“Is it then other than Allah’s religion that they seek (to follow), and to Him submits whoever is in the heavens and the earth, willingly or unwillingly, and to Him shall they be returned?” (Surat Ali Imran: 83)
Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Everyone from my nation will enter Paradise except those who refuse.” They said, “O Messenger of Allah, who will refuse?” The Prophet said, “Whoever obeys me enters Paradise and whoever disobeys me has refused.” (Bukhari)
In this day and age, we hear a lot about the importance of choice, autonomy, and all the other values associated with personal agency that make liberty and freedom so great and wonderful. But what if these concepts when examined more closely were not all that meaningful?
The Challenge of Choice
Islam is often portrayed as a religion that does not acknowledge free choice or sexual autonomy. Critics of Islam claim, for example, that Muslims do not have a choice in terms of how they can dress. Also, Muslims do not have sexual autonomy since Islam has strict constraints on sexual behavior.
How can Muslims respond to these charges? Given the importance with which modern society views these concepts — namely, free choice and autonomy — Muslims need to be able to speak to such concerns.
The temptation that Muslims face is to respond with straight denial, i.e., to insist that Islam does acknowledge and, in fact, champion free choice and sexual autonomy in the sense that these terms are deployed in liberal secular discourse. But this would be in many ways dishonest. We do not find concepts like free choice and autonomy as independent values as such in the way they are meant in the modern context within the corpus of Islamic ethical and legal thought.
A more honest and intellectually compelling response would be to question the coherence of these concepts on their own terms. Undermining these concepts allows Muslims to throw a wrench in the motor that drives the intuitions behind these attacks on Islam.
The Hijab as Choice
First let’s consider the question of dress and free choice. Can Muslim women, for example, freely choose to wear the hijab or are they coerced to do so?
Critics of Islam claim that Muslim women are forced to wear the hijab and therefore it is not a free choice in the slightest. What is problematic to these critics is Muslim women’s lack of agency. They have no choice in certain aspects of their dress.
Against this, many Muslims argue that, as a matter of fact, there is a choice when it comes to hijab. Those women who do wear it are exercising free choice by doing so, and that choice is empowering. Some even go so far as to claim that, in the age of Trump, wearing the hijab is an act of defiant resistance against tyranny, and what could be more free and liberating than that?
So who is right? What we can notice is that both sides take the notion of “free choice” for granted. This is a mistake.
Consider the distinction between the following kinds of choices.
You are at the ice cream parlor and you can choose what flavor ice cream you prefer. That seems like a benign choice. This is a scenario where the concept of choice seems perfectly suited. It is a preferential choice and our intuition is that preferential choices ought to be “free” in the sense that to restrict them is nothing more than an arbitrary exercise of power. The idea is, if someone prefers vanilla, why force them to get chocolate? What reason would there be to coerce a choice in this case other than malice?
Here is a second scenario. You are at a red traffic light and you can choose whether to stop or to pass through the red light. This is a choice that is available to you. But this is not about preference. In contrast to the preferential choice, this is a choice that has to do with obeying the law. And since obedience to the law of the land has moral implications, we can call this a moralistic choice.
Along those same line, imagine you are at home and you have just changed your car’s motor oil. You could illegally dump the old oil down your drain even though that would be illegal and cause considerable environmental damage by contributing to the pollution of the water system. Local environmental authorities would never know if you did it, but you have that choice. Again, this is not a preferential choice. Rather, it is a moralistic one.
The Ambiguity of Choice
Even though these scenarios can be described as involving personal choice, the two kinds of choices are in no way analogous. We do not understand the choices that involve following the law or doing the right thing as “free choices.” There is a moral and ethical obligation to do what is right and what is just. And though we do describe a person as having the ability to “choose” to do what is wrong, unethical, and unjust, clearly that is not the same thing as saying that a person has the “free choice” to completely ignore, forego, or violate the moral code.
