By Sikandar Azam
The global hunger grew to as many as 828 million in 2021, swelling by about 46 million from 2020 and 150 million from the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, a United Nations report said on July 6. And on July 12, the International Red Cross warned that millions of people are at risk of severe hunger in the coming months as extreme poverty, inequality and food insecurity rose, particularly in parts of Africa and the Middle East. While the governments are taking measures to deal with this situation of famine and hunger, let us see how Islam tackles it.
Catering for the needs of the poor and needy is a duty and obligation. The Qur’an describes it as a right for the needy; it is not a favour on the part of the giver but an obligation and responsibility he owes to the community. Those who are unable to support themselves and their families for reasons whatsoever and cannot find suitable work in a way that protects their dignity and honour deserve the help and support of those who are well-to-do.
The Islamic concept of wealth is that it belongs to God and we humans are mere trustees who are supposed to distribute it according the command of the original Owner, God Almighty. God says in the Qur’ān (57:7): “Believe in Allah and His Messenger, and spend of that whereof He has made you trustees. And such of you as believe and spend (in Allah’s Way), theirs will be a great reward.”
Abdullah ibn Abbas relates that the Prophet ﷺ said, “The believer is not he who eats his fill while his neighbour goes hungry.” (al-Sunan al-Kubra) In another hadith, Adi ibn Hatim relates that the Prophet ﷺ said: “Save yourself from Hell-fire even by giving half-a-date-fruit (in charity.)” (Bukhari)
Caliph Umar had to face the famine in 18 A.H. when drought struck Arabia. The problem was further complicated by the plague that struck Syria during 17-18 A.H. The Caliph acted decisively and wisely by taking measures like mobilising food supplies from Egypt and Iraq, personally supervising their distribution, and refraining personally from eating good food or eating at home. He delayed collection of Zakat, and suspended the statutory punishment of theft (hadd) because of the likelihood that the thief might have been in dire need. He joined the people in prayer to God to alleviate the drought. After the famine, the Caliph ordered his Governor in Egypt, Amr Ibn Al-Aas to dig a canal connecting the Nile to the Red Sea to ensure regular supplies of food from Egypt to Arabia. Thus he set exemplary precedents to the rulers who care to learn a lesson or two therefrom.