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Written by leading scholars, the Focus On essays are designed to stimulate thought and enhance understanding of vital aspects of the Islamic world. New essays on specific themes, with links to related content within the site for further reading, are published throughout the course of the year. All visitors to Oxford Islamic Studies Online can access these essays, but related content links in Previous Features are available to subscribers only.

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American Muslim Philanthropy and Humanitarian Islam

Engy Abdelkader, JD, LL.M.

On 28 June 2016, the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing, Willful Blindness: Consequences of Agency Efforts to Deemphasize Radical Islam in Combating Terrorism,1 chaired by Texan Senator Ted Cruz. The hearing came on the heels of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which revived a debate about the discourse regarding violent extremism and the role of religion in preventing similar tragedies.

American Muslims have long expressed discomfort with religiously charged language—including so-called "radical Islam" or jihad—that they deem has a stigmatizing effect, inadvertently rendering their faith synonymous with criminality, mayhem, and violence.2 And, a number of national security experts and government officials3 argue that such terminology legitimizes criminality as divinely sanctioned, thereby undermining counter-terrorism programs.

For these reasons, U.S. President Barack Obama4 has consistently refused to engage in such discourse. Most recently, in a public address to the nation, he referred to the Pulse shootings as "an act of terror and an act of hate."5 The President's insistence on religiously neutral language prompted strong rebuke from politically conservative corners, including presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump. Referencing President Obama's "disgraceful" omission of the phrase, "radical Islam," Mr. Trump demanded that he "step down."6

Indeed, the controversy surrounding discourse has once again occupied U.S. news media outlets, from CNN7 to The New York Times.8 As such, the public is well acquainted with "radical Islam."

The humanitarian impulse in Islam, which has shaped the religion since its founding, is arguably less familiar.

The term humanitarian Islam,9 coined by the author, refers to an intriguing phenomenon that has emerged among American Muslims in the past decade. In the wake of mass shootings and criminality by perceived co-religionists, and amid increasing levels of anti-Muslim violence, members of the minority faith group have responded with philanthropic acts consistent with orthodox Islamic teaching. In contrast to the violence commonly associated with "radical Islam," volunteerism and charitable giving are distinctive qualities of humanitarian Islam.

In the wake of the Orlando mass shooting, for instance, a spectrum of American Muslim organizations—such as CAIR-Florida, Celebrate Mercy, Muslim Women's Organization, American Muslim Democratic Caucus, Islamic Relief USA—launched a crowd-funding initiative for the victims and their families. The campaign, Muslims United for Victims of Pulse Shooting (#Muslims4Pulse),10 cites a Qurʿanic verse and hadith (saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad11),to encourage participation. In less than two weeks, it collected in excess of $75,00012 in charitable contributions. Additionally, American Muslims donated blood—notwithstanding fasting from food or drink in observance of the holy month of Ramadan—to alleviate the suffering of those injured in the violent attack.13

On the West Coast, last December, diverse American Muslim institutions—from Zaytuna College to ING to MiNDS to MAS to CAIR-California—responded to an attack on a center that serves those with special needs with a philanthropic initiative. The fundraising campaign, Muslims United for San Bernardino Families (#Muslims4SB),14 cited a Qurʿanic verse and hadith. With the request that Muslims "combat hate with charity and love," the campaign collected in excess of $200,000 in charitable contributions within seven days—the equivalent of $1,000 an hour15.

The humanitarian side to the world's second largest religion also emerged in Tennessee last July after an American Muslim with a history of mental illness murdered five people in Chattanooga. In response, the local Muslim community initiated a philanthropic initiative, collecting $20,000 in contributions for their families.16 Additionally, the local Muslim community canceled Eid celebrations marking the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, scheduled for that day. Rather, Chattanooga Muslims joined the larger community in their collective grieving. For the sake of perspective, this is analogous to cancelling Christmas or Hanukkah.

It is significant to note that humanitarian Islam is not just manifest in the wake of tragedy or amid a litany of condemnations17 by American Muslim organizations and faith leaders.

Illustrative are local efforts in New Jersey, ranking among the top five states with the most sizable Muslim populations in the country. On 4 July, as their compatriots celebrated the country's birthday at barbeques, parks and beaches, the Islamic Society of Central Jersey—still observing a Ramadan fast—gathered at one of the state's largest mosques to prepare 600 meals18 that were delivered to the poor and homeless nearby.