It is this ambiguity between preferential choice and moralistic choice that causes a great amount of confusion when discussing Islamic ethics and law. Equivocating between the two kinds of choices allows critics of Islam to attack the religion and characterize it as intolerant and dogmatic. In reality, Islamic law is as “intolerant” and “dogmatic” as all other ethical systems and legal codes which, by definition, require and obligate people to behave in certain ways and refrain from behaving in others despite what they may choose to do otherwise.
We all seem to have an aversion to the idea of constraining and using coercion in the realm of people’s preferential choices. We should also note that, while it is obvious to many that curtailing preferential choice is an illegitimate use of power, it is equally obvious that moralistic choice ought to be subject to restriction. People ought to obey the law, which is to say, people ought to choose to obey the law, people ought to choose to do the right thing, etc., and if they fail to do so, there ought to be some sort of consequence.
The Illusion of Choice
The existence of such consequences for disobedience means that moralistic choices are not truly free choices per se. Yes, in one sense, a person has the choice to obey the law and the requirements of morality. But in another sense, no real choice is available since disobedience will be met with repercussions.
The driver behind the red light certainly can choose to run the light, but that could result in a hefty fine if he is caught. And the person who has changed his motor oil certainly can choose to dump the oil down the drain, but that could result in a fine as well and if others were to find out about this dumper’s selfish behavior, that could result in social opprobrium. So these cannot be meaningfully described as “free choices” at all.
Besides these examples, we all are faced with countless moral choices in our day to day lives. We technically can choose to act against the requirements of morality. We can choose to act out in wrong and detestable ways. But those choices have consequences, sometimes severe, sometimes not, sometimes tangible, sometimes social, sometimes worldly, sometimes otherworldly, etc. Unlike our preferential choices, our moralistic choices are not free. And we all recognize that that is a good and perfectly natural thing.
The same considerations apply wherever Islam is charged with not respecting “free choice.” Yes, technically Muslims have a choice to abide by the religious code, but these are considered moralistic choices, not preferential ones. As such, it is a category mistake to charge Islam with restricting free choice. In the case of hijab or any other aspect of Islamic dress code, it is true that Muslims have a choice, but it is a moralistic one. All else being equal, going against the law has consequences, e.g., the requirement for the violator of the law to repent. Ultimately, when it comes to hijab, both those who argue that Islam does respect free choice as well as those who argue that Islam does not respect free choice are incorrect in that they are making a conceptual error.
Rhetoric that Masks Substance (or Lack Thereof)
Claiming that “Islam violates free choice” is merely rhetorical bluster. Similarly, claiming some other religion or ethical system “upholds free choice” is equally vacuous since, as we have seen, all ethical systems permit free choice in the matters that fall squarely within the preferential domain. Of course, the boundaries between these two domains, viz., the preferential and the moralistic, are subject to debate.
And this is what the conversation about Islamic dress vis-à-vis “conventional” standards of dress really boils down to. What about the way we dress and present ourselves to others should be up to personal preference and what should be determined by larger ethical considerations outside of that and who gets to decide?
This is a deep ethical question that requires delving into a host of metaphysical and quasi-religious considerations. In its rejection of all things metaphysical and religious, liberal secularism does not have the conceptual resources even to begin to wrestle with these issues. But this crippling inadequacy of liberal secularism is masked behind a facade of “free choice.” Appealing to this empty concept allows secularism and its proponents to pretend to have an intellectually and morally compelling perspective on issues such as dress, when in reality, they have only constructed a house of cards.
To complicate matters further, this is not a straightforward question to answer for those who mistakenly believe that, as a matter of principle, all dress should be a matter of personal preference. But how could all dress be solely a matter of personal preference? The existence of dress codes, standards of dress at different social functions and in different cultural contexts, and even indecent exposure laws found in every single nation on earth all belie this silly idea that people in the “free world” exercise full, unfettered choice in their clothing decisions in contrast to those in the Islamic world who must submit to “draconian Islamic regulations.” In reality, no respectable person in the history of God’s green earth has ever made a truly “free” choice about what clothes to wear in public, “free” in the sense of “without significant outside influence.” All such “choices” are inescapably influenced by social and cultural norms. For Muslims who abide by the Islamic dress code, these choices are influenced by what are held by Muslims to be guidelines set by God. Within those guidelines, Muslims have historically cultivated a great diversity of fashions. But for the wider non-Muslim culture, there are also strict standards and guidelines of dress, but it is not clear from where those standards originated other than the unmoored ebb and flow of mass infatuation and, in recent times, commercial interests.
