Believers Bail Out, a Muslim-led organization working to end cash bail and raise awareness about anti-Muslim racism and anti-Blackness has an especially timely call to action for its members, stated right in its Twitter bio: “Pay your zakat to bail and join the movement to end mass incarceration!”
Zakat, one of the five pillars of Islam, is an obligatory yearly donation of about 2.5 percent of one’s wealth to those in need. There are eight categories of people that Muslims can donate their zakat to, among them the poor, those in need, people in bondage, and people who are stranded or traveling with few resources. Many Muslims choose to give zakat during Ramadan, the holiest time of the year.
This year, as Ramadan coincides with the COVID-19 pandemic, many Muslim organizations and individuals are choosing to focus their resources, including zakat, on coronavirus relief efforts. As people in prison continue to contract—and die from—coronavirus at an alarmingly higher rate than the rest of the population, Believers Bail Out is among them.
“[Imprisoned people] are really scared about their health as the virus rampages through jails and prisons, which already had issues with cleanliness and overcrowding,” said Maryam Kashani, a professor and organizer with Believers Bail Out. “[…] We believe that distributing our zakat for the purposes of bailing Muslims out of pretrial and immigration incarceration and supporting those we are unable to bail out is a required part of our noble tradition.”
Muslims are overrepresented in U.S. prisons and often subjected to discrimination, particularly during Ramadan. It can be difficult for people observing the month in prison to obtain meals at the correct times and receive their medication at night, rather than during the day when they are fasting. As such, Believers Bail Out encourages zakat donations in order to bail out Muslims from both pretrial incarceration and U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement custody and provide resources like soap and Qur’ans to those who are denied bail. The organization launched a Ramadan bail out fund on the first day of Ramadan. Since then, it has raised more than half of its $100,000 goal.
Along with general zakat, Muslims donate what’s called zakat al-fitr, which is specific to Ramadan. Zakat al-fitr can be given in money or food and must be distributed before Eid al-fitr, the end of Ramadan.
It’s this kind of zakat that Gaye Nailah Johns, director of the food program at the Masjidullah mosque in Philadelphia is focused on during the coronavirus crisis. Normally, her work revolves around providing meals to about 130 seniors across the city, but the current pandemic has increased the need for meals. Last week, her socially distanced meal drop-offs included a stop at the home of a daycare worker and mother of five who lost her job because of the pandemic.
“We’re feeding seniors and anybody else who needs a bag—a lot of young people, people who lost their jobs, I’m seeing them in the lines,” she told The 19th. “We’re just thinking of creative ways to help people.”
In addition to zakat, general good deeds are a focus for many Muslims during Ramadan, including Maram Khabbaz, a geriatrician in Ohio who helps run community services at the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati. Since mid-March she’s organized and led a group of Muslim women in sewing and distributing masks to doctors and elders.
Her work began when she was approached by Mounira Habli, a local OB-GYN. As the country braced for the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Habli was worried about mask shortages in the hospitals where she worked. Concerned, she asked if Khabbaz could mobilize the local Muslim community to help.
Khabbaz wasted no time. Through the Islamic Center, Khabbaz began distributing flyers and sending messages recruiting people in the community who had sewing skills and those who were willing to offer donations for supplies. Within a week, she had organized a WhatsApp group full of Muslim women who could sew and were ready to help. By week two, guided by a video tutorial made by one of the women in the group, they were able to safely sew and distribute more than 600 masks using a no-contact pick-up and drop-off system. By the beginning of May, they’d sewn and distributed more than 2,000 masks, working with local hospitals to meet their needs and standards.
As Ramadan approached at the end of April, the crisis only escalated. Asked if she considered slowing down her efforts during Ramadan given the considerable demands of the month—namely, fasting from dawn until sundown—Khabbaz said, “No, no, it’s the opposite.”
Once Ramadan began, she and her group of volunteers only doubled-down on their work, picking up work on the Islamic Center’s food drive while ramping up their mask output. According to Khabbaz, anything less would have gone against the spirit of Ramadan.
“InshAllah [God willing], we are going to continue because this is part of the month,” she said. “It's not just that we have to not eat and drink, we have to do good deeds and help the community in whatever way we can.”