Is Muslim Philanthropy in the U.S. Coming into Its Own?

Muslims giving money to Jewish causes: a PR stunt, or a genuine philanthropic effort? It’s a question on many people’s minds. Given that global discourse around Islam and Judaism inevitably come down to the question of Palestine, this question is not entirely invalid. However, with a clearer understanding of American Islam, its evolution, and the relationship Muslims have with Jewish groups in the U.S., better answers can be found.

The recent story about Muslim activists donating money to rebuild and restore a vandalized Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri, made national news. While some people have called into question the intentionality of the act itself, given that these activists are opposed to certain U.S. foreign policies, the overwhelming response seems to be one of admiration and respect.

This incident brings us to an issue I have been working on for a while now: The transformation of Muslim American charitable practices and their unique evolution in the American milieu. In the U.S., one can see new configurations of charitable giving among Muslims. For instance, there is a greater focus on giving to humanitarian causes, both global and local. Based on a study I carried out in 2014, there is also more giving to secular causes, such as protecting the environment, research on cancer, and education. Giving within the community is still a priority—given the needs within the Muslim communities, both local and global—though giving across faith-lines seems to be increasing.

Muslim charitable practices are inspired in large part by the religious traditions of Zakat and Sadaqa for Sunni Muslims and Khums for the Shia. While doctrinal differences exist, both are closely related in spirit. The idea is that wealth is seen as a “trust” that one is given by God and that one must deliver to those who need it. Hoarding of wealth is strongly looked down upon, and selfishness is a big no-no. One would assume that this philosophical structure would allow for great amounts of giving and volunteering, and it surely does. While Zakat is a mandatory tithe (2.5% of one’s excess wealth), Sadaqa is more unstructured giving that is supposed to expiate sins and earn one God’s pleasure.

Most Muslim communities in the U.S. have also adopted the American nonprofit structure, which offers tax deductions and incentives for giving. While informal giving is present both within the community and outside of it, that is not documented. However, we see indications of a great level of “bureaucratization” going on through the adoption of formal mechanisms such as the formation of nonprofits, foundations, and donor-advised funds.

The charitable act in St. Louis, which one could consider an exercise in building social capital, is one of many new configurations and re-readings of traditional Islamic norms to “help those in need.” While the theological tenets and traditional norms of giving are quite clear on who deserves charity, there is a growing consensus at the level of the individual and community that the definitions of who is worthy of charity need to be expanded to include anyone who is worthy of receiving help, regardless of one’s faith boundaries. Muslim and Jewish groups (and individuals) have been working for causes both care about deeply—­combating racism and xenophobia whether it manifests itself as Anti-Semitism or Islamophobia. The Shoulder to Shoulder campaign is another good example of such an effort.

Neither is this philanthropic act entirely without precedent. Indeed, this ties in with the cosmopolitan vision of Islam, which sees Jews and Christians as part of the Abrahamic tradition and, further, all living creatures as tied together as part of an ecosystem. This vision exists alongside other, more exclusionary norms of thinking and behaving, which are also evident in the United States. Muslims in America are the most diverse racial and ethnic group in the U.S., according to a 2012 Pew Research study, and their philanthropic behavior reflects this diversity in practice. In this vibrant sphere of the practice of philanthropy, interpretation of religious norms is key. Whether one is an exclusionary or an inclusive practitioner depends on many factors, and American Islam is similar to other religious traditions in the U.S. that have similar modes of praxis.

As Shariq Siddiqui has shown in his research, there is a greater trend towards “cultural pluralism” within Muslim philanthropy than one sees anywhere else. By this, he means there is a greater sense of inclusion and incorporation of diverse opinions and perspectives within Muslim communities, which may at times go against orthodoxy. Given the unique evolution of Islam in America, this is not surprising. Orthodoxy has played a minor role in the evolution of American Islam, as some scholars have argued. Practice trumps theory in the case of Muslim philanthropy.

Of course, other communities in the U.S. reciprocate this generosity. When a mosque was burned down in Texas, a local synagogue offered a space for Muslims to pray. One can see this spirit of generosity among faith-based communities on a daily basis. Today, for instance, I will be praying my Jumma prayers (Friday gathering) at the Church of Epiphany in downtown Washington, D.C.—a practice that has been going on for a while, given there is no mosque in the D.C. area that is easily accessible for people who work there. This give-and-take is part of the American tradition, and it’s also a very Muslim practice, both historically as well as in the contemporary era. It is about time we start paying more attention to these acts of philanthropy.