Also representative are efforts in Michigan, with perhaps the largest Muslim community in the United States. Indeed, the American Muslim response to the water crises in Flint—including more than $300,00019 and 1,000,00020 bottles of water in donations—attracted local,21 national22 and international23 attention. Additionally, Michigan Muslims who abstained from food and drink this Ramadan also volunteered their services at local food banks, and collected dry food to support community food drives at their local mosque24. By the month's end, they had distributed over 40 tons of food25.

Similar humanitarian Islamic initiatives can be found in San Francisco,26 Baltimore,27 New York,28 and other cities29 across the United States.

Charitable giving is a central tenet of the Islamic faith. One of the Five Pillars of Islam, zakat, or almsgiving, is obligatory upon believers, and is viewed as a form of social responsibility and the purification of one's surplus wealth. In the American Muslim context, zakat, is generally cited when providing relief for the poor and homeless.

Both the Qurʿan30 and Hadith31 literature reference zakat extensively, highlighting the spiritual emphasis placed upon charitable giving in Islamic tradition. Representative sayings or guidance from the Prophet Muhammad during Islam's formative period include,

Save yourself from Hell-fire even by giving half a date-fruit in charity.32
Do not withhold your money, (for if you did so) Allah would with-hold His blessings from you.33
Every Muslim has to give in charity.34

At first glance, one might suspect that this traditional emphasis dating back to the advent of Islam motivated the philanthropy described above. Interestingly, at least two of these initiatives rely upon distinct Islamic legal authority that makes no explicit mention of zakat or charity, however. This suggests that the organizers, and perhaps even contributors, viewed their philanthropy through an alternative or additional lens.

In Orlando and San Bernardino above, organizers relied on a Prophetic saying focused on mercy, "Have mercy to those on earth, and the One in the Heavens (God) will have mercy upon you." In an interview with this author, an organizer articulated the underlying intention motivating the San Bernardino effort:

This campaign was about much more than charity. It was showing the American Muslim community was sharing in the grieving with the rest of America and so this helped frame the campaign not as a call to donations but "Compassion to Action."35

Arguably, these sentiments counter stereotypes depicting Muslims as barbaric, subhuman, unfeeling, and un-American while also undermining the narrative that a strong American and Muslim identity is irreconcilable. In addition, organizers have used the following verse from the Qurʿan, regarded as the literal word of God and authoritative source for Muslims seeking moral (and legal) guidance, "Repel evil by that which is better."36 A closer examination of the text reveals that this is a partial quote. The Qurʿanic verse reads in its entirety,

And not equal are the good deed and the bad. Repel [evil] by that [deed] which is better; and thereupon the one whom between you and him is enmity [will become] as though he was a devoted friend.37

What does this mean? According to the Qurʿanic exegesis from 14th century Sunni scholar Ismail Ibn Kathir, the verse means that evil is distinct from good. And, if one responds to mistreatment with kindness, it will lead to empathy, love and friendship.38

What evil is American Muslim philanthropy repelling? In an interview with TIME, one of the San Bernardino organizers explained,

We're tired of being grouped together with extremists and people who commit these monstrous acts…We wanted to show that American-Muslims are active contributors to society and that we want to build what the extremists are trying to destroy.39

American Muslims are actively countering violent extremism that exacerbates anti-Muslim prejudice and discrimination (in addition to other contributing factors). According to a recent study40 from Georgetown's Bridge Initiative, threats of anti-Muslim violence increased last year and during this presidential election season, reaching its highest levels since 9/11. In fact, acts and threats of anti-Muslim violence multiplied five-fold in the wake of San Bernardino attack and in the midst of vitriolic political rhetoric from some U.S. presidential candidates.

Still, if worsening Islamophobia has a silver lining, it may be that it has helped to revitalize humanitarian Islam as American Muslims and their organizations counter anti-Muslim prejudice, reclaim the narrative about themselves from violent and other extremists and fulfill a religious obligation. Of course, some might argue that humanitarian Islam does not exist, and that American Muslim philanthropy simply exemplifies Islam, in its purest, unadulterated form.

Engy Abdelkader is a faculty member at Georgetown's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service where she is a Senior Fellow with the Bridge Initiative, a research project on Islamophobia. She teaches civil liberties and national security in the post 9/11 era.


