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Peter Heine {*}

Not Alms Only

Solidarity and Charity in Islam


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 2006/6, P. 302-306
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Does also rich Saudi Arabia help the Pakistan earthquake victims as Muslim fellow believers in need? Which status has solidarity and charity in Islam generally? To let other people have some share in one's own fortune is equated with the obligation to profess one's faith and with prayer.


Of the great natural disasters which afflicted us in the past years those parts of the world were frequently concerned in which Muslims are at home. One heard of earthquakes in Iran, Kashmir, Turkey, famines in the Sahel region and in Somalia; the great Tsunami wave from 2004 met Muslims. Muslims have been afflicted for a long time already also by the consequences of military operations, so in Bosnia, Albania, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan or in Chechnya - to mention only some. In all these cases relief work was done by numerous national and international relief organizations. Which solidarity was thereby shown by the Islamic states, by Muslim organizations and individuals towards their needy fellow believers?



Solidarity is a term which is used quite naturally in most diverse debates among Islamic scholars and intellectuals. They then frequently refer to one of the "five pillars of Islam". Apart from the profession of God's unity and of Muhammad as the Prophet, the obligatory prayer and the pilgrimage this canon of duties names the fasting in the month Ramadan and zakât. Both are understood as the religious basis of solidarity. Zakât is described as an exactly measured tax on the assets of each faithful.

Muslims frequently point out that it is here not about alms in the sense of a voluntary charity. Today often the term "social tax" is used. It is to benefit essentially eight groups. The Koran says about it (Sura 9:60): "The Zakât is intended for the poor, the needy, for those who are concerned with it, for those whose hearts are to be made familiar (with Islam), for prisoners and debtors, for the use on the way of God and for travellers." Here one understands people who are on the point of converting to Islam by those "whose hearts are to be made familiar". Funds "for the use on the way of God" are to be used for the Jihad.

Many of the modern Koran commentaries point out that it is particularly about the support of the poor and needy. Altogether one can paraphrase the different statements on Zakât perhaps so: Actually 'Zakât' has the meaning of something entrusted to you, which you have to return to its actual owner, in this case to the poor and needy. Zakât is the fixed portion of the fortune of a Muslim, which counts actually not to his property, and on which he has neither the proprietary rights nor the right of disposal but is obliged to pass it on to those who are entitled to Zakât. Reversely the needy are not the recipients of alms but have a legal claim. Those who have property have obligations; those who are in want have rights in the presence of God, and legal claims to wealthy people.

Islam understands poverty not as the normal reality of the social and economic life and sees the solution of this problem also not in voluntary charitableness of the 'rich' for the 'poor', in the hope that the abundance of the rich and the need of the poor will be balanced in a marvellous way. By the liability of Zakât this question is made a question of right - and is withdrawn from the individual's personal decision. Social solidarity belongs to faith; it is its most concrete testimony. To be with God means, according to the Islamic conception, to be with your fellow human beings. Or, as the often quoted word of the Prophet handed down to the posterity says, "He who goes to bed and knows that his neighbour is hungry is no Muslim."

With it the question naturally arises, who then is a neighbour. The societies of the Near and Middle East were at least in the Middle Ages multi-religious. Apart from the political - even if not in all cases in terms of figures - dominant Muslim community also considerable Jewish and Christian minorities existed - not to mention the Zoroastrians, Sabaens, Yezidis and other smaller religious groups. How the relations turned out to be in the context of a social balance between those different religious groups, has up till now been little examined. On the whole the individual groups were responsible for the internal social balance.

The fact that this question is hardly found in the sources lets assume that the Islamic lawyers were scarcely concerned with it, and that the internal social balance functioned within the religious communities. Still today there are religious minorities in Muslim states, even when in most cases their percentage share in the total population clearly decreased.


The Social Question is in the Centre of Islam

Several Arab daily papers have one or two times weekly a column where lawyers give short legal opinions on questions asked from the readers by letter. In the meantime such inquiries are generally usual also in the Internet. For the authors of those opinions in the German Islam-scientific discussion the somewhat disrespectful term "mail box Mufti" came into use. The number of the inquiries about form and amount of Zakât payments is considerable.

Often for example the question is asked, what it is about the fortune gained by economic activities which are not in agreement with the regulations of Islamic law. According to the opinion of the 'mail box Muftis' the alms paid from it must not be deducted from the amount of the social tax. The scholars evade the question where this money can be put. Among the legal opinions written by the 'mail box Mufti' of an Arab daily paper is also one on the question whether it is allowed to support also non-Muslims by Zakât means.

The consultant explains that also non-Muslims, above all Jews and Christians but probably also Hindus are allowed to receive such means; but he limits this statement by the addendum that this can only be the case when the appropriate means were no longer required for needy Muslims in an Islamic society.