Islam and Sexual Autonomy
The notion of autonomy is as vacuous as free choice and for much the same reasons. No one believes in an autonomy that permits one to break the law and violate moral principles, whatever those may be. Autonomy is not conceived of as a license to be a vile person. But if people want autonomy within the boundaries set by ethics, then all religions and ethical systems guarantee this sort of autonomy. So again, the notion of autonomy is empty.
Autonomy as a concept rides on what ethical commitments one subscribes to. If an adult believes that having sexual relations with 16- or 17-year-olds (i.e., individuals just under the legal age limit) is morally acceptable, then anyone who hinders that person from having that kind of sex is violating that person’s autonomy as far as that person himself is concerned. But according to those who deem sex with minors immoral, this is not an issue of autonomy because, according to them, sex with minors ought to be criminalized regardless of what any particular individual believes to be his sexual right.
Islamic law restricts and prohibits certain kinds of sexual behavior in this way, and for this, many have branded Islam as blind to people’s right to sexual autonomy. But, again, this is fundamentally confused. If we recognize the hollowness of the notion of autonomy, then it easily can be claimed that Islam fully grants sexual autonomy to all. It is Islam’s definition of sexual autonomy that is really what people have a problem with. Here again, we reach a moral and metaphysical question: What is correct, moral sexual behavior and what is indecent and immoral and who gets to decide that? Secular thought simply does not have the ability to give a compelling story for all the complicated sexual norms the average secular Westerner dutifully abides by in the course of life.
(And no, the notion of consent is not very helpful either, by the way, given that there are plenty of sexual behaviors that are fully consensual but are still considered immoral and illegal within major strands of liberal secular thought, e.g., sex with minors, prostitution, incest, among others. Philosophers and legal scholars, such as Yale Law School professor Jed Rubenfeld, have also problematized the notion of consent and its adequacy in accounting for common contemporary moral intuitions regarding permissible sex. But this is a larger topic beyond the scope of this essay.)
This inability on the part of secularism to justify satisfactorily its sex norms is overlooked because the notion of sexual autonomy is put on a pedestal as the ultimate good we must all strive for. This allows liberal secularism to criticize the sexual mores of Islam (and Christianity and Orthodox Judaism) for the crime of not adequately respecting sexual autonomy in the way that liberal secularism does. All the while, secularism’s deficiencies go unnoticed and unaddressed. It’s all smoke and mirrors.
These deficiencies ought to be brought to light and openly discussed (as I have done in past articles that can be read here and here, on zina and homosexuality respectively). In the meantime, critics of Islam, especially those invoking empty liberal secular concepts of free choice and autonomy, need to find better arguments to make their case against the religion.
My seven-year old son sat on the ground, digging a hole. Around him, other children ran, cried, and laughed at the playground.
“He’s such a strange kid,” my oldest daughter remarked. “Who goes to the playground and digs holes in the ground?”
In an instant, scenes of my ten-year-old self flashed through my mind. In them I ducked, hiding from invisible enemies in a forest of tapioca plants. Flattening my back against the spindly trunks, I flicked my wrist, sending a paper shuriken flying towards my pursuers. I was in my own world, alone.
It feels as if I have always been alone. I was the only child from one set of parents. I was alone when they divorced. I was alone when one stepmother left and another came in. I was alone with my diary, tears, and books whenever I needed to escape from the negative realities of my childhood.
Today, I am a lone niqab-wearing Malay in the mish-mash of a predominantly Desi and Arab Muslim community. My aloneness has only been compounded by the choices I’ve made that have gone against social norms- like niqab and the decision to marry young and have two babies during my junior and senior years of undergrad.
When I decided to homeschool my children, I was no longer fazed by any naysayers. I had gotten so used to being alone that it became almost second nature to me. My cultural, religious, and parenting choices no longer hung on the approval of social norms.
