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

Re-awakening a sense of comradery.

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

Photograph: Getty Images

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

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.