Muslim giving is primarily motivated by religious obligation, the sense that those with more should help those with less. In Islam, the concepts of zakat and sadaqah are important drivers of philanthropic giving. Zakat is a religious obligation whereby Muslims must give away a portion of their wealth to charity, provided they meet the criteria for wealth. Similarly, sadaqah refers to voluntary charity and can be of any amount.
American Muslims’ philanthropic patterns and preferences are well assimilated with the American landscape and, for the most part, aligned remarkably well with other faith groups and the general public. There are, however, some distinct differences. Muslims are most likely to be motivated to contribute to charitable causes by their sense of religious duty (17%) and the feeling that those with more should help those with less (20%). Among the general public, 10% report religious obligation and 12% report the sense that those with more should help those with less as motivations for charitable giving.
Our data also provides insight into the consistency of giving in the Muslim community: only 1% of Muslims report that they are motivated to give by a commitment to help the same causes or organizations on a regular basis, compared with 6% of Jews, 4% of Protestants, and 5% of non-affiliated Americans. Perhaps it is less the organization to which they are motivated to give and more the particular cause wedded to their religious values.
Muslims may be compelled by their religious ideals, but by no means do they limit their philanthropy to causes that only impact their fellow Muslims. Rather, American Muslims respond to the urgent needs of all those around them and are just as likely to contribute within their faith community (53%) as outside their faith community (52%). For instance, of all the groups surveyed, American Muslims are the most likely to contribute to organizations addressing domestic poverty outside their faith communities (81%).
In fact, a higher percentage of Muslims spend on domestic poverty outside their faith community (81%) than spend on domestic poverty relief within their faith community (60%). Similarly, for overseas relief efforts, Muslims spend on those outside their faith community at slightly higher rates than they do on those within their faith community (58% vs. 54%).
The most important cause for the highest percentage of Muslims is their house of worship, where the vast majority contribute (89%). Muslims are certainly not outliers in this spending behavior: all faith groups surveyed for this study prioritize spending on their house of worship over all other causes. American Muslims are as likely as other groups (83% of Jews, 86% of Catholics, and 92% of Protestants) to give to their house of worship.
After house of worship, Muslims report giving to domestic poverty alleviation (60%) and educational causes (60%). American Muslim giving to these causes is on par with other groups, with 59–67% of other groups giving to domestic poverty alleviation causes and 53–69% giving to educational causes. Another cause within their faith community important to Muslims is overseas relief (54%).
There is a common belief in the Muslim community that Muslims donate disproportionately to overseas relief while neglecting the needs of their immediate communities. However, our data shows that Muslims are not alone in focusing on overseas relief; all faith groups surveyed in this study gave to overseas relief at similar rates (52% of Jews and Catholics, 48% of Protestants, and 60% of white Evangelicals). This alignment of American Muslim spending with other faith groups in the United States lends more nuance to the understanding of American Muslim communities.
Compared with many other faith groups, more American Muslims are first- or second-generation immigrants. Perhaps they would maintain strong ties with their countries of origin and would be more inclined to send money to address problems there, rather than in the United States. Our data reveals something else.
Although half of American Muslims report being born outside the United States (the largest share of any American faith community), their desire to aid overseas relief efforts is no more or less pronounced than other faith groups in the country. Muslims spend more than other groups on civil rights protection.
One area within their faith community where Muslims spend more than any other faith group is civil rights protection for the members of their community. Forty-eight percent of Muslims report contributing in this category, compared with 37% of Jews, 26% of Catholics, 25% of Protestants, 20% of white Evangelicals, and 27% of the general public.
There is certainly a great need for Muslim civil rights protection, as Muslims continue to find themselves at the heart of national security discussions and often face racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia. This finding may also be linked to the fact that a relatively high percentage of American Muslims are immigrants, with half of all American Muslims having been born in another country. Successive generations of newcomers to the United States have faced similar attacks and threats to their civil liberties, and have gone through periods when they had to fight to protect their communities. In that sense, although Muslims are outliers in this category at this moment in time, they may be falling in line with well-established (though unfortunate) historical precedents.
Perhaps related to this need for civil rights protection, American Muslims are also one of the most likely groups to contribute to research organizations that study their community. Twenty-eight percent of Muslims and 20% of Jews contributed in this category, compared with only 10% of the general public. This hints at a possible link between how marginalized a religious community is and the need to study that community. While Muslims may be relatively more likely to support research organizations than other faith communities, it is the least funded area of work, despite the clear need for good research.
In the category of youth and family services, Muslims were the least likely to spend of all groups surveyed (49% of Muslims vs. 61% of Catholics, 63% of Protestants, 67% of white Evangelicals, and 60% of the general public).
When giving outside their faith community, most American Muslims give to domestic poverty alleviation causes. For Muslims, among the issues facing those outside their faith community, domestic poverty is the most important charitable cause (81%), followed by overseas relief (58%) and educational causes (54%). Although Muslim charities like Islamic Relief provide assistance to anyone in need regardless of faith or ethnicity, more Muslims spend on domestic poverty by supporting charities that are “outside” their faith community than any other group surveyed. American Muslims, a sizable portion of whom are immigrants, might be expected to spend more on their countries of origin. But our data reveals an opposite trend.
By giving to a variety of secular or faith-based nonprofits outside their faith tradition, American Muslims are more likely to give toward fighting domestic poverty than to overseas relief. It should be noted, however, that while “likelihood of giving” to domestic causes exceeds that reported for international giving, that does not necessarily mean that domestic causes receive more money. Those who do give internationally may give more to those causes than domestic causes.
Muslims are more likely than all other groups to give to domestic poverty alleviation when giving outside of their faith community (81% vs. 55%–72%). In the area of overseas relief outside their faith community, at 58%, Muslims spend significantly more than all other faith groups (32–46%) except white Evangelicals (62%). American Muslims are also more likely than other groups to give to civil rights organizations outside their faith community (42% of Muslims vs. 29% of Protestants and American Muslim Philanthropy: A Data-Driven Comparative Profile 9 27% of white Evangelicals). On the other hand, fewer American Muslims (47%) spend on youth and family services outside their faith community than Catholics (64%), white Evangelicals (62%), and the general public (57%). Coupled with a similarly low rate of spending in this category within their faith community, it becomes apparent that youth and family services are not a high priority for charitable giving. Among Muslims, women are more likely than men to contribute to youth and family services (56% vs. 38%).
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Faiqa Mahmood is a researcher at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), whose efforts have been instrumental on the Reimagining Muslim Spaces (RMS) study. Ms. Mahmood has also conducted research for think tanks in Egypt and Lebanon. Her writings have appeared in Foreign Policy‘s South Asia Channel, Harvard Kennedy School Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy, Yale Journal of International Affairs, Georgetown Security Studies Review, The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, and Pakistan Review of International Law and Human Rights, among others.
Ms. Mahmood graduated from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy with a focus on International Security Studies and the Islamic Civilization. At Fletcher, Ms. Mahmood was the co-Chief Editor of Al Nakhlah, Fletcher’s journal on the Islamic Civilization, and co-leader of the Fletcher Islamic Society.
Ms. Mahmood earned her Bachelor of Laws (LLB) from the University of London’s International Program in Pakistan, and the Bar Practitioner Training Course (BPTC) at City Law School, City University, London. She is a licensed attorney at the Islamabad High Court, Pakistan and has been called to the Bar of England and Wales.
This report was written for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. The ISPU provides objective research and education about American Muslims to support well-informed dialogue and decision-making.