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

Photo: Getty
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Corbyn is personally fireproof, but his manifesto could be torched by the Brexit blaze

There is no evidence that EU migration has depressed wages – but most Labour MPs believe it has.

News, like gas, expands to fill the space available to it. That’s why the summer recess can so often be a time of political discomfort for one party or another. Without the daily grind of life at Westminster, difficult moments can linger. Minor rows become front-page news.

There are many reasons why Theresa May is spending three weeks hiking in northern Italy and Switzerland, and one of them is that it is hard to have a leadership crisis if your leader is elsewhere. That makes the summer particularly dangerous for Labour. The danger is heightened as the majority of the press is unsympathetic to the party and the remainder is simply bored. Even a minor crisis could turn into a catastrophe.

Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show on 23 July, therefore, carried the same risks as juggling lit matches in a dry forest. The Labour leader ruled out continuing participation in the single market after Britain leaves the political structures of the European Union. For good measure, he added that the “wholesale importation” of people from eastern and central Europe had been used to undermine pay and conditions for British workers. Both statements only aggravate the stress fractures in the Labour movement and in its electoral coalition.

The good news for the Labour leader is that he is fireproof. Only God or Corbyn himself can prevent him from leading the party into the next election, whenever it comes, and no one will be foolish enough to try to remove him, even if they had the inclination. Also, while the question of what flavour of Brexit to pursue divides Labour in the country, it doesn’t divide Labour at Westminster. Most Labour MPs nodded along in agreement with Corbyn during the Marr interview. They believe – as the shadow international trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, outlined a day later – that remaining in the customs union and the single market would be a betrayal of the wishes of Leave voters, who want full control over Britain’s borders and laws.

There is no evidence that migration from the eastern bloc has depressed wages. But most Labour MPs believe that it has. “I am convinced,” one formerly pro-European MP told me, “that no matter what the studies say, immigration has reduced wages.”

Most of the Labour people who are willing to kick up a fuss about “hard” Brexit are outside parliament. These include the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, who wants Britain to remain in the single market; the general secretary of the TSSA union, Manuel Cortes, who recently used the New Statesman website to urge the party to keep all of its options open, including a second referendum to keep Britain in the EU; and the rapper Akala, who lambasted Corbyn’s interview on Twitter. While a large minority of Labour MPs back a softer version of Brexit, they are a minority, and not a large enough one to combine with Tory dissidents to make a Commons majority, even when the votes of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green MP Caroline Lucas are taken into account.

This increases the party’s dependence on Jeremy Corbyn. As the leader’s aides observe, even among the quarter of the country that believes the government should simply overturn the referendum result, only a quarter of that quarter do so because they have a particular affection for the institutions of the European Union.

For the majority of hard Remainers, Brexit is a significant battleground in a larger culture war, one in which Corbyn is otherwise in perfect alignment with their values. His electoral appeal to Labour MPs is that he is someone who can say the same things on Brexit and migration as Yvette Cooper or Stephen Kinnock previously did, but without losing votes in England’s great cities.

The electoral threat to Labour from backing a harder form of exit is, in any case, often overstated. The first-past-the-post system makes the Liberal Democrats an inadequate refuge for anguished Remainers in England, while the SNP’s support for Scottish independence makes it an unsuitable home for Labour refugees in Scotland. Team Corbyn feels that Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrats’ new leader, will struggle to convince Labour voters that he can be trusted because of the role he played in designing the new system of tuition fees (having previously pledged to vote against them). In any case, the risk of letting in a Conservative prime minister – probably one committed to a version of Brexit even harder than Labour’s – further locks Remainers in Labour’s corner.

That leaves Labour in Westminster free to pursue a version of Brexit that meets the needs of both the leadership, which relishes the freedom to pursue a more radical economic policy unconstrained by the European Union, and Labour MPs, particularly those with seats in Yorkshire and the Midlands, who are concerned about opposition to immigration in their constituencies. This has the happy side effect of forcing the Conservatives to take the blame for delivering any Brexit deal that falls short of the promises made by Vote Leave during the referendum and in the high-blown rhetoric used by Theresa May during the election campaign.

However, all is not rosy. What most Labour MPs seem to have forgotten is that Brexit is not simply a political battleground – something to be leveraged to reduce the number of complaints about migration and to hasten the Tory government into an early grave. There is a political victory to be had by using the Brexit process to clobber the government. But there is also a far bigger defeat in store for the left if leaving the EU makes Britain poorer and more vulnerable to the caprice of international finance. That Jeremy Corbyn is personally fireproof doesn’t mean that his manifesto can’t be torched by the Brexit blaze. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue