In the US, we place emphasis on charity. We give to religious institutions, schools, and non-profits. We spend time volunteering at soup kitchens, hospitals, bake sales, and environmental initiatives. Occasionally, we’ll even give money to a beggar on the street.
I grew up in a Christian environment. We learned about tithing – the necessity of giving a tenth of your income to the church. We learned about alms, which, in addition to tithing, may also be given to the church for distribution, to the poor directly, or to whatever charitable cause you wish. I remember helping with dinners for the poor within the church and at soup kitchens, helping with clothing drives, building churches and schools through mission trips, and buying Christmas presents for families who were picked out at random from under a tree.
In Islam, or at least how Islam is practiced in my rural Moroccan community, things are a little bit different. First, one of the five pillars of Islam is zakat, or giving a certain percentage of your income to the poor. This is not a fixed percentage over all of the Islamic world, but where I live it is set at 10%, just like tithing. The main difference is that zakat goes directly to the poor – while sometimes collected by a centralized committee and then disbursed, it, in fact, cannot be given to an organization which has paid employees. In addition, you are expected to perform sadaqah (seh-dah-kah), which wikipedia tells us “encompasses any act of giving out of compassion, love, friendship (fraternity) or generosity.” It’s difficult as an outsider to determine the difference between zakat and sadaqah. As far as I can tell, zakat tends to be the giving of bulk amounts of foodstuffs (bags of wheat, corn, dates, etc.) and centered around holidays (e.g. zakat al-fitr, giving of food to the poor at the end of Ramadan so that all may participate in the feast). Sadaqah is much more informal, and involves giving both money and prepared food. I’m going to expound on that one a little.
In it’s most basic form, sadaqah is preparing a meal to share with neighbors. Sometimes this is a huge funeral feast, other times it is a large plate of couscous set on an outside table so that all who pass by can grab some. This is where I learned the term, but it certainly is not limited to this sort of action.
Last year, a friend and I were sitting at an outdoor cafe in a city, eating bowls of bisara (fava bean soup). A beggar came up to the cafe, and the friend and I both wanted to duck and cover a little – as obvious foreigners, we knew we were going to be hit up for cash. Instead, the cafe owner went up to the beggar and told him that he could ask people for sadaqah, but only if he left the foreigners alone. The beggar did just that – he asked the people at the other tables, received some change, and then moved on without talking to us. I felt pretty ashamed about that – in all likelihood, I had more to spare in my pocket than anyone else at that cafe.
For a completely different scenario, let’s take a person in my community. We’ll call her Radia. Radia is very poor and a little bit mentally ill, although I’m sure she’ll never get a diagnosis. She is married and has several children, elementary school age and younger. She tends to go about in the morning and visit with other families, most of which feed her leftover breakfast and give her extra bread to bring back to her children. One day, she snapped a little – she was outside for over an hour, ranting about how she didn’t have any flour for bread or sugar for tea, and her husband wasn’t bringing her any and she was going to go see the qaid (mayor, sort of) about it (he doesn’t speak her language). Finally, the woman that I was with (we’ll call her Zahra), who had been watching and laughing (along with about 20 others), but who I know often feeds her in the morning, went out, took a hold of Radia, and took her into her house to feed her (Radia ate all the food voraciously) while Zahra essentially laughed at Radia and called her crazy, but said it was shameful that she didn’t have any food. I think in America we’d be inclined to be nice to a crazy ranting person, and especially sensitive of their feelings, but I’m not sure how many of us would take a that person into our houses to calm them down and give them our lunch.
Speaking of food, another aspect of sadaqah is the extreme hospitality that many people here show. I’ve been with women who are measuring out flour for their bread or couscous, and they’ll start with “Bismillah” (in the name of God), then say a name of each expected eater (family members, me) for each portion measured, and then they’ll throw another portion in there, for the guest. It’s not something that I have taken into my daily routines here – I don’t have guests that often – but I like that those who can afford it always make extra food, so that if anyone else shows up they can welcome them to the table with absolutely no reservations.
The main thing I’ve taken away from all this is how very charitable Moroccans are towards their neighbors. At least, rural Moroccans – I’m sure that things are different to some degree in the cities. I’m not saying that Americans don’t give – many Americans give a great deal. But most Americans give to organizations, churches, and strangers, whereas Moroccans tend to be giving to those next door. They also give to beggars more.
I decided, starting in January, to try to give a tenth of my income away to neighbors and beggars – and it’s harder than I thought! The monetary bulk of what I gave away in January was pictures – most people here don’t have cameras, and there are very few family photos, so pictures are very appreciated. Even with over 100Dh worth of pictures given out, over-buying veggies and giving leftovers to neighbors, and with a conscious effort to give away spare change to beggars, I still didn’t make my commitment to give away a tenth of my income in January. It’s much easier giving it away in the form of a check to a non-profit! I’m trying again in February, and so far I’m way behind schedule. I don’t know if I’ll make it this month either, but it’s certainly a very interesting exercise.
Once again, I’m not saying here that the American/Christian system is wrong or that the Moroccan/Islamic system is right. I also realize that I have a mostly middle class urban perspective on American culture and a mostly poor rural perspective on Moroccan culture, and the economic and urban/rural demographic plays a big difference in the relationships between neighbors. Regardless, I think it’s fascinating to see how different cultures deal with charity, and I think Morocco has taught me a lot about what it means to be a good neighbor.