The Short Answer
Perhaps Ibn Al-Qayyim Al-Jawziyyah — the towering 8th Islamic Century (14 CE) spiritual, theological, and jurisprudential scholar of Syria — summarized the answer to this question best:
If a ṣadaqah giver knew his charity reaches the Hand of God before reaching the hand of its recipient, the giver’s joy would exceed the glee of its receiver.
To paraphrase his estimation of ṣadaqah’s otherworldly preeminence:
Ṣadaqah protects from a bad end, meaning death; guards wealth; repels calamities; shades one on the Day of Judgment; makes happy the heart; purifies the soul; causes people to pray for you; increases your provision in this world; imbeds in you trust in God and good thoughts of Him (ḥusn al-ẓann); increases your lifespan; wipes away your sins; humiliates Satan; eases the hardships of this life and the Hereafter for you, hides your shortcomings, protects you from the punishment of the grave, and makes you beloved to God and His creation.
To answer another way, ṣadaqah is more than generically important. It is simultaneously decisive for the success of each human soul and for our communal life in the world.
No one attains to true faith, the good life, or a favorable outcome in the Hereafter without bending the arc of his or her life to delivering ṣadaqah to all those within reach and need, while the thread that continuously mends together the social fabric of humanity in community is made up of no strand stronger than ṣadaqah. (See What Is the Difference Between Zakat and Ṣadaqah?)
If ṣadaqah is so vital, then why is it voluntary?
The definition of ṣadaqah as “voluntary,” a person’s freewill offering, is highly misunderstood. God and His Messenger Muḥammad, on him be peace, do not set limits, times, and conditions for its giving. Yet they, nonetheless, require it of every Muslim — not merely on occasion — but as a state of mind and a way of believing life.
The reason for this seeming ṣadaqah paradox — a voluntary human act that God, in fact, requires of us in Islam — is that His call to live a life of charity is meant to test our faith. Its performance materializes a living demonstration that affirms the belief in God and fear of Him that we proclaim abides intangibly in our hearts. Indeed, "affirmation" is one of the prime linguistic meanings that derive from ṣidq, the Arabic root word of ṣadaqah.
But the likeness of those who spend their wealth seeking the pleasure of God — and as an affirmation of faith for themselves — is as the likeness of a garden on a hilltop struck by heavy rain, such that it brings forth its produce twofold. And even if no heavy rain strikes it, then a drizzle suffices. And God is all-seeing of all that you do (Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:265).
Hence, the Prophet, on him be peace, said: “Sadaqah is a proof” (Muslim), meaning giving charity for the sake of God bears out the truth of one’s claim to faith.
Can you show how the Prophet, on him be peace, exemplified ṣadaqah?
The authenticated reports of the Prophet’s charitable generosity are legion, far too numerous to detail here. But to give a sense of it, listen to his Companions.
Jâbir Ibn ‘Abdullah said: “He was never asked for anything and then said, ‘No’ ” (Bukhari, and also Muslim with similar wording).
Ibn ‘Abbâs said:
The Messenger of Allah, God bless him and grant him peace, was ever the most generous of people. Yet he was more generous than ever in Ramadan, for then he would meet [the Archangel] Gabriel. Indeed, Gabriel, on him be peace, would meet him in every night of Ramadan, and the Prophet would review with him the Quran. Then would the Messenger of God, on him be peace, become more generous in good-doing than the gusting of a giving-wind (Bukhari, no. 3554).
Here’s an account from Anas, another close Companion, that illustrates just how thoroughly and wonderously the ethic of ṣadaqah utterly imbued the character of the Prophet, on him be peace:
I was walking with the Messenger of Allah, on him be peace, and he was wearing a Najrâni cloak with a coarse border seam. A Bedouin met him, took hold of [the Prophet’s] cloak, and tugged it with a forceful jerk. I looked over the shoulder [to the neck] of the Prophet, on him be peace. It was bruise-marked by the coarse edging of the cloak from the severity of the pull. Then [the Bedouin] said: “O Muhammad! Give me out of Allah’s wealth that is with you.” [The Prophet] but turned to him and laughed, then ordered that he should be given something [in charity] (Bukhari and Muslim).