Believe it Or Not, We Are All Alone
In all of this, I realize that I am not alone in being alone. We all are alone, even in an ocean of people. No matter who you are, or how many people are around you, you are alone in that you are answerable to the choices you make.
The people around you may suggest or pressure you into specific choices, but you alone make the ultimate choice and bear the ultimate consequence of what those choices are. Everything from what you wear, who you trust, and how you plan your wedding is a result of your own choice. We are alone in society, and in the sight of Allah as well.
The aloneness is obvious when we do acts of worship that are individual, such as fasting, giving zakah, and praying. But we’re also alone in Hajj, even when surrounded by a million other Muslims. We are alone in that we have to consciously make the choice and intention to worship. We are alone in making sure we do Hajj in its true spirit.
We alone are accountable to Allah, and on the Day of Judgment, no one will carry the burden of sin of another.
مَّنِ اهْتَدَىٰ فَإِنَّمَا يَهْتَدِي لِنَفْسِهِ ۖ وَمَن ضَلَّ فَإِنَّمَا يَضِلُّ عَلَيْهَا ۚ وَلَا تَزِرُ وَازِرَةٌ وِزْرَ أُخْرَىٰ ۗ وَمَا كُنَّا مُعَذِّبِينَ حَتَّىٰ نَبْعَثَ رَسُولًا
“Whoever accepts guidance does so for his own good; whoever strays does so at his own peril. No soul will bear another’s burden, nor do We punish until We have sent a messenger.” Surah Al Israa 17:15
On the day you stand before Allah you won’t have anyone by your side. On that day it will be every man for himself, no matter how close you were in the previous life. It will just be you and Allah.
Even Shaytaan will leave you to the consequences of your decisions.
وَقَالَ الشَّيْطَانُ لَمَّا قُضِيَ الْأَمْرُ إِنَّ اللَّهَ وَعَدَكُمْ وَعْدَ الْحَقِّ وَوَعَدتُّكُمْ فَأَخْلَفْتُكُمْ ۖ وَمَا كَانَ لِيَ عَلَيْكُم مِّن سُلْطَانٍ إِلَّا أَن دَعَوْتُكُمْ فَاسْتَجَبْتُمْ لِي ۖ فَلَا تَلُومُونِي وَلُومُوا أَنفُسَكُم ۖ مَّا أَنَا بِمُصْرِخِكُمْ وَمَا أَنتُم بِمُصْرِخِيَّ ۖ إِنِّي كَفَرْتُ بِمَا أَشْرَكْتُمُونِ مِن قَبْلُ ۗ إِنَّ الظَّالِمِينَ لَهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ
“When everything has been decided, Satan will say, ‘God gave you a true promise. I too made promises but they were false ones: I had no power over you except to call you, and you responded to my call, so do not blame me; blame yourselves. I cannot help you, nor can you help me. I reject the way you associated me with God before.’ A bitter torment awaits such wrongdoers” Surah Ibrahim 14:22
But, Isn’t Being Alone Bad?
The connotation that comes with the word ‘alone’ relegates it to something negative. You’re a loser if you sit in the cafeteria alone. Parents worry when they have a shy and reserved child. Teachers tend to overlook the quiet ones, and some even complain that they can’t assess the students if they don’t speak up.
It is little wonder that the concept of being alone has a negative connotation. Being alone is not the human default, for Adam was alone, yet Allah created Hawwa as a companion for him. According to some scholars, the word Insaan which is translated as human or mankind or man comes from the root letters that means ‘to want company’. We’re naturally inclined to want company.
You might think, “What about the social aspects of Islam? Being alone is like being a hermit!” That’s true, but in Islam, there is a balance between solitary and communal acts of worship. For example, some prayers are done communally like Friday, Eid, and funeral prayers. However, extra prayers like tahajjud, istikharah, and nawaafil are best done individually.
There is a place and time for being alone, and a time for being with others. Islam teaches us this balance, and with that, it teaches us that being alone is also praiseworthy, and shouldn’t be viewed as something negative. There is virtue in alone-ness just as there is virtue in being with others.
