As Ramadan approaches, Muslims begin to make preparations for this blessed month. It means abstention from food, drinks and other bodily pleasures for 16 hours or more per day. Such abstinence is meant to inculcate an awareness of those that go without food all year round because they are poor. We have a major responsibility toward them.
Closely related to Ramadan is the aspect of giving for the pleasure of Allah. Most Muslims make their zakat contributions in this month. For the givers, this is an easy way of keeping track of their annual donations. Every year Muslims contribute at least $500 billion to help the needy and poor. It is by far the largest contribution any group of people makes voluntarily anywhere in the world, motivated purely by a sense of responsibility and as an act of ibadah.
Admirable as such giving is, Muslims need to address a more fundamental question: why are so many people, especially Muslims, poor? The Muslim world does not lack resources. It comprises at least 20% of the world’s landmass, possesses 40% of the world’s mineral resources and nearly 75% of the world’s energy resources. Given such resources, there should be no poverty in the Muslim world.
There is need to look deeper and examine the root causes of poverty among Muslims, indeed among people throughout the world. The dominant global system is geared toward making the rich richer and the poor, poorer. This is deliberate. Take the example of the US. It has only 4% of the world’s population but it consumes 17% of the world’s energy resources. Despite America’s rapaciously extravagant lifestyle, gross inequalities abound within it. The top 0.1% of Americans own as much wealth as the bottom 90%. While it has thousands of billionaires, there are also at least 38 million people living in absolute poverty.
Regarding Muslims, there are other heart-wrenching statistics. In this century alone, at least 32 million Muslims have been killed by the imperialist powers, according to the Australian anti-zionist Jewish scholar, Gideon Polya. Wars imposed on Muslims have also created a huge refugee crisis. Millions of Muslims, for no fault of theirs, have been driven from their homes because there is no safety for them from the bombs that are raining down on their heads. According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, there were 103 million refugees worldwide by mid-2022.
There is another aspect that needs attention before addressing the issue of what Muslims should do to end this terrible situation. Over the last 50-60 years, millions of Muslims have settled in the west (Europe and North America). They have become well established and live a comfortable life. There has also been another phenomenon: mushrooming of Muslim charitable organizations.
Every Ramadan, Muslims in the west contribute much to help alleviate suffering in the world in such places as Palestine, Kashmir, Syria, Yemen, and the Rohingya refugees in camps in Bangladesh. Glossy brochures and tear-jerking videos of suffering children pull on the Muslims’ heart-strings to contribute. Helping the needy and poor is admirable but without institutional arrangements, this is band aid solution. As the Chinese proverb goes, give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish, and you feed him for life.
In the Muslim world, especially the Arabic speaking part, rulers also arrange free iftar for those that wish to partake of it. The overwhelming majority seeking food for iftar are expatriate workers doing backbreaking jobs in these countries. The same rulers keep these workers in slave-like conditions without job security. They live in appallingly overcrowded conditions. Would it not be better to give them a decent wage and stop exploiting them so badly? Giving them iftar in Ramadan may assuage their guilty conscience—if they have one—but it does not address the root cause of the workers’ suffering.
It is time for Muslims to reflect on why there are so many displaced and poor Muslims in the world and why there are such gross inequalities even within Muslim societies. Simply providing iftar or handouts as charity to feed the hungry and poor or refugees in Ramadan will not solve the problem. Our enemies create the conditions turning millions into refugees but we assuage our conscience by feeding them. This is a never-ending cycle. Every year, more refugees are created.
Let us turn to the Prophetic Seerah for guidance. The Prophet (pbuh) struggled to establish the Islamic State in Madinah. The masjid that was built was a very modest structure but it served very important functions. It was not merely a place of worship but also a teaching centre and a refuge for the poor and homeless (Ahl-e al-Siffs). It also served as the seat of government where important decisions of State were discussed and agreed upon.
Today, the Muslim world is full of cathedral-type mosques named after kings and other assorted tyrants. Is kingship permitted in Islam? True, Muslims in the past also built huge beautiful mosques but they reflected the glory of Islam. Today, the rulers build huge mosques to hide their subservience to the power of kufr.
Committed Muslims should begin to examine the reasons for their plight. While feeding the needy and poor is a meritorious act, it cannot be limited only to the month of Ramadan. Poverty persists all year round. Further, sincere effort must be made to understand and alleviate the root causes of poverty.
This can be done by turning to the noble Qur’an and the Prophetic Sunnah and Seerah. Turning to the Qur’an means not only reading or memorizing it, but understanding it. If there is one lesson, apart from the emphatic rejection of shirk, that comes through very clearly from the Qur’an, it is social justice. There is no reason for poverty and such gross inequalities to exist in the Muslim world, or indeed in any part of the world. Muslims have to strive to divest the illegitimate rulers of their power and wealth. Power and authority belong to Allah and wealth is an amanah (trust), not a family fortune to be handed down from father to son.
When Muslims internalize this aspect, they would have embarked on the long and arduous journey of beginning to rectify their current terrible plight.