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Professor A. R. Momin

Looking for a Bill Gates in the Muslim world

One of the distinctive features of the present era is the incredible, unprecedented increase in the prosperity and affluence of individuals, families, corporations and countries. According to Forbes magazine’s rich list for 2005/2006, there are now 793 billionaires in the world (worth a combined $52.6 trillion), spread over 49 countries. Millionaires (people with investible assets of at least $1 million) now number 8.3 million worldwide.

Bill GateWhat is even more remarkable—and pleasantly surprising—is that institutionalized charity and philanthropy is steadily on the rise. Thus in the United States the number pf private charitable foundations has risen from about 22,000 in the early 1980s to over 65,000 today. The amount spent on charities in the US exceeds $300 billion a year, over 2% of the country’s GDP. Religious charity accounts for nearly 62% of all public donations.

In recent years the greatest contribution to public charity and philanthropy has been made by Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and the world’s richest man. He set up the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation a few years ago, which gives money for health, reducing poverty and destitution, and increasing access to technology in the developing countries. Bill Gates has already contributed $31 billion to the Foundation. The Foundation spent nearly $1.36 billion in 2005. It has financed, to the tune of $300 million, R and D to combat malaria, AIDS and other dreadful diseases in Africa and Asia. The Foundation has recently given a grant of $4.2 billion to One World Health, a non-profit pharmaceutical company, to start Phase III clinical trials for using paromomycin for the treatment of kala-azar (which kills nearly one hundred thousand people a year in the state of Bihar alone). By the end of his life, Bill Gates intends to have handed over most of his fortune—estimated at $46.5 billion—to the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation.

The example set by Bill Gates has inspired other businessmen and industrialists in the US as well as in other countries. Thus, Warren Buffett, the world’s second richest man (with assets of $42 billion), announced on May 25, 2006 that he would be contributing about $1.5 billion every year to the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation. Buffett said that he planned to give away about $37 billion (nearly 85% of his fortunes) to charity. Interestingly, he once remarked that “I want to give my kids enough so that they could feel that they could do anything, but not so much that they could do nothing.”

Pierre Omidyar, the founder of e-Bay, the world’s largest online trading portal, and Jeff Skoll, the trading site’s first chief executive, have given away millions of dollars in charity to make “the world a better place.” When Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google, made their company public, they announced that a part of the search engine’s equity and profits would go to, a philanthropic organization.

Inspired by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, Jackie Chan, the celebrated Hollywood star, announced on May 28, 2006 that he would bequeath half of his fortune to charity. Forbes magazine named Jackie Chan one of the world’s ten generous celebrities.

The Islamic tradition places a great deal of emphasis on generosity, charity and philanthropy. The Quran says that the dispossessed and the needy have a legitimate share in the resources of the rich (70:25). In other words, acts of charity should not be vitiated by a condescending attitude towards the poor. One should not feel that one is doing a favour to a poor man by doling out a few coins to him. Prophet Muhammad (SAW) is reported to have said that a person who renders service to widows and the poor is equal to one who is engaged in holy war (jihad) in the path of God or to one who spends the day in fasting and the night in prayers.

Islam channelised charity and philanthropy in two inter-related directions: individual actions, and through the agency of zakah and waqf (charitable endowment). The institution of waqf was started by the Prophet, who dedicated seven gardens of date palm for charitable purposes. Inspired by the exhortation in the Quran that one should give away money as well as land in the way of God and by the precepts of the Prophet, many of his Companions donated agricultural land and gardens as waqf. Caliph Umar set up the institution of bayt al-mal (public treasury), which served as a key agency for providing financial assistance to the poor and destitute, widows, orphans, wayfarers and other disadvantaged sections of society.

Al-Azhar UniversityThe institution of waqf had a profound and far-reaching impact on the course of Islamic civilization. Large endowments instituted by Muslim rulers and members of the nobility supported a wide range of institutions, including mosques, madrasas, public libraries, caravanserais, universities and hospitals. The famed Al-Azhar University in Cairo, founded in 972, was financed by revenues which accrued from waqf properties. The institution of waqf has been a highly significant and inseparable part of Muslim societies throughout Islamic history. In the early decades of the 19th century, waqf land comprised 570,000 acres (over 20%) out of a total of 2.375 million acres in Egypt. In 1841 the number of lots of waqf land in Aligiers (Algeria), whose revenues were assigned for the maintenance of the city”s grand mosque, was 543. In Turkey about one-third of the country’s total land was committed to waqf at the turn of the 20th century. The Indian subcontinent has hundreds of thousands of institutions which are supported by waqf properties.

In Forbes magazine’s rich list of 2005/2006 there are 45 Muslim billionaires. The following table provides an over-view of the country-wide distribution of Muslim billionaires.

Turkey 15
Saudi Arabia 11
Kuwait 4
United Arab Republic 4
Egypt 2
Lebanon 2
India 2
Kazakhstan 1
Russia 1
UK 1
Switzerland 1
Total 45

Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Al-SaudPrince Alwaleed Bin Talal Al-Saud (from Saudi Arabia), with assets worth $20 billion, figures among the first ten billionaires. Prince Alwaleed regularly gives substantial donations for charitable and Islamic causes. In December 2005 he gave $20 million to the universities of Harvard and Georgetown to expand their Islamic studies departments.

Some of the Muslim countries have invaluable natural resources. There are 18 major oil-producing countries in the world, of which ten are Muslim, which produce nearly 40% of the world’s oil. Unfortunately, most of the oil revenue goes into the personal accounts of the ruling elite or into defence expenditure. It cannot be gainsaid that Muslim kings and the aristocracy contribute substantially to charitable causes, but the quantum of such donations leaves much to be desired. Some of the worst problems facing the Muslim ummah include poverty and destitution, malnutrition and disease, extremely low levels of literacy (especially female literacy), lack of access to the basic necessities of life, and high unemployment rates. The Arab Human Development Report 2002 revealed that one in five Arabs—20% of the Arab population—still lives on less than $2 a day. The situation in the rest of the Muslim world is not substantially different. The Muslim world desperately needs a Bill Gates and others of his kind.

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