Being Alone Has Its Own Perks
It is through being alone that we can be astute observers and connect the outside world to our inner selves. It is also through allowing aloneness to be part of our daily regimen that we can step back, introspect and develop a strong sense of self-based on a direct relationship with Allah.
Taking the time to reflect on worship and the words of Allah gives us the opportunity to meaningfully think about it. It is essential that a person gets used to being alone with their thoughts in order to experience this enriching intellectual, emotional and spiritual experience. The goal is to use our thoughts as the fuel to gain closeness to Allah through reflection and self-introspection.
Training ourselves to embrace being alone can also train us to be honest with ourselves, discover who we truly are, and work towards improving ourselves for Allah’s sake. Sitting with ourselves and honestly scrutinizing the self in order to see strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement is essential for character development. And character development is essential to reach the level of Ihsaan.
When we look into who we want to be, we are bound to make some decisions that might raise eyebrows and wag tongues. Being okay with being alone makes this somewhat easier. We should not be afraid to stand out and be the only one wearing praying or wearing hijab, knowing that it is something Allah will be pleased with. We should not be afraid to stand up for what we believe in even if it makes us unpopular. Getting used to being alone can give us the confidence to make these decisions.
Being alone can strengthen us internally, but not without pain. Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that people who dissent from group wisdom show heightened activation in the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the sting of social rejection. Berns calls this the “pain of independence.”
All our prophets experienced this ‘pain of independence’ in their mission. Instances of different prophets being rejected by their own people are generously scattered in the Quran for us to read and reflect upon. One lesson we can extract from these is that being alone takes courage, faith, conviction, and confidence.
We Come Alone, Leave Alone, Meet Allah Alone
The circumstances that left me alone in the different stages of my life were not random. I always wanted an older brother or someone else to be there to rescue me from the solitude. But the solitude came with a blessing. Being alone gave me the time and space in which to wonder, think, and eventually understand myself and the people around me. I learned reflection as a skill and independent decision-making as s strength. I don’t mind being alone in my niqab, my Islam, or my choices. I’ve had plenty of practice after all.
You are born alone and you took your first breath alone. You will die alone, even if you are surrounded by your loved ones. When you are lowered into the grave, you will be alone. Accepting this can help you make use of your moments of solitude rather than fear them. Having the courage to be alone builds confidence, strengthens conviction, and propels us to do what is right and pleasing to Allah regardless of human approval.
Why Israel Should Be ‘Singled Out’ For Its Human Rights Record
Unlike other countries, ordinary citizens are complicit in the perpetual crimes committed against defenseless Palestinians.
Why is everyone so obsessed with Israel’s human rights abuses? From Saudi Arabia, to Syria, to North Korea to Iran. All these nations are involved in flagrant violations of human right, so why all the focus on Israel – ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’? Clearly, if you ignore these other violations and only focus on Israel, you must be anti-Semitic. What else could be your motivations for this double standard?
This is one of the most common contentions raised when Israel is criticized for its human rights record. I personally don’t believe in entertaining this question – it shouldn’t matter why an activist is choosing to focus on one conflict and not others. What matters are the facts being raised; putting into question the motives behind criticizing Israel is a common tactic to detract from the topic at hand. The conversation soon turns into some circular argument about anti-Semitism and the plight of the Palestinian people is lost. More importantly, this charge of having double standards is often disingenuous. For example, Representative Ihan Omar has been repeatedly accused of this recently and her motives have been called ‘suspicious’ – despite her vocal criticism of other countries, especially Saudi Arabia.
However, this point is so frequently brought up, I think that perhaps its time activists and critics simply own up to it. Yes – Israel should be singled out, for some very good reasons. These reasons relate to there being a number of unique privileges that the country enjoys; these allow it to get away with much of the abuses it commits. Human right activists thus must be extra vocal when comes to Israel as they have to overcome the unparalleled level of support for the country, particularly in the US and Canada. The following points summarize why Israel should in fact be singled out:
1) Ideological support from ordinary citizens
When Iran and North Korea commit human right abuses, we don’t have to worry about everyone from journalists to clerics to average students on campuses coming out and defending those countries. When most nations commit atrocities, our journalists and politicians call them out, sanctions are imposed, they are taking them to the International Court of Justice, etc. There are instruments in place to take care of other ‘rogue’ nations – without the need for intervention from the common man.
