The Spirit of Zakat, Tithing, and Christmas


One summer afternoon a few years ago, a good Muslim friend and I caught up over ice cream. His family had just spent a year in the Middle East on a medicine fellowship, but now were back in the Midwest.

“How was Saudi Arabia?” I asked. “Were you able to visit Mecca?”

“Yes, and it was incredible,” my friend responded. “It was so inspiring to hear the call to prayer five times a day, to be a part of a community of fellow believers, to experience the majestic mosques steeped in history. But it was also disappointing.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, in Saudi Arabia, it felt like they all took Islam for granted. Here in the U.S., I’ve had to struggle to cultivate and choose to follow my beliefs. And there, it’s just the background culture, not the revealed religion of peace and submission.”

At this point I couldn’t help but grin – his tone sounded exactly like complaints I had occasionally heard about “Utah Mormons,” growing up as I had in the wild “mission field.”

“Let me give you an example,” my friend continued. “One of the pillars of Islam is Zakat, right? Donations to the poor? In the Middle East it’s all systematized. There’s all these official Zakat-certified charities. People treat Zakat like an item to check off their list and then they’re done.  I heard people rudely refuse to give to good causes because ‘I already gave my Zakat this year.’  I watched the wealthy ignore the homeless on the street after Friday prayers because helping them didn’t ‘count’ for the certified Zakat list. That misses the entire point of Zakat! It’s about cultivating love and generosity for others and submission to God — not meeting a strict 2.5%!”

That parallel struck.  Was I guilty of paying tithing while treating it like a rote “to do,” justifying to myself that the law of consecration isn’t in effect, and thereby ignoring the suffering around me?   If I’m honest, of course I was. (And still am.)

I’ve sometimes heard fellow members say that they already pay tithing, so they need not give elsewhere. Or that they exclusively donate to the Church because they don’t trust any other charity as much as the Lord’s stewards. Occasionally, I’ve heard comments that it’s just not worth donating to persons or causes that aren’t tax-deductible.

Thankfully, those experiences are somewhat rare. More commonly, I have watched as the habit of contributing to the Church sparked and encouraged more contributions, more time, more resources, and more service in our communities. Just yesterday, my Bishop mentioned that at tithing settlement thus far, many members of my ward have asked how additionally they can help those who may be struggling this Christmas season. I see the giving trees and food drives and calls to support the community every year. The spirit of love and charity is palpable. So many Mormons both fulfill their ward callings, and anxiously engage in good causes all around them.

Various philanthropic reports over the years have indicated that Mormons are both among the most charitable communities in America as a whole, and still among the most generous even when their church contributions (which arguably can be criticized as self-beneficial and insular) are ignored.  Mitt Romney is the leading example – he gives 10% of his income to the Church, and 7% to secular charitable causes. More ordinary Mormons typically give 5-10% of their income to the Church, and 2% more to other causes.     

By comparison, the Catholic congregations I’ve attended officially ask for contributions equivalent to “one working hour of income for the week” (i.e. ~2.5%). Surveys show that the average total charitable contributions of Catholics nationwide are between 1.5% – 3% of income. That’s pretty typical; Americans as a whole often hover around 3-4% in total charitable contributions. (Notably: the poor and lower-middle-class tend to give more, as a percentage of income, than the upper-middle-class. Jesus was onto something with the parable of the widow’s mite.)

This Christmas season,  I hope we strive to shine as Mormons (and Muslims!) at their best.  In addition to wrapping up our tithing contributions for the year, I hope we can reflect on our blessings and our gratitude for Jesus Christ, and then brainstorm what other community organizations we can assist – food banks, refugee and immigration agencies, disaster relief, or providing Christmas presents for women’s shelters or foster services. Let’s help make the season bright.

*Pictured, a mosque in India decorated with Christmas lights, as part of the community’s multi-faith celebrations.  Thank you Reji on Flickr!


  1. nobody, really says:

    We can be a very generous bunch when we want to be. My only concern is people checking with Church leadership for permission to support a different cause. I suspect the first recommendation out there from “official” would be to increase fast offerings. But, there are a great many causes we can select on our own, and we shouldn’t feel compelled to get approval to do good things. And even some charities with overhead costs can be worthy beneficiaries.

    Heck, give time and money to the local Shakespeare festival. Set up a scholarship in Grandma’s memory. Throw some cash to Make-A-Wish, a children’s hospital that isn’t in the IHC chain, an orphanage overseas, whatever. Find something that you care about and give them some time and money. It’s even okay to skip a Scout committee meeting once in a while – Lord knows that another Scout meeting isn’t doing anybody any good when it is all said and done.

  2. I have so many thoughts on this. And no time to write it all. My short list is – The Zakat Comparison and Just Serve come to mind. We do have a checklist issue. We also have a strange comparative issue. (I should write a post on it).

    At the same time I serve on the board of an interfaith homeless shelter. Churches from all over our area take turns manning the shelter. 2 Stakes in our area are among them. They do a bang up job. I didn’t even know LDS churches were connected to it when I was asked to join the board. Because of that effort we were able to work with the LDS humanitarians for funds and supplies for the shelter. In short – this a mega good.

    Our two stakes also have each ward connecting with a low income school in our area. – Again a real good.

    I try to remember that we are not even 200 years old yet, but we are serving in community areas right along side our 500 year old sibling faiths. That makes me happy.

  3. Single Sister says:

    I understand the point being made. But with limited time and resources (I work full time, commute 3 hours a day and don’t make that much money), plus multiple health issues and a large extended family, I don’t have the energy or the money to do more than I do. I give money to the Church in tithing but I also buy meals for the homeless and give to charities through the Kettle Bell system at Christmas, for instance. Other than those very small things, I just cannot help out more financially, and my time is stretched to the max as it is. I’ve heard this multiple times from people always feeling guilty that they can’t “do more” with their time or money. Well, we have to stop that. If we are doing the best we can (and only we can decide that when we look honestly at our lives) then we have no reason to feel guilty, even if we are “only” paying our tithing.

  4. I’m not asking anyone to do more than they are able — those limits are important. But for many of us — we want to give and serve, but are just so naturally selfish we don’t even look for opportunities or respond to the ones that fall in our lap. So I just hope we can all be a little kinder, a little more giving, in even small or non-monetary ways.

  5. I appreciate this post, Carolyn. It’s a good message.

  6. Single Sister says:

    Sorry Carolyn, I wasn’t pointing at you in particular. The post is an excellent one. It’s just that we (as a people) are so full of guilt about the things we don’t do, we forget to remember the things that we do. Now that I’ve grown up (kinda), I just say No, because I know what I can and cannot do/afford.

  7. I am so pleasantly surprised to see that photo. I am an Indian ( not a Mormon, a lapsed Catholic) and that place in the picture is less than 30 miles from my hometown! It made my day!

  8. I don’t think people are selfish. I know we have scriptures about natural men, but we also have scriptures about how we are made in God’s image and I choose to believe that also means our hearts are patterned after His. People want to give. BUT people are stressed out and broke. The problem isn’t selfishness and it isn’t a lack of faith. The problem is that personal fiances, like household management, is a lost art. Most of us approach it the way most people approach the piano. Sure. I can pick out hot-crossed-buns. Yeah. I get the concept. You push the keys. Easy-peasy. Nothing to it. Wrong! You’ve got to be taught, you have to practice, and it takes work. Personal fiances is the same. And until that skill is taught, practiced, and developed and given JUST as much attention as “pay your tithing” we will remain stressed out and broke and unable to do Christ’s work on the earth.