The spirit of abundance (and Zakat)

Some of you have probably heard this phrase: spirit of abundance. It’s got a New Age tinge to it, related to that Manifest your destiny just from your attitude alone, sort of thing.  So my comments are a combination of thinking through Islamic notions of zakat, as required charity and the reality of global poverty.  Let me know what you think in the comment section below.

This topic comes to my mind all the time. I was born into a poor religious family.  My father, the Rev. based on his own Protestant choice was quite frankly a poor provider.  I do not mean he was competent to defeat crushing outward poverty with limited resources, like education and personal skills. I just meant that he raised us NOT to think about money as the solution to every problem.  I internalized this message enough, that I married twice to similarly poor providers.  

At the time of my marriages, I was Muslim and believed in Islam as a total way of life.  I am also better educated then all three of the men I reference here. I somehow thought that education was a key to success. I was not raised with this notion. My birth family did not emphasize education. I got my notions actually through the ways in which opportunities came to me. I was granted a special barakah regarding opportunities to get my three university degrees. I still identified as poor through out my days of education at an Ivy League University and prestigious research institution. 

As early as 14 I was helped to go beyond my family’s poverty for the purpose of expanding what looked by standard testings as an exceptional intellectual capability. This might sound tongue in cheek, but literally I was scoring in the upper 90 percentile nation wide so my Middle School guidance counselor single handily found me opportunities to learn in various environments until I applied for university winning a full scholarship for one of the Ivy League.

Before university I spent three years living in an all wealthy all white neighborhood, where I could see up close and personal what money could buy.  For example. I babysit for a family that owned an island! In the end, my father’s upbringing won out and I saw material wealth did not guarantee spiritual, emotional or ethical health. I decided I prefer anyone of the latter over the other. 

When I entered the door to Islam as an undergrad, I had nothing that even remotely responded to the requirements of Islamic zakat, except as a recipient. In fact, I would receive zakat support even up into my graduate school days. Eventually I slipped over into the category of those upon whom zakat payment is required.  The funny thing is that  Islamic zakah is not based on income.. 

Zakat, comes from the word that also means purification.  The idea is, a Muslim should purify their wealth and abundance by paying a small 2.5% amount over their UNUSED wealth. I have used all caps for that word because this is unlike the notion of tithing in Christianity. Tithing is based on income.  So, if my father with 8 children earns the same amount as a single man, they both must pay the same amount.  One of the ideas behind tithing is similar to the New Age abundance ideas, except it is community oriented while most of the New Age stuff is individually orientated.  So, the idea of tithing–which I also practice in a modified eclectic Muslim form under the rubric of sadaqah–is that the act of giving leads to greater abundance. Especially when giving is done in the name of the Most Holy. 

Zakah, on the other hand is based on existing excess material resources as an obligation to those who do not have enough, let alone excess.  Sometimes the math helps.  If I earn 50 thousand dollars a year, and my family responsibilities cost me 49.500 per year, the only amount I can say I have as excess is 500 dollars.  This is not considered enough to then owe zakah.  But if it was, I would have to pay 25 dollars…  As compared to the 500 dollars I would have to pay for the percentage of tithing. That is NOT a lot. It is never a lot. It is a token.

The token is important to the ones who do not have enough, let along excess.  But from the one who pays zakah, it is a drop in the bucket. Plus, there is NO restriction on HOW I spend my wealth.  So I am not encouraged to own a beat up used car. I can purchase a Mercedes and then calculate that cost within my yearly expense. Still only the excess is zakat-able.  Thus, you could say, Islam is a material-positive religion.  It does not extol poverty as a virtue (although the Sufis would create their own understanding of this worth note at another time…) 

The other day I saw an interesting assessment of this reality.  Someone said, Islam IS for the wealthy. You have to have excess material resources to pay zakah and it cost a fortune to make Hajj. Living in the west this Hajj cost is relative. In a place like Indonesia there is a system to help towards saving to make the Hajj and the cost per person is WAY lower than for US travel companies. (also more on that one day…) Still I love this critique AND I take it to heart.  

The idea about zakah is that those with the means should purify their wealth BY contributing to those who do not have wealth. It is NOT meant to even the playing field. This is why I say Islam is wealth positive. You are allowed to acquire wealth with no restrictions except by ethical means of acquisition (and yes, that is debatable too!) You are also allowed, even encouraged to spend your wealth on yourself and your family without restrictions.  However, the idea of just hoarding (Disney’s Scrooge McDuck comes to mind!), that is strictly prohibited. 

