Poverty is one of the greatest socio-economic problems in the world today. Even in the United States, we often see people begging for money and food. During the harsh winters, there is a lack of shelters and warm clothing for the homeless. We see people with all their belongings sitting or sleeping on a subway car because they have nowhere else to go. On just a single night in the United States, 553,742 individuals were found to be homeless and in need of help.1 With all our technological advancements and progress over the course of centuries, there is still a lack of resources that cater to the less fortunate. In the religion of Islam, there is a great emphasis on charity and care for those with limited resources. God states in the Holy Quran, “If relatives, orphans, or destitute people are present…give them something and speak kindly to them.”2 God continues to say, “We only feed you for the sake of God and we do not want any reward or thanks from you. We are afraid of our Lord and the bitterly distressful day.” 3 The way that Imam Ali (p) put this holy verse into action, in terms of how to treat the needy and orphans, is a lesson for all of humanity.

Imam Ali (p) and Economic Justice

Imam Ali (p) grew up in the lap of the Holy Prophet (pbuh&hp) and illuminated his actions at every juncture. During the prophetic period, among the most important values stressed was to care for the less fortunate, as demonstrated by the Prophet’s words, “Be merciful to those on Earth, and the One in the Heavens will be merciful to you.”4 Under Imam Ali’s (p) government in Kufa, he made every effort to combat the social disease of poverty, as he would utter his famous line, “If poverty were in the form of a man, I would have killed him.”5

One day, Imam Ali (p) was walking in the streets of Kufa when he noticed an elderly man who was begging. “What is this?” the Imam (p) asked. The people who knew the old man turned to Imam Ali (p) and said, “He is a Christian man.” Imam Ali (p) looked at them and said, “You used him [for work] when he was young and able, and now that he has become old, you have left him all alone! Compensate him from the Public Treasury!”6

It is incredibly important to note that the Imam was not concerned with who was before him but about the shocking situation in its entirety. The Imam lent a helping hand to all people no matter what their religion or background was, not discriminating against anyone.

Imam Ali (p) and the Orphans

Aside from treating the needy with generosity and tenderness, Imam Ali gave special attention to orphans. Imam Ali (p) is known as Abu al-Yatama or “the Father of the Orphans” as he said, “I am the father of the orphan, I am the cave [refuge] of the widows.”7 Imam Ali (p) not only cared deeply for orphans, but put this care  into action by cooking for them, feeding them, clothing them, conversing with them, and playing with them.

One day the Imam noticed a woman carrying a waterskin on her back. She was gasping and struggling towards her house. She had small children who were eagerly waiting for her. Imam Ali (p) approached her, took the waterskin from her, and placed it on his back. The lady did not know who he was but allowed him to help her. When they reached her house, the children saw their mother entering the house with a stranger. He placed the waterskin on the ground and said, “It seems you don’t have anyone to fetch water for you; how come you are all alone?” “My husband was a soldier. Ali sent him to the frontier where he was killed. Now I am alone with these small children,” she replied.

Upon hearing those words, the Imam (p) had nothing else to say. He bowed his head and left. The thought of the helpless widow and orphans remained in his mind. Early the next morning, he picked up a basket and put some meat, flour, and dates in it. He went straight to the woman’s house and knocked on the door. “Who is at the door?” the woman asked. “I am the man who carried the water for you yesterday. I have brought some food for the children,” he said.

The woman replied by saying, “May God bless you and judge between us and Ali.” She opened the door. Entering the house, the Imam (p) said, “I would like to help you. Let me knead the flour and bake bread, or allow me to look after the children.” The woman responded, “I can do the job of kneading and cooking better than you, so you can take care of the children while I cook.”

She went to knead the flour. When the dough was ready, she called out, “Gentleman! Put fire in the oven.” He (the Imam (p)) went to light a fire in the oven. When the flames rose up, he brought his face near the fire and said, “Taste the heat of the fire. It is the punishment for those who fail in their duty towards orphans and widows.” He helped her grill some of the meat that he had brought. When the food was ready, the Imam (p) fed the children telling each one (while putting a morsel in his mouth), “My son, forgive Ali if he has failed in his duty towards you.” Coincidentally, a woman from the neighboring house came in. Recognizing the Imam (p), she cried: “Woe (onto you), don’t you recognize the man who is helping you? He is Amir al-Mumineen (commander of the faithful) Ali ibn Abi-Talib!” The widow came forward and shamefully cried, “Curse and shame to me. I beg your pardon!” The Imam (p) replied, “No, I beg your pardon for I failed in my duty towards you.”8

Even though the woman insulted the Imam (p), he still went back to her house, provided food for her and her children, and helped in every way that he could.

Our Responsibilities

Imam Ali (p) has set the perfect example when it comes to helping the less fortunate. It is our responsibility to follow his example and help those in need. There are many organizations within our own communities who help:

  1. In most low-income neighborhoods, there are soup kitchens. These are centers where food is prepared for the hungry and offered free of charge. We can volunteer some of our time to help prepare these meals.
  2. Local organizations get together and make and distribute care packages to the homeless. These packages usually contain everyday essentials such as snacks, oral hygiene products, socks, and gloves. We can help make these packages or donate some of the items for them.
  3. Many of our mosques hold blanket or coat drives during the winter. People donate blankets or coats and distribute them to the homeless to keep them warm during the harsh weather. We can help by donating or going out to distribute the items.
  4. We can participate in toy drives which give donated toys to less fortunate children to put a smile on their faces during the holidays.
  5. We can designate a container at home to put money in, and when it fills up, we can give it our local mosques to distribute to the less fortunate. This will help teach our young children the importance of giving charity.

Imam Ali (p), offered teachings on economic justice and methods of eradicating the poverty that is so common today. We should do our best to demonstrate the same mercy and compassion to the less fortunate and to orphans. By doing what we can to help the needy today (like the actions mentioned above), we will have followed the instructions of the Ahl al-Bayt. We will be able to shine the light of our Imam (p) and be the means for change that this world so desperately needs.

1. “2017 AHAR: Part 1 – PIT Estimates of Homelessness in the U.S.” HUD Exchange. Accessed March 30, 2018. https://www.hudexchange.info/resource/5639/2017-ahar-part-1-pit-estimates-of-homelessness-in-the-us/.
2. The Holy Quran 4:8.
3. The Holy Quran 76:8-10.
4.  Mirza Hussain Noori, Mustadrak al-Wasail, vol 9, p 55.
5. Nahj al-balagha, p. 84.
6. Shaykh al-Toosi, Tahdheeb al-ahkam, vol. 6, p. 293.
7. Shathan al-Qummi, Al-fadhail, p. 84.
8. Ibn Abi Shahr Ashoob, Manaqib al-Abitalib, vol. 1, p. 382.

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