Letter 97

DAY 97

Hamza Zafer

Associate Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization
University of Washington
April 26, 2021

Dear President Biden, Vice President Harris, and Members of the 117th Congress,

Salam, peace.

The Qur’an teaches that those who possess surplus in wealth and power must fulfill the entitlements of the impoverished and powerless. When the people ask: “What are they to give away [from their possessions]?” they are instructed to give away “the surplus” (2:219). Resources in excess of their needs are to be distributed equitably and predictably, so that wealth “does not remain in perpetual circulation among the wealthiest among [them]” (59:7). The God fearing recognize that their surplus includes an immutable “entitlement for the petitioner and the dispossessed” (51:19). The communal fulfillment of this entitlement is an “obligation from God” (9:60).

“…we are custodians of a surplus generated over generations…”

For us American Muslims, the downward and outward redistribution or “purification” (9:11) of our resources is more than charity. It is the basis of our pious collectivity. All prophets, we believe, came to instruct humanity in the “acts of welfare” (21:73) whereby inward piety could be lived out through equitable and just material relations in the community and between communities. “Goodness,” the Qur’an instructs, is not “whether you turn your faces towards the east or the west [in ritual].” Rather, true righteousness and piety involve “the turning over of much-loved property to the kinspeople and to the kinless, to the deprived and the displaced, to the petitioner and the enslaved” (2:177).

America is blessed with an unimaginable surplus. As a nation, we have far more than we need—be it food, books, or vaccines. This wealth has not come to us through our own labors alone. Rather, we are custodians of a surplus generated over generations, through the suffering of countless enslaved bodies, and through the labors, talents, and resources of those far beyond our borders. Such wealth, the Qur’an instructs, is to be “restored” to “the deprived and the displaced” (59:7). It is to be set aside for “the needy emigrants who were deprived of their homes and their properties” and those who have come to us “seeking [a share] from God’s surplus” (59:8) through their abilities and creativities.

I ask you to remember the immutable entitlements of “the petitioner and the dispossessed” (51:19). May we fulfill our obligations fully and prosper together, āmīn.


Hamza M. Zafer

Hamza M. Zafer, Ph.D.
Historian of the Qur’an and Early Islam
Associate Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization
University of Washington

the author

Hamza Zafer is Associate Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization at the University of Washington. He is a specialist in pre-modern Arabian and African languages and textual traditions around the Red Sea. His work explores the historical interface between Jewish and Muslim religio-political thought in the Red Sea region from the 6th to the 16th century. Dr. Zafer is the author of Ecumenical Community: Language and Politics of the Ummah in the Qur’an (Brill, 2020), a  history of the Qur’an’s community building language. His current research projects include Matriarchs of Medina: Muhammad’s Wives, Mothers, and Daughters in the Early Arabic Sources (8th century) and Jewish and Muslim Scripture in the Ethiopic Writings of Abba Enbaqom (16th century).