by Rafia Khader, Program Manager
We are now in the final ten days of Ramadan, the holiest of months for Muslims. While all of Ramadan is significant, as fasting during this month is considered the fourth pillar of Islam, the last ten days are even more so. For it was on one of the odd nights of these last ten days -- Laylat-ul-Qadr or the Night of Power or Decree -- that the Holy Qur’an came down from the heavenly realms. As the Qur’an reads, “The Night of Power is better than a thousand months” (97:3). For us mere mortals, this means that any act of worship done on this night is equivalent to 1,000 months or 83 years of worship. Since the Qur’an doesn’t say when exactly Laylat-ul-Qadr is (perhaps to keep us on our toes!), Muslims are advised to treat every odd night of the last 10 days as if it were.
As such, it is as if all our efforts to draw closer to God go into overdrive during this time. One of the many oft-repeated acts of worship is giving for the sake of God. Ramadan is a popular time for Muslims to pay their annual zakat (purifying alms), the third pillar of Islam. Zakat is required of every Muslim of financial means and is typically set at 2.5% of a person’s wealth and income. While zakat does not have to be paid in Ramadan, given the month’s most blessed status, many Muslims including myself do.
While I try to give throughout the month, I usually reserve the bulk of my giving (including my zakat) to the last ten days. If there’s a possibility to get an additional reward of 83 years of worship, I’m going to take it!
At the time of writing, I still don’t know how much I owe. Muslims must make every effort to be as precise as they can in calculating and distributing their zakat. Thus, I like to set aside a few hours on the last weekend of the month as my “Zakat-calculating time,” so I know how much I owe exactly and to allocate where to give.
While I aim to give a portion of my zakat to humanitarian aid organizations, zakat is more than just giving to the poor and needy. As Dr. Ingrid Mattson said in her 2010 Lake Lecture, “zakat distribution [should] serve as an instrument of community cohesion,” not just globally, but right here in the community that we live in. This does not mean reinterpreting Qur’anic stipulations, but rather not ignoring the other categories completely in favor of the first two (i.e. the poor and needy).
While there are many Muslim organizations doing great work, I would like to share why the following are ones I continue to support year after year.
- Zaytuna College is the first accredited Muslim liberal arts college in the United States. That in itself is a pretty big feat. Not only do they teach the Trivium, Quadrivium, and the traditional Islamic sciences, the Prophetic exhortation of learning to swim, archery, and horseback-riding are also a part of the curriculum. That is pretty cool! I did not attend Zaytuna College. I don’t even give to my alma maters! There was a time when I too aspired to be an Islamic scholar, but life took me in different directions. While there was a bit of me lamenting that loss, I came across a saying of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and reread it with fresh eyes: “When a person dies, all his deeds come to an end except three: ongoing charity, beneficial knowledge (which he has left behind), or a righteous child who will pray for him.” I resolved to myself: perhaps I am not meant to be an Islamic scholar, but I can support future scholars. Giving to Zaytuna encapsulated all three of these categories and thenceforth, I committed to become a monthly supporter.
- The American Learning Institute for Muslims or ALIM, which also is an Arabic term for someone of great knowledge. I attended ALIM’s summer program in 2015, right after I had graduated from Divinity School and unsure of my next steps. ALIM is intended for Muslim Americans navigating the challenges of being a Muslim American. Not because the two are mutually exclusive, but because the answers to the challenges we face and that lay ahead will be found not just within our tradition and history, but also through thinking critically about our current context. While my M.A. did a good job of deconstructing my religion for me, ALIM helped to reconstruct it, in my time and place. I am forever indebted to ALIM’s teachers, especially Ustadh Ubaydallah Evans, and want as many young Muslim Americans to have that same opportunity.
- The Inner-city Muslim Action Network or IMAN, which also means “faith” in Arabic. When I was still in Chicago, I was vaguely familiar with their “Takin’ It to the Streets” art festival, but had never attended. While IMAN is careful to not label themselves an Islamic organization per se, it is clear they are deeply inspired by their faith in the work that they do. The community they have built is a small microcosm of the kind of world I’d like to see - providing a free health clinic, a green reentry program, and a farmer’s market, among others. Many if not most of their beneficiaries are not even Muslim. In a world where it’s so easy to self-segregate, IMAN has its main office in the South Side of Chicago. Muslims always harken back to the days of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his companions, as they were a model community that were compassionate to all and committed to justice for all, Muslim or not. IMAN, in my opinion, is exemplifying this same spirit of the Prophetic community, albeit in 2019 in America.
These three organizations in their unique ways are contributing to the vibrancy of the Muslim American community that benefits not only Muslims themselves but the communities in which they live at large. Whether you are fasting this month or not, why do you give where you do? Do you see a trend? In the course of writing this reflection, I discovered a thread I did not see before. Perhaps you will, too.
Eid Mubarak to all those celebrating in a few days! May God accept all of our acts of worship, both big and small.