Al-Qardawi emphasises the institutional nature of zakat
in several places in his Fiqh az-Zakat
, arguing it “is part of the social structure of the Islamic state and not an individual practice.”17
But what if there is no Islamic state? Al-Qardawi points out that an individual should still pay their zakat
, even if the government is not collecting/distributing it.18
In their survey of zakat
in Nigeria, Saad and Farouk identify another method for the administration of zakat
: non-governmental organizations.19
In Canada, there are five methods for zakat
collection and distribution: private; mosque; international relief agencies; charities for local distribution; zakat
-only charities for local distribution. The latter is a recent development and speaks to a growing specialisation and professionalization of zakat
. Before examining distribution more deeply, we mention a few aspects of calculation and collection.
2.1 Zakat calculation
The four organisations we interviewed were extremely similar in that they left calculation to individuals. While there are differences in Islamic law around how to calculate zakat on items such as jewellery and modern devices like RRSPs, it was left to individuals to decide. Each organisation offered education, zakat guides, and access to scholars for those who sought assistance with questions related to calculating zakat.
2.2 Zakat collection
Ndiaye’s study of zakat
in Switzerland noted that in any mosque, donation boxes are usually separated into zakat
This is also the case in Canada. Non-Muslims often find this peculiar, but this differentiation is a recognition on the part of administrators of the importance of intention in donation. We discussed in section 1.3 above how the organisations are careful to distinguish between zakat
in their distribution, providing different donation slots allows donors to make the same distinction.
All the organisations rely on similar methods of collection allowing individuals to drop by the office to give cash or cheque, mail in cheque, or secure online donations. Two of the organisations have gone a step further and are signing agreements with local mosques who pass the zakat collected onto them to distribute.
2.2.1 A national zakat organisation?
In his survey of Canadian social services, Azmi argued that, in the absence of an Islamic state, every Muslim should belong to a jamāʿah
, whose amīr
/imām should adhere to the formal organisational and administrative rules of Islamic law, including the collection and distribution of zakat
With many mosques collecting and distributing zakat
themselves, it appears that some associations are behaving in this manner. Not everyone is supportive of this approach, however. One interviewee expressed a concern that mosques were mismanaging zakat
’s fī sabīl Allāh22
category by using zakat
for the upkeep of their building. He argued that there’s a great “potential for zakat
[in Canada]… If it’s used properly and if we sort of collectively you know come together and… use the resources of zakat
in… a much more focused way than we have been doing… over the past, you know, few decades.”
Several interviewees commented that zakat in Canada would be more effective in helping people become self-sufficient if organisations worked together and combined zakat resources. One case worker expressed her wish for a central national zakat organisation in Canada. She believed that if all the monies were pooled in that way, they would be able to help more people than they can currently, with limited funds that do not meet the needs of recipients.
A conversation about creating a national zakat organisation would brush up against the issue of territoriality, propriety and competition that currently exists between the multitude of zakat-collecting bodies. One manager aptly noted that:
many Muslim organisations become dependent on zakat… [for]… fund raising, right? And I think that leads to a mindset of scarcity and competition, and that’s… not healthy for the individuals involved, the organisations or the community. And I think if we start to see… ah… ourselves merely as stewards and as pastors of zakat, that zakat isn’t there to grow our organisation, then that leads to a lot of, I think, unique and beautiful opportunities.
One manager worried that the lack of cooperation and willingness to share resources led to competition between organisations. She felt that it was creating dependency amongst clients who would just go from one foodbank to the other, whereas her organisation tried to implement a plan that would lift people out of poverty.
It is this lack of coordination and policy development that led one interviewee to exclaim that in general zakat in Canada was a “disaster.” He was careful that he did not mean to speak against the sincere efforts of those trying, but that he was concerned that each masjid had their own ways and there was no coordination, or “oversight for zakat collection and zakat spending.” He believed we are “lacking accountability, transparency in collection of zakat and how… and where we spend zakat.” He argued that zakat “should be done in collaboration so the impact would be greater than individual organisation or local masjid, right?... This is one of the most neglected pillars of Islam in practice that… much more work is needed and I believe every organisation, especially Canadian Muslim organisation can do better about it [sic].”
