Building A Spirit of Generosity

Date: 15 November posted by adminon

Have you ever come across a cashier at the grocery store who asked you for a donation towards a well-known cause – perhaps for St. Jude’s Cancer Center or victims of a recent natural disaster? And maybe you, like most people, smiled and politely declined because you were in a hurry or you promised yourself to donate next time. Consider another scenario in which you hear about a child within your local community who is suddenly diagnosed with a serious or terminal illness. In the midst of such a stressful time, the family is further burdened by large medical bills and unsure how to afford the necessary treatment for their child.

Which scenario resonates more with you? Of course, all causes are worthy and no situation superior over another. But would it surprise you to know that even the most considerate and well intentioned of people find it overwhelming to help a large group of people as opposed to a single life? Normally we assume the provision of aid is aligned with the magnitude of the disaster –that our attention and motivation to help would rise with the increased number of people in distress. But our actions are sometimes the opposite. Research has shown that larger refugee camps received far less money for clean water than smaller camps . Likewise, money collected for a starving child reduced significantly when donors were reminded about countless other children in need as well.

Spirituality plays an important role in altruism, but its intentions vary from person to person. Sometimes spirituality can be “me”-centered, aiming to achieve inner peace by satisfying the inward needs and feeding into the aggrandizement of the self. This attitude often views charitable acts from a perspective of self-interest, diverting the focus from the one being helped to oneself. It reveals a typical human condition irrespective of affiliation to a religious tradition. Thus if a person of religion expresses such an attitude, religion itself does not. Religious foundations are structured in accordance with fostering a common moral regard and well-defined responsibility for the welfare of others. Islam in particular necessitates that we examine the world both within and beyond the self. Its social and institutional framework direct us to look outward as we look inward, connecting societal issues to lasting inner peace and an unyielding relationship with the Creator. Zakat and Sadaqah, sourced from religious texts, traditions, and law, are established to provide structure and guidelines that ultimately instill a true sense of personal accountability when it comes to serving those in need.

The Prophet صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم proclaimed that the most beloved acts to Allah are those that are most beneficial to the people and the deed most beloved to Allah is that of bringing joy, removing hardship, forgiving debts, and satisfying the hunger of another.►{On authority of Ibn Umar, Mujam Al-Awsat At Tabarani}

Almighty Allah affirms His love and pleasure towards the generous ones that give freely and unconditionally by day and by night, secretly and publicly ►(Qur’an 2:274), and during moments of ease and hardship ►(Qur’an 3:134).


How do we understand the psychology behind generosity? How do our minds reconcile the value of human life when it is represented individually compared to when it is scattered across a statistical chart?




First we examine the influence of personal connection. Our behaviors are largely impacted by internally rooted affect – a collection of feelings working in conjunction with reason that cause us to act a certain way. Affect is sensitive to verbal, visual and auditory cues. Thus, identifying a victim by face, name or story influences us emotionally and elicits a strong willingness to help. Human suffering represented by numbers, statistics, and pie charts numbs the reality of each suffering person. We are instead captivated by the uniqueness of each individual plight. Therefore, the likelihood is greater to help one or few individuals we can identify with than a larger group of people with whom building a personal connection would be difficult or impossible . This is regularly demonstrated in practice within social networking forums.

The photo blog, Humans of New York, allows readers to personally connect with others through short anecdotes and descriptive images. The way in which unique individual stories extract powerful emotions in readers has helped to achieve great philanthropic success raising funds for hurricane victims, creating scholarship opportunities for students in financial hardship, and most recently underscoring the struggles through the personal lens of migrating refugees.. It goes without saying that a victim who is easier to identify with elicits a deep compassionate response.

Furthermore, when we help one or a few people we can physically witness the benefits and impact from our efforts, and almost instantaneously. The same is logically difficult with larger sets of people, especially when contributions are given to those living far or abroad.




In beginning to seek an answer from religious traditions, we first recognize that Our Creator needs nothing from our charity and derives no benefit from our actions for He is Al-Hayy (The Eternal), Al-Qayyum (The Self-Sustaining). Instead, through spending in the way of Allah we affirm that we are in complete need of Him. We walk alongside others fulfilling their needs today to seek a firm foundation on that Day footings will be shaken6. Charity is a vehicle to purify our souls as we invest for the hereafter over any worldly gain or reciprocity such as monetary benefits or public recognition.It is better to frame the concept of charity, not as a duty, but a privilege to care for the poor and needy, be they one or one thousand. While they appear reliant on us, we are in reality indebted to them in that we gain opportunities to maximize charitable works within our communities. As a result, we hope to seek the pleasure of our Lord. Servitude to others becomes manifested as proof to our faith and gratitude to the One who countlessly provides for us.

Ibn Abbas described The Messenger صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم as the most generous person, equating his generosity to a vigorous uncontrollable wind {Ref. Hadith On authority of Ibn Abbas, Sahih-Bukhari)  – constantly, abundantly, and unconditionally giving to everyone around him. Like him صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم we realize the futility of placing limitations on serving others. Each person helped is one step closer to saving everyone. Re-framing in this way challenges self-defeating emotions or compassion fatigue. It eliminates thoughts of inefficiency by focusing on the ones we actually helped rather than fixating on ones we could not. Altruism naturally lowers the distress we feel for others. Therefore, let not the feeling of incompleteness deter us from our compassion especially after recognizing that the “masses” are nothing more than a collection of each individual’s story, all of which are unique and worthy of our attention and support.

Additionally, while we may not be able to identify with every individual struggle, we only need to identify with the fact they are struggling and that alone is sufficient for us to remain altruistic.