Whilst walking down Whitechapel Road during Ramadan, it was hard not to notice the sheer number of adverts by Muslim charities, attracting Zakat payments. And almost without exception, the adverts featured a miserable but endearing child, dressed in rags, with large deer-like eyes, inviting warmth and sympathy from beholders. In doing so, the link between Zakat and poverty alleviation is established; one sees an advert for Zakat, coupled with an impoverished child. The child also seems, prima facie, to be from the developing world, which further presents Zakat as a tool for poverty alleviation in the developing world.
This is a noble use of Zakat. But it is not the only use of it. Zakat holds kaleidoscopic potential; it can be used in a plethora of enriching ways. Even in the verse in the Quran (9:60) which speaks about the recipients of Zakat, 8 categories are mentioned. Let’s look at each in turn and consider further uses of Zakat.
“Zakah expenditures are only for the poor and for the needy and for those employed to collect [zakah] and for bringing hearts together [for Islam] and for freeing captives [or slaves] and for those in debt and for the cause of Allah and for the [stranded] traveller – an obligation [imposed] by Allah . And Allah is Knowing and Wise.”
Holy Quran 9:60, Sahih International
The first two categories, the poor, and the needy, are clearly understood today, with the predominant use of Zakat funds being channelled towards poverty alleviation. To reiterate, this is a worthy and noble use, but not the only use of Zakat. Further categories of Zakat show a staggering malleability of Zakat funds.
The third category of Zakat recipients are those who administer Zakat. Obviously, administrators of Zakat need to eat and provide for their families. In this sense, this category of Zakat is particularly prudent; it makes Zakat a stable and sustainable institution. It makes Zakat an actual career destination, and in doing so attracts talent towards it. There is only so far that charities can grow when being based upon volunteers. Volunteers quite often tend to be passing through stages in their life – they might be on summer holidays, or it might be so long as they have a bit of free time. But in ensuring that Zakat administrators receive an income, this means that serving the community and earning a living are not mutually exclusive.
The fourth category is ‘those whose hearts are to be reconciled’. This refers to those who are inclined towards Islam. This is fascinating – it alludes to using Zakat as a tool of advocacy, even diplomacy. Whilst living in a majority non-Muslim country such as the UK, this unlocks a multitude of ways in which Zakat can be used. This category is inclusive of individuals who have just entered Islam. In our day, this may take the form of ring-fencing Zakat funds to help reverts. New reverts very often have a difficult time when first entering Islam, beleaguered by spiteful relatives, and intimidated by the oceanic and kaleidoscopic knowledge of Islam. It is unfortunate to note that many reverts often leave Islam soon after joining; the flurry of hugs that they receive when entering Islam cruelly crumble away, unveiling a deeply lonely and confusing place. Using Zakat to support new Muslims should therefore be a priority.
The fifth category is to free those in bondage i.e. slavery. Slavery still exists is society’s underbelly, as a ghostly, malevolent institute, parasitically exploiting the needy. The Department for International Development has a team which specifically aims to tackle modern slavery. However, since slavery does not exist as a legitimate institute, as it once did, using Zakat for freeing modern slaves (somewhat of an oxymoron) could be new territory to consider.
The sixth category is to the debt-ridden. Debt is a horrible thing. It casts a shadow over every moment of joy, an incessant stalker, always whispering odes of regret and despair into the beholder’s ear. Using Zakat to help the debt stricken would certainly bring about much joy. However, this needs to be done considerately, for debt exists in copious amounts in the global economy and could become a black hole for Zakat funds. A brief look at the World Debt Clock will better illustrate this point:
Nonetheless, Zakat can still be used for this reason, perhaps on an individual basis, rather than on an institutional level.
The seventh category for using Zakat is ‘for the cause of God’ i.e. protecting and maintaining the Muslim community. The National Zakat Foundation website mentions that this can be interpreted as community development. This really presents a huge amount of opportunities. Education can be funded, leadership training, developing institutes, mental wellbeing, the possibilities are very wide indeed. Robust conversations with the UK’s stellar and diverse cast of scholars should take place to fully realise Zakat.
The eight category is to the wayfarer i.e. the traveller. There is discussion around whether travellers exist today in the same sense that they did in earlier centuries. Some scholars do believe that they still exist, but present different manifestations of this. One interesting interpretation of ‘travellers’ is refugees. With the intense and utterly tragic refugee crises (Syria, Yemen, Rohingya, Palestine, inter alia) competing for the world’s conscious, spending Zakat on establishing infrastructure to support refugees seems a very worthy cause indeed.
Thus, based on just one verse of the Quran, Zakat can be used as so much more beyond poverty alleviation. I mention once more, this doesn’t mean that poverty alleviation is an unworthy cause, but it would perhaps be a disservice to the institute of Zakat, and inappropriate to the challenges facing the Muslim community to use Zakat only as a poverty alleviation fund.
Indeed, the categories of Zakat recipients shouldn’t be seen as mutually exclusive either. Poverty and hardship have cyclical and structural causal factors. For example, degree holders are much more likely to have a stable job and income. If schools and colleges in areas with a high Muslim population are providing average or below-average education, then this will maim the potential of Muslims to enter higher education. So spending Zakat on, say, developing capabilities in financially disadvantaged students, or even helping to fund their studies, will mean that they are much less likely to experience poverty in the future. Indeed, scholars opine that Zakat can be used to fund full time education, irrespective of whether that knowledge is secular or religious.
There are a number of examples from the Muslim community, here in the UK and abroad, that shows a diverse usage of Zakat funds. National Zakat Foundation (NZF) has been particularly proactive here. They have used Zakat to fund university scholarships in the past. This is bound to create positive momentum in the Muslim community – it creates positive role models, provides diverse voices to participate in academia, and prevents poverty in the long run. NZF has also used Zakat to support prison leavers through housing, counselling, and learning. As part of this, NZF collaborated with St Mungo’s, a charity which supports the homeless, and other organisations. In Pakistan, the Shaukhat Khanum Memorial Cancer and Research Centre makes heavy use of Zakat funds, again showing a diverse use of Zakat funds.
This proves Zakat to be a very exciting source of funding. There is a colossal amount of potential in using Zakat. If used properly, quality, efficacious institutes can emerge of every kind; centres of knowledge, schools, campaigners etc. And these can help blossom the fledging British Muslim community into a robust, confident and engaged network of genuine British Muslims. We need only to open our Quran, and act upon the emphatic edicts on Zakat.
And to dispel any pessimistic thoughts around Muslims developing their own institutes, creeping Sharia etc., Muslims are now a feature of the British landscape. To help a British Muslim is to help a Briton, which is to help Britain. A stronger, more cohesive Muslim community would benefit Britain in so many ways, not least it’s economy. Let’s not allow words of hatred to muddy the benevolent community-based endeavour that Zakat is.