Volunteerism in Islam

by Dr Ahmad Hussein Sakr


Volunteering is the lifeblood of any community. It is because of volunteers that communities are able to run organizations, social services, conferences, playgroups, drop-in centers, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, open libraries, run schools, set up blood banks, and the list goes on. Paid employees only make up a small part of the social services network; without volunteers such endeavors would come to a standstill.

As Muslims, our role isn't just to make our salat and fast and pay zakat. We are encouraged to take on a broader role by working to improve the communities we live in; we should be visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, teaching people to read, helping people who have no one to turn to. It is by translating our love of Allah into good actions that we strengthen our imaan. Islam is a faith of action and we need to demonstrate our faith by working to make the world a better place.

In Islam there is a strong ethic of volunteerism. This does not simply extend to running study circles or fundraising for the masjid. As Muslims, we see our role as world citizens. The idea of working for a better society or community shouldn't be limited to the Muslim community but should extend to the broader non-Muslim community as well. Because we live in that community too, whatever weaknesses are present affect us also.

Dawah, the idea of inviting others to Islam, takes on myriad forms. The obvious one is educating people specifically about Islam and the principles enshrined therein. But the less obvious form is through doing good works and setting an example. This is where volunteerism plays a role.

         As a community, Muslims need to cultivate a culture of volunteerism. There is a persistent notion that volunteers are essentially free labour. Their efforts are not appreciated and, indeed, are often criticized. We need to shift our perception and see that it is because of volunteers that so many of the services we need are available. Entire mosques have been built through the efforts of volunteers, conferences are run by volunteers, Eid prayers are organized by volunteers, schools are run, in large part, by volunteers, Muslim newspapers and magazines are written for and published by volunteers, and so on.

         It is also important to note that volunteering should be a priority. Typically, Muslims see volunteering as something that should be done when you have nothing else to do. This should not be the case. If people generally see volunteering as something secondary and less important, the quality of the effort is greatly diminished. Volunteering must be at least as important as other pursuits.

Volunteering should be done by professionals. This is not to say that unless you have a graduate degree in mathematics, you shouldn't help with an after-school tutoring program. Rather, if you have that graduate degree or are a teacher, you should be the one who should take the initiative in starting the tutoring program. Your skills will be invaluable to that program. If all the math tutors are people who have weak math skills, the effort will be a waste of everyone's time and resources. Not to mention the students who will continue to fail their math tests.

It is exceedingly important to avoid volunteer burnout. In every community there are a core group of volunteers and the Muslim community is no different. We all know the one Muslim brother or sister who helps out at all the events and is always working at breakneck speed. This is not fair. It is of no help to leave all the work to a few frazzled people while the rest sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labour. The core group eventually burns out. They have other obligations -- family, work, social activities. When they are worn out and drop out, the whole community feels their absence.

Volunteering has many benefits. Because of people's willingness to work for free, many services can be offered at a lower cost or even for free; there is far more flexibility in the delivery of services since more people are available to help; volunteering gives individuals a broader sense of community; and people also feel a greater connection to one another when they are involved in volunteer activities.

There are also personal benefits for the volunteer. We understand that our primary motivation for helping others should be our love for Allah but that doesn't mean we can't benefit from our volunteer activities. Many volunteers have learned invaluable skills and have made personal contacts that have helped them in securing employment later on. Also, for students, volunteering is an excellent way to build up a resume and gain a wide range of experience that can certainly help when it comes time to apply to college and university.

There are also some important rules to remember when volunteering:

         No volunteer is to brag about giving his time, effort, energy, knowledge and memory when he is doing it fee sabeelillah (in the way of Allah).

         No volunteer should accuse the employees that they are receiving money from the general budget of the community, while he is doing it for free.

         No volunteer should accept a job or a title for the sake of show, or else it will become hypocrisy.

         No volunteer should accept a title or a job when he knows that he is not qualified for the job.

         No volunteer should accept a title, while knowing that he has no time to volunteer for such a job.

(Volunteerism in Islam by Dr Ahmad Hussein Sakr)