Another manager mentioned something similar. He pointed out that if everyone gave their zakat locally there would be so much more that could be done to help lift people out of poverty, including programmes for mental health, the elderly, children with disabilities, job readiness, and back-to-work or second careers. “But the fact of the matter is that we haven’t realised or even come close to realising the full potential of zakat in Canada…”
2.3 Zakat distribution
The Qur’an very clearly lays out eight categories of people that are eligible to receive zakat: “Charities are for the poor, and the destitute, and those who administer them, and for reconciling hearts, and for freeing slaves, and for those in debt, and in the path of God, and for the traveler in need—an obligation from God. God is All-Knowing, Most Wise (9:60).” We will look at this in more detail below.
2.3.1 International vs. local
First it is important to draw attention to one of the most remarked upon aspects of zakat
distribution in all studies of Muslim charity in Western countries: the overwhelming tendency for people to send their zakat
overseas to Muslim-majority countries.23
Two interrelated reasons are usually given: affluent western societies do not really have poverty, whereas Muslims overseas live in poverty, so they need zakat
. In his interviews with Dutch-Turkish Muslims, Cebecioglu observed how this attitude has been slowly changing and zakat
is being spent more locally out of a “wider sense of responsibility for human development in the world.”24
In Canada, a similar trend can be observed. The growth of giving zakat locally is based upon a dawning realisation that there are people here who fall through the cracks in the welfare system. All the organisations had decided to spend their zakat locally. Organisation Two has major international zakat programmes as well, but from the very beginning included local emergency zakat “based on the simple concept of charity begins at home.” They have food banks and a lifetime emergency relief payment up to $950.
Many pointed out, as did one interviewee that, while comparatively speaking Muslims in Muslim-majority countries lived in deeper poverty, nevertheless, that did not mean that even if Canada is good in global standards, there were not Muslims living in poverty here. They come from many walks of life, including single parents, new immigrants, refugees, jobless, and the homeless. One case worker related the story of a young man here on a work permit with his young family who lost his job due to COVID but did not qualify for any government related income support. He needed zakat.
In addition to noting that there is a plethora of organisations that do international relief work, Organisation Four had an Islamically-based rationale for collecting and distributing zakat
locally based on the hadith of Muʿādh ibn Jabal, in which the Prophet ﷺ instructed that the zakat
he collected in Yemen should be taken from their rich, and given to their poor:25
“the wording is very, very specific, that’s taken from their rich and given to their poor. Meaning he was not supposed to take the zakat
and bring it back to Medina for example. He was supposed to take it there, collect it there, and distribute it there.” As the manager from another organisation said: “People in Malaysia aren’t accountable for the people in our backyard, we are. Right? They’re our neighbours. They’re our brothers and sisters and so our responsibility is to them…”
Asked whether there was pushback from the local community on the decision to spend zakat locally, most interviewees commented, in the words of one interviewee, “People are more curious, they’re like, really? Like zakat in Canada? There’s poor people here?” The interviewees concluded this notion was based on lack of experience of seeing Muslim poverty in Canada.
2.3.2 Methods of processing zakat applications
This section looks at how zakat
applications are processed in the four organisations we studied. Amongst the interviewees there are similarities and differences to the approach in the UK, as reported in May’s study of zakat
. She found that “most of the zakat
funds collected in mosques are redistributed into the local community with decisions of distribution made on a case-by-case basis through a zakat
committee,” who are usually volunteers, often women.26
Organisation Three stands apart because it does not give zakat
to individuals, only to registered charities through a rigorous project-based grant application system decided by a committee. One organisation relied on a single staff member with support from an administrative assistant, while the other two relied on committees of caseworkers, most of whom had social service degrees or training, to make the determination. This demonstrates a growing specialisation and professionalization of the field.
