Selfessness or altruism refers to selfless acts done for another’s benefit in spite of oneself. It is a humanitarian endeavor praised by all societies. Ithaar, which is the Arabic terminology for it, is one of the noble qualities emphasized in Islam. One who is selfless places concern for others above the concern for himself. The selfless person is generous with his time and freely renders aid and support to others. The opposite of selflessness is selfishness, which involves being concerned with one’s own well-being without regard for the well-being of others. One who is selfish is stingy—with both his wealth and his self. He views rendering support to others as a burden.
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) reminded the believers of the noble quality of selflessness when he said:
"None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother, what he loves for himself" (Bukhari and Muslim).
Practically every nation on earth has stories of great kings, brave warriors and noble men and women who sacrificed their material possessions, status or even themselves for some or other common good. Yet, it is without any reservation or hesitation whatsoever that we can point to the religion of Islam for the most perfect, sincere and comprehensive expression of altruism, as boldly stressed and emphasized by the above quoted tradition of the prophet of Islam (peace be upon him).
Allah the Almighty also extoled this singular act of extreme generosity when He said, lauding the selflessness of the Ansar (the Helpers, i.e. the people of Madinah):
وَيُؤْثِرُونَ عَلَى أَنْفُسِهِمْ وَلَوْ كَانَ بِهِمْ خَصَاصَةٌ وَمَنْ يُوقَ شُحَّ نَفْسِهِ فَأُولَئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ (9)
Which can be translated as: "…and they give them preference over themselves, even though they were in need of that. And whosoever is saved from his own covetousness, such are they who will be the successful."(Q. 59:9).
And Allah also says:
وَيُطْعِمُونَ الطَّعَامَ عَلَى حُبِّهِ مِسْكِينًا وَيَتِيمًا وَأَسِيرًا (8) إِنَّمَا نُطْعِمُكُمْ لِوَجْهِ اللَّهِ لَا نُرِيدُ مِنْكُمْ جَزَاءً وَلَا شُكُورًا (9)
Which can be translated as: "And they give food, in spite of their love for it (or for the love of Him), to poor, the orphan, and the captive, (Saying) "We feed you seeking Allah's Countenance only. We wish for no reward, nor thanks from you." (Q.76:8-9).
And with the above, altruism or selflessness instantly becomes a condition of ture faith in Allah, the Most High. This act of faith was demonstrated so many times throughout the history of Islam, from Muhammad’s commission as a prophet until our present times. The noble companions, being keen to heed the advice of the Messenger, exemplified selflessness. There are numerous examples of their tendency to place others above themselves. Two brief examples are highlighted here:
1. The Makkan immigrants and the Madinite Helpers
One of the best examples of selflessness is reflected by the Ansar’s (Helpers) treatment of the Muhajirun (migrants). After the migration to Al-Madinah, many of the migrants had nothing. They had left all of their wealth in Makkah, and came to Al-Madinah destitute.
To alleviate the suffering of the migrants, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) paired each immigrant with a family in Madinah. The bond between the migrants and the Ansar was so tight that—for a time—they were even allowed to inherit one another.
The Ansar felt such an obligation toward the migrants that they once went to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and offered to give them half of their date groves. When the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) refused to accept this offer, the Ansar offered a cooperative work agreement that allowed the migrants to work in the date grove and share in the profits. This singular act from the Ansar could perhaps be adjudged the single greatest act of communal altruism ever witnessed in the history of mankind, and this paper will not suffice to enumerate this episode of selflessness and extreme altruism, but to it Allah referred in Qur'an Suratu Al-Hashr, 59:9:
وَالَّذِينَ تَبَوَّءُوا الدَّارَ وَالْإِيمَانَ مِنْ قَبْلِهِمْ يُحِبُّونَ مَنْ هَاجَرَ إِلَيْهِمْ وَلَا يَجِدُونَ فِي صُدُورِهِمْ حَاجَةً مِمَّا أُوتُوا وَيُؤْثِرُونَ عَلَى أَنْفُسِهِمْ وَلَوْ كَانَ بِهِمْ خَصَاصَةٌ وَمَنْ يُوقَ شُحَّ نَفْسِهِ فَأُولَئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ (9)
Which can be translated as: "And those who, before them, had homes and had adopted the Faith, love those who emigrate to them, and have no jealousy in their breasts for that which they have been given and they give them preference over themselves, even though they were in need of that. And whosoever is saved from his own covetousness, such are they who will be the successful." (Q.59:9)
2. When a guest is preferred to one's own kids:
In another example, a man once came to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) seeking food. The Prophet requested assistance from one of his wives, who replied that she had nothing but water. Then he sent the same message to another wife and received the same reply.
Then the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said: "Who will entertain this man as a guest tonight?” One of the Ansar said “O messenger of Allah, I will.”
So the Ansari asked his wife to prepare food for the man, but she replied that they only had enough food to feed the children. Intending to receive the reward from Allah, the man told his wife to keep the children busy and put them to bed when they ask for food.
When the guest entered, the hosts extinguished the light and gave the impression that they were eating as he did. But in reality, they passed the night hungry so that their guest could eat.
The next morning the Prophet saw the Ansari man and informed him that Allah was pleased with his act of selflessness. (Bukhari and Muslim)
How willing am I to sacrifice my material wealth and forsake comfort for the sake of others?
