Dr. Mohammed Murtaza Arain: A Muslim Family’s Expressions of Faith and Philanthropy

This case study from ‘Faith and Family Philanthropy’ describes the of Mohammed Murtaza Arain, M.D., a well-respected Chicago surgeon. For Dr. Arain and his family, it all begins and ends with the Qur’an. Whether welcoming the new day or making decisions about his personal philanthropy, the Holy Qur’an provides a roadmap that guides their life and actions.


Righteousness does not consist in whether you face towards the East or the West. The righteous man is he who believes in God and the Last Day, in the angels and the Book and the prophets; who, though he loves it dearly, gives away his wealth to kinsfolk, to orphans, to the destitute, to the traveler in need and to beggars, and for the redemption of captives; who attends to his prayers and renders the alms levy; who is true to his promises and steadfast in trial and adversity and in times of war. Such are the true believers; such are the God-fearing.

The Qur’an, 2:176

For Mohammed Murtaza Arain, M.D., a well-respected Chicago surgeon, it all begins and ends with the Qur’an. Whether welcoming the new day or making decisions about his personal philanthropy, the Holy Qur’an provides a roadmap that guides his life and actions.

The oldest of eight children, Dr. Arain was born in the Sindh Province of southern Pakistan. He is now age 54 and well known in the Midwest for his wide-ranging philanthropic activities, including service as president of the boards of The Islamic Foundation, the Indus Society of North America, and the Association of Pakistani Physicians of North America, and his work as a member of the Asian-American Advisory Council to U.S.Senator Paul Simon, former Illinois Governor Jim Edgar, and current Governor George Ryan.

In this country, however, Dr. Arain is perhaps best known for his efforts as coordinator of the Humanitarian Assistance Program of the Chicago-based Rainbow-PUSH Coalition, under the direction of the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. One of the many voluntary programs of this group involved providing medical assistance to people in Kosovo and Bosnia. Using the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s contacts and assistance, Dr. Arain and his team arranged and coordinated an airlift of a group of injured civilians to Chicago for surgical procedures. Dr. Arain himself operated on five of the Bosnians. All of the other physicians involved donated their services as well, and local hospitals provided facilities free of charge.

All five of Dr. Arain’s patients were rehabilitated. Some were fitted with an artificial leg or arm, or underwent a colostomy. Others had a variety of problems surgically corrected. “It really felt good,” says Dr. Arain recalling the hectic weeks of surgery and rehabilitation. “All of them returned to productive, useful lives in Bosnia. I get letters or cards from them on various holidays telling me how they are doing. It’s really very heartwarming to know that you can help out in a small way.”

Needs of a Homeland Are Catalysts for a Nonprofit

In addition to his humanitarian work in his adopted country, Dr. Arain and his family have never forgotten their homeland or the needs of its people. Several years ago, the Arains formed their own nonprofit organization — the Badin Education and Welfare Organization, named for their native Badin District in Sindh Province, a rural community of farmers along Pakistan’s southern coast.

The Badin Organization supports education and healthcare initiatives. It runs collaborative programs with several local schools and provides scholarships for graduates working toward careers in medicine or engineering, and an award program for teachers. It also operates three rural health clinics, providing the facility and medicines while local doctors donate free medical care. The Arains fund and run the Badin Organization entirely themselves — a task made easier financially as a result of the extraordinary accomplishments of the Arain family.            

Of the four Arain brothers, three are physicians and the fourth is a successful businessman. All the Arain sisters are married and homemakers. Dr. Mohammed Murtaza Arain’s wife is also a physician. “Many years ago, our family was not as affluent as they are now. But now we’ve been blessed by our professions and otherwise we are blessed with a lot more than what we used to have. Having said that, our faith demands that we share those blessings with others who are less fortunate.”

Those that give their wealth for the cause of God can be compared to a grain of corn which brings forth seven ears, each bearing a hundred grains.

Qur’an, 2:262

Because the family believes that God provides abundance in many areas of life that must be shared, the Arains’ philanthropy includes gifts of time and talent, as well as treasure — as their work with the Rainbow-PUSH coalition demonstrates.

“The Qur’an contains a strong unitarian concept,” Dr. Arain suggests. “It says that we are in this world together. It says that God is one and that mankind is a brotherhood. There are some things that are good for you, and if you feel that the other person is your brother, then you ought to share those good things with him. No matter whether that’s wisdom, or money, or a skill, or whatever it is.”

The Arain family also believes in the power of leveraging their gifts. As an example, the family recently co-sponsored an eye clinic in Badin where volunteer physicians restored the eyesight of some 125 people. Patients were transported from their homes and housed in the camp, courtesy of the Badin Organization. The surgery was performed by volunteer ophthalmologists from the United States and Pakistan, all coordinated by the Arains.

Muslim Tenets Motivate a Family’s Philanthropy

What motivates the Arain family philanthropy is their deep, abiding Muslim faith and a belief in its tenets regarding helping the less fortunate. “The way I understand it, the success of a human being is directly related to a God-given gift,” says Dr. Arain, “be that wealth, be that knowledge, or be that a very brave or courageous person. God says, you be the judge of how much you need for yourself, but whatever is beyond your need, then you are to give it to other people. The fact that charity is mentioned so early and so often in the Qur’an is an indication of its importance.”

