A MONTH OF GIVING: RAMADAN, PHILANTHROPY, AND HUMANITARIANISM
Ramadan, a blessed month according to many Muslims, is currently being observed by millions across the globe. Fasting during this month is one of the five Pillars of Islam, along with zakat (charity). During Ramadan, Muslims not only fast, pray, and increase their presence at mosques, but they also heighten their practice of zakat, including by donating to humanitarian and charitable causes.
This is why, for Muslim charities, Ramadan is a critical time: it represents the single largest opportunity to raise funds, amounting to 40-50% of an organization’s yearly goals and often requiring organization staff to organize hundreds of fundraising events within one frenzied month. With millions people from Muslim-majority countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen currently depending on humanitarian organizations for life-saving assistance and protection, Ramadan philanthropy is more important than ever.
PASS sat down with Dr. Abed Ayoub, CEO and president of United Muslim Relief (UMR), to gain his insights into how the month of Ramadan and the concept of zakat are used to educate and encourage donors to part with both their time and money for the sake of disaffected communities around the world.
How does the faith status of your organization, donors, and members affect how you conduct fundraising, and how do concepts of zakat and other traditions and practices of Islamic charity and finance manifest themselves in how UMR raises and uses funds?
In Islam, there are two main concepts of charity: zakat and sadaqa. Zakat is mandatory on every able Muslim to be paid once a year as a type of “tax,” through which the less fortunate in the community are given assistance. It can be given at any time, though many Muslims pay it during Ramadan so that their spiritual rewards are multiplied.
Sadaqa is a broader term, encompassing daily acts of compassion and generosity to those in need. It does not only encompass monetary assistance; rather, it has a strong focus on how to build a strong, harmonious community. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is purported to have said that even a smile is considered sadaqa. These concepts are held in a high regard in the Muslim community, and UMR strives to assist donors to help others and to build a strong, caring community.
UMR is inspired by the Islamic ethos in serving humanity, an ethos that emphasizes that not only does every human, regardless of religion or ethnicity, have the right to life’s necessities, but that every living creation be treated with mercy and compassion. In reminding ourselves and our donors of the duty to help our struggling neighbors, and eliciting the humility that reminds us that we may find ourselves struggling one day, our fundraising is one of empathy and comradery.
UMR’s vision statement refers to the “dignity of self-sustenance.” How does your organization move from reacting to humanitarian disasters to providing durable, sustainable solutions—and how realistic is it to expect “long-term solutions” in emergency situations where basic needs are absent?
UMR’s goal is to build communities through providing them with the necessary tools to meet their full potential. In emergency situations, the initial stress is on providing basic needs, ensuring that lives are not lost and families are not shattered. The idea is that once the emergency is over, the aftermath should be considered an emergency as well. Victims of an emergency should not be forgotten a week after disaster strikes.
Rather, there should be a program set out to ensure that they are able to stand up again and rebuild their lives. This is to provide them with their basic human right of dignity, of not needing to ask for help continuously. This is very realistic as it is all about the efficiency of the program. Our self-sustenance programs offer a detailed map of how community members are involved in their own assistance. There are trainings and workshops through which they are provided with the tools and skills needed to continue their growth after NGO assistance ceases.
UMR’s vision states that it aims to “be a world leader in uniting partner organizations.” What is your approach to forming partnerships? How do partnerships, and particularly interfaith initiatives, enhance the capacity of organizations like UMR to respond to enormous humanitarian challenges?
One difference with UMR [compared to other organizations] is that we try to maximize the dollar amount given by leveraging matching funds, partnering in loose coalitions on projects, and tapping our partner resources to be efficient and cut costs where we can. Through partnerships, the donor’s dollar is magnified and more beneficiaries are served. This is simply because there is not a lost cent when partnerships are formed, as each organization in the collaboration brings to the table what the other may lack.
Through interfaith initiatives, we are able to serve a wider base of beneficiaries of all different backgrounds, strengthening the humanitarian community, and creating harmonious bonds that seek to serve others. This is particularly beneficial to individual communities of each organization, as they will also be connected to groups of other faiths and seal social gaps that prevented this from before.
Development and humanitarianism are used as fronts for different forces, such as militarization, securitization, and politicization. How do you rebuild trust in communities abroad that may have been affected negatively by these forces? How do you ensure that UMR is not following an ideological agenda or acting in a non-transparent way?
Transparency is key in any successful humanitarian organization. Communities that have been susceptible to agendas and negative forces need to first and foremost be approached with empathy, understanding, and respect. Our programs are clearly explained to the communities from the onset and there must be an acceptance of services. We emphasize our humanitarian nature and stress the importance of each community member in working towards their potential to reach their goals. Ensuring that UMR does not follow an ideological agenda is simply following our mission statement.
Though UMR has been thus far focused on underserved communities abroad, it is now initiating domestic relief work. How did your organization make the decision to do this, and what type of work will you be doing in the U.S.?
As Muslims, we must serve our local communities as well as beyond. As an American organization, we have always had domestic projects and disaster relief, but UMR wanted to amplify our service. We have added a new program to our domestic projects entitled Peaceful Families Project. The mission of the Peaceful Families Project is to work towards ending all types of abuse in Muslim families by increasing awareness regarding the dynamics of domestic violence. We believe that a better understanding of religious and cultural values can be used as a resource to prevent domestic violence, and that religion and culture should never be used to justify abusive behavior. Through education and training, we seek to promote attitudes and beliefs that emphasize justice, freedom from oppression, and family harmony.