Zakat, Poverty and the Kitchen Sink

Written with Osman Umarji

 

Zakat, that economic act of worship often paid in Ramadan we regard as the third pillar of Islam, is increasingly becoming a hollow shell. A few examples:

An Imam is invited to give a seminar on Zakat at an Islamic Center serving an affluent neighborhood. The organizers ask him if he believes Zakat funds can be used for their Masjid construction project, he answers in the negative. He is disinvited.

Zakat is used to rent an expensive hotel conference space so that a panel of speakers can discuss current political issues.

A major Muslim non-profit spends Zakat funds to pay a famous public figure thousands for an honorarium and a first-class flight to speak at its gala.

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Zakah expenditures are only for the poor and for the needy and for those employed to collect [zakah] and for bringing hearts together [for Islam] and for freeing captives [or slaves] and for those in debt and for the cause of Allah and for the [stranded] traveler – an obligation [imposed] by Allah . And Allah is Knowing and Wise. (9:60)

This oft-cited ayah of the Quran has eight categories of eligible recipients. The first two deal with poverty, the third is the one who collects and distributes Zakat and the others included are those in bondage or in debt and “those whose hearts are inclined” to champion the cause of Allah and the stranded traveler.

Poverty colors every other category. Zakat recipients need not always be poor of course. For example, refugees may be land barons but could benefit from Zakat all the same.

In the United States today, non-profits provide vital services that are often done by governments in other countries and are a significant portion of the economy. Tax benefits are provided to the non-profits and to those who donate – a recognition of their importance to society.

The Muslim non-profit sector includes places of worship, educational institutions, and service organizations. It employs much of the US Muslim community’s leadership, activists, teachers and other professionals and provides a system of conferences, symposiums, galas, buildings and a speaker circuit that educates and inspires many. This is all good. Many of these organizations take special care with Zakat contributions and do good work with them. However, many non-profits have found reasons to not take special care with Zakat. The American Muslim community should guard against this.

Why You Should Care

givePoverty is a continuing concern though it is often invisible to the well-off by design.  As Khaled Beydoun pointed out recently, a Pew study found 45% of American Muslims families earn less than $30,000 annually.  While the study did not measure poverty per se, this level is sufficiently close to poverty for many families.  The federal poverty guidelines are not a measure of Zakat eligibility; rather it is nisab, possession of 87.48 grams of gold (approximately $3500), which would not overlap perfectly with the guidelines. Around 34% of Americans have no savings at all to fall back on. Muslim community leaders all over the United States would attest to the many struggles of individuals and families who need help, brought on by illness, incarceration, displacement or a wide range of other chronic and transitional circumstances. Islam’s prescription for addressing these difficulties is Zakat. We help each other out as an act of worship. Just as prayer demonstrates how serious we are about our relationship with Allah, Zakat demonstrates how serious we are as a community.

Oversleeping for Fajr is considered bad even when no social harm comes from it. Misappropriated Zakat causes social harm. With Zakat there are often genuine differences of opinion among scholars that should be worked out and standards should be established for use of these funds. In other situations, its use is a clear grift that no scholar could rationalize.

Charitable giving  does not always help those in genuine need. Indeed, much of what passes as “charity” in the United States is merely giving donations for the benefit of the affluent. The poor are becoming increasingly numerous in the United States even as the non-profit sector continues to grow in size and strength.

There Will be Fatwas

Some non-profit organizations rely on the general sounding opinions of individual Islamic Scholars to validate their view that their own organization should receive Zakat. While there are differences of opinion among scholars, these differences can be exaggerated. Even if a donor is told a scholar agrees with a non-profit that a particular non-self-evident use of Zakat is acceptable, that should begin the inquiry and not end it.

Often the context of the Fatwa will be mixed up. A common example is using an opinion that justifies the construction of a Masjid in an impoverished or war-torn area to justify an expansion project of an existing Masjid in a wealthy suburban neighborhood. Those are not the same thing.

