It is that time of the year again when Muslims in India, like the world over, sit down to calculate the “religious tax” or zakat that they have to compulsorily give as charity. Zakat, which is 2.5 per cent of a family or a person’s wealth and annual savings, is given mostly during Ramzan as Muslims believe blessings become manifold in this holy month of fasting.
While zakat could have been a powerful tool to reduce poverty in our country and transform the socio-economic status of Muslims, it has, however, over centuries, remained largely piecemeal and far from being institutionalised. India has the world’s third largest Muslim population.
For the past 15 years, Mahe Talat, who teaches at Banaras Hindu University and lives on the campus, for instance, has been sending zakat to a local orphanage-cum-madrasa. Though she wants to contribute a part of the money for holistic education of Muslim girls, her busy schedule leaves her with little time to go looking for such a school.
Likewise, Rahil Ahmad, an IT professional based in Bangalore, says his family in Jamshedpur in Jharkhand gives money to domestic helps. He also can’t help but remember “a maulana saheb from downtown Gaya with a receipt book” who would always get a good chunk of the money. Rahil, too, has lapsed into the “convenient” practice of channeling his money to his parents back home for want of any credible avenue to donate money.
Rahil and Talat mirror the stories of thousands of affluent Muslims across India who though give zakat mandatorily but seldom strategically and most often to the same set of people or religious institutions year after year.
Then there is Naved Mohammad Khan, a corporate lawyer who lives in Delhi’s Mayur Vihar, who says he has utilised his zakat money differently this year. “While I have given money to needy relatives, like I do every year and which I will always do, this time I have contributed 50 per cent of the money to an organisation called Islamic Relief India.” Khan says he had always wanted to donate for a cause but the question of transparency always deterred him. Islamic Relief India, he believes, fills that gap.
The India chapter of Islamic Relief, a humanitarian organistation headquartered in the United Kingdom and which has formidable presence in various countries, has been launched in Delhi only this June.
Its India head, Akmal Shareef, says it has reached out to more than two lakh people in person in the city and nearly three lakh people online. There are people standing outside major mosques in Delhi’s residential areas publicising strategic zakat giving. “The main aim of the campaign is to educate people about the impact of strategic zakat giving and how it can be used to address critical issues of unemployment, education and poverty. The campaign also aims to bring about a behavioural change in the way Indian Muslims pay zakat.” The organisation will use zakat in the field of education of orphans, emergency relief and in the health sector.
Shareef says more than 200 people have so far pledged to pay their donations through Islamic Relief India.
The Associate of Muslim Professionals (AMP) is one among the handful of organisations in India that stands out for providing monetary support to Muslims primarily for education and self-employment. Established 10 years ago in Mumbai, the organisation has chapters in more than 65 cities of India and a series of achievements to its credit that include financial aid to more than 350 students for higher and technical education, sponsoring more than 150 youths for self-employment, and fully sponsoring five IIT students amongst others.
Aamir Edresy, president, AMP, underlines the need for strategic collection and distribution of zakat. “The fundamental problem is the way zakat is collected and spent without any collective strategy and without keeping the needs of the entire community in mind. The only solution lies in Ijtemaiyat or collective effort in collection and distribution of zakat. The amount of money involved is enormous and it can work for us as a corpus for several daunting community needs.”
Edresy says the system cannot be changed overnight, that too in a vast country like India, but initiatives should be taken within smaller groups.
AMP, which collected and distributed over Rs 2 lakh as zakat in 2013, could reach out to some 15 beneficiaries with that money. In 2014, the collection rose to Rs 7.99 and beneficiaries 59 and in 2015 the collection was Rs 20.65 lakh and beneficiaries numbered around 142. Last year, the collection jumped to Rs 38.79 lakh and the number of beneficiaries was 284.
The Delhi-based Zakat Foundation of India (ZFI) is another organisation that puts zakat money into several welfare schemes and runs over two dozen institutions, including orphanages, widow homes and charitable hospital, mostly outside Delhi. ZFI also famously funds the coaching of bright Muslim graduates for the civil services and was in the headlines recently when 16 of its students cleared the IAS this year; last year’s number was 15.
Established in 1997, ZFI has grown by leaps and bounds – from five donors to over 5,000 now who donate from a few hundred rupees to several lakhs.
ZFI’s president Zafar Mahmood says: “Organisation of zakat is the essence of Islam. Bringing about economic equality through circulation of wealth in society is one of the objectives of Islam.” He also underlines that zakat organisations should maintain transparency and allow donors to keep track of their donations.
Prof Zubair Meenai, Department of Social Work, Jamia Millia Islamia, too, talks about strengthening the culture of giving within the community. “It is about how we conduct ourselves as individuals, philanthropy is one part of it. Can we not give our time, our skills to those in need? Zakat should be used to remove social inequalities. ”
While there is yet no official data on the total amount of zakat being collected in India, and experts disagree vastly over the exact figures of zakat, there is no denying its untapped potential for long-term development of the community.