The Prophet sent Muadh to Yemen and said, "Invite the people to testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and I am Allah's Apostle, and if they obey you to do so, then teach them that Allah has enjoined on them five prayers in every day and night (in twenty-four hours), and if they obey you to do so, then teach them that Allah has made it obligatory for them to pay the Zakat from their property and it is to be taken from the wealthy among them and given to the poor."
Sahih Bukhari: Volume 2, Book 23, Number 478
As Ramadan comes around, Zakat is on most people’s minds. It was on my mind as well.
I remembered reading a Hadith of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) about Zakat that stuck in my mind. The hadith was that the prophet counseled a companion of his who was going to Yemen on a mission to spread the religion that he first invite people to the oneness of Allah and the Prophethood of the Holy Messenger (PBUH). Then he was to call them to Establish Salat and then to Zakat where the rich among those people pay Zakat to the needy.
The principle I had been told regarding Zakat was that, the first right was that of the needy relatives, then the needy neighbors residing nearest and then the ones further and further away.
The question on my mind was that if the prophet’s counsel was to establish Zakat where the ‘wealthy among them were to pay the needy’, then was sending Zakat back home, thousands of miles overseas really counted as Zakat?
Did the rights of the not-so-financially-well-of relatives living thousands of miles away, supersede the rights of the Zakat worthy neighbors living in the same or the nearest geographical location?
We must remember the current Islamic religious system as established by prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is approximately 1400 years old and the era of fast transport where a distance which would take months and years to travel can be covered in a 48 hour period is relatively recent. Western union and bank to bank wire transfer has been around only for a small time. So, before this era, if someone migrated, far away from their hometown where their relatives lived, did they have to travel month long distances to give the Zakat money to their needy relatives as opposed to their needy neighbors?
In my time living and studying in the USA, I have come across many families, Muslim converts and many Muslim students who are dragged deep into the mire of debt because Zakat money is not easily available.
I have met many converts whose families turn them out of their houses for converting to Islam and there are many ex-convicts who convert to Islam in jails and prisons, and they do not get jobs easily because of their past. The rehabilitation efforts and support systems for these new Muslims established by organizations such as MANA (Muslim Alliance of North America) or ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) are limited due to lack of funds.
My question was that should not these organizations be funded first, before money can be sent thousands of miles across?
This concern was not an irrelevant one either; many families send Zakat money oversees to be distributed to the needy over there (those not even considered as near family).
With this opinion driven by emotional frustration and a mind in turmoil regarding the prioritizing of Zakat funds, I made my way to the Imam’s office.
Imam Aly Lela of the IAGD (Islamic Association of Greater Detroit) granted me some time from his especially busy Ramadan schedule to answer my questions.
He explained that originally in the Islamic State System, the Zakat funds were collected and distributed by the State. However since hardly any such state exists in the Muslim world, it is up to the individual and Zakat collection agencies to prioritize where the money can be distributed.
“Traditionally money should be distributed among the needy of the closest geographical location with relatives having first preference followed by non relatives.” The Imam explained.
However, he said that the scholars have given a ruling that there are three instances where Zakat Funds may be sent to other geographical areas.
Firstly if there are relatives who are needy, Zakat money or at least a portion should be sent to them as it is a charity and also a way to strengthen family relations. This fulfills two noble obligations.
Secondly if there is a human disaster and Muslim communities are in desperate need of funds, such as the Pakistan flood victims.
Thirdly, the more hypothetical and almost impossible chance that there are no needy and Zakat eligible people living nearby, then money may be sent to other places.
“We must be balanced and are required by our ethics to help out Muslims where ever they are.” He said.
“It is a unique and a good characteristic of Muslim communities, especially in the west as this is a "central spot" where there is more interaction between Muslims of different ethnic and geographical backgrounds to have an inner feeling and attachment for the suffering of Muslims in different parts of the world that lets them reach in their pockets and donate to such causes.” He said.
He also said that the IAGD has a Zakat fund, which is accessible to those in need. However to be sure that the funds are going to the right people, a background check is done and those who wish to avail these funds are required to give the social security number, records of any funds being received from the government and information of similar nature. Sometimes the Zakat fund help to pay a Zakat eligible individual’s bills directly or if there is need of cash, it may appropriate those funds also.
The best way to pay Zakat, he said is to divide the amount by priority and donate some funds to those in need in Michigan or America and some money to those oversees.
This discussion with the imam taught me a lesson in life. It made me realize that even if I have a strong opinion about a particular issue, there may always be an angle or a perspective that I am not looking at. It helped me clear my mind, and was a good lesson regarding the responsibly of the Muslims to be socially aware and relevant to society.