Eid al-Fitr is the Muslim holiday that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Eid al-Fitr (also referred to as Eid ul-Fitr) is a time of celebration and many Muslims extend the spirit of celebration to people who are experiencing homelessness in their communities. Such activities reflect the ethos of the Five Pillars of Islam. The third pillar is giving zakat (support of the needy), and the fourth pillar is fasting during the month of Ramadan. In addition, Muslims act on Fitrana, an obligatory charity which is to be paid to the needy prior to Eid so that the recipient(s) can afford food in time for the Eid holiday. Fitrana differs from zakat in the calculation of the specific amount of charity given, but both tenants of faith show Islam’s dedication to assisting those who are experiencing homelessness and poverty.
Serving the Homeless
Community organizers across the globe have come up with many creative ideas for extending the Eid festivities to homeless community members. A few years ago, in Slough (in the UK), the group Fasting Not Feasting held an Eid “flash mob”. This event shared the Eid celebrations with people who were experiencing homelessness in the community of Slough. A flash mob is a group of people who assemble in public to perform an out of the ordinary act. Flash mobs are most visible in dance videos that have “gone viral” online. This innovative event took the idea of a flash mob and replaced public dancing with a public meeting place for sharing food. The organizers shared a location online and through “word of mouth” communication channels, and many people brought food to that location to share with people who were experiencing homelessness in Slough. Sahil Khan, one of the organizers of the event, was interviewed by Muslim Voices about the event: “It was brilliant to see people of all different ages, faiths, races and backgrounds coming together to share a meal with homeless members of the community.” For more information on this unique event, check out the BBC’s news coverage of the event.
There are also many organizations working to assist people experiencing homelessness that espouse the ethos of Islam in North America and the United States. The United Muslim Movement Against Homelessness (UMMAH) runs many programs that serve people experiencing homelessness throughout the United States.
Muslim Women in the U.S. Need Better Services
Unfortunately, there are a lot of service agencies in the United States that do not respect the needs or dignity of Muslims who are experiencing homelessness. Muslim women are especially vulnerable to these indignities. Muslim women who are experiencing homelessness in the United States are often treated poorly and their religious needs are ignored in shelters, housing, and social service programs. In a poignant Muslim Link Op-Ed, Farkhunda Ali describes the challenges faced by Muslim women who are experiencing homelessness.
“Currently, in the DC Metropolitan Area and especially Baltimore, Maryland, there are many Muslim women without access to a stable Islamic living environment. Many Muslim women have often approached non-Muslim social service organizations that have placed them in shelters where they practice un-Islamic dietary habits, and disrespect the dress code of the Muslim woman. Leaving them with no other choice but to seek shelter for themselves and their small children, Muslim women have often accepted local county shelters and temporary housing. These shelters sometimes force them to compromise their Islamic beliefs in order to grant them a secure place to live. After all, some shelter is better than no shelter at all. What does a Muslim woman do in times of disparity? Does she live under a bridge on cold windy nights, or does she live with a non-Muslim man who is often available to help her, but probably does not allow her to maintain her modesty? Also, the Muslim woman sometimes has to be separated from her children in order to accomodate foster living for them while she is forced to accept housing in women-only shelters….When a Muslim woman suddenly finds herself without a home, it is very difficult for her focus on building herself up to be able to find work or take care of her children when her primary concern is shelter, food, and clothing. Once the primary necessity is fulfilled, then she can pay closer attention on finding employment and doing other things to sustain her self. In any case, she needs temporary Islamic environment where she is able to fulfill her obligations of her faith and build herself to move on to the next step.” (Read more of this fantastic article: http://mnisaa.org/homeless-muslim-women-shelter-an-idea-born-of-necessity)
The experiences of homeless Muslim women in the United States was also chronicled by the Washington Post in an article published on December 29, 2007: “They [Muslim women experiencing homelessness] sleep in mosques. Or on the streets. Or in Christian-oriented shelters that might hold prayer meetings or services at odds with their own religious beliefs. For Muslim women without a place to live, particularly those who have been battered or are immigrants, being homeless can test their faith at the time they need it most.” (See: “Muslim Women Who Become Homeless Have Limited Options,” by Jackie Spinner)
There are still challenges to overcome when providing excellent services to Muslim women who are experiencing homelessness. However, there is hope. There are some very successful organizations that target Muslim women who are experiencing homelessness. These organizations provide models for other agencies and service organizations. For example, the Muslim Humanity ICNA Relief USA organization runs shelters for women experiencing homelessness in twelve cities across the United States including Anaheim, CA, Chicago, IL, Phoenix, AZ, and Kansas City, MO.
Collective Duty for Action
As Eid festivities get underway this weekend, it is important to remember that we all have a duty to assist and serve people who are experiencing homelessness. Those Muslim community organizers, faith leaders, and activists who work tirelessly to serve the homeless, the hungry, and the poor should be commended. Non-Muslims have just as great an obligation to serve these vulnerable populations and should take note of the extraordinary efforts of Muslim community builders.
People who do not practice Islam should be just as concerned with providing exceptional services to Muslims who are experiencing homelessness. Service organizations and agencies should strive to respect Muslim women who are experiencing homelessness. Such agencies and organizations must provide an environment in which Muslim women who are experiencing homelessness feel safe, welcome, dignified, and spiritually whole.
Whether you are Muslim or not, I hope that you are inspired by the compassionate messages and practices associated with Eid al-Fitr, and that you strive to serve people who are experiencing homelessness in your community.