How Religious Traditions Inform Philanthropy
For many fundraisers, this past week (June 30) marked the end of a busy season as their organizations closed their fiscal years. For many Americans, this weekend has been filled with vacations, fireworks, and celebrations of Independence. For Muslims here at home and around the world, tomorrow, July 6, also marks another significant festival: Eid al-Fitr, celebrating the end of Ramadan with feasts and the giving of gifts.
For Muslims who are able, fasting during the month of Ramadan serves as one of the five pillars of Islam. From sunrise to sunset, Muslims refrain from food, drink, smoking, and sexual relations to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran received by the Prophet Muhammad. Each evening, the daily fast is broken most often with family and friends around a community meal (iftar). In the tradition of the Prophet, dates might be the most popular food eaten to break the fast. Yet, Ramadan is not only marked by giving up food and drink through fasting and the daily iftar meal, but it is also the high point of giving and charity for most Muslims.
Along with fasting during Ramadan, zakat is also one of the five pillars of Islam. Zakat is the systematic giving of a set proportion of one’s accumulated wealth (2.5%) to charity beyond a set minimum (nisab – calculated around $3,858 for 2016). Charities have easily accessible zakat calculators on their websites to help Muslims figure the total amount of zakat due on their IRAs, savings account, or gold and jewelry. Often local mosques or Islamic schools might form zakat committees to help collect zakat payments from Muslims.
In a few majority Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, zakat is obligatory and collected by the state. Most often, however, this is an individual decision. In the West, for example, in addition to local mosques, there are a wide variety of Muslim international NGOs (Zakat Foundation or Islamic Relief) that solicit support of Muslims through zakat payments in order to assist humanitarian issues around the world.
In many ways, zakat has an individual focus. Religious teaching names this giving as a duty Muslims must follow in order to obey God. Giving also serves to cleanse wealth, freeing individuals from focusing too tightly on material things. In other ways, zakat is communal. It was clearly intended as a redistribution of resources, an act of justice in order to assure that fellow Muslims, and the poor explicitly, had adequate resources. That sense of justice is why the 2.5% figure is based on accumulated wealth – and why one must meet a minimum threshold (nisab) before being liable to pay zakat. While there are categories of individuals designated to receive zakat, Islamic legal scholars disagree on issues such as whether the focus should be first those in need locally or globally.
Paying one’s annual zakat obligations should be completed by the end of Ramadan, which concludes in the West at sunset today, July 5th. In many ways, fasting and giving are connected. One is mindful of the plight of the poor through fasting and through giving a portion of one’s wealth to provide for those in need. In addition to one’s annual zakat payments, however, the end of Ramadan requires another gift – zakat al-fitr. Aligned with the Eid al-Fitr feast, this gift, required of all Muslims (the minimum amount is the same for all), was originally the equivalent of four double handfuls of food or dried fruit for each family member. The purpose was to assure everyone could participate in the celebration of breaking the Ramadan fast.
As Muslims around the world celebrate Eid-al-Fitr this week, it is a reminder of the power of our religious traditions in giving. Across our faiths, holidays are often marked as a high point of giving in our religious calendars. Muslims might often find that each communal iftar meal is met with a local organization making a fundraising appeal. Whether out of a sense of duty, obligation, or empowerment, giving is often a central religious practice for individuals; giving solidifies religious communities; it also often leads individuals or communities to engage in relationships with those around them.
Giving can be as traditional as supplying dates to an iftar meal, placing money in an offering plate passed along a pew, or paying one’s annual dues to the synagogue. It can be as contemporary as calculating your zakat payment online and then paying by credit card to support the work of resettling Syrian refugees. In all these cases, it is the religious traditions and practices of communities that still inform a majority of the world’s giving. For scholars or practitioners of philanthropy, this is something to which we all must pay attention.
And to our Muslim friends, Eid Mubarak!