Israel, however, is unique in that it has traditionally enjoyed widespread ideological support, primarily from the Jewish community and Evangelical Christians, in the West. This support is a result of the historical circumstances and pseudo-religious ideology that drove the creation of the state in 1948. The successful spread of this nationalistic dogma for the last century means Israel can count on ordinary citizens from Western countries to comes to its defense. This support can come in the form of foreign enlistment to its military, students conducting campus activism, politicians shielding it from criticisms and journalists voluntarily writing in its support and spreading state propaganda.
This ideological and nationalistic attachment to the country is the prime reason why it is so incredibly difficult to have any kind of sane conversation about Israel in the public sphere – criticism is quickly seen as an attack on Jewish identity and interpreted as an ‘existential threat’ to the nation by its supporters. Any attempts to take Israel to account through standard means are thwarted because of the political backlash feared from the country’s supporters in the West.
2) Unconditional political support of a world superpower
The US is Israel’s most important and closest ally in the Middle-East. No matter what war crimes Israel commits, it can count on America to have its back. This support means the US will use its veto power to support Israel against actions of the UN Security Council, it will use its diplomatic influence to shield any punitive actions from other nations and it will use its military might to intervene if need be. The backing of the US is one of the main reasons why the Israeli occupation and expansion of the colonial settlement enterprise continues to this day without any repercussions.
While US support might be especially staunch for Israel, this factor is certainly not unique to the country. Any country which has this privilege, e.g. Saudi Arabia, should be under far great scrutiny for its human rights violations than others.
3) Military aid and complicity of tax-payers
US tax-payers are directly paying for Israel to carry out its occupation of the Palestinian people.
Israel is the largest recipient of US-military aid – it receives an astonishing $3 billion dollars every year. This aid, according to a US congressional report, “has helped transform Israel’s armed forces into one of the most technologically sophisticated militaries in the world.”
Unlike other countries, ordinary citizens are complicit in the perpetual crimes committed against defenseless Palestinians. Activists and citizens thus have a greater responsibility to speak out against Israel as their government is paying the country to carry out its atrocities. Not only is this aid morally reprehensible, but it is also illegal under United States Leahy Laws.
4) The Israeli lobby
The Israeli lobby is one of the most powerful groups in Washington and is the primary force for ensuring continued US political support for the nation. It consists of an assortment of formal lobby groups (AIPAC, Christians United for Israel), think-thanks (Washington Institute for Near East Policy), political action committee or PACs, not-for-profit organizations (B’nai B’irth, American Jewish Congress, Stand for Israel) and media watchdogs (CAMERA, Honest Reporting). These organizations together exercise an incredible amount of political influence. They ensure that any criticism of Israel is either stifled or there are serious consequences for those who speak up. In 2018 alone, pro-Israel donors spent $22 million on lobbying for the country – far greater than any other nation. Pro-Israel lobbies similarly influence politics in other places such as the UK, Canada, and Europe.
5) One of the longest-running occupation in human history
This point really should be the first one on this list – and it is the only one that should matter. However, because of the unique privileges that Israel enjoys, it is hard to get to the crux of what it is actually doing. Israel, with U.S. support, has militarily occupied the Palestinian territories (West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem) since 1967. The belligerent occupation, over 50 years old, is one of the longest, bloodiest and brutal in human history.
Israel continues to steal land and build settler colonies the West Bank – in flagrant violation of international law. It has implemented a system of apartheid in these territories which is reminiscent of the racist regime of South Africa. The Gaza strip has been under an insufferable siege which has made the living conditions deplorable; it has been referred to the world’s largest ‘open-air prison’. In addition to this institutional oppression, crimes committed against Palestinians include: routinely killing civilian protesters, including teenagers and medics, torture of Palestinians and severe restrictions on the everyday movement of Palestinians.
