Zakat: What’s all the fuss about? A frank discussion with the CEO of NZF

Iqbal Nasim, CEO of the National Zakat Foundation.

In an exclusive interview with 5Pillars, the CEO of the National Zakat Foundation, Iqbal Nasim, speaks to deputy editor, Dilly Hussain, about a newly-surfaced debate about where Muslims in the UK should give their Zakat.


 

Iqbal, let me start by asking the when, the how and the why. When did NZF launch and what was the thinking and inspiration behind it?

National Zakat Foundation was launched as a project of Mercy Mission UK in 2011. In 2013, NZF became a separate entity and registered charity.

The initial inspiration behind NZF came from heart-breaking stories of Muslim women in the UK suffering destitution with little to no support from mosques or the community at large.

There was a realisation that the UK’s Muslim community needed to establish an institution dedicated to reviving the pillar of Zakat, enabling the local redistribution of funds in an organised and impactful manner.

What makes NZF unique to other Muslim charities within the UK sector?

NZF is the UK’s only Zakat institution. We exist to uphold the pillar of Zakat in order to help uphold Islam. This is what makes us unique.

Other charities seem to regard Zakat as a personal obligatory charity to alleviate poverty anywhere. By contrast, NZF regards Zakat as a communal resource to uphold Islam where we live. For us, Zakat is not just another source of income, but is the very reason for our existence. Thus, NZF’s approach to Zakat is fundamentally different to that of other charities, and this is reflected in our differing narrative, strategy and policies.

Describe to me some of the recipients of Zakat that NZF has helped. Do any particular cases come to mind?

Every day we deal with the desperate situations of our most needy brothers and sisters from around the country: asylum seekers and refugees, new Muslims, victims of domestic abuse, students, those crippled by debt, families whose main breadwinner has passed away – you name it, we’ve seen it. To date, our excellent team of caseworkers has handled over 9,000 applications and referrals. In 2018 alone, we expect to have reviewed the cases of around 3,500 applicants.

One story that comes to mind was that of a Turkish brother who called me from Eccles, just outside Manchester, at the end of 2013. He mentioned he had recently left prison, had nothing to his name and needed help. What stuck with me was his opening comment, “Brother, I know you are a Zakat organisation, but I live here, so can you still help me?” He thought that because we were a Zakat organisation we must be working abroad!

NZF helped him off the streets, providing essential items (he didn’t even have a toothbrush) and then facilitated secure accommodation for him. He called back a fortnight later to say that he had found a job as a waiter. We sent him some vouchers so that he could buy appropriate clothing for his new role, he started working and he hasn’t required our support since then, alhamdulillah.

NZF has recently run a very visible public marketing campaign across London, with the slogan “Our Zakat belongs here”. There was also a piece in The Times which gave exposure to your campaign. Are you concerned that this focus on Muslims giving their Zakat in the UK will create a disconnect with the wider Ummah, as charity is one of the few ways in which Muslims in Britain maintain the bond of brotherhood with Muslims abroad?    

This is where distinguishing between Zakat and voluntary charity becomes critical. While voluntary charity can be given anywhere, we firmly believe that our Zakat belongs here. The purpose of Zakat is to uphold Islam, and it stands to reason that we have the greatest responsibility and capability to further Islam where we live. It’s important people realise that the idea of local Zakat distribution is nothing new. In fact it was classically a core principle of Zakat distribution. The vast majority of jurists over the centuries regarded localisation as the rule and not the exception – some even considered it forbidden to move Zakat out of an area where needs exist.

NZF billboard advertisement in London

This approach does not undermine our commitment to Muslims across the world. In fact, in the long run, if we are able to strengthen ourselves as a community here, then our ability to support others around the world is likely to be much greater.

Of course, we should be as generous as we can and give voluntary charity to various local and international causes.

It’s worth noting that even if all UK Zakat was collected and distributed within the UK, then at least as much, if not far more, would still be given by Muslims for causes abroad in voluntary contributions. So if we can separate the issue of Zakat from the issue of charity, and institutionalise Zakat in a more organised and disciplined way, it would achieve the best outcomes for Islam and Muslims here and abroad in the long run.

When NZF says “Our Zakat belongs here” or “locally” – how do you define “locally” or “here”? Are you defining borders by region, by nation state or by political borders? Where do Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland fit into this? Will Zakat given in London be exclusively used in London, or do you mean the UK?

Muslims in different parts of the world have their particular challenges and opportunities based on their specific legal, cultural, social, economic and political circumstances, most of which is related to the actual country or area in which they live.

