As the month of Ramadhan nears, many of us will be increasingly thinking about paying zakah. Ramadhan presents itself with immense rewards which multiply many folds, and hence it’s opportune that we find ourselves fixing the anniversary of what is in effect a yearly tax return in the month of Ramadhan. Except it’s not quite like a normal tax since zakah is a minimal obligation to God for the upkeep of society. God is most compassionate for there is a threshold (nisab) before zakah becomes due, many types of wealth and basic necessities are exempt and we’re only liable to pay, at 2.5%, based on the net position of our wealth on a fixed point in time (it’s not transactional like VAT at 20% or monthly and income-based like income tax between 20%-45%). And, just in case we forget, be sure we’ll be reminded by the ensuing frenzy of fundraising across online, in mosques, through direct marketing and on TV channels, where the clamour of ‘zakah eligible’ or ‘give your zakah, sadaqah, lillah’ will peak for the year.
There was a time when not a single British Muslim charity was remotely interested in spending zakah in the UK, despite collecting it from British citizens. Muslims saw it as just another type of sadaqah (charity) but calculated differently. For the ordinary Muslim it was perhaps understandable to send zakah abroad since first generation Muslim immigrants still felt a sense of obligation to the poor in the countries they came from, and there weren’t any organised vehicles for distributing it in the UK. Unless we personally knew of someone eligible for zakah here in the UK, chances are it didn’t warrant any consideration at all. Moreover, for reasons of ethno-cultural taboo, unlike today, many struggling British Muslim educational establishments didn’t have the courage to publically proclaim that they were eligible for zakah. There was also an uncontested assumption that zakah was only to help the ‘poor’ and ‘needy’ (and nobody else) since that’s who our parents and grandparents gave their zakah to.
But with the establishment of NZF (National Zakat Foundation) in 2011 everything changed. We now have a professional and institutional capability that can strategically intervene to fix and transform some of the most pressing barriers to Islam flourishing in the UK and with it bringing the hope of helping society overall to prosper. Given the changed situation, then, spending zakah in the UK is a litmus test of whether as various communities we have woken up to our context.
Certainly there are lessons to be heeded from the moonsighting rupture of the 90s which has since blighted communities. Primarily, it’s the dilemma of being able to agree on whether it should be local (UK/Morocco sighting) or global (usually fixed to Saudi declaration). What resonates most is that while overwhelming fiqhi reasoning established local moonsighting (much like local spending of zakah), global telecommunications and a lack of awareness and established process led many to unquestioningly accept global moonsighting (much like what’s happened to zakah until recently). Deferring to Saudi Arabia was of course the easy thing to do with the increasing influence of Muslim TV channels (as it happens with zakah when there is natural disaster in the Muslim world).
However, with that came also the ignorance of astronomical data for negating false/improbable ‘sightings’ and an engendering of laziness and lack of ownership to collectively fix problems that, after all, affects us here in the UK and not people living in Saudi Arabia. I can’t see Saudis, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Indians, Somalis etc. giving a damn about when we start Ramadhan in the UK nor would they be willing to spend their zakah on poverty stricken Brits. And why should they since it’s completely inconsequential to them. Besides, Muslims would do well to understand and live by the principle that God defines our individual responsibility as limited to our own spaces, contexts and spheres of influence. The Prophet exemplified it as a general principle, and specifically in the example of zakah he indicated that zakah is to be kept local.
One difference perhaps is that while foreign muftis almost unanimously wrote edicts (fatawaa) in favour of local moonsighting which, as it so happened, far too many British Muslims simply ignored, for zakah there is a tendency for some muftis (both in the UK and abroad) to argue for globalised distribution. It turns out there is inherent self-interest: foreign zakah represents a rich source of inward investment to fund foreign madrasahs and orphanages etc. Arguably, the fact that British Muslims living as minorities have to even contemplate this is a sad indictment on the level of importance given to zakah in majority Muslim countries themselves. In the language of economics, what such muftis actually argue for is akin to a ‘free rider’ effect, which is made all the more unpalatable since in the UK: (1) around 3000 Muslim children come into foster caring every year[vi]; (2) there are thousands of destitute Muslim families and women every year; (3) hundreds of maktabs (afterschool Islamic studies) struggle to achieve quality and scale; (4) Islamic scholarship is yet to truly inspire Muslims in the British experience to achieve a moral, Godly plane, and (5) there is a need to pick-up the pieces in exceptional tragedies like Grenfell Tower where there is failure of state and local authority etc.
This kind of uncontextualised reasoning completely ignores zakah’s highly specialised, philosophically socio-political, role. The point of zakah is to ensure that those who aren’t beneficiaries of commerce or social policy can be attended to in the places in which zakah is collected. Zakah is very much like investment decisions which we make on the basis of ‘gap/needs analysis,’ which we then prioritise based on the size of the impact and calculate the potential return on investment. On a societal matter we can only do this properly if we have a holistic birds-eye view of the ground. Otherwise it’s like seeing someone in mild poverty who struggles to make ends meet from time to time and we give all our zakah to this one individual, but the news of a second person in a worse situation never reaches us, but if it were to, we’d think twice about being more efficient in how we distribute our zakah.
Extending this logic to the eight zakah-eligible spend areas mentioned by God, and it’s very clear how unorganised and negligent we’ve become. These spend areas aren’t mutually exclusive, God doesn’t overly restrict their definitions or relative priorities, and there’s already plenty of highly varied and valid differences within and across legal schools. Arguably, the God-conscious act, then, is to rationally and reasonably decipher based on the needs of our time and spaces. Of course, keeping zakah local doesn’t mean that we stop giving other forms of sadaqah to whatever cause we choose anywhere in the world. But if we fix our own neighbourhood and zakah is distributed in a transformative way, imagine how much more sadaqah we’ll be in a position to give collectively.
So as Ramadhan approaches, let’s make sure our zakah stays at home, here in the UK. #OurZakatBelongsHere
[vi] Source: The Fostering Network