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Ramadan Around The World #1: Haram Zakat and Humility

by Qoqa

This Ramadan we share with you a bird’s eye view of personal Muslim stories from across the globe.

A funny convert from California shares her struggles: learning about zakat, paying for expensive pork sandwiches, and attaining true humility during Ramadan.

A 15-year-old experience makes me chuckle, and you, dear reader, are one of the first to hear it. I had not undergone any formal Islamic training and had converted 3 or 4 years prior. 

I was a teenager, the only Muslim in my family. Amazon had just started selling things other than books about 5 years earlier and nobody was carrying a smartphone. Islamic books and study materials were hard to come by so I was constantly sifting through online forums, mostly on MySpace groups which were still quite popular then. These forums were often filled with well-meaning but confused, self-righteous Muslim youth, like myself, and discussions often left me with more questions than answers. Many mistook my common sense and compassionate disposition for actual knowledge. And, because other Muslims thought I was knowledgeable, so did I. 

I understood that during Ramadan one must pay zakat to help those in need. However, I was unaware that this was conditional. If you were as broke as I was, then there was no obligation. This was my first Ramadan with a job, working in customer service. I was paid about USD$ 8 an hour and felt financially responsible to pay zakat. I had read somewhere about giving food instead of money and decided to give food to the local homeless community.

I thought I would wait until after iftar, which was around 8 pm, to buy some sandwiches at Safeway (I had never even heard of zabiha meat) and distribute them. However, post-sunset this did put me in one of the seediest parts of town after dark. My best friend (non-Muslim) kindly agreed to help me.

There we were, ordering at the small deli in the corner of the store. I asked my friend, “How many sandwiches should I get?”

She glanced at me as if to say, “You’re the Muslim! This is your project!”

I had no idea how to calculate anything. What was enough? What was too little?

Thirteen. Yes, 13 seemed like a good number of sandwiches. Plus, Allah loves odd numbers!

It occurred to me that turkey is a bit bland so I had the man make some salami sandwiches as well. After all, salami was the best tasting sandwich in my opinion, even if I did not eat pork anymore.

Reality quickly set in about how much each sandwich cost. I am not sure why, perhaps it was my fatigued Ramadan brain, but somehow I had believed that because sandwiches are mostly bread, they would be less expensive.

My chest tightened as the little green numbers on the black monitor increased. Thirteen sandwiches was not 13, or even 30 dollars. Oh, no. Thirteen sandwiches cost a lot of money. Panic set in. My friend smiled. I smiled. Our eyebrows scrunched with undeniable concern but we were unable to make a peep about our consternation to the deli man who was bagging sandwiches like his life depended on it.

I paid what was probably about half my paycheck at the time. Was the heaviness I felt due to the amount I had just paid or was it the extra pickles?

Bags in hand, we left the store bewildered. “Wait, how should we even do this?”

My friend gave me the same expression. “This is your project!”

We got in my friend’s car and drove downtown to a homeless encampment.

cars on a highway, night, evening, city life,

We walked our way through the bustling streets, past the restaurants and cafes that were still open, and all the clothing stores and movie theaters. We made it to the other end of the main road by the bus station. College students and tourists were spilling out of bars, waiting in lines to see movies, partying in clouds of cigarette and marijuana smoke.

I had one mission: delivering these haram sandwiches to pay the zakat I did not owe with a high probability of getting mugged.

We distributed some to a crowd of very gracious folks resting nearby. A passerby approached us for bus fare. We did not have cash, so we gave him a sandwich. His wife came too; a sandwich for her, as well!

Was this how zakat worked? It did not matter.

I was channeling Muslim Oprah. Sandwiches for everyone!

While giving away the last of our stash, two sightly drunken gentlemen swayed in front of us asking, “Arr the two o’ ya joost goin’ around givin’ sandwiches ta people?”

To which we paused and replied, “Yes?”

They stared incredulously for a while then said, “Well aren’t ya a couple o’ saints! That’s moity koind a ya!” One tipped his hat before they stumbled on their way. That made us smile as we headed swiftly to the car. Good deed accomplished!

food for the poor, giving, alms, zakat, ramadan, old man, elderly uncle taking bread

I love this memory. Not only because it makes me smile, but because it makes me look back on a long period in my life when I was woefully ignorant of how to proceed in most things that had actual rules, like zakat. I cannot help but feel humbled and grateful to where Allah has led me since then.

For so long I wanted to be a “perfect” Muslim. The condescending ways many Muslims handled interactions with me as a convert eventually made me shy away from asking for any help. Doing so, in my mind, would have been a sign of weakness.

That only strengthened my drive to prove I knew what I was doing, even when I did not. I worked so hard at it that I even began fooling myself. But, as Aristotle famously put it, “The more I know, the more I know I don’t know.”

Understanding this did not happen quickly. It was not like a magic door opened and I suddenly became enlightened. It took many years of struggling. Struggling against my own ego and arrogance; sifting through knowledge that was contradictory or confusing, poorly translated; getting angry at the lack of help from others but simultaneously wanting to do everything on my own. It was like years of a kung fu training montage where the rookie keeps getting his behind handed to him by the sensei, but in this case I was the rookie and the sensei was time. And, just like every kung fu movie, as that rookie is at his lowest, something shifts and he finds strength he never knew he had.

The strength that Allah granted me then was the strength of true humility. Of true surrendering. Of realizing I knew nothing, that I was lost, that I needed Him, the acknowledgment that He chose me, that He was all I had, and that time and His patience with me is a Divine gift.

Curated by: Muslim Pro

About the writer
This 32-year-old convert shares an early Ramadan experience after she converted to Islam nearly 2 decades ago. A stay-at-home mom, she currently focuses on helping and encouraging other converts to overcome typical challenges by sharing hilarious anecdotes and relatable memes on @funny memoirs of a convert on Instagram.