COMMUNITY VOICES | Ramadan: Why inclusion matters to engaged philanthropy

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You’ve probably seen news stories once a year or so about Ramadan, describing the practicing Muslim world’s fasting from daytime food, drink and sexual intimacy. You may not be aware, however, that Ramadan makes up what is probably the longest ongoing global charitable giving campaign in human history. Since the inception of Islam over 1400 years ago, Muslims have systematically given charity (called Sadaqa) during this month, especially during its final ten days. With economic times squeezing the average mainstream donor’s wallet, social change organizations have an excellent opportunity to engineer a more inclusive philanthropy and also stay on pace with their donation rates by understanding cultural trends in giving.

The act of Sadaqa (meaning: charity) during the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan is a completely fascinating example of sustained philanthropy by a cultural group over time. It occurs during the 9th month in the Islamic calendar (which is a lunar system) and it slowly moves backwards against the Gregorian calendar at a rate of about 11 days per year. This year, Ramadan falls between July 9th and August 9th, 2013.

American Muslims are extremely diverse and number roughly 2 million (some estimates count up to 7 million). That’s about 2% of the total American population, and it represents a $200 Billion dollar market. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Immigrant Muslims are especially well represented among higher-income earners, with 19% claiming annual household incomes of $100,000 or higher (compared to 16 percent for the Muslim population as a whole and 17 percent for the U.S. average).

In post 9/11 America, a much greater percentage of American Muslim charity goes to domestic sources. The majority of the independent sector does not understand or seek out Muslim charitable giving, despite the potential that engagement could yield. Here are three steps to better understanding Muslim giving in America so we can develop a more diverse community of engaged philanthropists, and grow the common good, together.

1. Understand the Root of the Word. As a concept, Sadaqa comes from an Arabic root word that means ‘to be true.’ What’s important to know is that Sadaqa can be as straightforward as financial or physical property donation, and as abstract as brightening someone’s day. The latter derives from a saying of the Prophet Muhammad, who said on the topic of Sadaqa that ‘even a smile is Sadaqa.’ The effective message here is not that someone can buy a sandwich with your smile, but that absolutely everyone possesses something they can give to benefit another human being or community. And as it turns out, it is not uncommon for Muslims who are in relatively difficult economic standing to donate regardless of economic standing.

2. Know that Sadaqa is NOT the same as tithing. Muslims have a mandatory yearly 2.5% wealth tax called Zakat they pay to the poor in the Muslim community which would be the equivalent to tithing. Many non-Muslims mistakenly believe this means that charity outside of this definition doesn’t exist, and that all Muslim charity is tithing. On the contrary, despite Zakat requirements most Muslim giving that occurs is completely above and beyond Zakat, and that charity is called Sadaqa.

3. Understand where Sadaqa goes, and why. When a Muslim gives to charity, his or her priority is first to biological family, then to the poor, and finally to neighbors. That means that Muslims have a religious mandate to give locally during Ramadan. If the American Muslim community mirrors my community in Minnesota, I can tell you anecdotally that most Muslims give, by interest area, in this order: Hunger relief, community infrastructure (religious and educational), and then finally to other personal charitable interests (the environment, food access, animal welfare, etc.). Since the month of Ramadan is seen as Holy, it is widely believed by Muslims that Charity given in Ramadan is multiplied in the eyes of God.

The Muslim community is not the only religious group with charitable giving trends and new perspectives on philanthropy. While inclusive engagement should be a key goal of every charitable organization and the resulting economic and social benefits will be indisputable, Muslim engagement during Ramadan is far from strategy in and of itself. This is the beginning of a call for a more inclusive and diverse conception of philanthropy as a whole as we work to ring in a new era of community good. Let’s all work to give more together in Ramadan, at Christmas, Hanukkah and beyond.

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