Zakat is not “charity” as that concept is understood in the West

by Andrew C. McCarthy

Zakat, often mis-translated as “charitable giving,” is the topic of my weekend column. The column has provoked some push back, including this, from a Muslim site called the “Qudosi Chronicles” — operated by Shireen Qudosi, a self-described “moderate Muslim reformer,” who immoderately (albeit predictably) accuses me of bigotry. As one who champions authentic Muslim moderates, it is always remarkable to me that one can portray oneself as a “reformer,” yet go into attack mode whenever a non-Muslim has the temerity to point to an Islamic doctrine that quite obviously needs reforming.

In any event, Ms. Qudosi identifies various “misstatements” in my column. The first two are easier to respond to if taken together. She objects to my assertion that many Muslims intentionally contribute to terrorist activity through zakat donations because Islamic doctrine — which is to say, an entirely mainstream interpretation of Islam — holds that one purpose of zakat is to fund violent jihad. Though Ms. Qudosi concedes that some “small percentage of Muslims” no doubt “redirect” donations “to fund jihadi objectives,” she maintains that “such actions are the cause of individual choice and cannot be ascribed to the faith nor be treated as a blanket statement stereotyping all Muslims.”

I didn’t stereotype all Muslims or accuse all Muslims of intentionally funding jihadist activity. But many more do so than Ms. Qudosi suggests, and it is undeniable (to anyone not in denial) that they do so because they construe their religion to require it. Which brings us to Ms. Qudosi’s second, blinkered complaint — that I have purportedly made up the connection between contributing to jihadist violence and the commands of the Koran. “I invite Mr. McCarthy to share where in the Quran Muslims are supposedly urged to fund violent jihad,” says she. But I did it that right in the column — citing the verse she remarkably refuses even to mention, much less discuss, in the course of cataloguing verses about Islamic charity.

Sura 9:60 explicitly says that one category of Muslims to whom alms are to be given is those toiling “in the cause of Allah.” This passage is interpreted by classical Islamic scholarship to refer to those engaged in violent jihadist operations — a proposition for which I cite Reliance of the Traveller and the annotations to the official Saudi version of the Koran that interpret sura 9:60.

It is not an answer to this to say, as Ms. Qudosi does, “I am not an Islamic scholar.” She makes that concession, by the way, in order chastise National Review because “all it takes is a little bit of research and fact-checking to make sure you know what you’re talking about, rather than indulging in bigoted statements that ensure higher readership among a fringe audience.” But who is the one who has failed to do the research and fact-checking? I’d be delighted if Ms. Qudosi’s jihad-bleached version of Islam enjoyed such broad acceptance among Muslims that the interpretation I am writing about could be described as “fringe.” Unfortunately, it is accepted by millions of Muslims the world over, precisely because it represents the Islam of authoritative Islamic scholars and jurisprudents. Saying, “I’m not a scholar,” and putting your head in the sand rather than giving us a compelling reason why these scholars have it wrong may win you applause from Westerners desperate to be convinced, or from Muslims whose idea of “reform” is to pretend that the bad stuff is not in the doctrine. But it is not going to get you anywhere with the millions of Muslims who believe al-Azhar sheikhs and other scholars who’ve spent their lives studying authoritative sources like Reliance of the Traveller are a more reliable guide.

Ms. Qudosi admits that, though shot through with blinding bigotry, I have somehow managed to get right the fact that zakat may only be given to Muslims. This is not a problem, though, because besides zakat, she tells us there is also the concept of sadaqa — a more general sort of charitable giving. This ignores, however, that only zakat, not sadaqa, is one of the pillars of Islam. Muslims are required to make zakat if they are financially able; by contrast, Islam is indifferent about sadaqa (as Ms. Qudosi might put it, charitable giving to non-Muslims is a matter of “individual choice and cannot be ascribed to the faith” of Islam).

Moreover, it was zakat, not sadaqa, that President Obama falsely claimed U.S. law was inhibiting — which is the reason why I wrote about it. And as for Ms. Qudosi’s claim that there are numerous stories about everyday Muslims going “above and beyond the call of duty to help non-Muslims,” I have no doubt that this is true, but she’s been living on another planet if she really thinks we just haven’t heard such stories because they “simply do not garner mainstream media interest.”

 On that last point, the final “misstatement” Ms. Qudosi complains about is my demonstration of the sparseness of Muslim charitable giving to non-Muslims in comparison the millions that pour out of the U.S. and non-Muslim countries when catastrophies like the Haiti earthquake occur. Again, Ms. Qudosi doesn’t argue that my “misstatement” is actually wrong, she just objects to my (accurate) citation of Saudi Arabia’s parsimony. “The House of Saud hardly represents Muslims (especially when considering that most Muslims aren’t Arab),” she says. The Saudis, however, are among the wealthiest Muslims per capita, and Ms. Qudosi provides no data about giving by non-Arab Muslims that would undermine my figures — she carps about the numbers but doesn’t challenge them. 

Instead, she conclusorily asserts that “Islam itself [cannot] be held responsible for the disproportionate giving among failed Muslim leadership.” But of course it can. As Ms. Qudosi grudgingly acknowledges, zakat can only be given to Muslims. Zakat, furthermore, is required of Muslims — other charitable giving is not, which means non-wealthy Muslims will often have nothing left for others after making zakat

It may be difficult for Ms. Qudosi to believe this, but I support her cause of Muslim reform. I am not optimistic about its chances, though, because too many of its champions seem to think denial is an adequate substitute for confronting and refuting Islam’s unsavory aspects. I don’t know if convincing refutation is possible, but I do know the reformers play right into the fundamentalists’ hands when they demonstrate that they have no real answers.

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