1See Willful Blindness: Consequences of Agency Efforts to Deemphasize Radical Islam in Combating Terrorism, U.S. SENATE COMMITTEE ON THE JUDICIARY, http://www.judiciary.senate.gov/meetings/willful-blindness-consequences-of-agency-efforts-to-deemphasize-radical-islam-in-combating-terrorism (last visited June 25, 2016).

2See, e.g., What's So Radical About Saying "Radical Islam," Interfaith Radio, June 16, 2016, http://interfaithradio.org/Archive/2016-June/What__s_So_Radical_About_Saying___Radical_Islam___.See also, A Word of Truth on Jihad and Islam,COUNCIL ON AMERICAN ISLAMIC RELATION, Mar. 11, 2015, https://www.cair.com/press-center/op-eds/11877-a-word-of-truth-on-jihad-and-islam.html.

3See Remarks by John Brennan at Center for Strategic and International Studies, THE WHITE HOUSE, Aug. 8, 2009, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-john-brennan-center-strategic-and-international-studies.

4See Remarks by the President on Closing of the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism,THE WHITE HOUSE, Feb. 18, 2015, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/02/18/remarks-president-closing-summit-countering-violent-extremis.

5See President Obama on the Tragic Shooting in Orlando, THE WHITE HOUSE, June 12, 2016, https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2016/06/12/president-obama-tragic-shooting-orlando.

6See Trump: Obama Should Step Down, THE HILL, June 12, 2016, http://thehill.com/blogs/ballot-box/presidential-races/283212-trump-obama-should-step-down-over-orlando-attack.

7See, e.g., Does it Matter if Obama Uses the Term "Islamic Terrorism," CNN, June 13, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/13/politics/islamic-terrorism-trump-obama-clinton/.

8See e.g., When a Phrase Takes on a New Meaning: "Radical Islam" Explained,THE NEW YORK TIMES, June 17, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/17/world/when-a-phrase-takes-on-new-meaning-radical-islam-explained.html.

9To my knowledge, I coined this phrase. It is largely informed by my interviews on related subjected with a spectrum of American Muslims around the country over the past decade.

10See Muslims United for Victims of Pulse Shooting, LAUNCHGOOD,https://www.launchgood.com/project/muslims_united_for_victims_of_pulse_shooting (last visited on June 25, 2016).

11Peace and blessings be upon him.

12At the time of this writing, the initiative has raised more than $100,000.

13See, e.g., Mahmoud Elawadi feeling determined at Oneblood, Inc.,FACEBOOK, June 12, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/mahmoud.elawadi.9/posts/10156962733160720.See also, Muslims Donate Blood for Orlando Victims During Ramadan, NEW YORK MAGAZINE, June 2016, http://nymag.com/thecut/2016/06/muslims-donate-blood-for-orlando-victims-during-ramadan-fast.html.

14See Muslims United for San Bernardino, LAUNCHGOOD, https://www.launchgood.com/project/muslims_united_for_san_bernardino (last visited on June 25, 2016).

15See American Muslims Are Raising $1000 An Hour for San Bernardino Victims, TIME, Dec. 9, 2015, http://time.com/4143416/san-bernardino-shooting-muslims-donald-trump-fundraising/

16See United for Chattanooga Families, LAUNCHGOOD, https://www.launchgood.com/project/multifaith_fundraiser_for_families_of_chattanooga_shooting (last visited June 25, 2016).

17See e.g., Islamic Statements Against Terrorism, UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA, http://kurzman.unc.edu/islamic-statements-against-terrorism/ (last visited June 25, 2016); US Muslim Group CAIR Condemns Orlando Massacre, REUTERS, June 12, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-florida-shooting-cair-idUSKCN0YY0WY; Muslim Americans Rush to Condemn Orlando Attacks, CBS NEWS, June 12, 2016, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/orlando-shooting-pulse-nightclub-muslims-condemn-attack/; American Muslim Organizations Condemn San Bernardino Shooting, NEWSWEEK, Dec. 3, 2015, http://www.newsweek.com/american-muslim-organizations-condemn-san-bernardino-shooting-400727.

18See ISCJ Special Homeless Feeding Events - Volunteer Registration,ISLAMIC SOCIETY OF CENTRAL JERSEY, https://docs.google.com/a/georgetown.edu/forms/d/13lSpgaF5NGivzBCLk9GIs3zAbhelxJKaTNChyy0HawY/viewform (last visited June 25, 2016).

