By Abdi Mohamud
This article will be in two parts, first one will give a brief history of charity work in the world and second one will exclusively address philanthropy and charity activities in Somalia.
Charity work has been promoted and practiced throughout history since time immemorial. All written records of old civilizations contain information about charity and philanthropy. In fact, the word philanthropy is derived from the Greek word philanthropia. The word alms has also a Greek root being developed from the word eleemonsyne. Some argue that the Greeks supported the needy in their society to gain honour and status. Whatever their motivations were, it is obvious that their actions were equivalent to that of any human being moved by the plight of the poor and impoverished.
History also informs us that the Roman emperors were so beneficent that they distributed corn to whole communities. In Roman society, there also existed what was known as alimenta programs. The rich would provide the poor with food, clothing, and other essentials. Some say the rich did so in order to please and impress the emperors. Again, their intentions and motivations are, I believe, less important than their deeds. They fulfilled their obligations to look after the less fortunate in their midst.
In the Persian civilization, kings were caring and beneficent. Notable among them was King Peroz who gave generous state subsidies to the poor. The king also ordered, it was said, the rich to share their wealth with the hungry and desperate. History is replete with human stories of humility, humanity, giving, and caring. In every age and every society, such stories abound.
The monolithic holy scriptures, often referred to as Abrahamic faiths, also contain a great deal of verses, traditions, and commentaries that emphasize on the importance of caring for the needy. In these scriptures, the Creator commands His faithful to be mindful of discharging many and varied duties. Chief among them is moral and material support given to those in need to ease their pain and sufferings. Christians in the Medieval Age ran charities known as community chest. The church collected donations from its followers. It, then, supervised and administered the donations and distributed them to the needy sectors of society. Everything was done at the discretion of church officials.
Like the Christian tradition, charity has always been part and parcel of Islamic faith. There are many Quranic verses and prophet’s (peace and blessings upon him) traditions that encourage Muslims to give and care for those in need in society. In these verses, Allah commands the believers to give charity for certain groups of society.
“Be steadfast in prayer, practice regular charity, and bow down your heads with those who bow down (in worship),” (2:43) and, “Worship none but Allah. treat with kindness your parents and kindred, and orphans and those in need; speak fair to the people; be steadfast in prayer; and practice regular charity” (2:83).
There are many verses like the ones cited above in the Holy Quran which explicitly warn Muslims against neglecting the poor and the destitute. Prophet Muhammad (SAW) said: “Do not show lethargy or negligence in giving alms and charity till your last breath.” – (Bukhari and Muslim).
Charity is an important part of islamic faith. Giving in charity is a sign of piety and fear of Allah. Charity givers are also rewarded and enjoy Allah’s favours and pleasure in this world and Hereafter (akhira). Giving in charity demonstrates the inherent philanthropic human nature that compels us to have mercy for fellow humans in difficult situations. The deeds and actions of the rich, the famous, and the powerful are often reported and amplified. But there are, and have always been, ordinary people helping others in need. Neighbours helping neighbours, brothers and sisters extending helping hands to their kin, and others looking after total strangers. It is in the human spirit to aid the weak and downtrodden.
This practice has always existed in all cultures and continents but since the early 20th century, charity has become more organized and more widespread. It first started in America at a time of rapid urbanization. Many people left their rural communities and flocked to urban centres in search of better lives. Everyone was not lucky enough to have the anticipated success. Unfortunately, many of those who moved to the cities were unable to get jobs that would lead them to better and fulfilling lives. As a result, they ended up on the streets as beggars and homeless. Their dire situation became unbearable and spurred the wealthy people into action, who began to launch charity organizations to serve the urban poor. Then, the practice of creating organized, charitable organizations crossed the Atlantic into Europe and elsewhere in the world.
Today, there are countless organizations dedicated to helping those in need all over the world. Some are local, others play national roles and some others go international such as Oxford, Save The Children, and a dozen or more UN agencies. Charity organizations in the world are as strong as they are diverse. They do not only deal with human needs but also they dedicate enormous amounts of energy, time and resources to environmental conservation, animal protection, and so on. The GreenPeace and the World Wide Fund for Nature are examples of many organizations that are concerned with easing the pain and suffering of nonhuman creatures on this planet. Human activities are causing lots of destruction that may be a permanent feature on this planet .
The need to serve the poor is greater today than at any time in human history. The wealth gap between the rich and the poor has widened enormously as too much wealth is in possession of a small percentage of the world population. So charities usually appeal to the wealthy to give back and share a small portion of what they have with the less fortunate. This makes it possible for charities to provide many needy individuals and communities with life saving essentials. Charity activities are happening in many places and more so in the Global South. Somalia is one of the poor countries that heavily rely on aid and assistance brought to them by aid agencies from far away places.
In the second part of this article, we are going to examine charity work in Somalia now and historically. It will cover how pastoral Somali communities cared and still care for their needy and if that pastoral tradition of sharing has continued in the towns and cities we have built in the last 100 years.
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