This Book is not to be doubted. It is a guide for the righteous, who have faith in the unseen and are steadfast in prayer; who give in alms from what We gave them; who trust what has been revealed to you and to others before you, and firmly believe in the life to come. These are rightly guided by their Lord; these shall surely triumph.

The Qur’an, 2:1

The Qur’an also lays out the proper attitude and sequence in which a believer in Islam must give away his wealth. First and foremost, to achieve redemption all charity must flow from a love of God:

Those that give their wealth for the cause of God and do not follow their alms giving with taunts and insults shall be rewarded by their Lord; they shall have nothing to fear or regret.

Qur’an, 2:266

Whatever alms you give shall rebound to your own advantage, provided that you give them for the love of God.

Qur’an, 2:273

According to the Qur’an, when decisions concerning charity are made, the needs of the immediate family must take precedence. The believer’s next charitable priority should be orphans, then the needy, followed by the wayfarer, and then anyone who asks for help, because no one should judge another’s need. Lastly, the Qur’an specifies money should be given to indentured servants or slaves so that they may pay their debts and be set free — a relic from the time when the Prophet Mohammed revealed God’s word.

As a child, Dr. Arain remembers clearly his family slaughtering a lamb for special occasions, then giving away whatever was more than the immediate family could eat. This tradition draws from the deep roots of the Islamic faith. According to legend, when the Prophet came home one day, one of his wives told him that they had slaughtered a lamb and had given away portions of it as he had prescribed. The wife assured him, however, that she had saved his favorite part to serve him. The Prophet is said to have remarked: “You know, it is interesting that you mention what it is we kept of the lamb. But, whatever we have given away is the only thing we have really kept, and whatever we are going to consume is the only thing that will go away.”

Giving Evokes Satisfaction and Inner Peace

“This is really a paradigm shift,” notes Dr. Arain. “I can tell you this, that if you really give for God, it gives you an extreme sense of satisfaction and inner peace. If you are really working on this paradigm, it is my limited experience that God creates opportunities for you from a totally unexpected source if you indeed take a step to help other people, to help mankind.”

As a case in point, Dr. Arain recalls talking to the chairman of the board of a Chicago hospital during a break in a meeting. “We needed to make arrangements for the airlift of the Bosnian civilians and I told him that I was chairman of surgery at the hospital. I was about to tell the board that we would provide the medical care, if they would provide the hospital care. The moment I said something, that guy comes back to me and says, ‘You know, you pre-empted me by a few minutes. I was going to propose the same thing, because I heard about the situation. I was going to propose that the hospital would to do this free if you would put together a team of doctors to do it.’ Isn’t that something?”

Another fundamental tenet of Muslim charity is that additional rewards accrue to those who give with little or no fanfare, a point that troubles Dr. Arain. “In a way it is regrettable that a lot of my activity gets publicized. I feel that the publicity and notoriety take away from the goodness, the reward that God will eventually give me,” a point he punctuates with a quote from the Qur’an.

To be charitable in public is good, but to give alms to the poor in private is better and will atone for some of your sins.

Qur’an, 2:271

To devout Muslims such as the Arains, acts of charity and compassion are ingrained into the myriad exchanges of daily personal and professional life. “There is another dimension to charity,” Dr. Arain adds. “Sometimes, as a surgeon or as a physician, you basically start thinking that you are somebody special. Let’s say someone is totally incapacitated in bed. I feel that it is also an act of charity and decency and philanthropy if you approach that person as if he were the physician and you were the patient. It’s good to keep in mind that it is pure coincidence that he is what he is and you are what you are. It could very well have been reversed. And how would you have liked to be treated?”

As a physician, Dr. Arain also believes in the healing power of philanthropy. “There are some activities that give people more endorphins. If you exercise or if you do good work, you have that good feeling and positive endorphins are released in your body. That gives your brain, your heart, your mind, and your soul a boost in spirit.”

Helping Others Creates a Value System

The Arains learned valuable lessons about helping others from their tight-knit family and the rural Muslim farming community in which they were raised. Still, all of Dr. Arain’s brothers and sisters are vigilant about teaching their children the charitable values that come from their faith, even in mainstream America. One of Dr. Arain’s two children is a legal consultant to the Reverend Jackson and the other is a senior in law school.

“I think they see the value of philanthropy. I mean, I picked it up from my parents, based on their resources and what they were able to do to help other people. Still, I think it comes from an understanding of scripture. It’s very clear and I think the children have it, even though they are into a lot of the sciences and the legal profession. I think deep down it is really a value system and that value system is all or none — either you have it or you don’t. For instance, if you don’t drink alcohol it doesn’t matter if there are a thousand bottles of wine, it’s your belief system. God says in Qur’an, either you’re a believer or you’re not — there’s nothing in between.”

After a lifetime committed to practicing philanthropy guided by the principles of Islam, Dr. Arain is still inspired by its concepts and words. “I believe that, ultimately, salvation for each and every person is going to be measured as a direct consequence of what they were able to do for others during their lives. Sometimes we don’t realize our own potential, our capacity to help other people. Because there is an entity — God — who knows our potential, each of us is going to be accountable. If you do the right thing and you are in a charitable state of mind, God will open up your capacity. God will open up opportunities for the people who are helping other people. They will be the ones who will live in peace in this world and will accomplish their goals — whatever God had set as a benchmark for them to be successful in the hereafter.”