19See Flint Water Project MICHIGAN MUSLIM COMMUNITY COUNCIL, http://www.mimuslimcouncil.org/#!flint-water-project-1/txq6q (last visited June 25, 2016).

20See ibid.

21See, e.g., Muslim group seeks volunteers for Flint water efforts, DETROIT NEWS, Feb. 5, 2016, http://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/michigan/flint-water-crisis/2016/02/05/muslim-group-seeks-volunteers-flint-water-efforts/79861692/.

22See, e.g., Michigan Muslim Community Organizations Join Forces to Help Flint Water Crises,NBC NEWS, Jan. 29, 2016, http://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/michigan-muslim-community-organizations-join-forces-help-flint-water-crisis-n507381.

23See, e.g., American Muslims Donate 30,000 Water Bottles to Help Ease Federal State of Emergency in Michigan, THE INDEPENDENT, Jan. 18, 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/american-muslims-donate-30000-bottles-of-water-to-help-ease-federal-state-of-emergency-in-michigan-a6818486.html.

24See MMMC Ramadan Fight Against Hunger, MICHIGAN MUSLIM COMMUNITY COUNCIL, https://docs.google.com/a/georgetown.edu/forms/d/16kPpOC6xeqqXGF-pbRLUvPpGwqixXopyx0ych1IpSU4/viewform (last visited June 25, 2016).

25See Michigan Muslims Use Ramadan to Fight Hunger, NBC News, June 10, 2016, http://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/michigan-muslims-use-ramadan-fight-hunger-n590006.

26See, e.g., April 2016 Project Feed, SIGNEDEVENTS.COM, https://signedevents.com/united-states/san-francisco/april-2016-project-feed/ (last visited June 25, 2016).

27See, e.g., Religious Profiles: Another Amazing American Muslim Woman, THE HUFFINGTON POST, Feb. 2, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/engy-abdelkader/religious-profiles-anothe_b_6572260.html.

28See, e.g., Muslims Against Hunger Project – Manhattan Trinity, MUSLIM COMMUNITY NETWORK OF NEW YORK, https://docs.google.com/a/georgetown.edu/forms/d/1ehZfTk0LHu9zZPFt5v6BInl-NVbxngnsV9GjdDOor_I/viewform?formkey=dHlKaUxLaThKM3V4N0Zsbzk2MEdUZlE6MA#gid=0 (last visited June 25, 2016).

29See, e.g., Ordinary Muslims Doing Extraordinary Things, THE HUFFINGTON POST, July 16, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/engy-abdelkader/ordinary-muslims-doing-extraordinary-things_b_1655479.html; Top Ten List: Muslims Who Save Lives, THE HUFFINGTON POST, Aug. 5, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/engy-abdelkader/top-ten-list_b_3701579.html.

30See, e.g. The Qurʿan 73:20 ("So recite what is easy from it and establish prayer and give zakah and loan Allah a goodly loan. And whatever good you put forward for yourselves - you will find it with Allah . It is better and greater in reward. And seek forgiveness of Allah. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.").

31See, e.g., Sahih al-Bukhari, Book 24, Hadith 1 ("The Prophet (P) sent Mu`adh to Yemen and said, Invite the people to testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and I am Allah's Messenger (P), and if they obey you to do so, then teach them that Allah has enjoined on them five prayers in every day and night (in twenty-four hours), and if they obey you to do so, then teach them that Allah has made it obligatory for them to pay the Zakat from their property and it is to be taken from the wealthy among them and given to the poor.").

32Sahih Bukhari, Volume 2, Book 24, Number 498.

33Sahih Bukhari, Volume 2, Book 24, Number 513.

34See id at number 524.

35Author's interview with Chris Blauvelt, an organizer with the Muslims United for San Bernardino campaign (June 26, 2016).

36The Qurʿan 41:34.

37The Qurʿan 41:34 [Translation: Sahih International].

38See TAFSIR IBN KATHIR (ABRIDGED), Volume 8, Darussalam (2000).

39American Muslims Are Raising $1,000 An Hour for San Bernardino Victims, TIME, Dec. 9, 2015, http://time.com/4143416/san-bernardino-shooting-muslims-donald-trump-fundraising/.

40See When Islamophobia Turns Violent: The 2016 U.S. Presidential Elections, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY, May 2, 2016, http://bridge.georgetown.edu/when-islamophobia-turns-violent-the-2016-u-s-presidential-elections/.

This Focus On was adapted from an article previously published on The Huffington Post.

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