Muslim holiday brings food banks unusual blessing
New York Newsday
January 11, 2006
By Cara Anna
ALBANY, N.Y. — In the prepackaged, boxed and canned world of American food banks, fresh meat is a luxury. But what to do when two and a half tons come at once?
Take it, Amy Gabala says happily. Her Washington, D.C.-area Manna Food Center is used to generous holiday giving. But the annual Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, which fell on Tuesday, brought the kind of gift she’s never seen: “Such an extraordinary amount of meat.”
Increasingly, American food banks are being presented with chunks of freshly slaughtered goat, lamb and cow as Muslims bring a key religious obligation to a wider audience.
Ahmed Kobeisy, the director of the Islamic Center of the Capital District in Albany, N.Y., says the center this year is encouraging members to donate meat to non-Muslims and food banks as well. The center expects about 1,500 congregants at its Eid prayers.
“The poor includes all the poor,” Kobeisy says.
Eid, which comes at the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca, celebrates the storied test of Ibrahim, or Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice his own son for God. He was allowed to sacrifice a sheep instead.
Each Muslim family is encouraged to sacrifice an animal and split it in three _ one-third for the needy, one-third for friends and family and one-third for themselves.
Zahid Bukhari with the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University says a growing number of donations in the U.S. go not just to needy Muslims, but to the community at large. The reason, American Muslims say, is simple.
“Especially after 9/11, we need to be a more obvious part of society,” says Irma Hafeez, the general secretary for the Montgomery County Muslim Council in Maryland. The group first gave 700 pounds of meat to the Manna Food Center last year. This week, it hopes to donate 5,000 pounds.
The California-based Islamic Relief USA is introducing a pilot project this Eid in Detroit, where meat will be distributed to the needy community at large, says media manager Arif Shaikh.
And in the Los Angeles area, the Shura Council of Southern California, a collection of about 70 local mosques, expects to donate “tens of thousands of pounds”‘ of meat to local food banks, says executive director Shakeel Syed.
When the practice first started, the council ran into some unusual reactions. Such as, “Is this rotten that you want to dump it on us?” Syed says. “There was just a lack of knowledge at the beginning. I think canned food is the norm.”
The lack of knowledge came on both sides. In past years, donor enthusiasm ran so high among recent Muslim immigrants that the council sent out advisories telling people not to simply hand out bags of fresh meat to needy strangers.
“Muslims are beginning to recognize if you give a pound of meat to someone on the street, there’s not much they can do with it,” Syed says.
The advisories have stopped, he says. But “there are always some extra-excited people.”
At Eid, Muslims often contract with local farms and have the animals killed at local halal, or religiously acceptable, slaughterhouses. Goat is a favorite, though other meat such as beef is fine.
Online giving is another quickly growing practice.
Islamic Relief arranges to sacrifice an animal on a donor’s behalf in 25 countries around the world. This year’s focus is on recent disaster-hit areas such as Pakistan, Aceh in Indonesia and Darfur in Sudan. Donors can specify recipients online, or Islamic Relief gives the food to groups such as widows and orphans.
The Queens-based Islamic Circle of New York offers a similar global donation system, but it also plans to donate hundreds of pounds of meat to local food banks.
“There’s an old proverb, `How can you go to sleep at night if your neighbor is hungry?”‘ says Malika Rushdan, a staff member. “Well, maybe your neighbors are not Muslim.”