A significant controversy concerning disbursement of Zakat comes from the phrase “in the path of Allah” as the kind of cause for which giving Zakat is acceptable. The debate arises as to whether this phrase in the Quran means something specific (the physical struggle of Jihad was the traditionally understood meaning), if it means somewhat more (yet still specific) in the modern context, or if it means there are no practical limits. The “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to Zakat has become more popular among certain non-profits as everything they do can be viewed as a public good.

Zakat donors should be skeptical of “kitchen sink” claims, even while donating non-Zakat funds for organizations that do good work. The relevant verse in the Quran (9:60) is restrictive in terms of the categories that are allowed to receive Zakat. If every noble endeavor can be classified as “in the path of Allah,” then all other categories would be superfluous.

Some Muslim non-profits do not make public their rationale for accepting Zakat funds for their general budget. They just do it. Muslim Advocates for example, an organization that has done excellent work, makes the “Zakat-Eligible” claim without supporting it. Calls to the organization revealed they do not know why they make the claim, or can’t say. They are far from alone. This can be easily fixed as described below.

Inventing New Reasons to Take Zakat

The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) has been perhaps the most aggressive among Muslim non-profits in inventing novel rationalizations for accepting Zakat funds. The organization cites several categories on its website, explicitly including the entertainment awards galas they host as counting towards “those whose hearts are inclined.” Another reason they give is helping people be free of bondage, undoubtedly a permissible reason for giving Zakat. But what has MPAC done here? MPAC cites their work in the “Arab Spring” and “sustainable solutions for Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

We confirmed with a call to MPAC that it has no solutions to the real problem of people in bondage in Pakistan and Afghanistan, or anything else in those countries. MPAC’s work on the Arab Spring consisted of opining on current events, hosting panels in the US and participating in them. They also signed a petition to Egypt’s then President, asking him to oppose proposed wording of “Sharia” in that country’s constitution, as this would violate human rights. Political opposition to Sharia internationally as being a “Zakat-eligible” activity would seem to be the logical endpoint to this wild west state of affairs for Zakat in the United States. However, they went further, opining on how they “rejoice and celebrate” the military coup by General Sisi against the democratically-elected government they had previously petitioned.

The dictatorship they celebrated went on to commit one of the largest single day peacetime mass-killings of civilians in history, incarcerated and “disappeared” tens of thousands and engaged in systematic torture. Instead of working against bondage, as claimed, American Zakat was used to cheerlead a repressive military coup in another country. To their credit, unlike other organizations, MPAC is transparent about their Zakat use. This state of affairs of American Zakat is not primarily the fault of any one non-profit.

The privileging of Zakat funds for expenditures on ornate buildings in wealthy neighborhoods, expensive hotel conference spaces, panel discussions on politics, airline tickets, press releases of dubious value, interfaith networking, awards and honorariums for the already-affluent over the rights of those families and individuals in genuine need is a racket Muslim donors have been either tolerating or enabling for too long.

A Few Suggestions

1. Donors should be more purposeful about who they give Zakat to. Never accept a bald claim by a non-profit that donations are “Zakat-eligible” if the claim is not otherwise obvious to you (i.e. it is for the poor).  An independent, qualified scholar you respect should provide a specific, well-reasoned rationale to support such claims.

2. Muslim non-profits should collect Zakat. However, donation forms should allow donors to designate Zakat funds separately from other donations. Zakat funds must then be accounted for and disbursed with transparent policies different from general fund donations. Non-profits that accept grants are already used to this. Grants, like Zakat, are usually for specific, enumerated purposes and not for a general fund, so there should be no excuses. It’s fine to pay large honorariums to speakers at expensive hotel banquet halls or build nice buildings in affluent communities. Just don’t do it with Zakat.

3. Islamic scholars, leaders and activists in the non-profit sector should do more to protect the institution of Zakat and the rights of those in need. This starts with implementing best practices and addressing abuses taking place in the Muslim non-profit sector.


