I will never forget the phone call I received back in December 2012, a year into my journey at National Zakat Foundation (NZF). I was at the iconic London Central Mosque next to Regent’s Park, frantically preparing to host supporters for our Winter Challenge – a five-mile sponsored walk across London – when my phone started buzzing with an unrecognised number. I guessed that the call must be from someone in need. My mobile number really used to get around in those days as one to ring if you were a Muslim suffering from poverty in the UK.
I was right. The man’s trembling voice explained that he had been homeless for a fortnight since leaving prison, that he was hungry and he needed help. He was nervous about his request for support and it soon became clear why, as he uttered a phrase that has stayed with me ever since: “Brother, I know you are a Zakat organisation but I am here in the UK, so can you still help me?” I was glad to be able to respond in a way to settle his fears: “Yes, my friend, this is exactly why we exist, to support you in your situation.”
He had unknowingly gone straight to the heart of the debate that NZF’s emergence over the previous 18 months had sparked within the UK’s Muslim community. Should our Zakat – an annual obligation for Muslims to give away 2.5% of their disposable assets – be distributed locally or abroad?
NZF’s position when it launched in 2011 had been clear: Zakat should be locally distributed in the first instance until local need had been dealt with. For far too long, we had neglected to alleviate poverty on our own doorstep, preferring instead to send money ‘back home’ to Pakistan, Bangladesh and parts of Africa, as well as responding to numerous, large- scale humanitarian crises across Muslim- majority countries.
This was all understandable to a degree. But, we argued, it didn’t matter what we did around the world if those in our very midst were being left abandoned. How could we have been so apathetic for so long towards those in destitution in our own congregations? Did we not realise that Muslims in the UK represent the most disadvantaged group on almost every metric pertaining to socio-economic welfare and wellbeing? Why were we ignoring the overwhelming support of classical Muslim scholarship for prioritising the local distribution of Zakat and failing to invest in ourselves?
In the years that have elapsed, and especially from 2015-17, I found myself exploring a number of such ‘Zakat questions’ in much greater depth. The purpose of what ended up being an intense process of reading, research and consultation, alongside the day-to- day travails of being a chief executive of a fast-growing charity, was to develop sufficient confidence that the theory underpinning our work was sound. After all, Zakat is a divinely ordained practice. I owed it to God, and to those entrusting their Zakat to NZF, to ensure that I understood the subject matter and that our policy framework was, so to speak, vertically aligned.
It has been a strenuous journey of reconciling text and context, authenticity and relevance. Today, thankfully, we have clarity. Here, in summary form, is what we have come to know in addition to our very starting premise that Zakat should be kept local:
1) The word ‘Islam’ means a full commitment to God. The purpose of Zakat as one of the five foundations of ‘Islam’ (alongside the declaration of faith, prayer, fasting and pilgrimage) is to support the flourishing of this relationship with the Divine in society while fully recognising another important divine instruction that there is no compulsion in religion. God refers to all these ‘pillars’ in the Qur’an in the context of previous prophets such as Abraham, Moses and Jesus too, suggesting that they form a universal human basis for supporting faith and the lives of the faithful.
2) Zakat does not represent an individually directed, spontaneous act of charity. Rather it is a communal resource, paid as a matter of obligation, and typically administered by a designated body or authority. It is actually simply a wealth tax and different to voluntary forms of giving practised by Muslims, normally termed Sadaqah. However, in a Muslim minority context, such as in the UK, where there is no legal obligation for anyone to pay Zakat specifically, referring to it as a tax can be confusing. A useful way to think about Zakat is to consider it rather like a membership fee: Muslims pay it as part of their belonging to club Islam!
3) Zakat is not just for poverty alleviation. Rather there are eight categories of Zakat distribution mentioned in the Qur’an. Together they deal with several aspects of individual and communal welfare, all aimed at removing the barriers that get in the way of people realising their full, human, spiritual potential.
So, at National Zakat Foundation, our vision is for Islam, i.e. commitment to God, to flourish in society as a source of prosperity and harmony for all. Our mission is to distribute Zakat transformatively within the UK. We believe that Zakat is only truly effective and purposeful when it is localised, unified and balanced in its distribution. We have two programmes: an Economic Empowerment Programme (EEP) and a Leadership Investment Programme (LIP).
Under our EEP, we have had over 10,000 direct beneficiaries and distributed almost £10 million of Zakat in the process, working closely with the likes of St Mungo’s, Women’s Aid, British Red Cross and dozens of other charities across the country. Under our LIP, which began only in January 2018, we have started to support young, talented Muslims whom we hope will be the activists and intellectuals of tomorrow, as well as important and usually terribly under- funded community institutions such as Cambridge Muslim College.
In many ways, our journey has only just begun. Currently, NZF handles £3.5 million of Zakat a year, less than 2% of what is probably paid by the UK’s Muslims. While I would expect that the local payment of Zakat will become the default by the time those who are born today become fully- fledged Zakat-paying Muslims, there is a huge amount to do before this becomes a reality!
I didn’t finish the story of the man who called me. I found out that he was in Eccles, just outside Manchester. I managed to arrange for two local volunteers to go to find him. They later told me that he was in an appalling condition, without a toothbrush to his name. They bought him some basic items and arranged some temporary accommodation. Within another fortnight, we had supported him with a grant to cover his first month’s rent and deposit so he could move into private rented accommodation and his benefits could kick in.
It only took another week for the real magic to happen. My phone rang again, the number this time more familiar. He was extremely grateful for all the support received so far and said he was praying for the whole team at NZF. But, he said, he had one last request. He had found a job as a waiter at a local restaurant and was due to start in three days. The problem was that he didn’t have the white shirt, black trousers and black shoes he needed for work. I reassured him that the solution was at hand. We immediately arranged for clothing vouchers to be sent to him. He bought his clothes, started work and was well on his way to a more stable and dignified life.
This is the power of organised, community-funded, local, flexible grant- making. This is the power of Zakat.