It’s no different for Muslims in the UK. Right now, we will collect Zakat from anyone living in the country and we will accept an application or referral from anyone in the country too. This includes Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There is actually a close correlation between the amount collected and distributed within the various regions and so there is a high level of redistributive fairness.

We are considering further localising this model in the near future, whereby the full cycle of collection and distribution is managed by local leadership within certain cities, whilst still ensuring there is a national budget to address concerns at a national level, or for areas of high need where the amount collected in those areas may be insufficient.

NZF states on its website that Zakat funds need to be pooled centrally to be effective and “transformational”. How do you envisage this?

  • Is it all charities getting together and appointing an Ameer?
  • Should one charity be given this role?
  • Who decides that?
  • How could that ever be enforced or would it be voluntary?
  • Could you ever see a role for the government to officialise this role?

This is again another classical core principle of Zakat – for it be gathered and distributed at a collective level since it is a communal resource, rather than being given as personal charity to individuals in need or to a large number of different organisations. The current situation with Zakat is chaotic and there is sadly no unity in how our Zakat is spent.

In terms of the specific points you’ve raised, I do see it as an ideal scenario that one body emerges for this purpose, because multiple Zakat bodies would cause more confusion. I am fully aware of the very heavy responsibility that this places on the institution. But I do believe that if we can all work together to support the emergence of such an institution, it would have a transformational, positive impact on the future of Islam and Muslims in the UK, and be a powerful symbol of strength, advancement and unity.

Of course, I would welcome other charities to start seeing Zakat in the way that we do and encouraging their donors to redirect their Zakat accordingly, but I doubt that will happen any time soon. Practically speaking, charities are unlikely to come together to appoint a body or an Ameer as your question suggests, nor can this be enforced in any way whatsoever – it’s a free country after all! I don’t see the government having any particular role in this matter either, except to the extent that we abide by the laws of the land and operate within the regulatory framework of the Charity Commission.

Zakat is a matter for the Muslims to work out and organise. The only way the ideal scenario, as I see it, will emerge is as a result of people being exposed and educated as to what Zakat is all about and then choosing to entrust their Zakat to the organisation that they feel best aligns with the higher objective of Zakat. At the current time, I believe that NZF represents the most well-researched, strategic and compelling Zakat proposition to Muslims in the UK. But ultimately, after Allah, it is the Zakat-paying Muslims who will be the decision makers as to how the Zakat landscape will emerge over time.

From the 8 agreed upon categories for Zakat, I’m interested to know how NZF defines or understands ‘fisabilillah’. From my understanding, NZF regards all the categories of Zakat as ‘fisabilillah’ as well as everything that constitutes as “good”? Isn’t this a minority scholarly position that could very easily be abused and politicised?  

NZF only regards the seventh category as ‘fisabillilah’. We understand that the specific purpose of this category is to support those individuals (or institutions) that are striving to protect the cause of Islam and interests of Muslims in the face of external challenges.

It is a category which is absolutely relevant to the situation we find ourselves in today. Given that we are living in an increasingly atheistic and Islamophobic environment, and that the cause/path of Allah (sabilillah) is very much under threat, we believe that it is our duty to ensure we utilise Zakat to overcome these challenges – relying on voluntary contributions alone is an ill-advised plan that has not worked so far. NZF’s interpretation of ‘fisabilillah’ may depart from the specific legal interpretation of classical scholars, but our context is markedly different today, and NZF’s view is supported by the resolutions of some of the world’s leading contemporary scholars, Zakat institutions and councils of jurisprudence.

If we continue to allow an apathetic or legalistic approach to dominate our thinking, closing off the category of ‘fisabilillah’ completely, then we will have prevented Zakat from fulfilling one of its core functions. As a consequence, we will most likely remain weak, divided and uninfluential in the face of external challenges, whilst suffering from increasing levels of ignorance and disregard within our own community as far as commitment to the faith is concerned.

NZF distributes Zakat under this category in two ways: firstly for intellectual protection by investing in religious scholarship and literacy, and secondly for social protection by investing in effective representation. Therefore we are looking to fund scholars, seminaries and organisations that can defend and advocate for Islam, as well as represent Islam and Muslims effectively in the public sphere.

Decisions on such matters should not be left to individual payers: if they contribute Zakat to organisations directly, this would mean that payers are making decisions without a well-informed, bird’s-eye view of the overall situation facing Islam and Muslims and the result would probably be imbalanced and chaotic. As an independent Zakat institution, NZF is in an ideal position to make well-researched and objective spending decisions. We will ensure, on behalf of Zakat payers, that funds are used in the most impactful way and that outcomes are communicated in a transparent manner.