On him be peace, the Prophet’s smile at his crude accoster is a ṣadaqah. His silence in forgoing any harsh response for this assault is a ṣadaqah. Withholding himself from interrogating the asker about his need is a ṣadaqah. His laugh is a ṣadaqah. And, of course, his gifting the Bedouin with whatever of God’s bounty God had given him is a marvelous ṣadaqah. In total, and in every facet, the entire person and reply of the Prophet, on him be peace, is a perfected exemplication of the divine ethic of ṣadaqah that imbues every aspect of Islam.
Little wonder that the then-young reporter of this event, Anas, God be pleased with him, assessed the Prophet, on him be peace, in these words:
The Prophet, God’s blessings and peace on him, was the best of all people, the bravest of all people, and the most generous of all people (Bukhari, and Muslim with different wording).
How does the Quran show the mandate of ṣadaqah?
The very first definition of sincere belief that God gives us in the ordered Quran, no more than a handful of verses (ayât) into it, underscores the fundamental requirement of giving ṣadaqah charity in order to become divinely directed aright in life and triumphant in the Afterlife. Here are the first qualities it lists in delineating the traits of “the God-fearing”:
Those who believe in the realms of the unseen, and who duly establish the Prayer [set by God], and who spend charitably out of what We have provided them (Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:2-3).
The Quran utters edict after warnings that tie true belief (and disbelief) and our coming Judgment in the Hereafter to how assiduously we comply with its persistent exhortations to give ṣadaqah, again, as a tangible expression of truehearted faith:
O you who believe! Spend charitably out of what We have provided you, before a Day Hereafter comes in which there shall be no trade, nor friendship, nor intercession. Then as to the disbelievers — it is they who are the wrongdoers (Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:254).
You shall believe in God alone and His Messenger! And you shall spend charitably out of that wealth over which He has made you trustees. Then as to those of you who have thus believed and spent, know that for them there is a great reward awaiting in the Hereafter (Sûrat Al-Ḥadîd, 57:7).
If we understood ṣadaqah as God has commanded it in the Quran and as the Prophet, on him be peace, has embodied it and exhorted us to its fulfillment, we would set our faces to a constant search for the means and ways to give it. Indeed, one conspicuously sees exactly this ethic of ṣadaqah as the operative motive governing the day-to-day lives of the generation the Prophet, on him be peace, directly trained.
In this regard, the noted jurist Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal (164-241 H / 780-855 CE), said:
If you desire God to be persistent in granting you the thing you love, be persistent in doing the things He loves.
Can you give examples of the Companions’ ṣadaqah?
Abû Bakr, God be pleased with him, once gave all his wealth in ṣadaqah for the Prophet, on him be peace, to put in the service of the community at a time of great need. Of his ṣadaqah the Prophet, on him be peace, said: “No wealth has ever benefitted me as the wealth of Abû Bakr has benefitted me,” whereupon Abû Bakr wept (Ibn Mâjah).
‘Umar, God be pleased with him, emancipated captives with his own ṣadaqah.
‘Uthmân, God be pleased with him, bought and dug the well of Ruma in ṣadaqah for the people of Madinah when they had no other source of fresh water. He readied the defense forces of ‘Usra as a ṣadaqah when the fledgling Madinah community, threatened with invasion and destruction, had meager arms. He bought the land adjacent to the Mosque of the Prophet, on him be peace, to expand it, with the bulk of his own wealth as ṣadaqah, in order to accommodate the growing community for worship. Each of these acts of ṣadaqah he did after an open appeal from the Prophet, on him be peace, to the struggling community, followed by the prophetic promise of Paradise for whomever would give it.
