A foundation devoted to the professional management of Zakat is something new in Switzerland. It should have been the norm long ago.
Given the importance of Zakat in the Islamic faith, the extent to which it has been ignored is surprising. With a few rare exceptions, the collection and local redistribution of Zakat has not been centrally managed in Switzerland or in other European countries. The most shocking fact is that it is these Muslim communities themselves who suffer the most from this lack of institutionalisation : these are the very people who are the most in need of it.
Detailed rules regarding payment and distribution of Zakat, as stated in classic legal texts, clearly indicate that this institution is intended for a greater purpose. The objective of Zakat is to answer to the needs of the Muslim community, to promote links of brotherhood, mutual love and respect, and to allow this community to fully embrace their faith while positively contributing to the society in which they live.
This is part of the larger social vision of the Islamic faith: numerous rules and injunctions aim to bring hearts and souls together and promote social peace. The institution of Zakat is at the centre of this vision. This is why a renaissance within this institution is of particular importance in today’s context.
Above and beyond a simple act of charity
Classical texts in Islamic law tell us that it isn’t necessarily ideal for an individual’s Zakat contribution to benefit people who live in a different part of the world, except in certain circumstances. This shows that Zakat is meant to create links and relationships between people in one physical location which allows us to help those in need, take care of others and fulfill mutual responsibility. As such, for those of us who pay Zakat, this creates a sense of identity and belonging to our physical community. In our current era of globalisation and identity crises, particulary prevelant among Muslim minorities in the West, Zakat’s intended message could not be clearer : your home is where you live, so devote your wealth and energy to serving it.
In this context, it is important to understand that Zakat does not promote communitarianism or the idea that Muslims should not be concerned with helping non-Muslims: that is far from true. The religious injunctions are clear : every living soul has the right to care and charity. The Prophet of Islam (peace and blessings be upon him) said : ‘in every living being with a warm liver is a reward for charity’, which means that a person will be rewarded for the care and attention they show to all living beings. But how would Muslims, within our society, take care of their non-Muslim neighbours and fulfill their obligations towards them if this community does not understand itself, is not connected, and is not able to care for its own members?
This question is extremely relevant in Switzerland, where the Röstigraben is a reality within the community. Charity, for it to be effective in the long-term, must always start at home. Zakat builds this home. However, this home is not an isolated entity lacking emotions. What’s more, how can this entity be isolated if one of the eight categories of recipients of Zakat, according to the Quran, is those whose hearts are to be reconciled?
This category of Zakat recipients, mentioned in the Quran (9:60) as those whose ‘hearts are to be reconciled’ (mu’allafat qulubuhum) , illustrates that Zakat can be used to build bridges. Academic debates often centre around the exact definition of this category. Some Islamic legal experts maintain that this defenition refers to new Muslim converts; that the existing community should set aside Zakat funds to encourage them on their path towards faith, supported by their newly found religious community.
Some experts assert that this definition refers to non-Muslims, and that the community should set aside funds for charitable purposes and show goodwill towards members of other religious communities, build bridges which could allow them to experience the serenity and beauty of the remembrance of God which is found at the heart of the Islamic faith. Other legal experts define this category as those who actively reject faith, and that the Islamic community should dedicate funds to showing them examples of goodwill in the hope that the walls they have built up may be torn down, and that a new world and a new form of society can be built.
Many questions come up when we attempt to carry out this pillar of faith, which is so vital to us all. Which of the aforementioned definitions should be used when it comes to the question of those whose hearts are to be reconciled? Does the answer depend on the social context of the Muslim community? The best way to answer these questions may be to assemble lawyers, social scientists and Islamic specialists. Another category of Zakat recipients mentioned in the Quran is those who are enslaved and strive to be free; this definition is also often debated by experts and theorists . It’s important to note that slavery has been abolished ; but can we really be sure that’s true? Throughout the whole world, there are many forms of modern slavery. People can find themselves, often because of unpaid debts, literally reduced to slaves in the sex industry or having to endure difficult working conditions for very little pay. This can happen even in developed countries. Could Zakat be used to free these people and offer them the chance to live freely? Again, finding an answer that is faithful to Islamic tradition and based on awareness of our modern reality, would require many experts’ opinions from multiple disciplines.
All too often within the Muslim community, we spend too much time and energy dwelling on problems and what doesn’t work. Not enough time and energy is spent suggesting solutions to improve the current situation. In our local community, properly managed collection and distribution of Zakat would constitute a major step toward improving our economic, social and spiritual situation.
But just like many other solutions to complex problems, reinventing the institution of Zakat is a project that requires a lot of time and effort, and people must work together to achieve this vision. By doing this, we would realise the real beneficiary of injunctions of the sacred laws of Islam is not God, but in fact us. Us and all the souls we are capable of touching in order to help them have a better and healthier life.
Editorial Team SZF