The Role of Zakat in Building Faith Communities
Muslims in minority settings must wake up to the importance of zakat. The payment of zakat is one of the most repeated injunctions of the Holy Qur’an. It is conjoined in importance with the ritual prayer (salat) almost thirty times. God has promised many things in the Qur’an to those who give zakat: His special mercy (Qur’an, 7:156, 9:71), an increase in blessings (Qur’an, 30:39), a tremendous reward (Qur’an, 4:162), success (Qur’an, 23:1-4) and even worldly power (Qur’an, 22:41, 24:56). Given the centrality of zakat, it is surprising to see it so neglected. While mosques are found almost everywhere there is a Muslim community, there are very few attempts to organise the collection and distribution of zakat within these communities. It is the community itself that suffers by holding back from this institution. This is because zakat has a very clear purpose. But how many of us are aware of what it is?
The detailed rules of the payment and distribution of zakat, as laid out in classical law texts, speak clearly of a higher purpose for this institution. This purpose is to create, strengthen, nourish and nurture communities of believers, wherever they are found, to enable them to uphold the cause of God and His remembrance. This is part of the larger social vision of the Islamic faith, whose many rules and injunctions are designed to bring hearts together in healthy communal ties. The institution of zakat lies at the centre of this vision. This is why the revival of this institution is of particular importance in settings where Muslims form vulnerable minorities and are in need of unity and confidence.
Classical texts of Islamic law tell us it is disliked for a person to pay their zakat away from the locality in which they live, except in particular circumstances. This shows that zakat is meant to form a bond of concern, care and responsibility between the members of this locality. Furthermore, this creates within zakat payers themselves a sense of identity and belonging to where they are. In our age of globalisation and communal identity crises, especially amongst Muslim minorities in the west, the message of zakat could not be clearer: your home is where you live, so devote your wealth and energy to serving it.
Classical law texts also tell us that the recipient of zakat should be a Muslim. This is equally significant. It shows that zakat is not simply charity, which is clearly deserved by all who are in need, but rather, it serves a cause beyond that. It serves to build a connection between the people of the faith wherever they are. This is of particular importance in minority settings where Muslims often form communities of solidarity based on ethnicities and professional networks. This leaves those newly converted to the faith with nowhere to belong. The underprivileged and small ethnic groups are also left out. Zakat was legislated to tackle this problem. In the earliest days of Islam, zakat was at the heart of defining the new community. Instead of a tribal basis for solidarity and care, zakat made Islam the basis. The Muslim poor could claim a financial right over the wealth of the Muslim rich regardless of tribe and status.
This is not to say that zakat preaches insularity, or that believers should not care for unbelievers. The injunctions of the religion are clear that all living beings have a right to care and charity. The Prophet of Islam (God bless him and give him peace) said, “There is a reward in every moist liver,” meaning that a person is rewarded for acts of care to all living creatures. But how can a community of believers fulfil its duties to its non-Muslim neighbours if the community itself is weak, divided, and has no care for its own members? Charity, to be effective and long lasting, must always begin at home. Zakat builds that home. It is not a cold and insular home. How can it be insular, when one of the eight categories of zakat recipient named in the Qur’anic text are those whose hearts are to be brought close?
This category of zakat recipient, mentioned in the Qur’an as the mu’allafat qulubuhum, or those whose hearts are to be reconciled, illustrates the community and bridge building role of zakat. The exact application of this category has been subject to scholarly debate. Some Muslim jurists held that this category refers to new Muslims, that the community sets aside zakat funds to encourage them as they start their journey in the faith with their new faith community. Some jurists held that this refers to non-Muslims, that the community sets aside funds to spend charitably and show goodwill to members of other faith communities, building bridges that might enable them to experience the serenity and beauty of God’s remembrance that lies at the heart of Islamic faith and practice. Some jurists held that it refers to those actively opposed to the faith, that the community sets aside funds to show them displays of goodwill in the hope that the walls they have erected may be removed, and that a new world and a new form of community can be built. The rules of zakat, therefore, are clearly directing us to invest in our communities. We are not fulfilling the divine injunction if we are not building, creating, sustaining and nourishing the faith-community where we live.
