VANCOUVER, Oct. 28,2012/ Troy Media/ – The festival of Eid al-Adha on October 26 coincided for many Muslims with a pilgrimage, the hajj, to Mecca. Media coverage of the event in Canada focused on the pilgrimage and on the animals bought and eaten to commemorate the holiday. A Vancouver Sunreport mentions that the meat of the animal purchased by a Muslim family is divided into three parts – with one given to friends, another to the poor.
Traditionally, goats and other livestock serve to commemorate the episode, well known to Jews and Christians, when Abraham is tested by God. He is asked if he is willing to sacrifice what is dearest to him (his son), though ultimately God only requires him to sacrifice an animal.
With all this talk of meat, you might be eyeing your Muslim neighbours suspiciously, expecting to see them heading out the door with bags of freshly slaughtered flesh. This is highly unlikely. The point of the holiday is not the meat: it is the emphasis on charity. While this is highlighted during Eid al-Adha, and Eid al-Fitr (which ends the month of Ramadan), it is a reminder of what’s supposed to happen all year.
Because they don’t live in agricultural societies, Canadian Muslims have developed different ways to give.
Last December, as the scandalous housing conditions in Attawapiskat made headlines, a Toronto-based organisation called Islamic Relief Canada put together a caravan and headed up to the reserve. After consulting with Chief Theresa Spence, they brought heaters, blankets, jackets and other winter clothes. These items were donated by Canadian Muslims who felt a duty to reach out to fellow citizens in distress.
The same organisation raised funds earlier that year to help pay the rising rent costs of Toronto’s largest food bank in Flemingdon, which had been established and run by the Red Cross. It is now run by a coalition of Christian and Muslim groups. Food banks are often the recipients of large donations from community mosques during Ramadan, as the daily fast raises awareness of and solidarity with those who go hungry.
These time-honoured practices even find expression in the dishes on the table. “Generosity is not just giving money from excess, but rather sharing with the poor” reads an inscription on a 10th-century Samanid bowl from Central Asia. The same sentiment was behind the soup kitchens (imaret) in Ottoman Istanbul, which served roughly 1,500 people twice a day, notes Professor Amy Singer in her book Charity in Islamic Societies.
Singer recalls the motivation for this in the Quran itself: “True piety is . . . to give of one’s substance, however cherished, to kinsmen, and orphans, the needy, the traveller”.
Here in Vancouver, Ismaili Muslims host a walk each September which has raised tens of thousands for civic charity. This year they backed the YWCA Cause We Care House which will provide shelter for single mothers and their children, as well as medical, employment, and literacy services. The Ismaili Walk has previously aided Vancouver’s Crisis Centre – which offers 24-hour support to those in emotional distress – and the Women’s Health Research Institute at the BC Women’s Hospital, among others.
But Canadian Muslims have reached out to communities far beyond our national borders. Retired UBC Professor Muhammad Iqbal and his wife founded the Maria-Helena Foundation to provide educational facilities and free schooling to children in Pakistan, especially girls.
A similar initiative was taken by Froozan Jooya. An Afghan-Canadian, she founded the Beacon of Hope for Afghan Children Society, which provides medical supplies to a children’s hospital in Kabul, and food and education for street children.
It’s about the ethics of a faith in which charity is one of the pillars. Yet, unlike the pilgrimage or even Eid, this is hardly an occasional activity. You wouldn’t know it from the news headlines, in which Muslims are frequently paired with terms like “rage”, “violence”, and “terrorism”. Those are but a small part of the story – too often, and uncharitably, taken for the whole.
Troy Media columnist Eva Sajoo is a Research Associate with the Centre for the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies and Cultures at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. She has a graduate degree in International Development and Education from the University of London. Her published academic writing focuses on the rights of women and minorities. She has contributed widely to publications on Islam and the Muslim world. Eva has taught at the University of British Columbia, and the Beijing University of Science and Technology. She currently teaches at SFU. Website: http://www.ccsmsc.sfu.ca/about_us/faculty/eva_sajoo. Follow Eva on Twitter @esajoo