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Altruism (I'thar)
Mar 1, 2015

Altruism (i'thar), preferring others to oneself when doing a good deed, is, according to the moralists, giving precedence to the common interests of the community over one's own interests; according to Sufis, it is devoting oneself to the lives of others in complete forgetfulness of all concerns of one's own, it is self-annihilation in the interests of others.

The opposite of altruism is the stinginess and selfishness that arise from avarice and attachment to this world. Both stinginess and selfishness are regarded as reasons for becoming distanced from the Creator, the created, and Paradise.[1] While stinginess arises from avarice and attachment to the world, generosity, benevolence, and perfect goodness arise from altruism.

Generosity means that believers give some of their belongings to others without feeling any unease in the heart. Benevolence means considering one's own happiness as dependent on the happiness of others and, more than that, putting the welfare of others ahead of one's own happiness. As for perfect goodness or excellence (ihsan), it means preferring others, even when one is in need oneself. The Qur'an points to such excellence or the highest degree of altruism in this verse (59:9): They feel in their hearts no displeasure because of whatever the others are given, but rather give them preference over themselves, even though poverty be their own lot.

Altruism is valuable when one attains and follows it freely; it has no value if one is forced or if one performs such an act not out of one's own free will.

The generosity and benevolence that arise from and are dimensions of altruism have degrees, as follows:

  • Sacrificing one's soul in God's way (for God's cause), therefore for the sake of belief and for the good of the believers, is considered the highest degree of nobility.
  • Being able, when it is necessary, to renounce a (rightful) claim to leadership or similar high position for the well-being and unity of society, is seen as altruism one step below the first degree.
  • Preferring the (economic) welfare of others over one's own, is a third degree of nobility.
  • Allowing others to benefit from one's knowledge and ideas without expecting anything in return, is a virtue not quite as noble as the previous ones.
  • Giving to others out of one's income - this includes responsibilities for the giving of the prescribed and voluntary alms (zakah and sadaqa).
  • Showing warmth, speaking soft and kind words, being of use to others, and being the means of various instances of good - these are examples of altruism that almost anyone can strive for in any situation.

The first of these degrees of generosity and benevolence is a profound and fundamental dimension of altruism that not everyone can achieve. Mawlana Jami',[2] the author of Baharistan (The Land of Spring), expresses it most memorably:

It is easy to show generosity with gold and silver
Worthy of respect is he who shows generosity with his soul.

Among the characteristics and degrees of those who practice altruism are:

  • Offering food and feeding others at the cost of one's own hunger and thirst, and neglecting oneself in the provision of others. Provided that no one's rights are violated, this is a virtue characteristic of truly pious, saintly people.
  • Despite all adversities, spending whatever one has as a favor from God in God's way and purely for His good pleasure, and in such a disinterested manner that one forgets what good one has done. This virtue is particular to those with considerable nearness to God, who take far greater pleasure in giving than receiving.
  • Attributing to God exclusively all the accomplishments with which one is favored without seeing oneself as the agent of any good and, without expecting any return, even in the form of spiritual pleasures, for all that one does for God's sake, always being aware of Him and experiencing oneself as the shadow of the light of His existence.

This last one is the attitude and practice of those nearest to God, including primarily the noblest of humankind and the greatest of all times and places, upon him be peace and God's blessings. His Ascension is a demonstration of his being accorded the highest honor and being sought after (by all the angels and many among human beings and jinn) as a reward for his incessant efforts for perfect knowledge of God. His return from the realms beyond the heavens to be among people in this world is such a great degree of altruism that nobody else has ever been able to achieve it. His emerging from Paradise and letting his profuse tears fall into the pits of Hell for the salvation of humankind expresses the greatest possible altruism.

O God! For the sake of your chosen Prophet, Muhammad, make us of those who do not begrudge what has been given to their brothers-in-religion, but prefer them to themselves, even though poverty be their lot, and may Your blessings and peace be on our master Muhammad and on His family and Companions.

[1] Sunan al-Tirmidhi, "Birr," 40.

[2] Mawlana Nur al-Din 'Abd al-Rahman ibn Ahmad al-Jami' (1414-1492), commonly called the last great classical poet of Persia, and saint, composed numerous lyrics and idylls, as well as many works in prose. His Salaman and Absal is an allegory of profane and sacred love. Some of his other works include Haft Awrang, Tuhfat al-Ahrar, Layla wu Majnun, Fatihat al-Shabab, Lawa'ih, al-Durrah. (Trans.)