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?

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This presidential election cycle is supposed to be all about religion, right? The pundit mop-up of George Bush’s 2004 victory was all about “values voters,” and while the “God gap” apparently narrowed in the 2006 mid-term elections, we’ve still had any number of articles about how the Democrats are getting religion. (We are awaiting a book from journalist Amy Sullivan on this topic.) And of course religious talk has been much in evidence from the Democrats, including an entire debate devoted to the subject of faith.

Given this new hyper-focus on personal religious faith as a political plus, some of the findings of a survey released earlier this month by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life provide some puzzling material for pundits to chew over.

Consider these contrarian facts:

When asked what issues would be most important to them in terms of voting, all groups — Democrats and Republicans, evangelicals, Catholics and everyone else in between — rated domestic issues (like the economy, health care and education) and the war in Iraq as more important than social issues (like abortion and gay marriage.)

Note in the Pew table to the left, of course, there are some variations: 45% of Republicans mention social issues as “very important” compared with 36% of Democrats, and White evangelicals are most concerned with social issues (56% mentioning them as “very important,”) compared to mainline Protestants, who are the least concerned (28%.)

While some might argue that on a local level, these slight differences might make or break a president, it seems unlikely that the 2008 election will be all about the “values voters.”

Here’s another one: The two most popular candidates right now are not the candidates perceived as most religious. According to the Pew survey, Hillary Clinton is perceived as less religious than either Barack Obama or John Edwards, yet she is the current front-runner. Similarly on the Republican side, Rudy Giuliani leads in popularity, even though he is perceived as less religious than Fred Thompson, John McCain and Mitt Romney. (And ReligionWriter would like to meet the 14% of people who perceived Giuliani as “very religious.”)

If religion matters in 2008, then pundits are going to have to explain Giuliani’s popularity with Republicans — where did all the values voters go? Here too the Pew study may provide a clue: Could Giuliani be riding a wave of favorable ignorance? Nearly 60% of voters who say that social issues are “very important” don’t know what Giuliani’s position on abortion is (he says he “believes in a woman’s right to choose.”) In other words, more than half of the people one expects to reject Giuliani outright are unaware of his abortion stance — it seems that Giuliani might have a tough row to hoe if his lead continues and “values voters” become better informed about his social issue positions.

Some parting questions:

In talking faith and values, are Democrats fighting the last war?

Will the mini-industry of religion-and-politics pundits and reporters (ReligionWriter included) fairly report on the unimportance of religion in the campaign?

If religion is a non-decisive issue in 2008, will all the buzz over religion in public life fade away, to be replaced by another, yet-to-be discovered issue? (Readers, tell us what this might be!)


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Question: What does the current field of presidential contenders have in common with the Supreme Court bench? Answer: It is disproportionately Catholic.

Using the handily compiled religious biographies of the presidential candidates (which number 16, if undeclared Fred Thompson is included) from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, ReligionWriter discovered these interesting tidbits.

Six out of 16 presidential candidates, or 38%, are Catholic (and five out of nine, or 56%, Supreme Court justices are Catholic.) Nationwide, Catholics make up an estimated 24.5% of the U.S. population, according to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey. (That percentage may be lower now, since it declined by 2.3% between 1990 and 2001, and because an increasing number of American Hispanics are leaving Catholicism for other — or no- religions, according to a recent Pew Forum study.)

The six Catholic candidates are: Joe Biden, Sam Brownback, Christopher Dodd, Rudy Giuliani, Dennis Kucinich, and Bill Richardson.

