Pakistan is internationally known for many things. For the surge of extremism. For the footballs we supplied to the World Cup. For an often exaggerated emphasis on the "miseries" of its people. But it is lesser known for being one of the most charitable nations in the world. It is amazing how much the people of this country give and share. The sense of giving back to one's community is deeply ingrained in our system. We give whether we are rich or poor. We share whether we ourselves have enough or not. If you are in Pakistan in Ramadan especially, on every signal you will be handed over boxes of dates and bottles of water. Outside homes, on sidewalks or in mosques, makeshift feasts await you. At a recent journalism moot in Mexico, a friend from South Africa nailed it when she said "I think it has a lot to do with how much Islam stresses charity."
This is true. We take the idea very seriously that charity washes away sins, wards off bad luck, wins us the pleasure of Allah and lands us in Paradise. In Ramadan, the reward, as per our belief, is multiplied into 70. So Ramadan is when all good causes like education, public health and food insecurity make enough money to last the next 11 months.
Yet, in the same country, I have witnessed communities waiting for hand-me-downs and food, with not a rupee of charity flowing towards them. The reason has been nothing but misplaced judgment.
More than once, my research as a journalist led me to the most infamous red light district in Pakistan. Heera Mandi, in Lahore, has since the time of Mughals housed courtesans, dancers and commercial sex workers. But time has been unkind to the people here. Today, most of them have moved away to better, more lucrative localities as escorts. What remains is a ghetto of very poor women, runaway or orphaned children and some scattered members of the marginalized transgender community. And no one wants to give charity to the people of Heera Mandi.
"We are dirty. We are in the filthy business. So no one gives us anything," said a disgruntled 20 something sex worker when I visited. It was a Friday, the holy day of the week for Muslims. Incense burnt in her shoddy apartment to create an ambiance of purity. The woman had bathed and prayed that day. Ramadan was a few days away. "I wish someone would give me enough food or money that I can at least not have to do this work in Ramadan. I need a break, too to pray to God."
On my return, I asked around if anyone wanted to donate for them. No one opted.
This attitude is not reserved for sex workers only, and not specific to Pakistan. Neither is this brand of judgment or ostracization specific to Muslims. A friend from Manchester shared that a project trying to collect donations for inmates in jails got a similar response. "They would say, 'will our charity go towards feeding a killer or a thief?'"
For years, as both a student and teacher of Islamic Studies, I have wondered why we pass judgments on the ones we give charity to. Is their "good character" a pre-requisite to give them charity?
Thus, in giving, we place ourselves on a pedestal of piety. And this idea is not in synch with what the Qur'an endorses or what Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) practically did.
There is a prophetic tradition narrated in the Saheeh Bukhari that tells us that there was once a man who decided that that very night he would give charity. Accordingly, he set out with his charity and gave it to a thief. The next day people began to say, 'Last night a thief was given charity!' So the man supplicated, 'O Allah, to You belongs all the praise. I shall give some more charity again.'
Once again he set off with his charity and gave it to a prostitute. The next day people began talking, 'Last night charity was given to a prostitute.' So the man supplicated again, 'O Allah, I praise You for enabling me to give charity to even a prostitute; I will give some more charity yet again.'
He set out again with his charity and this time put it in the hands of a rich man. The next day the people talked again, 'Last night charity was given to a rich man.' The man supplicated, 'O Allah, all praise is Yours, I thank you for enabling me to give charity to a thief, a prostitute and to a rich man.'
Then, in a vision he was told, 'The charity you gave to the thief might persuade him to stop stealing; your charity to the prostitute might persuade her give up her way of life. As for the rich man, he might learn a lesson from your charitable giving and start to spend from the Bounty that Allah has given him in charity.'
In the Battle of Badr between Muslims and the pagans of Mecca, the Muslim camp won and ended up with 70 prisoners of the pagans. These were people thirsty for their blood. But the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) exhorted the Muslims to treat the prisoners well. So much stress was placed on showing compassion that the captors would give the captives their own bread, even at the risk of going hungry themselves.
What I have learnt from the life of the Prophet (pbuh) is simple. That when I give, I give, without judging whether that person is deserving and pious, or not. It is not my place to do that. It is only God's right to judge. Because my Merciful Lord continues to give me, whether I am deserving or not.