American Muslims Show Humanitarian Islam

06/28/2016 12:41 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2016
Carlo Allegri / Reuters
"Muslims Love All" is scratched into the ground at a makeshift memorial for the victims of the Pulse night club shooting in Orlando, Florida, U.S., June 19, 2016.

Texan Senator, and former Republican presidential candidate, Ted Cruz held a congressional hearing today, Tuesday, June 28th, examining federal agency responses to “radical Islam.” The mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando revived debate about the terminology we use to describe violent extremism.

Uncomfortable with religiously charged language – like “radical Islam,“Islamic terrorism” or “violent jihad” – American Muslims argue that such phrases stigmatize their faith that is tragically associated with death, destruction and violence. And, a number of national security experts and government officials (including CIA Director John Brennan) claim that such terminology actually helps our enemies by legitimizing terrorism as divinely sanctioned.

President Obama has consistently refused to use such phrases for these reasons. Most recently, in the wake of the tragedy in Orlando, he referred to the Pulse shootings as “an act of terror and an act of hate.” Presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, immediately launched an attack. Referencing President Obama’s “disgraceful” omission of the phrase, “radical Islam,” he demanded that President Obama “step down.”

This controversy occupied news media attention, from CNN to The New York Times.  The American public is well acquainted with “radical Islam.”  

Humanitarian Islam is less familiar, however.

I’m referring to an intriguing phenomenon that has emerged among American Muslims in the past decade. In the wake of mass shootings and criminality by perceived co-religionists, and amid increasing levels of anti-Muslim violence, American Muslims have increasingly responded with philanthropy consistent with traditional Islamic teachings.

Unlike the death and destruction of “radical Islam,” selfless volunteerism and charitable giving make for humanitarian Islam.

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In the wake of the Orlando mass shooting, for instance, American Muslims launched a crowd-funding campaign for the victims and their families. The campaign, Muslims United for Victims of Pulse Shooting, cites a Quranic verse and Hadith, or saying of the Prophet Muhammad (P). In less than two weeks, they raised more than $75,000.

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On the West Coast, last December, American Muslims again responded to an attack on a center that serves those with special needs with philanthropy. The fundraising campaign, Muslims United for San Bernardino Families, cited a Quranic verse and hadith. It collected more than $200,000 within seven days – the equivalent of $1,000 an hour.

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This humanitarian side to the world’s second largest religion also emerged in Tennessee last July after an American Muslim with a history of mental illness murdered five victims in Chattanooga. In response, the local Muslim community raised $20,000 for their families.

Significantly, humanitarian Islam is not limited to such tragedies.

Islamic Society of Central Jersey

Consider efforts in New Jersey, ranking among the top five states with the largest Muslim populations across the nation. On July 4th, as Americans celebrate our country’s birthday at barbeques, parks and beaches, American Muslims – observing a Ramadan fast from sunrise to sunset – will gather at one of the state’s largest mosques to prepare 600 meals for the poor and homeless.

Michigan Muslim Community Council

Or contemplate local efforts in Michigan, with perhaps the largest Muslim community. The American Muslim response to the water crises in Flint – including more than $300,000 and 1,000,000 bottles of water in donations – made local, national and international news. Now, fasting Muslims are also volunteering at local food banks and collecting food for community food drives at their local mosque.

Similar humanitarian Islamic initiatives can be found in San Francisco, Baltimore, New York, and other cities across the United States.

Most practicing Muslims will tell you that giving charity is central to Islam. One of the Five Pillars, zakat or almsgiving, is an obligatory social responsibility. In the American Muslim context, it’s usually used to feed the poor and homeless.

The crowd-funding campaigns above, however, used religious injunctions that don’t mention zakat or charity.

Rather, in Orlando and San Bernardino, campaign organizers used the following verse from the Quran, an authoritative source for Muslims seeking moral and, to a lesser extent, legal guidance, “Repel evil by that which is better.” 

A closer look at the text reveals that it states in its entirety,

And not equal are the good deed and the bad. Repel [evil] by that [deed] which is better; and thereupon the one whom between you and him is enmity [will become] as though he was a devoted friend.” [41:34]

According to the Quranic exegesis or interpretation from 14th century Sunni scholar Ismail Ibn Kathir, the verse means that evil is distinct from good. And, if one responds to mistreatment with kindness, it will lead to empathy, love and friendship.

So, what evil are American Muslims repelling?

In an interview, one of the San Bernardino organizers explained,

“We’re tired of being grouped together with extremists and people who commit these monstrous acts…We wanted to show that American-Muslims are active contributors to society and that we want to build what the extremists are trying to destroy.”

American Muslims are repelling the evil of violent extremism that often exacerbates Islamophobia (in addition to other factors). According to a recent study from Georgetown’s Bridge Initiative, anti-Muslim violence increased last year and during this presidential election season, reaching its highest levels since 9/11.

Still, if worsening Islamophobia has a silver lining, it may be that it has helped to revitalize humanitarian Islam as American Muslims counter anti-Muslim prejudice, reclaim the narrative about themselves from violent and other extremists and fulfill religious commandments.

Of course, some might argue that humanitarian Islam doesn’t exist and that American Muslim philanthropy simply exemplifies Islam, in its purest, unadulterated form.

Engy Abdelkader is a faculty member at Georgetown’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service where she researches and writes about Islamophobia with the Bridge Initiative. This blog post was adapted from an essay forthcoming from Oxford Islamic Studies Online.

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