History of Charity in Different Faiths

Illustration of charity

The charity practice means the voluntary giving of aid to those in need as a purely humanitarian act. There are several philosophies about charity, often linked with religion. Effectual altruism is the use of reasoning and evidence to determine the most suitable ways to help and support others.


The word ‘charity’ arose in late Old English, which means “Christian love of one’s fellows,” and up to the start of the 20th century, this meaning remained synonymous with the word, ‘charity.’ Aside from this old meaning, charity is etymologically directly linked to Christianity, with the word initially entering into the English language through the Old French word “charité,” which was obtained from the Latin “Caritas,” a word regularly used in the Vulgate New Testament to translate the Greek word ἀγάπη (agape), a distinct form of “love.

However, the art of serving others selflessly has been associated with cultures that predate Christianity for hundreds of years. Let’s explore the history of charity in different cultures in our today’s history article.


The charity practice is called Daana or Dāna in Hinduism. It is the way of giving or generosity. Dāna has been explored in traditional texts, state Krishnan and Manoj, as “any action of surrendering the ownership of what one identified or considered as one’s own, and investing the same in a recipient without demanding anything in return.” Mahabali, Karna, and Harishchandra are the ancient Indians also known for giving charity.

The oldest known charity discussion as an ethical practice in Indian texts is in the Indian religious and knowledge sharing book Rigveda. According to other ancient Hinduism texts, dāna can take the form of giving to or feeding an individual in need or distress. It can also take the exclusive form of philanthropic public projects that help and empower others.

A Hindu Woman Giving Alms, painting by Raja Ravi Varma

Dāna leads to one of the pāramitā (perfections). This can be distinguished by unconditional and unattached generosity, giving, and selflessly letting go. 


In Judaism, tzedakah—a Hebrew term meaning reverence but commonly used to signify charity—applies to the religious duty to do what is just and right. Because it is required by the Torah and not voluntary, the tradition is not an act of charity; such a theory is virtually nonexistent in Jewish tradition. Jews perform tzedakah, which can take the form of time, wealth, and resources to the needy out of “justice” and “righteousness.” 

Sandstone vestige of a Jewish gravestone depicting a Tzedakah box (pushke). Jewish cemetery in Otwock (Karczew-Anielin), Poland.

However, modern Jews have profoundly linked this with benevolence, generosity, and charitableness to help and support others around them.


In early medieval Europe during the 12th century CE, Latin Christendom experienced a charitable revolution. Wealthy patrons founded many hospitals and leprosaria for the poor and sick. New religious orders and confraternities arose with the primary mission of working in intensive charitable projects. 


In Islam, there are two charity methods: 

  1. Zakat
  2. Sadaqa

Zakat is one of the five major pillars upon which the Islamic faith is based, where 2.5% of one’s saving is necessary to be offered as Zakat per Islamic calendar year, provided that the wealth is beyond the threshold limit, called Nisab, usually defined by the religious jurisdiction.

Sadaqa is a contribution or a voluntary charity. Sadaqah can be given using personal items, money, time, or big and small resources. There is no maximum or minimum requirement for Sadaqa. Even smiling at other people is deemed a Sadaqah.

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