Role of Islamic Philanthropy in a Pandemic Hit World


COVID-19 has been a major disruptor of our lives. Millions of people have lost their lives and loved ones; families have been separated and livelihoods lost. Yet this disruption has not been alike for any two people or communities. The pandemic has particularly impacted those living in poverty, struggling with drought, famine or in war-torn situations. It has also impacted humanitarian relief and rehabilitation work for communities impacted by disasters.

But the Islamic cultural, spiritual and theological dimensions offer Muslims myriad ways of coping. One of the most in-visible impact of this has been the centre-place of philanthropic giving during this pandemic. But what is Islamic philanthropy? Why is it different from other forms of philanthropy?

In a largely divisive world driven by Islamophobia, the narrative has largely been of extremist violence. While Islam rejects all forms of violence and Prophetic wisdom, underpinned by Divine decree, urges all Muslims to give part of their income and time in charity, this element of giving; built- in as a necessary pre-condition of faith, is not given its due. Islamic philanthropy embedded in the concepts of Zakat, Qurban, Ramadan giving and Sadaqah and every -day life and occurring is hardly even recognised for the scale and impact of its outreach.

In this paper, we look at the various components of Islamic Philanthropy and in particular its role in a pandemic hit world.

Zakat to aid humanitarian work

Today Zakat, the mandatory giving of a Muslim’s income in charity, is one of the largest pots for humanitarian work across the world. A study by the World Bank and the Islamic Research and Training Institute (IRTI) of the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) estimated global zakat fund reached $550 billion to $600 billion per year. In a paper titled Zakat for SDGs, the UN bodies evaluate that close to one trillion dollars collected as Zakat can be utilised to help communities from hunger and poverty and provide humanitarian assistance.

Islamic Relief Australia has recently partnered with Australia for UNHCR to support refugees across the world. Similar partnerships exists with UNICEF for supporting Maternal and Child health programs in the Pacific. In Australia, partnerships with local organisations has helped reach some of the most under-privileged and crisis hit communities. Read more about our programs here.

We at Islamic Relief Australia believe that innovation, collaboration and partnerships are the way forward in a world mired by inequalities, conflicts, disasters and ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic that has tolled 5 million deaths and counting. Economies have been devastated, industries have collapsed and people’s livelihood are on the peril.  Disasters ranging from floods to climate induced famines, droughts and military occupations, and the rise of extremist forces have taken thousands as collaterals.

Almost every metric of the sustainable development goals seems far from its target, as regions across the world are plunged in conflict, war, droughts, floods and COVID-19. Resources are stretched and accessibility, magnitude as well as frequency determine where work is taken up.

Islamic Philanthropy for the poorest

Islamic Relief Australia is a decade old humanitarian organisation that works with communities living in war zones, civilians suffering from government excesses, people affected by internal displacement, poverty, and ill-health. In Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen, it works with internally displaced people, suffering from decades of protracted war and destitution through emergency relief and development programs. In Afghanistan, Indonesia and Pakistan, the focus is on relief and programs for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene. In Africa, it supports the poorest for food, nutrition and water. It supports Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and Syrian refugees in Lebanon and communities affected by Bushfires and COVID-19 in Australia. The focus; leveraging the principles of Islamic teachings through innovative programs, to reach the under-served through partnerships and collaborations to build lives, livelihoods and futures. Read about our work.

Islamic philanthropy embraced by Islamic Relief Australia encapsulates faith driven giving. It is built on a community of believers and supporters who follow and identify with Islamic Relief Australia and its humanitarian and development projects across the world.

But what is the precedence to this belief?

Charity in Islam

In Arabic, charity means purity. Islam makes the practice of charity compulsory because it recognises the right of the poor in the wealth that God has bestowed upon the rich, and the practise of charity in Islam is not an act beneficence carried by on the individual level but a compulsory tax collected to be spent on the poor.

