With the catastrophic earthquake in Japan, we are all once again reminded of how helpless man is when disaster strikes. The reality, fragility and unpredictability of life hones in on us as we sit and watch the crisis unfold on our television screens, and death once again seems a reality. But to be in the middle of such a crisis is something entirely different.
I remember being in the disastrous 2005 earthquake that hit Pakistan, yet the impact of it was not as serious as it was in other regions. It was when I visited the effected regions and met survivors that I felt the scars left upon the people. I saw humanity at its worst with people cutting off limbs of the dead to steal away jewelry, smuggling orphaned and lost children and simply pretending to be a victim to be able to get a bit of those handouts.
But what I also witnessed in the short while I was there was humanity at its best. I saw people give away their entire salaries, empty their cupboards to donate warm clothes, throng hospitals to volunteer and donate blood, leave the comfort of their homes to go into the mountainous areas to help those in need... Communities came together like never before for the sake of a massive humanitarian effort.
Humanitarianism is a broad concept in Islam that encompasses traditional forms of charity, and also more holistic interactions between human beings, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It is an essential element of religious practice that both the Qur'an and Prophetic traditions call for.
The Qur'an repeatedly asks Muslims to work for human welfare. The sayings and examples of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) further elaborate and detail how this should be done. From feeding the hungry and rearing the orphans to attending the sick and forgiving those at fault – detailed traditions are found on each. Our religion is one in which a mere smile is described as an act of charity. In fact, the spirit of humanitarianism is so embedded in the teachings of Islam that it is not left to the mercy or free choice of the believer; it is an obligation, in the same way as prayers and fasting in the month of Ramadan are.
Islam begins with the grassroots, from taking care of one's neighbor for example. The Prophet of Islam has numerously emphasized on the importance of charity and humanitarianism. He says in a famous tradition, "He who sleeps with a full stomach knowing his neighbor is hungry is not a believer" which stressed the high regard Islam attaches to these practices. At the same time, the following tradition highlights how this act is not only for a few individuals in society, that we all must play our part however big or small: "If a person dies of hunger in a community, then all the residents of that community have put themselves outside God's and the Prophet's protection."
Our Imams (peace be upon them all) have always been our best exemplars. Imam Ali (peace be upon him) would roam the streets of Kufa to bring food and necessities to the poor, orphaned and the needy. Imam Hasan (peace be upon him) was famous for his hospitality towards any wayfarer or hungry person. We are also well aware of the incident when our fasting Infallibles gave away their meals three days in a row to the needy that knocked at their door.
It must be noted that Islam does not discriminate between Muslims and non-Muslims. Above everything, Islam values human life and orders to uphold its sanctity, giving the Islamic humanitarian concept a holistic and universal approach. As stated in the Holy Qur'an, "On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people, and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people." (5:32) Amongst other examples is one of the Modar – a non-Muslim region in Saudi Arabia that was plagued by a famine. Prophet Muhammad dispatched an aid convoy to help the people of the region.
The practice of charity, whether individual or based on a collective effort, is therefore one of the main tenets of Islam and goes along with its concept of social justice. The religion by itself has put in mechanisms that ensure its followers partake in the act of charity and humanitarianism through the obligatory acts of Khums, Zakat and Kaffara (if applicable). And above all, there is the giving of Sadaqah (in monetary forms or otherwise) that has been stressed upon time and time again. Its merits manifold, to the extent that the Prophet has said: "Give Sadaqah, even if it is equal to the seed of a date."
With all that said, it is time for us all to rise and see what we can do to help. Not just the victims of Japan's recent earthquake and tsunami, but also those in New Zealand still recovering from their earthquake, those in Australia still suffering from the impacts of torrential rains and floods, those in Pakistan still living in deplorable conditions after the massive floods, and all those suffering elsewhere around the world.