These two organisations recognised the potentially patronising, invasive, and dehumanising aspect of many due diligence requirements, criticisms often made of the modern welfare state. Recognising this, over the past year, one organisation has developed a new intake system that begins from a “place of care.” The first conversation between a caseworker and a client does not go into documentation. Our “number one thing is going to be hey, let’s have that human-to-human interaction, let’s have that phone conversation, let’s talk about what’s happening first, right? My name is XX, thank you so much for calling… you… [have made] an application for zakat, what can I do for you, tell me about what’s going on?” He added that the work they do is not simply writing a cheque and handing out money. While they do not do counselling per se, he suggests their work is “kind of like life coaching and social work,” resulting in multiple phone calls between a case worker and a client in an attempt to help connect them to life skills to lift themselves out of poverty permanently. This idea is echoed by the other organisation’s manager: “So the support worker isn’t just there to ensure that they meet this minimum criteria of desperation, to help them… but it’s instead looking at what are goals that might be transformational in their life, and it’s driven by them, it… gives them an opportunity to… break out of poverty, right?”
2.3.3 Eight categories of zakat eligibility
The eight categories of zakat
eligibility enunciated above are well-known since they are mentioned in the Qur’an. May’s study of zakat
in the UK found that “the emphasis of individual giving was largely on the first two categories,”27
with differences of opinion over the categories “reconciling hearts,” and “spending in the path of God.” The same is true with organisations in our study. By and large, the organisations do not distribute to all eight categories, focusing on the top two: the poor and the destitute, with differences of opinion specifically over the appropriateness of the categories “reconciling hearts” and “spending in the path of God” for Canada. One argued that helping refugees could fit into the category of “traveler in need.”
We mentioned above that two organisations give ṣadaqah
to Muslims and non-Muslims but give zakat
only to Muslims. The other two organisations take from the legal opinions that the category “fī sabīl Allāh
” (spending in the way of God) and/or “reconciling hearts” allows them to spend zakat
for the greater good, based upon a view that spending charitable money to support non-Muslim individuals is a Muslim contribution to the wider society.28
In the words of one interviewee: “our well-being is tied to the well-being of the general society. So by helping alleviate poverty in the wider society, we’re helping everyone.” Some saw this as an important part of daʿwah
, the “reconciling the hearts” category of zakat
eligibility; in the words of one interviewee, “to soften their heart to come closer to the community and to build bridges between Islam and… other religions.” While statistics are varied for each organisation, they estimated 10-30% of their clientele is non-Muslims. The non-Muslims find them through Google searches, friends, or social worker referrals.
Two managers pointed to the difficulty of raising money in the community for administrative costs; in one interviewee’s words, there is “a lot of reluctance [to talk about this openly] because nobody really wants to be that guy [who points out that it costs money to deliver a donation to a recipient]” and yet it is a crucial conversation because “it is very difficult to get an average… donor to give for the admin costs or the overhead.” Without administration, how could zakat or ṣadaqah be administered? Relying on volunteers does not bring consistency, nor the professionalism required in such a sensitive field. Some organisations took the permission to pay zakat collectors as authorisation to draw administrative expenses from the zakat. The interviewees were careful to point out their care in doing so, to ensure administrative costs were fair and a small percentage of overall expenditure (5-10%). One organisation, after consultation with some Islamic scholars, took a unique position that they were not zakat collectors, since they had not been appointed by an Islamic state; rather they saw themselves as “representatives of the poor.” They receive about 60% of their funding from government grants.
