Who doesn’t love a gift? Whether we are experiencing the elation of receiving a present or the joy attached to giving one, gifts are associated with good times and good feelings. Most human beings love gifts.
Gifts are an important but often under-appreciated part of our human interactions. From the earliest civilizations, we can find archaeological evidence that people exchanged gifts. However, these acts, which at first glance may appear to be simple expressions of affinity, may possess deeper meanings. A Muslim must ask him or herself: What is appropriate to give and to whom? Why are we giving? In what context is the gift being given? And the same questions can be raised about receiving.
Islamic Guidance on Gifting
In Islam, the niyyah or intention behind an action is as important as the action itself. The significance of the gift extends far beyond the gift. It really reflects the mindsets of the giver and the receiver. Roman philosopher Seneca (4 CE - 65 CE) wisely stated, “A gift consists not in what is done or given, but in the intention of the giver or doer.” (Moral Essays: Volume III)
For the Muslims who live in many of the world’s non-Muslim majority countries, this time of year is known as the “season of giving.” Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa celebrations all include some form of gifting. When the people who participate in those celebrations are your neighbors, co-workers, fellow students, and extended family members, how does a Muslim respond to gifts? Should we give non-Muslims gifts in return?
The first step in understanding this social dilemma is to realize that Muslims and non-Muslims may view a gift in different ways. In Islam, gifting should emanate from a place of love and the recognition of Allah’s role as the source of everything good. Allah is Al-Wahhaab, The One Who Constantly Bestows Gifts. He is the Most Generous Giver Who gives to His servants freely and tirelessly without any expectation of return. When we give or receive a gift, we must do so with the mindsets of humility and gratitude because Allah, Azza wa Jall (The Mighty and Majestic), is the One who provided us with the means to give and the ability to receive.
For something to be considered a gift, it cannot be given with the intention that the gift will prompt the receiver to give something back in return. Imam Ghazali (1058 – 1111 CE) explained this idea by saying, “Whoever bestows gifts with an eye to some interest to be realized by it sooner or later, be it appreciation, affection, or release from blame, or acquiring distinction of mention – he is neither a giver nor generous, but rather, he is engaged in transaction and recompense ….”
In many other religious traditions, it is a widely accepted practice to anticipate something in exchange for a gift. This expectation is called the reciprocity norm, which refers to a gift giver having feelings of entitlement to a gift of similar or greater value. Or the recipient can feel an obligation to return the favor to someone who has given something. Sociologist Dimitri Mortelmans argues that gift-giving creates a “debt balance” which can create a perpetual “cycle of gift-giving.”1 Muslims must not let the social pressure to give be the motivation for giving. Rather, we must give to please Allah, Al-Kareem, The Most Generous.
Generally, gift-giving between Muslims and non-Muslims is a praiseworthy practice. In Surah Al-Mumtahina, Allah tells us:
“Allah does not forbid you to deal kindly and with full equity with those who do not fight you on account of your faith, nor [those who] drive you out of your homes. Allah loves those who behave equitably. Allah only forbids you to turn in friendship towards those who fight against you because of your faith, and (who) drive you from your homes, and help others to drive you out. Those of you who turn towards them in friendship are indeed wrongdoers.”
(Surah Al-Mumtahina, 60:8-9)
Gifting in the Sunnah
The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, used to accept gifts from non-Muslims. This is a general position. Al-Muqawqis, a ruler of Egypt who was either a Greek Christian or a Persian, sent the Prophet a gift. Sahih Bukhari has a chapter on accepting gifts from unbelievers which contains a description of gifts that the Prophet received from non-Muslims, such as a white mule and the poisoned lamb that a Jewish woman sent to him.
Aishah, may Allah be pleased with her, said: “Allah’s Messenger used to accept gifts and reciprocate them.”
Some Conditions to Gifting
There are some conditions to gift-giving. When we receive a gift that is inappropriate for us but permissible for others, we can accept it with humility and re-gift it. Bukhaari and Muslim both narrated that a man gave the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, a garment of silk, which was forbidden for him, as a man, to wear. He ordered that the garment be divided and made into head coverings for his daughter Fatimah and another girl.
