Fiqh al-Zakah in India and the Emergence of New Applied Ethics of Socioeconomic Justice: Case Studies of Islamic Charities

[This is the tenth in a series of my notes on the International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on Islamic Law and Ethics held in Herndon, VA in June  2014. These notes are NOT a transcript, but a lightly edited presentation of  my perception of the discussion. The proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later time. Responsibility for any errors in the notes is mine alone. Names of participants (other than mine) in the general discussion have been omitted by request of the conference director.]

“Fiqh al-Zakah in India and the Emergence of New Applied Ethics of Socioeconomic Justice: Case Studies of Islamic Charities”

Christopher Taylor, Boston University.

I ask you to reconsider zakat as the purity ethic and the development ethic as a change in tradition. Imagine fiqh as variegated, which is different from how the masses in India view it. The donor is purified and the wealth is purified in the traditional view. In the developmental view, focus is on the development of the recipient. I think attention to zakat is increasing, and Pew reports more Muslims give zakat than engage in their prayers. I worked in Lucknow. Many people were familiar with the reformist discourses. The Society for Divine Welfare had a regular charity event. Contrary to the hadith to give with your right hand so the left does not know what you have done, the distributions were not so secret. They gave out sewing machines, rickshaws, and vegetable carts. In some cases the donors themselves distributed the goods. There was local news coverage, although names were not printed.

At first blush one thinks that the Indian charities are mimicking the charitable methods of the West, but I suggest the practices come out of indigenous tradition. The obligation itself is well established in scripture. Purification itself is clear in scripture. Shafi compared zakat to wudu. Even the verse for the Prophet to take charity (sadaqa, 9:103) refers to purification. Hallaq claims it is uniquely both ibâdat (ritual) and mu`amalât (action). Traditionally, it is the ibâdat that is the most important part.

In addition to the hadith quoted there are at least two verse in the Qur’an that reminders of charity or consequent injury invalidates the virtue. Also a verse says that while open charity is good, secret is better, and Ghazali writes on this at length, as do others. Obligation on the donor, purification of wealth, and the commendation of secrecy pull the spotlight away from the recipient onto the donor. [Warning against] pretending to be needy is the only example I could find of scripture addressed to recipients as opposed to donors.

Charity is being routinized into organizations. Questions about the worthiness of recipients and how they used the gifts demonstrate the change to a development paradigm. Charity can even be damaging to the recipient. Do application forms or accounting shame the recipients?  When I asked Maulana Jaanghir, a very influential preacher, why he did what he did, he said the first duty [of the believer] is to earn income in a halal way and the first duty [of the teacher] is to teach the poor how to stand on their own lest they go to Hell. He sees fiqh as silent as to how recipients should use zakat. He gave a sermon warning against selling the tools distributed for cash. He acknowledges that the zakat is the right of the recipient, but he used his moral authority to urge them to use it in the best way. He defended the public distribution because donors are concerned about corruption. There were many other donors who did not want to go to such events.

Practices and teachings on zakat are particularly good reminders of the diversity and flexibility of Shariah, even within the confines of fiqh as it has been traditionally imagined. The ulama and the students and teachers of fiqh are creative in balancing moral criteria within the traditions. They do not see it as Westoxification. Why do I say this is a change? Was zakat not always seen as social development by the Prophet? Yes, but Said Arjomand in Public Policy in Islam says it is surprising that waqf rather than zakat and sadaqah became the basis of development.


Samy Ayoub, University of Arizona. I like the distinction between purification and developmental ethics. Does moving charity to the public sphere give the ulama more power?

Taylor. I treat zakat as a metonym for charity in general, which isn’t the local usage, because the niyat is what distinguishes zakat from sadaqa. I prefer to look from the perspective of the ulama themselves. Zakat is the head of financial worship with sadaqa and nafli coming afterward. As to the shaming issue, the recipients recognize the need for working too.

General Discussion.

[Name withheld]. Zakat is a pillar of Islam, is fixed and specific with regard to the categories. Nation states can enforce it. It is useful to separate zakat from sadaqa.

[Name withheld]. Zakat and sadaqa are used interchangeably in the Qur’an. Not letting the left hand know what the right is doing goes back to the Christian gospels. The khums is besides zakat, and is really for the descendents of the Prophet, and has given the Shia religious establishment independence the Sunni establishment does not have.

[Name withheld]. What Muslims are doing with charity is what the Hindus are doing with their caste system. It is donated to their own community and will return to them. Zakat has an economic implication beyond purification. It is the only instrument to push people to invest rather than accumulate wealth at home since there is no riba.

[Name withheld]. The role of the ulama is important in India. 4% of the population is in madrassas, which is historically low, accompanied by a disdain for the ulama as scholars, so the purpose of my emphasis on an `alim (scholar) at the head of a zakat institution is to show it is reinvigorating the ulama’s role in the public sphere as compared to waqf. Waqf is primarily for the financial elites, whereas zakat is squarely in the realm of the ulama.  There are Ajlaf and Ashraf (lower and upper) castes. Being a sayyid is also very significant. They keep sadaqa and zakat accounts separate.

[Name withheld]. When business men said they were afraid of corruption; why don’t they give directly to the poor?

[Name withheld]. Umar ibn Khatab for three consecutive years sent the zakat back to the treasury, but in the fourth year spent it on roads, etc., as did Umar IV.

[Name withheld]. In Indonesia they took mandatory zakat from the salaries of employees. Did you encounter anything like this in India? Also address nikkah sirri (secret marriage).

[Name withheld]. These questions are great. Zakat has double meaning, to increase and to purify. The question of the use of zakat for public works is fantastic and Yusuf Qaradawi had a public teaching session in Lucknow and responded to a question about use of zakat for public works (he also supports building mosques in non-Muslim countries) as opposed to the Hanafi position. Their debate is written in a pamphlet. The Deobandi scholar Tanwi says if you gave zakat to a sayyid or a relative by mistake, it is still valid if your niyat  (intention) was right. Abu Yusuf has a different opinion.

[Name withheld]. I spent two months in Lucknow with a student kept saying he was an orphan.

[Name withheld]. He was trying to get sadaqa.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute






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