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About the Author

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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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Islam’s “Fallen Pillar:” Compulsory Charity

Four of Islam’s five pillars lend themselves to easily to stories and pictures. Whether it’s articles about converts, images of men bent over in prayer (a photographic trope one Muslim journalist refers to as “a**-shots,”) video of pilgrims swirling around the Kaaba as they complete their Hajj, or stories about Muslims breaking their Ramadan fasts, it’s not hard to find information about the four pillars of belief, prayer, fasting and pilgrimage.

But what about Islam’s other pillar, zakat, the command to “purify” one’s wealth by giving away 2.5% of it?

Yes, yes, there has been plenty of coverage of how Muslim charities in the U.S. have been shut down post-9/11 (including how one of those charities was unable to be convicted this week,) and how these events have made life difficult for American Muslims who want to donate money.

But there has been precious little assessment of how American Muslims do or do not fulfill the highly specific command to donate 2.5% of one’s assets to eight possible categories of the needy, as designated in the Qur’an in verse 9:60:

Alms are for the poor and the needy, and those employed to administer the (funds); for those whose hearts have been (recently) reconciled (to Truth); for those in bondage and in debt; in the cause of Allah. and for the wayfarer: (thus is it) ordained by Allah, and Allah is full of knowledge and wisdom. (Yusuf Ali translation)

In other words, Muslims can give their zakat money to the impoverished, the temporarily poor, zakat collectors, converts, slaves, debtors, those who fight “in the way of Allah,” and travelers. Voluntary charity, in addition to the compulsory zakat, is of course highly encouraged — the Prophet Muhammad was known to give away food even if it meant he and his family went without — and these general forms of charity are known as “sadaqah.”

According to historian Michael Bonner, who has written about poverty and charity in Islam, the question of finding hard data on if and how American Muslims fulfill their zakat obligations is a “tough” one. In its recent study of American Muslims, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 76% of American Muslims rated giving charity as “very important” to them, while only 63% put the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca in that same category - in other words, they say it’s pretty darn important. When it comes to the specific question of zakat, however, this data is not helpful, because the Pew study asked about “charity, or zakat.” In other words, the category blended general, voluntary sadaqah with specific, compulsory zakat.

So how many American Muslim fulfill their zakat obligation? ReligionWriter speculates the percentage must be very low, probably far below the 41% of American Muslims who reported that they make all five required prayers daily, that according to the Pew study. The title of a 2001 book — Zakat: Raising a Fallen Pillar — by a British Muslim implies Western Muslims have also noticed this lack of adherence.

For one thing, calculating zakat is the Muslim equivalent of filing tax returns: for all but the most enthusiastic accountants, it is hard, boring work. (Indeed, some suggest the need for zakat “tax clinics” to help individual Muslims estimate payments.) Filing your tax returns with the IRS, of course, is far from optional, while zakat is not enforced or even very strongly encouraged at mosques. This highly discretionary system is far from the compulsory charity of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where tithing 10% of your income is required in order to enter temples, where sacred ordinances are performed.

Second of all, the methods of calculating zakat, as well the list of allowed charity recipients, need to be translated into modern terms in order to be implemented. Much of the classical jurisprudence on zakat pertains to commodities like livestock and precious metals, rather than, say, life insurance policies, mortgages and 401(k)s. And as Timur Kuran, a scholarly critic of the push towards Islamic economics, points out in a chapter of the 2003 book, Poverty and Charity in Middle Eastern Contexts, the categories of zakat are not only outdated — you’d have to go pretty far to find slaves you can free, for example — but also that people with less money could technically end up donating money to those with more money, because categories like travelers or new converts have little to do with income levels (and in the modern world, we hardly think of travelers as a separate social category.)

Does zakat matter?

So why is this important? For journalists, zakat is an under-explored topic in the area of Muslim faith and practice. Many religious traditions in the modern era have overlooked scripture-based economic teachings, mostly because the marketplace, as well as most governments, became completely secular; the modern religious focus became personal piety, and Islam appears to be no exception. There is of course a push by some to reintroduce Islamic economic practices, such as interest-free loans, with mixed results. (And there have been few American Muslim voices speaking out on the current housing credit crisis, even though the Qur’an — like most scriptures — speaks directly and frequently against predatory lending.)

For scholars and poll-takers, zakat — not just general charitable giving — is also under-explored. What percentage of American Muslims fulfill this religious obligation? Why has this religious practice apparently fallen by the wayside? When it comes to philanthropy, do American Muslims abandon specifically Islamic charity in favor of more general giving patterns?

Finally, one would expect American Muslim leaders to take a keen interest in this topic: If it’s true that the faithful are less than religious about paying zakat, then what does that say about the state of Islam in America today?

There Are 5 Responses So Far. »

  1. Important topic and great article.

    Interesting timing as well, as the great mind from Australia, Tawfique Chowdhury wrote a ground-breaking piece that details evidences for the permissibility of Zakat beyond what the popular view holds as the “permissible” categories. Rather, Tawfique argues that the textual evidence opens the door for Zakat to be given for other Islamic purposes as well such as dawah organizations, etc.

    The article can be found here… hope you can give it a read:
    Permissibilitity of Zakat for Islamic Organizations

  2. you might take into account in your studies the decline of charity givin after 911

    personally i find a person or family who need help, and do it anonymously -
    i find my ways- through mutual friends etc-

    i dont give it to institutions, dont even try to give it to charities (look at the muslims who ger charged with supporting terrorism through their charity giving)

    are people actually asking these questions?

    they really dont know?

  3. I can recall a scene from National Geographic’s “Inside Mecca” in which a South African Muslim performing the Hajj comes across an impoverished neighborhood in Mecca. True to his faith, he rounds up a group of like-minded Muslims who all purchase and deliver badly-needed food and supplies for the neighborhood. However, he becomes quite disturbed when he learns that this is the only act of charity that this neighborhood has ever received. It would seem that charity is sometimes lacking even in the birthplace of Islam.

  4. [...] the crimes of 9/11. Americans aren’t so interested in the details of Ramadan fasting or Muslim charitable giving — they need to know about the connection between Islam and [...]

  5. Thanks for the informative article. It made me think up some things. :)

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