But many questions arise as we seek to actually bring life to this much needed pillar of the faith. Which of the aforementioned positions, if any, should be adopted regarding the topic of reconciling hearts? Does the answer depend on the social context of a Muslim community? These questions are perhaps best answered by bringing together both Islamic legal experts and social scientists. Another category of zakat recipient mentioned in the Qur’anic text that requires scholarly deliberation is that of slaves working to free themselves from slavery. Now, we might be quick to say that slavery has been abolished, but are we really so sure? There are many forms of modern slavery found all over the world. There are people threatened, often under the burden of debt, to, quite literally, be enslaved in the sex industry, or poorly-paid intensive labour arrangements, even in developed countries such as the United Kingdom. Can zakat be used to liberate such individuals to allow them a chance to live free? Again, for an answer that is faithful to the Islamic tradition, and grounded in knowledge of the reality of the case, experts of many backgrounds will need to be brought together. But there is a stark difference between experts discussing these issues as mere hypothetical scenarios and between their discussing them in a context where the Muslim community actually sets aside, say, £2 million a year to free the enslaved. When a community holds the key to literally transform society, then experts will be fully engaged and present the best that they have to offer.
One might wonder if such large zakat funds are possible. They certainly are, even in the Muslim minority settings of which we speak. In the United Kingdom, there were 2.7 million Muslims in 2011, as per the national census. Pew estimates 5.5 million by 2020. One can only imagine what this number might be by 2050. It could be 20 or 30 million. Of these, perhaps 20 percent would be zakat payers. The average zakat payment, based on current values, might be £500. If you do the calculations, you will realise that we are talking about very large sums of money, sums that could change society and connect hearts. So why are we holding back?
It is clear from the preceding discussion that zakat is an institution, not just a personal obligation. For this institution to fully function, funds must be pooled together, divided carefully and distributed fairly. A central institution would be needed to manage this, explain to people what zakat is for and provide services to help people in their zakat calculations. This institution would facilitate for scholars of all backgrounds to come together and provide their best solutions to the very real questions the institution will raise because it will hold the keys to real change. We are fortunate that there are some noteworthy efforts across the world to build central zakat institutions in Muslim minority settings.
In the United Kingdom, the National Zakat Foundation, or NZF (www.nzf.org.uk), was founded in 2011, spurred into existence by heart-wrenching stories of the struggles of homeless Muslim women in Birmingham. It is the first nationwide project collecting and distributing zakat in the UK. NZF’s services include supported housing projects – three homes dedicated to homeless Muslim women and one home for ex-offenders – where residents have access to spiritual and emotional counselling, are trained in life-skills and helped in accessing employment opportunities. NZF’s other forms of support include scholarships for students of undergraduate degrees, funding to support business start-ups and funding for training programmes to help those financially struggling increase in earning capacity. NZF has distributed over four million pounds of zakat to date. Branches of NZF have opened in Australia and Canada.
In Singapore, there is Muis, a state sanctioned central zakat authority (www.zakat.sg) with many years of experience in collecting and distributing zakat in Singapore with the aim of nurturing the Muslim community, equipping Muslim youth “with resilience and faith” and building bridges with wider Singaporean society. They distributed more than 36 million Singaporean dollars of zakat in 2015.
In South Africa, there is the South African National Zakah Fund (www.sanzaf.org.za), established in 1974. It has a wide portfolio of projects funded by zakat and other forms of charitable donation. These projects include distributing winter supplies to the vulnerable and underprivileged, programmes to provide focused support for the elderly and a number of educational drives and student bursaries as part of an education empowerment and development programme. They distributed over 115 million rands of zakat in 2015.
The Canada-based SeekersHub presents another interesting model in their SeekersHub Global Zakat Fund (projects.seekershub.org/zakat/). This is not a centralised zakat institution as in the examples above, but its experience is nonetheless noteworthy. SeekersHub collects zakat funds from across the globe to provide stipends for outstanding Muslim scholars around the world to free them up for scholarship and teaching in their communities. This is an example of focusing on a single stream of zakat recipient, singled out for their transformative effect on the wider Muslim community in which they live.
Muslims often spend time and energy discussing the weak state of Muslims and various governmental attempts to undermine Muslim communities. Not enough time and energy is spent providing solutions for the current state of affairs. A correctly managed collection and distribution of zakat in localised communities across the world can be a major step towards improving the economic, political and spiritual situation of Muslim communities. Although the focus of this essay has been the importance of the institution of zakat for Muslim minorities, who are perhaps in most need of zakat’s ability to unify and nurture communities, it is no doubt of relevance to Muslim majority settings as well. Like many potential solutions to complex problems, the revival of the institution of zakat is a project that takes time, effort, struggle and people coming together to see this vision fulfilled. As we do this, we will realise that the true beneficiary of the injunctions of the sacred law of Islam is not God, but it is us, us and all those hearts we are able to touch and grant a chance for a better and more wholesome life.
Sohail Hanif is a DPhil candidate in Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford, where he specialises in Islamic legal thought. He is also the Head of Research and Development at the National Zakat Foundation (www.nzf.org.uk). To contact Sohail, email firstname.lastname@example.org.