The concrete knowledge of the possible recipients of Zakât means differs among Muslims. According to an empirical investigation in Egypt 86.1 per cent of the asked know that the needy have a legal claim; 72 per cent think that people who are in danger to apostatize from Islam can be Zakât recipients; 63.9 per cent allow refugees a legal claim. 37.3 per cent know that also non-Muslims should be supported. There is an interesting category, which is not expressly mentioned in the Koran regulations: 84 per cent of the asked Egyptians think that people who suffer from a chronic illness have a legal claim to Zakât.


No Genuine Practice of Religion Without Personal Commitment in the Community

The practice of Zakât payments differs from country to country. In the majority of the cases it is left to the faithful to pay the social tax to neighbours or acquaintances who are known to them. Here it can sometimes happen that one of the poor who up to now regularly got an appropriate sum from a wealthy neighbour visits the giver and states with an adequate remark his title to the payment of the social tax. Here you can almost speak of a business relation. In a few states, as in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, Zakât is collected by a state authority and then distributed accordingly.

The current basic attitude of the contemporary Muslim lawyers to Zakât is as follows. When the social tax is directly placed beside the profession of faith and prayer, just by it the unique importance of the social question becomes apparent. As also the obligation to common prayer and to common pilgrimage show Islam actually imparts a doctrine which in all its aspects aims at the social, the common dimension, and this admittedly to such an extent that you can say: There is no genuine religious practice without personal commitment in the community.

One can therefore regard the social question as central for Islam. Muslim observers time and again remind of it above all for the reason that also in the Islamic world the hegemonic global discourse of economism is felt. It could be established that also many intellectuals submit to it. The request resulting from it for Muslims e.g. also in Europe was that religion had to be separated from politics. But if religion was to be apolitical then the socio-political reality of Islam decayed to charity as individual charitableness.

Tariq Ramadan who is living in Switzerland and who at present has to put up with some criticism because of his mental background and his ideas says about it, "In the majority of Muslim societies the social actors who are most active in mobilizing the community commit themselves in the name of Islamic values. The local activities, the social networks, the "alternative" levy of Zakât, the building of hospitals, the aid for schools, and the instructions for adults are not the work of governments and still less the aim of structural adjustment programs. The work on the basis is done unpaid, voluntarily and dynamically by Muslims who have realized that their commitment before God is first and foremost the commitment to people."

In the month Ramadan Muslims, except those who are in this or that way dispensed from fasting, have from dawn till sunset to do - among other things - without any liquid or solid food. The current Islamic sources find also here a moment of Islamic solidarity. The fasting is on the one hand motivated by the idea, that a strong feeling of fellowship is created when all 1.3 billion Muslims in the world are simultaneously subjected to this burden. At the same time the hunger-pangs (daily) felt by those who are fasting let grow compassion with those who hunger not only during Ramadan. As you know Muslims are after sunset allowed eating and drinking again, before at the following morning a new phase of fasting begins.

The Fast-breaking in the evening is an event of high social as well as political relevance. In villages or individual quarters of Muslim cities politicians and parties invite the population to the common meal of Fast-breaking (iftâr). Well-known religious scholars used Iftar as an opportunity to give their opinion on questions of Islamic solidarity. Just during the month Ramadan alms are given quite generously. The Zakât al-fitr is here a wide-spread form of charity.

Ramadan can therefore be regarded as an important moment in the stimulation of Islamic solidarity. Just here a quite personal form of distribution takes place, in which particularly within the traditional range the rules of reciprocity and above all of discretion have to be kept. That means that in the direct neighbourhood those are above all endowed with alms who momentarily are in serious difficulties.

The givers assume that the recipients will remember the former donors - in case the conditions change. This may seem contrary to the precept of discretion. It requires that the contributions are given in such a way that the recipient is not made ashamed thereby. They are put down in such a way that they reach the intended recipient, but a direct confrontation between givers and takers is avoided. Of course, the recipient knows from whom the gift comes, but by the discreet way of delivery he can save his face.



The concept of an "Islamic solidarity" is a newer phenomenon, which lost in the meantime however to some extent its concrete topicality in the inner-Islamic debates. Particularly in the seventies the term was common. Also then the element of togetherness was of great importance. When in 1971 a new Egyptian Constitution was passed and the then Rector of the Azhar University spoke positively about it critique came from the Islamists' side.

Mustafa Kamil Wasfi propagated an Islamic state in which solidarity among the faithful is an important element: According to that the Islamic state is superior to the European, for it realizes the highest possible principle - the divine. A Muslim, embedded in the solidarity of his brothers in faith who all submit to the law of the Creator, overcomes his mean, selfish, society-damaging instincts. He has thus climbed the highest stage of humankind, and lives in the most progressive community conceivable. Every convinced Muslim shared those opinions today (1971). They give him certainty that the solutions which Islam offers for all social and political problems have a final, irrefutable character.

