(Explanation of the word Al-Birr in Surah Aal-Imran ayah 92)
First, the ayah motivates spending in the way of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala. Some commentators take this to mean obligatory charity [zakat] while others take this to be voluntary charity [sadaqaat]. However, according to a consensus of respected researchers in the field, it has been established that its sense is general and includes both obligatory and voluntary charities. The response of the Companions radhiAllahu ‘anhum to this ayah also indicates that these charitable initiatives taken by them were voluntary.
Therefore, the sense of the ayah is that you give in the way of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala whatever it may be, in the obligatory or voluntary charity but that perfect excellence and merit will blossom out from them only when you spend in the way of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala what you like and love. Not that you pick out the spare, the useless things as if you were trying to get rid of the burden of charity and as if it was some sort of punitive tax on you. This subject has been taken up more clearly in another ayah of the Qur’an.
Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala says,
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا أَنفِقُوا مِن طَيِّبَاتِ مَا كَسَبْتُمْ وَمِمَّا أَخْرَجْنَا لَكُم مِّنَ الْأَرْضِ ۖ وَلَا تَيَمَّمُوا الْخَبِيثَ مِنْهُ تُنفِقُونَ وَلَسْتُم بِآخِذِيهِ إِلَّا أَن تُغْمِضُوا فِيهِ ۚ
“O you who have believed, spend from the good things which you have earned and from that which We have produced for you from the earth. And do not aim toward the defective therefrom, spending [from that] while you would not take it [yourself] except with closed eyes.” [Al-Baqarah 2: 267]
The outcome is that picking out the bad and the useless to give in charity is unacceptable; contrary to that is the acceptable charity, which earns full merit and which is nothing but what is spent out of one’s dear belongings.
Moderation in Charity
The second ruling comes out of the hint made in the word mimma [مِمَّا] meaning “from what” that appears in the ayah. The purpose is not to spend away everything one likes and love en masse in the way of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala. Instead, the purpose is to spend whatever has to be spent of the good things. Spending in this way will bring the full reward of charity.
In Charity, What Counts is Sincerity
The third ruling is that spending the cherished is not tied to spending something of high value. Instead, by spending what one likes and holds dear, no matter how small it may be in the quantity or cost, one would still become deserving of the birr or righteousness. Hasan al-Basri said, “Whoever spends sincerely for the pleasure of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala, even if that be a single date-fruit alone, that too is good enough to make one deserving of the great merit and perfect righteousness promised in the ayah.”
Alternative for Those Who Have Nothing to Spend
On the outside, it appears from the ayah that poor people who do not have much to spend will remain deprived of the great good and righteousness mentioned here. It is because it has been said in the ayah that this great good cannot be achieved without spending one’s cherished belonging while the poor and the needy do not have anything through which they could reach the station of righteousness.
A little deliberation would show that the ayah does not mean that those who wish to have the great good and the great merit cannot achieve that by any means other than that of spending out of their cherished possessions. Contrary to that, the fact is that this great good can be achieved by some other means as well, such as ibadah, dhikr, tilawah of the Qur’an and abundance of nawafil [voluntary worship]. Therefore, the poor and the needy can also become the recipients of this great good through other means as it has been clearly explained in the hadeeth narrations.
What is Meant By the Things You Love?
This is the fifth question. Another ayah of the Qur’an tells us that something liked and loved means that the thing is working for him and that he needs it, not that it be spare and useless. The Qur’an says,
وَيُطْعِمُونَ الطَّعَامَ عَلَىٰ حُبِّهِ مِسْكِينًا وَيَتِيمًا وَأَسِيرًا
“And they give food in spite of love for it to the needy, the orphan, and the captive.”
In another ayah, this subject has been further clarified as follows,
وَيُؤْثِرُونَ عَلَىٰ أَنفُسِهِمْ وَلَوْ كَانَ بِهِمْ خَصَاصَةٌ ۚ
“…but give [them] preference over themselves, even though they are in privation.”
Spending the Extra and the Spare Too is Not Devoid of Merit
The sixth ruling given in this ayah is that entry into the fold of perfect good, great merit and ranks of the righteous depends on spending one’s cherished possessions in the way of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala. However, it does not necessarily follow that there is no merit in store for one who does spend out of what is extra to his needs. On the contrary, as it is said towards the end of the ayah, “And whatever you spend of a thing, then indeed, Allah of it (is) All-Knowing,” (3:92) it means that while the achievement of the perfect good and entry into the ranks of the righteous, no doubt, depends on spending cherished possessions especially, however, no charity is devoid of merit irrespective of whether one spends the cherished or the extra. But, what is certainly undesirable and prohibited is getting into the habit of always picking out the extra and the bad to spend in the way of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala.
A person who not only spends good things he likes in charity but also gives away things which are extra to his needs, for example, leftover food or used clothing, defective utensils or articles in use, does not commit any sin by including these in his acts of charity. He would definitely earn a reward for those too. As far as the spending of cherished possessions is concerned, he would achieve the great good and find his entry in the ranks of the righteous as well.
Also stated in this sentence of the ayah is that Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala is fully aware of the real quality of what man spends and knows whether or not it is dear to him, and if he spends it for the pleasure of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala or for pretense and publicity.
The mere verbal claim by somebody that he is spending what he cherishes in the way of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala is not enough for this purpose. Keeping vigil over him is the One, the All-Knowing, the All-Aware Who is cognizant of the secrets of the heart. He is watching and knows the true worth of the spending in His way.