To be clear, the following is not a guide to the correct fiqh of zakat. Consider this a good thing, as zakat among Muslims in the United States has no limits at all, now relegated to the cesspit of fatwa shopping where just about anything goes—something well established by now. Zakat is that pillar of Islam treated by Muslim leaders with the solemnity and seriousness of a high school dress code: defined more by what nonsense one can get away with than its purpose in the first place. This guide is for Muslims tired of such nonsense.
The practical effect of much zakat in the United States is the affluent recirculating wealth amongst themselves. This practice among American Muslims violates a principle in the Quran: "wealth not merely circulate among your rich." (59:7).
We can do better.
You will get many fatwas by Shaykh this or Doctor that, telling you that zakat can mean almost anything. I make no claims about the integrity or quality of individual rulings. I do, however, lament the cumulative effect of this demoralizing and socially unjust campaign to "anythingify" zakat. What I do want is to provide you with a guide that takes into consideration the economic impacts of your worship.
You do not need to donate to a "charity" at all.
You probably already knew this. You can give zakat to individuals and families without using a corporate intermediary. If you know someone who is crushed by poverty and giving the person money would be meaningful, you can do that. The only real "downside" is that there is no tax deduction for this kind of charity. Tax deductions may or may not matter to you. There are many Muslims who may not benefit from the charitable tax deduction for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the best charity has no tax deduction.
Everything is fi sabilillah
The last category of zakat eligibility in the Quran (i.e., "fi sabilillah"), has long been interpreted by scholars as being limited to warfare (and sometimes a few other exceptions). However, it has become the conventional go-to for nonprofit organizations who would like to repurpose your worship for anything and everything. For example, the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America (AMJA) has a fatwa that appears to make zakat a jump-ball for the entire nonprofit sector almost no matter what they do. Fi sabilillah, according to them, could mean "protecting the interests of Islam and the Muslims, da'wah, intellectual efforts, and any related projects that promote them." The fatwa strangely places "intellectual efforts" in a category separate from protecting the interests of Islam, Muslims, and da'wah. The phrase "intellectual efforts" appears to encompass virtually anything within the sphere of academia or think tanks even tangentially related to Muslims. AMJA also appears to encourage zakat for marketing expenses (conference swag, honorariums, viral YouTube videos, the sky's the limit here, it seems). However, AMJA is not alone here.
Whatever the scholarly merits, such fatwas are a clear invitation for nonprofits—some with tenuous connections to Islam and Muslims and others even hostile to Islamic teachings—to bolster their claims to zakat eligibility. It quickly becomes open season on your zakat. Further, expenses related to things like “intellectual efforts" and other vague categories like “protecting Muslims and Islam” tend to benefit the affluent.
I would avoid getting caught up in debates over the meaning of "fi sabilillah," or the differences of opinions of scholars on this matter. Simply consider if you want your zakat to be for the benefit of those in need or the well-to-do. Scammy zakat appeals that try to get you to donate fi sabilillah are usually tied to projects and expenses conducted by the affluent.
Nonprofits have cynically promoted "fi sabilillah" as a classic wastebasket category. It also indicates a profound unseriousness, even frivolousness, about the worship of Muslims. It is no accident the nonprofit sector often cites the same term as a way to exploit workers.
The Muslim nonprofit sector has created and normalized this “zakat loophole”, transforming a pillar of Islam into ruins of a foreign and antiquated era in which Muslims actually cared about the poor as part of their faith tradition.
Charity vs. Mutual Benefit Associations
All Muslims benefit from giving zakat in the sense that doing so fulfills an act of worship and religious obligation; we may even feel good about ourselves afterward. With other kinds of "charity," however, donors tend to benefit from the value of the dollars contributed because the contributions are for their own benefit in the first place. Giving “zakat” in such circumstances is like giving zakat to yourself.
For example, let’s say you donate to your local PTA or the local zoo. These are charities under tax law, and thus, your donation is tax-deductible. In reality though, these are mutual benefit organizations, i.e., organizations that benefit you, your children, and others like yourself.
One easy way of knowing if you are guilty of merely recirculating wealth among the affluent is to check if you, your family, and/or children stand to benefit from the organization. Here are a few common examples in the Muslim community:
A masjid is a classic mutual benefit organization. If you donate money to a masjid, and the salary goes to a khateeb, the value created was the great khutba you heard. Given that money only has value when spending it, your donation was not for a khateeb, but for you to benefit from the khateeb. Similarly, the good that happened from your contribution was not the building itself, but that you and others had the opportunity to pray in it.
Historically and still today, many masajid do not accept zakat for their operations. This fact may seem odd to many who see fi sabilillah as a category of zakat in the Quran, since masajid would seem to count.
Some masajid endeavor to accept zakat when they have a construction or major project and are running behind schedule on their fundraising. It's always easy to find a fatwa that gives desperate masjid board members the permission slip they need. Muslim donors can generally see the recirculation problem here more starkly and are more likely to object to their masjid accepting zakat for their operations and construction projects. However, virtually all masajid take zakat for the poor and needy and typically keep those funds separate (of course, some will falter).