The brutality, consistency and the duration for which Israel has oppressed Palestinians is alone enough reason for it being ‘singled out’. No other nation comes close to its record. However, for the reasons mentioned above, Israel’s propaganda machine has effectively painted itself as just another ‘liberal democracy’ in the eyes of the general public. Any attempt to bring to light these atrocities are met with ‘suspicion’ about the ‘real’ motives of the critics. Given the points mentioned here, it should be evident that the level of support for Israeli aggression is uniquely disproportionate – it is thus fitting that criticism of the country is equally vocal and unparalleled as well.
Co-written by Shaykh Osman Umarji
As writers on MuslimMatters, it came as a surprise when the website we write on marked itself zakat-eligible on its fundraiser for operations in Ramadan. This website has previously highlighted the misuse and abuse of zakat for vague and dodgy reasons, including instances of outright fraud by nonprofit corporations. We have lamented the seemingly inexorable march from zakat being for living human beings in need to financial play-doh for nonprofit corporate boards.
Estimated global zakat is somewhere between $200 billion to $1 trillion. Eliminating global poverty is estimated at $187 billion– not just for Muslims, but everyone. There continue to be strong interests in favor of more putty-like zakat to benefit the interests of the organizations that are not focused on reducing poverty. Thus, in many ways, a sizeable chunk of zakat benefits the affluent rather than the needy. Zakat, rather than being a credit to the Muslim community, starts to look more like an indictment of it.
No, it’s not ikhtilaf
The recent article on this website, Dr. Usama Al-Azmi seemed somewhat oblivious to the cavalier way the nonprofit corporate sector in the United States treats Zakat. The article did not do justice to legitimate concerns about zakat distribution by dismissing the issue as one of “ikhtilaf,” or a reasonable difference of opinion, as it ignored the broader concern about forces working hard to make zakat a “wild west” act of worship where just about anything goes.
It’s essential to identify the crux of the problem. Zakat has eight categories of permissible beneficiaries in the Quran. 1 Two are various levels of poor, distribution overhead; then there are those whose hearts are to be inclined, free captives, relieve indebtedness, the wayfarer, and the cause of Allah (fisabilillah). The category of fisabilillah, historically, the majority of scholars have interpreted as the cost of jihad (like actual fighting). However, in recent times, Muslim nonprofit corporations, with support of learned Muslim leaders, have adopted an increasingly aggressive and vague posture that allows nearly any beneficial cause to get zakat.
The concerns about the abuse of zakat, and the self-serving desire by corporations to turn fisabilillah into a wastebasket Zakat category that could be “incredibly broad” has to do with far more than a difference of opinion (ikhtilaf ) about the eligibility of Dawah organizations. Let’s assume dawah and educational organizations are eligible to administer Zakat funds. We need to know what that means in practice. What we have is a fundamental question the fisabilillah-can-mean-virtually-anything faction never manages to answer: are there any limits to zakat usage at all?
Show Your Work
We fully understand that in our religious practice, there is a set of rules. In Islamic Inheritance for example, for example, we cannot cavalierly change the definition of what a “daughter” is to mean any girl you want to treat like a daughter. There is an established set of rules relating to acts of worship. For the third pillar of Islam, zakat, there seem to be no limits to the absurd-sounding questions we can ask that now seem plausible.
Unfortunately, we have too many folks who invoke “ikhtilaf” to justify adopting almost any opinion and not enough people who are willing to explain their positions. We need a better understanding of zakat and draw the lines on when nonprofit corporations are going too far.
You can be conservative and stand for zakat as an act of worship that contributes to social justice. You can have a more expansive interpretation friendly to the nonprofit corporate sector’s needs to include the revenue source. Wherever you stand, if you don’t provide evidence and develop detailed uniform and accepted principles and rules that protect those people zakat was meant to help, you are inviting abuse and at the very least, opening the door towards inequitable results. 2
Can you feed the needy lentils and rice for $100 a meal, with margins of $99 a meal going to pay salaries to provide these meals and fundraise for them? Why or why not?
Can a Dawah organization purchase an $80 million jet for its CEO, who can use it to travel the world to do “dawah,” including places like Davos or various ski resorts? What rules exist that would prevent something like this? As far as we know, nothing at all.
