The Short Answer
Sadaqah, or charitable gift, fulfills three tests:
It comes from what one lawfully possesses
One gives it for the fulfillment of rightful ends
One intends by one’s charity to please the true and only God alone
Any human action that meets these three bars is a Sadaqah.
How is Sadaqah defined?
Muslims have come to use the word ‘Sadaqah’ to mean ‘voluntary charitable offerings,’ which is the meaning of Sadaqah we’ll talk about here. But the Quran, the scripture of Islam, uses the word Sadaqah to mean Zakat, the famed Third Pillar of Islam; namely, the mandatory charitable alms that God obliges Muslims to pay yearly on their money and property to the poor, vulnerable, and deserving as these recipients’ divine right.
So, technically, in God’s Divine Law, the Shari‘ah, Zakat is a specialized Sadaqah. (See What Is the Difference Between Zakat and Sadaqah?)
Why is the word ‘Sadaqah’ used in the common sense of charity?
Tellingly, ‘Sadaqah’ comes from the root word sidq, or ‘truthfulness,’ because one’s charity is an act that testifies to the belief in God one says his or her heart holds. Ṣidq’s word forms in the Arabic language actually mean “confirmation,” “affirmation,” and “contribution” in the sense of actions that prove one’s faith in or conviction about something.
Hence, the Prophet Muhammad, on him be peace, God’s final Messenger who brought and taught the Quran to humanity, said exactly this: “Sadaqah is a proof” (Muslim).
But can different kinds of Sadaqah be distinguished?
Yes. In the first instance, the Prophet, on him be peace, split Sadaqah into two major categories:
Sadaqah, or a freewill charitable offering, that benefits someone in the world, including animals, plants, and the earth.
Sadaqah Jâriyah, Ever-flowing, or Ongoing Charity, that is, a charity one gives in this life that continues to benefit people in the world, or other creatures or creation – and so whose divine reward continues to flow into one’s scale of good deeds – even after one dies. (See What Is Sadaqah Jâriyah?)
Of the first kind of Sadaqah, the Prophet, on him be peace, emphasized a clear message in the Quran: Sadaqah (in the sense we are speaking to) is voluntary, but every Muslim, as a part of faith, must strive in giving it. So the Companions of the Prophet, on him be peace, asked him about people in four conditions of limitation: (1) one who has nothing to give, (2) one who cannot or did not work to earn, (3) one who did not help others, and (4) one who did not exhort others.
The answers the Prophet, on him be peace, gave, in fact, imply a hierarchy of Sadaqah, the voluntary giving of charity for the sake of God, that is, nonetheless, the duty of every believer:
“Let every Muslim give Sadaqah” (voluntary charity) from the wealth and property God has given one.
If one lacks assets to give, “let one work with one’s hands, gain its benefit for oneself, and give [of it in] Sadaqah.”
If one does not or cannot earn with his or her hands, “let one help one in need or one who is sad.”
If one does not help another, “let one enjoin [people with] what is good.”
If one does not enjoin with good, “let one refrain from doing evil, for even that would be a Sadaqah for one.”
Did the Prophet, on him be peace, specify Sadaqah Jâriyah?
Yes. He said:
When a human being dies, all one’s deeds cease, save three: a Sadaqah Jâriyah, [religious] knowledge [one leaves behind] from which others benefit, and a righteous child who prays for one.” (Muslim)
Did the Prophet give examples of Sadaqah Jâriyah?
Yes. He said:
Of the good works whose benefit flows to a believer after death is knowledge one taught and promulgated, a righteous child who lived after one, a copy of the Quran that one left as inheritance, a mosque one built, a house one built for the two kinds of wayfarers [travelers and the displaced], a stream one ran [that is, dug or directed for others to benefit from], a charity given from one’s wealth while healthy in life such that it will reach one [in reward] after death,” meaning the charity is given with that intent and not for the sake of one’s cure from illness. (Ibn Majah)
Does the Zakat Foundation offer ways for one to give Sadaqah Jâriyah?
Yes. Among the most successful programs of Sadaqah Jâriyah for Muslims today is the Zakat Foundation’s Water Well and Hand Pump Program. As you read these words, literally tens of thousands of people, their livestock, and crops are drinking the water from hundreds of wells all over the world dug by Muslim loved ones on behalf of their dearly departed. It is a wonderful way of providing ongoing blessings for yourself and those nearest you who have gone on to the mercy of God.
Zakat Foundation’s Livestock Husbandry Project is another excellent Sadaqah Jâriyah program our global humanitarian charity offers. It gives mating pairs of cattle – sheep, cows, goats – to make poor and displaced families self-sustaining in high-protein food and income-generating farming and ranching.
Does Sadaqah make up for sins?
Yes. In general, this is called kaffârah, or atonement. For certain violations, of mandatory worship and sworn commitments kaffârah atonements are obligatory and have specific requirements. (You can read about that here.)
However, giving Sadaqah charity in general offsets one’s wrongdoing and gains one God’s forgiveness. Because we commit sins knowingly and unknowingly, day in and day out, one should match this human pattern with that of regularly giving charity for the sake of God to attain His forgiveness.
The Prophet, on him be peace, said: “Fasting is a shield and charity extinguishes sin like water extinguishes fire” (Ṣaḥîḥ Al-Targhîb wa Al-Tarhîb).
How often should one give Sadaqah?
Islam seeks to ingrain in our hearts a keen reflex to charity, striving to give it as a way of life many times daily, even in our own difficult times of life.