Global wealth is so precarious.  The top 1.5% of the population world wide OWN as much as 50% of the rest of the world.  Please let those statistics gel for a minute.  And while a few of them, like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have figured out they have MORE than they could ever spend on themselves, their families and their Mercedes SO THEY DO GIVE to others, not all of the super wealthy give a shit.  In one sense then, from an Islamic perspective, Buffet and Gates are doing a form of Zakah. 

Okay so now to the abundance part. 

I have to keep this really personal. I had been accused by two of my daughters for lacking in abundance. I am not sure what they meant, so I did a great deal of soul search and research, as is my want.  Because THEY were raised by me as a single parent (remember, I already said their dads were poor providers, so after marriage, well you can imagine..) I entered the so called middle class because my education afforded me a career that did indeed have many benefits. BUT because I was raising them and their 3 other siblings, I was very conscientious about money. 

However, I did conceive that what I had was for my children. So I have had a long history of NOT being able to spend on myself.  I scrimped and saved to provide my children with the trappings of middle class life, a house in the suburbs, after school activities (none of them free!) and creative opportunities, like piano lessons (meaning I purchased a used piano) summer camp, school trips, even personal pleasures. All of these I felt would alleviate the experience of crushing poverty that I could not escape in my own childhood (losing our home without warning, no heat, no food, no Christmas gifts, etc.. Even as a child these things are NOT possible to ignore. Hand me down clothes is not even as crushing as wandering around with no home for two months after our house was repossessed)

What is motivating me now to write this is how little my children seem to realize about what it cost for me to give them the semblance of not being in poverty while my mentality was scarcely above the poverty line.  Quite frankly, after that high school experience living with white wealthy families, I have never again coveted wealth. I can see no evidence that having more money makes for a better, happier person.  So, I have had to rethink the word abundance.

It was a slow road.  For example. I brought my lunch to work most days of the month and only once or twice a month would justified eating lunch out with my colleagues or even just purchasing for myself. I had food enough at home and with an office micro wave I could heat it up and enjoy as I did when I first made it.  As I traveled I would balk at the new TSA restrictions from bringing my own water while charging a fortune to buy a bottle.  

One day I realized, if I do not hydrate, I am risking my life.  So I started to purchase seriously over priced water BECAUSE, the way the system charges for me to hydrate myself is NOT the point.  I started to see myself as worthy.  I am worth being hydrated. The dollar amount is NOT the issue. The system does not afford me my own or cheap water, and yet dehydration while traveling is a given.  Eventually, this would evolve into understanding how important it was to put myself onto the list of those who received generously, from my children to actual strangers.  I learned to let go of the bottom line being the cost of the thing, but rather the wellness of it.  

The first 50 countries I have visited were ALL WORK related. If I had an extra day to do some sightseeing that counted as a holiday.  But it took me until after retirement to go to another country JUST BECAUSE I wanted to visit it.  I still tend towards a moderate cost accommodation because, for most of the places I visit, what I want to see and do has to do with its natural resources.  I am off to Bali next week for a few days. I love a quiet beach. I may have to pay a bit more for privacy and convenience than the available budget places but I will never pay the excess costs for places I have seen advertised there. I can  afford to “treat” myself to things that were once off the radar because I was so busy providing abundance to others.  

I do not feel “rich”. I also have no desire to be rich. I do however love the experience of being able. I AM able to experience the world on my own dollar.  What I do not need, I still give to others–even in excess of the requisite zakah. To me, this means I am living the lesson I learned about purifying my wealth.  Because I do not limit myself to just the  required zakah amount.  

I am a member of the human race which includes more poor people than wealthy.   I do not have to be poor to feel for their humanity. I can feel for my own humanity, by way of embracing and then sharing the gifts I have been given–whether these be material or otherwise. 

To me, abundance means generosity to self as well as to others. It is followed by: gratitude. I am so grateful to have walked a mile in the shoes of the poor and the wealthy long enough to know that being able to walk is already a gift. To share in that gift is like a light: if you have it, you share it: Because if one of us is in darkness how can the light guide the rest of us? 


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