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Understanding the role of ‘Zakat’ in humanitarian response

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‘Zakat’ is the Muslim practice of charitable giving based on accumulated wealth. It is one of the five pillars of Islam and is obligatory for all Muslims who are able to do so. The past 30 years has seen a growing interest in humanitarian activity among Muslims as part of expressing their spiritual obligations of Zakat.

There is little to no information available on the use of Zakat in humanitarian response. However, estimates suggest that it could be significant in terms of both volume and potential impact upon humanitarian response.

The GHA Programme’s recent report Humanitarian assistance from non-state actors: What is it worth? briefly refers to Zakat as a potentially significant yet largely untapped source of funding for humanitarian assistance. Dr Jemilah Mahmood and Amjad Mohamed Saleem explore this issue further.

UNDERSTANDING CHARITY AND ZAKAT IN ISLAM

The recent report by the Global Humanitarian Assistance (GHA) Programme: Humanitarian Assistance from Non-State Actors: What is it Worth? makes interesting and pertinent reading, pointing to a paradigm shift in thinking around both humanitarian funding and programme delivery as new non-state actors have emerged as key players alongside traditional institutional actors. Here we explore the potential role of ‘Zakat’ in humanitarian assistance as a significant form of non-state humanitarian funding.

The concept of charity is central to social justice, which is a sacred value in Islam and a tenet of the faith. Indeed the Qur’an considers an act of charity as more than just a good deed because of its function in balancing social inequalities. The Qur’an also has numerous references to the importance of creating a just society and provides a framework for justice in inter-personal relationships toward the poor and needy, and connections between communities and nations.

Muslim non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other Islamic charitable institutions are therefore seen as instruments of social justice, and are part of the theological, intellectual and cultural heritage of the Muslim society. The instruments are divinely entrenched in the teachings of Islam, as illustrated in the following verse from the Qur’an: “If anyone saved a life it would be as if he had saved the life of the whole of mankind…’ (5:32). It is these types of teachings that have inspired acts of charity, concern for others and the provision of social welfare to be an integral role in Muslim societies for the last 1400 years, as without them faith is incomplete.

Charity in Islam, in the traditional sense of a transfer of material resources from the rich to the poor, falls into two categories in Islam: voluntary (Sadaqah) and obligatory (Zakat). These practises are supposed to empower communities and address their needs sufficiently enough to lift them out of their vicious cycle of poverty.

CHALLENGES FACED IN USE OF FUNDS COLLECTED THROUGH THE ZAKAT PROCESS

There is no shortage of funds for charitable causes coming from the Muslim world. The issue is not about the amount to be collected but what is done with it. A study in 2012 has estimated that every year, somewhere between US$200 billion and US$1 trillion are spent in “mandatory” alms and voluntary charity across the Muslim world. In fact, Islamic financial analysts estimate that “At the low end of the estimate, this is 15 times more than global humanitarian aid contributions in 2011 of $13 billion (UN Financial Tracking System)”. However, as economist Habib Ahmed calculated in 2004 – Muslim countries could lift all of their poor people out of poverty with only a third to a half of all potential Zakat collections.

These numbers speak not only to the duality of increasing religiosity and wealth in the Muslim world, but also to the globalisation of increasing poverty. It is estimated that one-quarter of the Muslim world is living on less than $1.25 a day (calculated by IRIN based on 2011 Human Development Index) with increasing needs for humanitarian response, recovery and peace-building in the Muslim world from Somalia, Syria, Mali among many other countries.

However in recent times, there has been a lack of understanding (and spirit) with regards Zakat (and Sadaqah). Zakat is largely regarded as charitable giving and its potential to go one step further and empower communities has not been adequately realised. As a result, the wide breadth of possibilities, which includes supporting non-Muslims; the levying of administration costs for the collection of Zakat; vital infrastructure projects; peace building and human trafficking initiatives remain grossly under funded and unexplored with Zakat. Herein lies the major challenge of balancing the role of Zakat in its conventional understanding with the contemporary demands of society today.

THE WAY FORWARD

If we are to move forward in terms of really contributing to humanitarian and development initiatives, we need to evaluate and understand the empowering concepts of Zakat in order to develop new models for implementation that are not only congruent with the times but address the empowering aspects of Zakat. At the end of the day, charity in Islam is about redistributive justice as the hoarding of wealth is not permissible and carries penalties if found guilty of such practice.

Private donors – including Muslim NGOs and other Islamic charitable institutions involved in the allocation of funds collected through Zakat – need to move away from the idea that humanitarian response is merely an act of charity and philanthropy, but a tool for empowering communities to build resilience to poverty and humanitarian assistance.