Charitable foundations (Waqfs) and endowments are fundamental to the conceptualization and manifestation of the Islamic faith. The institutionalisation of charity in Islam dominates every aspect of life, from as early as the 9th century. From animal welfare to foundations set up for women, pre-modern Islamic societies developed creative mechanisms to cultivate an atmosphere of inclusion and belonging for those on the margins of society.

Islam encourages charitable actions on a daily basis through a myriad of practices, ranging from very easy and simple to grand and socially transformational, such as speaking out against injustice. Furthermore, charity is codified in the Islamic calendar during various days, nights, weeks, and even months.

The principle of charitable giving is also central to early childhood education where the believer is obligated to instruct their child to generosity and charity. In Islam, from birth throughout a person’s lifespan, charitable giving fashions a person’s daily, nightly, and monthly routine. Even the body itself is included in the expectation of charitable giving for the Islamic faith and tradition encourages a person to engage all their bodily limbs in charitable acts. 

Many believe the encompassing atmosphere of charity insulates the community from the blows of natural calamities, while allowing for the exchange of material blessings between various members, increases feelings of community and brotherhood.

While this paper is limited in its exploration of Islamic philanthropy as a social institution, here is an article that is a fascinating read on the subject.

Adapting to New Norms

In a pioneering paper that look at Islamic ethics and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic[1], the author looks at the Islamic normative tradition with regards to the pandemic situations in the past. An example of this is the mention of plague as a mercy of God, and specific guidelines to self-isolate and cleanse. Islamic ethical discussions often include recommended manners and etiquettes that a Muslim should follow during the time of a plague.

While prayers and remembrance of God is a strong element of the faith, it is seen an anchor for many striving with mental health issues, brought on by lack of human interaction. In a cross-sectional study in Brazil this year, evidence shows that religiosity and spirituality (R/S) are highly used in critical moments of life and that these beliefs are associated with clinical outcomes.[2]

There are many examples of guidelines from the faith adapted to support communities. Take the example of Islamic charitable clinics that provide viable health access to destitute families in poor urban and rural areas in Indonesia. The community based initiative, using Zakat resources is without doubt a consequence of emerging interpretations of the meaning and functioning of Islamic aid in contemporary society. [3]

Islamic Relief’s Qurban, faith based giving, is another unique example of juxtaposition of faith and service to the poorest. A principle of faith that calls for the sacrifice of an animal that is to be served and shared in the community, is a tool for poverty alleviation and supplementary nutrition for the neediest, and brings economic benefits to the whole community. This is how it works.

Adapting to new norms infographic

Faith-based giving

The United Nations and the Islamic Development Bank recently launched an initiative to assist finance efforts to recover better as the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Coming at a time when the global health and economic crisis have pushed millions of people into extreme poverty, Islamic social financing has the potential to provide urgently needed support for poverty alleviation, economic recovery, pandemic response, and sustainable development. Take the case of Zakat, if applied systematically, it has the potential to become a fiscal policy instrument at the macroeconomic level, enhancing institutional capability in the social and welfare sectors. At the microeconomic level, its allocation to the needy serves income re-distribution, additionally reducing overall indebtedness.

Says Mr. Abdulla Rahhal, Director Fundraising and Community Relations, Islamic Relief Australia, “During the past several years, we are witnessing a general increase in Islamic charitable giving especially Zakat Al Mal which has attracted many major charities to launch their own Zakat focused fundraising appeals and programs.”

Islamic faith based giving is based on the core framework of social justice and an ethical framing of the market system. For Islamic Relief, the root causes of inequalities and socio-economic injustices lay in the unequal distribution of wealth. Data indicates the ever widening gap in wealth distribution within and among nations influences access to resources. A research study done by the Agence France- Presse[1] indicates the unfair distribution of vaccine doses. With 16 percent of the global population, people in high-income nations have gotten 47 percent of all vaccine doses. That is in contrast to people in lower-income nations, who have gotten just 0.2 percent of all vaccine doses, despite making up 9 percent of the world’s population.

