The Islamic holy month may have Muslim origins, but its message is universal.
Omar H is a Muslim-American living in Chicago.* As a Rohingya Muslim, he was forced to flee ethnic and religious violence in western Myanmar, where he was neither recognised as a citizen nor given basic political and legal rights.
For three precarious decades, Omar drifted from one inhospitable country to the next as a refugee, without property or personhood, before finally being granted the right to relocate in the United States.
Now he endures the demonisation of his entire religion. Xenophobia is rising as demagogic politicians prey upon a rapidly shrinking middle class, which is feeling the squeeze of sky-rocketing income inequality and is anxious for scapegoats to blame for it.
Despite experiencing persecution and dehumanisation for most of his life, Omar will spend the month of Ramadan serving those less fortunate than himself.
Though he has little, he will give what he can to Chicago’s homeless and hungry by donating to food drives, contributing to fundraisers, and preparing community banquets.
He will pay “zakat”, or the obligatory charity required of all Muslims, to give solace to refugees abroad.
He will remember those who have been forgotten, discarded, or ignored, steadfast in his belief that to practise Islam means protecting the most vulnerable, regardless of colour or creed.
And he will do this despite the toxic caricatures of his religion that pervade discussions of “national security” and “immigration reform” in his adopted country.
The humanitarian spirit in a time of crisis
Omar’s story contains the essence of Ramadan for more than a billion Muslims around the world. As Surah Al-Insan of the Holy Quran states: “And they feed, for the love of Allah, the indigent, the orphan, and the captive, [saying], we feed you for the sake of Allah alone: no reward do we desire from you, nor thanks.”
Serving others in hardship and distress is an unconditional moral requirement in Islam. The idea of zakat, one of the five pillars of the faith, is based on the direct, legitimate claim of the poor on the wealth of the rich – a claim that is not affected by the shifting tides of politics and ideology.
This moral sensibility is at the heart of the Western concept of social democracy, but it was pioneered more than a millennium before in the egalitarian ethic of the first Islamic community.
It can be easy to lose sight of this principled social vision today. Economic austerity and shrinking government budgets demand ever greater sacrifices from working and low-income people, while ongoing war and the threat of political violence displace millions across continents.
We live in a permanent state of emergency, a time in which the cold realities of politics often overshadow our most basic humanitarian obligations.
Moreover, we have witnessed a worldwide resurgence of exclusionary, right-wing nationalism. In the US, the real estate tycoon, media icon, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has found a distressing amount of popular support for his ideas – some of which include barring all Muslims from entering the country and installing permanent police surveillance at mosques and in Muslim neighbourhoods.
Trumpism thrives in this general atmosphere of fear and anxiety, channelling it into nativist hostility towards the easiest targets: immigrants, minorities, and other vulnerable groups who cannot readily defend themselves.
Two visions of society
In the face of intensifying anti-Muslim sentiment, the most powerful way for Muslims to respond lies in the traditions of humanitarian stewardship and egalitarian values at the foundation of Islamic belief.
Whether it is through everyday acts of kindness and generosity for people indistress, working for social justice in public office like US Congressman Keith Ellison, or engaging in collective political action like community leader Linda Sarsour, Muslim-Americans are drawing on the rich heritage of their faith to express a moral duty towards humanity in general – an attitude directly opposed to the reactionary nationalism of Trump and his followers.
In the end, it comes down to a question of two competing visions for the future of society. One is mired in intolerance, bigotry, and nativism, and the other is based on mutual respect, altruism, and an egalitarian sense of community.
Now, during the Holy Month of Ramadan, millions of Muslims across the world are reflecting on their personal relations to their faith. They are practising the fast as a reminder of the plight of the poor and hungry. And they are giving back to their communities in countless ways, large and small, without expecting anything in return.
Let this Ramadan set a strong example for the kind of inclusive, compassionate society we could have if we all were to put the humanitarian spirit of the Holy Month into practice all year round.
*Omar H’s name has been randomly chosen to preserve anonymity.
Jamie Merchant has a PhD in Communication Studies from Northwestern University with a focus on the role of art and media in social change. He works with Zakat Foundation of America, an international humanitarian organisation.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.