“Those who spend their wealth in Allah’s cause are like grains of corn which produce seven ears, each bearing a hundred grains.”
Ramadan is known as a time of fasting and celebration. But it’s also a time of incredible giving. While exact numbers are difficult to come by, Muslims likely donate between $600 billion and $1.2 trillion per year at Ramadan.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Irshad Osman, an imam, a professional fundraiser, and a recent and welcomed addition to Encounter’s board of directors. He explained that Muslims are compelled to give but that much of it is done informally and not necessarily through a foundation or a record-keeping institution. Irshad’s mother is a great example of the practice, offering money to help people she knows and Irshad often sends money back to his family in Sri Lanka to support her generosity. This approach grounds the giving in personal connections and in being intimately connected to community and its members.
When I asked Irshad about Muslim charitable giving, he first emphasized that for Muslims, charity is mandatory. Islamic law mandates that Muslims give zakat, which is 2.5% of one’s wealth, to the needy. If you do not have enough wealth (around $5,000 beyond what you need to live), then you are exempt and, in some cases, you may be eligible to be a recipient instead of a donor. But for those with enough, giving is required.
While working in Sri Lanka, Irshad learned that the charitable contributions given at Ramadan often funded social programs and welfare organizations for the entire year, thanks to the generosity of major donors. When he came to Canada his commitment to giving and charity lead him to full time jobs in fundraising. He earned certifications and began working for the United Way, later Women’s College Hospital, and is now the principal of his own fundraising consultancy.
During our conversation we talked about the role that giving plays in religion and how religious practices shape how people think about charity. For Muslims, Irshad identified three important concepts:
- First, that wealth is God-given. We do not determine the family we are born into and the relative financial health of our birth-home. The traits that might allow us to succeed financially are also not chosen. With this perspective, simply keeping all the money we accumulate is seen as miserly and ungrateful. Love of money can corrupt us and competes with love of God.
- Most interesting I thought is that Islam teaches that the deprived have a right to some of your wealth. The needy are seen to have a legitimate claim on the well-off. Needless to say, this differs from Western concepts that prioritize private property but this Islamic perspective creates a responsibility, an obligation to give.
- Finally, there is a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad that charity will not decrease your wealth. Many believe that in giving, you will receive. Giving with the belief that you will find this money again is itself an act of faith.
While zakat, the 2.5% of one’s wealth, is obligatory, Muslims are also encouraged to make additional voluntary contributions called sadaka. Finally, if you’re ever in a mosque, you will sometimes see a third box for donations for the mosque administration fund. Mosque funds are separate as the rules around zakat ensure it goes to the needy.
During Ramadan, Muslims will be fasting. They will be praying more. They will be reinvigorating the bonds of community by gathering for iftar every night (the meal that breaks the fast) and for the eid celebration that marks the month’s end. But besides all of that, Muslims will spend the month fulfilling their obligation to give, providing support to the needy through their generosity.
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