and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace.” Interestingly, the Hebrew word for ’meek’ means those who are suppressed in mind and circumstances, the needy, the poor, those who are humbled in this world.

The Abrahamic traditions are all similar when it comes to the importance of giving charity. The Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, said that he looked into paradise and saw most of its inhabitants were people of poverty.

According to recent studies, Americans were found to be the most charitable people in the world. This has nothing to do with their government. Americans donated $1.78 billion to Tsunami relief and $78 million to the Pakistani earthquake. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita got $3.12 billion. Every year Americans give a quarter of a trillion dollar on average to three charities – the American Red Cross, Salvation Army and American Cancer Society.

Isn’t helping the poor and needy, whether they are Muslims or not, spending in the way of God?  The Quran says that “the likeness of those who spend their wealth in God’s way is as the likeness of a grain which grows seven ears — in every ear is a hundred grains.” (Baqarah V. 261)

With poverty literally in my face I pledged not to show any sign of frustration toward beggars. I wasn’t going to talk about them or to them in a way that might be construed as derogatory or insulting. The Quran says “a kind word with forgiveness is better than charity followed by injury.”

To avoid feeling that I was going to run out of money in a foreign land if I kept on giving, I set aside an amount every day to give away in sadaqa. I convinced myself that whatever little I had it did not belong to me and that if I felt compelled I would give away whatever I had in my possession at the time.

When I returned home I started to realize that what I did was the easy part of being charitable. Now that I am back in Canada with no beggars tugging at my shirt sleeves, how do I continue being charitable? Muslim charities have been harrassed, closed down and investigated by our authorities. We all have some degree of apprehension about contributing funds to a charity and then getting branded  as extremists or worst, terrorist sympathizers.

To avoid this conundrum Muslims should give to reputable charities that operate at a high level of transparency. If you are giving to your mosque there is no harm in asking for a receipt. The purpose of doing this is not to proclaim  your contribution, but to ensure a system of accountability of checks and balances is maintained.

We should recognize as well that when it comes to living in the West organizations that are set up to help the poor and needy will do a much more effective job than individuals, unless you are Bill Gates, and even he has established a charitable foundation.

I believe it was my duty to give when confronted with an opportunity to do so regardless of how wealthy I believed nations of the G-8 are. I know I didn’t  alleviate poverty in India but that wasn’t my intention. If anything, the creative and charming panhandlers of India helped me in ways we will both never fully understand.

“You will never experience piety until you spend of that which you love. And whatever you spend, God is aware of it.” (Aale Imran V. 92).

Organizations can help people whom the Quran describes as poor but their poverty is not evident to the untrained eye. People will often mistake them for the wealthy because they show restraint, the Quran says. “You shall know them by their mark and they do not beg of you with importunity.”

That’s the vast majority of the poor in the world today. It is a minority that panhandles. If anything, the beggars’ role in society is to transform us into people of courage. It takes courage not to be afraid that by giving our wealth we will be rendered impoverished.
(June 2007)

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