Gifting during the celebrations of non-Muslims has even more conditions attached to it. According to most Islamic scholars, it is not permissible to give non-Muslims gifts on the occasion of their celebrations. They consider it to be a form of validating the unIslamic beliefs and shirk behind the celebrations.
Whether we can give or receive presents to non-Muslims is a source of debate and the various schools of thought are not in agreement. The most widely-accepted opinion is that it is lawful to accept gifts and presents from non-Muslims if we sincerely really believe that the giver’s goal is not to entice us to incline toward their beliefs. But we are forbidden to avoid accepting or giving gifts directly associated with their beliefs and celebrations. We cannot accept the meat which we know was slaughtered in the name of their deity or specifically for their celebrations, although we can eat their other food, such as fruit. We also are not allowed to give them gifts on the day of the celebration or specifically for their celebrations.
We, however, can give gifts at other times to soften the recipients' hearts toward the worship of Allah. This is especially true if the gift will also help strengthen family or neighborly ties. Umar, may Allaah be pleased with him, gave a garment to his polytheist brother (Bukhaari #2619).
The mindset that the Muslim must have regarding our gift-giving to non-Muslims must be that of kindness and fair treatment as opposed to the loyalty or love that should be reserved for one’s fellow Muslim.
Allah reminds us that: “... [we] will not find any people who believe in Allah and the Last Day, making friendship with those who oppose Allah and His Messenger (Muhammad), even though they were their fathers or their sons or their brothers or their kindred (people). For such, He has written faith in their hearts and strengthened them with Rooh (proofs, light, and true guidance) from Himself. And He will admit them to Gardens (Paradise) under which rivers flow, to dwell therein (forever). Allaah is pleased with them, and they, are pleased with Him. They are the party of Allah. Verily, it is the party of Allah that will be successful.”
(Surah Al-Mujaadilah, 58:22)
Allah also says:
“O you who believe! Take not My enemies and your enemies as friends, showing affection towards them, while they have disbelieved in what has come to you of the truth.”
(Surah Al-Mujaadilah, 60:1)
Lessons for our Children
As Muslim parents and caretakers, we must cultivate the true spirit of giving within our families. Here are a few lessons that deserve your attention:
- Teach them the meaning of Allah’s names that deal with His generosity, blessings, and gifts to us.
- Read the many stories in the Seerah of how the early Muslims dealt with gifting.
- Model the act of gifting all through the year, not just during a “holiday.”
- Remind them that a gift does not have to be purchased from a store or even a tangible object.
- And teach children to show gratitude and humility toward gifts, no matter how small or disliked.
Our takeaway from this must be that we reflect on intention - the intention of the giver and the receiver. We have to consider the context of the gift-giving.
We have to treat other human beings, no matter if they have the same religion as we do, with kindness.
We should give gifts to non-Muslims at times other than the days of their celebrations. If we want them to feel favorable toward Islam, then we should give gifts, especially water and food, and especially to our non-Muslim family and neighbors, all throughout the year.
We should be grateful to Allah when receiving gifts, even if the gift is small or humble. Allah has said:
“And [remember] when your Lord proclaimed, 'If you are grateful, I will surely increase you [in favor]; but if you deny, indeed, My punishment is severe.'"
(Surah Ibrahim, 14:7)
And we should always remember that Allah is Al-Wahhab, The Supreme Bestower, the One Who gives freely and endlessly without expectation of return.
1Mortelmans, Dimitri & Sinardet, Dave. 2005. Reflecting culture and society? Norms and rules governing gift-giving practices. The Netherlands’ Journal of Social Sciences. 40. 176-201.
Candice “Sister Islaah” Abd’al-Rahim reverted to Islam in 1976. She has deep education credentials which include a B.S. in English, a M.A. in Teaching, a Certificate of Advanced Studies (Post-Masters) in Administration and Supervision, and she is currently a doctoral candidate in Islamic Sciences at the International Online University. She has experiences as a principal (in fact the first hijabi public school principal in Maryland!), as a curriculum and staff developer, mentor, and classroom teacher of grades pre-K through 12. She is also a former adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Graduate School of Education. Islaah’s contributions to the field have earned her honors in the Who’s Who of Distinguished JHU Alumni. She is wife, daughter, mother, and grandmother and is an active member of several Muslim communities in the Baltimore area.