In the United States, demographic sorting is a common issue that affects all charitable giving, not just giving by Muslims. The most affluent live in neighborhoods with other people who are generally as prosperous as they are. Certain places seem almost perversely designed to allow wealthy residents to be oblivious to the challenges of the poor. There are undeniable reasons why what counts as “charity” for the wealthy means giving money to the Opera, the Met Gala, and Stanford University.
The only real way affluent Muslims know they supposed to care about poor people is that maybe they have a Shaikh giving khutbas talking about the need to do so and their obligation of zakat once a year or so. That is now becoming a thing of the past. Now it is just care about fisabilillah- it means whatever your tender heart wants it to mean.
As zakat becomes less about the poor, appeals will be for other projects with a higher amount of visibility to the affluent. Nonprofits now collect Zakat for galas with celebrities. Not fundraising at the gala dinner mind you, but merely serving dinner and entertaining rich people. Educational institutions and Masajid that have dawah activities (besides, everything a Masjid does is fisabilillah) can be quite expensive. Getting talent to run and teach in these institutions is also costly. Since many of the people running these institutions are public figures and charismatic speakers with easy access and credibility with the affluent. It is far easier for them to get Zakat funds for their projects.
People who benefit from these projects because they send their children to these institutions or attend lectures themselves will naturally feel an affinity for these institutions that they won’t have with the poor. Zakat will stay in their bubble. Fisabilillah.
Dawa is the new Jihad
Jihad, as in war carried out by a Khalifah and paid for with zakat funds, is an expensive enterprise. But no society is in a permanent state of warfare, so they can work towards eliminating poverty during peacetime. Muslim communities have done this in the past. Dawah is qualitatively different from jihad as it is permanent. There was never a period in Islamic history when there was no need to do dawah. Many times in history, nobody was fighting jihad. There was no period of Islamic history when there were there was never a need for money to educate people. Of course, earlier Muslims used zakat in education in limited, defined circumstances. It is not clear why limitations no longer apply.
Indeed dawah is a broad category. For example, many people regard the Turkish costume drama “Diriliş: Ertuğrul” as dawah. Fans of the show can’t stop talking about the positive effects it has had on their lives and their iman. What prevents zakat from funding future expensive television costume dramas? Nothing, as far as we can see.
No Standards or Accountability
Unfortunately, in the United States, there are no uniform, specific standards governing zakat. Anything goes now when previously in Islamic history, there were appropriate standards. Nonprofit corporations themselves decide if they are zakat-eligible or not. In some instances, they provide objectively comical explanations, which supporters within the corporation’s bubble pretty much always swallow whole. Corporations don’t have to segregate Zakat-eligible funds from general funds. When they do, they can make up their own rules for how and when they spend zakat. No rules make zakat indistinguishable from any other funding source since they can change their standards year after year depending on their funding needs (if they have rules at all) and nobody would be the wiser. It is exceedingly rare for these corporations to issue detailed reports on how they use zakat.
The Shift to Meaninglessness
Organizations with platforms (like the one that runs this website) are going to be eager to get on the zakat gravy train. There is no cost to slapping a “zakat-eligible” label on yourself, either financial or social. It seems like everyone does it now. Some Zakat collectors are conscientious and care about helping the poor, though they are starting to look a little old-fashioned. For them, it may make sense to certify Zakat administrators like halal butchers.
Zakat used to be about helping discrete categories of human beings that can benefit from it. It can now mean anything you want it to mean. In the end, though, without real standards, it may mean nothing at all.
- The sunnah also highlights the essence of zakah as tending to the needs of the poor. For example, the Prophet commanded Muadh bin Jabal, when sending him to Yemen, to teach the people that Allah has obligated charity upon them to be taken from their rich and given to their poor (Sahih Muslim).
- In Islamic legal theory (usool al-fiqh), sadd al-dhariya is a principle that refers to blocking the means to evil before it can materialize. It is invoked when a seemingly permissible action may lead to unethical behavior. This principle is often employed in financial matters.
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