Are Muslim charities really Islamic?

Syrian refugees in need of help

Zafer Iqbal investigates whether Islamic charities in the UK abide by the ethical rules of the Shariah when carrying out their work.

Over the last few years I have become increasingly alarmed at the antics of many so-called “Islamic” charities.

According to the Charity Commission, there are over 180,000 registered charities in Britain and many more that aren’t required to register. With over a thousand Muslim charities, the sector is clearly expanding.

This article looks at the growth of the sector and what lurks below the surface.

Charities – friends of the poor?

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Every year I receive increasing volumes of glossy brochures through my letter box. I could hardly visit a website this Ramadan without seeing Islamic Relief advertisements splattered everywhere – and that is no exaggeration.

I had been led to believe fundraising was an Islamic duty, carried out by well-meaning and concerned individuals. Upstanding individuals, volunteering their time and effort to causes around the world, helping our destitute brothers and sisters, selflessly and tirelessly.

They would manage our donations with the utmost care, ensuring delivery to those in utmost need.

It then came as a surprise when I heard about infighting amongst charity staff for positions, flights around the world and expense accounts; or thousands from our donations paid to “famous Muslims” to attend charity dinners; or the thousands given to cable channels to host all-night charity appeals.

I gave them the benefit of the doubt – exceptional, urban legends, rotten apples in an otherwise good barrel. Alarm-bells ringing!

As various media reports and documentaries began raising concerns about this sector, I began to question if these efforts were selfless, voluntary and if donations were being squandered amidst claims of payments of exorbitant salaries, extravagant brand-building, marketing expenditures, large expense accounts, employment of friends and relatives, funding of political parties and religious movements.


Ironically, some tried to attack journalists for whistleblowing – for impeding the “good work” these charities do. It seemed to me that instead of addressing the concerns raised, politicking was going on. My investigations led me to start looking into some of these allegations.

I began with writing to some of the high-profile personalities involved. Some refused to reply, others confirmed they do take fees to attend charity dinners however I would need to go through their “agent” if I had further questions!

Islamic Relief is one of the UK's top 50 charities
Islamic Relief is one of the UK’s top 50 charities

“What about ethics?” I asked. “My daughter’s education is her right and I will do whatever it takes to put her through university” I was duly told.

I reviewed published accounts of several leading charities available for download from the Charities Commission website. A top 50 UK charity, Islamic Relief’s 2011 and 2012 financial accounts made for shocking reading – although it must be said, it was not atypical:

• £2.9 million of donations were spent on “UK operating costs”, an additional £4.5 million on marketing

• Additional project-related expenditure outside of the UK is not disclosed in the accounts

• There are hundreds of thousands in bank loans whilst the charity’s bank and reserves hold millions of pounds.

• Donations to political organisations: Islamic Society of Britain (ISB), Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS), Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE) and various university Islamic Societies – organisations with similar “ideologies” to Islamic Relief.

Questions relating to these points and other issues in the accounts were put to Islamic Relief, initially in a call to their London offices and then in writing. The final response did not answer even one question. I was invited to their offices so they could understand why I was asking these questions. Big brother? Sounded like it!

Islamic or Capitalist charities?

“Islamic” charities have unthinkingly adopted the capitalistic approach – lock stock. Charities may be prohibited from political activism however they are permitted to educate people on these issues.

Instead of doing so, they compete to build brands, assets and corporate empires. They fool us by replacing aims like “eliminating poverty” with impotent ones: “alleviating poverty” or “aiding and assisting the poor”.

Islamic Relief’s strapline proudly states, “Dedicated to alleviating the suffering of the world’s poorest people” whilst Help for Syria disgracefully proclaims, “Help Syrians in need. No politics, just aid”.

So we see the emergence of corporate style Islamic charities where our donations are used for offices around the world, glossy marketing campaigns that make us increasingly feel guilty for not donating enough, and high salaries and expense accounts with directors jet setting around the world.

Charities are making a great living off donations intended for the poor and destitute, becoming obese whilst increasing numbers die of poverty, preventable diseases and illnesses year on year.

In the process they violate a multitude of Islamic injunctions, donor expectations and moral considerations.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s alone and Islamic Relief (IR) will be given the opportunity to respond in full to this piece.

But for the record IR on its website says that it “strives hard to ensure that your donations are used in the most effective way possible”.

“90% goes directly on emergency relief and development projects, directly helping people in need

4% supports the delivery of relief

3% goes into campaigning on essential issues

3% is used to generate future income”

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