by Cathy Lynn Grossman
Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting and prayer, begins at sunset Saturday, and many believers are already planning a key observance: zakat, one of the five pillars of Islam.
Often translated as “charity,” it requires believers to give 2.5% of their cash assets (even including the value of their jewelry or stocks) to the Muslim needy and poor.
Zakat might be given at any time in the year, but Ramadan’s focus on compassion and introspection often prompts a greater outpouring.
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Muslims in the USA struggled to be sure the charities they chose supported human welfare without financing violent political efforts.
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President Obama pledged in his address to the Muslim world in June that the government would take IRS and anti-terrorism measures to make it easier to clear zakat hurdles.
Websites such as Global Giving, which was created in 2003 to support projects around the world, will highlight Islamic charities to make it easier for Muslims to give to reputable groups within legal guidelines, says program officer Saima Zaman, who created a Ramadan portal at the site in 2006.
It directs a small but growing number of Muslim donors to 40 suggested charities, such as organizations that offer clean drinking water in Morocco, meals for girls in Burkina Faso, and education and health services for girls in Afghanistan, she says.
Ramadan is also when critics of Islam step up. The website Middle East Forum features an essay on the “dark side of zakat” by associate director Raymond Ibrahim, who is not Muslim. Though he writes about potential misuse of charity money, he said in a phone interview, “I have no doubt there are American Muslims who give zakat for positive or neutral reasons. I would even say the majority.”
Muslims account for less than 2% of the U.S. population. At the website Charity Navigator, which helps donors find philanthropic groups that meet high operating and ethical standards, the big rush is the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas season.
But, says spokeswoman Sandra Miniutti, “we do get e-mails from Muslim givers asking for giving tips around Ramadan.”
Many Muslims choose to give to concerns close to home. Fatemeh Fakhraie, founder and editor of an international Muslim women’s website, Muslimah Media Watch, says, “I donate to my local food bank every Ramadan; some people give (zakat) to the mosque to distribute.”