“Alms are for the poor and the needy; and those employed to administer (the funds); for those whose hearts have been (recently) reconciled (to truth); for those in bondage and in debt; in the cause of Allah; and for the wayfarer: (thus is it) ordained by Allah, and Allah is full of knowledge and wisdom.” (Al-Qur’an, 9: 60)
Whether they assume that state agencies will take care of America’s poor or the poor in America are not deserving of charity, giving to charitable organizations in America is often not the top of the list in many national Muslim organizations. Many Muslims think that in America, Land of the Plenty, that people are not starving. But according to Feeding America, there are over 50 million Americans who suffer from hunger, that is 1 in 6 adults and 1 in 4 children. Many people often blame those who have found themselves reduced to begging in the street or finding a cot in shelters for their condition. This is the land of opportunity, right? However, natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the recent wave of tornadoes, in addition to the tanking economy, have shown that people have been reduced to poverty through forces outside their control. Islamic Relief has some America-based programs, but I have only seen a few mosque sponsored soup kitchens and food pantries. This is a most unfortunate situation that serves to undermine us as a community and, I believe, our faith. This is especially important when we think about the chapter 107 of the Quran Ma’un (Alms or Small kindness):
Seest thou one who denies the Judgment (to come)?
Then such is the (man) who repulses the orphan (with harshness),
And encourages not the feeding of the indigent.
So woe to the worshippers
Who are neglectful of their prayers,
Those who (want but) to be seen (of men),
But refuse (to supply) (even) neighbourly needs.
Suhaib Webb has a powerful tafsir (explanation) of this chapter in “Explanation of Surah al-Ma’un,” showing how this small chapter is packed with so much meaning. It shows how our actions towards the poor is really a reflection of our state of faith. How can we truly believe in the Day of Recompense, when we face human wretchedness and do nothing to alleviate suffering? We do it all the time, as we are desensitized to it or fear that giving will decrease our wealth. And we hold on to our wallets and pocketbooks, forgetting that the money have is not really our own, but a loan from God. He gives sustainance, and if we have true faith we wouldn’t worry about giving Him back what He is due by offering charity.
Other well meaning Muslims ignore poverty in America because of, what I believe, are misplaced priorities. Many Muslims say that people overseas are suffering more, so they are more deserving. Yet, the order of giving charity is first to our families, neighbors, and then to needy. What good is our religion, if we are not able to affect those closest to us? And, importantly, what kind of message are we sending our American neighbors about our commitment to being contributing members of our community and good citizens? How are we handing someone da’wah pamphlets, yet refusing to give them a helping hand? Many Americans see our community as parasitic, enjoying the economic benefits of this society while working to undermine it. And sad to say, the anti-establishment rhetoric of some Muslims in America has served to support those perceptions. The us-versus-them rhetoric has also led many to turn their backs on suffering Americans. Or the insular ethnic communities with an emphasis to ties back home has also caused many of us to ignore the immediate needs of our neighbors, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. And so, we are seen by our neighbors building our masajid, but not making any positive impact on society. At best, we become tolerated, but not welcome neighbors, at worst we are seen as an existential threat to America. We have to take ownership of how neglectful we have been in providing a positive example.
Surah Ma’un reminds us that are neglectful of our prayers because we ignore feeding the poor, the orphans, and being kind to our neighbors in need. This is especially important during Ramadan. While our fast is for God alone, we have an increase in public acts of worship, with mosques filling up to capacity. There are more opportunities for showing off because of the supererogatory taraweh prayers each night. While I am in 100% support of those who spend time in the mosque and believe this is a great opportunity rejuvenate our faith, we have to make sure we are not just doing things for show. And how does this Surah Ma’un show the correlation? By doing kind acts we can avoid falling into the category of hypocrites or those who deny the Day of Recompense.
Further, our charity as Muslims should increase and it should be to alleviate suffering, not just to feed ourselves. While paying for an iftar is a commendable thing, as we get reward for feeding a fasting person, we should not limit our charity to that. We should take care of the orphans, feed the needy, and do kind acts for those around us. In essence, we should have some social impact. The Muslim footprint should especially be felt during Ramadan in this society. There is so much evidence that shows that Ramadan is not just about fasting.