Osman Umarji was born and raised in Southern California. After spending years working as an engineer, he left his career to pursue an Islamic education at Al-Azhar University, specializing in Islamic law and legal theory. He  previously served as an Imam and has spent years studying Zakah and has given numerous seminars on the topic. He is currently pursuing a PhD at UC Irvine in Educational Psychology, while also serving the community as an educational consultant.

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45 responses to “Zakat, Poverty and the Kitchen Sink”

  1. Nasreen says:

    Assalamalaikum brother,

    Since youve done quite a lot of research on this. Can you name some reliable organizations we can donate zakat to?

    • Rafe says:

      Assalamu Alaikum brother Osman,

      Yes, I agree with Sr. Naseen. We would appreciate some suggestions on reliable organizations.

      • Osman Umarji says:

        Assalaamualaykum,

        I would simply suggest you ensure that the organization you are interested in donating to promises 100% usage of zakah for the poor and needy. I also recommend giving priority to organizations that support the local Muslim community, as that is the sunnah of the Prophet. Since locality is a preference, I cannot sincerely advise beyond where I live. If you live near me, send me an email and I will provide some names of great organizations.

  2. Fatima says:

    Salamalaikum

    A small suggestion.

    Before searching for an organization, look around in your circle. In your masjid, your family, relatives. If you cannot find anyone, alhamdulillah.
    You can ask if anyone knows of any muslim who is needy. Once a recipient has been found, you just give them what you can/should.

    PS: You will need to figure out how to work the tax exemption.

  3. Fatima says:

    Br Usman,

    I would request your opinion on giving Zakat to eligible relatives, family, acquaintances and the poor in our neighborhood. This could be a way to avoid one enmity and contempt between the rich and poor families.

    Should one rely solely on organizations to dispense of Zakat?

    • Ahmed says:

      I have the same question. Is Zakat something that should be dispensed through organizations, or can individuals give it directly to eligible relatives, acquaintances, etc.?

      A related question is who has more right on an individual’s Zakat: an overseas poor relative or a local poor person?

      • Osman Umarji says:

        Zakah can be dispersed by individuals. In fact, if you know someone needy, it is better you give them than rely on organizations to channel it to them. Relatives have rights and should be given priority if deserving.

  4. Abu Ibraheem says:

    Assalam Alaikum, I’m interested in giving zakat to someone in my local community and I have identified an individual that I think would qualify. However, how can I ascertain that they have less than the nisab? Can I assume they have less? I don’t feel comfortable investigating further as it may make one appear nosy and intrusive. This has happened in the past and then I ended up just giving online instead to an organization instead locally.

    • Osman Umarji says:

      As long as you pretty sure they qualify (based on your observation of their lifestyle and conversations with them), you may give them zakah. You do not have to disclose that the money you are giving them is zakah. If it later turns out they did not qualify, you have still fulfilled your obligation. The consideration in such a fiqh matter is called ghalabat-al-dhann (that which is one considers to be most likely).

      • Abu Yusuf says:

        I read that it is only the hanafi madhab which uses the Nisab as the criteria to determine who is poor is and the other Madhaib have different definitions and criteria to determine who is poor. Is this correct?

      • Abu Ibraheem says:

        Thank you, jazakAllahkhair for taking your time to respond, I appreciate it !

    • Fatima says:

      https://islamqa.info/en/82974

      This link is Shaikh Munajjids opinion on the poor person in America.

  5. Qasim says:

    According to charity navigator the number one org to give your zakat to is Helping Hand. They also are the top rated Muslim org http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=2215

    • Rafe says:

      Jazakallahu Khairan

    • Baabu says:

      Brother Qasim…i hope you dont work for Helping Hand..that would be a conflict of interest. Also, that link doesn’t say its #1-just lists it as a 5 star charity.

    • Abdullah says:

      The CEO of helping hands earns $158,315 a year. Your link shows their financials. This is the best charity? What has the world come to, SubhanAllaah

  6. OmarK says:

    What is the requirement to pay zakat on 401k and on IRA?