The candidate roster also reflects what scholars call the vibrancy of the American “religious marketplace,” in which individuals often choose new religious identities. (ReligionWriter covered this trend in her Feb. 2007 Religion News Service article, “For Many Americans, Religious Identity is No Longer a Given.”) Five Six candidates now practice faiths different from the ones they grew up with:

  • Democrat Mike Gravel grew up as a Roman Catholic, attending Catholic schools, and now belongs to the Unitarian Church. (Gravel’s profile is not yet posted on the Pew Forum’s website.)
  • Republican Ron Paul grew up it the Lutheran faith, married and baptized his five children in the Episcopal Church, and now describes himself as a Baptist. (Paul’s profile is not yet posted at the Pew Forum.)
  • Republican Sam Brownback grew up attending United Methodist and other mainline Protestant churches. He later attended a nondenominational evangelical church and, in 2002, converted to Catholicism.
  • Democrat John Edwards was raised a Southern Baptist, “drifted away” from his faith as a young man. After the tragic death of his son in 1996, he became more religious, and he is now a United Methodist.
  • Democrat Barack Obama grew up in a largely non-religious environment, the son of an absentee Muslim-turned-atheist father and a non-practicing Protestant mother. He now belongs to the United Church of Christ.
  • Winning honorable mention in this category is Democrat Christopher Dodd, who, while adhering the Catholicism of his childhood, is married to a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church.) The couple’s children are being raised in both faiths.
  • UPDATE 8/21: Tom Tancredo is also a convert. Born a Roman Catholic of Italian heritage, Tancredo converted to evangelical Presbyterianism.

For those interested crunching their own numbers, here are the religious affiliations of the remaining candidates:

Hillary Clinton: United Methodist

Mike Huckabee: Southern Baptist

Duncan Hunter: Southern Baptist

John McCain: Episcopal

Mitt Romney: Mormon

Fred Thompson: Church of Christ

Re: Fred Thompson, here’s a question best answered by the citizen journalists of McLean, Va., where Fred Thompson now lives: Is the former Senator from Tennessee currently a member of a local Church of Christ? Although Thompson grew up in this largely conservative denomination, he married his second wife, Jeri Kehn, in a United Church of Christ, a more liberal denomination. If Thompson belongs to a church, of any denomination, in Northern Virginia, that has not yet been reported.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, ReligionWriter notes that she regularly contributes to the Pew Forum and compiled several of the candidate profiles mentioned here.)

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(Below: Muslim American high school students gather in October, 2006, for a community iftar, or fast-breaking, during the month of Ramadan. PHOTO BY ANDREA USEEM)

A new study, released yesterday (May 22, 2007) by the Pew Research Center, estimates a total Muslim population in the U.S. of 2.4 million – about 0.6 percent of the total U.S. population.

This 2.4 million number, which includes children, is hugely smaller than the number estimated by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which says on its website, “There is no scientific count of Muslims in the U.S. Six to seven million is the most commonly cited figure.”

Ibrahim Hooper stood by the 6-7 million figure today, saying the Pew number was “extremely low,” and that he believed a number of factors contributed to undercounting.

“I wouldn’t appear on that survey, with the last name of Hooper, and neither would any number of converts who don’t change their names. We also have a substantial immigrant population, and it’s more difficult for them to pop up in survey data,” Hooper told ReligionWriter by phone.

But the Pew figure cannot be easily dismissed on either of those bases.

The Pew survey did not attempt to find Muslims in the United States by searching for Muslim-sounding last names. Rather, it screened nearly 60,000 households, some of which were likely to contain Muslims, and weighted its results accordingly.

The set-up of the Pew study also made several attempts to increase response rates. Because immigrant experts estimate that a quarter of recent immigrants have limited or no English, the researchers made available foreign language interviewers who spoke Arabic, Farsi or Urdu. For this reason, the study said, researchers found a higher number of Muslims than had been discovered in previous Pew national surveys.

But given the level of suspicion among Muslims about unfair harassment and government surveillance – a finding confirmed in the report itself – wouldn’t many Muslims be reluctant to identify their religion to a stranger on the phone and answer detailed questions about their religious and political views?

The Pew study may not have been entirely successful, but they did take two steps to remove this barrier. First, the interviewers revealed the purpose of the study early on in the conversation, saying, “We have some questions about the views and experiences of Muslims living in the United States. I think you will find these questions very interesting.” In addition, Muslims were offered $50 for completing the half-hour interview.

