In recent years, the holy month of Ramadan, during which Muslims who are able fast from sunrise to sunset, has coincided with the holidays in the United States, a season that is kicked off with feast of overeating -- Thanksgiving -- and ends with a tradition of overdrinking at New Year's. As American Muslims commemorate Eid al-Adha (the Feast of the Sacrifice), we watch an orgy of excess, with the pangs of our hunger still fresh in our memories. With our spiritual selves amply fed by our self-denial, our thoughts often turn at this time to those who are unable to meet their basic needs.
And yet, Muslims in the United States have their own cultural block when it comes to helping those left behind at the holidays. Many Muslims take the exclusivist position that their aid is only for other Muslims -- from or in their own country of origin, or who speak the same language as they do, or who practice their brand of Islam. Such a stance negates the practice and instruction of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), which enjoins us to respond to the need of those closest to us.
Hunger is at crisis levels, and not only among the homeless, or even the jobless. In New York City, where I am based, the fastest growing populations at emergency food programs are working parents, children and senior citizens, who can afford a place to live but not all they need to eat. These people are the neighbors of some 600,000 to 850,000 Muslims who live in New York, the largest concentration of Muslims in the country. They are the people closest to us.
Hunger is not limited to the New York, or even to urban areas; it is a national crisis. A recent report commissioned by Feeding America cited a 46 percent increase in the clientele at food banks in the first year of the recession, and a 36 percent increase in Americans described as "food insecure."
The Muslim populations across the United States are in no way exempt from the social and economic challenges impacting residents. Because we live here and are a part of this society, we have an obligation to take action to end hunger. As citizens, we need to address the hunger that affects a sizable segment of the communities in which we live and work. As Muslims, we need to respect our faith tradition that instructs, celebrates and rewards such efforts.
There is a long tradition of faith-based human-service and pastoral care in the United States, through Catholic Charities, historic social-justice ministries of the Protestant churches and Jewish philanthropy and charity. At the very least, Muslim participation in this tradition is an act of reciprocity: thousands of Muslims have been the recipients of timely and valuable services from these other faith communities. As importantly, this tradition will be greatly enriched with our inclusion.
The holidays are not only a time to be mindful of the disparities in resources in our country. Muslims should be prepared to make du'a and act to end poverty in our midst. The Prophet Muhammad, who is reported to have said, "Poverty is akin to disbelief." Let us invite our neighbors to the straight path by working to assist them in meeting their basic needs. May our efforts be accepted and hunger ended.
Nurah-Rosalie Amat'ullah is executive director of the Muslim Women's Institute for Research and Development, which has worked to end hunger in the Bronx since 1997 with the establishment of the first halal food pantry in New York City. MWIRD's relief projects have since expanded to include disaster response on the local, national and international levels.