    • Osman Umarji says:

      InshaAllah a future article will address this matter, but it is my opinion that you pay on the full vested amount in your account. You do not subtract taxes or penalties unless you actually realize them (e.g., if you do not have enough cash on hand to pay zakah and have to dip into these accounts). The truth of the matter that many 401k fatawa miss is that one has complete ownership of the wealth (milk taam) in a 401k. They have chosen to stash money into an account voluntarily in order to maximize the financial gain for the future (yes, it has its conditions, but every participant chooses this voluntarily). It would be extremely oppressive to exempt 401k participants until retirement (who generally are from the wealthier class of society already) from paying zakah on their investments, while someone who stashes their savings in a checking account is obliged to pay. It is akin to telling the poor “you can’t touch our wealth for 30 years, even if it’s in the hundreds of thousands or millions”.

      • Arjmand says:

        Assalamu alaykum,

        Since I didn’t find a way to contact you personally, I wanted to know which organizations would you recommend that are in your state or area?

        Jazak Allah khair

  7. Fatima says:

    Muslim Advocates is disturbed by the reporting in this article, which includes false and misleading information regarding our organization’s zakat eligibility. Muslim Advocates is always happy to share zakat eligibility information with donors who request details. We have asked for a correction to this article and are hopeful the editors will make an update to reflect the facts.

    • Ahmed Shaikh says:

      Thank you for your comment. If you know how Muslim Advocates justifies taking Zakat and using it for all its expenses please let us know and we will note it. I asked multiple people in the organization and nobody has any idea why they do that. If you are willing to share it, do so now. It would be false and misleading for us to alude to information we do not have, especially as there is no evidence such information exists.

  8. AHMAD says:

    Maşallah.Allah’u Ekber.

  9. Shams Khan says:

    At Zaytuna College, we only use Zakat for needy students, and do not take any overhead costs out of the zakat we collect. Zaytuna.edu/Ramadan

  10. Faheem Baig says:

    Jazak Allahu Khairan Brother Usman for making us carefully think and consider this matter with fear of Allah.

    What is your opinion about zakat eligibility towards CAIR?

    • Osman Umarji says:

      I believe people should give sadaqa money (general donations) to CAIR and give zakah specifically to the poor via other institutions or personal connections. If CAIR changes their policy so that zakah donations will only be used for projects that serve the needy and poor, while using other types of donations for general operations, then perhaps they will be eligible in the future. This would need to be shown through detailed financials. I recommend people ask CAIR to do this.

      Some scholars have said CAIR is eligible for zakah under the general category of “fi sabeelillah”. I consider this to be exactly the kitchen sink dilemma the article has discussed (see https://ca.cair.com/sacval/home/donate/does-cair-qualify-to-receive-zakat/ for their justification).

      • Osman Umarji says:

        After a conversation with the brothers and sisters at CAIR, here is how they use their zakah: They absolutely do NOT use zakah for banquets, honorariums, or Quran donations. Rather, they use zakah for their civil rights work, which constitutes protecting Muslims from discrimination in schools, workplaces, and with government agencies (primarily through salaries for their legal staff). There is debate among scholars over whether this form of defending Muslims is zakah eligible (does it fall under fi sabillah). Regardless, defending Muslims is indeed noble work that the community needs to support, so sadaqa should be given for this cause even if you don’t give them your zakah.

    • Ahmed Shaikh says:

      Just to add to Sh. Osman’s comment. CAIR comes up a lot in this discussion, it is the elephant in the room we did not introduce. Some may wonder why we picked Muslim Advocates and MPAC when abusive Zakat practices are rampant throughout Muslim nonprofits, especially Masajid (and we did not single out any, they know who they are). I think some feel there should be an equivilancy drawn between CAIR and MPAC, which is unfortunate. While some, including Sh. Osman, disagree with how CAIR may use Zakat and they may not be the model zakat organization, they do things very differently from MPAC, Muslim Advocates and bad practices of many Masajid. They (1) segregate their donations (2) are reasonably transparent about what they use Zakat for and what they don’t use it for from among these segregated funds and (3) they have opinions from respected independent scholars that say they can do what they are doing. There appears to be an effort to respect the institution of Zakat, despite what may appear to be misgivings by some Zakat experts. Keep in mind I have not looked at their books or evaluated the accuracy of these claims. Here you as a donor would need to evaluate this for yourself based on the information you have. Note MPAC and Muslim Advocates have done none of these things. They were highlighted because of how egregious their practices are and because they are national in scope (which is why we did not highlight an individual Masjid). Collection and distribution of Zakat on behalf of others is a public trust. It is time donors started demanding more from those who take on this responsibility.

