Muslims support local community through almsgiving during COVID-19 crisis

Fariha Tayyab
Founder and executive director of MY Project USA, Zerqa Abid.

In these unusual times, one thing seems certain: The economy is not likely to get better soon. As unemployment numbers are anticipated to equal those during the Great Depression, local donation-based organizations are struggling to breathe, let alone pay the bills to remain open.

The Pew Research Center reports that nearly 50 percent of families surveyed have someone in their household who has lost a job or taken a pay cut. While many Americans plan to save whatever they are able for the unpredictable future, a decline in charitable donations has naturally followed.

Many families hope for a brighter future, and the Muslim-American population is no different. Most of May has coincided with the ninth month of the lunar-based Islamic calendar, also known as the month of Ramadan. During this month, Muslims seek spiritual healing and forgiveness while partaking in extra worship, including fasting from sunrise to sundown. Fasting is deeper than abstaining from eating, drinking and sex. Ramadan is a time of self-reflection and an opportunity to repress the lower self (physical needs and wants) while focusing on the higher self (the spiritual heart and spirit) through worship and seeking forgiveness from God.

During Ramadan, many Muslims also partake in Zakat, or almsgiving, a fundamental component of the religion that is also a boon to local families in need. MY Project USA, for instance, collects and redistributes Zakat throughout the year.

“We have 250 to 300 clients that have been coming in for our Saturday food pantry during COVID season, many of which we haven’t seen before,” said Zerqa Abid, founder and executive director of MY Project USA. “We have people lining up at 5 a.m. for the food pantry, and it breaks my heart but also gives me hope to know they do so knowing they are likely to receive high-quality and good food.”

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In Islam, there are five pillars of faith: 

1. A commitment to the oneness of God

2. Establishing five daily prayers

3. Annual mandatory almsgiving (Zakat)

4. Fasting daily during the month of Ramadan

5. Performing the pilgrimage to Mecca

Zakat, the third pillar, is given once a year, at 2.5 percent of a person’s surplus wealth from the last 12 months. It is only for those who are able to and meet the criterion. Surplus wealth includes stocks, bonds, savings and other assets, but it must be greater than one's overall debt. If that stipulation is met, a person can contribute Zakat to an individual who falls within the following categories:

  • Indigent (those below the poverty line)
  • Needy (one unable to meet their basic needs)
  • Those in charge of Zakat (Zakat fund managers)
  • Hearts that need softening (new Muslims, groups in interfaith, friends of the community, etc.)
  • Those in bondage (applicable to human trafficking and prison)
  • Debt-ridden (unable to pay)
  • In the cause of God (spreading the word of God or standing up for social justice/equality)
  • Wayfarers (a person who is stranded and without many resources, which can include refugees and homeless)

Additionally, there is a smaller category of special mandatory contributions paid during Ramadan by every individual, called Zakat-al-Fitr (alms of breaking the fast). This is separate from the calculated zakat donation noted above and is distributed to the poor so that they may have food and can celebrate Eid, also known as the "Festival of Breaking the Fast."

Mandatory almsgiving, Zakat, is also different from everyday charity, which is optional and known as ‘Sadaqa.’ Many Muslims contribute to all three: Zakat-al-Fitr, regular Zakat and optional charity.

In Being Muslim: A Practical Guide, author Asad Tarsin explains the “why” behind Zakat: “First, members of society have a moral responsibility to provide for the less fortunate. The needy have a right to part of the wealth present in their society, even if God has allotted it to others. Second, society’s money has become tainted through greed, corruption and theft, and, as a result, its spiritual blessing is decreased. The only means to purify the entire mass of wealth is to pay out the purifying alms (Zakat) to its rightful recipient.”


Many Muslims rely on their local houses of worship to collect and redistribute Zakat to neighboring communities. Noor Islamic Community Center (NICC) in Dublin serves more than 3,000 congregants on a weekly basis and incorporates a four-part process to ensure the authenticity of an applicant’s requests. This includes a Zakat Committee that conducts an interview, followed by a determination that results in funds sent directly to a service provider. 

“There has been a sharp increase in applicants during the COVID season,” said NICC executive director Azhar Masood. “We see a lot of those who used to be employed with Uber or restaurants ... that are in great need at this time.”

Like many of its sister mosques in Central Ohio, NICC has increased its services to assist families in need, on top of the already 400 percent increase to its Ramadan food drive. In regards to the mosque collecting Zakat, Masood explained that “although the masjid (an Arabic word for mosque) does not use Zakat funds for its operations, the congregants trust the institution to distribute their funds appropriately within the larger community. Being a house of worship, we have people come to the masjid for assistance on a consistent basis and can maintain confidentiality.”

Other smaller houses of worship, such as the historic and predominantly African-American Muslim Community Center (MCC) on the Near East Side, have not seen a noticeable decline in Zakat funds. The MCC’s Zakat money is set aside for families in need that usually have a relationship with the congregation. “The future is uncertain, but I am relieved and thankful that we are continuing to receive support through Sadaqa [charity] and Zakat,” said Vickie Bashir, Muslim Community Center treasurer.

Aside from masjids, many local organizations also accept Zakat. The Columbus chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a grassroots civil rights organization established 22 years ago, continues to serve its constituents with various forms of support, including a special website for coronavirus updates.

However, CAIR Columbus’ Zakat funds are exclusively used to pay for legal fees.“These are individuals already on the margins and include refugees, immigrants [and] low-wage workers. They are most likely to be discriminated against and have nowhere to turn to. That is where we come in,” said Amina Barhumi, the chapter’s outreach director. “We file and pay for their filing and represent them in court, free of charge.”

In regards to legal fees, organizers across the country are asking for those with court hearings to be considered for release, while others are asking for the release of all incarcerated persons.Freeing a person from bondage, one of eight categories of Zakat, is especially applicable in Ohio, where the rapid spread of coronavirus within correctional institutions is the worst in the nation.

Kenza Kamal, an activist and lead organizer with the #FreeThemAll614 campaign (an effort to release all persons from Franklin County jails), and immigrant advocate Danyah Contractor, have joined forces alongside other young organizers. This month, they hosted a webinar to inform Muslims across the nation about the correctional system and encouraged attendees to contribute Zakat funds to specific bail-out organizations or even individual accounts.

As various vulnerable populations — returning citizens, trafficked women, undocumented workers — face extra challenges during this time, social services are working to assist. For the last two months, My Project USA has contributed more than $40,000 in food, rent and bill assistance and has distributed $5,000 in hot meals throughout the Hilltop community in the last several weeks.

Across town in north Columbus, Muslim Family Services of Ohio provides direct case management to families in crisis and uses Zakat to cover various bills directly through the provider. “This way we are able to account for every penny that we contribute,” said Nicol Ghazi, executive director of Muslim Family Services (formerly known as Muslim Women’s Network).

“We have a lot more families hitting the panic button. There’s been an increase both in domestic violence cases and also families [unable] to pay rent due to furloughs and layoffs,” Ghazi continued. “A lot of our clients are low-income earners without any savings. Many are not usually able to pay for car repair on a regular day.”

In this way, thanks to a 1,400-year tradition of charity, Muslims continue to give back to their local community and assist neighbors in need, even during a global pandemic.