We are one-third of the way through the month of Ramadan, during which Muslims abstain from food and drink from dawn to sundown. Here in the northern hemisphere, the days are long and hot. Ramadan brings hunger pangs, a sense of accomplishment at the end of a long day's fast, and a fuller social calendar than any other month. It brings a sense of community and greater closeness to God. (It also brings feelings of inadequacy when I skip thetarawih prayers at my mosque or fail to recite a thirtieth of the Qur'an each day.) And Ramadan brings a strong awareness of the manifold blessings that my family and I enjoy, not the least of which is that during the rest of the year, we have enough to eat and drink -- something that is not the case for millions of people worldwide.
In keeping with Muslims' greater awareness of the needy during this month, Ramadan also brings a steady flow of solicitations from mosques and international charities like Islamic Relief. They are all competing for zakat dollars. (Zakat is a required annual alms-tax of 2.5 percent on most types of accumulated wealth.)
The most recent direct mailing to arrive in my mailbox was from the Council on American-Islamic Relations , a U.S. civil rights organization. CAIR's solicitation, which arrived with a handy zakat calculation worksheet, contains the following advice:
Numerous Muslim scholars have confirmed that Zakat is payable to organizations that exist to serve the Muslim community by protecting their rights. This is because the work done by CAIR and other such organizations can be classified as fi-sabilillah [in the way of God], which is one of the eight categories of Zakat recipients detailed in the Qur'an (Chapter 9, Verse 60).
The verse lists the poor; the needy; those employed to collect alms; those whose hearts are to be reconciled; captives and/or slaves, presumably to achieve their freedom; debtors; those "in the way of God"; and the wayfarer. Who precisely counts as acting "in the way of God" has been long debated, and as the scholarly expansion of the category to an American anti-discrimination organization shows, there is room for change and development in ideas about zakat eligibility.
Perhaps it is time to revisit another element of zakat: the widespread agreement that Muslims alone, and perhaps those inclining to Islam, may legitimately receive alms. The ninth/fifteenth century commentary of the "two Jalals" explains that this is derived not from the Qur'anic text, which does not impose this requirement, but from sunna, the precedent of the Prophet Muhammad. Prophetic precedent in plenty of other circumstances recognizes the dignity and worth of those outside his immediate religious community.
I give my zakat to Oxfam .
Oxfam is an international charity dedicated to alleviating and eventually ending poverty. It tackles humanitarian emergencies, including feeding and sheltering refugees in the current Syrian crisis, and longer term projects to raise individuals and communities out of poverty through education and fair labor practices. Though it helps thousands and thousands of Muslims, the religion of its beneficiaries is irrelevant to its programs. Is this not in the way of God?
A few years ago, I attended an Eid service in North Carolina. In the closing supplication, the preacher said, "I ask Allah's blessing on all the people -- I mean, all the Muslims." For a moment I was certain I had heard wrong. If he had just invoked God's blessing on Muslims, I doubt I would have noticed. But to go back and correct himself after invoking a blessing on all of humanity struck me powerfully. Did he somehow imagine there wasn't enough of God's blessing to go around?
There is enough of God's blessing to go around. And there is enough wealth to go around. We just are not very good at sharing it. As Oxfam America's president recently said, "poverty is about power, not scarcity." Zakat is a minimum, but it is a start. Adequate water and food, shelter, and basic health care for all human beings should be a minimum.
Sometimes people explain fasting as designed to sensitize believers to the plight of the poor. This is undoubtedly one of the things that Ramadan brings. But there is something else vital: the discipline of obedience to a divine directive.
Zakat is a divine directive too, and it has spiritual motivations and rewards. Unlike paying taxes to the government, which can provoke mixed feelings because of disagreements with federal budget priorities or foreign policies, zakat payment carries no ambivalence. We combine empathy and obedience, using our judgment about how best to share our blessings, motivated by love for humanity and especially love for God.
Oxfam's motto is "Right the wrong." I would add: in the way of God: fi sabil Allah.