Islamic Financing for Moral Economy

The promotion of social justice is a common thread of many faiths and Islamic Relief Australia operates on the understanding that Islam views social justice as setting out the balance of rights and obligations, and freedoms and responsibilities within a framework of equality and solidarity.

At the local, national and global level, promoting social justice translates to addressing inequities of wealth by creating sustainable futures, by investing in livelihood programs and building environmentally conscious communities. One of the tool offered to promote social justice is voluntary charity or Sadaqah (that is different from the obligatory nature of Zakat) that can be financial or deed related. A critical element of this is charity for protecting human dignity, by encouraging “giving” discreetly.

The principle of Zakat institutionalises the rights of the poor and needy through the provision of a wealth distribution mechanism. While there has been significant interests in leveraging Islamic financing and opportunities, what has been missing is the interest and engagement with the moral and underlying ethos; social reforms that change status quo and address the fundamentals of inequities.

At Islamic Relief we believe, while the achievement of SDGs require the mobilisation of unprecedented resources, including monetary resources. The discussions on financing should not be limited to alternative sources of finance, but should also embrace an alternative means of doing finance. Islamic financial mechanisms provide important lessons to achieve both.

Giving Trends on the Rise

With the COVID-19 pandemic worsening inequalities both between and within countries, the need for charitable funding has increased, necessitating the convergence of resources between different state, multilateral and charitable actors.

While many global development organizations have seen their income and fundraising efforts suffer due to the financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, Islamic Relief finds itself in a different position.

The world’s largest Islamic charity has seen its income increase during the global crisis, largely driven by individual donors with a different perspective on giving, says Islamic Relief Australia Director of Fundraising Mr. Abdulla Rahhal.

“Back in March last year, the COVID-19 pandemic was predicted to have a catastrophic impact on the charitable sector with many experts predicting 30 to 40% drop in revenue from the 2019 levels. However, we have seen a strong uptake in charitable giving and like many Islamic charities we are reporting a 13% growth in our community fundraising income compared to 2019 levels.”  

But there is a caveat here, while globally the numbers of disasters and humanitarian crisis are on the rise, managing fundraising with a small team is a challenge. Accountability of donors giving is top priority and because all giving is project related, administration overheads have to be really small. This effectively means small teams stretched for resources.  

The Delta variant of the virus hit Australia late and much of the data on giving is awaited. A report by Social Ventures Australia[1] (SVA) and the Centre for Social Impact (CSI) had found many organisations in a vulnerable financial position with retrenchment as high at 12 percent. The same research indicated that while 44 per cent of charities have experienced increased demand for services during the coronavirus crisis, just 4 per cent have been able to increase revenue.

According to the Social Research Agency McCrindle, in the Australian Communities Report 2021, many Australians fear a fall in their giving status, due to the prolonged hardships and losses incurred because of the new variant of the virus.

Faith based giving is not new, but different times bring in different perspectives that reflect giving trends. While there is large movement of the giving among the millennials, it is mostly one-time giving. So while opportunity giving exists, the numbers of committed givers is on the decline.

“I think this is where faith has a big part to play. In Islam one will say that you are not truly Muslim if you go with your stomach full when your neighbour is hungry,” Says CEO, Mr. Walid Ali, Islamic Relief Australia adding that people have seen the effects of lockdown and economic distress in their communities and around the world, and responded with generosity.

“We do rely on individual giving. Around 90% of our income comes from individuals. We have our committed donors who act out of faith,” he continues.

In conclusion, Islamic faith based giving is embedded in faith that clearly delineates the roles of individuals for doing charity. It classifies the different tools and opportunities of giving, codified by law and enforces a framework of social justice and a moral economy, which addresses the unequal distribution of wealth.

While Islamic financing is increasingly being leveraged by others, who view it as a funding source, it is necessary for them to understand the underlying value and ethos of financing for social justice.

Across the world, certain communities continue to be more disadvantaged than others. The pandemic provides us with goals to focus funding needs for the poorest and most disempowered. The path ahead is through collaborative giving.