Wednesday, May 2, 2012


“those who spend their wealth to increase in self-purification (yatazakka)”
(al-Layl 92:18)

Giving of one’s wealth is not unique to Islam, but the Arabic word yatazakka—from zakat, which means both to purify and grow—has a particularly beautiful connotation. Zakat is often compared to the pruning of a shrub, where the trimming actually causes the plant to grow stronger. Similarly, the trimming of wealth through the giving of alms purifies and strengthens the soul. In Islam, to use the trust given by Godhere, personal wealthin the proper manner helps rid a person of his/her worldly attachments. The Quran describes this quest to purify one’s soul, tazqiyat an-nufoos, as a lifelong process: “To a happy state shall indeed attain he who causes [this self] to grow in purity, and truly lost is he who buries it in darkness.” (al-Shams 91:9-10) The examination of one’s heart, practices and desires leads a person to see tribulations as opportunities for the cleansing of the soul and the attainment of insight and understanding. I cannot but marvel at the beauty of the Arabic language, in which one word in the Quran encompasses the complex concept of spiritual growth.

It is interesting, I think, that Christian scriptures almost always pair discussions of wealth with cautionary warnings, such as, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25; Matthew 19:24; Luke 18:25) Similar to the Quranic text you cite, Yasmina, this verse does not condemn wealth, but warns against worldly attachments. In a particularly poignant illustration, Jesus speaks of a poor widow who placed two small copper coins in the Temple’s alms basin. Contrasting her with those who gave more but did so ostentatiously, Jesus observed, “This poor widow has put in more than all the others, [for she] put in all she had.” (Luke 21:3) Yatazakka seems an apt description of those who, in quiet generosity and humble sacrifice, discover the meaning of heavenly treasure.

It will not surprise you that the Jewish concept of charity, tzedakah, is similar to zakat as you explain it, Yasmina, and to the verses of the Gospels that you quote, Grace. While the English word “charity” derives from the Latin root for love and caring, tzedakah is from the biblical Hebrew root for righteousness.  Tzedakah is the obligation in Jewish law to share a portion of one’s wealth with others in need.* Inherent in this commandment is the recognition that everything we possess—both tangible things like money and intangible things like intelligence—is on loan to us for the duration of our lives.  God allows us to feel as though we personally possess these gifts, as long as we strive to share and distribute them fairly among the entire community. When we give tzedakah, we are restoring righteousness in the world by returning the gift to its rightful owner.

* For example: “Because there will not stop being indigent [people] in the land; on account of this I command you, saying, you shall open your hand to your brother, to your poor and indigent in your land.”  (Deuteronomy 15:11)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Time to Reflect

This week we are taking a little extra time to reflect, and we expect to post our reflections next Wednesday morning, May 2nd. Meanwhile, we invite you to share your responses to our more than thirty posts in the archive. Which text or conversation did you find to be provocative? Did any strike you as insightful or interesting, or make you uncomfortable? Do you have any questions or comments for us?

We would love for you join our discussion: Just click on the title above! Please remember to frame your comments as personal reflections, using the first-person singular, as we aim to preserve She Answers Abraham as a safe space for these sacred conversations.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.   
(I Corinthians 15: 42b-44)
Our discussion last week about organ donation raises my curiosity and interest about burial practices in our three Abrahamic traditions.  I can recall a time when cremation was essentially unheard of in Christian practice; pastors and priests taught that the reverent preparation of Jesus’ body for burial pointed to the only way for Christians to honor the physical body after death.  It was startling to me, then, when my own father, a deeply religious man and passionate steward of the earth, declared that he wanted to be cremated because “my spiritual, not physical, body will be raised” and “I don’t want to take up space in the good earth that could be used for growing crops to feed a hungry world.” While Christians of some denominations still require or prefer burial, most now consider this to be a matter of personal preference rather than religious mandate. What religious teachings govern your practices?

Islamic burial practices, to this day, follow the teachings of the prophet Muhammad [Peace and Blessings be upon Him]. First, the absence of adornment in every stage of the process reflects a respect for the deceased. The prophet’s instructions also include details about the steps to be taken when death occurs, and dictate participation in the funeral procession and prayers as a communal obligation, or fard qifayah.[1]  Thus, it is the responsibility of all members of the community to ensure that every Muslim who dies is properly tended. The body of the deceased is washed with gentle care at least three times, usually by a family member, and then shrouded in white cloth. A communal prayer is performed at this stage, and then the shrouded body is placed without a casket in the grave, and laid on its right side facing Mecca. Based on a description in Quran of the honor given to the progeny of Adam and a Hadith stating that the treatment of a dead body should be similar to that of a living one,[2] cremation is strictly prohibited in Islam.

Given the historical context in which Jesus lived, I am not surprised that the preparation of Jesus’ body for burial followed Jewish rituals and customs. Since ancient times, Jewish tradition has dictated that once the body is washed, wrapped in shrouds and placed on a bier or in an unadorned coffin, it must be buried before nightfall.  Nowadays, burial may be delayed for mourners traveling great distances to be present.  If the body remains overnight—which modern refrigeration makes possible—it is never left unattended.  Instead, a member of the family or community is assigned to be a shomer, or guard, who sits with the body and recites Psalms.  All of the burial customs are expressions of the principle of k’vod ha-meit, respect for the dead. Embalming and applying make-up or clothing to the body are forbidden, and cremation is considered a desecration. While cremation may be gaining some acceptance among Jews in the U.S., most consider it inappropriate. Even Jews who are otherwise unconcerned about upholding the traditions are generally opposed to cremation out of respect for the many Jews who were cremated in death camps during the Holocaust.

[1] “The rights of a Muslim on the Muslims are to follow the funeral processions, to accept invitation, and to reply to the sneezer.” (Sahih Bukhari, Hadith 332)
[2] “Breaking the bones of a dead body is like breaking the bones of a living one.” (Related by Ahmad, Abu Dawud and Ibn Majah)