- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 20, 2001

Mention Muslims or Islam to many Americans and it is unlikely they will think of charity. Instead, most will think of people kneeling on rugs to pray five times a day, or of the poor and oppressed Muslims in Afghanistan particularly with the images that are appearing daily in the news.

Few are apt to know the emphasis Muslims place on charity at home and beyond.

Required giving, called "zakat," is one of Islam's "five pillars" along with prayer, fasting during the month of Ramadan, making a pilgrimage to Mecca, and the belief that there is one God and that Mohammed is God's last prophet.

Even Muslims of relatively modest means are required to give 2.5 percent of their wealth not income to charity, based on a complicated set formula. But they are encouraged to give more.

"We are expected to give charity every day," says Maryam Funches, executive director of the Muslim Inter-Community Network in Bethesda.

More than 5 million Muslims live in the United States. Members of the faith operate about 59 social services organizations, 30 relief organizations and 39 community development organizations, says Mohamed Nimer, research director at the Council on American Islamic Relations.

Muslims, who make up less than 1 percent of the population, give an estimated $20 million to $50 million in charitable contributions annually, Mr. Nimer says.

Islam teaches that charity should begin at home and in the community so that needy family members, friends and neighbors do not burden society, but it also teaches that charity should not stop there, says Mrs. Funches, a former social worker and doctoral candidate in pastoral counseling.

The Muslim Inter-Community Network's projects have provided housing in the District, Virginia and Maryland to people who were homeless. Some beneficiaries are Muslim and some are not.

The network's volunteers also collect food and organize it for distribution to the needy year-round. At holidays, Muslim volunteers help ensure that children, including those of other faiths, have gifts and toys.

Mrs. Funches says that the organization last year had a $40,000 budget, but in-kind donations were much larger.

"You don't have to do all the big things," Mrs. Funches says. "The poor help the poor more than anyone else, but no one ever realizes how much like baby-sitting, giving someone a ride or a place to stay."

In the United States, struggling Muslim immigrants often give shelter to refugee Muslims, who now account for two-thirds of all persons fleeing political or economic oppression.

To help low-income and first-time buyers find ways to afford their own homes, Mrs. Funches, a real estate agent, put her faith and training to work at the Oct. 6 housing fair in Gaithersburg.

Because Islam prohibits paying or charging large sums in interest, buying a house can be difficult even for middle-income Muslims.

Under the banner of the Muslim Inter-Community Network, she dispenses information on how to build a better credit record and presents a workshop on what people need to buy a home.

"You can do it," Mrs. Funches told a female visitor to her table during the Gaithersburg housing fair.

Still, these days, the Mississippi native, nicknamed "Smiley" by folks back home, admits she is worried.

Many jobs have been lost in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center in New York City, and local food banks report requests for assistance have grown 30 percent.

So Mrs. Funches is worried that people who already have given generously will decide their charity is exhausted and there will not be enough food to fill all the holiday baskets that will be needed this year.

"We get lots of toys from the Marines and were even worried they would be so busy protecting the nation that it might be a problem but we did hear from them," Mrs. Funches says.

She believes, and hopes many will agree, that giving is key, not only to societal well being, but to spiritual well being.

"What you give in this life is gone quickly, but we get so much from giving even a smile or taking out the trash," she says.

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