      • Faheem Baig says:

        Jazak Allahu Khairan for both of your quick and insightful responses. May Allah bless you and guide you and us all to the truth. I separately consulted with my community Imam who sided on the cautionary opinion to consider donations to CAIR as sadaqah. But as brother Ahmed pointed out, I again reviewed the options that CAIR gives for donations, and it clearly demarcates a button for payment of “Zakat”. Further it provides 5 categories for you to select, with at least one of them sounding the closest to me as being a means of disseminating Islamic awareness to the public (possible fi-SabilAllah?).

        That said, this is a personal lesson to me as I started donating to CAIR about one year ago with the intention of “Zakat”, but I don’t recall going through these options carefully, and simply started the donation through their general portal. Therefore, this portion is heavily called into question, and now I have to go back to evaluate, and possibly repay the Zakat properly for the prior year.

        So it is very encouraging that CAIR has actually established a precedent for clearly demarcating the Zakat funds, and has answered your questions with transparency.

        I am a huge supporter of CAIR and will continue to support them In sha Allah. But I will also request of them to make more careful consideration on how they present, solicit, distribute and account for their Zakat collections. In addition, I will request them to put a little more thought with scholarly backing, and add more scholars to their page in describing how CAIR may be Zakat eligible.

        You are absolutely right to put the onus on us as the individual donors to be far more careful in demanding transparency and accountability in Zakat.

        I would not have given it as much careful consideration had it not been for your very insightful article.

        Jazak Allahu Khairan.

  11. Amad says:

    I don’t know how I missed that MPAC celebrated the coup by Sisi — wow

    Did the organization ever recant or express condemnation of Sisi’s slaughters?

    However… Speaking generally, Can we really make the case that if an organization does something wrong, it is colored negatively completely? I mean couldn’t we make the argument that the zakat would be thought of as going toward the other good that the organization may do?

    • Ahmed Shaikh says:

      You can check with them to be sure but I never saw them recant their position on the coup.

      The point was to not only highlight the ad hoc Fiqh being made up by a nonprofit, but the gap between the Quranic justification provided (freeing people from bondage) and the actual record, where it either makes up things in its solicitations that it does not do, or does the opposite. MPAC is a valuble organization as it provides abundant cautionary examples of things other groups should never do.

      Zakat does not merely exist to support “good.” Rather it must be for specific groups who have the right to it in the Sharia. Misappropriating it for other vague notions of “good” represents grift.

  12. Zain Zubair says:

    Kind speech and Forgiveness are better than Charity followed by Injury. & Allah is Free of need and Forbearing. Surah Al Baqarah [2:263]

  13. Muhammad says:

    This discussion has been long over due. JZK Br. Osman. In my limited experience many organizations lack interest and infrastructure that would be necessary to segregate zakat eligible funds. In some cases even Zakatal Fitr and Saadaqa funds are commingled with other funds. These instances are either reckless or quasi intentional.

  14. Baabu says:

    It’s about time someone had the courage to write about this. Too many imams staying silent on the issue because they are on the receiving end of zakat money. There also many Madaaris (Hifz Specialists) that use zakat money to basically pay for salaries under the disguise of covering student tuition. This needs to be exposed on a wide scale and transparency should be required and demanded from every non-profit organization.

  15. Abdullah says:

    http://www.uwt.org/site/default.asp

    Ummah Welfare Trust has a 100% donation policy. Whatever you give you are assured all of it will be spent for the poor. According to my research this is the most reliable.

