Zakat: An obligation at community scale

We have committed grave errors in understanding both the spirit and the system of Zakat
Zakat: An obligation at community scale
Representational ImageFile/ GK

An overwhelmingly positive development that the society has witnessed from last few years is the rising awareness about the obligation of Zakat. According to a report carried out by The Guardian, Muslims donate around three and half trillion dollars of Zakat per year.

Majority of them calculate the amount on their own and donate it at individual level. However, even after a donation of such huge amount, there is no considerable decline in the number of poverty stricken people, as would have been a genuine expectation.

The reason is pretty evident; absence of proper system for collecting Zakat, and disbursing it on a community level. This defeats the very purpose of Zakat, as propounded by Islam.

Zakat, in Islam, is a collective endeavour. Imam Razi opines that it falls within the jurisdiction of the leader of Muslims to collect Zakat from his Muslim population.

During the golden epoch of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), special attention was paid to this department of the state wherein all the important officials would be appointed by the Prophet (PBUH) himself. And these undoubtedly were the most able from the lot.

Umar was to administer the outskirts of Madina, the tribe of Banu-Kalb was under the charge of Abdul Rahman-bin-A’uf, Amar-bin-A’as was given the charge of the tribe Fazara, Abu-Obaidah was to collect Zakat from the tribes of Azina and Kanana, and both the tribes of Tai and Asad were taken care of by Adi-ibn-Hatim.

The significance which the collective mechanism of Zakat holds in the Islamic body of governance can very well be gauged by the fact that during the reign of Abu Bakr certain tribes refused to donate the amount of Zakat in the central trust of government; Abu Bakr called for an armed action against them.

Unfortunate on our part, we have committed grave errors in understanding both the spirit and system of Zakat. Moulana Abul Kalam Azad captures our attitude towards Zakat in his book Haqeeqat-e-Zakat:

“With time, the real concept of Zakat started to fade among Muslims, due to which a concocted version of Zakat crept into their minds which stated it no more than a meagre amount of money earmarked to be donated to poor at individual level.

This is in direct violation of the Quranic teachings in this regard, which in no capacity appreciate any other mode of it except the collective. And such Muslims will definitely be held accountable for the same in the court of Allah”.

There are clearly stated heads on which Zakat can be used, and it is only possible for the state to ensure the amount is duly distributed and allocated. Moulana Sadr-ud-Din Islahi writes in his book Islam: Ek Nazr Main:

“The way Muslims establish mosques to lead the obligatory prayers collectively, it is incumbent upon them to set up a central trust (Baitul Ma’al) in order to collect the amount of Zakat and disburse among the needy ones.

This way, the purpose of Zakat will be accomplished to a large extent. Even though in the absence of an Islamic state, the purpose may not be fulfilled completely, but still to a considerable level the purpose will be served. It will be collective mischief not to do so”.

Just as the obligation of prayers may be fulfilled outside mosque, but it loses its significance. Similarly Zakat at individual level may relieve one from the obligation but it will surely fail to accomplish the real purpose.

This precisely is the reason why Abu Bakr made people to donate Zakat in the public trust, instead of distributing it individually.

The dearth of institutions in the first place is a big challenge faced by Muslim community. And if there are any, misconceptions have hampered their functioning. These include false notions like giving zakat to poor relatives and religious schools doubles the reward for it.

What is stated in the Hadith is to give Sadqah to poor relatives first. It is not about Zakat which is to be collected and distributed on community level. Likewise, around seventy percent of Zakat goes to religious schools which is in direct violation of the set rules prescribed in the Quran.

The Quranic wisdom is to give priority to the head mentioned first, and then the rest, in accordance to the sequence. The sequence maintained by the Quran is as such:

“Zakāh expenditures are only for the poor and for the needy and for those employed for it and for bringing hearts together [for Islām] and for freeing captives [or slaves] and for those in debt and for the cause of Allāh and for the [stranded] traveler - an obligation [imposed] by Allāh. And Allāh is Knowing and Wise”. (9:60)

The above sequence explicitly states that the most deserving of our Zakat is the poor of our society. Here, it seems pertinent to take into account the argument which certain people put forth and goes like this; those who study in religious schools are poor, who belong to marginalised families.

However, as per the Hanafi school of jurisdiction, it is mandatory that the amount of Zakat be given to any deserving and must become his/her possession. He or she is then entitled to use the money according to his/her convenience.

Another notable misconception stands that Zakat should be given in private; that the left hand doesn’t know what the right one gave. This very principle is to be invoked in case of alms (sadqah), not in the case of Zakat which is a collective act.

Worth to mention here, the desirable approach according to Islam is that once the amount of Zakat is collected from a certain locality, it should be distributed among the poor of the same area. Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) ordained Ma’z bin Jabl that: “Collect the Zakat from their rich and distribute among their poor”.

The ideal approach is that, in case there exists a state following Shriah, the amount of Zakat should be handed over to the central trust of government. If that is not the case, people should establish such institutions that discharge this duty. The president of Islamic Fiqh Academy, India, Moulana Khalid Saifullah Rehmani duly opines:

“Where there doesn’t exist any Islamic state, Muslims should create and establish such collective models which would ensure that Zakat is collected and distributed on community level”.

Need of the hour is that in almost every society, there should be an institution which would discharge the responsibilities with regard to Zakat. Religious scholars, economists, and financial experts should be part of this institution.

In a given locality, a single budget should be prepared which would ensure earmarking and allocation for all the different heads. Moreover, a professional auditor should audit the accounts on annual basis.

Only such a modus operandi can ensure the positive change on ground which was witnessed in the golden epoch of Islam.

When Ma’z bin Jabl dispatched one third of the total amount of Zakat from Yemen to Umar in Medina, the latter responded by saying that Umar had not appointed him to collect taxes from them and send to me.

Rather, collect the Zakat from their riches and distribute among their poor. Ma’z responded back by saying that he had not left any poor unattended. Next year, Ma’z dispatched half the total collection of Zakat. Umar again refused by citing the same reason.

The year next to this, Ma’z dispatched the entire amount of Zakat, and again Umar refused to accept. Ma’z declared that it is hard to find any deserving person in Yemen who shall be entitled to receive any help from Zakat.

Somewhat similar during the reign of Umar bin Abdul Aziz, the governor of Egypt. Umar bin Aa’s wrote to the Caliph that there was no one in need of Zakat in my country, what am I supposed to do with this money? Umar bin Abdul Aziz told him to purchase slaves from their masters and set them free.

Build rest rooms on highways so that passengers take rest while they travel. Declare monetary help for those young men and women who avert marriage because of financial constraints.

The caliph had specially appointed a person whose job was to announce publicly: “Where are the debt-ridden people who want to relieve themselves from the burden of debts? Where are the people who want help to get married? Where are the people who are in need? Where are the orphans and those who have no one to take care of them?” But none would respond to his call as everyone had enough wealth to take care of his needs.

Donating the Zakat at individual level may fulfil the mandatory obligation, but the ideal approach is strengthening the collective.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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