Revealing a study’s purpose is “not common in survey research,” the study said, but the Pew researchers said they hoped this transparency would put Muslims ease and have “a greater chance of establishing a bond of trust,” according to the report.

Secondly, male interviewers were available to interview male subjects, and females for females, “a practice common among survey researchers conducting face-to-face interviews in majority Muslim nations,” the report said.

Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, said at yesterday’s press conference that Pew’s estimate of the population – 2.4 million – was actually somewhat higher than other survey-based studies.

These estimates ranged from 0.2 percent of the population (found by the National Election Study conducted by the University of Michigan in 2000 and by Baylor University in 2006) to 0.5 percent (found by a compilation of Pew Research Center surveys between 2000-2007 and by the General Social Survey from the University of Chicago, which has been conducted every other year since 1998.)

Two Muslim social scientists, Ilyas Ba-Yunus, an emeritus professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Cortland, and Kassim Kone, a professor of anthropology at the same university, wrote that survey-based data are not a good basis for population estimates. In their chapter on Muslim demography in the 2004 book, Muslims’ Place in the American Public Square, they decried “the myth in American culture about the scientific validity of surveys based on national polling,” pointing to cases were survey data has, for example, wrong predicted election outcomes, including Al Gore’s initial win in Florida in the 2000 presidential election. Ba-Yunus and Kone estimated a 2004 Muslim American population of 5.7 million, based on data collected from Muslim organizations across the country.

Hooper agreed with Ba-Yunus and Kone that accurate information can only be obtained through the community itself. “We have the most diverse religious community, and it’s hard to get a handle on it unless you have access to it, as we do,” said Hooper.

Would CAIR be open to looking more closely at the Pew survey?

Hooper said an on-staff research expert would have to examine the data closely.

He said, “There have been innumerable estimates over the years, some higher, some lower. It doesn’t change our work in serving the Muslim American community.”

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A new study out this morning from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the

Pew Hispanic Center includes a chapter on religious conversion among Hispanics in


Basic Data on Latino Conversion:

The vast majority of Latinos (82%) give no indication of ever having changed their religious affiliation. However, almost one-in-five (18%) Latinos say they have either converted from one religion to another or to no religion at all,” study authors write. Most Hispanics are Catholic, and most of those who convert join evangelical churches, study data reveals.

Notable Findings on Conversion:

Second-generation immigrants are eight percent more likely to convert than first-generation immigrants. “Though it is impossible to determine the precise extent to which conversion is a product of assimilation, it does appear that migrating to the

United States, learning English and undergoing the other changes that occur with exposure to American ways do seem to be somewhat associated with changes in religious affiliation,” study authors write. Of those Latinos who convert, nearly one in four leave religion in favor of secularism – and men are twice as women to make this move.In spite of extensive media coverage of Latino conversion to Islam in America, the study found that less than 0.9% of Hispanics are Muslims. (See examples of media coverage here and here and here.)

Questions The Data Raise:

Does conversion happen simply because Hispanics who leave Catholic-dominated countries are now exposed to Protestantism, and evangelicalism in particular, in the Protestant-dominated

United States? In other words, is conversion simply about exposure to new religions? Or is there something about “becoming American” that is associated with religious seeking and conversion?

Related Content:

“For Many Americans, Religious Identity is No Longer a Given,” by Andrea Useem, Religion News Service, Feb. 12, 2007. This article begins with the story of a Mexican-born Catholic woman who now practices a Hindu-influenced New Age faith with her Jewish American husband .

“Religion in a Globalizing World,” transcript of a talk by religion scholar Peter Berger at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Dec. 4, 2006, in which he argues that modernity and globalization inherently destabilizes religious identification.American Religious Identification Survey 2001, from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). This survey is one of the most comprehensive studies to date on American religious identification. Interestingly, one of the fastest growing categories was “no religious identification.” According to this morning’s study from Pew, 7.8% of American Latinos identified as secular: Will this number continue to grow with assimilation?

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