GIVING | An Introduction to Muslim Philanthropy in Canada

publication date: Aug 16, 2023
author/source: Muneeb Nasir and Irshad Osman

Philanthropy holds a vital place in Islam, deeply ingrained in principles of compassion, charity, and social responsibility. Islamic teachings intertwine philanthropy with various acts of worship, making it a mandatory aspect of a Muslim's life. Giving back is not limited to financial contributions but encompasses a range of actions, such as donating time, skills, and knowledge to benefit society.

Muslims are obligated to share their wealth through the annual Zakat (2.5% from the annual accumulated wealth), encouraged to give from all their means (Sadaqah, the voluntary charity given above and beyond to address issues like poverty, education, healthcare, clean water, disaster relief, etc.,), and instructed to provide food to others during Ramadan fasting (Iftar).

There are also obligations to give at the end of Ramadan (Zakat al-Fitr), during the Hajj pilgrimage and Eid al-Adha festival (Udhiyah), and when a baby is born (‘Aqeeqah). Additionally, Muslims must feed the poor as compensation for missed fasting (Fidyah) and as compensation for unfulfilled oaths (Kaffara).

Islamic teachings stress the significance of selfless giving, devoid of any expectations, while encouraging sincerity and humility. Within Muslim philanthropy, the notion of "Barakah" or divine blessings is frequently linked. This means that acts of charity are seen as a means to cleanse the heart of greed and stinginess and to enhance one's wealth, well-being, and overall family happiness.

Philanthropy in Islam goes beyond financial contributions, as many Muslims actively engage in volunteering and community service as a form of voluntary charity (Sadaqah). This sense of giving is considered a virtue, a duty towards God, and an obligation to fellow human beings.

In Canada, Muslims make up around 4.9% of the population, estimated to be approximately 1.7 million members, and their proportion has more than doubled in the past two decades. As adherents of other religions have declined, philanthropy among Canadian Muslims has gained significance. Opinion polls show that many Muslims feel proud to be Canadian, and a majority are religious and attend mosques regularly. The religiously-active donors, who attend a place of worship weekly, contribute an average annual donation four times greater than those who never attend religious services (Turcotte, 2012).

This religiously-inspired philanthropy plays a crucial role in supporting vulnerable communities, promoting social justice, and fostering compassion and solidarity with the global community. By engaging in charitable giving, Canadian Muslims actively embody the principles of their faith and contribute positively to their society.

Muslim philanthropy has survived and persevered through the challenges of immigration. Despite originating from diverse corners of the world, Canadian Muslims continue to uphold the practices of Zakat, involving the mandatory contribution of 2.5% from one's annual accumulated wealth, and Sadaqa, a voluntary charity addressing various issues like poverty, education, healthcare, clean water, disaster relief, and more, both of which remain integral to Muslims’ beliefs.

Demonstrating their sincere commitment, Canadian Muslims actively donate to numerous local and global causes. Their contributions encompass a wide range of charitable acts, including providing financial aid, supporting education, alleviating hunger, assisting orphans, championing social justice advocacy, contributing to community development projects, and other compassionate endeavors. Through these benevolent actions, they exemplify the values of kindness, compassion, and solidarity, making a positive impact on society at large.

Zakat – mandatory alms

The amount given in Zakat by the global Muslim population is not accurately captured due to the nature and method of its distribution.

Various studies have attempted to estimate its annual amount, yielding divergent results. One study suggests it to be around USD 1.3 trillion annually, while another approximates it at USD 600 billion (Obaidullah and Shirazi, 2015). The World Bank's study provides a broader range, estimating it to fall between USD 200 billion and USD 1 trillion (World Bank, 2016).

The significant disparity in these estimates can be attributed to the fact that Zakat is predominantly practiced individually and anonymously within the Muslim community (Anderson, 2022). This makes it difficult to track and accurately quantify the total amount contributed.

Additionally, the lack of precise wealth assessments for Muslim countries further complicates the estimation process. Researchers often rely on different assumptions regarding the percentages of the GDP to gauge Zakat's overall magnitude (Ahmed, 2022). As a result, the total sum of Zakat remains uncertain, reflecting the complex and decentralized nature of this charitable practice.

In certain Muslim-majority countries, there are systems in place to deduct Zakat amounts from employee salaries, but this only represents a portion of the total Zakat, as the contributions of the wealthy are often excluded.

In Muslim minority settings like Canada, the US, and Europe, determining the overall Zakat-giving becomes even more challenging. Many individuals in these regions choose to direct their mandatory charitable giving to support impoverished relatives, neighbors, and communities in their countries of origin, leading to their exclusion from the broader Zakat calculation.

The establishment of various Muslim charitable organizations and foundations worldwide dedicated to collecting and distributing Zakat has helped alleviate some uncertainty surrounding the total Zakat pool globally. However, these organizations only oversee approximately 10% to 15% of what is considered "collective Muslim philanthropy."

In the United States, Muslim organizations received USD 1.8 billion in Zakat in 2021 to support local and international causes, comprising 1.4% of all philanthropic donations in the country for that year (Muslim American Zakat Report, 2022). It's worth noting that this figure excludes the informal giving methods, such as direct cash transfers, utilized by American Muslims to fulfill their obligatory Zakat obligations.

Although lacking a pioneering Zakat study in Canada, recent analysis of CRA data revealed that the top 50 Muslim charities generated a combined annual revenue of CAD $454 million in 2021. Among this revenue, 55% was dedicated to overseas relief efforts, while the remaining 45% supported local programming. Notably, CAD $286 million, equivalent to 63% of the donations, came from Muslim philanthropic contributions (Ali-Mohammed and Latif, 2022).

This amount does not encompass informal Zakat-giving or the donations made by Canadian Muslims through Sadaqah (voluntary giving) to religious institutions, local charities, food banks, and non-qualified donees, including advocacy organizations and grassroots initiatives. Additionally, the mentioned figure does not account for other forms of religiously-mandated giving, described earlier.

Note, that while Western Muslims are required to pay Zakat, they do not view it as a mere government tax deduction, but rather as a religious obligation from which they willingly free themselves. Zakat serves as an institution to purify their wealth, ridding it of impermissible and doubtful transactions, and also helps cleanse their souls from excessive attachment to material possessions. By giving away what they hold dear to their hearts, namely their wealth, Muslims aim to attain spiritual freedom.

Muslim philanthropy plays a significant and expanding role within Canada's charitable landscape. As with all immigrant communities in the country, Canadian Muslims come from various cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and their charitable endeavors embrace this diversity through the causes they endorse and their contributions to the broader Canadian community. Unlike their American counterparts, a majority of Canadian Muslims prefer to give their philanthropic donations through their places of worship.

Due to the rise of numerous international relief organizations originating from the UK, there has been a noticeable increase in the competition for donor dollars. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are being invested in marketing efforts to attract Muslim philanthropic contributions. However, Canada stands out with its well-regulated charitable environment, ensuring transparency and accountability. This regulatory framework fosters trust in philanthropic endeavors within the Muslim community and among both donors and recipients.

Muneeb Nasir is the Chair of the Olive Tree Foundation, a Canadian public foundation (Waqf), the Executive Director of the Cordoba Centre for Civic Engagement and Leadership, and the Managing Editor of the online Canadian Muslim Journal,

Irshad Osman is an Imam by training and a fundraising consultant by profession who holds a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE) designation. He has worked with local and international charities raising funds to support human development and disaster relief work.

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