Questions for Reflection
- Reflect on this quote with a few colleagues: “Giving in charity doesn’t decrease your wealth in the slightest.”
- In what ways have you seen religious groups stepping up to help those in need?
by Rafia Khader, Program Manager
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is reported to have said, “If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; if the plague outbreaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place.”
While thankfully, we are not experiencing a plague during this present moment, Muslims across the world have taken this Prophetic wisdom to heart with the COVID-19 pandemic. When Saudi Arabia first suspended all visas for umrah (the voluntary pilgrimage that can be performed any time of the year) in late February, it sent shockwaves across Muslim discourse. Seeing pictures of the Sacred Mosque empty produced a visceral reaction in me. Just two years ago, I had the immense blessing of performing Hajj (the obligatory pilgrimage that can only be performed during a certain time of the year). I remember rushing past throngs of people, while circumambulating the Ka’ba, with my husband holding tightly onto my shoulders so that we didn’t lose each other. Contrasting this experience still vivid in my memory with this image, all I could muster to say was Subhan’Allah.
As things with COVID-19 progressed and eventually all of America came under lockdown, Muslims in the United States started to worry whether their local mosque would remain open. This was especially of pressing concern as Ramadan was just days away. Ramadan is a special time of the year, where all the rows of the mosque are filled every single day of the month. Muslims would often flock to the mosque to open our fasts (iftar) together with the community. After offering the final two obligatory prayers, we would then spend much of the rest of the evening praying a special late night prayer called tarawih, often led by an imam who had memorized the Qur’an by heart and trained in the art of recitation of the Qur’an, called qira'at.
But this Ramadan, none of this will be happening in any mosque. As of today, which is the 19th day of Ramadan in Indianapolis, the mosques have been closed for weeks.
All this of course has financial ramifications. According to Shariq Siddiqui, Director of the Muslim Philanthropy Initiative, for the Muslim non-profit sector as a whole, 70-80% of donations come during the month of Ramadan. They traditionally raise money through fundraising dinners, iftars, and congregational fundraisers. All of these event-based fundraisers are no longer possible. While large relief organizations receive 40-50% of their funds through online giving, most of these gifts come after major in-person events that drive the online giving. All of this has, as Shariq says, “realigned the Muslim non-profit playbook.”
The Prophet (peace be upon him) would give more during the month of Ramadan and encouraged his followers to do the same. Even if we cannot hold in person fundraising events, this exhortation propels Muslims to give in new and unique ways. A recent survey conducted by the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research found that compared to last Ramadan, 57% of respondents intended to donate more to relief organizations, 35% intended to donate more to educational organizations, and 39% intended to donate more to the mosque.
While a large number of Muslim non-profits have seen a severe impact on donations to meet monthly expenses (some have had to face the difficult decision of reducing staff salaries by half or even terminating their contracts), instead of focusing on themselves, many of them have put others first by launching their own efforts to respond to the needs of the surrounding community.
Indeed, the response we have seen from Muslim non-profits and from the community at large has been swift and astounding. The increasingly popular Muslim-run crowdfunding campaign, LaunchGood, made headlines once again this year. The most prominent of campaigns has been the
“Coronavirus Emergency Response: Financial Hardship Grants” campaign organized by Penny Appeal USA (President & CEO Oussama Mezoui sits on the board of the Muslim Philanthropy Initiative Council of Advisors), CelebrateMercy, and the Islamic Center of New York University. In a matter of a few short weeks, the campaign raised over half a million dollars to be distributed to families in need, irrespective of religious affiliation.
I want to highlight one such effort by the Indianapolis Muslim Community Association (IMCA): the Muslim Task Force, formed under the leadership of Imam Ahmed Alamine, who on the front lines of this effort has contracted COVID-19 himself (as of this writing, his condition is slowly improving). The Muslim Task Force, along with IMCA’s Food Pantry, has increased its food distribution and has initiated a new home delivery program for the disabled, elderly, quarantined, and those without transportation. In addition, they started a Mercy Masks program, which sells homemade high-quality fabric masks whose proceeds will go to the locally hired seamsters who are underemployed and struggling to find work due to COVID-19. Unable to hold iftars in person, the MTF is continuing the tradition of feeding the fasting by offering a drive-thru iftar service in partnership with local Muslim-owned restaurants. This serves two constituencies, worshippers in need who rely on these iftars and local businesses who face their own economic struggles with the shutdown of in-person services.
Throughout the country, Muslims have been doing the best they can to help. For example, in Chicago, Zakat Foundation, a Lake Institute partner, donated thousands of pairs of medical gloves to hospitals, clinics and nursing homes in low-income Chicago-area neighborhoods. In Houston, one man decided to go on 48-hour fast before Ramadan to raise money for the Houston Food Bank. These are but some of the many examples.
While COVID-19 will have undoubtedly shaped how billions of Muslims around the world observed this year’s Ramadan in a myriad of ways, the Muslim community’s creative and selfless responses to giving have in my opinion exemplified the spirit of the Qur’anic injunction, “You shall not attain righteousness until you spend out of what you love (in the way of God). God knows whatever you spend. (3:92).” For indeed while many Muslim non-profits and individuals may be experiencing hardship right now, by choosing to give in any way that they can nonetheless, they can be solaced with the saying of the Prophet (peace be upon him), “Giving in charity doesn’t decrease your wealth in the slightest.” In fact, the Islamic belief is that when we give of our material wealth, whatever we may have and in whatever form it may be, God increases our spiritual wealth in innumerable ways.
Shariq Siddiqui, Director of the Muslim Philanthropy Initiative, offers some hopeful advice for Muslim nonprofits who currently struggle to make their own ends meet, while simultaneously helping meet the needs of others.
Nonprofits must innovate as well as double down on best practices. First, nonprofits should prioritize this time to ensure that they have the systems and best practices in place for fundraising. My conversations with Muslim nonprofits that have taken The Fund Raising School courses and implemented those systems show that they have raised more since the pandemic rather than less.
Second, this is the time to make those one-to-one connections which research finds is more effective for long-term giving. You should be able to reach out to your donors to make sure they are ok, to assure them that you are still focused on the mission and provide them information on how this pandemic has impacted the mission. Stewardship is not just about gratitude – it simply starts from a thank you.
Third, this is an opportunity for non-profits to be creative in how they raise funds. Unable to hold an in-person iftar? A virtual iftar fundraiser is one option. Some nonprofits report that their virtual efforts are matching or exceeding their past in person efforts.
Fourth, COVID-19 is not just affecting people on the lower level of the income bracket. Long-time donors, such as physicians in private practice, have also seen a dip in income and are now being forced to withdraw pledges because they want to keep their staff on payroll. Now is a time for Muslim non-profits to reach out to donors with Donor-Advised Funds. Donor Advised Funds are donations made in prior years that can only be used for charitable purposes. Examine your database to determine who has given through a DAF and do outreach. Create messaging stating that you accept DAF donations. Make it easier for donors to add widgets to your website that make this process easier. Finally, have faith that if you do your very best, you will raise the very most you can.
Read more from Dr. Siddiqui about giving during Ramadan in this article from The Conversation.
ISNA collected a wide variety of resources related to COVID-19, including stories about Muslim Americans fighting against the virus. They offer statements about how the pandemic is impacting Muslim Americans, as well as many other useful resources.