Would NZF allocate or consider allocating Zakat funds to the following initiatives or incidents?

  • Paying off student loans and tuition fees
  • Paying staff salaries
  • Lobbying political parties or Muslim parliamentarian candidates for the perceived benefit of the community
  • Is NZF’s Muslim Leadership Development Fund Zakat applicable under this category?
  • Which school of thought does NZF adopt in its understanding of how Zakat is allocated and distributed?

In the context of our Community Development work (‘ta’lif al-qulub’ and ‘fisabilillah’), we may fund tuition fees for an existing/emerging scholar or community leader. However, where students apply within NZF’s poverty relief and economic empowerment stream, meeting these particular needs is not currently a strategic priority unfortunately.

NZF has a policy of using no more than 10% of its Zakat each year to help pay its own staff salaries under the third category of Zakat distribution, ‘al-‘amilin’. Externally, under the Community Development area of work, NZF would consider funding staff at organisations that fulfil our distribution policy criteria.

We would not use Zakat to lobby parties or Muslim parliamentary candidates – we are a registered charity which cannot be involved with this kind of activity according to charity regulations. We could potentially campaign on issues affecting Muslims to influence policymakers, providing we comply with the Lobbying Act and other such laws.

Our Muslim Leadership Development Fund is for emerging leaders under our Community Development area of work.

Soon after Ramadan, we will be accepting a new round of applications, making over £120,000 available to fund the next generation of Muslim leaders in different fields across the country.

 

We do not adopt one school of thought for all our policies. Rather we draw from the heritage of the four classical schools of Islamic law, as well as contemporary scholarship, and arrive at policy positions that fall within the broad range of past and current opinion and, crucially, are relevant to achieving our vision in our current context.

Reading NZF’s public materials, one may think that your organisation has adopted the language of a “State” in the way you talk about collecting Zakat, emphasising the importance of it being given “locally”, and it being used in a “transformative” way to “establish the Muslim community in the UK”. Is this done intentionally?

It has not been our intention to adopt the language of a state at all. But what we are doing is putting forward a vision for the future of Islam in the UK, and offering Muslims a vehicle through which we can unite in relation to the direction and impact of our core material resource, which is Zakat. We are simply informing Muslims up and down the country that if we want a bright future for Islam and for Muslims, for our own children and grandchildren, then – in addition to other things – we’re going to have to pay for it. Zakat is the starting point of that process.

Right now, we are sub-par and below the national average on almost every measure that would indicate the well-being of a community: poverty, social mobility, health, educational attainment, crime, domestic issues, our overall reputation, our level of influence…I can go on. I am no pessimist but it’s really important we recognise the level of challenges we face so as not to delude ourselves that everything is just fine. It really isn’t, and such levels of relative weakness can have grave consequences for thousands, if not millions, of people that carry well into the Hereafter. The undermining of our faith at our own hands and at the hands of others makes both remaining and becoming faithful more difficult. It is our job as Muslims, as representatives of Allah on earth, to ensure this does not happen on our watch. This is what makes our work so urgent.

What is NZF’s long term vision? Where does it see itself in 5 or 10 years?

Our vision is for Islam to flourish in society as a source of prosperity and harmony for all.

I would hope that in the next 5 or 10 years we will have come a little closer to fulfilling this vision. I would hope that thousands more Muslims from around the country are inspired by what we have to say, can put aside their sectarian differences and personal preferences for the greater good, and that they will unite to pay their Zakat locally through National Zakat Foundation.

NZF’s Zakat centre in east London.

In 2018 we expect that around 15,000 Zakat payers will pay their Zakat through NZF. If, in the next 5 or 10 years, 100,000 payers pay their Zakat through NZF, this would amount to an annual budget of around £35m of Zakat for local distribution and the impact we can achieve can be very significant indeed.

I hope that, as a result, we will come closer to being a community where no one in need is left abandoned, where we are not misunderstood or maligned, where we are strong and influential for the benefit of everyone in society and, ultimately, where God-centred living moves closer to being the norm rather than being seen as irrelevant and unnecessary.

I pray that Allah makes all this happen, shines a light on the road ahead, and allows us to see the fruits of our labour in this life and the next. May it be so.

You can follow Iqbal on Twitter @iqbal_nasim and Dilly via @DillyHussain88.

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