Evidence for this can be seen in what serves as expiation for those who are unable to fast. For those who are unable to fast, those who have a chronic disease or are elderly, it is important to pay the compensation, fidya, for missed days. The Hidaya Foundation writes on their page:
- The price of Fidya for each day of missed fasts is either to feed a poor person two meals in a day, or to give whole wheat, which is enough to feed a poor person twice in a day (1/2 Saa per Hanafi school of thought, or 1 Saa per Shaafi and other schools of thought). (1 Sa = 3 Kilograms approx.)
The Fidya price for one who has to pay it should be calculated based on the local prices of whole wheat in the place the person resides.
- The price for Fidya in the USA is $3.50 by the Hanafi school of thought, and $7.00 according to the Shaafi and other schools of thought.
Scholars have disagreed on whether or not fidya applies for someone who either broke a fast for a certain period or missed a day because of menses, pregnancy, nursing, or 40 days after childbirth, but does not fall into the category of the elderly or individual has a chronic disease and therefore can no longer fast. Faraz Rabbani explains in Who can pay my fidya +make up fasts, “In the Hanafi school, there is no fidya for delayed making up of missed fasts. Rather, one simply makes up the missed fasts themselves–and it is recommended to hasten to do so. [ Shurunbulali, Maraqi al-Falah; Ibn Abidin, Radd al-Muhtar.” Other schools take a different opinion, saying that for those who can one day make up a fast, should still pay the fidya for each day they missed. Shaykh Hamza Karamali answers in Payment (fidya) for not making up days from last Ramadan:
According to the Shafi`i school, if one does not fast some days during Ramadan, it is obligatory to make up these missed fasts before the next Ramadan arrives, regardless of whether these fasts were missed with a valid excuse (e.g. menstruation, travel, sickness, etc.) or without a valid excuse. If one does not make them up before the next Ramadan, one is sinful and must pay a “mudd” (a volumetric measure defined below) of food to someone poor (faqeer) or short of money (miskeen) in addition to making up the missed fasts (I`anatu’l-Talibin, 2.242;Tuhfat al-Muhtaj, 3.445-446).
A “mudd” is the amount one can hold in both hands when cupped together. It is estimated in the Reliance as 0.51 liters (Reliance, i1.33). The type of food one gives varies from place to place. One must pay whatever food is considered the main staple in the area where one lives. This could be wheat, barley, rice or something else (al-Minhaj al-Qawim + al-Hawashi al-Madaniyya, 2.194).
Feeding (it`am) a poor person, as Imam Bajuri (Allah have mercy on him) explains in the section on expiating (kaffara) for fast days that one has invalidated, means giving him ownership (tamleek) of the food. It is not sufficient to cook the food and then invite him to one’s house for lunch or dinner (Hashiyat al-Bajuri, 1.319). Rather, the poor person must be given possession of the food (e.g. a bag of wheat) and then he can do what he wants with it (e.g. eat it, sell it, give it away to someone else, give it back to you and ask you to cook it for him, etc.). As such, it would not be sufficient to invite the people to a feast. One would have to give them the actual staple food.
A number of women I talked to, to be on the safe side are giving the fidya for the days that they cannot fast with the intention of one day making up the days. However one mistake many of us often make is by sponsoring an iftar or inviting a friend over for dinner with the idea that we are fulfilling the fidya. Regardless of the price, it is clear that the qualification for who gets the fidya should be someone who is qualified to be a recipient of zakat. The poor and the needy are people who cannot pay zakat themselves because they don’t have enough money. And I think these technicalities are important to remember as we are nearing the Blessed month of Ramadan. Are we feeding the poor, helping organizations that distribute money to the poor, helping new converts (for that is what it means of “those reconciled [to truth]),” helping those crippled by debt, giving to God’s cause, or taking care of the travelers? For those of us who need expiation for missed fasts or whether we want to simply increase our charity, our kindness should not just be based on geo-politics or ethnic ties. This Ramadan, we should move our focus away from lavish feasts at iftars and work towards alleviating suffering and hunger locally and globally.
Islamic Relief USA inaugurated a summer food service program to feed working class children in Maryland healthy meals. You can read more about it here. Good job Islamic Relief! We need more of this.