3. During the great battle of Yarmuk between the fledgling Islamic state and the Roman Empire, a Companion of the Prophet, Ikrimah bin Abu Jahl, and two other noble warriors were mortally wounded. An able Muslim who was attending to the wounded offered one of the injured warriors some water, but the selfless soldier refused, insisting that one of the other fallen men be offered water first. When the water reached the second man, he too refused to drink before the thirst of the other wounded soldiers was quenched. Alas!, by the time the water had reached the third man, it was already too late: he and the other two soldiers had died. Truly these three paragons of self-sacrifice made manifest the words of the Prophet (peace be upon him) when he said:
“The best charity is that given when one is in need and struggling.” (Ibn Katheer)
لن تنالوا البر حتى تنفقوا مما تحبون
“By no means shall you attain righteousness unless you spend of that which you love” (Q. 3:92)
4. Another amazing example of how this brotherhood and character of selflessness manifested itself, we have the case of the two Companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him): Abdur-Rahman bin Awf, who was a Muhajir, and Sa’d bin al-Rabee, an Ansari. Abdur-Rahman narrates in his own words:
“When we came to Medina, the Messenger of God established bonds of brotherhood between me and Sa’d bin al-Rabee. Sa’d said: ‘I am the wealthiest of the Ansar, so I will give you half of all my wealth. And see which of my wives you prefer, I will divorce her for you, and when she becomes lawful (as a divorcee), you can marry her.’ I (Abdur-Rahman) said to him: ‘I do not need that. (But tell me), is there a marketplace here where people trade?’ Sa‘ad said: ‘There is the marketplace of Qaynuqa’… And so, the following day Abdur-Rahman went to the market to begin trading. Before long, he was once again wealthy, as he had been in Mecca, and able to marry of his own accord.” (Saheeh Al-Bukhari)
The altruism of the Madinite Muslims, praised by God in the Quran, was so great in its scope and impact that the Makkan recipients of their brothers’ selflessness were worried there would be no grace left for them! The Companion, Anas b. Malik, said:
“When the Prophet came to Madinah, the Muhajiroon came to him and said: ‘O Messenger of God, we have never seen any people more generous when they have the means and more helpful when they have little, than the people among whom we have settled. They have looked after us and they have let us join them and share in all their happy occasions, to such an extent that we are afraid that they will take all the reward (from God in the Hereafter).’ The Prophet said: ‘Not so long as you pray for them and praise them.’” (Al-Tirmidhi)
God Himself praised the Companions of Muhammad, both Muhajir and Ansar, for their great many selfless sacrifices and services in His Cause. He, the Almighty, also praised whoever would follow in their footsteps. Let us then follow them, perchance we may too be rewarded in heaven. He said:
وَالسَّابِقُونَ الْأَوَّلُونَ مِنَ الْمُهَاجِرِينَ وَالْأَنْصَارِ وَالَّذِينَ اتَّبَعُوهُمْ بِإِحْسَانٍ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُمْ وَرَضُوا عَنْهُ وَأَعَدَّ لَهُمْ جَنَّاتٍ تَجْرِي تَحْتَهَا الْأَنْهَارُ خَالِدِينَ فِيهَا أَبَدًا ذَلِكَ الْفَوْزُ الْعَظِيمُ (100)
Meaning: “The foremost (in faith) from the Muhajiroon and the Ansar and those who follow them in righteousness; God is well-pleased with them and they are well-pleased with Him. He has prepared for them (the Companions and their followers in righteousness) gardens under which rivers flow to dwell therein forever - that is the supreme success.” (Q. 9:100)
Reading these wonderful stories should cause each of us to ask a simple question:
How selfless am I? How willing am I to come to the aid of others? How willing am I to sacrifice my material wealth and forsake comfort for the sake of others?
If we find that we are falling short on the list, we should make some effort to become more selfless. A few tips that could be helpful are noted below:
First, we should know that this life is a test. Allah says in the Qur'an:
الَّذِي خَلَقَ الْمَوْتَ وَالْحَيَاةَ لِيَبْلُوَكُمْ أَيُّكُمْ أَحْسَنُ عَمَلًا وَهُوَ الْعَزِيزُ الْغَفُورُ (2)
Meaning: "Who has created death and life, that He may test which of you is best in deed. And He is the All-Mighty, the Oft-Forgiving."(Q. 67:2).
An understanding of our purpose in this life should help us prioritize what is most important.
Second, we should understand that what awaits us in the hereafter is much greater than any joy that we could possibly earn in this life. Allah says:
فَلَا تَعْلَمُ نَفْسٌ مَا أُخْفِيَ لَهُمْ مِنْ قُرَّةِ أَعْيُنٍ جَزَاءً بِمَا كَانُوا يَعْمَلُونَ (17)
"No person knows what is kept hidden for them of joy as a reward for what they used to do." (Q. 32:17).
And the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) said:
"Allah has said ‘I have prepared for My pious servants what no eye has ever seen, no ear has ever heard, and no human heart could ever imagine!"
Knowing that there is something greater for us in the hereafter should help us to forsake the comforts of this life.
Acts of selflessness help build bonds of trust and lead to reciprocation of good. They help shatter stereotypes and break down barriers. Selflessness leads to a better world for all.
Third, we should understand that in Islam, there are numerous ways to do good deeds. Allah’s Final Prophet and Messenger said:
"Every day the sun rises, charity is due on every joint on a person: administering justice between two people is a charity; assisting a man to mount his beast, or helping him load his luggage on it is a charity; a good word is a charity; every step that you take for prayer is a charity; and removing harmful things from the road is a charity.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim.)
Finally, we should start with the deed(s) that we can do consistently. For the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said: "The acts most pleasing to Allah are those which are done consistently, even if they are little." (Muslim)
Importantly, acts of selflessness do more than benefit the giver and the recipient. They have profound impact on society at large. They help build bonds of trust and lead to reciprocation of good. They help shatter stereotypes and break down barriers. Selflessness leads to a better world for all.