If you look today in the Internet for the concept, you'll find it in different connections. There is e.g. an appeal to Islamic solidarity with a Muslim girl in Australia, who as a member of a football crew was by the arbitrator excluded from a match, because she wore a headscarf. The term is particularly often found in connection with "solidarity with the Palestinians".



In the respective Internet Fatwas, i.e. legal opinions of Muslim scholars published in the Internet, references are found about the content and the concrete solidary practice among Muslims. For example it says: "We can financially support them, since everybody of us is asked to make available as much money as he can dispense with, as sign of solidarity with that suppressed people. Further we should publicly represent their affair and make it generally known, above all as it is not only a matter of the Palestinians but of Islam."


Since 1969 a Union of Islamic States exists

The term was particularly often used in connection with the establishment of different international Islamic organizations in the sixties. This applies especially to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), in which in 1969 a number of Islamic states got together. The founders of this organization referred to a quotation from the Koran in which it says: "Keep altogether firmly the connection with God and do not split up." (Koran, sura 3, verse 109) The verse is part of the emblem of the Organization of the Islamic Conference and expresses the concern of that confederation, which is committed as well to co-operation as to common orientation towards Islamic principles.

The concept of Islamic solidarity was particularly propagated by the Saudi King Faisal. The inner-Islamic debate took its starting-point from the conviction that the Islamic world should remain neutral in the East-West conflict after the Second World War. Faisal traced back the weakness of the Islamic world stated by him to splintering and disagreement, even to lacking solidarity among the Muslims.

Two aims could above all be achieved by solidarity: First of all the economic and the cultural, scientific and technological underdevelopment should be overcome. This could be achieved by building up own industries, by controlling the natural resources, by scientific-technologic progress, and by developing agriculture up to the self-supply of the population - including its expected growth. Secondly one aims at making an own Islamic contribution to the human civilization. The rise of the development level of the Islamic community shall therefore be of advantage not only for Muslims but for whole mankind.

With it particular value it attached to the equality of the Islamic countries with other nations, especially with the industrial nations. One requests of them relations to Islamic states on the basis of equal rights, mutual respect, and the acknowledgment of their rights and dignity. One expects for the future a trend to the world's unity, which is above all characterized by an increasing co-operation in a multitude of international and regional organizations.

Nevertheless, and above all in view of the subjectively often negative experiences which Islamic states had gained in their co-operation on international level, one should under the aspect of Islamic solidarity - in spite of further active co-operation in international organisations - establish an own organisation corresponding to the needs of the Islamic States, namely the OIC. The co-operation in the OIC is to take place on the basis of the special cultural, religious and mental common interests which are founded on Islam.

Which concrete conclusions were drawn by the members of the OIC from their obligation to solidarity? Here be referred to the decisions of the OIC conference for the year 1980: Means were made available for the victims of natural catastrophes in Djibuti and on the Comoros, likewise for refugees in Djibuti and Somalia, and for those who fled from Chad into Cameroon and from Uganda into Sudan. As only non-African region it was about the refugees from Kampuchea who had gone to Thailand.

An important form of OIC's solidarity is the Islamic Development Bank. It gives interest-free loans for infrastructure projects, like the building of bridges, roads and airports, but also loans which effect the social development, i.e. institutions of the health service, educational institutions, or social house-building. For several years the bank has been cooperating with the appropriate authorities in Saudi Arabia in the Sacrificial Meat Utilization Project. The meat which is to be sacrificed during the ritual of the pilgrimage is treated and passed on to the needy in the Islamic world.

On that occasion the sacrificial animals are killed and frozen in appropriate slaughterhouses in the proximity of the places of pilgrimage and the meat is then distributed in the states of the OIC according to their needs. In the meantime there are also reports that the Islamic Development Bank sells certificates corresponding to the costs of an sacrificial animal. The incoming means are used for charitable purposes in the member states.

From all that results that Muslims show a high measure of solidarity for the needy. This solidarity extends not only to other Muslims but goes beyond that. In view of the increasing need of aid the co-operation between Islamic and non-Islamic relief organizations should be improved. From Muslim perspective nothing speaks against it.


    {*} Peter Heine (born in 1944), Dr. phil., 1978 habilitation for the subject Islam science; since 1994 professor for Islam science of the non-Arab area at the Berlin Humboldt University; numerous publications, last "Schauplatz Irak. Hintergründe eines Weltkonflikts", Freiburg 2002; "Islam zur Einführung", Hamburg 2003


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