‘Ali ibn Abî Ṭâlib, God be pleased with him, after dispersing in ṣadaqah to the society’s needful all the wealth of the treasury, over which he had charge, would personally sweep it out and then offer a supererogatory ṣalât prayer in it in the hope that it would bear witness for him on the Day of Judgment that he did not withhold anything in it from the needy.
‘Umar ibn Al-Khaṭṭâb, God be pleased with him, once took 400 dinars and said to a girl serving him as caliph: “Take it to [the Companion] Abû ‘Ubaydah. Then remain in his house until you see what he does with it.” She did so, saying to Abû ‘Ubaydah: “The Commander of the Faithful tells you to take this.” He said: “Allah draw him near and have mercy on him.” Then he said: “Come, girl, and take this seven dinars to so and so, and take this five to so and so,” until he had given every dinar of it away in ṣadaqah.
The young girl returned to ‘Umar and told him what she saw. Meanwhile, ‘Umar had prepared a similar amount for her to take to [the Companion] Mu‘âdh bin Jabal and sent her with it with the same instructions. Mu‘âdh said: “Allah draw him near. “Come, girl, and go to the house of such and such with this much, and to the house of such and such with that much.” Then Mu‘âdh’s wife came and said: “By Allah, we ourselves are impoverished, so give us some.” Two dinars remained in the pouch. So he tossed it to her. The young girl returned to ‘Umar, telling him what she had seen. ‘Umar grew pleased and said: “These two are, indeed, brothers, one like the other.”
‘Aisha, God be pleased with her, the beloved wife of the Prophet, on him be peace, and our Muslim mother, was once given 70,000 dinars and immediately dispersed it all in ṣadaqah. ‘Urwah, who used to serve her and witnessed this, said: “And yet she would sew patches to her own garment.”
Why is ṣadaqah charity necessary?
To be human is to be in need, emotionally, materially, and spiritually. Want and lack in all these dimensions are thus central to our earthly experience.
This native human state of “poverty” is satisfied in all its aspects by divine Revelation.
O humankind! It is you who are the poor, utterly in need of God. And it is God alone who is the Self-Sufficient, the All-Praised (Sûrat Al-Fâṭir, 35:15).
Spiritually, one is nourished by the technologies of the soul God has revealed for us: ritual prayer (ṣalat), the mentioned remembrances of God (dhikr), fasting (ṣiyâm, in Ramaḍan and on other days), the Ḥajj pilgrimage to the Ancient House of God, and recitation of God’s verbatim Word in the Quran.
Emotionally, our natural connections of “womb-relationships” (ṣilat al-raḥm) that Allah has created humanity in and from suffices us. This kinship, the Quran tells us, extends in concentric spheres of closeness ever outward to bind all human beings to one another through mutual rights and obligations as brothers and sisters originally from a single soul (see Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:1).
Materially, God made ṣadaqah as the mechanism by which man may carry out his duty as an appointed successor in the earth, ensuring the delivery of tangible physical, emotional, spiritual, (including psychological) essentials to meet the needs of his fellows in creation, beginning with his closest human relations. That is to say, ṣadaqah, in fact, comprises all three of these natural dimensions of human need, going beyond the merely financial, though spending for God's sake to help those in need is its most central expression.
Regarding ṣadaqah”s expansiveness beyond the material, the Prophet, on him be peace, said:
Morning breaks upon every joint of each one of you with a ṣadaqah charity due on it. Every praising of God (al-ḥamduli’Llah) is a charity. Every declaration of God’s Oneness (Lâ ilâha illa’Llâh) is a charity. Every magnification of God’s greatness (Allâhu akbar) is a charity. Every enjoining of good is a charity. Every forbidding of evil is a charity. And of equal reward to all of this are two cycles of ritual prayer (two rak‘ahs) in the morning light (Muslim).
(See How Many Types of Ṣadaqah Are There?)
As to the material primacy of ṣadaqah, it is a primary means at our disposal to prove the true quality of our belief in God in the face of dire need in the midst of opulent abundance, the native human conditon which God has created between us all in the life of this world.
