Every Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food, drinks and other bodily pleasures for 16 or more hours 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 responsibility toward them.
Closely related to Ramadan is also 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. Muslims would be pleased to learn that every year, at least $500 billion are contributed to help the needy and poor. This is no small change. It is by far the largest contribution any group of people make voluntarily, motivated purely by a sense of responsibility and as an act of ibadah.
Admirable as such giving is, Muslims need to ask 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 but that is not the case.
So, there is need to look deeper and examine the root causes of poverty among Muslims, indeed among people throughout the world. The prevalent system in the world 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. America is a rapaciously extravagant society but even within this society, there are gross inequalities. The top 0.1% of Americans own as much wealth as the bottom 90%. While it has more than 560 billionaires, there are also at least 50 million people living in absolute poverty.
Regarding Muslims, there are other heart-breaking 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. UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, says there were 79.5 million refugees in 2019.
There is another aspect that needs mentioning 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 touch 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 Middle East, the 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 a conscience—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 giving a little bit (or even more) in 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 answers. The Prophet (pbuh) struggled to establish the Islamic State in Madinah. The masjid that was built there 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 (As-hab al-Saff). 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 masajid named after kings and tyrants. Is kingship permitted in Islam? True, Muslims in the past also built great masajid but they reflected the glory of Islam. Today, the rulers build huge mosques to hide their subservience to the kuffar.
Committed Muslims should begin to examine the reasons for their current 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 reasons for 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.