For Imam Khalid Latif, one of the purposes of religion is to lead you to take on societal injustices and help people in need, which he does every day in his work as the University Chaplain for New York University and the Executive Director of the school’s Islamic Center.
The child of Pakistani immigrants, Latif didn’t feel a sense of ownership with his Islamic faith until he enrolled in his freshman year at NYU. While in school, he connected with the social justice elements of Islam and how it acknowledged and embraced diversity. The September 11 terrorist attacks happened during Latif’s sophomore year and, in the years following, he witnessed the rise of Islamophobic sentiment in New York City. Latif committed himself to cross interfaith and cultural lines, which led him to become the youngest chaplain in the history of the New York City Police Department and eventually to his current positions at NYU.
The Islamic holy month Ramadan (which in 2021 starts on April 12) is a time when Muslims make extra efforts to help the needy and gather together with family and friends. The spirit of giving is essential during this time.
Latif spoke with us about what the spirit of giving truly means and ways that people can incorporate the principles of Ramadan into their daily lives.
If you had to explain the spirit of giving to someone, what would you say?
In my religious tradition of Islam, worship has elements that are both individualized as well as communal. Within those broader frames of what can be done individually or what can be done communally is also the idea of responsibility, both to the self and responsibility on a social level. So within the prism of giving, it’s seen as a spiritual act, meaning there is a need to understand the fulfillment of rights that the beneficiary has over us and to understand that the pinnacle of a community can’t be actualized until the most underserved and underprivileged needs are both recognized and met.
To help someone doesn’t mean they are helpless nor does it mean that they might be more or less content because of how much one might own materialistically. But real contentment stems from having an inward sense of balance and rooting it in things that exist within you as opposed to things that are external to you.
Is there a particular story related to the spirit of giving that really impacted you?
There was a Ramadan maybe five or six years ago where a woman had come to my office who I knew to be a survivor of domestic violence. …And she didn’t have support from a lot of people around her. When she left that abusive relationship, it was very hard for her in a lot of ways…trying to figure out what her next steps would be, job placement, the relationship now to her children, etc. She’s in my office and I’m giving her some money at the end of Ramadan. I handed it to her and she then gave it back to me. And I said, ‘Do you not need this anymore?’ and she said ‘No, I definitely need it. I just don’t know what I’m supposed to do with it. I’ve never had a bank account that I’ve opened and ran on my own. I don’t know how to get a credit card nor have I ever had to pay for my own cell phone bill.’ And then she said, ‘You keep it and tell me what to do with it.’ And it made me realize that the fundamental spirit of giving in that situation wasn’t necessarily being fulfilled.
They need someone to teach them how to write a resume, how to go on an interview, how to apply for a job. They need counseling and they need guidance on fundamental life skills. …The idea of trying to fulfill the spiritual act of giving just by simply handing over some money in and of itself, to me, was very egocentric. I fulfilled my responsibility in terms of ritual, but have I fulfilled my responsibility in terms of a right that this person has? You need to understand [people] in their entirety as a human and what it really is that they need as a beneficiary.
For me, it was a very pivotal moment to say we need to create something that is institutionally sound and understand that somebody needs a holistic set of services to help meet them where they are and to help get them back on their feet, rather than just providing funds without any sense of who I am giving it to.
What are some ways that people can incorporate the principles of Ramadan into their everyday lives?
The idea with Ramadan is for people to really take into consideration how they nourish and cultivate a relationship with parts of themselves that society otherwise has us not pay so much attention to. …I would say that a primary place where someone can look to see where and how they can relate to Ramadan principally is in this field of consumption. Am I firstly a consumer or am I a contributor? Am I one [who] just takes for myself or are there things that I’m giving back?
We live in this consumer-driven society that quite often teaches us to find meaning and happiness in the acquisition of what it seeks to sell to us. … Ramadan is saying that you don’t need to find contentment—the base of contentment should be rooted in what exists within you and not something that exists external to you, so you’re not in a place where your possessions own you but where you own your possessions.