Blessed be the One … who created death and life to test you, and to reveal which of you is best in deeds (Sûrat Al-Mulk, 67:1-2).
How does ṣadaqah build community?
Humanity’s earliest records and historical assessments show an ongoing human consciousness and concern for the poor in the philosophies of the ancients, their laws, and even in their contrived or contorted belief systems. These same accounts consistently bear out that as these societies and civilizations degraded, corruption in the ideal of care for the poor led directly to — indeed, became synonymous with — an increasing neglect of the natural and vital human needs of the ever-growing number and magnitude of their impoverished. It can be argued that it is this corruption in relation to the economically vulnerable that set off their social disintegration. Ultimately, these communities and their systems collapsed under the weight of their inequity.
The ruin of these civilizations — even world orders — follows a common storyline: Power and wealth create a cycle of riches and control gushing ever upward into the hands of fewer and fewer elite. They increasingly bypass everlarger groupings of people, who are successively reduced to lower and lower social echelons, until the imbalance topples society.
The Heavenly religions — the monotheisms based on the divinely revealed Books — elevated physical, material care for the poor to a central moral duty of their faith-communities and followers. The Quran tells us, moreover, that this is no story of evolution toward belief in the One God. Rather, not a prophet or caller to the One God, literally from day one, appears without commending the people to water and feed the thirsting and hungry, house the homeless, incorporate the orphan and widow into their families, accommodate the wayfarer, and welcome the migrant — and to begin with their closest relations. To this list, Islam added the economic support and social integration of the captive and the emancipation and enrichment of the bondservant.
Islam, unlike previous dispensations, did not leave this vital matter of poverty (and therefore the integrity of society) to the sentiment of the wealthy. It raises care for the poor — indeed, the elimination of poverty, its sources, and the transformation of the poor into proprietors and property owners — to the level of religious requirement, with one’s admission to Heaven or relegation to Hell literally in the balance.
Among its earliest revealed verses, the Quran gives us a glimpse of the Hereafter, the people of Paradise interrogating the wrongdoing in Hell as to what thrust them into its deep. They will answer among other their earthly failings: “We did not feed the indigent” (Sûrat Al-Muddaththir, 74:44).
Says Yusuf Qardawi in his Jurisprudence of Zakat:
Islam is unprecedented in the extent of its care for the poor and its determination to solve the problem of poverty, whether through directives and recommendations that exhort Muslims to show mercy to the poor, through legislation and laws, or through implementation and application.
He notes that the Quran considered even abstention from encouraging others to feed the poor an act of unbelief. Among the Companions of the Prophet, on him be peace, they considered belief in God and His Messenger as “saving us from half the pain” of Hellfire. Exhorting others to suffice the poor became for them a necessary fulfillment of the Quran’s warning about Hell’s denizens who were placed there because they “did not urge the feeding of the indigent” (Sûrat Al-Ḥâqqah, 69:34) if they were to save themselves from the other half of Hell’s punishment.
He says this is a “call to all humanity to cooperate and support one another in taking care of the poor” — and not just with food, as he quotes another scholar, but by “securing one another’s needs.” The Quran includes in these commands, exhortations, and warnings all the vulnerable — the orphan, the oppressed, those who ask for help and those in need whom humility keeps from asking, the destitute, the hungry, the wayfaring, the displaced, the homeless.
Ṣadaqah thus includes what God has commanded us to give according to our own discretion and the mandatory Zakat alms that He himself obligated Muslims to pay yearly on their accumulated wealth, according to the stipulations of the Prophet, on him be peace. (See How Is Zakat Calculated On Wealth?)
This is how ṣadaqah builds community, including the global human community, and saves a society from breakdown. It is as the Prophet, on him be peace, said:
Give [in charity] and do not give reluctantly, if you would not have God limit what He gives you. And do not withhold your money [from the needy], if you would not have God withhold it from you (Bukhari).
And with this warning:
One who is not merciful to others will not be treated mercifully (Bukhari).