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The Muslim Zakat: a vision of the "big society"?

Re-awakening a sense of comradery.

Photograph: Getty Images

The holy month of Ramadan - a time of fasting and intense spiritual reflection and worship for Muslims - is now well underway. A central feature of this sacred month is giving to charity, and in particular the concept of Zakat, where millions of Muslims across the UK will be pledging a proportion of their income to support the most vulnerable communities in need.

At the same time, the coalition government’s big society agenda is fast losing momentum. Efforts to make giving a "social norm" in the UK have been met with tepid enthusiasm by the general public and the charity world alike, amidst a failing economy and a charitable sector struggling to cope within an uncertain economic environment. But as ministers scramble for solutions to address the predicament, the overarching concept of Zakat presents a vision of a "big society" in action; a social contract between civilisations’ rich and poor where each individual shares a moral and duty-bound obligation to help one another.

So what lessons can the state’s flagship programme learn from this spiritual act of giving and is there space for Zakat to fill the unfolding funding vacuum?

Zakat is the third pillar of Islam and the compulsory form of charity ordained by God to be paid each year. Every year, each Muslim that meets the minimum wealth criteria (known as the nisab) is compelled to pay 2.5 per cent of their wealth to people in need.

Zakat is not seen solely as a mechanism to redistribute income to the poorer elements of Islamic civilisation. It is also believed to ‘purify’ an individual’s accumulation of wealth and assets over a year, while enshrining the right of help to the community’s needy.

Zakat has been in practice since the foundation of Islam over 1400 years ago. A system for the collection and distribution of Zakat first materialised following the Prophet’s (pbuh) migration to Medina (known as the hijra). Collectors of Zakat were appointed to visit potential Zakat payers, and having helped them to assess their Zakatable assets, would collect the due amounts and distribute it to those in need within the local area and its surroundings.

Anecdotal reports from the first 100 years of Islam indicate that Zakat had a huge impact on poverty alleviation. While no figures on Zakat collection during this period exist, narrations from the time of Caliph Umar bin al-Khattab (634-643AD) and Omar bin Abdul Aziz (718-720AD) suggest poverty was eradicated, with rulers in some regions struggling to disperse Zakat proceeds due to the lack of poor and eligible recipients.

Government ministers would be hard-pressed to ignore recent figures on Zakat donations, which indicate that such offerings are one of the largest contributors in humanitarian world today. A report from IRIN, the news and analysis service of the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), included estimates that each year, somewhere between US$200 bn and US$1 trn (£130 bn and £645 bn respectively) are given as mandatory and voluntary donations across the Muslim world. At the low end of this estimate, this is 15 times more than global humanitarian aid contributions in 2011.

There remains great potential for Zakat donations to play an even more important role towards development, particularly within these shores. In the UK, Zakat tends to be paid to Muslim relief agencies that address international issues and humanitarian crises, such as poverty relief and helping people meet their basic needs. However, an important tenet of Zakat is that collected funds should be dispersed locally first where there is need before being spread further afield.

As ministers struggle to instil a culture of giving within British society, Islam and its concept of Zakat illustrates the potential of philanthropy when effective drivers to give are in place.

It may be idealistic to suggest that Zakat can inspire a new generation of givers in the UK. Yet the brotherly spirit and the love and care between one another that embodies this act of giving can certainly be held up as an example of a working human community in action. With the landmark events of 2012 filling the nation with pride and re-awakening a sense of citizen comradery among the British population, the possibilities of Zakat making a larger contribution to eligible causes in the UK should be a major area of consideration; an opportunity for Muslims to use their faith as a benchmark for forging the nation’s "big society".

Fadi Itani is Chief Executive of Zakat House. For more information about Zakat House and their latest campaign, visit www.justzakat.org.uk