Ramadan symbolises endurance and reassertion of faith. It reminds us that the most important thing in life is to be able to withstand pain and hunger and help others in their time of need.
Ramadan has become the symbol of humility punctuated by joyous family gatherings. It is also a month of bonding whereby, despite differences in social stature or the colour of our skin or our geographical origin, we bond together through the universal medium of fasting and prayer.
It is in this environment that nearly 2.0 billion Muslims enter Ramadan to re-connect with God. This heightened spiritual awareness brings communities and congregations together across the globe.
Unfortunately, over the last few years there has been the osmotic presence of violence that has crept into this paradigm of peace and prayer. Ramadan usually associated with faith, family, food, fun and forgiveness for Muslims and others has become a time of fear. Mosques, designed to be places of peace and piety, are increasingly becoming targets for white supremacist terrorists and haters of Muslims.
In this context, the month of Ramadan connotes that we need to desist from fanaticism and all of us need to come together through inter-faith dialogue so that we can remove the potential for hate crimes. In this context the Quran repeatedly calls on its readers to reflect on Creation and to renew their commitment for promoting peace and goodness amongst humanity.
This matrix that seeks justice and equality is significantly brought forward through the observance of Zakat - "that which purifies". Zakat, one of the Five Pillars of Islam, is considered as a religious obligation for all Muslims who meet the necessary criteria of wealth. It is a mandatory charitable contribution that is sometimes considered by a few Muslim countries as a form of religious tax.
Today, in most Muslim-majority countries, Zakat contributions are voluntary, but in some Islamic countries like Malaysia, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Libya it is mandated and collected by the State.
It needs to be mentioned that according to Islamic scholars the amount of Zakat to be paid by an individual depends on the amount of money and the type of assets the individual possesses. The Quran does not provide specific guidelines on which types of wealth are taxable under the Zakat, nor does it specify percentages to be given. However the customary practice in countries where Zakat is mandatory is that the amount of Zakat paid on capital assets (e.g. money) is 2.5 per cent. Zakat is additionally payable on agricultural goods, precious metals, minerals and livestock at a rate varying between 2.5 per cent and 20 per cent, depending on the type of goods.
Today, in most Muslim countries, Zakat is at the discretion of Muslims over how and whether to pay, typically enforced by peer pressure, fear of God, and an individual's personal feelings. Among the Sunni Muslims, the Zakat committees are usually established, linked to a religious cause or local mosque, which collect Zakat. Among the Shia Muslims, deputies on behalf of Imams collect the Zakat.
The consequence of failure to pay Zakat in Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa has been a subject of extensive legal debate in traditional Islamic jurisprudence, particularly when a Muslim is willing to pay Zakat but refuses to pay it to a certain group or the state. According to classical jurists, if the collector is unjust in the collection of Zakat but just in its distribution, the concealment of property from him is allowed. If, on the other hand, the collector is just in the collection but unjust in the distribution, the concealment of property from him is an obligation (wajib). Furthermore, it has also been held that if the Zakat is concealed from a just collector because the property owner wanted to pay his zakat to the poor himself, then the property owner should not be punished for it. It may be mentioned here that Abu Hanifa, the founder of the Hanafi School, supported the idea of property owners undertaking to distribute the Zakat to the poor themselves. Today, in States where Zakat payment is compulsory, failure to pay is regulated by state law similar to tax evasion.
Islamic scholars have traditionally identified the following categories of Muslim causes to be the proper recipients of Zakat: (a) those living without any means of livelihood; (b) those who cannot meet their basic needs; (c) those sympathetic to or expected to convert to Islam - recent converts to Islam, and potential allies in the cause of Islam, (d) wayfarers and stranded travelers who are traveling with a worthy goal but cannot reach their destination without financial assistance.
There is however consensus that Zakat should not be given to one's own parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, spouses or the descendants of the Prophet (sm).
It would also be worthwhile to note here that Muslim scholars disagree whether Zakat recipients can include non-Muslims. Islamic scholarship, historically, has taught that only Muslims can be recipients of Zakat. However in the past few decades some scholars have argued that Zakat may be paid also to non-Muslims after the needs of Muslims have been met, finding nothing in the Quran or Sunna to indicate that Zakat should be paid to Muslims only.
There is a practical aspect of using Zakat as a means to remove widespread poverty from among the Muslim countries. Collecting Zakat and using this as a humanitarian aid factor can definitely help the ultra-poor or those affected by climate variability or floods or cyclones. It could also help to create better educational and health opportunities.
If carried out carefully and with religious commitment and political will, then it can be effective in macroeconomic terms. It is true that Zakat has so far failed to relieve large-scale absolute poverty among Muslims in most Muslim countries but Malaysia, Gambia, Nigeria and Indonesia are giving special attention to this. One needs to wait and see what happens.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.
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