  16. Sara says:

    The article recognises that non profits may have other sources of income apart from Zakat. Therefore, unless there has been clear mention in published audited accounts or official publications, what evidence is there to suggest zakat funds are being utilised for various activities such as political conferences or lobbying governments? (All of which are legitimate activities for non profits.)

  17. Abu Yusuf says:

    This seems mostly a US problem. In the UK i havent heard of barely any orgs or masjids use zakat for purposes outlined in the article (it only goes to the poor). The issue here in the UK was trying to get most/all zakat collecting charities to be 100% zakat donations or as close as possible to a 100% donations policy (i.e. the full 100% of a zakat donation goes to the poor, no funds are used for admin, marketing, office, staff etc costs) …which by a large alhumdulillah many charities seem to have now.

  18. Noor says:

    Every one has poor and needy relatives. The first and foremost recipents of zakat should be our own kith and kin. Other than our parents and grand parents, zakat can be given to our brothers sisters, their children so on and so forth. Its sad and tragic thatwe run to find organisations when our family is in dire need of money. Please reflect upon this point to get a greater reward from Allah.

  19. Shareq says:

    At the time of giving Zakat, think of those who are near you and close to you. Relatives, friends, acquaintances, neighbors, people from your mosque.

    This is also a good time to reflect of you are fulfilling your other required financial obligations. Your children and parents have rights. These days many families are split and some fathers do not support their children due to hatred of the ex wife.
    Some children may have drifted away from their parents at their old age when they need help and support.

    May Allah guide us all to fulfill the rights of relatives, neighbors, the poor and the deserving. Ameen.

  20. Almir Colan says:

    This is not only a problem for zakat collection but in my opinion all general sadaqa/donation that are often collected without transparency and accountability. More often then not there is no way to trace how much is collected and how some of these organizations are spend it.

    In reality all donations and spending should be independently audited in my opinion. We should have professional Islamic auditing and accounting body that audits our books and finances to ensure shariah compliance and guard against fraud, misuse and cheating.

  21. Duston Barto says:

    Jazakallahu Khairoun for this MUCH NEEDED article!

    I used to work for The Zakat Foundation of America and I have been constantly frustrated with sociopolitical organizations like MPAC, CAIR and ISNA claiming that they are eligible for Zakat when none of their works fall into the 8 categories of Zakat!

    The “kitchen sink” analogy of the gross misinterpretation of “in the cause of Allah” is extremely appropriate. A scholarly opinion that I read recently states that since there is no truly Islamic leadership, that no overall cause can be declared a “struggle in the cause of Allah.” I tend to agree with this. We cannot be so arrogant as to presume that civil rights work is Allah’s work, perhaps we are overstepping our bounds in some of these issues. I have often felt that CAIR, for example, was pushing agendas where Muhammad (SAWS) would have found a more passive way to deal with a situation. One incident that sticks out is where CAIR fought vociferously to make a university prepare a prayer area near a soccer field when there was already a musallah on campus. I feel that Muhammad (SAWS) would tell the Muslims to pray in the grass.

    CAIR, MPAC and ISNA all do good works, but these are not Zakat eligible. We cannot change Allah’s law. Give your sadaqa to them, sure; but reserve your Zakat only for those Allah has instructed to receive it.

    One category of Zakat that I would like your fatwa on is “Warming the hearts to Islam.” Often I am told that this is exclusively giving money to people who would face financial hardships due to converting to Islam. This interpretation was used by Caliph Umar and it has sound scholarship. However, I am curious about dawah organizations whose purpose is to spread the message of Islam and to literally warm people’s hearts toward Islam.

    Would Dawah organizations like American Islamic Outreach and GAINpeace be eligible for Zakat?

  22. Duston Barto says:

    Another point of question. You stated that Zakat could not be used to pay off a loan the Mosque has, but Zakat is also to be directed toward those who have a debt and the classical scholars have agreed that this includes the debt one incurs in building a mosque. Why then would a mosque’s building fund not be zakat eligible?

    Or have I misunderstood and you are drawing a distinction between paying off a debt incurred by the Mosque and collecting funds for a new expansion/construction?

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