By Rafia Khader, Program Manager at the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving and Managing Editor of the Journal of Muslim Philanthropy & Civil Society

Faith and giving are intrinsically tied with one another. It is this idea that propels the work of Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Research in this area has shown that 55% of Americans are motivated to give out of a sense of religious commitment and that 73% of American giving goes to religious organizations, whether they are houses of worship or religiously identified organizations.

As the United States becomes an increasingly pluralistic nation, where do American Muslims fit into this statistic? Until recently, it was difficult to know. Muslims make up around 1% of the total U.S. population — and what attention has been paid to American Muslims’ giving has been consumed with a fear of it possibly being linked to foreign terrorist networks. Keeping in mind this increased scrutiny and securitization surrounding Muslims for the past two decades, to better understand what the vast majority of Muslims believe in and hold dear, it is important to know what they actually give to and what they are motivated by. Recently, Lake Institute paired up with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) to learn more about American Muslims’ giving practices. But before we get into that study, some basic understanding of Muslim beliefs are paramount.

The Five Pillars of Islam

  1. The first of these pillars is the testament that there is only one God and that the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) is the final messenger of God.
  2. The second pillar is the five obligatory daily prayers.
  3. The third pillar, which is often paired together in the Qur’an with the prayers, is zakat. Zakat is the annual charity that all Muslims who possess a minimum amount of wealth each year are required to give to the poor and needy.
  4. The fourth pillar is fasting throughout the Islamic lunar month of Ramadan.
  5. The fifth pillar is the Hajj, or annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the city that is considered the birthplace of Islam.

Zakat, which means “to purify”, is essentially an act of worship. Muslims believe that it is God who is the ultimate owner of all things. Human beings are only temporary possessors of material wealth. Through the practice of zakat, it is understood that wealth is something that is to be distributed among all people in a society. Therefore to give zakat, one is purifying his or her wealth and ensuring that everyone’s basic needs are fulfilled.

There are rules of etiquette that Muslims must follow when giving their zakat. It is a serious act that must not be taken lightly. Muslims are encouraged to give and be charitable especially during the holy months of Ramadan and around the time of the hajj, which occurs in the month of Dhul-Hijjah. While zakat is not required to be paid on a certain day, a large number of Muslims pay their zakat during the month of Ramadan, especially the last ten nights of the month, which are considered the holiest of nights (it was during the last ten nights of Ramadan that the Qur’an was first revealed).

However, Islamic giving is not limited to zakat only. Muslims of all income levels are encouraged to give of what they have. This is called sadaqah. Even smiling to a fellow human being is considered an act of sadaqah. From this we can see that charitable acts are not limited to money only.

American Muslim Giving Trends

While it is difficult to know what causes Muslims around the world support, we do now know what American Muslims support. According to an ISPU study, Muslim giving is primarily motivated by religious obligation and the feeling that those with more resources should help those with less. Houses of worship, or mosques, are the top recipients of Muslim giving. This is comparable with other faith groups in the U.S.

After giving to mosques, the second highest category of giving is toward domestic poverty alleviation and education. Again, this is not very different from other faith groups in the U.S., although the percentages slightly vary. Overseas relief is another category of giving but it is also akin to other faith groups’ giving abroad. The one area where American Muslims give differently than, for example American Christians, is that the former give more toward civil rights organizations, similar to U.S. Jews, and research organizations studying their community. This should come as no surprise given the rampant rise of Islamophobia and antisemitism we have witnessed in the past few years.

As the ISPU report summarizes, “as a community, American Muslims are just as invested, if not more so, in addressing issues facing those outside of their faith community as they are in helping their own community members.”

The Global NGO Technology Report is a biennial research project that seeks to gain a better understanding of how non-governmental organizations (NGOs) worldwide use web and email communications, online fundraising tools, social media, mobile technology, and productivity software. Now in its fourth edition, this year’s report provides technology benchmarks for Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the United States and Canada.


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