Guides & Resources

Diversity Essay: Philanthropy as a Tenet of Islam

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The views expressed herein are those of the author. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, or the organizations with which the authors are affiliated.

By John Huebler, Michigan State University Development
AFP Michigan, Capital Area Chapter

The September 11 attack on the United States, and the U.S. retaliation against suspected terrorists, has focused new attention on the Middle East and central Asia. Americans have become more aware of the religions practiced in the countries of those regions, and the role of those religions in people's lives, the affairs of governments, and the behavior of terrorists.

These events have introduced Islam, as practiced in the United States and elsewhere in the world, to many of us who previously were unfamiliar with the religion. As we work to increase our understanding of Islam and its role in U.S. culture - including philanthropy - fundraisers might want to learn some basic information about the practices and teachings of Islam.

As is usually the case in the study of religious beliefs and practices, the statements and actions of some Muslims do not represent the beliefs and practices of all adherents. Indeed, we have learned that the interpretation of Islam by the Taliban, who formerly ruled Afghanistan, does not represent the teachings of Islam as practiced by the great majority of Muslims.

Islam is the second largest religion in the world, with 1.3 billion adherents in 184 countries, and Indonesia having the largest number. People who adhere to Islam are known as Muslims. The Council on American-Islamic Relations estimates that there are seven million Muslims in America, made up of people from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds and national origins. The U.S. Department of State, Office of International Information Programs, notes that "while there are no official population figures for religious affiliation in the United States, experts estimate that there are approximately six million American Muslims. Other estimates range from four to eight million." By comparison, according to the New York Times Almanac, 158 million Americans are Christian, and 5.8 million Americans are Jewish.

Worldwide, Christianity is the most populous and widespread religion, with two billion adherents in 260 countries. Judaism, a forerunner of both Christianity and Islam, counts 15 million Jews in 134 countries. Islam, Judaism, and Christianity have a common root. Each traces its origins to the prophet Abraham, and their three respective prophets are direct descendants from Abraham's sons - Muhammad from Ishmael, and Moses and Jesus from Isaac. The Quran, the scripture of Islam, supports belief in the virgin birth of Jesus. Muslims believe that he was born through the same power that had brought Adam into being without a father. To Muslims, Muhammad and Jesus came to confirm and renew the basic doctrine of the belief in one God brought by earlier prophets, not to change that doctrine.

As with most cultures and religious traditions, philanthropy is an important tenet of Islam; indeed, concern for the needy and almsgiving is one of the "five pillars" that form the foundations of Islam. (The others are declaration of faith in the oneness of God and the finality of the prophethood of Muhammad; establishment of the daily ritual prayers; self-purification through fasting; and pilgrimage to Mecca for those who are physically and financially able.)

Almsgiving as a pillar of Islam is based on the principle that everything belongs to God, and that wealth is therefore held by human beings in trust. The word describing this pillar, "zakat," means both "purification" and "growth." Setting aside a proportion of one's wealth for those in need is believed to purify one's possessions and encourage new growth.

Almsgiving is expected to be as much as 20% of one's income. The emphasis on this charitable giving is almost entirely in a religious context, and contributions are normally given at, or to, a mosque for collective distribution. A Muslim might also give alms to a person on the street who is begging, in part because some social value is placed on visible acts of charity. Theologically, however, Islam encourages discretion in personal philanthropy, teaching that one performs such acts for oneself and for God, rather than for public praise or personal advantage.

In the United States, Muslims may also be inclined to make contributions to social service charities, providing they are organizations primarily supporting Muslims. This is based on concern over the welfare of Muslims in the country, as opposed to dislike or hostility toward non-Muslims. This might be compared to the nature of Jewish philanthropy in the United States, which frequently supports Jewish social services. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Muslim charities in the United States are under considerable government scrutiny.

In addition to supporting Muslim charity, many Muslims in the United States may be favorably inclined to support institutions with which they have affiliations, such as universities or hospitals. The value ascribed to visible distribution of wealth may translate into donor interest in having one's name on a donor list, building, or other physical tribute.

In addition to the effect on philanthropy, professional fundraisers might also wish to be aware of correct vocabulary and basic facts regarding Islam that might help to attain and communicate cultural competency.

The word "Islam" (is-läm') describes a religion. Correct pronunciation emphasizes the second syllable, and does not use a "Z" sound in the first syllable. The word "Muslim" (mus'-lim) refers to an adherent of Islam. Correct pronunciation emphasizes the first syllable, and does not use a "Z" sound in the first syllable. "Islamic" is an adjective that can be used to describe inanimate objects (e.g. "Islamic architecture"). People, including clergy, are referred to as "Muslims" and not "Islamic people."

Cultural references occasionally confuse religious beliefs with ethnicity. Relevant to this discussion, it should be noted that "Arab" is an ethnic identity. Ethnic Arabs may commonly be Christians or Muslims. Non-Arab Muslims include most people of Pakistan and Indonesia, and many people of India. The vast majority of Afghanistanis are Muslim.

Islamic holy days and festivals follow the twelve month lunar calendar. A lunar month, which is marked by the appearance of a new crescent in the horizon, may last only 29 days, and a lunar year is about eleven days shorter than the solar year. Islamic festivals, therefore, occur about eleven days earlier each year.

The ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, Ramadan, is the period in which Muslims are required to fast. Observing Ramadan means refraining from eating, drinking, and smoking from daybreak to sunset. Ramadan is a period of personal restraint and renewed focus on moral conduct. It is also a time to empathize with those who are less fortunate, and to appreciate what one has. On the first day after Ramadan, Muslims celebrate one of two annual holidays known as an "Eid." Celebrating Eid involves congregational prayer, gatherings with family and friends, and gifts and entertainment.

As in other faiths, pilgrimage plays a significant role for Muslims. Muslim adults are expected to go on a pilgrimage to the city of Mecca at least once in their lifetime. Pilgrimage lasts for about a week, occurring at the beginning of the twelfth month of the lunar calendar. The second Eid is celebrated on the tenth day of the twelfth month, immediately following the time of pilgrimage to Mecca.

In professional and social contexts, fundraisers might wish to also consider these aspects of Islam:

  • Some Muslims will be reluctant to shake the hand of an unrelated person of the opposite sex. This should not be taken as an insult, but as a sign of personal modesty.
  • The Quran teaches Muslim men and women to avoid sustained eye contact with unrelated persons of the opposite sex. This should not be taken as an indication of an unwillingness to communicate.
  • Many Muslims are reluctant to take part in social gatherings celebrating religious holidays of other faiths, or where alcohol is served. A Muslim should not be asked to serve or sell alcoholic beverages.

Islam is a prominent and growing component of the faith fabric of the United States. As with other religious, ethnic, and cultural communities, fundraisers may not only benefit the organizations they serve, but also improve their own efficacy in promoting philanthropy by incorporating awareness of Islam and Muslims into their cultural cognizance.


  • Joseph Pimentel, Ph.D., Columbus, Ohio
  • An Employer's Guide to Islamic Religious Practices and
  • An Educator's Guide to Islamic Religious Practices (2nd Edition) Both copyright 1997, Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Washington, DC.
  • The Discover Islam Reader, copyright 1997, Transcom International, Annandale, Virginia.
  • About Islam and American Muslims (web page) Copyright 2000, Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Washington, DC.
  • Fact Sheet: Islam in the United States (web page) U.S. Department of State, Office of International Information Programs
  • The 2002 New York Times Almanac

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08 Dec 2023 Guides & Resources
08 Dec 2023 Guides & Resources
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