As a pillar of Islam, Zakat has enormous transformative potential. But it remains untapped and it’s about time we let it make a comeback. After all, our future depends on it.
Most of us limit our understanding of the pillars of Islam as being individual, ritual obligations. As long as we bear witness to God and His Prophet verbally, pray, pay, fast and complete the pilgrimage, then we regard our duties to have been fulfilled and the pillars to have been upheld.
At an individual level, this approach may well be sufficient. But what it fails to appreciate is the collective nature of the pillars and their function at a macro level. In fact, their role is not just in evidencing and developing an individual’s Islam, or devotion to God, but it extends far beyond that to upholding devotion to God in society at large, providing stability and a firm foundation on which to build and thrive.
When it comes to Zakat specifically, this is especially critical. Zakat is the one pillar that scholars have long identified as having the most obvious dual function of being an act of obedience to God and a means by which to affect positively the lives of human beings. Our personal duty to God may well be fulfilled by making an accurate and timely payment. But the extent to which Zakat can truly be a pillar of devotion to God (Islam) as a successful phenomenon in society, depends entirely on the way in which its distribution occurs. It stands to reason and to piety that God expects us to work together to ensure that our Zakat has the maximum impact in providing support, stability and security to the faith and the faithful.
The Zakat pot in the UK is at least £500 million pounds per annum and will continue to grow in years to come. To unlock the transformative power of this large, critical and regular source of funding, we urgently need to reconfigure the way in which Zakat is currently being paid, collected and utilised; and this is how we need to do it:
1. POOLING: Rather than each individual making their own decision as to where their Zakat should go, Zakat should be centrally collected and organised. Zakat is a public, not a private, matter. It should be entrusted to a credible institution that can represent the combined interests of the community and make decisions with a bird’s eye view of the various challenges that face us.
2. LOCALISING: Rather than it being scattered all over the world, Zakat is supposed to be focused locally to affect the very environment in which the Zakat payers live. It is where we live that we are most accountable for representing God’s cause and continuing the prophetic mission. It is where we know the needs and culture best. And it is within this context that we then seek out the poor and needy within our community who have the first right to our Zakat and whose poverty weakens their faith and weakens us as a community. Beyond Zakat, we are at complete liberty to spend charitably on all manner of local and international projects. Based on available data, it is reasonable to conclude that even if Muslims paid all their Zakat for local distribution, just as much (if not more) would be given in voluntary charity for other causes and a sensible balance in our overall giving would be achieved.
3. BALANCING: Rather than being distributed only to the poor, Zakat is supposed to be balanced across the eight categories stipulated in the Qur’an (9:60), in a manner that reflects the needs of the time. Together, these categories address the following issues: poverty alleviation; economic empowerment; effective Zakat administration; winning over hearts towards Islam and the Muslims; providing basic equality of rights and opportunity; removing burdensome financial constraints that result from debt; supporting God’s cause, i.e. the furtherance of Islam, by helping those in the community who give up their time to represent it and to advocate on its behalf; also within God’s cause, supporting scholarship, so that scholars can develop, guide people in a relevant way and respond to the ideological and intellectual challenges of the day; and finally responding to emergency situations.
All three components of Zakat being pooled, localised and balanced across the various categories of expenditure are inter-dependent and synergistic. The closer we can bring our utilisation of Zakat to reflect these characteristics, the closer we will get to Zakat actually being a pillar of devotion to God in our society. But for as long as things remain as they are, regardless of noble intentions, the key efforts that are desperately required to uphold Islam and support Muslims in the UK are likely to remain incapacitated.
Are we serious about tackling the vast array of internal and external challenges that weaken us and undermine our submission to God? If so, the shift that is required in our thinking and practice is nothing short of urgent. On almost every metric that would give us an idea of the wellbeing of a community, the Muslim community in the UK rates worse than the national average. This is true when we look at numbers relating to poverty, social mobility, health, education, crime and how the community is perceived from the outside. Our faith is misunderstood, often maligned, and there is very little that we are doing in the public sphere to rescue its reputation. Leaving aside the birth rate, there are strong indications that more Muslims are leaving Islam than joining it.
The above issues are not only problematic in worldly terms. What makes them far more concerning is the effect they have on people’s ability to find and hold onto truth. All the categories of Zakat represent concerns that affect the very fabric of a community. When these problems are left to fester, they constitute weakness and undermine our cause. In His knowledge and wisdom, God is simply telling us to spend our money sensibly to tackle the various challenges that end up acting as barriers to people being able to remember, thank and serve Him in a sustainable way. As with all His instructions, they are only for our benefit, in this life and the next.
To go “from pillar to post” is to go from one place to another in a haphazard manner that tends not to yield results. The divine institution of Zakat is supposed to represent the opposite: an ordered system, clear in its overarching objective and parameters but mercifully flexible in its applications, that brings innumerable blessings. If we want Zakat to go from a mere “post” or milestone as an individual act of duty to God, to a “pillar” that stands firm to uphold and strengthen our very purpose as human beings, then the time to engage in critical introspection about the way we pay our Zakat is now.
So be smart with your Zakat. Think carefully about where you pay it and try to do so in line with the principles outlined above. Together, we can and must unlock the full potential of Zakat. After all, our future depends on it.
Iqbal Nasim is Chief Executive of National Zakat Foundation.