2.3.4 Zakat and welfare systems
operates more like a negative income tax (an amount given to people without conditionalities to bring them up to a certain yearly income) than contemporary welfare systems, with their emphases on conditionalities and narrow eligibility. Traditionally, some Muslim scholars even allowed someone who is known to be poor, elderly, or disabled to have their claim for zakat
accepted without evidence. The testimony of neighbours could count as evidence that a person was needy, though a person who claimed to have a family should show evidence.29
A minority of Shafi’is said an able-bodied claimant may be required to testify under oath; one hadith narrates that the Prophet ﷺ looked over some able-bodied claimants and told them that there is no zakat
for the rich or strong who can earn, so other scholars determined an oath was not always necessary, since some are strong in body but unable to work for other reasons.30
Muslim scholars have long argued that it is the state’s responsibility to ensure everyone has their basic needs met; there are differences as to what will count as basic needs, usually some combination of food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and education.31
But this ideal is not meant to create lazy citizens relying on handouts. The Qur’anic verses and aḥādīth
stress the importance of work for those who are able.32
For instance, “No man earns anything better than that which he earns with his own hands; and what a man spends on himself, his wife, his child, and his servant, then it is charity;33
and “It is better for any one of you to carry a bundle of wood on his back and sell it than to beg of someone whether he gives him or refuses.”34
According to Shāfiʿī and Ḥanbalī scholars, an able-bodied person who chose to be idle was not eligible for zakat
, then, is not meant to be administered to create a permanent underclass. It is the right of the poor on the wealthy; it is “not merely temporary relief of the immediate needs of the poor [but aimed] at eliminating poverty and making the poor at least self-sufficient.”36
So, although in Islamic schools of law there are differences of opinion as to who is and is not eligible, zakat
is allowed to be given to people who would not qualify for welfare and to cover costs not allowed under welfare. Al-Qardawi recognises this—in advocating for zakat
he criticizes contemporary authors who argue zakat
is no longer needed because “contemporary social and economic systems must be based on work and production instead of charity, as if zakat
was simply a charity for beggars or support for the idle.”37
For instance, if a breadwinner could not provide for the essential needs of the family, even if s/he owned property or trade goods, s/he would not be required to sell those in order to receive zakat
A person who owns real estate but whose income is below their needs is counted as poor.39
Able-bodied people who cannot find work in their field are eligible for zakat
; they are not obliged to take any work whatsoever. Tools of trade are considered an essential need by some Hanafi scholars, so zakat
can be used to purchase such items for someone who lacks them.40
work in Canada is not organised around dissenting politics. Anti-poverty advocates, labour, and Basic Income movements are all critical of welfare systems for being inefficient, with degrading and patronising means tests and work-related requirements, impersonal bureaucracy, and failure to lift people out of poverty.41
While some interviewees appreciated the Canadian welfare system for its contrast with the poverty they observed in their countries of origin, because they see the needs of clients who are on welfare, they are able to see its inadequacies. Yet, by and large, they operate within the structures of the neo-liberal system.42
This has to do both with the Canadian Revenue Agency’s strictures imposed upon their organisations, as well as acculturation both for recipients and administrators with Canadian welfare systems, as noted by one interviewee. Although they are careful with their application forms for the sake of complying both with Islamic rules around zakat
eligibility and CRA guidelines, in essence the application forms cover the same ground as traditional welfare forms; e.g., asking for proof of income, bank statements and expenses and the like. One interviewee had helped an applicant fill out his organisation’s form and commented it is “clearly a very exhausting process.” Having to fill out such long and detailed forms is always a reminder to a recipient that their life is not their own. It impinges on their dignity and autonomy, setting them apart from “normal” people who do not have to bother themselves with such time-consuming paperwork.
Yet, because it does not have conditionalities nor narrow eligibilities attached to it, zakat, as the right of the poor, is not like welfare, as one interviewee perceptively noted:
It doesn’t carry the burdens the welfare state often imposes which is stigmatisation… the sense that one is less for receiving it… this emphasis on the poor needing to be controlled and cajoled, right? Zakat is… okay if you are in need… the general impetus is to say what can we do to support you, to put you in the driver’s seat to see that this is really your money and how can we help you use it?
One manager who shared his organisation’s zakat policy document with one of the researchers pointed out that the guide is “from an Islamic perspective and does not include the policies that govern us from CRA. If we were to cross that with the CRA objects then the subsection within which we operate is much smaller than what you can find in this document.”
All the interviewees understand the purpose of their organisation as helping people become self-sufficient. That is why they go to great lengths in assessing for eligibility, life-coaching, and helping alleviate the “root cause of the problems.” They recognise the need to free up resources for those who could not be self-sufficient thereby relying on zakat for a longer time. Although Organisation Three provides tools of trade through the projects they fund, the other organisations were less clear on whether that would be allowed under CRA guidelines. The most they seemed able to do was connect people to job training programmes. One of the few interviewees who distinguished his work as charity rather than justice felt that, due to CRA guidelines, they were forced to give relief money to those in need, instead of addressing “root” causes and helping them become self-sufficient, with say education and mental health programmes. This raises the question of the extent to which zakat in Canada is ultimately a band-aid. Whether or not Muslims can attach themselves to more profound opponents of this system, such as the Basic Income movement, remains to be seen.