The importance of charity in different religions

19 January 2018 | By Cause4 staff

Living in the UK as one of the world’s most charitable countries I have often wondered what makes people give. Our culture is not so different from other European neighbours, yet our charitable giving is higher. The UK, Ireland and the Netherlands are Europe’s most charitable countries, with the UK coming in at number 11 on the worldwide scale[1], and surprisingly (to me) the world’s most charitable country is not a power house such as the United States (although it comes second), but the unsuspecting Myanmar. Myanmar has in fact been crowned the world’s most charitable country for the fourth year in a row by the Charities Aid Foundation World Giving Index, which is calculated on the percentage of people in each country who donated money, volunteered or helped a stranger in the previous month.[2]

"Myanmar has been consistently ranked at the top of CAF World Giving Index in recent years. The results demonstrate very sharply how a ‘poor’ country can be a ‘rich’ one through its generosity, by focussing on giving rather than getting."

Prof Dr Aung Tun Thet, Economic Advisor to the President of Myanmar and member of the President's National Economic and Social Advisory Council[3]

Buddhism and Charity

I wondered whether there were any cultural factors at play, and as it turns out, Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist country[4], and in Buddhism, there is the distinct concept of Dana, which is related to the Sanskrit and Pali word for ‘donation’, but also includes sharing, and selfless giving without anticipation of return or benefit to the giver. The Charities Aid Foundation hypothesises that the high proportion of people donating money in Myanmar, is likely due to the prevalence of small yet frequent acts of giving in support of those living a monastic lifestyle.[5]

Given this apparent correlation, I wondered what, if any, were the leading other religions’ views on charity.


In Christianity, the importance of charity stems from the fact that according to the Bible Jesus identified himself with the poor and excluded, and said that Christians will be judged not on the beauty of their altars, but on the way that they treat others. It is based on the feeling of love and respect for your neighbour, and that your neighbour could be somebody on the other side of the world and completely different to you.[6] Christian Aid’s principles for example are based on the principle of love for God and your neighbour, and the support of those most in need.


Islam has five guiding pillars, one of which is Zakat, the giving of alms to the poor and needy. It is considered a purifying tax for all adults of sound minds and means, and is viewed as an obligation, and a means of recognising that everything that a Muslim has belongs to Allah. Islam teaches the sharing of wealth for the needs of others, to allow the less fortunate to stand on their own two feet.[7] The Qur’an specifies eight groups which are eligible to receive Zakat:

  1. The Fuqara’ The poor;
  2. Al-Maskin The needy;
  3. Aamileen Zakat collector;
  4. Muallafatul Quloob The poor and needy who recently converted to Islam;
  5. Ar-Riqaab Slaves, Zakat can be used to purchase their freedom;
  6. Ibnus-Sabeel: A stranded traveller in need of financial assistance;
  7. Al Ghaarimeen: People in debt; and
  8. Fi Sabeelillah: Those who are away from home in the path of Allah.[8]

Muslim Aid for instance, is rooted in compassion for other’s needs, justice, and the empowerment of all to achieve their own potential.


In Judaism there is the unique concept of tzedakah, the obligation to perform charitable works. The word is derived from the Hebrew root Tzadei-Dalet-Qof which means righteousness, justice or fairness, meaning that while charity in English suggests benevolence and generosity, tzedakah is simply an act of justice and righteousness. It is an intrinsic part of Jewish beliefs and culture. Today there are over 2,300 Jewish charities in the UK.[9]

I find it interesting to see how charity matters to these religions, and how its importance, role and meaning differs.

Do you think the UK is a particularly charitable country?

How could we embrace best practice in giving from the many different religions in our society – some estimate 4200 worldwide? Please let us know by tweeting @OfficialCause4











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