Imam Omar Suleiman is the founder and president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research and an Islamic studies professor at Southern Methodist University.
For Muslims, Ramadan is a time in which we fast from God’s blessings that are readily available to us and that we often take for granted.
Among the wisdoms of fasting is that if we voluntarily abstain from food and drink, we will be able to better empathize with those who are facing hardships due to poverty.
But it is not enough to merely experience hunger for the sake of your own spiritual discipline. One must also be activated toward fighting collective hunger. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “He is not a believer who sleeps with his stomach filled while his neighbor goes to bed hungry.” If a person cannot fast due to a permanent medical condition, they are to feed a poor person for every day they miss. And before the community gathers at the end of the month to feast on the day of Eid, each able person is obligated to provide what is called Zakat al-Fitr, a small charitable donation that is taken a few days before the Eid to ensure that the poor are able to feast as well.
Every night in Ramadan, in normal times, mosques around the world host charity representatives who fundraise between prayers. In 2004, I was sitting in my mosque in New Orleans and the representative that night was raising funds to build water wells in Somalia. He broke down in tears as he recalled the story of a woman he had met. In Islam, a person should break their fast even with a sip of water as soon as the sun sets. She asked him whether God would forgive her for not having anything to break her fast with during Ramadan. Moved by the woman’s concern to maintain faith as she fought off hunger, the speaker implored us to imagine being in her shoes. Though his emotion touched the audience, none of us could really relate to the experience.
A year later, Hurricane Katrina hit our community in New Orleans. A 61-year-old convert to Islam who lost everything that year confessed to me in a shelter with tears in his eyes that he got so hungry one night that he dug through his suitcase only to find a container of years-old lard from his cupboard to break his fast with. He laughed and recalled the Somali woman. He never thought he would be in a situation like hers.
Today, in the covid-19 era, hunger is a deadly enemy on the rise. According to the U.N. World Food Program, the number of people facing acute food insecurity could nearly double this year to 265 million due to the economic fallout of covid-19. Many of those will be Americans, including Muslims.
While communities organize virtual iftars, the evening meals where the fast is broken, over Zoom video conferences so people can eat together while practicing social distancing, many Muslims will not have any food to put on the table. One of my community members confessed to me that he didn’t want to go to one of the mosques offering food distribution out of fear of being stigmatized. So instead, he chose to go to the North Texas Food Bank and wait in line where he could maintain some anonymity. He didn’t want embarrassment to add to the pain of hunger.
But today many of the food banks that are set up to help feed the less fortunate are struggling because of a loss of volunteers. Others that remain open are seeing unending lines of cars from new clients. In some parts of Texas, including El Paso, the lines start at 4 am; people often don’t get their rations until five hours later. Many times, the boxes contain random items that aren’t even lawful for Muslims to eat, but food banks often run out of the canned goods and staple items most in demand. Like the convert from New Orleans who had to eat lard, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and vegetarians may find themselves having to eat whatever they can get to survive.
According to some initial studies, about 1 in 3 people seeking groceries at not-for-profit pantries last month had never previously needed emergency food aid. People of color and the elderly are more likely to be impacted.
America is not suffering from a lack of food, in fact, Americans throw away as much as 40 percent of their food. Panic-buying in grocery stores is partly to blame for food banks experiencing a steady decline of donations from their previously reliable partners.
We hoard out of greed and fear. Apathy leads us to neglect others. In Islam, these are spiritual diseases that are partly addressed through fasting. Perhaps all Americans who are privileged enough to voluntarily fast should consider doing so in some capacity to empathize with those who are impacted by hunger.
The end result of Ramadan for Muslims, according to the Koran, is for “you to complete the period and glorify God for that which He has guided you, and that you may be amongst the grateful.” As we endure this period of covid-19, may we be guided by our gratitude to not forget the hungry.