A few years ago, while wearing a different hat, I was invited to speak at an event hosted by UN Millennium Development Goals guru Jeffrey Sachs and Columbia University. At the end of that event, I was approached by a soft-spoken and unassuming man who introduced himself as Tariq Cheema. That brief moment and subsequent communications have not only ascertained our shared world view, but became the impetus of good friendship. Thanks in small part to Tariq’s infectious reasoned passion for philanthropy.
Tariq is the visionary architect who mobilized the economic, intellectual, political clout and strategic capacity driving the Islam-inspired umbrella organization known as World Congress of Muslim Philanthropists (WCMP). In the years since, this organization that is guided by a vision of building “a peaceful, equitable, and sustainable world generously endowed by ethical, inclusive, and effective philanthropy” has given birth to the Academy of Philanthropy, and Global Donors Forum. The latter was recently held in Washington, DC area.
We are part of a vast world that is wholly interdependent and rapidly shrinking in terms of interconnectivity and indeed cultural integration. Under such condition, social, political and economic influence and counter-influence is not just plausible, it is immanent. The wheels of change are turning at full speed; therefore, strategic philanthropy can play the distinctive role of funding and cultivating positive change; hence the importance of institutions in the form of grant-makers and grantees.
Is Muslim Philanthropy Any Different?
Faith-inspired philanthropy is nothing new. The Abrahamic faith (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) has a long history of philanthropy within their respective faith traditions, though later it was refined and developed into a fine arts by the West, more specifically, the United States.
Though in recent centuries Muslims have fallen behind in the domain of philanthropy (the Ismaili Muslims being an exception,) one may argue the West would not have discovered Greek philosophy and other bodies on knowledge had it not been for Muslim philanthropists funding scholarly translations into Arabic. Yet, each year Muslims around the world spend many billions of dollars in feeding and clothing the poor.
In addition to charity, and alms-giving which mandatory on all financially well-off Muslims, Islam promotes a concept known as Ithar(peak of altruism). Ithar is to simply love for others more than what one loves for oneself. This is the highest level of sacrificing for the sake of the greater good.
“Have compassion on those who are on earth so that He who is in Heaven would have compassion upon you” is one of the main principles of Prophet Muhammad’s teachings. Also, the Qur’an clearly recognizes charity-giving, and indeed philanthropy, as mark of righteousness:“righteous is the one who… gives away wealth, out of love for Him to the near of kin and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask, and to set slaves free” (2:177).
Global Donors Forum
No this was not one of those international community organized donor nations’ conference to pool resources in order to provide aid to a nation that is in humanitarian crisis. It was a three day conference that brought together prominent grant-making foundations and grantees from around the world. This included, venture philanthropists as well as social and business entrepreneurs.
Held in Washington metropolitan area on mid-April, conference has provided the right platform and an environment conducive for international networking, experience-sharing and collaboration. This was an opportunity to emerge out of the incubation process in overseas, in cities such as Dubai or Kuala Lumpur.
Among the many good causes and initiates that I got to learn about at the conference, I was most intrigued by an ambitious project that advocates for land reform in Pakistan and empower farmers to become land owners.
In a feudal society where land ownership is concentrated in the hands of a few families, this may sound like a tall order. However, listening to the passionate articulation of Dr Fariya Bukhari, the founder of Free Kissan Free Pakistan, you would never think that way. Her face lights up with enthusiasm when she shares stories of poor farmers in remote villages that she periodically visits to provide immunization and her commitment to set up a one-stop resource center that provides seeds, tools, and micro-enterprise funding to poor farmers.
As constant drips of water could, in due course, make their profound mark on the concrete surface, so can the sincerely committed human will. I left the conference more educated about what philanthropy could do and highly inspired.
Challenges and Opportunities
Islam-inspired philanthropy makes its appearance on the modern world stage as Islamophobia persists in many parts of the world. More often than not, international media zoom on sensationalized stories dealing with totalitarian rulers, violence, terrorism, and extremism. That, needless to say, often out-stages the good that Muslims do. In that context, Islam is still erroneously perceived in the West as a religion that has nothing to do with philanthropy.
At this critical juncture, Muslim philanthropy ought to focus strategically on certain critical areas: institution-building, combating Islamophobia, advancing interfaith dialogue, conflict prevention, and leadership development. As well as anti-poverty programs that create jobs and help build sustainable assets far beyond Islamic communities and nations.
WCMP is mindful that strategic philanthropy requires certain level of engagement in all developmental facets of philanthropic initiatives from conception, implementation, evaluation, and ensuring sustainability. After all, at hand is an altruistic industry that lacks adequate transparency though it attracts the good, bad and ugly from all corners.
Abukar Arman is a writer whose articles on foreign policy and Islamic issues are widely published. Abukar was Somalia's Special Envoy to the United States.
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