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FaithPractice

The Case for Local Zakat: Give Back to the Community First

274
FaithPractice

The Case for Local Zakat: Give Back to the Community First

By reviving the prophetic tradition of local zakat collection and distribution, Muslims can transform not only their relationship with the third pillar of Islam, but their situation here in Britain too.

274

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By reviving the prophetic tradition of local zakat collection and distribution, Muslims can transform not only their relationship with the third pillar of Islam, but their situation here in Britain too.

The coronavirus crisis has dealt a colossal blow to the UK economy. The Bank of England has warned that we could be in for the worst recession on record; many people will soon come off their furloughs into unemployment, and businesses — big and small — will continue to go bust.

The UK’s Muslim population is poised to disproportionately feel the effects of all this; already, we are the most economically disadvantaged faith group in Britain. Even prior to the pandemic, 50% of British Muslim households were living in poverty. Almost half of us live in the most deprived areas in the UK, and according to the think-tank Centre for Cities, it is the most deprived towns and cities that will be hit hardest. 

Currently, charities spend something like 98% of our zakat abroad. But doesn’t the contemporary situation make a compelling case for it to be locally collected and distributed? The sunnah itself certainly does. During the time of the Prophet , after all, what was collected in an area was also distributed in the same area.

When the Prophet sent his companion Mu’adh to Yemen, he said: “Inform them that Allah has made the zakat obligatory for them, collected from their wealthy and distributed to their needy.” There is profound wisdom in this; years later, when Mu’adh sent one-third of the zakat he collected back to Medina, he told Umar: “I would not have sent you anything had I found someone [here] to take it from me.” Such was the impact of locally collected and distributed zakat, that after a few years Mu’adh could no longer find anyone in need around him. Only then did he send the zakat away from the area in which it was collected.

This is buried treasure in our tradition, and the impetus behind the Local Zakat Initiative, a growing group of British Muslims who are passionate about reviving the sunnah of local zakat. The Local Zakat Initiative wants to see more communities come together and appoint their own zakat collectors to collect and distribute zakat locally, thereby improving the situation of the Muslims in their towns and cities. With local zakat, we can strengthen our communities in Britain, foster local leadership, show our non-Muslim neighbours the incredible impact of Islam up close, and eventually become even better able to help our brothers and sisters abroad with more sadaqa (voluntary charity) from more people who are better off.

Zakat taken during the time of the Prophet and early Muslim communities was not administered by large charities and complex organisations — not least because zakat is not charity. It was taken by appointed collectors on the ground and then given to the needy without delay. The transaction was simple, human, and clear.

My fellow co-founder of the Local Zakat Initiative, Rahima Brandt, pays zakat to her local collector Abdalhakim in Norwich. He comes to her house with the imam to take it and then prays for her: “It’s a gift I am grateful for which I would have been denied had I just done a bank transfer to a charity.” Rahima’s experience gives her nearness to the ayat of Qur’an in which Allah says: “Take zakat from their wealth to purify and cleanse them and pray for them. Your prayers bring relief to them. Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing” (9:103). 

When I spoke with Abdalhakim, he said:

If I’m sending money abroad, I don’t know if that money is actually getting where I want it to. But I know I can have an effect locally. I’ve seen it. I get the messages, I get the calls. I know this person has cancer; they’re struggling. I can actually help the people around me.”

As the zakat collector and local leader, Abdalhakim is recognisable and reachable to Rahima and others in her community. Crucially, they trust him; it cannot be, after all, that only charities are capable of being trustworthy. It is the appointed collector’s duty to ensure that the needy in the community don’t go unnoticed. In order to reach those who need assistance, the collector must ask people in the community, encouraging them to be on the lookout. In this way, the prophetic tradition of locally collected zakat nurtures a greater sense of social responsibility towards those in need around us, strengthening the bonds of our local communities and making them better, fairer places for us to live.

Charities have made zakat convenient but cold, discharged with a few clicks and online calculators. Islamic Relief, for example, tell me to ‘automate’ my zakat over the last ten nights of Ramadan, and then ‘relax’ knowing I’ll ‘never miss Laylutul Qadr again’. There is something deeply cynical — and lacking — in this approach. There’s even now an app called Zakatify — because it’s not an app until it has -ify on the end — which lets you ‘Set it and forget it: Set your annual [zakat] goal and let Zakatify do the rest.’ The founder of Zakatify says zakat ‘can feel like something we do alone,’ and that ‘with Zakatify, we can turn Zakat into something that’s social’.

But there’s nothing remotely social or satisfactory about trivialising the third pillar with a ‘set it and forget it’ attitude. User-friendly interfaces and online forms are no substitute for the tangible connection that comes through so clearly in the experience of Rahima and others who have the privilege of paying and receiving zakat in person. 

Zakat is an act of worship, and a blessing for both the giver and receiver. Think about the other pillars of Islam, and how near and direct they are. The fast, prayer, hajj, and shahada are intimately felt and immediate in experience. They can’t be discharged with a click and a swipe. We can’t place our hands on the pillar of zakat if it’s on the other side of a screen. The pillars of the deen are things Muslims do together, acts of worship that nurture a sense of community and mutual concern. We strive for presence and improvement in upholding them.

With zakat, it’s the same. By collecting and distributing it locally, we can feel more connected to it and to each other. In Arabic the verb ‘zakka’ means to make grow and thrive, to purify, and to improve. By coming together as stronger local communities, supported by the pillar of zakat, we can grow, thrive, and utterly transform our situation as Muslims in Britain.

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