HACKENSACK, N.J. — For Muslim Americans, the holy month of Ramadan is not only a time to celebrate, pray and fast, but also a time to give to charity.
This year, Muslim Americans have ramped up donations and volunteerism in local anti-poverty programs during Ramadan, which concludes this weekend with the Eid al-Fitr holiday. Donations to international relief organizations also continue, with much of the support aimed at helping Syrian and Burmese refugees who have fled areas of upheaval and fighting.
Charity is one of the Five Pillars of Islam and, according to teachings, reaps even greater spiritual rewards when done during Ramadan.
"By giving charity during Ramadan, the reward increases multifold," said Imam Hafiz Saeed Qureshi, spiritual leader of Dar-ul-Islah Islamic Center in Teaneck, N.J., adding that rewards can come in the form of protection and blessings.
The mosque has hosted speakers during Ramadan from charities such as Helping Hand and Islamic Relief USA. These representatives talked about efforts to help various groups, including Syrians who have fled fighting between the government and pro-reform rebels and a Muslim minority in Myanmar known as the Rohingya that has been the target of ethnic violence.
"Any time there is an emergency in the news, irrespective of where the person comes from, they come together in support," said Azhar Azeez, national director of Islamic Relief USA.
Islamic Relief USA raised $2 million during Ramadan last year in its northeast region based in Totowa, N.J. — about half of what was raised in the region during the entire year.
Azeez said the northeast region typically generates more donations than any of its seven regions, boosted by "huge support" from New Jersey. Islamic Relief, he said, has visited 30 to 40 mosques in New Jersey in the past month alone to talk about its charitable programs.
Charity also comes in the form of evening iftars, evening meals for Muslims to break the sunrise-to-sundown fast. Often, iftars are sponsored by families at local mosques and open to the community. Other times, iftars are ticketed events that serve as fundraisers. Several such events in the area have been dedicated to Syria relief programs.
Muslim immigrants have historically donated overseas because they grew up there and have seen the poverty in their native countries firsthand, said Salim Patel, a community leader and Board of Education trustee in Passaic.
But first-and second-generation Muslims have wanted to be more involved where they grew up, Patel said, so he helped found The SMILE Organization in Passaic, N.J., to meet that goal.
"They have a distinct American identity and distinct roots and want to ensure that charity begins at home," Patel said.
The group, supported largely by young Muslim professionals, operates food pantries in Passaic and Paterson and has plans to launch a health clinic. This year, SMILE launched a new program called A Rose for Ramadan to distribute food assistance to families.
Two hundred volunteers gathered in Clifton, N.J., on a recent Saturday to pack olive oil, chick pea cans, boxes of dates, and halal meat vouchers into 219 care baskets and loaded them on vans.
"I was looking for something that would help people locally," said volunteer Sameera Iqbal, of Paramus, N.J. "I didn't think it was OK to just cut a check and send it overseas."
Since the initial distribution of baskets, SMILE has since gotten 100 new requests for food assistance. Volunteers also collected presents of toys for about 35 Muslim children in foster care for Eid al-Fitr, a festive holiday when Muslims pray, visit family, exchange presents and enjoy feasts of ethnic foods and pastries.
Zamir Hassan had similar motivation for launching "Muslims Serve Days" through the New Jersey-based Muslims Against Hunger Project. On "serve days," volunteers visit soup kitchens to prepare and serve hot meals. The group will help out at Eva's Village in Paterson on Saturday.
This year, the group has a campaign under way called Good Deed Ramadan with the goal of serving 30,000 meals in 30 days. The work helps fulfill a Muslim's religious and civic duties, Hassan said.
Muslims say fasting during Ramadan teaches discipline and generosity, deepening feelings of mercy and empathy for those who are hungry and poor.
"If you go to bed and your neighbor is hungry, you have not fulfilled your obligation as a Muslim," Hassan said.