(RNS) — The hook was too appealing, as a news item and as an act of interfaith unity so many Americans were desperate to see: After 11 congregants of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh were killed in a horrific spray of bullets, Muslims raised more than $300,000 in support of their Jewish brethren.
The money was collected by Wasi Mohamed of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh and Tarek El-Messidi of Celebrate Mercy, an organization dedicated to honoring and educating others about the Prophet Muhammad (saw)*. These two remarkable men appreciate that one of the most immediate ways to help in a catastrophe is to cover the costs of those affected.
Mohamed and his fellow Pittsburgh Muslims raised more than $70,000 for the Tree of Life synagogue and its worshippers. Celebrate Mercy partnered with the Muslim political action organization MPower Change to come up with almost $240,000 more via a LaunchGood-hosted fundraising campaign. Their beautiful act of solidarity was heralded on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" and on FOX News.
Fundraising efforts and other charitable acts like these can serve multiple purposes: Help those in need, provide anguished onlookers with opportunities to give back and change perceptions about marginalized groups. But they also live and die by publicity. How can money (or volunteers) be raised for any charitable cause if people don’t know what others are doing?
So we have hashtags, photos posted on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and other social media sites. Often there is a coordinated media campaign to draw attention to the plight of a particular tragedy or perhaps uplift a downtrodden group. How can we fund any charitable project or support our fellow humans if we don’t get the word out?
But what about the well-known Islamic hadith advising Muslims that, when engaging in acts of charity, the left hand should not know what the right hand is doing? We are taught to be as discreet and quiet as possible.
Other faiths share this golden rule, instructed to give for the sake of God (or humanity) without advertising what we are doing and whom we are helping.
Can humility and public acts of charity go hand in hand? How can we guard ourselves from engaging in charity just for attention and not for the sake of God? How do we simply help a person or group in need without making a show of it?
I spoke with El-Messidi, Celebrate Mercy's founder, a Muslim author and activist who organized a LaunchGood campaign that raised more than $150,000 for a Jewish cemetery that had been desecrated and helped with the #MyThreeWinners campaign after the tragic murders three years ago of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha, three Muslim students at the University of North Carolina.
“A lot of people just want media stories for their own personal gain," El-Messidi agreed.
The key, he said, is checking and rechecking one's intentions.
When working on viral fundraising campaigns, El-Messidi said he seeks out his own religious teachers for advice. “It can easily get to someone’s head and heart. You have to balance that with reminding yourself of the intention you’re supposed to have.”
One request he makes of his teachers are special duas (prayers) for sincerity. He also tries to embody the actions of the Prophet Muhammad (saw), drawing on a prophetic hadith that says, “A person who guides someone else to a good deed is rewarded as if they did a good deed.”
In many cases, he added, the good of publicity outweighs concerns about self-aggrandizement.
“I recognize that the publicity helps the virality of a fundraiser," he said. "Here, we’re talking about trying to build solidarity between two communities that typically haven’t worked that closely together that much in the past. The media helps to be visible to other communities of faith.”
El-Messidi's advice gave me answers for my 11-year-old, who recently volunteered to help pack 10,000 food packets for distribution to those in need around the world for Islamic Relief USA and Rise Against Hunger. He had been asking his father and me about how to engage in community service, and the project seemed like a great local way for him to do his part.
Said Durrah, national volunteer manager for IRUSA, spoke to the volunteers about why we were all making food packets, about the beauty of giving back to others and how projects like these are helping to reduce global hunger. I did what any mom would do and took some photos of my son and his friends, sharing two of them on Facebook with the hashtag suggested by IRUSA.
The comments posted under the photos included questions about how we had found out about the volunteer opportunity and whether there would be others like it for more families to get involved, which made sharing the photos worth it to me.
Admittedly, though, it was a little bit about showing others what we did with our Saturday morning. Guess I need to recheck my intentions.
*(saw) is the abbreviation for sallallahu alaihi wasallam, which means "peace be upon him" and is a phrase many Muslims include after saying or writing the Prophet Muhammad's name out of respect.
(Dilshad D. Ali is a freelance journalist and the editor of Altmuslim, a blog covering American Muslim communities and global Islam. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)