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Giving while Muslim: How Ramadan philanthropy has changed from 9/11 to COVID-19

Twenty years after 9/11, American Muslims’ giving priorities have shifted to funding civil rights and social justice movements at home.

Worshippers bow in prayer at the Islamic Society of Boston during the first Friday of the holy month of Ramadan, April 16, 2021, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

(RNS) — In Ramadan, Muslims famously join in fasting. But this holy month on the lunar calendar, which this year falls between April 12 and May 12, is also a time of charitable giving through acts known as zakat and sadaqa. There is a hadith, or saying, in our tradition by the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) that: “The best charity that is given is during Ramadan.”

It’s also the busiest time for Muslim nonprofits. Shariq Siddiqui, assistant professor at Indiana University and director of the Muslim Philanthropy Initiative, estimates that nearly 80% to 90% of Muslim-led organizations’ annual budgets are raised in the three months before, during and after Ramadan.

But the pandemic — which has both affected how we come together to worship and revealed a widening wealth gap — has taken its toll.

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Last year, Muslim communities were especially generous. According to a survey conducted last year by the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, 57% of respondents intended to donate more to relief organizations than they did in 2019, while 35% intended to donate more to educational organizations, and 39% intended to donate more to the mosque.

This year, LaunchGood, a Muslim crowdfunding site, reports that 80% of Muslim charities are experiencing a 30% decline in giving. 

Each and every person can be a philanthropist, and philanthropy, I believe, is more about generosity than it is about wealth. As a Muslim, I am glad to be invited by my faith to give of what I love — and, what can I say, I love the security that money provides. 

Graphic via LaunchGood

Graphic via LaunchGood

That’s why in 2016 I started the American Muslim Community Foundation to bolster Muslim giving. Five years into our work, our team has helped start 124 donor advised funds and incubate 15 fiscal sponsorships. We also manage eight giving circles and host eight nonprofit endowments, including our new American Muslim Women’s Giving Circle, launched with the help of Philanthropy Together.

But working with AMCF has shown me that Muslim philanthropy faces particular challenges. As Esra Tunc, a graduate student in religious studies at the University of San Diego and an AMCF research fellow, has found, many relief-based agencies were subject to surveillance after the World Trade Center attacks due to the fear of terrorism. Three of the largest Muslim charities of the time — the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, the Benevolence International Foundation and the Global Relief Foundation — were shut down after the attacks.

Other Muslim charities, especially those involved in international causes, encountered decreases in donations due to fear that they might support religious extremism. Donors became wary of any organizations working in international relief and especially those with the word Islam or Muslim in the title. 

International relief agencies are still the largest sector of Muslim nonprofits, with hundreds of millions of dollars each year going to organizations like Islamic Relief USA, Helping Hand for Relief & Development and Penny Appeal USA, as well as country-specific initiatives like the Syrian American Medical Society or Indian Muslim Relief & Charities. 

But 20 years after 9/11, American Muslims’ giving priorities have shifted from international aid to funding civil rights advocacy groups and social justice movements at home. We tend to focus on funding nonprofits dedicated to basic needs such as food banks, health care clinics and social service organizations helping with adoption or mental health. 

This shift has meant that Muslims increasingly give ecumenically: According to the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Lake Institute’s American Muslim Philanthropy report in 2019, Muslims are just as likely to give to causes outside of the Muslim community as they are to causes within it.

Last year the AMCF’s COVID-19 Response Fund for Nonprofits distributed $360,000 to more than 60 organizations. With last summer’s racial justice reckoning laying bare the broken systems in our society, AMCF also supported local communities across the country impacting racial equity, social justice and basic needs of everyday Americans.

We believe that if the philanthropic community as a whole doesn’t take a stand now, minority and marginalized communities will continue to suffer. One of our giving circles, Bay Area Collective Giving, will distribute $105,000 in Ramadan to Mu’eed, an Oakland, California-based nonprofit providing meals to families in need, and Tayba Foundation, a Muslim-led national organization educating incarcerated individuals and their families, helping them with reentry initiatives. 

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In addition, AMCF joined Amalgamated Foundation’s “Hate is Not Charitable” campaign, which urges donor advised funds to vet charities stringently to screen out those that support hate groups that target the LGBTQIA+, Muslim and immigrant communities.

Muhi Khwaja. Courtesy photo

Muhi Khwaja. Courtesy photo

I invite you to learn more about Muslim-led philanthropy in your community and check out the incredible organizations that Muslims are supporting in their zakat and sadaqa this Ramadan.

(Muhi Khwaja is co-founder and director of development and philanthropy of the American Muslim Community Foundation. This commentary was adapted from an article that appeared on the website of Indian University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy he views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)