One day Abdullah, the son of Zubair, told those around him: “I have never met anyone more generous than my mother and my aunt.”
He was describing Asma and Aisha radi Allahu `anhuma (may Allah be pleased with them). Abdullah, the son of Asma and the nephew of Aisha, explained: “Their generosity was different. Aisha (ra) used to gather things, and after they had been collected, she would give them out. Asma (ra), on the other hand, would not keep anything for the next day.” (Al-Adab Al-Mufrad)
Immediately, we notice how their expressions of generosity were the exact opposite; one woman waiting until she gathered a large amount to give, while the other gave as soon as she received. Yet one method of giving was not favoured over the other. Both forms of giving were equally seen as virtuous.
Among the many virtues we know of our Mother Aisha (ra), the one she received a nickname for was charity. She was called Umm al-Teeb (the mother of fragrance). Using “umm” or “mother” in Arabic emphasizes that this person is the source of something or that this is a particular characteristic of the person or object. Aisha (ra) was called Umm al-Teeb because she used to spray perfume on the money she donated. When asked why she did this, she explained that charity reaches Allah before the receiving person’s hand1 so she wanted it to smell nice. She did this so often that it became her trademark and earned her this nickname.
Asma (ra) was known for her strength and resilience. She was the older sister of Aisha (ra) by ten years. As a young woman, she walked miles until she reached the cave outside of the city where her her father, Abu Bakr (ra), and the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) were hiding on their pilgrimage to Medina, in order to bring them food. For her creativity in bringing them supplies, the Prophet ﷺ personally gave her a nickname. She became known as Dhat an-Nitaqayn, which means “she who has two belts.” To hide the supplies she was carrying, Asma (ra) tore her belt in two and secured the packages under her clothes. A part of this story that is not well-known was that Asma (ra) was recently married and pregnant at the time.
This brief glimpse into their lives shows us how these women embodied generosity. What can we specifically learn from this narration?
Firstly, we learn that there are benefits and challenges to both ways of giving, but that both methods can make you among the most generous of people. Asma’s method teaches us that we should be in the constant habit of giving as we receive. Giving as soon as you receive can make you among the most generous of people. Aisha’s case, giving after accumulation, may seem harder. We live in a society which encourages accumulation and collecting things. When you have one thing in your hand, it may be easier to give rather than collecting a large amount and giving it all at once. But the bottom line is that we should be giving. The question is: how can we adjust this giving to fit our circumstances and make us better people?
In the Qur’an, Allah (swt) when speaking of Maryam (as) describes her as being among the most devout worshippers. He (swt) did not specify ‘devout female worshippers,’ highlighting that her devoutness was not related to her being a woman; it transcended gender. She, and all of us, are first and foremost worshipers of Allah. Similarly, Abdullah (ra) did not say these two women are the most generous women, but in his eyes, they were the two most generous people he knew.
Abdullah (ra) also noted the difference between the amount of giving (Aisha) versus the frequency of giving (Asma). Despite this stark contrast, he recognizes that either/or, both forms of giving embody generosity. It does not matter which way you follow as long as you give. Abdullah (ra) did not share what his mother and aunt actually gave, and from this we can understand that they did not only give money but assorted items.
If you were to look up “charity” in any hadith (Prophetic traditions) database, you would come up with hundreds upon hundreds of narrations and examples of charity. Allah (swt) and His Prophet ﷺ teach us that giving charity and being generous are important and noble traits of a believer. Yet, they did not give us only one way to practice generosity. An act which embodies a general virtue such as honesty or kindness can be practiced many ways. Asma (ra) and Aisha (ra) teach us two of the many ways we can be generous people.
An important lesson from this narration is that we should personalize our worship. We know that there are acts of worship which have specific conditions and practices which we cannot deviate from, such as prayer or fasting. But doing general good, which is considered worship, can be moulded to fit our personalities. We all have unique gifts Allah (swt) has blessed us with. We should use these talents to worship Allah and to benefit ourselves and those around us. We should be creative and find our own unique ways of doing good, under the greater umbrella of virtuous deeds. Islam does not remove our personalities or qualities. Instead, Islam should accentuate our personalities. Dr. Sherman Jackson sums it up wonderfully by saying, “Let us not think that greatness can only be by becoming a religious scholar. Many of us don’t find greatness because we don’t find ourselves. We are too busy trying to be someone else and their greatness. Because we don’t focus on Allah we can’t see the greatness that Allah wants us to achieve. When we find that path, the talents and ingrained values will find their fruition.”2
You can be generous in many ways, based on your circumstances and personality, because Islam accommodates this. Sometimes we take very grand virtues and present a linear and restrictive definition of how to act upon them. For example, we all know that honesty is a virtue. But does honesty only mean to speak the truth? Doesn’t honesty include honesty in earning a lawful income or honesty in eating from pure and good sources? Generosity is not just to give money nor is it to only give something when you get it. Yes, giving money is part of generosity but it can also be to give people your full attention when speaking to them. It can be to spend time with family. It can be showing hospitality to your guests. When we restrict a virtue, we end up restricting ourselves and our Islam. If we try to manifest these virtues in everything we do, if we go beyond the linear definition, then we move past Islam as being a series of acts and rituals and instead work towards truly embodying Islamic virtues in all aspects of our lives.
This short narration from Abdullah (ra) at a cursory glance may teach us simply that generosity is a virtue. Taking a closer look allows us to see how two great women embodied generosity and how we can be creative in our worship.