The Prophet, on him be peace, said that God has call out to each of us and all humankind:
Spend in charity, O Son of Adam! And even so shall Allah spend on you!”
In this regard, the Prophet, on him be peace, taught us:
Each joint in the body of people owes a Sadaqah (charity) every day upon which the sun rises. Justly reconciling between two disputants is a Sadaqah. Aiding a man with his animal by hoisting him on it or lifting his things upon it for him is a Sadaqah. A good word is a Sadaqah. Each step you take to the Ṣalât-Prayer is a Sadaqah. And removing something harmful from the road is a Sadaqah.” (Bukhari and Muslim)
Is any amount Sadaqah charity considered too small?
No. In fact, the Prophet, on him be peace, specifically said:
Avoid Hellfire, if only by a piece of a date [you give in charity].” (Bukhari and Muslim)
This means, of course, that giving Sadaqah, even in small amounts, can save one from Hellfire. He explained the mechanism of this:
Allah accepts charity worth even a [single] date, as long as it is from lawful earnings. Allah takes it in His Right Hand and nurtures it for its giver in the same way you bring up your horse’s yearling – until that small bit of charity becomes the size of mountain.” (Bukhari)
He said also:
A single dirham (coin) surpasses a hundred thousand dirhams. A man asked: ‘How can this be, O Messenger of Allah?’ The Prophet, on him be peace, said: Someone of great wealth spends a hundrd thousand dirhams from it in charity, while one with only two dirhams gives one of them in charity.” (Nasa’i)
Who is most deserving of one’s Sadaqah charity?
It is the same as one’s Zakat. The Prophet, on him be peace, said:
The best charity is to your needy relatives.”
The closer, the more deserving – parents, siblings, children whose sustenance one is not responsible for, and so forth. One’s near neighbors also have a prior right on one’s charity. The Prophet, on him be peace, said:
He is no believer who sleeps full while his neighbor beside him is hungry.” (Ṭabarani)
This hierarchy of Sadaqah-worthiness can be specified more finely. The Quran tells us:
They ask you, O Prophet, what ways they should spend charitably. Say to them: Whatever good offering you spend is to be for your parents, and nearest relatives, and orphans, and the indigent, and the needy wayfarers. And whatever good you do, God is, indeed, all-knowing of it. (Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:215)
Note the immediacy with which orphans follow upon near relatives, for the Prophet, on him be peace, strongly urged us to incorporate them into our care through a sponsorship whose standard is how we raise our own children in our households (see Sponsoring the Orphan in Islam). For this reason, Zakat Foundation has a dynamically growing Orphan Sponsorship Program.
What makes Sadaqah more pleasing to God?
Scholars who have assessed the exhortations to Sadaqah in the Quran and from the Prophet, on him be peace, note that three things perfect one’s charity.
Giving it quickly, as soon as wealth comes to you
Looking upon what you give as meager, no matter great its value
Giving it in secret
God and His Messenger, on him be peace, have placed a great premium on this last point, giving anonymously. It preserves the dignity of the recipient and the intention of the giver. The Prophet, on him be peace, said:
Allah loves the God-fearing rich who gives [abundantly in charity], yet stays unknown and unhailed.” (Muslim)
He said, as well:
Seven shall Allah shade in His Shade on a Day when there shall be only His Shade: … [and named among them] one who gave charity so secretly his left hand knew not what his right hand spent therein.” (Muslim)
Having said this, it should be noted that giving publicly can also itself be a source of high divine reward, and we see this among the Companions responding to the call of the Prophet, on him be peace, for Sadaqah in most urgent times. This is because when charitable funds are needed, if one sets an open example of answering a charitable call and giving, he or she will gain the like reward of whoever follows that charitable example, without diminishing the reward of those who follow in the least.
To these best Sadaqah practices, we may add a fourth: giving wealth in health when one is keen to accumulate wealth for oneself. The Prophet, on him be peace, said:
A dirham (coin) spent charitably by any one of you while healthy and desirous of it surpasses a hundred dirhams one wills away upon one’s death.” (Muslim)
In this vein, a man once came to the Prophet, on him be peace, and asked him to clarify the kind of charity that gave one the best reward from God. The Prophet, on him be peace, itemized three characteristics of so highly a rewarded Sadaqah:
One gives it in health
One gives it in fear of poverty
One gives it aspiring to wealth
But won’t giving so much in Sadaqah decrease my wealth?
No. The Prophet, on him be peace, said:
“I swear up three, and ask that you mark my words:
Wealth shall never decrease from giving charity
One who suffers injustice with patience, Allah shall grant strength
One who takes to begging, Allah shall impoverish
What will giving Sadaqah give me?
The celebrated Central Asian scholar Abû Layth of Samarkand noted that giving charity pays five dividends to givers in the life of this world, and five more in the Hereafter.
It purifies wealth
It purifies its giver of sins
It repels calamity and illnesses
It brings happiness to the poor
It blesses wealth and increases it
It shields one from the sweltering heat of the Day of Judgment
It lightens one’s divine reckoning
It makes heavy the Scale of one’s good deeds
It aids one’s crossing of the Traverse over Hellfire to Paradise
It raises one’s rank in Paradise
What kind of Sadaqah is best?
The best forms of charity are water to the thirsting, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and displaced, alleviating the plight of the utterly destitute, and emancipating the enslaved.
Righteousness in the sight of God … dwells in one who – despite his love for it – gives of his wealth in charity to close relatives and orphans and to the indigent and the wayfarer, and to beggars and for the emancipation of slaves (Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:177).