وَيَسْأَلُونَكَ مَاذَا يُنْفِقُونَ قُلِ الْعَفْوَ
Wayas’alūnaka mādhā yunfiqūn, qulil-‘afw
And they ask you what they should spend. Say, ‘al-afw’
(Sūratul Baqarah, No.2, Āyat 219)
Once a group of people came to the Holy Prophet (s) and asked what they should give others. They knew that God wanted them to give from what they had. But what, and how much should they give? They wanted the Prophet to specify details. In reply, the Prophet was told by Allah to tell them to give ‘afw
The word ‘afw has many meanings. The original meaning is to incline towards something to take it. Over time the word has been used to denote many meanings including:
a) To overlook and pardon
b) Remove all traces of something
c) The middle way
d) That which is extra
e) The best part of what you own.
Since the last three meanings apply to that which can be given, the above verse has been interpreted as giving to others in a balanced way from the best of what you have. A Hadith of Imam al-Sādiq (a) says: ‘Afw is the middle path (Nūr al-Thaqalayn, v.1, p. 210).
A common thread that links all meanings of ‘afw is to overlook one’s own rights for the sake of others. Despite having the ability, and often the desire, to put oneself above others, a person who is able to prefer others and disregard himself has achieved great nobility. That attitude allows the person to pardon the wrong done to him by others for he is not overly concerned about it. It also allows him to give what he has to others as he is not too attached to his own comfort and needs.
The great teachings and practices of the Holy Prophet (s) had such an impact that the Ansār of Medina had developed the virtue of altruism towards the Muhājirūn (Immigrants) from Makkah. Allah (swt) refers to this in the Quran: for those who were settled in the land and [abided] in faith before them, and do not find in their breasts any need for that which is given to them (i.e. to the Immigrants), but prefer [the Immigrants] to themselves, though poverty be their own lot. And those who are saved from their own greed – it is they who are the felicitous (Q 59:9). The society that practices ‘afw has close bonds. People are not selfishly looking out for themselves only. They are willing to consider others and don’t feel they themselves must have all they need first.
Tafsīr-e Namūne says that it is very possible that ‘afw here means overlooking the faults of others. It was not widely practiced during the age of ignorance when people went to war over small matters. The Holy Prophet (s) through his example and his teachings taught people to think more nobly and give people what they needed most, a big heart with room for pardon.
Recite this verse to remind yourself to give what matters most – an ‘afw that shows consideration for the other above yourself. It is a sign of mature nobility.
Sources: Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh; ‘Allāmah Muhammad Husayn Tabātabā’ī, Tafsīr al-Mīzān