Fasting and celebration
At this time Muslims all over the world are celebrating Eid – Islam’s most important religious festival. Eid marks the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. After the Eid prayer, families and friends gather to celebrate. This is a time for dressing in fine clothing, eating well, and giving gifts to children. In fact, it is not unlike Christmas. During Eid, it is customary for everyone who can afford it to donate a sum of money, zakat-al-fitr, so that the poor will also be able to eat their fill during the festival. These donations are often made via the mosque.
Helping people who are less well-off is a key aspect of Islam. Sunni Muslims pay zakat and Shia Muslims pay khums. These payments are more or less a kind of tax: the amount corresponds to a fixed proportion of one’s wealth or earnings; is calculated according to a fixed formula; and is paid at a fixed time each year. This compulsory alms-giving is one of the “Five Pillars of Islam”. The other four are the profession of faith, ritual prayer, fasting during Ramadan, and the pilgrimage to Mecca. Islam also attaches importance to alms-giving and good deeds other than the compulsory alms-giving, during Eid. One example is sadqa, which refers to a particular type of voluntary alms-giving.
Many Muslims give their compulsory alms either before or during Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. During Ramadan it is customary to break the fast each evening with iftar, a meal eaten in the company of family and friends. During the fast, many Muslims take time to reflect on the reality of life for people who do not have enough food: people who are not fasting voluntarily, but quite simply have nothing to eat. As a result it is common for Muslims to make additional donations to the poor during Ramadan.
Our research project is concerned with efforts to relieve poverty and charitable activities among Muslims living in Norway and Pakistan. As part of our research we have interviewed 50 people in Oslo from Norwegian-Pakistani backgrounds. We have found a high level of engagement among the Muslims we have spoken to, with many making significant efforts to help the poor, through voluntary work as well as financial donations. We have interviewed both men and women, but have observed that women in particular participate actively in charitable work. Women often have closer links with relatives in Pakistan, and most know of someone there who is in need of help. For some women, their charitable work is one of their most important activities. Most of this work is performed on a voluntary basis by groups of people working together. The administrative costs and charges for hiring premises are paid out of their own pockets. All money collected is given in full to help the poor and needy.
Near and far
The people with whom we have spoken seek to ease the everyday lives of less well-off relatives and friends, and to help poor people worldwide. The Koran directs Muslims to give their compulsory alms to needy people who are close to them. Accordingly most Muslims generally start by giving to needy relatives, neighbours and other members of the local communities where their families originated, for example in Pakistan.
Alms-giving by Muslims is a way of reallocating resources in society. Only those who have surplus funds are required to give; only those in need receive. Giving the alms is an obligation and receiving them is a right. This concept preserves the recipient’s dignity. Many of the people we spoke to also donate to organisations that help poor people in Pakistan and elsewhere in the world. They also send money to areas affected by conflicts and natural disasters, in Muslim as well as non-Muslim societies.
In the community hall of a housing cooperative in Stovner, the women of “Fatima’s Helpers” meet each month. Fatima was one of the Prophet Muhammad’s daughters, and this women’s group is part of the Minhaj-ul-Quran movement. The women meet to pray together, as well as simply to enjoy each other’s company. Each month the women collect money for a children’s home in Pakistan that is run by Minhaj-ul-Quran. The women describe this network as an extended family. They take care of each other, help each other, and make sure that everyone is doing all right. Each year they organise bazaars to raise money for projects to help the poor and needy, not unlike the charity bazaars held by church communities all over Norway. Everyone makes a contribution: some prepare food and bake cakes, while others collect items to sell at the bazaar. These women are just one example of such a group. Many other women and men also collect money to support schools, hospitals and needy individuals either here in Norway, in Pakistan or elsewhere in the world.
A well kept secret
Much of this aid is given to the recipients directly, or through private channels. One may ask whether this is the most effective way of helping the poor. Many of the people we have spoken to emphasised that although it is important to give to people in need, it is also important to bring about changes that may help people out of poverty for good. In particular, education is often mentioned as an area where one can help ensure that tomorrow’s adults can have a better future. Helping others is thus an integral aspect of Muslim faith and practice, but a Muslim’s almsgiving is a personal matter. The gifts should be given discreetly and “the right hand should not know what the left is doing”. As a result, Norwegian Muslims’ efforts to help the poor are a well kept secret from the rest of us.
See also the blog post Invisible Aid.
Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext