26 June 2019 / 22 Shawwal 1440
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An international perspective on Zakah from Turkey: meeting the challenges of our times
- Written by Shafiq Morton
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IT is always interesting to see things from different perspectives in foreign environments. Our existing ones are either challenged or refreshed. It’s like looking down on the earth from the aeroplane window 30,000 feet in the sky, as opposed to being on the ground.
For instead of standing on the riverbank and viewing a stretch of water, we are able to see its full scope, as its snakes between valleys and meanders on to wide plains.
Recently, I spent a few days in Istanbul at a conference. And whilst the event had nothing to do with Zakah, it did get me thinking. This is because Turkey – the former seat of the Ottoman Empire which ruled for over 400 years – is rediscovering its Islamic mojo.
My brief here is not the socio-political landscape, which is complex, but how Islamic institutions, such as Zakah, have fared. I was keen to do some mental arithmetic because Turkey, boasting the world’s 17th biggest economy and 75 million people, has tremendous potential in terms of unlocking Zakah as a tool of poverty eradication.
Zakah in Turkey, I was told, has always been regarded as a personal issue, even by the Ottomans, who set up their state on the pillars of publically beneficial Awqaf institutions. Therefore, says a Thomson Reuters report of 2014, Zakah and Awqaf are deeply rooted in the cultural and religious psyche of Turkey.
It is reported that in contemporary Turkey, Zakah has become an important source for non-governmental charity organisations. However, due to the traditionally private nature of Zakah distribution, it has not been possible to accurately measure the extent of its benefits. In recent years, the Turkish Diyanet Foundation has taken on the institutional responsibility of distributing Zakah and Zakah al-Fitr.
Three academics at Istanbul University did an analysis on the relationship between poverty and Zakah in the Turkish context last year. Firstly, they defined Zakah in current terms, and secondly, they went into technical detail – providing graphs and tables – on its potential impact.
By definition, they argued, Zakah showed that Islam was sensitive to fair and even-handed wealth distribution. Zakah protected individuals from sickness, greed and avarice. It nurtured generosity. Zakah created the ethos of sacrifice. It cleansed the heart of impurities and it purified a person’s wealth. Zakah, they concluded, was a protection for society.
In Islam, the charitable order of priority started with close relatives, proceeded to distant relatives, neighbours and then neighbourhood residents. Zakah engendered community awareness. And in addition to funds being exchanged, there was also an exchange of love and respect.
The researchers said that social peace and harmony were created via Zakah, as its processes soothed negative feelings such as hate, resentment and hostility.
The institution of Zakah militated against the egocentric accumulation of wealth, as believers had to circulate their wealth into the economy with the understanding that the poor had a right to some of it.
The study focused on Turkish society, figures revealing that one-fifth of its households (4.7 million out of 21.6 million in a population of 75 million) were on the poverty line – a sharp contrast, incidentally, to South Africa where 55% (30 million) of our population is poverty-stricken.
One of the Turkish researcher’s tables provides some fascinating reading. In it he isolates the bottom rungs of poverty and identifies 1.4 million households. His calculations reveal that using potentially available Zakah funds, a payment of 1,307 US dollars could be made to each family. In South African currency, that would amount to about R19, 000 per family.
Interestingly, if we were to do a similar exercise in South Africa, Africa Check, a local organisation that mines facts, would give us 13.8 million South Africans at the lowest level of poverty. If we take four as the average means for a family we get to 3.4 million households.
With South Africa being the only welfare state in Africa (just over 17 million people are recipients of state funded aid) the numbers are daunting, given that there are only 15.5 million people officially employed. However, if we look at our Muslim community, and take 4 million as our total population and calculate half-a-million (0.25%) in need of relief (41,666 households) the numbers become real.
We do not have the capacity to disburse huge amounts in terms of poverty relief like Turkey, but that should not prevent us from taking the first steps. Judicious projects in terms of human capital and education, as well as wise Awqaf investment, should become our urgent priorities to meet the pressing needs of the times.