The Moral Limits of Muslim Charity

Is it moral for Muslims to deliver humanitarian aid to Ukraine’s refugees and people of other nationalities that Russia’s invasion has displaced into other border countries? Is it acceptable when the leaders of those host countries have brutally and resolutely barred Muslim refugees from their human right to life-saving hospitality for years only “because” they are Muslim, and even when many of the citizens of these nations — including some Ukrainians — have likewise shown contempt for Muslim refugees and non-European displaced peoples, openly declaring their enmity to Islam?

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Some longtime and conscientious supporters of Muslim charities like the Zakat Foundation of America have raised this question to our staff and directors. They decry our call for Muslims and others to provide relief to the hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced streaming into them.

These objecting donors have condemned “any aid you provide to the displaced white, blue-eyed, and blonde-haired Ukrainians” as misguided humanitarianism at best, or simply “in vogue” opportunism, “jumping on” or “cashing in on the misery of these people.” They say they “cannot in good conscience support a racist and Islamophobic regime in Poland, which your organization will be supporting indirectly” with this aid, and that, as Muslims, they “along with many others feel the same way about this issue.”

They deem any outside humanitarian effort from Muslims for Ukraine a misappropriation of charity. The Ukraine war does not mark the first time Muslim donors have objected to humanitarian aid Zakat Foundation of America has provided to people engulfed in catastrophe.

When the great 2004 tsunami swept away hundreds of thousands, injured half a million, made 5 million homeless, wounded, displaced, or orphaned 1.5 million children, believe it or not, some Muslim donors complained then about Zakat Foundation of America rushing aid to the stricken across the world.

“Why do you help these sinners? Do you know what goes on in Bali?”

So came the withering criticism from some devout Muslims. Zakat Foundation of America’s Executive Director, Halil Demir, recounts his impassioned, if spontaneous, reaction to a surprise call from one such detractor in his 2019 book — part memoir, part vindication of the humanitarian sadaqah imperative in Islam — 9 Myths About Muslim Charities.

Here’s verbatim what he said, his evergreen defense for Muslim humanitarian aid to all victims so cogent for helping Ukraine today:

Ours is not to judge others, or even to hold preconceptions about someone’s suffering. Ours is to witness, which means to be conscious and then act on that consciousness in a human way.

“That is our role as humanitarians, as Muslims, the Middle Nation of compassion: To help as many human beings as we can. To save as many people as we can. To be there for the victims — victims who are crying, victims who in an instant lost their families and livelihoods, victims who are in pain.

“That’s what we know God ordered us to do. That’s what the Quran tells us to do. That’s what the Prophet, peace be upon him, showed us to do. That’s what all Islam’s teachings warn us to do.”

He then pivots to a direct refutation of the anti-Islam propaganda against Muslim charities by “a hardened cadre of antagonists to Muslims that have since emerged,” explaining the Quranic basis for the universal application of Muslim humanitarian aid, and debunking the spread of a gross misinterpretation of it that is oddly being forwarded by these two diametrically opposed groups.

We Muslims cannot see humanitarian aid as somehow mutually exclusive. No. We Muslims cannot withhold help from any needful ones we can reach.

The Quran holds giving charity as evidence of a Muslim’s true faith, while repulsing the vulnerable signals one’s unbelief.

Have you seen one who belies the coming of God’s Judgment? This, then, is the same one who repels the orphan and who will not urge the feeding of the indigent” (Surat Al-Ma’un, 107:1-3).

But look at the Quran’s startling conclusion after these verses. It issues stern warning — not to the unbelievers — but to those who, in body, offer ritual worship purporting belief, but whom it labels “unmindful” of the meaning of their devotions! For the religious observance of the heart cannot hold true, the Quran tells us, if it fails to activate one’s hands in securing comfort for the afflicted and the necessities of life for the needful.

So woe to all those who pray — those who are unmindful about their Prayers, those who only make a show of worship, while they withhold basic aid from others” (Surat Al-Ma’un, 107:4-7).

Not in text or precept does Islam constrain its people to help only Muslims. Rather, it exhorts us to just the opposite. It demands Muslims prove the truth of the faith they claim and the sincerity of the worship they perform by helping all in need — animal, vegetable and mineral — but especially the people it strikingly categorizes as suffering debilitating deprivation, disaster, or societal vulnerability. And it does so with no reference to space or race.

In other words, Islam identifies belief itself by the witness of our humanitarian action. That action’s prerequisite is detachment from want of favor or thanks. Without this purely human act of pure kindness, one’s profession of faith in One God hangs empty. For Islam refuses to uncouple its twin integrals of iman wa amal, faith and works, the paired fulcrum upon which this religion pivots. We Muslims — if we are to be true to Islam — not only can but must give to all the needful and victimized we can reach, including Ukraine’s refugees and its displaced of other religions, races, and ethnicities.

Charity validates one’s faith in Islam. That is the literal meaning of sadaqah, or “truth-affirming” voluntary charity. To be Muslim is to give charity. In this, we seek to mirror a Loving-kind God “both His Hands are stretched out wide. He dispenses His ever-flowing blessings as He so wills” (Surat Al-Ma’idah, 5:64).

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