Over the past couple of weeks my sister was in town and, along with my mom, we spent a good deal of time in shopping malls, taking advantage of discounts during a seasonal sale. Having lost a few pounds in the past couple of months and after starting a new job in December, I had no qualms about treating myself to some new clothes, shoes and accessories. Like many women, I find buying new items quite gratifying.
This is especially so because in the past two to three years, I managed to work toward having financial freedom for the first time. I can now afford to buy nice things for myself and my loved ones while sustaining a comfortable standard of living, building my rainy-day savings and giving charity more generously than I used to.
Reaching this stage took a great deal of hard work and patience. Growing up, money was often too tight to warrant excessive spending on material goods. My mom taught me and my sisters to steer clear of living beyond our means, and to find a balance between spending wisely and being generous while avoiding stinginess. Apart from the mortgage we took for our family home, I've never incurred debts. This meant I had to stay away from elaborate electronics and fancy fashion labels, as well as opt to work rather than pursue a Master's degree I couldn't afford.
Quite naturally, with my newfound financial freedom, I do splurge a bit more than I used to. This has been rewarding not least because I know that it is due to my own hard work and sacrifice that I found myself at this stage.
And yet, there I was with a few bags of new possessions and I couldn't help but feel guilty and, as much as I loath to admit it, greedy. While that isn't an adjective I would generally use to describe myself, there are moments when I become so focussed on self-fulfilment that it is difficult to decipher what I really need from what I buy/consume/collect out of sheer indulgence. It is so easy to fall into the trap of consumerism and spend wastefully on things we do not really need, an idea that is known in Arabic as Israf.
Living in Islam, which refers to a state of mind where the believer surrenders to God, places a great deal of responsibility on our shoulders over how we handle our finances. We are called upon as Muslims to avoid extravagance, promote welfare and encourage fairness in our families and communities. As with all aspects of life, this is accomplished through moderation, with God instructing us in the Quran to "be neither miserly, nor so open-handed that you suffer reproach and become destitute." (17:29)
Just one look at my closet teeming with clothes makes me realise how tough it is to strike the right balance. While the wealth we accumulate is a grace from God, it is also a test to see how we will manage, distribute and respect it. The more I earn, the more I am willing to spend to improve the quality of my life because I regard the wealth in my possession as a sign of God's mercy. Yet it is crucial to always be aware that it is up to us to ensure that we set boundaries that we do not cross.
Giving charity regularly is one way to keep the balance in check. Charity, one of the pillars of being a Muslim, is mentioned in the Quran often in the same breath as prayer. Each time I read the Quran I become conscious that the responsibility of giving alms is much greater than simply offering zakat, the obligatory act of giving 2.5 percent of our savings to those less fortunate, one time each year.
Charity is preceded by the word "regular" in virtually all references in the Holy Book, which defines a righteous person as one who "practices regular prayer and gives regular charity". Since as Muslims we pray five times a day, surely charity should be something we incorporate in our everyday lives rather than relegate to once a year, knowing that what we give will be replenished in material and spiritual ways.
"Be mindful of God as best you can; and listen and obey; and spend in charity: it is for your own good. Those who guard themselves against their own greed will surely prosper. If you give a good loan to God, He will multiply it for you and forgive you for God is appreciative and forbearing."
(Quran 65: 16-17)
When I read the above excerpt, the idea of "guarding myself against my own greed" resonates quite powerfully. It is a human tendency to revert to selfishness, which necessitates that we be aware of how and on what we are spending our money. Following my shopping spree last week, I went to bed with a sense of greediness eating away at me. I resolved to donate charity in the morning.
Once we have the intention to give alms, it becomes very easy to find opportunities to give, whether it be through established charities online or to those in need in our communities. I decided to dedicate at least a third of what I had spent on my new possessions to different charitable causes, and that helped offset the sting of self-indulgence. My hope is that I'll reach the stage where treating myself to something - whether it be clothing, a new car, a vacation - triggers a simultaneous sense of obligation to pass on a generous portion of the blessings I have to others as well.
"The true servants of the Gracious One are those who walk upon the earth with humility and when they are addressed by the ignorant ones, their response is 'peace' ... They are those who are neither extravagant nor niggardly, but keep a balance between the two."