The "recirculation" problem affects other classes of charities as well.
Civil Rights and Political Advocacy Organizations
The "fi sabilillah" claim is also frequently deployed by civil rights and political advocacy organizations that do not specifically focus on those in financial need. In fact, much advocacy and political activity framed as benefiting all Muslims functionally benefits the most affluent among us. You may donate to such groups because you are concerned about employment discrimination, school bullying, or public harassment, like a barista writing "ISIS" as the name of a hijabi that ordered coffee at a Starbucks.
If you experience such a thing, you might well call a Muslim advocacy organization and complain. You might also call them (in the case of a group like CAIR, where many chapters have lawyers on staff) if you get a call from the FBI. That is precisely the reason why you should consider donating non-zakat funds to such groups. Civil rights and advocacy groups often focus on lobbying, finding internships for young people, interfaith and media relations while concentrating their efforts and energy on their affluent donor base.
These groups often spend significant sums on food, lodging, entertainment, hotel costs, flights, and other expenses on individuals who are far from impoverished. If you went to a friend's home for a small fundraiser, somebody's zakat probably paid for the hors d'oeuvres.
To be clear, some civil rights and political advocacy groups may be doing good work. However, you may consider donating non-zakat funds if you feel strongly about their mission. Your zakat is an economic act of worship, and you would do well to consider it a right of human beings in need rather than multi-million dollar nonprofit corporations.
Dawa and Educational Organizations
As a general rule, if you or your family members benefit from an organization, it is a mutual benefit organization. In Muslim contexts, this means your zakat dollars circulating back into value for yourself or people with a similar socioeconomic background.
Some educational organizations may have a "zakat policy" that will segregate zakat funds and only use them to benefit individual zakat-eligible people. Scrutinizing such things is essential, as I will discuss below.
Another related category here is organizations that produce content that you might read or watch on the internet. When you donate to such organizations, it becomes similar to contributing to a masjid. You don't donate zakat to an organization to hire someone at $100,000 a year to produce content on the internet. Instead, it is to benefit the person reading the articles or watching the YouTube videos. However, if you and your children are watching the videos or reading the articles, you are the beneficiaries.
Unfortunately, we have media operations asking for zakat and pushing out fatwas saying this is fine. Understand though, your payment of zakat only transfers the value of your dollars to yourself. If you look beyond the fatwas and consider the economic impact, this is among the worst possible ways to give your zakat.
If you like dawa and education, pay for it—with non-zakat dollars.
Burn Blanket Claims of "Zakat-Eligibility"
As a rule, any Muslim charity that makes a blanket claim of zakat eligibility for all its operations does not deserve a nickel. Such claims are absurd on their face, no matter how many Islamic scholars claim otherwise. Is paying a $5000 honorarium for a wealthy banquet speaker zakat eligible? Was that grandfather clock displayed in the CEO's office zakat-eligible? Every nonprofit, even those dedicated to the poor, have some line items in their expenses that are non-zakat eligible unless you believe zakat is a joke religious practice.
Blanket claims of zakat eligibility happen in two places; one is deceptive, the other is obvious. To identify the latter, look at the donation button. Suppose there is only one donation button, and the charity makes no effort to tell you it segregates zakat from other donations. In that case, the organization is indicating all operations are "zakat-eligible."
The second, more deceptive practice is when the charity includes an option to donate zakat. This option is either coupled with an excessively expansive zakat claim (like the ever-suspect "fi sabilillah") or no explanation at all for how it distributes zakat differently from everything else it does. The whole pitch is that it is a wonderful organization that does fantastic work. They generally have no internal or external zakat policy. The separate donation buttons are often for show.
What to look for in a zakat policy
If a large organization cannot be bothered with creating a well-thought-out zakat policy, you should seriously consider donating elsewhere. Of course, zakat policies may vary in complexity depending on what the organization does, as well as its size. Suppose the organization is a local charity or a masjid zakat committee that tells you they don't use any zakat for overhead and that all of it is distributed to the poor locally. That is an adequate zakat policy for a small organization.
The advantage of smaller local organizations and masjid zakat committees is that you likely know the people in charge or know people who do. If you don't know them yourself, you probably should get to know them or even volunteer to help distribute zakat yourself.
If the organization in question is a service organization or an educational institution, it may well have a much more elaborate zakat policy (or should). You need to look for who the actual beneficiaries are, or if their “zakat policy” is just another way of just making everything zakat-eligible all over again.
If you intend to use your zakat to benefit actual human beings in need, you should scrutinize every charity on that basis.
This obligation is on you
Zakat is your obligation. It is your worship. Unfortunately, people often use social proof from a Shaykh published by a nonprofit as an excuse to turn off their brains. When you spend your money in zakat, always start by assessing the economic impact of your dollars. You can get into the weeds of fiqh all you want, but if the actual result is the transfer of wealth from the affluent to the affluent, assume you are probably doing it wrong.
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Note: A different version of this article was recently published in “in Shaykh’s clothing.”